Alchemy is grounded in our ability to change the very nature of things, elevating the base or ordinary, into the extraordinary. It represents the very essence of transformation. On a philosophical level, the concept of turning “lead into gold” suggests the possibility of a physical, emotional and spiritual upgrade, reflecting our capacity to evolve into a more refined and complete expression of our true self. As an interdisciplinary science, alchemy originally sought to uncover the source of life on our planet, harness the forces of nature, and help humanity reach its highest state. Prior to the modern age, alchemy represented a way for human beings to understand the interdependent relationship between spirit, matter, nature and life. For thousands of years, alchemy has asked how can we elevate our ordinary existence into a life imbued with deep meaning, extraordinary vitality, and genuine purpose. In this sense, alchemy is both a scientific and spiritual tradition. Alchemy’s original quest to better know the world around us – as well as within us – remains as relevant today as it was centuries ago. In today’s modern world, the practice of alchemy can help us to create a more meaningful life in harmony with our authentic nature and purpose, and bring us closer to our own personal gold: the truth of who we really are.
Alchemy’s Roots in Ancient China
Early European and Chinese alchemists both sought to manipulate minerals and alter the state of substances through transmutation. While the western tradition of alchemy became widely associated with its quest to turn lead into gold for monetary gain, alchemic practices in the east focused primarily on the purification of one’s body and spirit in hopes of gaining immortality. In ancient China, alchemy evolved from the intersection of natural philosophy, Daoism and mineral science. While legend suggests that early Chinese sages sought to create an “elixir of life” (with the purest of gold) to achieve ever-lasting life, genuine discoveries born from these investigations included enhancing longevity and mental capacity. Indeed, the idea of prolonging life would become the holy grail for many Chinese alchemists, their version of the Philosopher’s Stone. In this way, the focus on elevating the human spirit took precedence in China over the creation of wealth which became the focus in Europe.
Importantly, Chinese alchemy is part of the larger tradition of Daoist body-spirit cultivation. Because the Chinese see is no dichotomy between the spiritual and the somatic (physical), refining the body was not viewed as distinct from the goal of spiritual self-cultivation. Over time, Daoist beliefs in nature’s healing power were blended with Traditional Chinese Medicine’s (TCM) ideas of balance and harmony, leading Chinese alchemy in a very different direction from western adherents. The science of Daoism, similar to TCM, is inherently holistic and relies on the premise that all nature is interrelated, seeking balance and unity (much like quantum mechanics). Illness and disease arise when we have deviated from the “natural way,” while restoration of health depends on returning to the “Dao” or natural flow of the universe. Alchemy offered the means to achieve greater vitality and longevity.
Internal & External Alchemy
Historically, Chinese alchemy can be divided into two methods of practice: external alchemy (Waidan) and internal alchemy (Neidan). Waidan refers to practices relating to the process of making elixirs that often contain herbal or chemical substances found outside the body. Preparing such medicines/elixirs is referred to as an outer (external) practice or Waidan since they originate outside the body and must be ingested to bring about physical, bodily changes. Alternately, Neidan relies on techniques such as meditation, breathing techniques, and bodily movement to bring about change and transformation. Neidan focuses on directing the energy and substances already present (internally) within our body. In particular, Neidan seeks to cultivate the “Three Treasures” (Jing, Qi and Shen) for purposes of improving one’s physical, emotional and mental health. Specifically, breathing exercises are designed to help preserve “life essence” (Jing) while bodily postures improve “energy flow” (Qi) within the body. Meditation allows us to manipulate the “spirit mind” (Shen) that guides our mental, spiritual and creative impulses. Ancient alchemists and Daoist practitioners learned to transmute Jing into Qi into Shen (and vice versa) through Qigong, the Daoist practice of gathering, storing and circulating the energies of the human body. Qigong, which means “work with Qi,” is the art of mastering Qi or life-force and discovering ur own “inner medicine” to sustain health and balance.
The primary intention of Daoist alchemical practice focuses on preserving our physical energy and protecting our life force from the pressures of our worldly existence. Daoist meditation techniques help us to achieve this goal by developing the power of the mind to control, preserve and direct the flow of Qi through the body's energy channels. By guarding and balancing our energy or Qi, we gain a more profound level of control over everyday life. Meditation techniques are further combined with a wide array of holistic lifestyle practices, dietary protocols, physical disciplines, and herbal medicines to further enhance one’s physical health and mental clarity.
Together, the practice of Neidan and Waidan represent the Yin and Yang of alchemy in the east. This division mirrors western science’s later dissection of organic and inorganic chemistry. In Waidan, the more infamous, inorganic branch of Chinese alchemy, mineral elixirs eventually fell out of favor as the organic herbal formulas associated with Neidan were much easier (and considerably safer) to consume.
Vitality, Not Immortality
Early Chinese texts concerning mineral elixirs that claimed to prolong life led to the misbegotten belief that alchemy sought to conquer death and achieve immortality. In actuality, it is likely that early Chinese alchemists did not necessarily equate prolonging life with eternal life. Instead, modern scholarly research suggests the Daoist sages most likely took elixirs not to prolong the years of their life, but to enhance their vitality. As such, alchemy was not about adding to number of years we are each allotted in life, but to live the allotted span of life with the greatest health and productivity. Put another way, they sought to enhance the quality of their years rather than increase the quantity of them.
Embracing centuries-old alchemic practices can help unlock our own inner healer to achieve greater well-being. Seen through the lens of TCM, alchemy transforms and optimizes all of the various layers of our energetic being to gain greater health and vitality: physical, mental and spiritual; gross and subtle; external and innate. As such, alchemy allows us to impact and manipulate the entire universal energy field that surrounds us, including:
Transmuting negative instincts into positive energy
Slowing the aging process by keeping the physical body healthy and strong
Mastering control over our mind, body and energy
Aligning our physical, intellectual and spiritual selves to achieve self-actualization
Releasing emotional blockages/negative energies holding us back (fear, anger, grief)
Catalyzing healing from disease to turn illness into wellness
Connecting to our inner intuition and activating the innate healer within all of us to achieve greater well-being
Improving Our Health – Turning Lead into Gold
Practical, modern-day alchemy recognizes that illness – and the healing that follows it – can be transformational. If we think of physical weakness, disease or symptoms as “lead,” then “gold” appears when a health crisis becomes a doorway to new possibilities. Often, illness can offer us a deeper examination into who we are, the changes we need to make in our life, and a new path forward toward the life we are destined to live. Contemporary alchemy can be seen as the transmutation of disease, pain and suffering into awareness and freedom. It acknowledges that nothing is written in stone, encouraging transformational change that allows for the emergence of renewed health and long-lasting well-being. Alchemy suggests a way for each of us to take a more active role in our own healing and move beyond the limitations of our current health to become the best version of our self – viewing illness and disease as a catalyst for change and evolution. Importantly, the dynamics of alchemy have the power to work on every level of our being – body, mind, emotions and spirit – to help us achieve vibrant health and vitality as we actualize our highest self and aspirations.