For the past fifteen years, I have gone back and forth about whether or not to continue to use the word “alchemy” when I talk about my work. I’ve always known that people have a lot of preconceived ideas about the word’s implications. Bearded wizards bent over flasks of odiferous concoctions … dusty books filled with weird pictures … heavy metal rock bands … expensive hair care products … small batch carefully brewed beer from rural places … these images did not really get at what I wanted to say about my work.
But just as early anthropologists stood for the sophisticated wisdom of “primitive” cultures and recent scholars and explorers have revealed the astonishing healing powers of tribal shamanism, I continued to feel a need to stand for alchemy. The more I delved into it, the more I saw that alchemy is not simply “failed chemistry” or antiquated magic but rather a way of understanding the world that can help us answer questions that modern science and psychology cannot. It is an integrated system of knowledge, a way of understanding the world, different from, but equal in value to our modern viewpoint.
More and more, I saw that if we are to understand and effectively use the systems that arose during alchemy’s heyday, including traditional Chinese medicine, qigong, yoga, tantra, herbal medicine, astrology, Kabbalah, and Tarot, we must go back to their origins in this other form of consciousness. Meanwhile, as I continued to explore the images and texts of alchemists from various times and cultures, I realized that I was discovering a way through the impasses of our contemporary, dualistic, materialistic world view to a new, soul-infused, multi-dimensional reality.
In brief, alchemy is the art of the transformation of the soul. It begins with the premise that what seems difficult and without value, common as lead and cheap as dirt, often contains a bit of gold in disguise. Through a process of refinement or upgrade, organized around the belief that there is something potentially eternal – a seed, speck or spark of divine substance hidden in matter – we can intentionally work with the dark, stuck places in our being in order to illuminate, enliven and bring meaning and purpose to life.
The more I have learned, the deeper my fascination and the stronger my commitment to this tradition has grown. The firmer I stand, the more I notice conversations and interest springing up around me. In recent years, I have had been delighted to watch students, patients, and readers of my book take up the term Alchemical Healing … because it seems that, against all odds, alchemy has survived and has something very important to teach us about ourselves and our world.
What does Alchemical Healing look like in practice? It looks like a surprise, something we don’t expect that comes from something we’d rather get rid of. It looks like:
Making a flower essence with the weeds outside my front door that is just what I need to support my current impasse.
A young patient of mine who discovers that his unexpected diagnosis of a chronic lifelong disease has some good in it, including his introduction to acupuncture and alternative healing.
A mother of four who finally accepts that her insistence on an hour-long morning meditation practice is getting in the way of enjoying mornings with her children and instead begins to meditate in smaller increments throughout the day.
A young woman in a workshop who recognizes that the doors that lock her into a room in her dreams are actually teaching her to set necessary and healthy boundaries in her everyday life.
A student’s ongoing, patient practice with qi gong transforming his inner doubt into a self-confident commitment to energy work.
An executive who after years of terror at the thought of public speaking recognizes that his fear is actually an excitement about what he wants to say, and begins to find his way to saying it!
By now, I’ve seen the principles and practices of alchemy make so much difference in people’s lives, I no longer waver about whether or not to mention alchemy when I talk about my work. I accept that even if it reminds someone of an historic failed attempt to turn lead to gold, that’s okay because underneath the misconceptions and doubts, the word has persisted within popular culture precisely because there is something about alchemy that speaks to us as humans. There is a deep knowing that alchemy’s dream of transformation is a dream each of us shares at the deepest level. With its capacity to engender new possibilities within the human soul and on the planet, it is indeed time to bring this ancient tradition back not only as an idea but as a way of life.