God redeems humanity,
but nature needs to be redeemed by human alchemists,
who are able to induce the process of transformation,
which alone is capable of liberating the light imprisoned in physical creation.
— STEPHAN HOELLER(1)
The world is a living spiritual being. This was understood by the ancient philosophers and the alchemists who referred to the spiritual essence of the world as the anima mundi, the “Soul of the World.” They regarded the World Soul as a pure ethereal spirit diffused throughout all nature, the divine essence that embraces and energizes all life in the universe.
Throughout history our understanding of the world as a living being with a spiritual essence has dramatically changed. Plato understood that “the cosmos is a single Living Creature which contains all living creatures within it.”(2)While this tradition was carried on by the Gnostics and later the alchemists, the Church fathers imaged a world that was neither divine nor sacred. A transcendent divinity was the source of all creation, and humanity lived in exile from heaven in a state of sin. This doctrine created a split between matter and spirit, causing the world to be seen as separate from its creator.
The understanding of the world as sacred resurfaced from time to time over the next centuries. In the Gothic revival of the twelfth century, and later in the Renaissance, the created world was briefly seen through the image of the World Soul. In their cathedrals the Gothic architects reflected their vision of a sacred order within creation that belongs to this feminine divine principle. The World Soul animated and formed nature according to divine proportions, which the architects, masons, sculptors, and stained glass artists imaged in their creations.(3)
Again during the Renaissance nature was briefly seen as a living spiritual essence:
If medieval theology had removed God to a wholly transcendent sphere, to the Renaissance Platonists nature was permeated by life, divinity, and numinous mystery, a vital expression of the World Soul and the living powers of creation. In the words of Richard Tarnas, “The garden of the world was again enchanted, with magical powers and transcendent meaning implicit in every part of nature.”(4)
In the Renaissance the World Soul was understood as a spiritual essence within creation, guiding the unfolding of life and the cosmos. In the words of the Renaissance philosopher Giordano Bruno, the World Soul “illumines the universe and directs nature in producing her species in the right way.”(5)The World Soul was also the creative principle that the Renaissance artists sought to channel in their work. Their art was based upon the same sacred proportions they saw in nature, and they understood the imagination as a magical power that can “lure and channel the energies of the anima mundi.”
The Renaissance left us great wonders of art and the imagination. It was a brief flowering, however. The orthodoxies of the Church re-established the split between matter and spirit, and the rise of science began to image the natural world as a machine whose disembodied workings human beings could rationally understand and master. The magical world of creative mystery infused with divine spirit became a dream belonging only to poets and the laboratories and symbolic writings of the alchemists.
The alchemists continued to explore the anima mundi. While the Church looked for light in the heavens, the alchemists sought the light hidden in matter. They understood that there was a sacred essence in the fabric of creation, which through their experiments and imagination they worked to release. For the alchemists the anima mundi is the divine spark in matter, the “philosophical Mercury,” which is the “universal and scintillating fire in the light of nature, which carries the heavenly spirit with it.”
Alchemy is concerned with turning lead into gold, liberating the light hidden in the darkness—“the fiery sparks of the world soul, i.e. the light of nature … dispersed or sprinkled throughout the structure of the great world into all fruits of the elements everywhere.”(6)The alchemists also understood that there is a connection between the anima mundi and the soul or innermost secret of man. The source of the wisdom and knowledge of the all-pervading essence of the anima mundi was “the innermost and most secret numinosum of man.”(7)
In the last century Carl Jung rediscovered the wisdom of the alchemical opus and showed how alchemical symbols image the process of inner transformation that can release this hidden light. Jung differentiated between two forms of spiritual light: lumen dei, the light proceeding from the spiritual realm of a transcendent God, and lumen naturae, the light hidden in matter and the forces of nature. The Divine Light may be experienced through revelation and spiritual practices that give us access to our transcendent self. The Light of Nature needs to be released through inner alchemy so that it can work creatively in the world.
