Creative Destruction

The spiritual quest of the alchemist

<em>The Alchemist</em> by William Fettes Douglas (Wikimedia Commons)
The Alchemist by William Fettes Douglas (Wikimedia Commons)

When you arrive at the Spagyricus Institute, also known as the Pacific Northwest School of Alchemy, no sign indicates you have made it. No house number. No sprawling green lawn. Those who attend the Spagyricus Institute, one of the few such schools in the United States, are not here to be pampered. Any good alchemist understands that you come to the art ready to work. In fact, our modern word laboratory comes from an alchemists’ mantra: ora et labora. Pray and work.

Everything is alchemical, or so a quick Internet search would suggest. Alchemy has become a modern buzzword—you can find the alchemy of herbs, the alchemy of yoga or revenge or self-doubt, the alchemy of stones, of the heart, beeswax, even air. Practicing alchemists, though, would decry the casual use of the word. For alchemy, as an art, engages in processes that are thousands of years old and handed down, often in secret, from teacher to student. And although, broadly speaking, the certainty of change is central to alchemy, the transformation sought is very specific and applies to both the matter at hand and the alchemist herself.

On my first day at the Spagyricus Institute, I noted the words carved into a wooden sign marking the entrance to the classroom: solve et coagula. Though I could translate the Latin readily enough—separate and conjoin—I knew I was missing the point. By the end of the four-day course, I would understand more readily this alchemical maxim that matter must be destroyed to be reborn, but it would take a lifetime to fully pursue the mystery. Like sutras and koans, foundational knowledge of alchemy is encoded in aphoristic phrases as well as images that must be opened or revealed by a teacher. The practices were considered too dangerous for the uninitiated. Later, recipes and processes were hidden from those who would kill. The survival of alchemy depended on remaining occult. You need not travel far back in Western history to find alchemists hanged along with witches, their books nailed shut on library shelves, and entire collections burned to ash. If alchemy as a process revolves around life, death, and rebirth, then its history has followed suit.

Robert Bartlett, who directs the Spagyricus Institute, writes in his 2006 book, Real Alchemy (the title alone indicating his frustration with those who use the word but have never stepped foot in a laboratory), that “to the alchemist, everything is alive.” And by everything, he means everything. Plants, animals, minerals, the chairs on which we sat for class. Alchemists believe that all matter is pursuing perfection over eons of time. Every species in every kingdom is slowly transforming into a perfect state of balance—the perfection or oneness from which everything evolved. The alchemist assists in the process by removing any impurities and accelerating the elevation through the steps of separation, perfection, and cohobation. In the prima class, we learned only the very basics of spagyrics, or herbal alchemy, though the principles apply to the entire craft. Surrounded by distillation apparatuses that could readily have come from the set of any ’50s sci-fi movie, we learned how to separate a material into its three essential elements (salt, sulfur, and mercury) and then purify or exalt the elements to their most subtle nature, one free of impurity. Finally, the three perfected essentials are recombined to form an entirely new substance with the ability to heal, or strengthen, or increase the lifespan, or ultimately, transmute other substances instantly.

Alchemists strive to know, on the deepest level, everything about the material world. And that is how they, too, become changed in the process.

It is easy to roll our post-Enlightenment eyes at these ideas, but such casual dismissal would be foolish. Any practice that has been around for thousands of years has something to teach, even if you never plan to create an elixir or distill the spirit of antimony. And what alchemists teach us most readily is how to work, no matter what art we pursue.

Although modern medicine and chemistry owe their existence to alchemy, alchemy is all too often considered the opposite of science—an occult art practiced by mercury-maddened men. Alchemy operates from a principle of Oneness. Bartlett writes, “We live in a vast ocean of energy and everything seen and unseen is a part of it.” Such an idea, as ancient as alchemy itself, resonates with modern understandings of matter as energy. But that is just the start, for the alchemist honors the energy of both mind and matter. When the alchemist pursues Oneness through calcination, rectification, and recombination, she relies on the same processes chemists use to isolate substances in their labs. The difference, though, is that the chemist is seeking an efficacious result unphilosophically, whereas the alchemist works philosophically, or with the knowledge that mind and matter are connected. Early alchemical laboratories contained a curtained space called the oratorium where the alchemist could meditate while material was digested or fermented. They understood that their intentions influenced the outcome of the procedure and so they worked to perfect themselves as they perfected their essentials. Quantum physics has caught up. As German physicist Werner Heisenberg wrote, “Separation of the observer from the phenomenon to be observed is no longer possible.” Today, we might call it mindfulness or flow when we bring our entire being to our efforts. Alchemists called it prayer.

Alchemists also teach us about time. Nothing in alchemy is fast. Bartlett has a flask in his laboratory where plant matter has been digesting for two years. Each step of the alchemical process can take days, weeks, months, or years. If you are exalting a substance to its most purified form, you might distill it 20 times or more. You might let it ferment for months. You might give your entire life to a single mineral or plant. In an age preoccupied with efficiency, such long dedication is rare.

Intention and attention: the foundation of alchemical work. Alchemists strive to know, on the deepest level, everything about the material with which they work. And that is how they, too, become changed in the process. To dedicate your life to the intimate knowledge of the most essential nature of any subject is to embark on a spiritual quest. Alchemists throughout time are said to have found the elixir of life, a potion that lengthens their years. But what if that potion was not a potion at all but the work itself—the complete devotion to the transformation of a substance that then leads to what Bartlett calls “the spiritual and physical regeneration of the alchemist himself”?

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Jennifer Sinor is an essayist and a professor of English at Utah State University.


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