by Damian Osborne

 

Thinking through the Nigredo is a catalogue of my ruminations and inner processes while working on the painting, Nigredo. If you missed the first part of this series on Thinking Through the Nigredo, see The Union of Darkness and Light.

The Nigredo refers to the first stage of the alchemist’s psychological or spiritual journey. This is the stage of initial darkness or breakdown before the hope of rebirth or illumination.

Creativity is the preventative and antidote to neurosis. Connection with Nature is the bedrock of self-realisation. I feel something wholesome and holy through the simple practice of grinding and preparing minerals to make my own pigments.

To anyone who would listen, I could talk about pigments for days; bone black, gold ochre, red ochre, brown oxide, and a lot of other pigments that I have been collecting from nature or making myself.

I think that I am heading in a new direction. There is something happening beneath the surface. There is an inner process at work within my dreams, and within the minerals I collect from the Earth. Within my psyche and my art.

While I am wrestling with this rather powerful subject matter. It definitely represents some kind of transitional period that I am going through; a dying and withering away of the old, and the rebirth of something new, still in the darkness of the womb.

I think my old convictions are no longer so religioso. Because that is where all the nasty complexes lie — which are capable of infecting others.

 

Killing Jung

Was Carl Jung really just a charlatan? Though there was much I began to take with a pinch of salt regarding Jung’s ideas and writings, particularly his ideas on archetypes, anima/animus, the shadow, and many other throw-around terms commonly used in Jungian pop-psychology, I was surprised to come across some really scathing opinions about Jung on the internet.

Since I am in no way a student of psychology, but merely an artist, avid reader and dilettante, I have no authority to make a public judgment. The man died almost 20 years before I was born.

I suppose for the past year, I have been half-in/half-out of the ‘Jung Cult’. One should always regard any sort of guru from a distance. The road to self-knowledge is often about leaving the voices of your former heroes behind.

If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him” — Zen saying.

I must admit, I have enjoyed dabbling in Jung’s works and ideas over the years. And I still do. Jung has much to offer when it comes to communication with the unconscious and drawing on inspiration from the world within. Especially for artists and creatives.

Jung was a pioneer in the contemporary age for bridging the mysterious world of alchemy and psychology. Indeed, I have been incredibly inspired by his writings and explorations. Jung was obsessed with alchemy.

And although my alchemical journey has hardly made its first steps, I believe that alchemy is surely more than just a metaphor for psychological or spiritual processes. And more than just the miraculous science of turning lead into gold.

Jung is long gone, and yet he still generates incredible debate amongst his harsh critics and diehard followers from the grave. Is it not time to take his ideas and move on; discard that which is outdated and digest the last bones of wisdom that still contain a bit of meat?

I began to grow tired (or at least wary) of the New Age-like discipleship that grew up around him.

The hardcore Jung followers all started sounding the same to me. The ideas were beginning to go stale, and I was becoming aware of a kind of inflated ‘in-the-know’ club surrounding Jung’s ‘teachings’. I was looking for something a bit more real.

Jung was a product of his generation. This was a time when there was a trend or fascination amongst the Intelligentsia towards the paranormal and occult. (This was perhaps a reaction against the Bourgeoisie and their religious conformity in a world disrupted by Darwin’s theories on evolution.)

And his ideas, though veiled in the science of the day, were really spawned from grappling with his own personal myth and unconscious.

But Jung’s writings are nearly a hundred years old! Neuroscience has advanced tremendously since then.

However, Jung had an interesting take on neurosis. He did not view neurosis as necessarily harmful, but could in fact, even despite its crippling effects, have a positive function.

The reader will doubtless ask: What in the world is the value and meaning of a neurosis, this most useless and pestilent curse of humanity? To be neurotic – what good can that do? I myself have known more than one person who owed his whole usefulness and reason for existence to a neurosis, which prevented all the worst follies in his life and forced him to a mode of living that developed his valuable potentialities. These might have been stifled had not the neurosis, with an iron grip, held him to the place where he belonged.” — Carl Jung

One night, while lying in bed, I had the strangest sensation which lasted perhaps only a brief second. Allowing my unconscious to wander and grow in magnitude as I let my consciousness drift away, I suddenly had an inkling as to what it must be like to lose one’s mind.

My unconscious felt like a different entity that wanted to swallow my ego. I had the sense of being close to losing my individuality in a sea of emptiness. This sensation scared me a little, and I quickly swam back to shore. Was this ‘other’ entity still me? Or alien? My heart was racing and I forced myself awake.

