Alchemy of the Coronavirus

Separatio is a term drawn from alchemy and used to describe the process by which one substance is separated from another. The alchemists sought to separate gold from less valuable metals such as lead. They did this by heating a composite of the two metals until one melted and separated from the other as a liquid. Looked at psychologically, separatio is the attempt to free the authentic, enduring individual personality (the gold) from the dross (or lead) of one’s baser self, that is, from immaturities and ill-fitting attitudes that hinder the expression of your true nature.

Interestingly, the coronavirus can be viewed as a separatio force in the world today. Its separating effects are seen at many levels, the most obvious being the physical separations that have been established to slow its spread. These include travel bans, quarantine and spatial distancing protocols, protective clothing (e.g., masks, gloves, isolation gowns), plexiglass barriers and scheduled shopping times. Its separating effects are perhaps most poignantly reflected in images of dying coronavirus patients who are kept from having physical contact with loved ones.

But the coronavirus pandemic is also creating separatio through social, psychological and ideological distancing. Discord, conflict and dissension are forms of separatio. Compounding the existing divisions in our country based in partisan politics, the coronavirus has added further dividing phenomena. Now there are differences of opinion over the importance of spatial distancing and quarantining; the origin of the virus; its actual danger or threat to society; the length of time stay-at-home orders should be in effect; who should be considered an essential versus non-essential worker; who should receive stimulus payments; etc. These issues add another layer of separation between people by provoking discord and disagreement.

Participation mystique is a term derived from anthropology and the studies of Lucien Levy- Bruhl. It refers to a mystical connection or shared identity between people or between a person and an object. Participation mystique is akin to the concepts of herd mentality, mob mentality and “group think,” and results in a diminution of individual consciousness and awareness. In participation mystique consciousness and will become attributes of the group rather than attributes of each individual within the group. A mob moves as one because individual thought and will has been temporarily commandeered by transcending group dynamics.

How readily and unconsciously do we move through life in a state of participation mystique. We drive through an intersection assuming cross traffic has stopped because our light is green. We assume our restaurant server isn’t copying the numbers on our credit card. That the cashier isn’t a serial killer and the 70 year-old bagger isn’t a retired millionaire. But now, with the coronavirus, the stranger, friend, or family member is a possible infector. We keep our distance; we are more wary. We see potential danger in places and people we never looked for it before. From my own observation and that of several of my clients, there is more irritability and aggressiveness between people—strangers and family alike. And, sadly, there has been an alarming increase in domestic violence as the virus confines more people to their homes.

It would seem that our comfortable participation mystique is developing cracks. Our unconscious identification with family, other people and groups is being divided up. We are being made more solitary, challenged to become individuals (as in indivisible). This change is reflected in a recent dream of a socially active young woman:

I enter a mall full of many people, but I am the only one wearing a protective mask. I run deeper into the mall trying to avoid potential infections of the virus. The further I go, the fewer people there are until finally I am all by myself. I assume the other people have all died.

The dreamer’s movement from a crowd of people to being alone stands out. She is behaving in a way different from the crowd (or herd) and this seems to be lifesaving. I don’t think this dream is a public service announcement by the psyche regarding the importance of wearing a mask. More likely, it has to do with the saving grace of being an individual and of bucking the collective tide to become oneself.

In the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, Jesus is quoted to say, “Men think, perhaps, that it is peace which I have come to cast upon the world. They do not know that it is dissension that I have come to cast upon the earth: fire, sword, and war. For there will be five in a house: three will be against two and two against three, the father against the son, and the son against the father. And they will stand solitary.” (The Nag Hammadi Library, p. 120.)

In other words, Christ’s (the Self’s) goal is the dismemberment of the participation mystique—our herd mentality and unconscious identification with other people—so that we can become true individuals. Separatio forces judgment, choices, discernment. It demands that we discriminate one thing from another. But while this often leads to conflict and a disruption of participation mystique on the one hand, it can also lead to greater consciousness on the other. Conflict and discord of competing viewpoints and proposed courses of action awaken us from the slumber of a too-comfortable and mesmerizing status quo.

So what is the proper attitude to take towards the coronavirus? It is a deadly force to be sure, but in promoting separatio it may also help us become more conscious individuals. The recent dream of another woman may offer some clues, for she herself had been both a victim and perpetrator of verbal aggression related to spatial distancing etiquette. She dreamed:

I am with five to ten people by the ocean. The water is uncharacteristically calm here. We each get into a small, sky-blue boat. Each boat can hold one or two people and there is only one of us in each of them. We row out onto the water and form a circle with our boats, each of us facing inward towards the center of the circle. It was a peaceful setting offering a sense of quiet communion.

The dream conveys a sense of individuality (each person in their own boat) combined with community in harmony (arrangement of the boats in the shape of a mandala). In looking to the center and finding our own center, a sense of peace and meaningful relationship with others might still be attained. In the face of discord and turmoil, we have the opportunity to become more truly individual, within community.

1) Edinger, Edward F. Anatomy of the Psyche. Chicago: Open Court, 1994.
2) The Nag Hammadi Library. Edited by James M. Robinson. San Francisco: Harper & Row,     1977.

Copyright © Andy Drymalski, Ed.D.
Excerpts may be used provided full and clear credit is given author with link to original article.

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