Although the etymology of the word alchemy is multifaceted, the most concise is Arabic — al-kimiya — meaning “The Art.”
People generally think of alchemists as crazy medieval chemists who attempted to turn lead into gold. It’s true, some alchemists of that ilk did exist. But ultimately the alchemical process is a metaphor related to psycho-spiritual work. Within that realm, alchemy is the art of recognizing and reconciling opposites within the psyche.
The art of becoming non-divided, thus: one-self. Oneself. Not your parent’s idea of who you should be — but your genuine self, a self that is forged by you, an awakening of your essential ‘you-ness.’
Try this exercise right now:
• Sense the big toe on your left foot. Do this intentionally. Really feel your left toe — amplify the sensation of the left toe more than any other part of your body. Do you have the sense of it? Is your attention settled there? Good.
• Now slowly expand your attention to include the middle of your body, the area around and below your chest. What is happening in this area? What are feeling related to this part of your body. Pause for a moment and sense the feeling. Is there lightness and happiness or maybe a sense of boredom or confusion? Maybe it feels joyful or gloomy. Don’t judge the feeling just make a note of it. Be aware of it.
• So there’s your left big toe, keep sensing that. And your feeling sense right now, register that too.
• Now shift your attention towards your head. Is there a slight sense of pressure behind your eyes? Maybe also beneath the top of your head. Sense this area while you continue reading. Note the way words form or sounds form while you are reading this paragraph? Note that awareness. Sense how it’s different from the sensation in the chest. It probably feels lighter because the experience isn’t weighed down with an emotion or a feeling. It’s just the mind working, weighing, registering, viewing data.
• Now hold these three types of attention together and breathe for a bit. Close your eyes now and breathe and sense. When you’re done come back to this page.
You’ve Been Alchemized
So that exercise was a small alchemical experiment for opening to presence. Establishing oneself in presence. With attention you made each part of yourself, each center, active. Each center (the intellectual, the emotional and the sensate) has its place and function in the scheme of you. The aftereffects of an exercise like this would be a pronounced sense of wakefullness and awareness. Not a bad result is it?
With alchemy you begin one way and end up another. Like making a cocktail. Contents from one cup are placed into the opposite cup — a reaction occurs — something new is created. This occurs by remaining active — participatory — via our attention, through the regenerative process. It’s very much a “you get what you pay for” sort of experience. No effort, no result.
In life we are usually passive and driven by outside influences, impressions and the endless web of mental associations and repetitive habits. Most of us have adapted to this method, having change forced upon us. The strings are pulled and the puppet moves its arm. We rarely even catch ourselves reacting to outside influences, we’re just pushed along. It’s like a computer responding to commands and the strict limitations of its programming. When you stop and consider the implications it’s sort of depressing. Don’t you think?
Pauline de Dampierre, a leader of the Gurdjieff work in Paris, notes:
Committing to alchemical work involves gentle persistence, curiosity and a longing from the heart. Usually when our hearts are broken we are able to feel this longing more intently. In fact, the heart has to be a little bit broken to engage fully with the alchemical process. Perhaps our dreams and our hopes haven’t come true, or have been less than expected.
Leonard Cohen says it best: “There is a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”
On the Sufi path an aspirant wasn’t admitted into a Work school until he or she were of a certain age — had experienced varying degrees of success and failure in life. The aspirant needed to have burned through many of the various promises or dreams that life seems to offer. With that quality of worldly maturity, the student was considered psychologically available to the teaching, she then had a ‘place’ within herself that could value, contain and benefit from inner work.
The Stirring From Sleep
Gurdjieff taught that each of us live in a protracted condition of sleep. We literally walk through our life in a trance. It doesn’t matter if we’re alone or with family or at our job, we exist in a fantasy bubble, a bubble in which we imagine that we are awake, aware and volitional, when in fact we’re drifting in a passive dream state. When this is our condition it’s easy to see why things just ‘happen’ to us. There’s no one awake to align with different possibilities.
His Fourth Way teaching, which he brought to the West in 1912, carefully detailed the manner in which human beings might escape the state of ‘waking sleep’. He created conditions that might allow a man or a woman to self-alchemize. And spoke of a human being’s genuine potential to live an awakened, self-consciousness, self-actualized existence. But to do this involved committed self-study, self-observation, and as he described it, the ability to experience oneself fully, in his entirety: “to see, not separate details, not the work of small wheels and levers, but to see everything taken together as a whole — the whole of himself such as others see him.”
To do this involved taking ‘mental photographs’ of oneself. Not photographs of details, but photographs of the ‘whole’ of oneself. “In other words these photographs mast contain simultaneously everything that a man can see in himself at a given moment. Emotions, moods, thoughts, sensations, postures, movements, tones of voice, facial expressions, and so on.”
How Astrology and Inquiry Can Help
It is repeated often that astrology has the potential to reveal the narrative, destiny or blueprint that we are each born with — this notion is based on Carl Jung’s statement that, “anything born at a particular moment in time has the qualities of that moment.”
In some respects this is true, but only as it applies to the level of understanding the astrologer has reached with his craft. Meaning, how the astrologer has come to embody his or her wisdom.
I often tell students that the only sure way to work with astrology is in how they apply their knowledge to their own life experience. Astrology is really a study, science and art for the astrologer. It is a practice of sorts. A practice that helps develop an intimate relationship with the the various qualities that the planets and the signs represent — both literally and figuratively. This alignment then opens the astrologer to a world of new understanding, an understanding that involves the mind, heart and body. Thus, complete. It can be said that the planets are actual Beings. And why not? Rocks, plants, animals and humans all have an essential nature, a unique expression of the divine. Why would something as wondrous as a planet be void of animation? This is astrology’s greatest gift — not the possibility of peering into the future, but the possibility of seeing within oneself, experiencing within oneself the truth of one’s interconnectedness to everything, everyone. Astrology helps exercise that perception.
Awareness of the self is not something that can be delivered wholesale to another human being. If astrology can actually ‘do’ anything for us it involves, perhaps, initiating an interest in the development of self-awareness. Astrology mirrors, by understanding the laws of correspondence, our potential to live out our life as a conscious participant within creation. Not just a passive spectator, but a dynamic participant, each with a unique perspective, unique function to perform.
In this regard astrology — and other symbolic languages like the Tarot — can offer us glimpses of the Self. Help us see more objectively the overall portrait, the different facets of the photograph that comprises who we are. In no way can astrology or the Tarot tell the totality of one’s nature, nor their future or past. Glimpses, yes. But the secret of one’s wholeness is just that — a secret.