An old alchemical saying states, Opponere Draconem est prehendere Vitam.
It means: “To face the Dragon is to seize life itself.”
This in turn means: Walk straight into the chaos of your life, your mind, your identity — burn it to the ground, and remake yourself from the ashes like a phoenix.
The Dragon Within
The dragon is a metaphor for that which frightens us about ourselves, for the shadows lurking within us, for the darkness we reject. The dragon knows truths so bright we can barely squint at them. It knows our hiding places, our deflections, our blind spots. The dragon represents everything our egos fear.
But the dragon also carries the life-giving, life-transformative fire that our souls long for. Alchemists consider the dragon the primordial energy and life force from which true power arises.
No other source of heat can do what the dragon’s fire can do. No other human being, no matter how wise or well-meaning can provide this firepower for us. Only we can walk into the crucible and meet the dragon.
Nigredo, the stage of confession is an investigation of the shadow: personally, collectively and archetypally. It is the first stage and keystone of the individuation process. ~Carl Jung
In alchemy, there are three stages of transformation. They are the Nigredo stage (black stage), the Albedo stage (white stage), and the Rubedo stage (red stage). The Nigredo stage is the first stage and the one in which we must face our inner dragon.
The Nigredo stage is the stage associated with the breaking down of the existing substance; that is, the breaking down of our identity and identifications. The melting of our desires and aversions. The crumbling of our belief systems. This first stage of the process of transformation is the stage of purification.
Nothing purifies like fire. Fire does not discern, it simply burns. Fire does nothing halfway.
This stage of transformation is the most challenging of the three because it is here where we address the attachments of the ego and the pride that it generates. The more invested we are in our beliefs or our way of life, the more difficult it will be to watch them crumble into nothing but delusions and diversions.
We are all brainwashed by our culture. We believe things are true without ever having investigating them. They are true in our minds simply because we’ve always believed them to be, because we’ve been told they are true so many times they became true.
We believe in hierarchies and paradigms and societal codes that do nothing but keep us separate from each other and the truth.
Once the fire burns us clean, however, these false truths, these myths, will be illuminated as shadows on the wall, masks, and role-play.
Like the prisoners in the allegory of Plato’s Cave, we will finally stop staring at the shapes and movements on the cave walls and discover the cave operators and the projector behind it all. We will have the opportunity to either return to the droll of the routines and games we play or set ourselves free of our prisons forever.
The fire will wake us up and show us how we’re only living a half-life, how we’re lying to ourselves, how we’re playing small. The fire will insist that we seek our wholeness and our power and start using our innate gifts.
This meltdown is humbling, maybe even mortifying. However, from the perspective of our soul, this meltdown is a celebration and an accomplishment of tremendous magnitude.
Returning the Gaze
Chaos is what we’ve lost touch with. This is why it is given a bad name. It is feared by the dominant archetype of our world, which is Ego, which clenches because its existence is defined in terms of control.~Terence McKenna
Many, many human beings walk this earth for an entire lifetime and never break free of the delusions of society. Worse, many of them continue to double down, triple down, walking away from opportunities for growth, opportunities for connection, in service to beliefs or preconceived ideas about who we are, who others are, and what our role is here. In service to the fake shapes and shadows on the cave walls.
Some of us will see the truth the dragon illuminates, and we will run. Because deep down, we’re afraid of how truly powerful we could be if we allowed ourselves to be so.
But for those who can stand in the blaze and return the fierce gaze of the dragon with our own steady, courageous gaze, they will be rewarded by receiving the insights the fire illuminates.
This is not the gaze of the warrior, contemptuous and challenging. We are not coming to the dragon to try to defeat it. We are not going to battle with ourselves, nor is this a mission to “slay the dragon.” We don’t need any more heroes.
We need to cultivate the wise, steady gaze of the alchemist. We are coming to set the dragon free, once its work with us is done. We need magicians and changemakers.
You cannot negotiate with the dragon, no matter how much of a wordsmith you are. You will not be able to barter, for there is nothing you have that the dragon wants. Nor can you control the process or keep it orderly. It will be enough just to keep your legs beneath you. It will be enough to keep your eyes open.
To face the dragon is to recognize all the ways in which we’ve bought the bill of goods society taught us. To acknowledge the chaos and madness in the world. To stop telling ourselves that there are two sides in the world — good and evil — and someday good will win. That’s a children’s story. The truth is far more complex, which the dragon will surely reveal.
But know that the more fiercely we cling to our identities and our beliefs, the more we want our truths to be right and other’s truths to be wrong, the hotter and fiercer and longer and more painful this process will be.
Willingly, or Not
The spiritual path is not a solo endeavor. In fact, the very notion of a self who is trying to free her/himself is a delusion. We are in it together and the company of spiritual friends helps us realize our interconnectedness.~Tara Brach
If we’re not willing to begin this process for ourselves, and let it all burn down, then one day the Universe will do it for us. Because the Universe wants us back. Because the Universe cannot abide sideline sitters. It is not “spiritual” to sit out of the world and political matters. That is escapism and an abdication of our responsibilities to ourselves and each other. And this is no time for powerful, compassionate, aware human beings to escape.
Certainly not now, not in this world humans have created. Not when so much is on the line for our planet and humanity.
If you were the Universe, would you not also take any measure possible to wake us up? So the Universe will step in, and bring a job loss, a disease, a divorce, a death. The Universe will instigate the Nigredo stage, on our behalf.
If that sounds cruel, perhaps we have to look at it from the perspective of the Universe: is it not a cruelty to come to this planet as a soul embodied, and then not use our gifts and our light to make the world a more fair, equitable, just place?
Is it not a cruelty to fail to use our voices, our bodies, and our wills to raise our own consciousness, and thereby the collective consciousness, so that we do better, and become better?
We might not think of inaction as cruelty, but it is — especially in this age of the Kali Yuga. It is a cruelty to remain separate when we are all meant to return back to the One.
If we cannot face the chaos within us, how can we face the chaos in the world? If we cannot address the shadows that linger in our own consciousness, how can we hope to clear them from the collective consciousness?
If we want to live in and from our power, if we seek a life of clear-seeing and illumination, we must turn to our dragon — the source of our power. If it is real change and transformation we seek, we must turn to face the dragon, and then brace for impact.
Now You Are Nothing
The old world falls apart but the new has not yet emerged. Everything that once seemed permanent and real is revealed as a kind of hallucination. You don’t know what to think, what to do; you don’t know what anything means anymore. The life trajectory you had plotted out seems absurd, and you can’t imagine another one.
Everything is uncertain.
Your time frame shrinks from years to this month, this week, today, maybe even this present moment. Without the mirage of order that once seemed to protect you and filter reality, you feel naked and vulnerable, but also a kind of freedom. ~ Charles Eisenstein
By the end of the Nigredo stage, we will have been reduced to nothing but ashes. But we are free in a way we may never have been before.
Take a moment and just be nothing but ashes. Don’t rush it. For next begins the painstaking sorting and pairing of the Albedo stage of our transformation.