Better Living Through Alchemy

My amazing friend Tiana Dueck most graciously decided to publish this essay of mine in Metamorphosis, a publication by Volvox Vault. Read it here for free, then go and buy the book and read the rest of the essays from the most fantastic folks!

A Chemical Alphabet

The zodiac signs with which we are familiar have many meanings. My own sign, Libra, is a calendrical month (roughly from mid-September to mid-October). Libra also holds space for a complex of characteristics, which include fairness, balance, and a love of beauty. Libra is also a mythological reference to the Blind Scales of Justice and all the rich classical narrative behind that imagery.

While the stories and the cycles of the zodiac are quite old - at least as old as writing and agriculture - the modern twelve symbols are quite recent. Medieval, in fact. Our zodiacal alphabet comes from the alchemists.

♈ ♉ ♊ ♋
♌ ♍ ♎ ♏
♐ ♑ ♒ ♓

Alchemy is more than chemistry. Much more. Alchemy is the art and science of reflection on self-experience through the use of physical materials and chemical processes. Alchemists saw that whatever experiments they processed in their laboratories also affected changes within themselves. This has been lost in modern chemistry, but can serve us well even in a post-alchemical age. It can be immensely helpful to realize that when we change our world, we also change ourselves. All substances carry actionable metaphors that can give us a handle on our individual internal lives.

Gold, for alchemists, represented the bold and proud ego. Mercury - both planet and substance - represented the clear, clever, quick-thinking mind. So, in the lab, dissolving gold in a solution of mercury was an actionable metaphor that allowed the alchemist to dissolve their pride in the liquid of critical thought.

The ultimate goal for alchemists was, of course, to create the philosopher's stone from raw materials. This process is the magnum opus of a philosopher-chemist and, in most alchemical traditions, involved twelve steps. Yes, these twelve processes are the twelve zodiac. It is from this magickal science from which we receive our astrological symbolism.

Dear reader, I hope you will join me in the following exercise, in which we begin with the prima materia of a raw experience, and through the twelve zodiacal steps, transmute our sensory memory into crystal-clear revelation. In the words of John Dewey, experiential educator extraordinaire, we do not learn from experience. Rather, we learn from reflecting on experience. How to reflect on experience? Some simple chemistry, using the wheel of heaven as our chemical formula.

To begin, choose an experience of yours that does not feel fully digested. Perhaps something traumatic, or ecstatic, or simply confusing.

♈ Aries: Calcination

Ingredients: pen, paper

  1. Write or draw everything you can remember about your experience. Imagery, smell, dialogue. Completely empty your memory onto the page or pages. Quantity, not quality.
  2. Burn the pages and collect the ashes.

Calcination is the alchemical process of burning something until only ashes remain. Alchemists, remember, were only beginning to understand that things are made of other things, that organic and inorganic materials had anything in common, that certain compounds could be extracted and remixed with other compounds. Calcination is a very exciting and very simple way to transmute something into something else: stuff into burnt stuff!

The metaphor of starting with fire also feels appropriate to me. Echoes of Prometheus, first trickster and patron of human civilization. Echoes of the proto-human courting of the mysteries of fire, lost in geological time.

♉ Taurus: Coagulation

Ingredients: calcinated ashes, water, coloring of your choice

  1. Find something colorful like flower petals, beet juice, dye, glitter powder, or mushed-up leaves. The coloring agent shall be added purposefully and with the intention of entangling a certain mood or emotion with the reflective process.
  2. Mix the ashes and the coloring with water to make a paint.
  3. Look at the mixture and determine if any more color or elements are needed. Perhaps it is not blue enough, or needs a handful of soil.

Taurus, coagulation, the first mixing. It is already a revelation to realize that not everything was lost in the calcination, even though the original form has been scorched to dust. The question emerges: what remains after a fire?

