The Center – an alchemical perspective

The book of Genesis pictures Adam and Eve living peacefully together in the Garden of Eden.  Sharing the center of the garden are the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  This establishes the link between knowledge (Tree of Good and Evil) and eternal life (Tree of Life).  Joseph Campbell describes the center as “the axis mundi, the central point, the pole around which all revolves.  The central point of the world is the point where stillness and movement are together.  Movement is in time, but stillness is eternity, and experiencing the eternal aspect of what you’re doing in the temporal experience, this is the mythological experience.” (Power of Myth)  Both leaving and return are realized through the center, the simultaneous awareness of the temporal and the eternal.

Bill Moyer, in a conversation with Joseph Campbell shares this perspective:

“Campbell was no pessimist.  He believed there is a “point of wisdom beyond the conflicts of illusion and truth by which lives can be put back together again.”  Finding it is the “prime question of the time.”  In his final years, he was striving for a new synthesis of science and spirit.  “The shift from a geocentric to a heliocentric world view,” he wrote after the astronauts touched the moon, “seemed to have removed man from the center–and the center seemed so important.  Spiritually, however, the center is where sight is.  Stand on a height and view the horizon.  Stand on the moon and view the whole earth rising–even by way of your television, in your parlor.”  The result is an unprecedented expansion of horizon, one that could well serve in our age, as the ancient mythologies did in theirs, to cleanse the doors of perception “to the wonder, at once terrible and fascinating, of ourselves and the universe.”  . . . new discoveries of science “rejoin us to the ancients” by enabling us to recognize in this whole universe a reflection magnified of our own most inward nature; so that we are indeed, its ears, its eyes, its thinking, and its speech–or in theological terms, God’s ears, God’s eyes, God’s thinking, and God’s Word.”  The last time I saw him I asked him if he still believed–as he had once written–“that we are participating in one of the very greatest leaps of the human spirit to a knowledge not only from outside nature, but also of our own deep inward mystery.” He thought a minute and answered, “The greatest ever.” (Campbell xviii)

Joseph Campbell followed his bliss.  At 80 he looked 60, healthy and vibrantly alive.

I have always been intrigued by the way the mind reflects natural systems. On a very simple level, the movement of particles or heavenly bodies revolve around the center.  In the molecule it is the nucleus, in the solar system the Sun enlivens and supports the planets.  Not only does it supply us with the light and energy we need to live, it’s spiritual aspect (the eternal solar logos) operates internally in the same way.  Human beings have a temporal and spiritual mode of being that can be harmonized and focused.

In the Zohar, the Book of Splendor, king Solomon describes the “kernel” or primal center as “the innermost light, of a transcendence, sublimity, and purity beyond comprehension.  That inner point extended, becomes a “palace” which acts as an enclosure for the center and is also of a radiance translucent beyond the power to know it.”  In Genesis, the breath of God moves over the waters of the Deep to create light, much as a worm hole passes light through a black hole in the center of a galaxy.  Perhaps the symbol of infinity, with the two halves meeting in the center, has a profound meaning we understand subconsciously.  That too operates on many levels if we position humanity in the Center with the micro and macrocosmic worlds moving outward and back to center. That system of correspondences is the basis for the hermetic axiom “That which is above is as that which is below.”

In alchemy, the union of masculine and feminine, the sun and moon provides the synthesis necessary for union with the divine, which transcends gender.  The “alchemical marriage” occurs when the individual recognizes their position in the center of the micro and macro worlds and understands that in the center of the center is the indwelling presence of God.  That is the return to Eden, which exists in each of us, only to be realized by dint of our unfailing efforts to integrate self (known) and subconscious (unknown) in the Center (Self, wholeness). It is not a matter of achievement, but of perception.  That which remains hidden will be revealed when we have the eyes to see.  Only in a state of innocence, with no trace of guile, can the voice of the Holy Spirit (breath) be heard. Christian alchemists see Jesus as the Center, through love and forgiveness facilitating our re-union with God.  Jacob Boehme, a 17th century German mystic, taught that inner union with Christ was necessary for redemption.  If we want the gate of paradise to open, we must be selfless when standing at the door.  Inner, outer, up and down, all directions are reconciled in the Center.  Can you imagine the release – the tremendous relief of letting go of all desire or expectation when you are at your destination?  Home (Eden) is a place to rest, to let go and let God.

