Archive for the ‘Series 1: Alchemy’ Category

Alchemy Unveiled – Part 3: The Philosopher’s Egg

Some may have included the philosopher’s egg in Part 2: Preparations for Alchemy, but it is important (and difficult) enough to warrant its own entry.

In laboratories, refineries, and the like, retorts are used for the purpose of distilling a liquid substance, or of extracting one substance from the matrix of another (natural gas from coal, for instance). They are bulbous containers, often of glass, with long tubes leading into them. In laboratory alchemy, the retort used is a single piece glass bulb-and-tube, of which the tube narrows toward the end and curls downward to prevent gases from escaping. If a perfect Hermetic seal is required, the tube stem can be heated up and melted closed.

I have read a lot of books and articles on alchemy which have claimed that this retort is, when applied to the alchemist herself, the human aura. This is only partly true. If we consider the aura to be the final barrier between “self” and “other”, it is part of the philosopher’s egg, but certainly not the entire thing. In fact, the egg is the whole personal self of the alchemist. At least, this is potentially so in everybody, but only a few dedicated practitioners ever realize it to any considerable degree.

I’m sure that most of my readership is familiar with the Magician’s Pyramid, otherwise known as the Four Powers of the Wise: to know, to will, to dare, and to keep silent. In case anybody reading this is not familiar with them, let us explore them briefly.

To know is, as one would expect, the power of knowledge. It is also the power of understanding. In everyday speech, we may not starkly differentiate between those two, but they are not always the same. It is possible, for instance, to know that the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but to have no understanding of the intellectual, emotional and moral meanings and implications of those actions on the part of our government in the name of our citizenry. A fact may easily be known, but it takes study, contemplation and dedication to gain insight and understanding. The power “to know” encompasses both. Thus, it is both analytical and synthetic mentation combined in the form of the reflective mind.

To will is not simply “to want”, but instead to have single-pointed focus on a particular goal. Even the focus of a child wishing for that one specific toy or gadget to be waiting under the Christmas tree is too vague for us to call it “will” in the sense of this power.

To dare is the most straight-forward of them all: All the well-focused ideas in the world are rather useless if we don’t actually enact them, and this requires a degree of courage that can sometimes be dangerous for those of us whose egos are entirely bound up in success. There is always a chance of failure in these things, and if we do not have the daring necessary to push on even through failure, even a small slip-up can turn catastrophic.

To keep silent is the most widely misunderstood and, therefore, neglected of the four powers. It is also the main subject of interest in the construction of the philosopher’s egg. The rest of this article will focus on explaining it in both theory and practice.

First, theory. To be entirely honest, I have yet to encounter a fully satisfying explanation as to why the enactment of this power is so necessary. I don’t think there’s any clear-cut way of explaining it or understanding it intellectually, yet it always works out in practice.

A common understanding, and one which can serve as a springboard for contemplation, is that we must be very secretive about our alchemical practices. If we are not, the explanation goes, we waste our own energy through idle words. Moreover, the skepticism, jealousy or other negative emotions and thoughts of those whom we have told will set up currents of energy which act as obstacles for our work.

This bit of theory is, based on my experience and the experiences of others with whom I have spoken, basically correct, though not always for the reasons that we would expect. I will take them in reverse order.

The average person, and that includes the vast majority of occultists – let us not fool ourselves, is constantly walking through a field of the thoughts and emotions projected or left behind by others. We are not generally capable of differentiating between our own thoughts and feelings and those of others. They “feel” the same, regardless of their source. This means, among other things, that we are very susceptible to any thoughts and feelings specifically directed at us. A well-meaning friend’s skepticism may not entirely destroy our own belief in the process or goal, but if the doubt happens to pop up at certain specific phases of the operation, all of our work could go down the drain, which will only create more doubt, thus potentially sabotaging the entire process.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t have a healthy degree of doubt, but that it, and all other mental processes, need to be firmly under control. That control is not an easy attainment, so in the meantime we must use some method of insulation from external influences. For that, we have a policy of silence. Do not talk about such things to others, and they will have no opportunity to project doubt or malice your way.

This brings us to the first part of the theory: by some mechanism, we lose energy by talking to others about these things. This mechanism, whatever it is, is a complex one. I have heard it conjectured that it is a literal energy expenditure inherent in the act of speech, but this doesn’t explain anything. The fact is that problems are caused just as much by IMs, text messages and e-mails as by physical speech. It seems instead that energy is transferred through the act of communication itself. Given the symbolism of Hermes/Mercury, that would make sense. This might be a mechanism by which certain Masters have worked upon their disciples, such as Jesus, Shakyamuni Buddha and the Great Rishi Ramana.

