Finding Alchemical Gold

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Alchemy is often referenced when discussing the Arts of Distillation, Herbalism and Aromatherapy. All of these practices involve practical transformation such as tincture making and distillation. They also embody the axiom that energy is neither created nor destroyed, where energy may be transmuted on practical (physical), conceptual and spiritual levels. This energy ebbs and flows through, and is, the Universe. Some seek mastery of one or more of these and other Arts to connect with the Divine. Is the Divine within or outside the self? Found through mastering an Art? Does it lurk in processes or mind-sets? This essay explores these questions through the lens of transformative Arts such as Alchemy.

In Pursuit of the Divine

Alchemy could be defined as the pursuit of transmuting base materials of Salt, Sulphur and Mercury into Gold. At face value this seems preposterous and overly simplistic. These base materials act certain ways through the lens of Chemistry. Chemistry is about STUFF, measuring and observing STUFF and seeing how it reacts and changes. Yet, Alchemy is more than Chemistry. Some say it is the pursuit of finding the Divine within & outside the self by transmuting energy through various processes. THAT is the Gold rather than the chemical element labeled “Au” (Aurum) on the periodic table of elements.

Alchemy and kindred practices such as Distillation, Herbalism, Aromatherapy (let’s call all of the aforementioned the “Arts”) are often shrouded in secrecy despite the seeming concreteness of Biology and Chemistry. Which bring critical words to the forefront when considering the practice of these Arts: Secrecy, Process, Humbleness and Pursuing Divine Sacredness. The act of Secrecy may often get in the way of Pursuing the Humble, Divine and Sacred. Or does it?

Secrecy and Ego

Secrecy. What’s all of that about? Ego? Selfishness? Protectiveness? When gleaning an insight, or seeming “truth”, we humans often want to call it ours. Like a child who comes upon an object, clutches it to their chest and declares “It’s MINE!” It is my understanding that historical alchemical and herbal formulas include symbols and code words such as those found in Shakespeare’s Macbeth: “Eye of newt and toe of frog, Wool of bat and tongue of dog…” to keep formulations metaphorical and secret.

Though village herbalists and elusive alchemists were, and still are, likely using common herbs found growing their area such as Agrimony, Mugwort and Juniper berry rather than actual Animal parts and elements of Mercury. Really, how easy was it and still is it to obtain Mercury (and no, not via Here’s the rub: whether an alchemist, herbalist or both, you are the keeper of secrets. You may have something others seek, thus making you seem valuable and your secrets worth protecting. This also applies to candle makers, soap makers, perfumers and many other professions.

However. It is not physical actions or mastery of academic and practical knowledge in-and-of-themselves that matter. (Pun there: Chemistry = the study of matter). Though we mere humans often think they do. Magicians of the Arts hold Earthly knowledge that is accessible to everyone, at least to those willing to pay attention and do some work. This knowledge is often held dear and may be kept under wraps by giving plants and minerals confusing names and symbols and worked with through elaborate processes sprinkled with intangible concepts like Soul, Spirit and Inner work. All of this can be summed up as The Work. 

What is The Work?

Pondering such mysteries as “Who am I”, “What is God,” “Why do I exist” and all of those messy existential questions drive many a weary human to contemplate and attempt fathoming the Divine within and outside of us. This is often done through inner and outer work which include various religious and spiritual practices that look to marry the physical with the intangible through rituals and other means.

Which often leads an individual to pursue one or several of The Arts. The Arts require dedication, practice, skill, appreciation of nuance and the liminal, attention to detail, seeing the big picture and so many other cliches. They demand equal attention to numerous Exterior and Interior processes requiring physical and mental pursuits.

Exterior and Interior Processes for Transformation

Some Exterior factors may be applied knowledge of working with “matter” such as plants, minerals, solutions (e.g., water, oil)) and various processes such as distillation, chemistry, formulating (e.g., tincture making, cooking), gardening and other physical activity such as Hatha yoga, Thai chi and so on. Conversely, Interior factors may consist of mind-set, intention, intuition, receptivity, humbleness, discernment and emotional processes which are often fostered by various forms of meditation or prayer.

Bridging the Material and Intangible

At this point I want to briefly highlight the interconnectedness of Alchemy, Herbalism and Aromatherapy in relation to the Earthly-Divine dance.  There is a similarity across these and other Arts: bridging the physical through a medium to work with the soul (i.e., Divine) while recognizing the Divine in every part of the equation. When we work with and through a medium, it may be said we metaphorically liberate the essence-essential-soul from the “chains” of the physical body.

Base Alchemical ComponentsHuman AlchemyDistillation
Sulphur  Soul, individualized essenceThe Essential oil, “soul of the plant,” “Aqua vitae”
Mercury (is the “medium” aka “menstruum” ) Life force, spirit, the spark, Chi, PranaThe water (distillation) or alcohol (tincture making)
SaltPhysical bodyThe plant’s body

But that only takes you so far. We need to go a little deeper and lighter at the same time, in the sense of the “Unbearable Lightness of Being.” We need a few intangible ingredients added to the Physical pursuit of the Arts to formulate a potion strong enough to access ever present Divine energy. How? By recognizing the Divine in everything we do and work with through the mediums of gentle awareness and humbleness. It is the attitude of the practitioner rather than processes and motions that allow a practitioner to dance with the Divine. Yet the processes are important as they may act as guideposts (the menstruum) to do this Work.

Transforming the physical through a process or “medium” touches the Divine given the mind-set of the practitioner.

Finding the Divine Through Humbleness

A humble mind-set asks the practitioner to acknowledge their smallness, their near-insignificant part of the whole process (or picture/universe, etc.). It requires them to ask permission from the Universe to work through and with physical and inner processes and thank each part along the way. It requires them to ask permission from the material-beings (i.e., plants, minerals, water) themselves before working with them rather than barging in and acting entitled by taking without asking and more than is needed. It requires them to treat all parties (tangible and intangible) of the process as guests and acknowledge they will never own these parties, as the practitioner is a guest as well. It demands the practitioner sees themselves as a mere a vessel for The Work who cannot lay claims to any part of The Work and its eternal outcomes. It shows how salvation manifests by acknowledging these processes and how the practitioner, through The Work, is part of the Divine.  

The Work is always the Work. The plants have their fundamental nature. The elements have their fundamental nature. You are your fundamental nature. This is the divine.

Inner work is indeed secret work. It is yours. It belongs to you. Whatever mediums, tools and techniques you choose to get there isn’t what matters as much as the attitude and approach to the whole matter. The exterior motions (i.e., chemistry, distillation, cooking, gardening, yoga, etc., etc., etc.) and processes and manifestations of energy such as plants are not yours. Those belong to themselves and universal knowledge. 

Embracing the Universal processes (including knowing & working with a plant, essential oil, tincture, etc.) through presence, awareness, openness and humility set the stage. This includes honoring the tools and elements in and of themselves. Asking permission. This makes every moment of your process (or journey if you want to call it that) sacred. Herein lies the divine. Therein lies the Gold.

Master Class: Chakras and Aromatherapy

This video-based class explores ways to work with our 7 core energy centers through various activities and essential oils. As conveyed in the essay above, it offers ideas and processes for working with physical and mental matter to initiate transformation and assist in transmuting energy.

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