Jeffrey Raff spoke of Jung’s take on the Philosopher’s Stone (Self) in The Alchemical Imagination:

“Jung conceived of the Self as the union of opposites and the center of the psyche.  The stone was the union of opposites, and often portrayed as center.  The self could be personified as an inner figure as could the stone.  The self was the repository of wisdom and so, too, was the stone.  The self was the goal of all psychic life, and the end state to which the individuation process led, while the stone was the goal of all alchemical endeavors and the end to which all the alchemical processes led.  . .”

“Psychologically, the Self is a union of conscious (masculine) and unconscious (feminine).  It stands for the psychic totality.  So formulated, it is a psychological concept.  Empirically, however, the Self appears spontaneously in the shape of specific symbols and its totality is discernable above all in the Mandela and its countless variations”

“The basic motif is the premonition of a center of personality, a kind of central point within the psyche, to which everything is related, by which everything is arranged, and which is itself a source of energy.  The energy of the central point is manifested in the almost irresistible compulsion and urge to become what one is.  Although the centre is represented by an innermost point, it is surrounded by a periphery containing everything that belongs to the self. This totality comprises consciousness first of all, then the personal unconscious and finally an indefinitely large segment the collective unconscious whose archetypes are common to all mankind.”

“The Self is the center of the personality even before the process of individuation begins.  It only points toward wholeness symbolically, for the actual union of the conscious and the unconscious is the work of a lifetime. “

In Native American tradition, the Center is a sacred place.  Black Elk’s dream as a nine-year old boy is the most often quoted story in this regard.  He dreamt he was carried to the central mountain and saw that there was cooperation among the tribes, symbolized by many colored hoops, but his primary realization was this, “I saw myself on the central mountain of the world, the highest place, and I had a vision, because I was seeing in the sacred manner of the world.  But the central mountain is everywhere.”  The Arapaho tell how the Giver gave them the “middle place” to live.  The Navajo have a beautiful prayer to start the day:

Being as it were to be, long ago may I walk.
May it be happy before me.
May it be beautiful behind me.
May it be beautiful below me.
May it be beautiful above me.
May it be beautiful all around me.
In beauty is it finished, in beauty it is finished.

And in St. Peter’s cathedral in New York City, I saw the following prayer:

Christ before me.
Christ above me.
Christ below me.
Christ to the right of me.
Christ to the left of me.
Christ behind me.
Christ in every eyes I meet.

St. Teresa of Avila, a 16th Century Spanish mystic, writes in the Interior Castle:

“I began to think of my soul as if it were a castle made of a single diamond or of a very clear crystal, in which there are many rooms, just as in Heaven there are many mansions. These mansions are not “arranged in a row one behind the other”, but variously – -“some above, others below, others at each side; and in the centre and midst of the all is the chiefest mansion, where the most secret things pass between God and the soul.”

She describes this Seventh mansion as the soul reaching the Spiritual Marriage.  “Here dwells the King – -It may be called another Heaven”; the two lighted candles join and become one, the falling rain becomes merged in the river.  There is complete transformation, ineffable and perfect peace; no higher state is conceivable save that of the beatific vision in the life to come.”

The cross itself, a universal symbol, represents this union of the vertical and horizontal axis.  This motif becomes very significant when we look at the Tree of Knowledge and the Tree of Life.  The solar symbol, or circle within a circle says the same thing.

When I was 24 I had a visionary experience of the center.  I felt myself falling into a giant black sphere.  As I fell, my flesh melted off until I was bones, still falling into the center of this hole, this sphere.  When my bones disappeared the scene changed and I was part of a radiant silver and gold cloud.  I felt ecstatic, unaware of my body, my breath and anything but an overwhelming sense of being home.  It was the single most affecting experience of my youth.  I had been studying and reading enough to know that I was at the center.  I had no doubt.  There were two follow-up experiences.  One was a few days later: I was sitting/kneeling on my bed looking down at a painting and suddenly felt myself radiating from the center of my being outward.  It was so powerful that I painted my impression the next day.  The last in this sequence occurred when I was sitting outside at Barton Springs pool.  I was enjoying the beautiful green lawn and clattering cottonwood trees, clear water sparkling in the sun.  I focused on a blade of grass in front of me and suddenly, saw it radiating from its center.  Then, I knew the center was everywhere.  All things radiate from their center or sacred point.  This sounds so elementary, but until you experience it at a level that really impacts you, it’s just like saying God is everywhere.  It’s the difference in hearing and knowing.  Some of the simplest things are the easiest to take for granted, but if we can experience them with fresh eyes, our lives will change.