The Seven stages of alchemy

Alchemy’s greatest achievement is to create an interrelationship between mind and matter, between self and world.

Alchemy has often been described as “Ars Laboriosa Convertens Humiditate Ignea Metala In Mercuris”, referring to the transformation of fire’s humidity into mercury. In other words, it is the art of turning lead into gold. In spiritual alchemy, this is seen as turning a person’s “lead” (personality) into spiritual “gold”. Alchemists used to speak of human occult anatomy. The energy that surrounds the body surpassing its borders is known as the “aura” and nerve connections at a subtle level, often called “chakras,” are two examples of this secret anatomy. Occult anatomy is a type of human anatomy which is not visible. (Valda Roric)

The Hindu tradition speaks of certain “ages of humanity”. These are: the Krita Yuga (Golden Age) when people used to be spiritual and innocent, the Treta Yuga (Silver Age) when knowledge begins to lose light, the Duapara Yuga (Bronze Age) when wars start and, finally, the Kali Yuga (Iron Age) when humans need interior transformation due to distancing themselves from the light and developing negative habits. There are also elements which make humans go further away from the light. In Christianity, these elements are called “the Seven Deadly Sins”; in Tibet they are known as psychic conglomerates; in Egypt they were known as “Seth’s Red Demons”. (Valda Roric)

The Importance of Mercury and Sulfur- part 1

Seth was the God who tried to dethrone Osiris. After being tricked, Osiris came back to life as a symbol of the resurrection of positive values. In Ancient Greece, the negative elements were believed to be invincible mythological beasts; but heroes always found ways to outsmart them. As a reward, for conquering these beasts they would then obtain symbols of their interior capacities. For alchemists, these elements were known as “the dry mercury”. This signified the struggle against something negative which came from within.

Alchemists describe several alchemic processes as follows: Calcinatio, Solutio (Dissolution), Elementorum (Separatio), Conjuctio, Putrefactio, Coagulatio, Cibatio, Sublimatio, Fermentatio, Exaltatio, Augumentatio and Proiectio (Projection).

Mercury is the primal matter in alchemy and, as it is silver, it is linked to the moon. It symbolizes all the internal energies: mental, emotional, instinctive, moving, and sexual. By using these forces, the alchemist can attain the Philosopher’s Stone inside his own being. Also, as a god, Mercury is the “Messenger of the Gods” – the link between the human and the divine. (Valda Roric)

As with most occult practices, the true value of Alchemy is within the obscure symbolism, thus warding off muggles and keeping their secrets hidden. All too familiar you will discern the similarities between Alchemy and similar religious practices all over the world which seek the ultimate state of enlightenment or spiritual development – with the end goal being a state of awareness, completion and harmony. To summarize, the 3 main goals of Alchemy have been:

  • The transmutation of base metals to gold, often referred to as changing “lead to gold”.
  • The preparation for the “elixir of longevity”, often connected to the philosopher’s stone.
  • The ceaseless achievement of greater enlightenment.

The following are the seven series of steps delineated to reach the ultimate achievement of alchemic enlightenment.

“The secret of life, though, is to fall seven times and to get up eight times.”

-Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist

1. Calcination, in alchemy this is depicted as the burning of the prima materia into ash.

The literal process is to heat and decompose raw matter – in other words, breaking down parts of ourselves that are in the way of our own happiness​. In this stage we face a crisis of identity. Calcination refers to breaking down attachment to our ego-based beliefs, false sense of self, and the worldly drive to seek those things which feed our ego or perceptions of our own identity (wealth, status, pride, arrogance). However, ego fights desperately for its own survival. It takes courage to claim change and choose to journey on a path of self-exploration. For this step in Alchemy it is crucial to remove ego from our inner selves.

Calcination incinerates the ego’s defenses against the unknown. As our cherished beliefs and habits turn to ash and smoke, we may feel as if we’re dying. And though this is not a physical death, it feels just as ominous and frightening. As we die to patterns we have outgrown, space is created for us to begin to realize more of our true reality. (NANCI SHANDERÁ PHD, 2013)

2. Dissolution, the chemical process of dissolution is to take the ashes from calcination and dissolve it in water.

Transformational Dissolution connects us to our original, divine emotions before the ego’s protections taught us to reject our feelings as somehow wrong. Stepping away from our previous false sense of self-identity, we are suddenly able to freely observe our own positive and negative qualities with new light. Along with this new transformation begins the process of learning to lean in to our emotions. The worst thing we can do is to deny what we’re feeling!