 

A brief overview of my religious and psychological development

Growing up in a fundamentalist Protestant Christian home, I developed a strong uneasiness around Christian dogmatism, which provided no adequate answers or depth of meaning for an individual’s existence or place in the cosmos.

The idea that a select priesthood could intercede for God, as if they had a personal relationship with the Creator of All Things; that they knew the mind of God and rationalised His ‘behaviour’; that they could blithely explain the greatest mystery of all — death — was not only preposterous to me, but even somewhat blasphemous.

The trite answer was always to have faith, and critical thinking or scrutinising questioning was discouraged. I started to view most religions, at least at the surface level, as various cults, created to reduce the inexplicable universe of chaos to simplified, digestible bits for the feeble human mind to grab onto. Like ever more complicated pieces of driftwood in an infinite ocean. Or as cultural identifiers.

It seemed to me, religions have always come and gone. Still, they have much in common with basic shamanism — to try to fill the void with some sort of carefully constructed framework of meaning, through ritual, or belief in a priesthood that can deal with the unexplained for us, so that we can get on with things and not be overwhelmed; or to rationalise a seemingly indifferent universe far more powerful than us.

The notion of sin, guilt and forgiveness, always smacked of the power principle, and control over the populace for me. Though I didn’t have the ability to express this to my parents at the time.

Now, I consider it only natural for a young man of 18 to be obsessed with the breaking of psychological, social and spiritual bonds of his parents’ world. Is this not the beginnings of the ‘archetypal’ Hero’s Journey toward becoming a man and an individual?

I suppose I am still that young man of 18; still currently in the mode of rebelling against compliance, conventionality and orthodoxy.

As a reaction to the sterile fundamentalism and conservatism, and wary of the unreflective nature of the people in my surroundings, I left the Church soon after my confirmation. I obviously wasn’t quite sure what my vows meant anyway.

As a late teenager, I was naturally more impressionable and enthusiastic about esoteric or psychedelic ideas and spiritualism. I devoured books on alternative religions, theosophy, Rudolf Steiner, astrology, mythology, Egyptology, art, philosophy, and the Classics.

I had a desperate need to learn as much as possible. I was, in those days, a complete, though out of date, hippy. This was in the early 2000s. There were still many ‘alternative’ sorts and mentors in my local sphere of influence growing up in Cape Town.

Being an artist, I was, needless to say, ripe for such influences.

When I was in my twenties, I spent a couple of years sojourn in the UK, which being the home of my ancestors a few generations before, had a profound spiritual impression upon me. I am fairly convinced of the influence of genetic or racial memory, though perhaps it could be a self-manufactured placebo. (It would be interesting to conduct proper tests on people born as orphans and who never knew their parents, into a culture different from that of their biological parents, and see if they still retain an affinity for their ancestral culture. I don’t know enough to say whether this has been done.)

Nevertheless, I found myself having remarkable psychological, spiritual and sometimes supernatural (to me at least) experiences which recalibrated my personal place in the world and ushered me down a path of devout religious practice, prayer, wanderings and mediations. I felt, for a while, perfectly in tune with all Creation.

Perhaps it was the freedom to explore spirituality, Christian Mysticism, Paganism and ritual on my own terms, which led me to spend all my free time exploring ancient sacred sites, cathedrals, monasteries, Celtic stone circles and holy fountains. The British Isles are unfathomably rich in this regard.

Things changed in the opposite direction once I reached my 30s though. Dealing with the death of a very close person, I went through several intense psychological and spiritual stages. I naturally lost much of my naivety regarding ‘New Age stuff’, and started thinking a bit more cynically. At least I (critically) think so.

I became more suspicious of superstitions and any kind of cultural ‘programming’. I became more comfortable with letting all religious pretensions go. As Socrates said, “The only thing I know for sure, is that I know nothing.”

Our perceptions are not necessarily reality, and nobody can truly say what reality really is. As far as I’m concerned, I’ve always considered reality fairly subjective. (Phenomenology was a philosophical movement begun by the German philosopher Edmund Husserl, where the subjective nature of consciousness was studied.)

I became more interested in Zen. I read Nietzsche, Sartre and Camus. The idea that one chooses one’s own meaning, according to Albert Camus, appealed to me. This resonated with Jung’s idea of the personal myth for me too, but obviously in a more ‘existential’ way.

For a brief couple of years, I would even consider that I was pretty much an atheist.

This was during a time when my wife would ask me to church ‘for my own good’. The pain and disappointment she displayed if I said no, was not worth it. Sometimes marriages are about the small sacrifices and temporarily swallowing back one’s arguments and ego.

