Is Alchemy a Spiritual Path tradition in disguise?
For most of my life my exposure to alchemy has been limited to a sparse number of sentences in Chemistry textbooks and the animated series Full Metal Alchemist. Actually, that’s not entirely true – Alchemy did come up in my college class on Daoism, but that focused largely on the practice of imbibing mercury in the quest for immortality. This seemed so remote from my vague understanding of Western Alchemy (not to mention laughable from a health perspective) that I promptly dismissed this as not ‘real’ alchemy. Imagine my surprise, then, as I’m reading the autobiography of Carl Jung to stumble upon a chapter where he talks about being closeted with Alchemical texts for “more than a decade” until “the alchemical mode of expression gradually yielded up its meaning” Professor Jung went on;
“I had very soon seen that analytical psychology coincided in a most curious way with alchemy. The experiences of the alchemists were, in a sense, my experiences, and their world was my world. This was, of course, a momentous discovery; I had stumbled upon the historical counterpart of my psychology of the unconscious.”
For me, there have been many parallels between Jung’s psychology of the unconscious and my experience of the “Spiritual Path.” How intriguing to think there may be some further connections to be found in alchemy also. I found myself mulling over the old disconnect between Alchemy in the West – which seemed to be a search for the recipe to create Gold from…well…non-Gold – and Alchemy in the East which seemed to be a quest for immortality. Were these two seemingly opposing goals just different perspectives on the same end result? Could the study of Alchemy be a type of Spiritual Path? To the Library!
The nature of gold
I checked out the three volumes of Jung’s I could find on Alchemy and promptly started devouring them. Drawn to Jung’s commentary on an Eastern Alchemical text, the “Secret of the Golden Flower,” I was hoping, based on the title, it would corroborate my own musings about the connection between Eastern and Western alchemy. If you’ve had any exposure to the type of energy that some people call the “Human energy field” (For some reason, I really despise this name for it, I don’t know why – so I simply refer to it as ‘energy’) or with chakra work you may be familiar with the idea that there are different “colors” to energy. I have only actually seen energy twice and both times it was quite a strange experience so I can’t validate the ‘color’ aspect of it with first hand experience. However, “Gold” colored energy is sometimes considered indicative of a “connection to God” (think of the color of halos) or as healing energy from the Universe. When we take the very worldly concepts of immortality (on a physical plane) and Gold (as a physical metal) and abstract a level to the layer of energy and spirit, we can see the beginnings of a bridge between what Eastern and Western Alchemy were aiming at.
So what is Alchemy really, then? A spiritual path with an esoteric goal or a hands-on practice bound to test tubes and bunsen burners? It is obvious, and Jung himself admits, that the heart of Alchemy is executed in the laboratory. I think what made this tradition so compelling for many was that – for the pure hearted / minded practitioner (and by this I mean someone who studied the practice for itself and not for the sole aim of manufacturing gold or becoming immortal) it merged the inner and outer aspects beautifully.
I only really saw this connection when I consulted a more modern perspective, Robert Allen Bartlett’s Real Alchemy (if you are interested in reading this book I recommended breezing past the part about humans receiving knowledge of alchemy from aliens or the gods – the book does get better after that). Bartlett himself says that Alchemy is, “..a spiritual path leading one to enlightenment” although he seems to attribute the transformation mostly to the action of various alchemical products (such as tinctures or magisteries) on the body / spirit / mind. I certainly cannot in any way vouch for that aspect as my skill in laboratory work is accurately reflected in my “D” in high school Chemistry. However, after reading these diverse sources of information on Alchemy (in addition to those already mentioned I also picked up the Corpus Hermetica and gave it a whirl), I could see how – regardless of the effects of the chemicals – a dedicated Alchemical study could prompt spiritual metamorphosis.
Alchemy’s connection to the Spiritual Path
It is clear from considering the practical aspects of this obscure tradition that the practice is rooted in developing a fundamental understanding of the interactions among the elements that make up our world. “Man is a microcosm inseparable from his macrocosmic environment” This manifests in the alchemical interest in the ‘influence’ of the planets (as one example) on various alchemical procedures. According to Alchemical theory, performing certain procedures under specific, relevant, planetary or astrological influences promotes maximum efficacy (think of the Old Farmer’s Almanac and Planting season for a more removed example of this). This is Science by Rite; the laboratory equipment we associate with the realm of science becomes almost ceremonial. it is easy to see how an intimate understanding of these various influences would not only bring about knowledge of the interconnectedness of all things, but also through hands on experimentation a deep understanding and internalizing of this concept.
Also, like Spiritual development – Alchemical procedures take time. Our modern experience has been one where we don’t understand or have patience for lengthy drawn-out processes, but walking the Spiritual Path is not a ‘quick trip.’ Even the most basic, beginning, Alchemical practices can take months of involved work to complete. These days people barely have the patience to wait a few hours for bread to rise. With spiritual development it can also take months and sometimes years to overcome a particular challenge or test. That’s not to say there aren’t sudden breakthroughs; flashes of inspiration or incredible moments where things come together – but I’ve found the spiritual path to be a series of cycles with bright flashes of connection followed by long sloughs of grueling testing. This mirrors the practice of Alchemy; one successful Alchemical experiment / procedure only leads the practioner to try something more challenging next.
One last note, Unlike planting / growing where the plants do most of the transformative work on their own, the practice of Alchemy requires the practitioner to be a very active participant in the process. To put this another way, the end result of an Alchemical process could not be achieved without the active machinations of the Alchemist. Man in concert with nature produces results nature could never have achieved alone. An alchemical procedure is far from ‘set it and forget it.’ Careful attention must be paid during each stage of the process in order to produce the best result. With this active participation must come investment of the self. The recipes require evaporating, boiling, distilling, exposing to flame and any number of other processes – in multiple iterations to get a single end product. Successes and Failures must be felt intimately, tying one ever closer to the work. Through Alchemy, man experiences himself as ‘creator’ (or woman / herself, if you prefer) and I imagine this, also, leads to greater understanding of the nature of our existence on this planet and in this universe.
So where does this leave us with Alchemy? Well, I think we find a pattern here that is not totally unfamiliar to us from something as mainstream as religion. At the core of the practice you find some staunch believers who understand the concepts and execute the procedures with faith and understanding. On the outskirts of this core, the knowledge and understanding starts to diffuse so that at the very outer levels you find people who are just looking for the end goal and not really interested in the diligence and study required to get there. The core Alchemists probably did experience Alchemy as a path of spiritual development. I don’t have the time or inclination to pursue it, but I believe the resources are out there that anyone genuinely interested in this aspect of Alchemy could experience the same. You’re not going to create gold or become immortal (at least not in the physical plane), but I’m sure the study, execution, investment of self, and waiting associated with pursuing this practice results in a transformative spiritual experience worthy of any other tradition. I still advise against drinking liquid Mercury, though.
(the following books inspired the above post and would be good resources for anyone seeking to explore this topic further)
- Psychology & Alchemy by C.J. Jung
- Alchemical Studies by C.J. Jung
- Real Alchemy by Robert Allen Bartlett
- The Secret of the Golden Flower by Wang Chongyang and translated by Richard Wilhelm
- Corpus Hermeticum attributed to Hermes (sorry, that’s what it says <shrug>) translated by G. Mead