This is a good step to add in any extra memories or entanglements around your experience. Remember, the open secret of alchemy is that the substance is simply a reflection of the self. As you pour or mix or blend in new elements, you are pouring them right into yourself. What do you need to continue this work?

♊ Gemini: Fixation

Ingredients: coagulated paint, thick paper, paintbrush

  1. Paint a circle.
  2. Fill the circle with symbols that represent the elements of your experience. These do not have to be meaningful to anyone but you. A brushstroke takes up more space than a penstroke, so this step allows you to compress your initial experiences into simpler shapes and words.

Fixation, technically, is modifying a substance so that it is immune to flame. In our activity, we are modifying the memory of the experience so that it is less likely to dissolve in the mind. Symbols are more stable and memorizable than fleeting impressions, and so we paint boldly at the stage of Gemini.

♋ Cancer: Dissolution

Ingredients: fixated painting, flour, scissors, water, jar

  1. Shred your painting with scissors (or a food processor) and add flour and water until you have a thin pancake-batter paste.
  2. Pour your mixture into a jar and speak your hopes and fears into the container. Are you hoping to incorporate this experience into your creative work? Are you worried that you will not be able to release the trauma of this experience from your heart? Let it be known.
  3. Seal the jar.

After fixing our carefully-combined philosophical substance, we dissolve it. Dissolution, to me, feels like a release. A pause between intense activities and the heat of alchemical transcendence. I invite you, dear reader, to let the jar sit as long as you like, and enjoy your chosen memory dissolving in cool, patient water.

Terence McKenna has said that the alchemist is a hypnotist, but instead of using a swinging clock, he trances out on swirling colors dancing through glass tubes. Look long enough into the bubbling cauldron and the potion looks also into you.

♌ Leo: Digestion

Ingredients: dissolved mixture, boiling pot, stove

  1. Put the mixture on very low heat.
  2. As the mixture thickens, stir regularly and give thanks to everyone and everything that has given you this experience. Speak their names, species, or ISBN numbers out loud.
  3. Take notice of the smells emerging from the steam and heat. Do they trigger any memories? This alchemical brew is speaking back to you, just as a ouija board or tarot deck would do. Listen.
  4. When the doughy mixture is thick enough to mold, take it off the heat and let it sit until the dough is warm.

In alchemy, digestion is the process of slowly heating a substance. Very much like human digestion, really, which is microbe-mediated oxidation over a long and gurgly time period.

I imagine the process of digestion like the grumbling pre-roar of Leo. Confident, proud, and ready to move at any moment. Consider how strong you are to have come this far and experienced so many radiant days and haunted nights.

♍ Virgo: Distillation

Ingredients: digested dough, plastic bag

  1. Mold the dough into a form that represents your experience. Do not think about the form, rather, simply keep your hands moving and shaping until the piece feels finished. Whatever you come up with will be the correct shape.
  2. Feel free to add color or other objects to this sculpture if it feels right. Googly eyes are highly encouraged.
  3. Seal the sculpture in a plastic bag and leave it in a warm place for several days. As the sculpture dries, the moisture will collect in the bag.
  4. Continuously collect the moisture until the sculpture is completely bone-dry.

Distillation! Extracting the ephemeral spirit from the crunchy body! A very exciting step - good work for coming this far! It only gets better from here.

Remember, there is much more to distill in the world than just alcohol. Everything has an essence, or many entangled essences, and Virgo shows us how to find them. Perhaps you may start guessing at the viscosity and color and perfume of the distilled essence of a Sunday evening, or a day at the beach, or a long class period.

♎ Libra: Sublimation

Ingredients: distilled moisture, local ecology

  1. Pour the moisture into the roots of a nearby plant, knowing that the water will be soaked up through the xylem and exhaled out into the world's breath.
  2. Take a piece of the plant with you, with appropriate respect. A handful will do fine.

