Spiritual Alchemy: What is It?
Alchemy is an age-old tradition. It’s recorded in most ancient cultures, from the Chinese to the Egyptians and the Persians. The Islamic world as well as medieval Europe had their own forms of alchemy.
The basis of alchemy is the transformation of a less desirable material into something precious An example of this would be lead into gold. It’s the breaking down of the elements of something and the alchemical rearrangement into a new and higher form.
Alchemy on a physical level is a very complex subject that I don’t necessarily want to explore here. I’m more concerned with spiritual alchemy since one of the fundamental jobs of the Shaman is to be an alchemist.
So, what does this mean? Does a Shaman spend his or her time trying to turn lead into gold? Well, no I would say not! Read on to find out more about how the Shaman uses alchemy in their spiritual practice.
What Alchemy Means for the Shaman
The Shaman sees spiritual growth as an alchemical process – the breaking down of the old and the emergence of the new from the elements.
There are certain stages in the alchemical process, and these can be applied to spiritual alchemy as well as to the physical tradition.
But before we explore that, let's take a look at the principles of spiritual alchemy.
The Seven Principles of Spiritual Alchemy
Mentalism: This principle says that all is in the mind. In other words, the process takes place in the mental realm.
Correspondence: As above, so below and as below, so above. As in spirit, so in body. The condition of the spirit mirrors that of the body, and vice versa.
Vibration: Everything is moving, particle and wave. It all has a frequency at which it’s vibrating. The higher the frequency doesn’t automatically mean something is of a higher consciousness though.
Polarity: Everything is based on duality – is and isn’t, dark and light, good and bad.
Rhythm: There is a flow of energy between the dualities. They are not separate but are two sides of the same coin.
Cause and Effect: For every event, there is a cause and effect. We can't do anything without there being a cause and effect.
Gender: Male and female. The male energy is ‘giving out’ while the female energy is ‘receiving.’
Spiritual Alchemy: The Process and Stages
As has been mentioned, alchemy is defined as the process of taking something ordinary and turning it into something extraordinary; sometimes in a way that can’t be explained.
Some examples of more practical alchemy would be taking separate ingredients and baking a cake, turning grapes into wine, or an artist taking a pile of scrap metal and turning it into a beautiful sculpture.
Alchemy, in Latin, is described as "solve et coagula.” The word “solve" means to break down and separate. The word “coagula” describes the process of bringing elements back together into a new and higher existence.
The words “solve et coagula “ also translate into an interesting psychological metaphor: by pursuing gold (or listening to our intuitive “higher calling.”) We “break down” limiting parts within us that are standing in the way of our transformation into becoming a free and whole being (coagulation). This is where the concept of spiritual alchemy comes in.
The following seven stages are some of the more acceptable for spiritual alchemy.
The process of heating and decomposition of the raw matter is known as calcination. When referring to the process on a spiritual level, we're talking about breaking down the parts of ourselves that stop us from experiencing happiness.
Too often, we resort to being right or perfect rather than finding ways to be truly happy. Our addiction to perfection prevents us from exploring what is true to us.
During this stage of calcification, we start to break down our:
When we do this, we start finding out what's going on underneath.
The process of dissolution happens when we've removed characteristics that have been in the way of our growth. At this stage, we start identifying less with our false sense of self. It's in this stage, that we can step back and start to observe the positive and negative traits we own.
We start to realize how detrimental our lack of responsibility towards owning our faults, acknowledging traumatic memories, and suppressing inner stressors may affect others. When this realization takes shape, we're experiencing the beginning of spiritual maturity.
Dissolution often comes about when we're faced with a serious illness or dealt with some bad luck or tragic event. We're then forced to stand up and take note of how we've been behaving. Such awareness forces us out of our avoidance patterns such as taking drugs, turning to alcohol, or watching endless TV programs.
In the stage of separation, we start to define more relevant thoughts and emotions. We do this by isolating those thoughts and emotions that become irrelevant.
When we choose to let go of resentment by trying to forgive someone, we're in the stage of separation. It's in this stage that you start to become fully aware of your own authentic feelings, be it to yourself or to someone else.