“I want to know if you can sit with pain, mine or your own, without moving to hide it, or fade it, or fix it.” ~ Oriah Mountain Dreamer, the invitation

Since our emotions are essential to the Soul’s well-being, they must be reintegrated if we are to mature spiritually and become whole again. Whenever we feel any emotion, the worst thing we can do is to deny what we’re feeling. Denial prevents access to the guidance and wisdom of our Soul. (NANCI SHANDERÁ PHD, 2013)

The water in this stage asks us to let go, and to release the structures and the systems that define our perceptions of ourselves. It is in this stage that we must unearth those parts of us – the parts of us that we have rejected. We must accept our feelings and express them as long as they do not harm others. This stage is said to demand a cycle of meditation. The successful dilution occurs as opening-up our energy channels, recharging every cell and further breaking down the psyche – thus total immersion in the unconscious.

3. Separation, in this stage the alchemist separates and filters the products of dissolution.

Separation offers us the opportunity to consider our experiences with an open mind so intuition, rather than fear or ego, can guide us to new ways of perceiving our lives (NANCI SHANDERÁ PHD, 2013). When we allow the ego to make our decisions, we typically discover they were the wrong ones. In turn, we are caused increased pain. The fear which holds us back is based upon immature perceptions of ourselves and Separation helps us to discover we have more power than we originally believed we were capable possessing.

It helps build a strong foundation upon which we can make wise, intuitive decisions that support our evolution. (NANCI SHANDERÁ PHD, 2013)

Sifting through unconscious materials once discarded, are there parts of you that have been rejected out of fear, shame, possibly discouragement which may now help you grow? How can these parts of the self, which may be considered by the rational mind worthless or weak, bring joy to others? Can you incorporate the painful parts of your narrative into the greater arc of your story? Conversely, can you be honest with yourself about which parts of your shadow hold you back and need to be discarded – even if those pieces form a what feels like a crucial part of your identity? Separation is the stage where we make our thoughts and emotions more defined by isolating them from other thoughts and emotions. A simple example is our attempt to free our heart from resentment while trying to forgive someone.

In this stage, we explore beliefs and learn to understand our emotions. But we must do it in an unconditional, non-judgmental way, else we create more blocks to consciousness development. For instance, if we use our intellect to reject emotion as bad or wrong, or to rationalize our cherished beliefs, we disconnect from our Soul, and don’t move ahead in our growth. (And, we’ll very likely end up back in Calcination!) (NANCI SHANDERÁ PHD, 2013)

Separation is defined by the division of thoughts and emotions, the separation of the elements allows us to observe them more clearly. Their true nature and shape are finally exposed to us and brings awareness to our authentic feelings. The violence of reality might catch us off guard, but this could be the only true way to move forward. The initial time I attempted the Enneagram RHETI test, my results left me shocked at their clarity of truth and hurt by their raw honesty in recognizing my own shortcomings. Overall, this review has been an extremely useful tool as I periodically check back in with myself and realize the growth I have achieved. Slowly there is less personal definition in the RHETI narrative and I find myself searching for new understandings in my current awareness. The journey and the process, in my opinion, are cyclic; alchemic achievement is a lifetimes work.

4. Conjunction, the alchemist combines the elements deemed worthy in separation into a new substance.

In previous steps we separated as well as learned to distinguish and organize our emotions and thoughts with greater accuracy. The stage of ​Conjunction provides the inner space – the simmering – that is required for us to truly and honestly accept all the parts of our authentic self​. When we experience this stage of spiritual alchemy, all of our unconscious thoughts and feelings bubble up to the surface and into the light of conscious awareness.

Conjunction teaches us how to love ourselves and others unconditionally, meaning without judgment or comparison. Our past experiences are stepping stones toward the realization of who we were created to be. (NANCI SHANDERÁ PHD, 2013)

Conjunction allows us to view our past mistakes as necessary experiences for our overall growth. Instead of continuing to blame others for our problems we are able to open our hearts and seeing others as having been catalysts for a real and positive change in our lives. Thus, we have becomes stronger, wiser and instead feel gratitude for all difficulties of the past.

