Having Faith in the Fire: The Art of Alchemical Transformation.
How do we find ourselves?
Is that even a thing anymore? What does it mean? Where do we look? What does it actually feel like to discover the essence of our souls, the inner substance that the acids of circumstances, of cynicism and despair, can no longer corrode or dissolve? How do we find that gold?
I follow the alchemists of old in this search, those masters of what was simply called The Art, meaning the art of transformation.
When many people think of Alchemy, they picture some ancient, solitary figure hidden away in their laboratory, who is disheveled, hunched over a stove with beakers and flasks, distillers and filters, seeking to transform lead into gold.
This is true of many alchemists, as far as how things looked from the outside. But this isn’t the whole picture. There was also an inner laboratory that the alchemist was working within. The outer laboratory was a tangible expression of an inner process of the soul that the alchemist was undergoing.
Alchemists were in pursuit of what they called gold that isn’t common gold. So, not literal gold, but an inner essence of the soul — the gold of a whole and eternal Self.
The literal laboratory, alchemical operations and procedures, substances and elements, and the vessels and instruments, helped the alchemists to understand, experience and enact a concrete practice of inner transformation in their own lives into gold.
But none of these processes or materials mattered at all without what the alchemists called The Secret Fire, and this secret fire was Desire, the flame at work in the laboratory of the soul.
In the great work of alchemy, also known as the magnum opus, fire does the work, fire is the process, fire is the medium, and fire finds the gold.
Nothing happens without fire or without desire. Nothing melts. Nothing evaporates or circulates. Our habits stay solidified; our perspectives remain hardened and cold.
So, the alchemists had to tend to their desires if they had any hope of transformation.
Desire might draw us to certain interests or career paths, certain people or places or courses of study, only to consume them, to leap over them or burn through them, drawing us onward.
It’s confusing, frustrating and embarrassing.
We might pursue school, embark on a career or enter a relationship with the impression that we’ve found what we’re looking for, only to discover — as time goes on — that our desire won’t stay where we put it. It has other plans, other ideas, other aims that we never knew about.
We must follow where it goes, and stay where it stays, lest we risk the loss of our fire, getting left behind by our own light, or leaving it behind because we found it revealed too much, burned too much, or found its heat too uncomfortable.
We may never understand why are being pulled in a particular direction, or why our desire stays where we would rather leave. But we have to honor its wisdom, day by day, becoming apprentices of the secret fire, if we are going to discover the incorruptible gold of our souls.
That is the art of alchemy, the work, the process of Fire.
Having faith in the fire means trusting that wherever the flame moves us or places us, it is always at work burning through the false layers of our lives, the false assumptions, expectations, ideals and ambitions, until it finds our own essential substance.
It is our faith that the inner, secret fire will only consume what cannot sustain us.
In alchemy, only fire can finally reveal what cannot be burned — what we essentially are when we cast off the dross, when we bring to the surface and dredge out the pollutants.
Then we discover the kind of work that most deeply calls us, the kind of love that holds true, the kind of life that reflects the work we’ve undergone in the laboratory of our own souls, that reflects the gold of self-discovery.
The first question I bring to any client is, “Where’s the fire in your life?” The work cannot begin until we find their desire.
Desire fires in many ways. What has captured our curiosity? Where is our longing or love directed? What fantasy is it igniting? What is stirring the heart, drawing the mind, and enticing our interest? What is troubling us, even burning us? Where is the irritant, the inflammation in our lives?
This is the fire we have to locate to practice alchemical transformation.
We don’t get to choose where the fire is. We may desire a person, may be enflamed by an idea, fueled by movement, an image, a place or a fantasy.
The soul is always already working on us, in us, and drawing our attention through desire with symptoms and signs and synchronicity to where transformation wants to happen.
Our task is to feel for the heat and follow the flame. Otherwise, we’ll remain out in the cold, separated from our own inner fire, or continue to get burned because we are ignoring or resisting where the soul is already at work.
But even if we find and choose to tend to the desire at work in our lives, the trouble isn’t over. Fire and desire is, by nature, volatile and unstable. It can leap and move in unanticipated ways.
We don’t know where it will go, what we’ll desire next, or for how long. So, this process can become exhausting and discouraging. We get tired of paying attention to the flickers and dips and jumps of the secret fire.
What if nothing satisfies my fire, what if everything is consumed, burned through, lost in the ashes of my unquenchable longing? What if nothing remains — my identity, relationships, career, or plans for the future?
When does the flame go out? When will I stop wanting? When does the fire stop?
But maybe, over time, we might get closer and closer to what the flame cannot consume.
That’s what the alchemists were searching for. The alchemists had faith in the secret fire. They had faith that there is some place in us, some inner substrate, some substance of the soul that will not burn away.
They had faith that this gold of the soul, this hidden Self, was what desire was ultimately looking for.
Dylan Hoffman, PhD, is a student — of life, of imagination, of soul. His apprenticeship to Soul is the essence of his own work as a writer and teacher. Dylan has founded the Spiritual Alchemy Institute to provide clients with instruction and guidance in the dynamics and development of the soul as it is symbolized, imagined, and practiced in the tradition of alchemy. Alchemy is called The Art by its devotees. It provides methods of meditation, processes of transformation, and images of the inner states and conditions that we must undergo to achieve wholeness — to integrate all the elements of our lives into a rich and unified soul. For Dylan, alchemy is where soul, life, and art become one, and make spiritual gold, create wholeness.