by Nanci Shanderá, PhD
(Article originally published in The Llewellyn Journal.)
Alchemists put various base metals, such as lead, through a series of processes that refine them until they become gold. Sound impossible? It’s been done. My friend Dennis William Hauck, author of The Emerald Tablet, is a practicing alchemist and has actually made gold from lead, as have other alchemists through the ages. But the secret is that alchemical processes in a laboratory are symbolic for the transformation of our inner “lead” into our “Gold,” or True Self, our Soul.
This article briefly describes each stage and how it applies to our personal transformative processes. For an in-depth study of more about these stages as well as how to apply them to your life, I recommend Dennis’s book as well as my own: Your Inner Gold: Transform Your Life and Discover Your Soul’s Purpose.
Stage 1: Calcination
Calcination brings us to new awareness of the influence of the ego within us, and the process deflates the ego so we can discover more of our true reality, previously hidden by the ego’s protections and defenses. In this stage we face a crisis of identity as our ego-based beliefs and false sense of self are transformed as if burned in an alchemist’s fiery furnace.
Suffice it to say, most people avoid this process.
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.
We can’t consciously make Calcination happen. It is merely what we go through at those times in which we feel powerless, confused, disheartened, and afraid. Every individual’s reaction to a Calcination event differs—one person may sink into a depression and want to be left alone, while another may reject what’s happening and fight fiercely to prevent change. There are others who might recognize that this event is actually an opportunity to let go of past conditioning, beliefs, and traumas, so they decide to surrender, without judgment or denial, to whatever they are experiencing.
As our conscious awareness of our true feelings intensifies, we are led into the next stage of inner alchemy: Dissolution.
Stage 2: Dissolution
The immersion into Dissolution doesn’t eliminate any of the discomfort of Calcination, but rather adds an element of authenticity to the emotions that emerge. Even so, we may feel more frightened, lost, fearful of the unknown, and even panicked that without the ego’s protective control, we will be harmed, criticized, or annihilated.
In laboratory alchemy, the ashes of Calcination are dissolved in water in the Dissolution process. Transformational Dissolution connects us to our original, Divine emotions before the ego’s protections taught us to reject our feelings as somehow wrong. 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 Sou,l and we continue feeling alone and we despair that we’ll never be who we’ve always wanted to be. In consciously working with Dissolution, we accept our feelings, and express them as long as they don’t harm others. We can do this by writing, dancing, making sounds, doing ritual, or just sitting and crying (which the alchemists call “cibation,” a process of inner cleansing by the salt in our tears) with no judgment.
Stage 3: Separation
Some may think this stage is a break from the pain and suffering during Calcination and Dissolution because they assume the stage of Separation as merely an intellectual exercise. It is true that 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!)
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. When we allow the ego to make our decisions, we usually discover they were the wrong ones that cause us more pain. For instance, it is often easier to stay in an abusive relationship or bad job than it is to listen to that still, small voice within and leave the unhealthy situation. The fear that holds us back is based upon immature perceptions of ourselves, and Separation helps us to discover that we have more power than we thought we had. It helps build a strong foundation upon which we can make wise, intuitive decisions that support our evolution.
Stage 4: Conjunction
Conjunction is the stage that opens the heart by embodying self-acceptance. It integrates all aspects of ourselves, and our perceptions change as do our attitudes and beliefs about ourselves and our lives. In conjuncted consciousness, our fears are transformed into faith in and love for ourselves and a higher power.
Conjunction teaches us how to love ourselves and others unconditionally, meaning without judgment or comparison. We can view our “mistakes” or difficulties of the past as having been necessary for our growth. Our past experiences are stepping stones toward the realization of who we were created to be. Instead of continuing to blame others for our problems, our open heart shows us our contribution to our difficulties, and we can see the others we’d blamed as having actually been catalysts—even teachers—for our growth. With unconditional love, we can honor and thank everyone who has ever challenged us, for they helped us become stronger and closer to who Spirit created us to be.
Stage 5-a: Putrefaction
In the Putrefaction stage, we face the ego again but the quality, intensity, and source of the experience is quite different from that in Calcination. 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.
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.
Putrefaction “cooks” us so we can enter Fermentation, whose process is similar to how crushed grapes become fine wine.
Stage 5-b: Fermentation
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.
Stage 6: Distillation
When we have embodied the gifts of all previous stages, we are ready to refine ourselves to an even greater degree in the stage of Distillation.
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. Distillation melts away the final dregs of the ego’s control so we are free and independent in thought and Spirit.
In Distillation, we may have sudden rushes of ecstasy and joy—and for no particular reason. We may see our own face—or even the face of the universe—in those of others. We may be drawn to some type of service to humanity with feelings of love and excitement.
A distilled person no longer responds to egoistic expectations, isn’t devastated by challenge and crisis, is integrated with Soul, and responds to new, higher guidance while honoring Earthly existence.
Stage 7: Coagulation
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. We may experience more discomfort than when we were at varying degrees of unconsciousness, but now we act upon higher wisdom for we know how our beliefs and responses can affect entire universes.
Few people reach a point of complete Coagulation. Just as it takes miners effort, toil, and time to uncover riches within the earth, our struggles to find our inner Gold are ultimately worth it all.
Article originally published in The Llewellyn Journal. Copyright Llewellyn Worldwide, 2013. All rights reserved.