Mark Stavish is the Director of Studies for the Institute for Hermetic Studies and a practicing alchemist. A lifelong student of esoteric and occult sciences, and the author of such articles as "Alchemy, It's Not For the Middle Ages Anymore," he spoke with Beliefnet recently about the spirituality of alchemy.

What is alchemy as you practice it today?

Alchemy is really the study of consciousness; it's the study of life, particularly how matter affects consciousness in life. If we succeed in changing something in the plant or mineral realm, it is only because we have changed that part of us which relates to it first. As we purify a plant or mineral, we purify our consciousness.

In the end, we experience that matter, energy, and consciousness are all one. That is why and how transmutations are possible, be it a simple healing--as in Reiki--or mercury into gold. It is called the Great Work, and the matter we work upon is our consciousness, our soul. Alchemy without meditation and prayer is simply a home chemistry experiment.What's an example of how matter affects consciousness?

We get up in the morning and we're tired and you have to move, you know, you're really make an effort to get out of bed sometimes. Or in other times, you can be so just filled with the momentum of an activity that you just fill with energy and it doesn't even bother you. You see that a lot in the New Age movement, particularly with crystals. People say if you use this crystal, it can help affect this part of your consciousness, this part of your body in terms of health. It's called the Doctrine of Correspondences, and alchemy uses that all the time. So it would say, if you want to experience a particular level of consciousness, you can elevate through the use of different kinds of products. We would call these tinctures. One of the things that a person makes very early in their studies is a spagyric tincture, very similar to an herbal extract, except alchemy treats it a little differently. It allows you to have more pronounced experiences, very deep and very profound.

Could you describe the materials you use, and the process?

Very simple. Anyone who's made a spagyric tincture will be familiar with it. You take a plant-preferably fresh-and dry it out to remove any water from it. You would put it in a jar and then add in very strong alcohol. Now, alchemy requires that you make the alcohol yourself--you distill it off of red wine. Then you would take this and wrap it up so that doesn't get any sunlight. You would put it away for a few weeks until you get a tincture. Now, the difference with an alchemist is that they use astrology; they do timing. They recognize that just as we have biorhythms or certain peak periods during our day or week, so does life and the world we're in. And the alchemist seeks to understand those peak periods, those peak energetic impulses, to take advantage of them while making their product. So, an alchemist might do it at a particular time of the day or night.

You're saying the alchemist would distill things, or take it, at a particular time?

Both. In making this tincture, they might say Monday morning at sunrise would be a good time to do something if you want to have more visions of the astral or deeper understandings of what we normally think of as psychic ability. But if you want deeper spiritual experiences, it might be Sunday morning instead. What the alchemist does is after, say, a week or two, they'll take this product and they'll drain it off. This is the same thing with making a herbal tincture, but here is the key difference. The alchemist does not take the matter-that is, the leftover plant matter-and throw it away. They'll turn it into a very pure ash. They burn it. They'll then take it and add it back to the tincture.

They add the ash back to the liquid substance?

That is correct and in doing so, they're set to revive the body. It's a form of physical resurrection for the plant, the way the alchemist looks at it. That is the single simplest way of doing it.

Then what happens? Do they drink a few drops?

Oh yeah. Then they'll take maybe 10 or 12 drops in distilled water or wine-

So you would have a big glass of water, and add 12 drops of this alcohol and ash tincture?

Yeah, 10 or 20. The ash dissolves, by the way. Then you just take it. It won't be a big glass. Most people cheat, they don't even bother using the water; they just stick it under their tongue. It's very similar to a homeopathic product. We're seeking a kind of energetic vitamin, if you will, that temporarily will lift us up. The effect of one of these can last up to a week or two, usually about a week, and then it drops back down.

Would any of these substances be considered dangerous by the FDA?

We use common plants, so I would think not. You buy them and you cook with them, you take them all the time.