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Posts Tagged ‘alchemy’

The “Goodness” of Suffering

I am prompted to make my thoughts clear on this topic by a recent discussion, in which several people asserted that suffering could be, of itself, “good”.

I could not disagree with this point any more if I denied the very experience of suffering. The justification generally given is that suffering often acts as the impetus for efforts of self-development. This is true, certainly; any self-examination in an adult will prove it out in one’s own personal history. However, let us not make a mistake in logic! To say that we can bring something good out of suffering is not the same as saying that suffering itself is inherently good.

Consider an analogy: a camper is incautious and does not put out his fire before moving on. The fire spreads and rages, destroying acres and acres of forest, spreading across fields of dry grass and into areas populated by humans. Several people, not to mention the numerous animals and incredible numbers of trees, lose their lives, and thousands or millions of dollars in property damage on top of it all. But the burnt remnants of trees and plants fertilize the soil, allowing for the regrowth of the forest even more lush than before. And the fields that were burned now make for excellent farmland. So some benefit did come from it, in the long run! But was the fire, or the carelessness which caused it, or the drought conditions which allowed it to spread, or all of the death and destruction, good of itself? It would be a callous and unreflective soul who would answer in the affirmative.

It has been said that pain is inevitable, but suffering is a choice. This is true, insofar as pain is merely a physiological and/or emotional reaction to some stimulus, while suffering is the result of consciousness of that pain. In other words, pain is just something that “happens to” you, while suffering is something that you “do with” pain. A fish never asks, “Why me?!” And that, conscious awareness, is the key to the whole question.

The degree to which any given individual possesses the capacity for self-reflection is also the degree to which that individual may suffer. The more questions the individual can ask, the more he may suffer. But that does not reflect an inherent property of suffering as much as an inherent property of awareness. It is as the Buddha said: it is Mind that makes a heaven out of hell and a hell out of heaven. Suffering is, of itself, morally neutral. Causing suffering, however, is morally reprehensible. If suffering were inherently good, causing it would also be good, which would lead us into a moral and ethical black hole.

Now, it is also awareness, mind, Νους, which is capable of bringing good out of evil. In our present case, it is conscious reflection which may extract a lesson from the suffering. If I am not paying attention in the kitchen and I put my hand onto a hot stove, I will feel pain, and I will probably suffer by looking at my burn, thinking about how much it hurts, and asking how I could have been so stupid, but only if I take just a moment to consider just how, really, I could have been so stupid, can I learn how not to repeat it. Does that make the burn, or the fact of my consciousness of the pain, beneficial? No, but I might be smart enough to extract some small nugget of knowledge out of those things and avoid making the same mistake twice.

On a higher plane of thought, suffering as both experience and concept, in the broad scope of its reality, provides even more food for thought. I can begin to ask the questions, “Why does suffering exist?”, “Why do innocents suffer?”, and so forth. But the good which comes from this process is not the doing of suffering, but of my reflective and active mind. That is the good in the equation of suffering. Just as a hammer can be both a weapon and a tool, we each have some capacity to use our minds to create, preserve, and carry on cycles of suffering, or we can use them to alleviate and prevent suffering. The more we grow, the more we learn to direct our minds according to our higher will, the more good we can extract and unfold from the suffering which makes up so much of this world. We may learn to outsmart the devil and take from him his power, but that doesn’t make the devil our friend!

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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.