A Very Misused Word
“Alchemy” is one of our era’s most misused marketing words. In spiritual product marketing, it ranks up there with words like “quantum” and “shamanic” as some of the top words that instantly play upon our vague romantic notions of their implied meanings to grab our attention. Yet when we look at what is being marketed, the product rarely relates to anything remotely associated with the words. Alchemy has even branched out beyond spiritual messaging and into the business world. We are just as likely to find ads for something like “the alchemy of meditation” as we are to find “the alchemy of social media.”
Suffice it to say, I attempt to use the word to mean having to do with the alchemical tradition of language and images which have come down to us from the ages. The history of alchemy is fascinating, voluminous, and enigmatic, and it is not what I am going into here. That said, it is all very relevant to the understanding of alchemy and so highly suggested that the genuine inquirer of cultivating an alchemical mind peruse the tomes of lore on the subject as they can.
“For the alchemist, the one primarily in need of redemption is not man, but the deity who is lost and sleeping in matter.”
As a body of lore, there are many ways in which one can interpret the content of alchemical writing and imagery. Of course, many would prefer to think of it as nothing more than a mislead, un-evolved ancestor to Chemistry. Another equally dismissive and ignorant view comes from the transcendent or religiously bent, who take the idea of turning lead into gold as a metaphor for getting beyond the world (lead) and into the promised land (gold). Such interpretive lenses betray the trauma of the ones who use them and, as such, are understandable. Who wouldn’t want to escape the world’s suffering into a conceptually pure realm of bliss? That said, to interpret the alchemical material this way, one must skip over a lot of the alchemical lore and focus on the few things that support the premise. This is something that religions, science cults, and anyone living in the overlapping and unconscious attentional fields of dissociation are good at.
Another view on alchemy, which is by far the most common today, is its use in some approaches of psychology, particularly depth psychology and what is becoming known more commonly now as “soul-work.” It is in this approach where we find the cognition that the alchemical body of lore is a mythopoetic language map of the labyrinthine realm of the psychic (“soul” or “mind,” in the most expansive and enigmatic sense). This begins most emphatically with Jung, gets brought more down to earth with the likes of Hillman, and has since found its way into the hands of many and varied characters, such as myself, that attempt to use and relay it.
Putting Alchemy To Use
The beneficial uses of the alchemical view are many, far too many to cover here. But they all begin with learning to utilize the language of alchemy to understand, or even re-understand, one’s life, inside and out. For instance, a key to any alchemical working is having the correct container. Voluminous details on the crazy kinds of containers used in different operations, or even different stages of the same process, are found throughout the lore. This alchemical terminology, a “container,” has made its way into all manner of group organizing approaches, where facilitators speak highly of the importance of the container for the group and how it needs to be tended to. While this is wonderful and true, it is rare that said facilitators can clarify why. This is a gap in alchemical understanding that the cultivation of an alchemical mind can remedy. I will get you going: a primary importance of the container in an alchemical operation is that what you put into the container will take the container’s shape. This is something to be deeply pondered.
Along with the container, another foundational view is the Prima Materia, or “first matter.” This is essentially what we are working with, the matter at hand which we are starting with. Those who like to dumb alchemy down to pop-cultural concepts misunderstand this as something simple and call it the lead we wish to turn to gold. Fair enough. Yet in the alchemical lore, we have extensive lists of very different first matters, and they each need different kinds of tending to bring them to something more refined. The point of the comprehensive lists, though enticingly poetic for the mythic mind to ponder, is not that they are memorized as in a reference manual for all things alchemy. Rather, they are to help us learn to re-understand the matter we are working with and the situations in our lives and then arrive at insights into how best to tend them to move the process along.
Tending The Fires
Numerous other departments of alchemical understanding must be explored specifically and then integrated with the others in a more general, operable sense. Along the lines of tending to the process, one of the main epithets of an alchemist is “fire-tender.” Within the lore, we find complex and beatific understandings of the many kinds of fire and how to tend them. From a wide view of the work, alchemy is the art of tending to the fires, which will bring about refinement. In addition to the fire, we also have a richly evocative glossary of various states and actions we may encounter and use in our work. The famous alchemical catchphrase “solve et coagula” or “separate and combine” is just the beginning of valuable ideas and navigation points which we find in this dreaming language.
It is easy to take the pop-alchemical ideas we are fed and think of alchemy in a very four-color, cartoonish way. Turning lead into gold is a fun idea, but it hardly helps one sort out how to do it. Far more interesting are ideas from alchemical lore that remind us that the work is to rarify matter, the matter at hand, to “raise its inclinations.” Even without footnotes or diagrams, raising the inclinations of a matter is both a poetic morsel one can ever chew on and something which we can easily relate to our lives, minds, relationships, and undertakings. This is what the cultivation of an alchemical mind does best. It seasons us to the greater processes of life. It helps us see all things through the alchemical lens of process and reminds us of the tools and perspectives we have at our disposal to skillfully, poetically tend the fires. As such, it raises our inclinations.