Sublimation is the chemical process in which a substance heats up and turns straight from a solid to a gas. Think about dry ice - that's sublimation. To psychology, sublimation is the act of engaging in "higher-level" behavior in order to satisfy needs. For the simple need of food, for instance, we begin as babies, screaming when we are hungry. Then, we sublimate that impulse, and learn how to ask for food. Later, we sublimate again, and practice the complexities of the kitchen in order to cook our own meals.

The plant-clipping will continue with us as a representation of our experience being sublimated into higher levels of complexity. Moisture becomes plant life, and our raw experience folds into a more beautiful shape.

♏ Scorpio: Separation

Ingredients: dry sculpture, pen, paper

  1. Put your sculpture in an otherwise empty pocket first thing in the morning.
  2. Throughout your day, crumble the sculpture into powder.
  3. As your sculpture falls apart, also feel your experience grinding into more discrete elements.
  4. Whatever lessons or understandings occur to you throughout your day are being communicated to you through the separation of the sculpture. Write them down on a fresh sheet of paper.

The Scorpio process of separation acts like a centrifuge. Layered elements begin to emerge, each with their separate characteristics and lessons. During this process of sculpture-crumblings, you will feel ideas pop into your awareness that feel special and glowy. Perhaps you have a revelation about love, or forgiveness, sex, violence, trauma, family, or friendship. Record them all, in as short of sentences as possible.

♐ Sagittarius: Ceration

Ingredients: sublimated plant matter, written lessons, separated sculpture, tape, jar

  1. Take the sheet of written understandings you have recently discovered and roll the paper into a tube.
  2. Fill the tube with the crumbled sculpture and seal both ends with tape (or staples, or glue).
  3. Crush up your plant matter into paste and spread this wet gloop onto the outside of your tube.
  4. Seal your glooped scroll in a jar.

Ceration is the alchemical process of slowly adding liquid to a hard, heated substance. In our reflective process, the heat comes from the wisdom written in your rolled-up scroll.

The plant paste, the sublimated fluidity of our experience, will begin to act on the dry dust of the scroll, infusing your lessons with life.

♑ Capricorn: Fermentation

Ingredients: cerated scroll, patience

  1. Leave your scroll in the jar for a long time - until something interesting starts to happen. Perhaps mold will grow, or the tube will shrivel.
  2. As the scroll ferments, allow the lessons you have learned to soak into your mind. Act on what you've learned. Put this nearly-finished philosopher's stone into action and allow it to influence your future experiences.

♒ Aquarius: Multiplication

Ingredients: fermenting scroll, paint

  1. Paint the outside of your jar with a single color. Cover the entire surface.
  2. Once the first layer of paint dries, illustrate each of the ten steps you have experienced in the creation of this magnum opus.
  3. Let dry, and rest.

Multiplication is a mysterious process. In a ritual format, alchemists reserved this step for the recapitulation or re-enactment of the journey of the initiate. Multiplication allows you to collect all the raw experience of the process of reflecting on experience and reflect on the experience of collecting those experiences.

This is a good time to think through all you have done and learned and wish to take with you into the future. Without this step, without Aquarius, alchemy would be an empty and unremembered chore. The gift of Aquarius is the gift of going forth fully armed with revelation.

In the experiential education field, pioneered in many ways by John Dewey, this step is also crucial. The stage of multiplication is the process of turning an experience into a good story. A story that can be shared, enjoyed, and used by others to also transform themselves.

♓ Pisces: Projection

Ingredients: multiplied scroll, sunbeams, moonbeams

  1. Leave your jar in a windowsill that will receive both the sun and the moon.
  2. Project.

The most secretive and mystical step of all is, of course, the last. Projection does not have an equivalent in modern chemistry.

The idea is this: to publish, radiate, and conduct your completed work into the world. Your magnum opus is a physical substance just as much as it is the understanding you received along the way. They are one and the same: compound and cognition.

Whatever this looks like to you, do it. Maybe you will smash the jar, bury it in scarred soil, or allow it to soak up the view of the window. Do it, and mean it.