Whatever Transforms You is True: Finding Your Spiritual Rock.
We live in a time, at least in Western culture, when many feel at least a little suspicious of spirituality.
We’ve personally experienced, or witnessed in the world around us, enough spiritual violence — inflicted both on the soul and body — to recognize that spirituality casts as much shadow as it sheds light.
In other words, spirituality is undeniably ambiguous.
Even those of us who advocate most for spirituality must acknowledge that at best we walk around with tainted halos. We know our own potential for self-deception and how quickly we can find ourselves playing with subtle forms of manipulation for our own benefit — however much we deny it, or strive to do no harm.
Spirituality in whatever form requires discernment. We can’t leave our brains outside the entrance of any spiritual doorway. No one can afford to be spiritually naïve. Perhaps most naïve of all is the assumption that somehow only traditional religions are dangerous, but other forms of spirituality are safe and benevolent.
What I’m arguing for is a pragmatic approach to spirituality. I know that pragmatic might sound superficial, as if we should only live spiritually when it’s easy.
That’s not what I mean. By taking a pragmatic approach to spirituality, I mean that we have to recognize when our spiritual perspectives and practices are destructive, and be willing to discard whatever is causing harm to ourselves or others or the earth.
We have to be conscious enough, and mature enough, to know that simply because a path or a practice is presented as spiritual doesn’t mean that it can’t be damaging.
We have to judge spiritualities in terms of how they impact our lives. If we’re not increasing in contentment and peace, showing more kindness and generosity, feeling more centered and integrated, attaining greater composure and competence, and acting with the well-being of all in mind, then what is the point of our spirituality?
What is anyone, including ourselves, gaining from our spiritual life?
If our spirituality festers with anger, fosters hostility, feeds pride, and leaves us feeling confused and resentful toward others and the Beyond, then who gives a damn about its lofty claims? The proof is in the poisonous pudding. Quit eating it.
That isn’t to say that spirituality won’t make us confront the darkest aspects of ourselves. It will. But if that confrontation makes us more susceptible to our worst selves, rather than less, then our spirituality has gone awry.
Pragmatic spirituality means to stop doing whatever actually causes harm, and to cultivate, deepen, embrace whatever actually brings healing and wholeness.
Truth isn’t an abstract reality that is separate from our experiences.
Truth is discovered in the practical, personal consequences of our beliefs and practices. If something is presented as a remedy, but it actually makes you ill or kills you, then you know that at least for you, that remedy isn’t true. And that is all you can go on.
Shoulds, and coulds, and woulds are spiritually meaningless. What does a spiritual perspective or practice actually do to you?
As a whole, are you better or worse as a person, and would those around you agree?
This is the alchemical approach to spirituality. Alchemy asks us to measure the consequences of our points of view and practices. What are the results?
Alchemists were some of our earliest scientists of the soul, and took an experimental path toward their spiritual goals. They understood that it is just as easy to be poisoned on our spiritual path as it is to be renewed. They remained intensely attentive toward each ingredient of spiritual development in order to understand what elements disturb or corrupt the work, and what elements nourish and sustain it.
They presented their work in the form of material experiments, as if to say that spirituality is a laboratory work — a sometimes mundane and monotonous process undertaken with all the ordinary materials of our everyday lives — that, for better or worse, will have tangible results.
Even no result is a result.
The alchemists were searching for a mysterious object they called the Philosopher’s Stone. The philosopher’s stone transforms whatever it touches. It transmutes lead into gold, heals the body, mends the mind, or changes anything incomplete into its fullest, truest form.
In other words, alchemists were on a search to find what spiritually works.
They knew they had gotten somewhere spiritually only when they found something that actually transformed them, and made things better. That was how they measured their spiritual work. If they didn’t witness any change, then they hadn’t found the stone.
The philosopher’s stone was given all kinds of different descriptions, and most alchemists thought that you could make it out of nearly anything and that it might be hidden anywhere.
So, the philosopher’s stone symbolizes something that might be unique for each person.
It gives a name and an image to a spiritual something that actually gives solidity and strength and substance to our lives, whatever that might be. And we won’t know what it is until we experience its actual effects.
You might find yours in music and movies, I might find mine in study and prayer. You might have some place that embodies your rock — a temple or a trail, a gym or a coffee shop — that leaves you more woven together every time you pass through. I might find mine in a vision, a mission, a dream image, or a mantra that I hold within, and that holds me together.
We might even find our spiritual rock in not being spiritual at all.
The point is that we have to find our own philosopher’s stone. And the proof that we’ve found it is in the transformative impact it has on our lives.
We may wish that our philosopher’s stone was hidden in a particular place, or with a particular person, or could be found in a specific practice, but what we wish and want to be true doesn’t matter on the alchemical path.
What matters in alchemy is what works, and what works is what matters.
We may try to seclude ourselves and meditate for an hour a day, only to find that every time we come out of it, we’re more irritable and impatient than when we started. But we’ve heard that meditation is good for everyone.
We’ve heard that Yoga is good for everyone, and yet I come out refreshed and you walk out looking for a chiropractor. We’ve heard that spending time in nature is good for everyone, and yet you return home with serenity and I return itching and wheezing from allergies.
We’ve been told that we need to go out more, or stay in more. We’ve been told to sleep less or sleep more. We’ve been told to avoid certain foods, or to include others.
And we try, and struggle, and strain to extract results from what others get results from. Only it doesn’t work for us. But we often don’t trust the results, and we try, and struggle, and strain again.
One of the gravest spiritual errors we can make is to attempt to borrow someone else’s philosopher’s stone, or lend ours to others.
We can lose years to the despair that comes from expecting someone else’s spiritual life to work for us. We can lose love and friendship and family members to our underhanded or overt attempts to make them mimic our spiritual methods.
However much we, or someone else, might recommend a path or perspective, we have to make our own spiritual experiments, and become our own scientists of the soul. We have to come to our own conclusions, based on the actual results that we personally experience.
You can’t give me your results, and I can’t give you mine. But we can witness and celebrate the presence of the philosopher’s stone in each other, however differently it is disguised, when we recognize the gold of transformation gleaming in each other’s lives.
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.