But it retriggered me in a powerful way. I felt the same shackles of being 16 years old again and having no voice of my own against this nightmare of conformity. The same silent, boiling annoyance was back with a vengeance.

I was literally scared of the mind-numbing, arm-swaying, cult-like behaviour of the congregation around me. It felt like a hearkening back to tribal days, where individuality is blotted out by the hypnotised mob. Or being at a seance where everybody is being duped. I felt profoundly embarrassed just being there.

Thus, as is human nature, ironically, I needed confirmation from the outside world for my disturbing thoughts and feelings. I needed to know that I wasn’t the only one who had a severe reaction against cults or religious mass hypnosis.

Ironically, I say, because the tribal element or ‘group think’ is extremely difficult to shirk for us humans.  Identity through the tribe, group, societies, culture or religious ideology is hardwired in us. I was substituting one ‘religion’ for another. An anti-religion is still a kind of religion.

Thus I became influenced by the ‘Four Horsemen of Atheism’, (Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, and Dennett), through their articles, videos, debates, podcasts and forums. And the subculture of their millions of followers.

But this was a difficult time. And so alien from my former and perhaps natural feelings of connectedness to the universe which I considered my default mode since childhood.

These ‘Four Horsemen’ had become the century’s new gods. And I had to kill them too. They gave no meaning to my life. They were clever, but barren. And caught up in their own hubris.

Their aggressive polemic against believers in any sort of metaphysics; their reductionism of the universe through the extremely limited lens of ‘science’ and human perception, was just as arrogant and foolhardy as the reduction of reality by institutionalised religion.

Paul Ricoeur, the French philosopher spoke of three stages of life. The first naivete, where the world is full of wonder and we believe like a child; that the Bible stories were true events; the supernatural world is real. This represents the mentality of much of Christian Europe before the Age of the Enlightenment.

The next phase is the critical phase, in which we question everything sceptically and disregard the initial simplicity. We’ve created our bulwarks of reason and the scientific method.

The final stage is the second naivete or post-critical stage. This is when we return to an acceptance of wonderment and simplicity, but carry the gifts of reasoning and critical thought with us, recognising the complexity behind our simple wonderment and faith.

There’s no generic answer to the meaning of our lives. But the greatest virtue for the journey I think, is patience with oneself, and allowing space for these stages in one’s life to play out at their appointed time.

Alchemy is ultimately the quest for the union with the Absolute, through the vehicle of science, philosophy, morality, psychology, nature and art. It is the quest for the spiritual through the vehicle of matter.

 

The mirage of perceptions

Then Great Scam of 2020 hit. Or at least, there always was a Great Scam, but it suddenly became quite obvious. And I realised there were much larger forces at work that I was previously unaware of. Or had chosen to forget about.

The problem with being human, is that we are not God. We are not capable of knowing what reality is, or what is really happening. We see everything in snippets. Which usually ties into the bias of our preexisting perceptions.

Knowing this, seems to me, the first step to removing the lenses and being confronted with the great mystery of reality. This is the removal of our quotidian filters. Perhaps this is the path to Samadhi or Gnosis which the monks speak of.

Dancing with the unconscious can be a dangerous affair. Living in a ‘dream world’ before getting to grips with the ‘real world’ can create developmental maladaptations in a young person.

Social, psychological, biological or instinctive maladaptations can create escapism (from reality), an inability to mate and relate, develop a career, or deal with the ‘harsh realities’ of life.

Having no foundation in one’s life, one may become a victim of neurosis. Living on the mountain like Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, you will be unadapted to deal with this world. Without ‘life experience’, there really can be no spiritual experience.

Ego strength and being ‘grounded’ is often recommended by spiritual teachers before the initiate embarks on the spiritual journey. Jung himself mentioned this many times. The unconscious should be treated with respect. Rather, don’t mess with it.

As a youth, because of my natural sensitivity and overactive imagination, I had quite a few bad experiences with psychedelic drugs. That is why I don’t recommend them to anyone.

They can create permanent psychic damage if you are susceptible. Our minds have a natural regulating function so that we can do our daily tasks without being overwhelmed by the insignificance as well as the majesty of our existence. The fall into psychosis is all too easy. On the other hand, I discovered entirely new ways of perceiving reality.

If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.”  — William Blake

The realisation that reality cannot be explained by scientific reductionism or theory (they’re all just theories), means that the universe will never give up its mysteries. The more we learn about reality through quantum mechanics, or explore consciousness, the more marvellous and inexplicable the universe becomes.

The idea that things are just random — that we’re ‘lucky mud’ — is absurd. From the mysteries of the ancients; from nature, the study of mathematics, the human physiology, from nanoscience to the patterns of the stars; everywhere that we look deeper shows that there is an organising principle and that we are too limited to make sense of it.