Unlike those Masters, however, we have a limited flow of energy at any given time. Ordinary conversations do not make much of an impact, but the more elevated our conversations become, the more of our energy we focus into them. As such, it behooves us to create something of a seal to allow that energy to build up and create pressure. That is the key to much of alchemy: just as in a chemical lab, heat causes expansion, but pressure on the expanding substance creates more heat. Of course we must remember that we are speaking symbolically here, but we unfortunately can’t be any more literal than this due to limitations of language.

We can move nicely from here into another facet of silence: secrecy. Hermetists, Rosicrucians and their ilk have been criticized for a few centuries now for their secrecy. The critics often claim that we are merely trying to construct a false mystery around ourselves for the sake of image alone, or because we don’t really have anything useful to say anyway. That is a fair criticism of a lot of orders and lodges, and certain individuals, but not of the tradition as a whole. Another misunderstanding is that we still fear the inquisition or witch hunters. I know of a few people who live in areas in which they actually do have to keep quiet for fear of their own safety or that of their children. This is a sad state of affairs, but luckily not one that most of us have to worry about anymore. Unfortunately, a lot of budding Hermetists themselves seem to misunderstand the purpose of secrecy. A common belief is that we keep things secret just because our methods can be dangerous to those who are not properly prepared to use them. Again, there is a bit of truth to this, but, generally speaking, the techniques which could be dangerous won’t even work for somebody who isn’t willing to put in the work necessary, and most of the people who do put in that work will learn how to circumvent the dangers. So this is not the core.

An analogy from everyday psychology will help. When you have to keep a secret, perhaps some juicy piece of gossip on which you have been sworn to silence, there is always an attendant feeling of pressure. For most of us, it feels almost as if the secret is trying with all of its might to jump up our windpipes and out of our mouths and we must consciously hold it down. The mental and emotional pressure which we build up by the mere fact of holding something in confidence is actually a useful means of increasing the amount of potential energy we have available for our alchemical processes. This is the point which Aleister Crowley badly missed when he complained of being made to take darksome and dramatic oaths only to be presented with the Hebrew alphabet. Had he not been so impulsive and given it a bit of thought, or perhaps had he actually asked someone the purpose of the exercise, he likely would have come to this conclusion on his own. Crowley was a bit of a tosser, but at least he was a well-learned tosser.

It is utterly true that the Hebrew alphabet itself is no secret, so there would be no reason, even under the Golden Dawn’s oath, to withhold the alphabet itself from anybody who asked. The value of the exercise appears only when we steadfastly refuse to reveal even to our closest friends that upon our initiation we had revealed to us the Hebrew alphabet.

The first detail of practice in the construction of the philosopher’s egg stems from this point. We may openly discuss the principles of alchemy all we wish (as I am doing in these articles), but the specifics of our own personal practice and experience with it must remain strictly confidential. To do otherwise means a severe breach of our all-important seal. I can speak from experience here, as I’m still feeling some of the after-effect from certain years-past revelations. It is very easy to overlook this step, and many others will decide almost immediately that it sounds like baseless occult nonsense and jabber on as they please while moving quickly on to the more “interesting” operations only to find it next to impossible to make any real progress. I suggest long contemplation on the power of silence and actually taking my advice.

Once we have a good start in appropriate secrecy, we must move on to establishing the necessary mindset for work. This mindset has two major advantages: first is that it builds on the insulation we have installed by allowing us more and more to recognize ideas and emotions alien to our own psyches, which gives us the choice of either accepting or rejecting them; second, it makes the primary work of alchemy possible at all.

Preliminary Mind-control Exercise
This exercise should be performed at least daily, and will take about 15 minutes each time. Begin by sitting in a comfortable meditation posture. The standard zazen posture is good: cross-legged, back straight, chin tucked slightly so that the spine is straight at the top, a cushion under the buttocks, hands resting on thighs or in a simple mudra. I also often use the common Western posture of sitting in a chair, back and neck straight as above, hands resting on thighs, feet flat on the floor with thighs parallel to it. It doesn’t really matter, though, as long as you are comfortable and alert.