The tradition of alchemy reinterpreted into the language of inner transformation is a key to help us to liberate our natural light and to transform the world. The alchemical light hidden in darkness is our own light, which is also the divine spark within matter. Our natural light is part of the light of the World Soul. This alchemical unlocking of matter can be associated with freeing, or awakening, the world soul, the anima mundi. As a microcosm of the whole, the individual can participate directly in the alchemical process that liberates this light, a light that is needed to understand the mysteries of creation and the ways of working with its magical nature. With the lumen naturae we can once again learn how to unlock the secrets of nature, so that we no longer have to attack and destroy the natural world in order to survive.
Alchemy is our Western tradition of inner transformation. Sufis have always known about the inner process of alchemy.(8)One of the early Sufi masters, Dhû-l-Nûn, was described as an alchemist, and a great twelfth-century Sufi, al-Ghazzalî, titled one of his most important books The Alchemy of Happiness. Sufis have mastered the alchemy of the heart, through which the energy of love transforms the individual to reveal the light hidden within the darkness of the nafs or lower self. They developed a detailed science for working with the chambers of the heart to effect an inner transformation that gives the wayfarer access to the light of his true nature. This work does not belong just to the individual, but can have a direct relationship to the whole of creation and the heart of the world. Once we recognize the mysterious connection between our own innermost essence and the soul of the world, we can use the tools of inner transformation to work directly with the soul of the world, to help the anima mundi reveal its divine light and awaken.
AS ABOVE SO BELOW
As a result of Jung’s writings on alchemy, we have begun to understand the nature of the inner alchemical work. The work on the alchemical lead—the prima materia, that which is “glorious and vile, precious and of small account and is found everywhere”(9)—is the work on the shadow, the rejected and unacknowledged parts of our psyche. The philosopher’s stone, the gold made from the lead, is our own true nature, the Self. Rather than a transcendent, disembodied divinity, alchemy reveals a divine light that exists in the very depths of our psyche. This light hidden in darkness, the lumen naturae, is also our instinctual self and natural way of being, which until it is revealed is covered over by patterns of conditioning and the layers of the false self.
What is the difference between the light discovered in the depths of the psyche and the light of our transcendent divine Self glimpsed in meditation or other experiences? It is the same light experienced in different ways. The Sufis know that the Beloved, the source of all light, has both an immanent and a transcendent quality. He whom we love is both “nearer to him than his jugular vein” and “beyond even his idea of the beyond.” The Self, “larger than large and smaller than small,” has the same dual quality.
The yogi deep in meditation and the alchemist in his laboratory are seeking the same light, the same divine nature. Everything that we experience has a dual nature, a masculine and a feminine aspect, and the same is true of the light of the Self. It can be experienced in its masculine form as a pure transcendent light, consciousness without the constrictions of the psyche or the physical world. In meditation we can first glimpse and then rest in our eternal and infinite nature, and come to know a reality not defined or constricted by our body or the manifest world. This is a reality of light upon light, our colorless and formless essence.
We can also come to know our divine nature in its feminine, embodied nature, as the light of being, our natural wisdom, the gold of our true nature. In this light we experience and know the divine within creation, the way our Beloved reveals Himself in a multitude of forms, each form a different expression of His infinite being. We see how each color, each smell, every taste, even every thought and feeling, is a unique expression of the divine. In this way we come to know Him in His creation in a way that is hidden in the transcendent. In this revelation we see that each thing is unique and that all things are one, and we discover the relationship of the parts to the whole—the interconnected wonder of creation. We see the rich tapestry of life and know that it is one Being revealing Itself in so many ways.