That does not mean that meaning does not exist.

The linking symbolism is too much for the ego consciousness of man to invent over 10000 years. That everything is connected in the universe is pretty much a given. There must be a connecting power at play here, and perhaps it is our unconscious that is more closely in union with it.

Though we can imagine other perceptions to a degree (a powerful human trait, much like the ability to empathize with others), until we no longer have a human filter, we still have no other means of perception.

Now, in my early 40s, I am neither particularly religious nor an atheist. (I am able to hold the idea that God both exists and doesn’t exist at the same time.) And my world view is that almost all information we are fed through public media is a psyop or a lie.

Indeed, how much of our ideology or belief — whether through organised religion, the New Age Movement, the New Atheism, the buzz around Jordan Peterson, liberalism, democracy, socialism, critical race theory, the ‘war on terror’, rewriting our history and our children’s education, the scamdemic — is predetermined social programming by those in power?

Is this dangerous realization the first step toward paranoid schizophrenia, or fact?

This leaves me on fairly unstable and lonely ground. But here I am becoming more myself. I am becoming more comfortable on the knife-edge of my personal wisdom. I am still unwittingly influenced, and very few ideas are actually my own.

But at least I am capable of recognising that. And able to recognise the rare occurrence when an idea does seem to originate from within.

Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.” — Oscar Wilde

 

The accelerating madness of the world

Otto Rank, a close colleague of Sigmund Freud, based a lot of his work on the artist and neurosis as he considered the creative process central to all life. Rank used the artist as the image of our human psychology in general.

Otto Rank considered the neurotic a frustrated artist unable to produce art or affirm his life. The true artist, on the other hand, affirms himself and asserts his individual creative personality.

Remember, that Nietzsche lost his mind (as became mythologised). Was this because of his nihilistic world view which created an echo chamber of destructiveness, manic depression and psychotic breaks from reality?

Did his will to power become too much for him to control? When God, the ultimate controlling power, was dead and we had killed Him?

Nietzsche thought he was a prophet, come to save humankind from the failure and passivity of Christianity in the West. But instead, he was a brilliant artist, a thinker, and a narcissist, who had no money, no job and no lasting relationship.

He was a man whose works were in conflict with his real-life experiences. It is ironic and hypocritical that he created the Übermensch, when he himself was such an angry loser.

There is a real danger when not being in the world and directing the idealistic drama from the safety of one’s study.

Thus, it makes sense to me to go back to the deepest level of the instincts, beginning with basic human biology. Going back to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and Freud’s instinctive drives.

Then to consider Alfred Adler (social adaption, personal power and the Inferiority Complex), before going to Jung (getting caught up in mysticism).

Jung himself spoke of the ‘first half of life’; the first 35 years where the individual expands out into the world. In the second part of life, you begin to question yourself and become more reflective.

Therefore, it is of foremost importance that these instinctive drives for life-span development and social adaptation need to be fulfilled (living my full potential as a man), because to disregard the instincts, is to invite neurosis.

Though I was ‘caught up in mysticism’ from a fairly early age, which began through a fascination with reading the mystical poets Yeats and Blake in High School, perhaps this is a bit oversimplified.

I don’t consider that my instincts were necessarily repressed, nor do I think I became neurotic. Although my wife might disagree. She says that madness is all relative. Freud said we are all neurotic to some degree anyway.

So I’m trying to be aware of psycho-reductionism and to handle philosophies/ideas as cautiously as possible. Psychotherapy is, after all, a subjective art based on theories, not a demonstrable science yielding the same result over and over.

But currently, we can all witness the effects that a population out of touch with its instincts has on society.

I’m not talking about instincts in merely the animalistic sense, which so repulsed Victorian society. (Freud forged a heroic path in combatting those ridiculous Victorian-era ideals. Although he was completely obsessed with sex and believed that women’s lives were dominated by their reproductive functions. And Adler was obsessed with gaining power, dealing with an inferiority complex he had in childhood.)

During this Great Worldwide Scam, the mass herd-mentality behaviour in the world is the perfect example of instinctive maladaptation and the power that instincts have in our lives — fear, safety, family, status, society, freedom, relationships — and how these maladaptations, or the breakdown of these instincts, leads to neurosis or mass psychosis and the destruction of society.

Let’s also call these instincts intuitions. Hence why I titled these writings ‘Letters to the Intuitive Artist‘.

So, it’s more important than ever to keep oneself grounded. Biology, society and your environment have a massive impact on one’s psychology. Generally, artists are particularly sensitive to these influencing conditions.