Once in position, take a few deep breaths and relax your body. Ask yourself a series of questions somewhat like what follows:

  • Am I my body with its aging, inevitable decay, and all of its senses? No, I am not this for I am something more than matter.
  • Am I my personality with its quirks, foibles, constantly shifting identity and confounding emotions? No, I am not this either, for I can observe my emotions and judge them fairly as if from outside.
  • Am I then my mind with its thoughts and ideas? No, I cannot be this either for I observe my thoughts as a beekeeper watches his swarm of bees.

The goal is to conclude that “I and my mind are not one, but two.” Contemplate that point for a while before moving on to the next phase of the exercise. Make sure that you have at least intellectually grasped the idea.

Once you have achieved the appropriate mental state, that you are not your mind but are superior to it, build upon that intellectual foundation by closing your eyes and quietly observing your mental and emotional states, each individual thought and feeling, as if completely separated from them. Watch your thoughts go by as you’d watch migrating birds pass above you; they may be beautiful or interesting, but they are ultimately not any concern to you.

Maintain this state for as long as you are able, or until the end of your allotted time. Repeat this entire process at least once a day for a month or more. Do not move on to other exercises until you are sure that this exercise has “taken”. It is even advisable to abandon other practices, for unfocused attention cannot help this process.

This exercise will gradually have the effect of separating your identity from your lower faculties. With time, you will even gain the ability to distinguish “native” thoughts and emotions from those sent from outside, and will be able to accept or reject them on their merit. It is even possible to gain the capacity to know the source of any given thought or emotion. Still, the goal here is not to gain siddhis, but to transcend the need for them in the first place. This exercise will complete the process of the philosopher’s egg; first, you have sealed it through silence, and then you have lifted your awareness beyond it so that, as a true alchemist, you may work upon its contents.

Alchemy Unveiled – Part 2: Preparations for Alchemy

Before getting much further into the study of alchemy, I think that it’s important to discuss the preliminaries. That is, how can a person prepare herself for the study and practice of alchemy so that they will be balanced and safe in the process?

There are a myriad of ways which people have used through the centuries, though certain modern Hermetists have devised some extremely safe and efficient methods which work much better for the majority of people than previous systems. These ware the approaches I favor and are thus the approaches which I will recommend.

First, I recommend a foundation in general Hermetic theory and practice. This is best gained through the careful and disciplined approach of Franz Bardon’s Initiation Into Hermetics (2001, Merkur Publishing). At least the first three steps of Bardon’s training system should be perfectly mastered before moving on to alchemy. I myself waited significantly longer than that, though that was because I was not privy to the arcana of alchemy at the time. It also depends upon which stage of development you are at: that of a magician, or that of a mystic. If you are at the stage of magician, you should work your way through most or all of Initiation Into Hermetics before considering any intensive practice of alchemy.

As you work through the initial stages of IIH, it is a good idea to study some of the finer points of the theory behind sacred magic and alchemy. For this, there is no better book than The Philosophy of Magic by Arthur Versluis (1986, Arkana). Study this book deeply.

Two other books are of primary importance in this preliminary training. These books are of both practical and theoretical import: The Tarot by Mouni Sadhu (2007, Hermetica Press) and Meditations on the Tarot (anonymous; 2002, Jeremy P. Tarcher).

A number of other works are of secondary importance. They can be done without, but they are extremely helpful in clarifying certain points. First among these is the Bhagavad Gita. In addition to being a fascinating look into Hindu mystical cosmology, the material within on the three gunas is quite useful in coming to an understanding of the three principles of alchemy. Next is Mouni Sadhu’s In Days of Great Peace, a beautiful and fascinating book describing Sadhu’s own spiritual quest and especially his time in the ashram of Sri Ramana Maharishi. The Way of Hermes (2004, Inner Traditions), an outstanding translation of the Corpus Hermeticum and the Definitions of Asclepius, is the primary set of Hermetic scriptures and is well worth study and contemplation. Finally, The Kybalion by Three Initiates (1914, Yogi Publication Society) is a modern exploration of Hermetic practical concepts.

Of course, Alchemy Unveiled by Johannes Helmond (2000, Merkur Publishing) is a wonderful guide to alchemy, though it is necessarily quite dense and difficult reading. I suggest it be added to any Hermetic library.

All of this should present years of work, and more than enough for a balanced ascent.

Alchemy Unveiled – Part 1: What is Alchemy?

This is the first in a series of articles I’ll be posting here exploring the arcana and art of alchemy. I do not claim to have all the answers on the topic, but through a series of recent miracles, I have been given something of the practical arcana of the Royal Art. I have been given some degree of freedom to share what I have learned. Still, all arcana require practice and application for full understanding. As such, I can only reveal so much, so I will do my best to make it count.

