“You are an alchemist; make gold of that.” ~William Shakespeare
Alchemy was popular in Europe from the 16th to 18th centuries. While many today believe it to be a superstitious attempt to transform lead into gold, in reality it was as much an art of inner transformation as it was the precursor of modern chemistry. So-called “philosophical” alchemy worked with the psyche of the alchemist; chemical substances, flasks, and other alchemical apparatus served as complex symbols for the subtle changes experienced on the path of spiritual growth and refinement.
Ideas from alchemy can give an interesting perspective on mindfulness practice. We often begin mindfulness meditation training by learning some specific technique: focus on the breath, scan body parts, or mentally note our moment-by-moment sensations. Each of these techniques leads to a shift in how we use attention, and thereby draws out a specific aspect of our total experience.
From a muddled semi-conscious disjointed assembly of unmindful experiences, distinctness begins to emerge. “Oh, this is a thought! I can actually hear the words going through my mind,” or “Yikes, that sharp spike of pain in my knee came out of nowhere!” In alchemical terms, this stage of mindfulness involves separating out aspects of our experience, enhancing our ability to tune into each distinct component of the ceaseless qualia that flood our every waking moment.
As we grow skilled in mindfulness, we can even become quite addicted to this ability to cut our sensorium into tiny pieces. If we have an unpleasant experience, not to worry, we can mindfully dissect it until nothing is left to bother us. On the one hand this is a great super-power, it really does help reduce our suffering. But the shadow side of this tendency is that it threatens to destroy the holistic fabric of phenomena, breaking apart those pre-reflective gestalts that make life vivid, meaningful, even at times enchanted.
However, separation is only one side of mindfulness. There are also practices that can help us integrate experience into a unified whole. We can drop our meditative scalpels and enfold sensation within a big mind. Mindfulness practices like “just sitting”, “spacious abiding,” or “noticing flow”, just to name a few, have a way of stitching our sensory orbs together.
In alchemy, the separation of substances is often followed by a recombination. But this is not simply a return to the previous state, it represents a more conscious reconciliation of the opposing elements within. In alchemical drawings, this reconciliation can be symbolically depicted as a sacred hermaphrodite, a figure who holds within themselves the polarities of male-female, sun-moon, and many other seeming contradictions.
Similarly, in mindfulness practice we learn to hold simultaneously in awareness the polarities of pleasure and pain, aversion and attraction, spaciousness and contraction, even nirvana’s transcendence and samsara’s endless earthly cycles.
This month’s theme is mindfulness. Like everything at CEC, we approach mindfulness as an adventure of exploration. We might think we know mindfulness—I know I can tend to look at mindfulness as old news. Yet somehow it manages to keep hitting me over the head and reminding me of its untapped riches. So come join the adventure and see if you can transmute your sensory experiences into mindful treasure!