All art is social because it is the result of a relationship between an artist and his time.” — John Adams

And if these current over-amplified ideas circulating in our culture aren’t rooted in basic Natural Law, you can safely dismiss them, since they will probably blow away in the wind eventually.

But everything right now in the world feels extremely overwhelming! Like many who like to think that they haven’t given up their rationality and imprisoned their very souls by what is happening, I am just focused on trying to stay sane one day at a time. The world is moving at warp speed.

Because unfortunately in almost every country around the world, free speech and free thinking are not allowed.

Does anyone stop to think, not one person alive today voted for these nefarious organisations, founded by Nazis, Eugenists, Socialists, Globalists and psychopaths which dictate our basic human rights ‘for our own good’ and base their policies on make believe? Trust the science is the new buzz phrase. Maybe we really should trust the science. Real science.

To the crowd of people running over a cliff, the person walking in the opposite direction appears insane. Or a threat. So it took me a while to realise that it’s not my job to cure the psychosis of others. They are too gone. But unfortunately, this river of madness threatens the few who are trying desperately not to go over.

We are more divided than ever. I catch myself thinking these thoughts over and over. This is not a healthy mindset.

Judgment towards others is worsened when one fails to step out of one’s self and take a remote-viewing snapshot of the person you think you are. I am watching the few demons and shadows arising in my thoughts. I wonder if I really want there to be an extermination event.

The world outside feels like some weird, surreal nightmare. It is hard to believe in. How do you avoid the neurosis of others? This is the real virus of our times.

This is when believing in or focusing on something greater than yourself, something good, becomes a matter of sanity. I do not take my mental, physical and spiritual health for granted anymore.

I am sure many feel something is brewing beneath the surface. The society we once knew is gone. Perhaps forever. Keep washing your hands, because we are just a virus. You’re promised freedom. As long as you stay in your little prison. They dangle it in our faces like a carrot and keep walking backwards. When freedom was already your birthright.

The scale of corruption, the hype and the money behind what’s happening are too much for the average person to comprehend. So they do not look, do not ask. Cognitive dissonance. Lest their nice, tidy paradigm is shattered. Mental and emotional breakdown. We can only handle so much.

 

Nigredo, the ravens, Huginn and Muninn, oil on board, Damian Osborne, 2021, avoiding neurosis as an artist
Nigredo, the ravens, Huginn and Muninn, oil on board, Damian Osborne, 2021.

 

Stillness in the Nigredo

Nigredo is a rather dark painting. To be honest, I don’t know where it came from.

I see it as more than just a symbol of personal and universal suffering or persecution. With arms outstretched like a transmitting or receiving antenna on this earthy plane — between heaven and earth — between the horizontal and vertical axes — I think of the Nigredo as a kind of sanctuary from all the madness. The centre point.

Here is the inner clearness of vision and sense of ‘selfness’ or purpose within the very heart of the murk and darkness. The silence in the eye of the storm.

The Nigredo is the first stage of the alchemical journey; going inward and connecting, receiving, merging with the frequency of eternal solace. There’s a voice saying all of this is not for nought.

This is the total breakdown. Total darkness. It is the stage of calcination or burning to blackness. This is traditionally represented by the raven.

Now you have to really choose very carefully who you are going to become. It is the beginning of the rebirth.

Does the crucifixion really mean total abandonment from God, the breakdown of structure, of the outer world, of reality? Total annihilation?

Or is it actually going inward and abandoning the madness, drama and façade we’re being programmed to believe in?

Like in the Eddic poem Grímnismál, in which Odin (who sacrificed himself on the Tree of Life in order to attain wisdom) speaks of his two ravens Huginn (thought) and Muninn (memory):

Huginn and Muninn
Fly every day
Over all the world;
I worry for Huginn
That he might not return,
But I worry more for Muninn”.

Don’t be afraid. Don’t lose your mind. Remember who you are.

 

Nigredo, self-portrait painting, oil on board, Damian Osborne, 2021, final stages of a portrait painting
Nigredo, self-portrait painting, oil on board, Damian Osborne, 2021.

 










2 thoughts on “Thinking through the Nigredo — Avoiding Neurosis as an Artist”

    1. Dear Tereza,

      Thanks for your lovely reply. We were travelling this week so sorry for the delayed response. I’m glad you enjoyed the last post. Your response makes it feel worthwhile, sharing my thoughts and writings. It’s not that I’m looking for a soap box, it’s more of a creative endeavour. And it’s horrible to feel like we are living in a vacuum. I hope you have a lovely week and are able to do some fulfilling creative work.

      All the best,

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