What is Alchemy and Why Should I Care?

Alchemy… the word conjures images of wizard-like old men toiling away in dark, smokey laboratories, in pursuit of the Philosopher’s Stone– a substance with the power to turn any other into gold. For hundreds and perhaps thousands of years, alchemists in Egypt, Arabia, and Europe sought the Stone. At the same time, the tantrics and sages of India and China used breath, visualization, and sound to transmute their bodies and minds in a quest for immortality. The alchemists sought to transmute lead– a dark, heavy, toxic substance– into pure, shining gold. The true goal of alchemy, whether Western or Eastern, was always the inner transmutation of the alchemists themselves: to become the Philosopher’s Stone and convert their leaden instincts, emotions, and thoughts into the gold of spiritual insight.

The great psychologist Carl Gustav Jung recast alchemy for the 20th Century. In the writings of the ancient alchemists, Jung recognized a process mirroring the one that he himself experienced following a deep psychological crisis. Out of Jung’s crisis, and the flood of visions it produced, grew his entire psychology and life’s work. Jung recognized that the human psyche has an innate impulse to transform– to move toward greater insight, integration, and wholeness. In this process, which he called individuation, the individual ego must die and be reborn into a new relationship with the previously unseen parts of ourselves that make up the vast totality of who we are. Jung called this totality the Self. The Self contains everything– God and the Devil, Lover and Enemy, Male and Female, Spirit and Matter– held in a perfect balance. When we can hold the tension of opposites with, without identifying with certain aspects while projecting others, the greater whole of the Self emerges. For Jung, alchemy was a psychological process, transmuting the lead of our unconscious impulses into the gold of Self-realization.

We live in a different world than that of either Jung or the ancient alchemists, but we are humans, all the same. Two psychedelic revolutions, an explosion of interest in meditation, yoga, shamanism, and esotericism, and advances in neuroscience, genetics, physics, and technology have opened up vast spiritual and scientific frontiers, while archetypal astrology reveals the deeper patterns underlying and connecting everything. A sci-fi future looms ahead of us, dotting the horizon with question marks. Great potentials and pitfalls lie ahead of us.

With so many tools at our disposal, we have never been so well equipped to remold our consciousness and transform our very nature. But with so many possibilities we can easily get lost. With our modern appetite for instant gratification, we could run from system to system looking for “the Answer”– if I only eat the right food, say the right number of “oms”, take one more acid trip, or download the right meditation music, surely I will become enlightened… right? But alchemy is serious business, not for day trippers. It is for people who have tried and failed and tried again, yet who know what potentials they possess. It is also for those who are willing to jump into the abyss and never look back. Alchemy demands we face and embrace all aspects of our nature. To be successful, we need a perspective that can cut through the noise; we need to learn from others who have trod similar paths before us; we need to make our heart trustworthy and learn to trust it.

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