5. Fermentation, bacteria and other living organisms are introduced to the substance to continue its breakdown.

Fermentation occurs in two parts: ​Putrefaction and Spiritization​. Putrefaction is the ​decomposition of our former selves​; the process of inner death by which the old elements of our conscious and unconscious minds are allowed to rot and decompose, (some call this stage the dark night of the soul, as it can be followed by troublesome mental states such as depression).

On the other hand, Spiritization is the stage by which we begin to look at the world in a new light. With the right guidance and with enough inner work, ​Spiritization involves letting go of all the aspects of ourselves and our lives that don’t serve or contribute to our involution​. This is when we taste moments of great inner peace and stillness.

In the Putrefaction stage, we face the ego again. By this stage, we have developed more conscious awareness, so even though the process of Putrefaction can be very disturbing, our inner forces, which are now awake, help us to respond to life with courage instead of fear.

My students have often remarked that things seemed so much easier when they were unconscious of the deeper aspects of themselves. They realize that when they face difficulties with awareness, they come face to face with the challenge to make better choices than in their past experiences. They have told me that the difference is accountability. They are now responsible—meaning able to respond—for how their lives evolve. They are no longer like powerless little children, vulnerable to all of life’s twists and turns without having to make mature choices. (NANCI SHANDERÁ PHD, 2013)

The stage of Putrefaction can be a purging of the remaining influences of the ego; this can be excruciating because we are letting go of the excuses and rationalizations we’ve used to justify our behavior. Just as so many of life’s important moments, such as leaving home, having children, moving to a new city, or getting a divorce, can shake us to our core, the boiling cauldron of Putrefaction presents the biggest challenge of all: taking full responsibility for all aspects of our lives, body, mind, emotions, and Soul. (NANCI SHANDERÁ PHD, 2013)

Fermentation is essentially, all about testing this newly integrated self. We test ourselves through trials and tribulations, through the natural swings that life provides us. All the pain, the hurt is something that pushes the self to becoming more resilient, to be stronger. The idea here is that we must go through the darkest of night in order to see the dawn, and when it arrives, it brings with it something explosively beautiful. (Labyrinthos Academy, 2016)

In Fermentation, a new sense of wisdom arises within us, founded upon the breaking down of old barriers of belief. In the alchemical laboratory, the Putrefied brew must be transferred to another container (symbolizing the newly developing Self), where a catalyst is added to produce a highly refined element that began in Calcination as lead. In personal alchemy, the catalyst helps to “ferment” that within us that is Divine, but which we couldn’t accept and experience earlier on during our more unconscious stages because our perceptions were based upon illusion. What results from the Fermentation stage is a higher perception of self and a new, strong, and authentic identity. (NANCI SHANDERÁ PHD, 2013)

6. DISTILLATION, in distillation the solution is then boiled and condensed in order to purify the substance.

Once we begin our Spiritization we must find a way to continue to ​integrate all of these spiritual realizations into our lives in order to allow them to become permanent​. Distillation is the level of further purification.

One example of Distillation is finding ways to live from a daily place of inner peace – even in the most mundane circumstances. With enough repeated practice of constantly dying and being reborn in the present moment without entering again into the habits, identifications and cycles of the mind, we experience a strong and profound inner transformation. In the East, this is what is mostly defined as “enlightenment.”

In Distillation, we have reached the point of spiritual and emotional maturity. We can now merge with collective thought without being taken in or overwhelmed by it—in other words, what society says is true may no longer be true for us. We now think for ourselves, but without judging others’ opinions or behaviors. In fact, we find them interesting and learn from them. (NANCI SHANDERÁ PHD, 2013)

To prepare for the final stage, we need to purify the spirit to make sure that it is free from any destructive forms of ego. Here we are planting the seed for the unborn, transpersonal self – one that is free from the distinctions of the collective and the individual. To help it grow, one has to nourish it – which can be done with various forms of contemplation, spiritual ritual or meditation. (Labyrinthos Academy, 2016)

7. COAGULATION, the substance is crystalized into a solid state.

Similar to the blood’s ability to form clots and stop bleeding, Coagulation is the moment when we’ve “broken open the head,” or in other words, we have become free from the mind and have allowed our consciousness or Soul, to connect with the Materia Prima: the Spirit. The meeting point between two opposites such as the spiritual self and raw matter, heaven and hell, and life and death, is ​the point where existence become self-aware.​ This is the moment when our lives are without duality; when matter becomes spirit, or the spirit is manifested in material form. In the stage of Coagulation, the physical universe is not separate from the mind or spiritual reality; it is a reflection of it.

