Neuro-Alchemy: Spiritual Awakening and the Brain
Change your consciousness and you will change the world. Literally, when your consciousness changes, so does your experience of the world. Eventually the world you experience may differ radically from what you previously took for reality. But it goes further than that. Changes at the individual level ripple into the collective, and even into nature and objects, thereby changing the objective world. Have you ever met someone who seemed to radiate wisdom, kindness, and joy? Whose perspective and balance left them untouched by the concerns that plague ordinary people, and whose mere presence seemed to make everyone around them better? Such people exist and they can profoundly affect their environment. They show us there is another way. But what can we make of them? Should we worship them? Are they special? Do they have something the rest of us lack? No, on all counts. They have merely awakened to states of consciousness that all of us are capable of, but few have yet experienced. They have transformed themselves through a process of inner alchemy. In concrete, material-world terms, they have turned on certain neural circuits, while turning others off.
Alchemy, the ancient art of transmuting lead into gold, is a metaphor for the transmutation of human consciousness. The “gold” sought in alchemy was not literal gold, but rather spiritual gold, and the alchemical process symbolized the awakening of spirit within “base” matter. In human terms, that means a well-integrated spiritual awakening whose effects reverberate through one’s life and being. Spiritual awakening can come in many forms, but it generally involves the awareness of higher orders of reality, the attainment of a perspective that can see beyond dualities, and if it is integrated, a radical transformation of one’s feeling nature and consequent shift in values. One “no longer sweats the small stuff”.
Consciousness and matter meet most obviously in the brain. All transformations in consciousness entail some change in the brain, at least as long as we are alive. Anything that works on our brain to induce expanded states of consciousness, which we can apply in a deep and sustained fashion, and whose effects we can make permanent can be called “Neuro-Alchemy”. The sages, tantrics, shamans, and alchemists of the past were the world’s first neuroscientists. The practices and systems they developed to induce visionary or mystical states, or to produce “magical” effects, all work directly on our neural circuitry. Some of these systems even correspond directly to modern scientific models. For instance, the common division of the chakras into three groups (the lower three instinctual chakras, the feeling heart chakra, and the upper three chakras of awareness and expression) correlates with neuroscience’s “triune brain” model, which divides our brain into the three levels of reptile brain (instinct), limbic system (emotion), and neocortex (higher reasoning). Similarly the pingala and ida energy channels of yoga correspond to the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, which are like “gas” and “brakes” for our whole body-mind.
Esoteric systems have value in their own right, regardless of what science can say about them. It does not matter whether or not you believe in the objective reality of scientifically unproven ideas like subtle bodies, chakras, or astrology: sometimes, working on the basis that there is “something to that” can produce the necessary effect, helping us to rewire our brains and change our lives. When we are able to access such mystical and visionary states, receive their gifts, and bring those gifts back into our lives, then have attained alchemical gold: the integrated awakening.
I will say it again: change your consciousness and you change the world. Therefore, nothing is more precious than your awakening and its integration. Imagine what would happen tomorrow if everyone suddenly woke up with the deep conviction, impressed into every cell of their body, that life is a great gift, a miracle, and that the only appropriate response to that fact is gratitude? Do you think slavery, sex-trafficking, clear-cutting, overfishing, and toxic dumping would continue? I do not. “But give me a break”, you may say. “We’ve got real problems that need real solutions.” That is true, and of course we need to do every concrete thing we can to address the world’s many crises. But if the parts of us that create these problems spontaneously went offline the battle would be all but won. Not only that, but we would be more capable of imagining and creating new realities. As long as we only address the world’s ills through conventional morality, i.e. trying to be “good” and “do the right thing”, we will never make a dent. Without perspective, we may even make the problem worse. But when we awaken our latent powers of consciousness, right action becomes effortless and natural. This is the promise of awakened and integrated consciousness.
Alex Stein is a 21st century internal alchemist, combining archetypal astrology, depth psychology, meditation, breathwork, music, and science-based tools to facilitate deep transformations. Learn more at https://www.twentyfirstcenturyalchemy.com/