Thoughts of alchemy might stir in you images of deluded men during the Middle Ages who tinkered with dangerous substances, such as mercury and sulfur, trying to create gold from lead. You might then wonder why in the world I’m writing about alchemy.
It is true; there were many charlatans promising riches and eternal life while creating hydrochloric and nitric acid in the process. However, what is less well-known is the spiritual foundation at the core of alchemy.
Alchemy is the art of transmutation, or the transformation of a given substance into a higher one – whether it be lead to gold or higher states of consciousness. It dates back thousands of years and evolved independently in multiple advanced civilizations, including China, India, and Greece and became a discipline of scholarly study in Ancient Egypt.
Throughout its history, alchemy could be roughly divided into two branches – “the practical” and “the inner”. The practical sometimes referred to as “puffers and blowers”, were concerned with creating physical wealth and healing elixirs.
The inner alchemists concentrated on the transformation of the self and facilitation of divine truths. The transformation inner alchemists were actually describing was one of awakening consciousness. They believed that the work of the individual alchemist had the power to inform and influence the whole of creation.
Carl Jung brought alchemy back into Western canon. In his book, Mysterium Coniunctionis, he helped elucidate the spiritual and psychological underpinnings of these ancient and esoteric teachings. Jung emphasized that symbolic expressions of states of consciousness can be made manifest through dreams, creativity, and active imagination. And, through the act of making the unconscious conscious, we are creating meaning and affecting change within the psyche.
Both alchemy and Jung speak extensively about the union of opposites within the psyche. For example, Jung termed the male and female parts of the psyche, within each of us, anima and animus. Further “opposites” to be integrated include shadow and light, young and old and the conscious and unconscious.
In alchemy, the first “conjunction” is to unite the conscious and unconscious. However, the ultimate goal is to join spirit and matter, generating the “philosopher’s stone” or magnum opus. Enlightened figures such as the Buddha and Jesus Christ are thought to have reached this final stage of the inner alchemical process.
An everlasting advantage of alchemy is that it can be understood as “a map” of spiritual development. However, this is not without caution. It is very easy to get “lost in the sauce”. Many brilliant minds have debated “the stages” of alchemy and which steps come first, second and last. And, the debate endures, even today.
It is my opinion that the stages are not linear, and I believe it is possible to experience multiple stages simultaneously in various areas of our lives. This is not meant to mystify the process, but rather to provide reassurance that there is a way through, but it might not be what we expect.
Furthermore, I contend that the separation between practical and inner alchemy is a false divide. It is fundamental to do both our inner work and to live out that purpose in our outer lives. That is how the inner and practical, personal and communal, unite.
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Dayna Wood, EdS, REAT
Dayna is the founder of Integrative Counsel, where she shows stressed-out professionals how to reignite their innate creative wisdom and spark new meaning and adventure in their lives through the power of brain science.