If we are not to remain in the paradigm of duality, living our inherited split between masculine and feminine, spirit and matter, we need to acknowledge both of these aspects. We cannot afford to follow the footsteps of the patriarchal Church fathers and seek only a transcendent light, look only towards heaven. We also need to know the light hidden in matter and understand the magic of creation that it reveals. We need to know the mysteries of creation as celebrated in the most sacred text of the alchemists, the Emerald Tablet, attributed to Hermes Trismegistos:
What is below is like that which is above, and what is above is like that which is below, to accomplish the miracles of the one thing.(10)
The light hidden in matter is the one light experienced within the mystery of creation, the hidden treasure revealed through the dance of multiplicity. The creation of the manifest world is a revelation of the hidden nature of the divine, as expressed in the hadith, “I was a hidden treasure and I longed to be known, so I created the world.” But we can only experience the wonder and know the true nature of this revelation through the light hidden within it. Just as He has hidden His secret within us—“Man is My secret and I am his secret”—so has He hidden Himself within His creation. Sometimes, in moments amidst the beauty or glory of nature, in the vastness of the stars or the perfection of the early morning dew on a flower, we glimpse this wonder. The light hidden in matter breaks through and we stand in awe before our Creator, as reflected in the words of the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins:
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil.(11)
Through this light we can awaken to the divine nature of life and experience the real beauty of His revelation. There is only one light—“as above so below”—and yet in His creation He reveals Himself in a way that is not revealed by His transcendent light, the Lumen Dei. What is true for the Creator is also true for us who are “made in His image.” The light that is discovered in the depths of the psyche, through the work on the shadow and the inner alchemical opus, reveals part of our divine nature that is hidden from a purely transcendent consciousness. We come to know ourself and our Beloved in a new way. For each of us this revelation is unique. Part of the wonder of creation is how she offers a different experience to each of us; even the same apple tasted by two people will be a different experience. Through His light we can see life as it really is, in the uniqueness of our own experience of it and not just through the veils of our projections, and so taste the divine uniqueness of each moment. At the same time we experience this uniqueness as part of a greater oneness. We see the threads that connect together all of life; we see how each part reflects the whole.
Whoever can’t see the whole in every part plays at blind man’s bluff;
A wise man tastes the Tigris in every sip.(12)
CONNECTIONS OF LIGHT
In our deeper knowing we understand this deep connectedness of all of life. And yet the Church, the rise of Western science, and a growing culture of materialism have effectively banished the anima mundi from our collective imagination, until, in the words of Jung, “man himself has ceased to be the microcosm and his anima is no longer the consubstantial scintilla or spark of the Anima Mundi, the World Soul.”(13)How can we redeem this relationship, recreate this connection in our imagination and inner work? How can we return our light to the World Soul?
Once we make the simple acknowledgement that we are a part of the whole, then a connection is made between our light and the world. We make this connection with our consciousness and with our imagination; then through this connection our light begins to flow. In this way we begin to redeem the work of the whole. These connections create pathways of light that find their way through the darkness of the collective psyche. Just as in our personal psyche, there are blocks and places of resistance to this flow of light; and there are also places of power, creativity, and unexpected qualities.
The World Soul is not a fixed or defined substance, but a living substance made out of the hopes, dreams, and deepest imaginings of humanity and of all creation. This is the home of creation’s collective memories and the myths of humanity. Here are the archetypes and powers that define our life. Here are hidden places of magical meaning, places where dreams can come into being. We have lived for so long in the stark barrenness of a rational landscape that we have forgotten the potency that lies beneath the surface. Flowing through the pathways created by our conscious connection to the anima mundi, our light will find its way to places of power that are within the world, places where deeper layers of meaning are waiting to come alive.
We presently see the material world as something apart from ourselves, a solid and enduring object without life or magic. Like the seventeenth-century scientists who decided animals had no feelings and thus could be dissected without suffering, we feel free to inflict our will upon our world, pillaging it for our own gain without any thought to the suffering and damage we are subjecting it to. Caught up in our materialistic drives, we may not recognize that this image of the world is an illusion, an insubstantial dream that can easily alter or dissolve as new forces come into play. As our light makes its connections within the World Soul, it will activate some of these forces, energies that are waiting to liberate the world from this destructive illusion. We know how this works in our own alchemical journey, how what we find beneath the surface changes our values in unexpected ways, how connections are then made and synchronicities occur that before would have been unbelievable. As we make these connections, we will begin to see that the world and our own selves both are more magical than we know.
This work of connecting our light to the world does not need to be done through a mass movement, or by millions of people. For centuries a few alchemists held these secrets of inner transformation against the powerful forces of the Church and establishment. The real work is always done by a small number of individuals. What matters is the level of participation: whether we dare to make a real commitment to the work of the soul. Unlike the alchemists living in their laboratories, we do not need to give up our ordinary outer life—everyday life can also be a necessary balance and protection against the strange delusions so easily created by the inner world. But we do need to recognize that there is a certain work that needs to be done, and that we can no longer stand on the sidelines and watch our collective dreams spin out of control.