I have chosen to name this series after one of the books which I have found to be most helpful to me in my study of alchemy: Alchemy Unveiled by Johannes Helmond (English translation copyright 1991 Gerhard Hanswille and Deborah Brumlich). The publishers, Merkur Publishing, have kindly permitted me to quote extensively from the text, so these articles will largely take the form of commentaries upon portions of Helmond’s work. I pray that my own writing does honor to the work of the Order of the Hermetic Initiated Gold- and Rosicrucians, and all other Hermetic adepts who have opened the way for me.

All that said, let’s begin.

What is alchemy? It is not a simple thing to define, like horticulture or cooking. We may say that alchemy is the Hermetic art of transmutation, but that still leaves us with many questions. What do we mean by “Hermetic”? Transmutation of what? And to what end? What are the methods used? And so on. So let us begin with these and see where they lead.

What do we mean by “Hermetic”? There are multiple ways to answer this, each useful in its way. First, we have the common use of the word: hermetically sealed. This point will become more clear in later articles, but for now it is enough to know that the principle work of alchemy is performed within the alchemist, who must make of himself an athanor, a sealed vessel wherein the transmutations take place. There are many techniques used to establish and maintain this seal. One of the most famous, but also most often neglected, is to keep silent. This refers specifically to silence concerning your alchemical practices and interests. The more detail you reveal to others, the more gaps you create in the seal; each one may be relatively small, or temporary and easily fixed, but if you keep creating those small gaps, they add up and the seal is never perfect. Good general advice along these lines is to only tell those very close to you about your interest in alchemy, and do not share any details with any but your most trusted friends who also share an interest in the topic.

Alchemy is also Hermetic in that it is based on the teachings of Hermes Trismegistos, that great semi-mythical adept of ages long past who left for us the Emerald Tablet. In fact, study of the Emerald Tablet of Hermes can alone reveal much about alchemy, though I personally have found that there is always more to coax out of it.

Next, alchemy is an art insofar as it cannot be performed according to unchanging formulae like a chemistry experiment. It has often been believed that alchemy is simply a primitive form of chemistry. The fact is, they are not even terribly closely related disciplines. It has been said, not without some truth, that chemistry and alchemy are not even family, they just live in the same house. Alchemy requires discipline and study like a science, but it also requires creativity, inspiration, and revelation.

Johannes Helmond says it well: “True alchemy, in reality, is a Kabbalistic art which requires a patient examination of the genuine Hermetic writings and a deep-founded study of Nature. It also requires a revelation, either through an initiated adept or through an inner divine illumination.” (Helmond, pp 13-14) Alchemy is “Kabbalistic” in the sense that it is transmitted “from mouth to ear”, personally from teacher to student. The teacher need not be a living human being, though that is an obvious possibility. It is founded upon the study and observation of nature, certainly, but without illumination all the study in the world cannot make an alchemist.

Transmutation is perhaps more difficult to explain. Obviously, transmutation is the changing of one substance into another. The important thing to understand here is that there must be the seed of the desired substance within the original substance in order for the transmutation to take place. If there were not the essence of gold in the lead, it could not be changed into gold and all effort would be wasted. Luckily for us, the essence of the gold we truly desire lies at the core of all other substances with which we might begin.

What substances are those, then? There can be no pat answer to this question, but the most important substance, the one which must be transmuted before any other transmutation can have full effect, the materia must be the total human being:

“The subjectum artis of the alchemists is therefore the human being — not the human being in the common external sense, but as an internal Paracelsic microcosm and a small worldly astral firmament.” (Helmond pg 22)

The precise meaning of this “internal Paracelsic microcosm” will be made clearer in later parts of this series. For now, we must be content with the knowledge that it is, indeed, the human being that we are trying to transmute and perfect, transforming it utterly.

What, then, of the laboratory side of the art, with its transformation of plant, mineral and animal substances into medicines, precious metals and gems, and so on? This is the romance of alchemy in the popular mind, but it is truthfully a relatively small part of it. Not to say that it is totally unimportant, but it is not the essence. Something of the “practical” applications of alchemy will be said in conclusion of this series of articles.

So, that is all that can really be said by way of a short introduction to the Royal Art of Alchemy. Details will have to await future installments. For now, we at least have something like a definition which can provide a basic intellectual foundation as we move forward.