Materiality of Alchemy: Spirituality You Can Stand On.
What do you imagine when you think of spirituality?
The word itself evokes something ethereal, immaterial, invisible — something, um, you know… spiritual.
Most traditional religions, and even New Age perspectives, associate spirituality with imperceptible realities, with states of mind, or transcendent realms — like enlightenment or heaven — that are depicted as the aim and culmination of spirituality.
Spirituality is directed toward something intangible, beyond the territory of physical sense, beyond the stuff of ordinary life.
Eating and drinking, showering and sweeping, dishes and laundry, talking and taking out the trash, typing reports and making conference calls are some of the things that make up the substance of our everyday lives. Spirituality is something separate from these things, we think.
We go somewhere else to be spiritual — into a church, or a Yoga studio or monastery, even into a makeshift meditation room in our own home. We have to go away to get spiritual, maybe not literally, but motivationally, metaphorically. We have to get on the other side of the ordinary, we think. Spirituality is out there, over there. We have to leave here to get there.
Material and spiritual are divided, seen as domains of experience and activity that exclude each other. When we’re concerned with material things — like food, sex, and money — we’re not being spiritual. When we’re spiritual, we’re not concerned with material things.
Humans didn’t always divide inside from outside, spirit from matter, eternity from the everyday. There was a time when spiritual and material were just seen as different expressions of the same thing, the opposite ends of a spectrum — like water as vapor and water as ice, both manifestations of water.
From this perspective, spirit is what reality looks like from the inside — spirit appears as intuition, emotion, thought, and imagination. Matter is what reality looks like from the outside — matter appears as fire, water, earth, and air.
Actually, that doesn’t state the ancient perspective quite right either. The idea was that everything was spirit, so that intuition, emotion, thought, and imagination were how spirit took form within, and fire, water, earth, and air were how spirit took form without.
Intuition falling into space and time lights as fire. Fire rising into heart and mind illuminates as intuition. Emotion flows and tides like water. Water boils and freezes like emotion.
The material world is spirit that you can run into, trip over, chew on, smell. Consciousness is spirit you face within — ideas, insights, inspirations, fantasies.
Again, these aren’t two separate worlds. There is only one world, one spiritual world. That mountain over there is what spiritual inspiration looks like when it climbs into material form. The love that draws two souls together is the spiritual expression of the gravity that pulls planets into orbit.
What this perspective ultimately entails is that spirit manifests tangibly. Everything tangible, physical, has an underlying spiritual form. Every spiritual form finds a material expression. Spirituality is expressed materially. Spirit naturally, eternally materializes.
That’s just what spirit does — like a buried seed innately shoots out of hiding, seeking its fullest outward expression, spirit inherently seeps through imperceptibility, percolating into material form. You and I, and trees and bears and planets, are what happen when spirit imagines.
The epitome of this unitary perspective was expressed in the spiritual tradition of alchemy.
For thousands of years, alchemists in the East and West studied, observed, and worked with material elements as a way to connect with spirit, to commune with spirit in material expression, even through literal ingestion — as if there was spirit hidden in every breath and bite they took of the world. Even sex was seen as spirit enveloping spirit.
That is the tangibility of spirituality in alchemy. To understand spirit, you observe the world. Metals and elements, stars and planets, are spiritual principles within. The material cosmos mirrors our inner universe. If you want to align with spirit, you harmonize with the world. Abandoning or maligning materiality is a rejection of spirit.
For alchemists, practically speaking, this universal propensity of spirit toward material expression implies a possibility and task for every soul. If the inner essence of spirit inherently makes itself into material form, our own inner essence should be able to makes its way into the material world.
Many people look back on the alchemist secluded in an old laboratory working away with beakers and flasks and filters, cooking and distilling, and wonder what these people were doing. The story goes that they were looking for riches, that they thought they could transmute base metals into gold. And I’m sure that is how it appeared from the outside.
But what often goes unrecognized is the motive behind their work, and their vision of the world I’ve been describing.
For those sincerely involved in the alchemical art, the pursuit of gold was not simply some outward practice. For the alchemist, any authentic form of self-realization had to be expressed outwardly. So they worked materially as a method to materialize what they were going through spiritually.
To the degree they could reveal the riches of their own inner essence, was the degree they thought they could make gold show in the visible vessel on the laboratory stove.
You might find the materiality of their spiritual method to be strange and futile, but I find the substance of their art to be thoroughly genuine. We might exchange the laboratory and materials of the ancient alchemists for other outward vessels of spiritual validation, but I think their insight — that spirit naturally has a material expression — provides a valuable norm for authenticating modern spiritual expression.
If our spirituality doesn’t make its way into the outward vessels of our relationships, into how we speak, and work, and care for the world, then its genuineness is illusory — there is no gold to show for it. Kindness and decency and integrity, work well done and conversations that communicate soul, are the outward luster of spiritual growth.
Self-realization doesn’t mean anything in alchemy unless it sinks into your toes, and gives you something to stand on, so you can walk your inner essence into the literal, ordinary, everyday world.
If something is obstructing our spirituality from manifesting outwardly, we have to return to the laboratory of our souls, because the authenticity of our self-realization is proved by our ability to live it in this world. After all, from the alchemical perspective, this world is spirit, so we can measure the quality of our spirituality by our capacity to embrace reality.
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.