Our culture may have isolated us within our individual self, separated us from the magic of life—but once again this is just a surface mirage. We are all connected and part of the living substance of creation. Within every cell of our being, every spark of consciousness, we have a knowing of oneness. Our own inner journey cannot be separate from the journey of the whole. An inner journey separate from the whole is no real journey; it is just another illusion created by an ego that wants to protect itself.
The substance of our soul is part of the fabric of life, the tapestry of creation in which are woven the unicorns and monsters of our dreams as well as the skyscrapers of our cities. The inner and outer worlds are not separate—despite all the efforts of our rational culture to have us believe they are. The recent dramas of terrorism have once again brought demons into our living rooms, and we sense there is nowhere really safe from these shadows. But we do not need to simply be victims of these archetypal nightmares. By evoking the real magic that comes from within, we can work to balance the light and the dark, and creatively participate in changing the dreams that define our collective life.
The light of the World Soul is waiting to be used to connect us with the inner powers that belong to matter and to life itself. The real world is an enchanted place, full of magical powers waiting to be used. And, as the alchemists understood, the anima mundi is a creative force: “it is the artist, the craftsperson, the ‘inner Vision’ which shapes and differentiates the prime matter, giving it form.”(14)
AWAKENING TO THE PURPOSE OF CREATION
The World Soul is not just a psychological or philosophical concept. It is a living spiritual substance within us and around us. Just as the individual soul pervades the whole human being—our body, thoughts, and feelings—the nature of the World Soul is that it is present within everything. It pervades all of creation, and is a unifying principle within the world. The alchemist-physician Thomas Browne saw it as “the Universal Spirit of Nature, the anima mundi or World-Soul responsible for all phenomena and which binds all life together.”(15) Marsilio Ficino saw the World Soul flourishing everywhere:
The soul is all things together… And since it is the center of all things, it has the forces of all. Hence it passes into all things. And since it is the true connection of all things, it goes to the one without leaving the others. …Therefore it may rightly be called the center of nature, the middle term of all things, the face of all, the bond and juncture of the universe.(16)
The soul of the world permeates all of creation like salt in water. The physical world is the denser plane, and within it and sustaining it is the reality of the soul, which contains the Higher Intelligence that is the creative and ordering principle of life.
This divine intelligence is in everything. It is the spark within matter, the light within a human being. When we isolate ourself from our own soul, we deny ourself conscious access to this light, to its guidance and intelligence. Then our life becomes without meaning or purpose, “a walking shadow… signifying nothing.” Without real purpose, our life is just a physical existence. When we reconnect with our soul, the magic and meaning of life come alive both within us and around us.
Our real gift to life is an awareness of its purpose. When we are aware of life’s purpose, the light of the soul shines in our life, and its secret hidden within the world comes alive. And the light that is within us is within everything; it is “at the center of all things.” When our light comes alive within us, it comes alive within all of creation. It reveals to creation its true purpose. At the present time our collective culture sees life primarily from a material perspective—we worship the god of consumerism, making acquisition our life’s goal. We are imprisoned within matter. We have forgotten the symbolic and sacred meaning of the outer world. Alienated from our soul, we have alienated creation from its deeper meaning. And because we have denied the world its divinity, it is slowly dying.
The real alchemical work is to liberate creation from this imprisonment—to awaken life to its meaning. We have to free the light that is within us and within the world. A transcendent image of the divine will only give us access to a transcendent light. We need the light hidden in matter, the gold that is within lead. When this light comes alive within life, it can change the patterns of creation and create the forms of the future that will bring life back into harmony. It can manifest its unifying nature.
The alchemists understood the nature of this light:
It is the father of every miraculous work in the whole world...
Its power is perfect if it is converted to earth.(17)
Working within the world, this power is the light and power of the divine made manifest. The light that is within our own psyche is the light within the anima mundi. In the depth of ourself we discover this essential oneness. This is the same awareness as the yogi’s realization that one’s true nature and unchanging self (atman) is the Universal Self (Atman). What is within us is within everything. Once we understand this truth, we step outside of the parameters of our individual self and come to realize the power that is within us. This shift in awareness is a very simple step that has profound consequences.
