In the previous article, I did not outline the stages of alchemy as I wanted to present a broad overview of its spiritual importance. It is very easy to get lost in the many rich contours and symbolic crevices that is the alchemical “map”– as many have before us. However, in this article, I invite you down the rabbit hole. Go on an adventure with me for the next few minutes. I promise; I’ll bring us out the other side.
Alchemy does not shy away from the muck and mire, the putrid and fermenting. In fact, it is sought after as this is where transformation takes place. In the alchemical process, there is always a death before a rebirth. They are inseparable and to transmute, or to change our nature into a higher-order one, the former must be shed; rarely, an easy process.
Again, be reminded that the stages below are not necessarily linear. Nor, is it agreed upon in exactly which order they arrive. That is why I’ve represented them within a spiral. In fact, I believe it is possible to be in multiple phases simultaneously in various spheres of our lives. Furthermore, remember that this is ultimately about awakening consciousness, or the unconscious being made conscious. (Don’t give up on me now though. It will make more sense in just a few lines.)
Now many thinkers on this topic, far brighter than me, believe that to unite the self and the transcendent it takes going through this entire (aka “spiral”) process three times. Enlightened figures of history, such as Siddhartha, are examples of this ultimate transmutation – changing a given substance into a higher one (aka “enlightenment”). The first unites the unconscious and conscious. The second makes the union permanent, and the third unites matter and spirit.
Now, now don’t become disheartened. Even though you and I will likely never reach this state in this life, the guide that is alchemy can provide comfort – no matter where you are in the process there is a way through and something else inevitably comes next, if we are open to the change.
Let’s begin. And, as you can guess, it doesn’t start with levity in alchemy. The process is ignited by fire (calcinatio, mortificato). With this burning and decomposing, comes the breaking down of the parts of us that are prohibiting our own progress. (I’m sure we can all think of a few of these.)
After the fire, water is added (solutio) and there is a dissolution of our once identified persona. Air is next (separatio). With air, refinement begins. We become more aware of our authentic selves. This might sound like the first stage where we get a bit of a breather, but don’t be fooled. Uncovering our shadow is a part of this work and shadow work is, again, rarely easy.
At this point in the transformation process is when we have to dig deep and bring to light that which we have pushed away and repressed. These are sometimes powerful parts of us as well as parts that we haven’t wanted to look at fully. In this stage, it is time to bring them into the air and shed light on what was once dark.
After burning, dissolving and unburying, there is a coming back together of what remains (conjunctio). However, the alchemical process is far from complete. The dark night of the soul waits, just on the other side of this stage. Another type of death and rebirth – a fermentation of sorts (putrefactio) – is about to take place. It is the shedding of the cocoon that had once been secure but is now confining. Within this stage of rebirth is not only the shedding but alas also the rising (sublimato) to see the world anew.
Distilling and integrating these new understandings into our lives so that they can become a part of our daily way of being is the 6th stage of this process. At this point, the process can – and often does – begin again, or is “multiplied”. That is why it is sometimes termed “multiplicatio”.
The final stage in this great work (magnum opus), before one reaches the “philosopher’s stone” where opposing forces are united and spirit is manifested in material form, is to coagulate (coagulatio) – or to stop the bleeding. The prima materia, the formless base matter essential for the creation of the stone, is finally found here. All has been stripped away that is no longer necessary – vital for the coming together of what was once considered opposites.
Now that we’ve found your way through the alchemical stages, let’s return to why this is important.
Ultimately, this is about awakening consciousness. And, through the act of making the unconscious conscious, we are creating meaning and affecting change not only within our own psyche but that can influence the whole of creation. Because as opposites unite, we come to understand that “inner and outer” is a false dived. 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.
To close, it is wise to remember that as we allow ourselves to fall down the rabbit hole that is alchemy, there is always a rebirth that comes after the labor of shedding, but it rarely presents itself as we expect.
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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.