First published in Enneagram Monthly, October 2011
Our collective predicament depends much on individual human transformation and… we cannot afford not arousing the potential and motivation of individuals to work on themselves to the extent that they can.” Claudio Naranjo, “Suggestions for Further Work on Self,” Character and Neurosis.
In 2009 I viewed Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao’s graceful and Olympic gold-winning pairs skating performance. “This is our fourth Olympics,” noted Shen. “We made a comeback to give it our last shot at gold. Words cannot describe how I feel right now. I just want to cry. It is a dream.” Then a friend linked me to a video of another Chinese pair in a “she without arm, he without leg” ballet, whose profoundly moving performance changed the meaning for me of “going for the gold.”
In coaching we have the privilege of witnessing both kinds of “gold.” During my first few years as an executive coach, I was more focused on Olympian goals with my clients, who achieved their promotions, managed their teams for higher morale and productivity, or—in the bronze medal category of coaching—reinstated themselves instead of being fired. With some, however, my simply being present and mirroring encouraged much more, so I began to look for ways to reframe “going for the gold” in coaching. This is not about winning, not about being right, more caring, confident, unique, smart, inventive, strong, or content, but about a greater illumination.
Do we have the right to challenge clients to transformational work when they’ve asked only for help with their leadership or communication skills, or similar behavioral goals? Deep change—as indicated by these alchemical metaphors—is disorienting, discomfiting, and even frightening. Nonetheless, I believe it is our Great Work to be courageous enough to “go for the gold.” Of course, not every client is ready or wants to make the leap great coaching demands, but those who do find far more rewards than they could have anticipated when they started out to resolve an immediate problem.
Alchemy may seem a bit grandiose as a metaphor for this awakening, but alchemists believe everything will become more advanced given time; the “Great Work” is simply to speed up that process. So why not imagine our Great Work is to help accelerate our clients’ transformation?
Now envision the Enneagram as a dynamic vessel within which alchemical processes take place. Below are nine elements of alchemy, arranged in numerical sequence so you can see the Enneagram parallels. Also keep in mind that each element, rather than being unique to an Enneagram style, is vital to the transformation process in all nine:
Calcinatio—purifying by fire subjects the basic material to intense heat, driving away alien substances and leaving a pure, whitened ash. Psychologically speaking, this works on the mind and ego, burning away the false self. The whitened ash represents release from our personality’s fixated illusion of reality.
Solutio—melting hard hearts and entrenched positions uses the purifying and dissolving properties of water to return the ash to its most basic state so it can be worked with successfully. This dissolution works on the heart to release buried emotions.
Solificatio—making things real, represents moving from the lower to the higher mind. Our deep intention to change is not limited by rational thought and conscious goal attainment, but rather our thoughts are “enlightened,” literally transformed into light, a vision of what is possible.
Nigredo—separating the extraneous from the real. This aspect of alchemy means putrefaction or decomposition, all ingredients cleansed and cooked to a uniform black matter, representing the moment of maximum despair, the dark night of the soul, the dying of inner chaos and doubt, discovering what really matters, what is authentic essence.
Separatio—separating wholes into components, separating the essence of dissolution from its wastes. This refers to “dismembering” the personality, retrieving the energy released by dissolution of negative beliefs and emotional blockages.
Mortificatio—killing or dead-making, consciously working on reduction of ego attachments; in Jungian terms going inside ourselves to embrace the shadow so our self reflects the whole instead of a dissociated part.
Sublimatio—infusing with spirit, transmuting to a higher form. In chemistry a solid, when heated, passes directly into gas and ascends to the top of the vessel, where it re-solidifies. Metaphorically we are made spiritual, we move “above” and see objectively.
Coagulatio—mastering the forces of nature, accessing our own soul power to change our reality on all levels. This refers to earth and to being solid, to a chemical reaction that produces a new compound. In coagulatio we seek stability with our newfound peace and become accustomed to our spirit-based self.
Coniunctio—uniting apparent opposites to make a larger whole. Here we unite conscious/ unconscious, balance masculine/ feminine principles, increase intuitive insights/ synchronicities, and enter psychological wholeness.
To join the mystery with clients entering the crucible, we, too, must prepare, asking “How can my presence as a coach help them step into the fire, free buried and repressed emotions, discover and pursue an illuminated vision, hold to the course when shaken by disorientation or despair, dissolve negative beliefs, “kill” their ego attachments, find a new spiritual perspective and soul power, and become more whole?”
Calcinatio, Letting Go an Illusion of Reality
Calcinatio, purifying by fire, is the first of the alchemy procedures, subjecting the basic material to intense heat, driving away alien substances and leaving a pure, whitened ash. Psychologically, this is the burning away of the false self. The whitened ash represents release from our personality’s fixated illusion of reality.
Whenever we are consumed by raging anger, this is the ego’s habitual response to feeling threatened. In The Nine Ways of Working, Michael Goldberg uses the calcinatio metaphor with Ones, “fire-breathing dragons with very good manners. Their dragon fire can be a sanctifying, purifying fire –something to test your mettle and make you the best you can be – or it can be a punishing hellfire that will burn you to a crisp.”
When we’re angry and learn to stay with the fire, however, not reacting, not obsessing over how and who to burn to a crisp, we let the anger go to ground, finding and releasing the illusion that everyone should behave a certain way and it’s our job to fix them. Here’s how Jan, Enneagram Style One, describes changes she’s experienced:
I used to have the sense “If I don’t flog it and work really hard at it, it won’t be enough.” I became aware of a pattern where a grievance with someone in a work situation would give me an excuse to get angry. My story was “Unless I’m right and good I cannot love or be loved,” and that’s not true, of course.
Since then I’ve learned ways to release anger so I don’t devastate the countryside, no one dies, and no tragedy occurs. I’ve come to allow the lid to rest a little more lightly on the pot. I’m not pushing it down so hard for fear the contents will explode. I’m more in touch with my anger, aware when it comes up, and find new ways to express it, often in creative efforts.
This burning through releases creative energy, passion, and grounded idealism that can change the world.
Mary Bast, PhD, coach and coach mentor, is co-author of the first Enneagram coaching book – Out of the Box: Coaching with the Enneagram – and author of several coaching workbooks. More information at www.breakoutofthebox.com.