IMAGINING THE WORLD
At the moment, the world is asleep, suffering the dreams of humanity, which have become a nightmare of desecration and pollution. In our hubris we have forgotten that the world is more than our collective projections, that it is more mysterious and strange than our rational minds would like us to believe. Quantum physics has revealed a fluid and unpredictable world, in which consciousness and matter are not separate—whether a photon of light behaves as a particle or wave depends upon the consciousness of the observer. But we remain within the images of Newtonian physics: matter that is dead, definable, and solid, and consciousness that is objective, safely divorced from the physical world. Matter and spirit remain split, and we continue in the patriarchal fantasy that we can have control over our world.
As we have already seen, the physical world was not always experienced as so isolated. Many cultures have been more concerned with the relationship between the worlds. In the medieval imagination the physical world was just one part of the Great Chain of Being. Medieval cathedrals imaged a symbolic and geometric relationship between the different parts, with the maze that symbolized our journey through this world, mirroring the rose window’s image of a higher reality of light. In the Sufism of Ibn ‘Arabî, the worlds were seen as connected by the symbolic world of the imagination, which acts as a bridge or an “intermediary between the world of Mystery (‘alam al-ghayb) and the world of Visibility (‘alam al-shahadat).”
In their retorts and crucibles the alchemists were working not just with chemical substances but also with the inner energies of life. Their symbolic writings describe both the mixture of tinctures and the marriage of the king and queen, the union of sun and moon. The alchemists took their work seriously, knowing the real responsibility involved.(18) They knew that they were working with a secret substance in life, “mercury” or “quicksilver,” a catalyst that can transform whatever it touches. The way their chemicals changed and transformed imaged how life can be changed with the correct mixture of ingredients. They knew that matter and spirit are not separate. Modern science is now revealing the same thing to us. Yet how the inner and outer worlds relate, and how our consciousness affects the physical world, remain for us still a great mystery.
Once we surrender our safe concept of a separate, static, and defined world, we open to a more dynamic reality in which life is an energy field with which our consciousness and unconscious interact: a pulsating Indra’s Net being continually woven by the soul, through which our consciousness takes on form, our dreams come into being.
LIBERATING THE ANIMA MUNDI
We need the magical powers within nature in order to heal and transform our world. But awakening these powers would mean that our patriarchal institutions will lose their control, as once again the mysterious inner world will come into play, releasing forces once understood and used by the priestess and shaman, whose existence the patriarchal world has forgotten. The science of the future will work with these forces, exploring how the different worlds interrelate, including how the energies of the inner can be used in the outer. The shaman and the scientist will work together, the wisdom of the priestess and wisdom of the physician renew their ancient connection.
But the first step is to awaken these powers, not just individually but for the whole world. We are moving into a global era, and any real changes need to be made globally. If we try to grasp powers for our own individual use, we risk descending into black magic, which is the use of inner powers for the purposes of the ego. Our next step in evolution is to realize the primal truth of oneness and to reunite our individual light with the whole.
The work pioneered by Jung has given us access to the science of alchemy, revealing this hidden part of our Western esoteric tradition. Psychological techniques have been developed to help reveal an inner world of energy, power, and creative potential. We no longer need to stay locked in the surface world. But our tendency has been to take this access for our individual selves, our own inner journey, and not realize its larger implications.
Real alchemical work was always for the sake of the whole. In our inner journey, our own alchemical process, to work for the sake of the whole means to acknowledge the dimension of the anima mundi. The light we discover in our own depths is a spark of the World Soul, and the world needs this light in order to evolve. When we make this connection in our consciousness and our imagination, we begin to change the fabric of life. The alchemists knew the potency of this spark, this philosophical mercury. The same substance that transforms our individual self is the primordial world-creating spirit, the “universal and scintillating fire in the light of nature, which carries the heavenly spirit with it.” When we liberate it within ourselves but do not claim it just for ourselves, solely for our own inner process, we create certain connections through which this energy can flow into the core of life. We participate in the alchemical work of liberating the anima mundi. This is the first step in the work.
