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Alchemy as a Means of Self-Knowledge in an Era of Pessimism and Hope

In this age marked by deep pessimism, yet also by a glimmer of hope, the quest for balance and one’s own ‘raison d’être’ becomes paramount. We must not be deceived: the path to this balance is long and full of obstacles. It’s a lifelong endeavor, as our environment is constantly evolving. Just when we believe we have achieved equilibrium, it is often challenged by external events.

The journey towards balance begins with self-knowledge, a concept echoed through various esoteric traditions. Several tools help refine this understanding: astrology is one, alchemy another. In this article, I wish to delve into the latter. Indeed, I believe that life consists of multiple learning cycles in which we refine our awareness of ourselves and our place in the present moment.

The alchemical process mirrors the stages of the “hero’s journey” as described by Joseph Campbell. This article explores the similarities between these two approaches.

Achieving the “Great Work” in alchemy requires three major phases, a symbolic number in many traditions. These are the nigredo (black work), albedo (white work), and rubedo (red work). This process involves separating the elements of a body or principle to purify them, then reassembling them to discover their essence. Applied to self-knowledge, this symbolizes the personal work needed to shed limiting beliefs and embrace one’s true nature, thereby finding one’s place in the world. For Freemasons, this is akin to chiseling the rough stone until it fits perfectly into the edifice of a better, unified world.

In alchemical language, Sulfur and Mercury must be separated. Sulfur represents the inner fire, an active masculine principle, or the internal force that drives us to act. Mercury, a receptive feminine principle, is the vessel for this inner fire, embodying divine intelligence, the principle of life, or universal energy. While Sulfur relates to celestial and intuitive influences, Mercury is tied to earthly ones. From the inner action of Sulfur and the outer reaction of Mercury arises Salt, a neutral zone where the opposing forces of Sulfur and Mercury stabilize. In other words, the body (Salt) is the manifestation site of the encounter between the soul (Mercury) and spirit (Sulfur). Hence, the importance of listening to the body, as it informs us about the state of the soul and spirit.

But let’s return to the three alchemical transformation processes.

First, the nigredo, under the sign of Saturn, involves death, the dissolution of mercury, and the coagulation of sulfur. This stage is about becoming aware of and abandoning limiting thoughts. In Campbell’s journey, it represents the departure or separation phase, including the call to adventure, refusal, external aid, crossing the first threshold, and the “belly of the whale,” symbolizing the point of no return. This departure is often triggered by an external event: bereavement, marriage, meeting a guru, etc.

Next, the albedo, under the sign of the Moon, signifies purification and cleansing. For Campbell’s hero, this is the initiation phase with its trials, which, through synchronicity, teach what must be learned. Each event, whether joyous or not, has a meaning aimed at helping you understand who you are, strengthening you, and leading you to autonomy by freeing you from people or beliefs that hold power over you.

Finally, the rubedo, under the sign of the Sun, represents the union of Mercury and Sulfur. In the hero’s journey, this is the return phase after trials that have transformed the hero. At the end of this stage, the individual can finally live freely and peacefully.

And this process repeats several times throughout a life because “chiseling one’s stone” takes years.

To conclude, a small exercise: Recall an event, happy or otherwise, that has turned your life upside down. What happened? Did you identify your guides, your obstacles? What did you learn?

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