We allow ourselves to experience in total honesty our feelings of anger, disappointment, resentment, or frustration. These could be feelings we express towards ourselves or to others. By doing this, we avoid defaulting to "dutifully trying to forgive" simply because it's the right thing to do.
Shadow work entails this stage where we allow our feelings and thoughts to come to the surface so that we may own them. By doing this, we're learning to isolate certain elements of our character so that we may truly see them for what they are. And, start to assess them with honesty.
Through the process of conjunction, we're combining the remaining elements that reside within us. This comes after the first three stages through which certain elements have been purified and clarified.
In the stage of conjunction, we're given the inner space to allow brewing to take place so that we may truly accept all the parts of us that make up our authentic SELF.
It's at this stage that we allow all our unconscious thoughts and feelings to rise to the surface so that they may be exposed to the light of conscious awareness.
The stage of fermentation is an exciting part of the process of rebirth.
You could compare this stage to the fermentation of grapes which, through its own form of "rebirth", results in wine. While we focused on the old "self" during the first four stages, the fermentation stage is when we start to experience our more "refined" SELF.
In shamanism and other aspects of spiritual healing practices, fermentation is broken down into two parts: Putrefaction and Spiritualization:
Putrefaction: This is when our former selves decompose. It's a form of inner death through which both old conscious and unconscious elements of our mind start to rot and decompose. This is often known as the "dark night of the soul" and can result in mental health states such as depression.
Spiritualization: This part of the fermentation stage is when we start to look at the world with new eyes or in a "new light." It involves letting go of stale aspects of ourselves that no longer serve us. You can expect to feel moments of inner peace and stillness when undergoing spiritualization.
It's during spiritualization, that we need to find ways of integrating all our spiritual realizations in such a way that they become permanent. The stage of distillation is simply another form of purification as we repeatedly practice constant dying and rebirth in the present moment while not reverting to our old and bad habits.
By allowing ourselves to constantly die and become reborn again while avoiding the traps of our minds, we can experience empowering and profound inner transformation. In the East, this is known as "enlightenment."
Coagulation is the moment when we’ve become free from the mind. It's at this stage that we allow consciousness or soul to connect with the Materia Prima: the Spirit. Through coagulation, we've merged two opposites such as our spiritual self and physical form to the point when existence becomes self-aware.
And, then our lives become free of duality. It's at this point when the Spirit manifests in the material form and the physical world is no longer separate from the spiritual reality. Instead, it's a reflection of it.
Everything Happens in the Mind
The mind is the conduit through which our spiritual and emotional existences are expressed.
The mind is where we ‘see,’ where our intuition plays out. If we’re to recognize the need for an alchemical transformation within ourselves, we’ve to become aware of what lies beneath the layers of avoidance and denial we’ve enveloped our lives in.
The process of overcoming our limitations is linked to recognizing our positive and negative qualities. It’s about focussing on the traits which don’t serve us and the behaviors of avoidance, denial and blaming.
We’re forced to take responsibility for where we are at and realize that the only person who can change our circumstances is ourselves.
Just as there is a constant flow of energy between the polarities, the good and bad, dark and light, we need to be aware of the way in which we direct this energy flow.
Energy goes where attention is given and the only way to ensure energy is directed in the right direction is to understand our negative and positive qualities, separate them and focus on the elements that make up our authentic selves.
Be careful not to deny the negative parts of yourself, for although they’re false, they still exist. However, they need to be isolated and set aside because they don't serve you.
Once we’re aware of who we really are, we can start to direct the energy of love and gratitude towards what we want and where we want to be.
Watch Catherine Ewing as she talks about emotional alchemy as a way of healing from traumatic experiences.
By understanding the principles of spiritual alchemy, you can start the process of unraveling what’s not serving you so you can start the process of transformation. And, following the shamanic processes and stages of alchemy will bring you closer to your spiritual being while living a physical existence.
Once more, I thank my shaman teacher, Lionel Berman, for introducing me to the world of shamanism and teaching me profound lessons.
Read Serge Kahlil King's book, 'Urban Shaman" if you want to explore shamanism and how to use it in your own life.
Michael Harner's fascinating book, 'The Way of the Shaman" is also a good read.
This post was originally published on October 20th, 2021, and updated on July 4th, 2022.
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