I read a book some years ago called “On Becoming An Alchemist” by Catherine MacCoun. Since then I’ve incorporated its ideas into my process of self healing and transformation. Alchemy, according to my own personal brand and style, is now one of the most important items in my spiritual toolbox. I credit some of my biggest leaps of spiritual growth in the last years to it.
Not only that, but these inner changes had profound effects on my physical life, sometimes in ways that went beyond what most people understand about causality. I’ll mention a little more about that later.
Alchemy in a nutshell is this. Instead of separating “yourself” from the technique you are doing, you turn yourself, and your life, into the laboratory in which change happens.
This means giving up a sense of control. Meditation, for example, can often give you the lofty sense that you are exercising power over your spiritual growth. You sit down, focus, and change happens.
Not so with Alchemy. “You” are not exercising power over anything else. You yourself are being changed. In alchemy, you open yourself up to forces that are acting upon your spiritual growth; and then your participation is usually to just to facilitate these forces rather than fighting them.
To explain further, let me get a bit more specific.
In “On Becoming An Alchemist”, MacCoun describes seven different processes. All of them are basically initiated by the Universe, or at least your Higher Self, rather than your Earthly presence. They generally involve some sort of shakeup, some accident or conflict or other experience that forces your ego to break down.
(By the way, in this article I use the word “ego” to mean something like “spiritual error”. That’s an intentionally vague definition for something which people often make very complicated and misleading. For an explanation of what I don’t mean by “ego” in this article, please see Ego Is Not The Enemy).
One such process is calcination. Calcination literally means “to reduce to ashes”. This process happens when you experience loss.
Let me explain. Spiritual error can come from when you attach to something which is transient: a possession or, particularly, an identity. You feel the need to hold onto it even though one day it will change or disappear.
Calcination then happens when you experience the loss of that thing, or the fear of that loss, and you allow the resulting suffering to consume your error as if in flames.
Calcination happens naturally, but an Alchemist tries to calcinate in a conscious way to maximise the benefit they get from it. This means working with the process rather than against it.
Working against it, then, would mean trying to protect your ego. For instance, you can use drama and self pity to validate your attachment to your possessions. Or you can go into denial, or try to intellectualise your feelings away.
To calcinate consciously on the other hand, an Alchemist would work with the process by embracing the loss and the suffering, and not trying to intellectualise it or explain it away.
Catherine MacCoun illustrated calcination, quite fittingly, with the story of her own house literally burning down. She wrote that as it happened, she witnessed the blaze with a sort of fierce, pyromaniac joy.
In that moment, she felt her Spirit looking out through her eyes, celebrating the gain which was Catherine’s Earthly loss. In the days after the fire, she felt “lighter on [her] feet. The world seemed brand new, and better somehow.”
There are six other processes which MacCoun describes. I won’t go into them all here. Actually, in a way, they are a little irrelevant to me.
I understand that my own take on Alchemy might be a bit different to that of others. But, hoping that other practitioners will excuse me, I’ll explain my take.
I think there aren’t just seven processes out there. Catherine’s seven may be seven important ones. But they are probably not the only ones.
To be fair, by the way, I don’t think she exactly implies that her seven are the only ones, except that she relates each one to one of the seven chakras. I’ll also say that I do very much appreciate her description of her seven different processes. By reading these examples I learnt, by osmosis, the general spirit or essence of the Alchemy I practise.
All that said, I still think that knowing the names of the processes isn’t the most important thing. In these years of practicing my own style of Alchemy, I haven’t tried to identify by name a single one of the processes I’ve been through. For me, Alchemy is an attitude, an outlook, and a philosophy. I apply this overall disposition to my life in general and somewhat indifferentially to each process that comes up.
Now let me break down my approach. First of all, my understanding of Alchemy inspires me to accept my desires and work with them.
When I discover a new desire, I usually perform my simple form of the Law of Attraction that is based off Steve Pavlina’s article How To Order. I feel the welling power of my desire or intention and my connection with the Earth. With the strength of these feelings, I speak or think my desire, stated to the Universe in the form of an order. Not a bossy order; a polite, confident order with all the expectation of being served, as you’d place in a restaurant.
This sets the ball rolling. When I feel those unarguable feelings, I know my energy is going to return to me in some form. It’s inevitable.
Often, I get what I ask for very quickly. These are times when I’ve already performed the inner work necessary to get what I desire. For instance, nowadays I always find it easy to have a romantic partner, even in the most unlikely of situations. I simply embody the right vibe for life to allow me to enjoy what I desire.
At other times, however, I need to change myself to be a match for what I want. And so my energy will return to me in the form of a catalysing experience. If I respond to it correctly, I will be changed, and I will then receive.
So, after making my intentions, I simply – live. I live fully. I do everything I ever wanted to do; get into messy situations; experiment; experience. I avoid clearly negative situations, but when in doubt, I almost always choose having an experience over not having an experience.