An alchemically transformed person is one who has experienced, not necessarily in order or just once, all the seven stages. Coagulation is the final stage of having integrated all six previous stages, but it is not the end of our transformation. It is another beginning. This is no resting place, for now we can deepen even further what we’ve learned. (NANCI SHANDERÁ PHD, 2013)

“Landscape with the Dream of Jacob” showing the famous ‘Jacob’s Ladder’ (circa 1691) by Michael Willmann

The Importance of Mercury and Sulfur- part 2

An alchemy book called the “Mutus Liber”, the “Mute Book,” contains a number of alchemic drawings that need to be interpreted in order to be understood. There are also cases that describe symbols in dreams. Once, Saint Jacob allegedly fell asleep and dreamt of a stairway that led to heaven where the angels sang. There, a situation of choice-making arose and there were two options: humans could use heaven’s dew or they could not.

Alchemists refer to two opposite forces that reside inside the individual.

Sulfur is viewed as the secret fire. By combining fire and water, one obtains the Philosopher’s Stone; in Hinduism, it is said that Kundalini is achieved. By combining mercury and sulfur along with salt, as the neutral energy that unites two opposite poles, one obtains the To Soma Heliakon, the solar bodies, namely a set of values that previously did not exist. Impure mercury is to be cleared and purified of all that is bad (oxides). The morning dew is collected and placed in the oven. Two equal bottles result from this process.

The term “Coagula” refers to obtaining the golden bodies. Having developed the To Soma Heliakon, one is said to be able to enter the fourth dimension – the superior regions of existence. The formula “Solve Et Coagula” refers to dissolving the dry mercury (the seven deadly sins) and the poisonous sulfur (deformed instincts). This is how one goes up Jacob’s ladder, depending on the level of inner transformation.

After more distillations, a flower with six petals appears, just as Solomon’s seal has six corners. In the Kabala, the number six represents indecision, thus this is a moment of choice of what to do with the mercury. Once the choice is made, other crystallizations follow and the god Saturn devours a child representing the so-called “Seven Deadly Sins.” (Valda Roric)

“V.I.T.R.I.O.L.” is an acronym for “Visita Interiora Terræ Rectificando Invenies Occultum Lapidem”, an alchemic motto that can be roughly translated as “Visit the interior of the earth and [by] purifying [yourself] you will find the hidden stone.” The motto originated in L’Azoth des Philosophes by the 15th Century alchemist Basilius Valentinus.

In spiritual alchemy, the alchemist’s lab is a symbol for the human being. The formula V.I.T.R.I.O.L. (Visita Interiore Terrae Rectificando Invenies Ocultum Lapidum) stands for visiting the interior lands and finding the hidden stone by rectification. To represent this idea, alchemists came up with engravings depicting the alchemist working underground. But the ground looks very much like a human skull and is a symbol of the human psyche. The philosophical soil stands for human psychology, where teachings reach and can catch roots and flourish – or not. The alchemist’s oven expresses the interior of the human body and its internal fire. (Valda Roric)

“V.I.T.R.I.O.L.” is a topic much discussed amongst freemasons and alchemists alike. If we compare the “Rectificando” stage and what it means to rectify, correct, and control the inner metals that ebb and flow we gain a better understanding of the meanings behind occult alchemy. We are learning it takes great focus, effort, and patience to conduct such personal practice. As with the Chamber of reflection where a Mason contemplates and reflects on the nature of death; it takes a guided death to let go of the negative habits we inevitably collect, shedding our ego, unearthing and accepting the part of ourselves previously hidden away in shadow, to release the most genuine self we hold within. No matter the outcome the work must be put in to regular practice, soil must be tilled and tended for the roots to catch and flourish – or not.

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