What does it really mean, to liberate the anima mundi? In our individual alchemical opus we experience the effects of freeing the light, energy, and creative potential that lie within us. We know how this liberation can radically change our vision and experience of life. We are taken into a different dimension of our self, and life begins to magically open doors that before were closed or hidden. Of course these changes are not always what we may want—they do not fulfill our surface desires, but they have a deeper meaning and purpose. Something within us awakens and the life of the spirit begins. The alchemists understood that the individual is a microcosm of the whole, and that what can happen to each of us can happen to the world.
When the light of the soul returns, a grey world of drudgery begins to sparkle; the multihued qualities of creation become visible. Instead of the endless pursuit of pleasure, life beckons us on a search for meaning: the colors of life speak to us, telling us their story, singing to us their song. The music of life returns, a music that is creation alive. A real dialogue between our inner self and our outer life begins to unfold as we directly participate in the hidden mystery of life coming alive: it comes alive within ourself and within the world. In the light of the soul the barriers between inner and outer dissolve, and we no longer have to dig beneath the surface for some semblance of purpose to our lives.
The light of the soul returning to the anima mundi will free us from the stranglehold of materialism, because it will awaken us to different qualities within life, give us different dreams to follow. In this light we will see life differently; a different world will become visible. When matter is dead and the soul is asleep, we are easily seduced by the attractions of materialism: we see nothing else to fulfill us. But we know in our own journey how we can suddenly be awakened to a different reality that was always around us and yet hidden from sight, a world that does not belong to buying and selling but to the mystery of the soul. Then a sense of wonder and awe returns. The same can happen with the world. We are longing to participate in a life that is multidimensional and full of beauty rather than just pursuing our own pleasure. Who would not turn from lust to love? The light of the soul is the spirit within matter that makes life dance. It awakens us to the simple joy of what is:
i thank You God for this most amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky;and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes
(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday;this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings:and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)(19)
This is the world into which we were born. Even our city streets and shopping malls are alive in a way that is presently veiled. Creation is sparkling in so many ways, though its spectrum of colors is at present only partly visible. We have created a prison of materialism, but it is just an illusion. If we let life speak to us, it will show us the way to unlock this door, pull down these walls, dissolve this nightmare. There are forces within life more powerful than our corporations and politicians. And these forces do not play by the rules we have created. With laughter and a glint of mischief, they can rearrange our lives.
Our world is presently asleep. Its magical powers are for the most part dormant, but they are present, waiting to be used to transform our world. We have confined miracles to the safety of small events, but the whole world is miraculous. We may talk about the “miracle of life,” but we place this miracle within the safe container of what we expect to happen. We do not dare to recognize that a real miracle is the unexpected, the divine waking up in life. We may try to block off this dimension that is pure joy and light, to remain within the confines of our egos and expectations. But to do that is to deny the divinity of creation, deny that there is an Intelligence continually recreating the world according to divine principles that are beyond our rational understanding.
On our individual inner journey we begin to glimpse the workings of our soul, how it helps to create our outer life in an often-miraculous way, as well as rearranging our inner selves. As we turn away from the ego towards the soul, we see more of its power and purpose. Its light is the ordering principle in our lives; it can create harmony out of the disparate aspects of our psyche, bring the mandala of the Self into being. Through the workings of the soul we begin to have an outer life in balance with our inner self. It is no different for the world. The anima mundi is the ordering and creative principle in creation. Without her presence we experience only the fractious elements of our egos, the greed, insecurity, and power dynamics that are so visible in our contemporary landscape. When her light is awakened, then she can bring the world into harmony and balance. This simple and radical truth was known to the alchemists: it is the light hidden in matter that will redeem the world.
(10) Quoted by Edinger, Anatomy of the Psyche, p. 231. Hermes Trismegistos is the “patron” of the alchemical art. According to legend, the original Emerald Tablet was found in the tomb of Hermes Trismegistos by Alexander the Great. “It is the cryptic epitome of the alchemical opus, a recipe for the second creation of the world, the unus mundus.”
(18) “Therefore you should carefully test and examine the life, character, and mental aptitude of any person who would be initiated in this Art.” The Hermetic Museum, 2:12. Quoted by Edward Edinger, Anatomy of the Psyche, p. 7.