Alchemy and Transformation

Kimiya-yi sa’ādat (The Alchemy of Happiness) – a text on Islamic philosophy and spiritual alchemy by Al-Ghazālī (1058–1111).

The following essay is a curation of information about alchemy and how it can be a metaphor for the process of human transformation.  I found it exciting and applicable to our conversations in the Healing Circles Community.  I believe that the work we do in Healing Circles is filled with alchemy.  Also, the use of essential oils and aromatherapy in healing is a process of alchemy and transformation.  It is not only the healing oil that is working on the body, but the intention of using the oil for healing, the process of giving yourself care, and the transition and commitment to a more healing life of well-being.  Put together in the alchemists cauldron gold or healing is produced.  It is a mysterious rediscovery of our essential nature.

I hope you enjoy the essay and it invites you to ponder your own opus or essential nature.  You are invited to share your thoughts and reflections by sharing your comments.  Thank you to Caryl Casbon and Susan Plummer for this work and for mentoring me in the art and alchemy of facilitation.

The Art & Wisdom of Alchemy:  A Process of Transformation

Adapted from Anatomy of the Psyche:

Alchemical Symbolism in Psychotherapy, by Edward Edinger

and  Embodiment: Creative Imagination in Medicine, Art and Travel,

by Robert Bosnak

 The Alchemy & Art of Facilitation

Caryl Casbon & Susan Plummer

The Nature of Alchemy

Depth psychologists have long been fascinated with the ancient practice of alchemy, for they found remarkable parallels between the ways that alchemist transformed metals into gold, and how the human psyche transforms and evolves, which makes it a deeply evocative and metaphorical study of the inner life, individuation, and process of transformation.


The alchemist thought of himself as practicing sacred work, which required patience, commitment, courage, and an ongoing, continuous regimen of scrutinizing and questioning what was happening.  There was recognition that to approach this mystery, the alchemist was related to, and dependent upon a Transpersonal presence. The work started with silence, with prayer. They considered themselves guardians of a mystery.


Alchemy is a search for essence, the supreme and ultimate value, or what they called the Opus, or Philosopher’s Stone.  Simply stated, (and alchemy defies simplicity): the purpose of alchemy is to create the conditions, in the right kind of container, under which the essence of the metals can emerge and transform.  The alchemist called the metals they worked with “body” corpus and these metallic bodies were made up of prima materia, which they believed consisted of sparks of live creative forces around which visible matter coagulated.  These metals had intelligences and souls that were alive and dynamic. They would subject them to a series of operations that could turn them into Philosopher’s Stone. The process was considered highly individual, secret in nature, not to be divulged to the unworthy, nor to be used to inflate the ego.  Paradoxically, while the work was individual, the Opus contributed to the collective, or humanity as substance evolved closer to Essence.


The Prima Materia:   Space, in alchemy, is an organizing principle filled with creative impulses.  The scintilla are sparks around which matter forms.  The metals alchemists worked with were considered sparks left by the stars. The primal matter of metals was called “alive silver,” quicksilver, mercury.  This alive silver had to be purified, cleansed of all its ill aspects, eventually producing a golden tincture which could heal substance: turn lead, which they considered a sick form of alive silver) into gold (its most precious condition.)


Quantum physics is verifying the nature of this space, as we experience with the Higgs Bosun Particle theory!  It is verified that space is an active, alive presence with currents and surprising interconnections. When sparks move through this space and are allowed to just be in it, they reorganize and reunite into a new way of being, around new meanings.  The prima materia of the human is the pure potentiality before the person became overly fixed; a vital yet vulnerable state, open to the unknown, and hence dynamic.   They sought conditions that could access the soul’s essence.


A Crucible of Concentration & Intensification:  The Series of Procedures in AlchemyThe prima materia were concentrated and honed by intensifying their essence through the use of fire, water, air and earth to facilitate their transformation.  Through the use of these elements, they attempted to take the metals back to a more dynamic, essential, or fluid form that could be influenced, and thus potentially turn into the Philosopher’s Stone.   This concentrated crucible or container allows for a movement of particles and sparks where new meanings and new organization are made possible, and where a reunion into a new form emerges.


A Very Brief Summary of the Elements Used in Alchemy


FireIn alchemy, fire is used to burn off all that is nonessential.  Depth psychologists refer to the aspects of the ego that are self-aggrandizing, power-driven, attached or addicted to materialism, jealousy, etc., being sacrificed in the fire of intensifying heat and light.


Water:  In alchemy, all was turned to fluid, where it could reorganize, and where things could flow again.  Psychologically, this involves a washing away of superficial qualities, or dissolving of a whole way of being so that a new form can emerge.


Earth:  In alchemy, the element of earth refers to the process that turns something into earth, solid, heavy and permanent, into a fixed position.  Coagulation is promoted by action: churning, driving, whirling motion.  Psychologically this means that activity and psychic movement promote development of the person.  Exposing oneself to the storm and stress of action, the churn of reality, solidifies personality.


Air: Alchemist turned material into air by volatizing and elevating it into a higher form by an ascending movement.  Psychologically, this corresponds to a way of dealing with a concrete problem, when one “gets above” it by seeing it objectively and in a fresh way. The process is an ascent that raises us above the confining entanglements of immediate, concrete, personal particulars for a greater perspective.