I honour my human impulses. I go with them. I embrace my humanity and my flaws. I often have the attitude that perhaps it’s clear to some people that what I’m doing is flawed, but I’d rather experience the flaw for myself than feel the disempowerment of just taking someone else’s word for it.
And then, when something intense happens, I live through it. And – I trust. I trust that everything is happening for a reason. I trust that what is happening now is what is supposed to be happening now. I live it fully, experience it fully, and resist it as little as I can. I try to remain open and vulnerable (or what the ego thinks is vulnerable).
So when I have an emotional experience, I don’t try to tone it down; whatever desire or human impulse put me into that situation, I drive on, letting the fire of the experience burn me up until nothing but Who I Am remains.
To support this point, let me quote MacCoun, from a passage which really stuck with me:
The Tibetan teacher I used to follow required his students to practise generic Buddhism for several years before embarking on the Vajrayana, the Buddhist alchemical path. When trying to figure out the pecking order, newcomers to the scene often concluded that the students who had only been practising for one or two years were the most advanced. These students had great posture, impeccable manners, and the kind of composure one associates with Buddhists. The actual senior students – those already deeply immersed in the Vajrayana – were taken by newcomers to be fellow rookies. They presented an emotionally dishevelled appearance, bursting into tears or unstoppable giggles during meditation sessions, showing up drunk, losing jobs, getting into love triangles, and running up debt. Nothing about them looked advanced, except, perhaps, their advanced state of disarray.
Alchemy makes a mess of the kitchen. […] The raw instincts of the unconscious will have to come to the surface before they can be transformed into qualities. While this is going on, they will be evident to others as well as yourself. It’s embarrassing. […] Don’t undertake [Alchemy] if you want others to think you are one of the Elect.
I like this way of doing spirituality very much. Too much so-called spirituality is concerned with appearances – whereas I think the best growth comes from getting your hands dirty.
Now let me talk about one of the things that separates Alchemy in my mind from other spiritual paths: its focus on getting results in the material world.
I bought an electronic copy of “On Becoming An Alchemist” this morning in order to write this article, having lost my old paper copy. As I reread the beginning of it, I noticed the emphasis it makes on Alchemy being a form of magic, a way of getting what you desire in life, rather than just a spiritual path.
I hadn’t really remembered that part of the book. Even so, I had instinctively been using my spiritual growth as a means of influencing my physical life; whenever I wanted something my question was, “what can I change in myself to get this?” and my disposition was a readiness for the Universe to change me to make me a good fit for receiving my desire.
Still, I generally prioritised the spiritual over the physical in most of my path. The magical aspects of Alchemy didn’t attract me as much as its use as a tool for spiritual growth. What has surprised me a little more in retrospect was how much physical benefit my spiritual work in this way seems to have provided me.
Actually, nowadays, don’t really see a difference between my spiritual and physical life.
As I understand it, the world is a hologram, not really real in itself; it is a projection of consciousness. So really, everything is spirit.
Besides that, I became convinced some time ago that if my spiritual life caused me to judge or feel separate from my physical life, something was wrong. Because spirituality is about non-judgement, right? And on a more intuitive level, I thought the world was far too beautiful, and life was far too exciting and wonderful, for them to exist only as the antagonist for our spiritual development.
So I decided to love the physical aspects of my life and use them as means for growth. I came to learn that life itself is working with me and helping me grow. To hide myself in a cave would be like turning down a million dollars because I needed to get a job.
And at the same time, I understood that spirituality was the most powerful tool I had for getting what I wanted in life.
And so spirituality and materiality became one. I’m neither searching for ultimate spiritual realisation at the expense of the material, nor ultimate material realisation at the expense of the spiritual. They are just aspects of the same thing. All my spiritual and physical desires are just reflections of my holistic yearning to create my highest, truest expression; in physicality, outside physicality, and through it.
So Alchemy provided me with an alternative spiritual path, one that didn’t shun the physical world but worked closely with it. It was, in fact, somehow healing in itself to see things this way, to remove the split between the spiritual and physical.
It has also been pretty damn powerful for me.
Most of my self-healing in these last years has been a combination of Alchemy, Ekhart Tolle-inspired Satsang work, and introspection. I’ve also done some Reiki, some meditation, and some fasting and nutrition work, among other things. They’ve all worked together synergistically, but I think Alchemy for me has been an order of magnitude more powerful than, for example, the Reiki work I’ve done. I think only the Satsang can really be considered to be on quite the same level. (I should write an article about that, come to think of it).
If you want to see my brand of Alchemy in action, I recommend you read Berlin, And Learning Self Dependence. It describes one of the more intense and poignant processes I went through, and how, after it was over, I almost instantly received what I had been intending to receive, as if by magic. It was so synchronistic and clear that it was very hard to dismiss as pure coincidence.
Related spiritual-themed articles have been fermenting in my mind since starting work on this one, so check back to this blog soon for more. Perhaps this will turn into a mini-series.