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. Now, of course, there are always going to be people who want to experiment with [hallucinogenics] or who want to experiment with toxic plant substances which are dangerous. You can't stop them, but you just tell them that's not what it's about at all. if they want to go down that road, that's their choice. but it's a very dangerous road to go down.

When it's first taken, what happens? Is it similar in some cases to hallucinogenics?

If you take hallucinogenic stuff, it affects you immediately because your body is de-toxing. That's why you get the effect from drugs--because they're essentially poisonous and your body is flushing them out. Whereas the homeopathic, the spagyric product is a medicine which actually begins to purify you. It begins to purify the subtle energetic body so the effect that it had may occur at any time during the day. When you're most relaxed--either in meditation or prayer, or just kind of zoning out a little bit--that's when you'll notice the effect.

What is that effect?

It depends on the product you make. Some are designated according to astrology. So things that are done with Mars would have a very strong, energetic effect. Things done with Venus would have a very powerful, harmonizing effect, very magnetic in terms of relationships to others. If someone is working on a book or a particular project or problem, mercurial tinctures-not made of mercury, but tinctures related to Mercury on the plant line-would be very helpful in having those insights.

Which common plants do you use?

Very simple kitchen herbs. We jokingly say, "If people knew what you could do with basil and thyme." A very common plant used is lemonbalm. Very pleasant-smelling, very lemony. And that has a lot of Jupiterian effects, so someone who's trying to expand their heart, expand their awareness, be broader, more all encompassing--Jupiter would be a very good plant.

It seems people always start with plants. When you do move on to minerals, how does that work?

There are some people who would say that working with plants is technically not alchemy, that it's more tapping into the natural biorhythms of the planet. When we move into mineral work, this is when we actually do get into areas of transmutation. An alchemist says, "we can only transmute without that which we have first transmuted within." As we increase in integrating our consciousness, the barrier between our consciousness and matter breaks down.

You're saying our consciousness can affect what a substance is?

Yeah. The biggest example that you often hear of is transmuting a base metal into gold.

Have you seen such a thing or done such a thing?

The alchemist will never say if they've done it. In fact, if they say they've done it, you generally walk away. You watch and see what they do. And if what's going on the right line is working, then you stay with them.

What you're really looking for is the person's character. The ability to transmute a base metal is an experiment for them to verify for themselves personally what is going on within themselves. It's not something they do for public acknowledgment or recognition.

So if someone has reached a higher plane of consciousness, they theoretically have this skill to change a substance into something different?

That is correct.

Can you give an example?

One of the more significant experiences I've had was actually someone else's working on a transmutation. I write about this in the book I just completed, called "The Path of Alchemy." It was someone several years ago who was doing the work of Flamel. A lot of people now are familiar with Nicholas Flamel because of Harry Potter. Nicholas Flamel was a historical person, and there's an actual way of alchemy known as the Flamel Path. Some of us were at a conference many years ago and one person was working the furnace. Now, we have an aura, an energetic field that generally extends about three feet beyond us. When we get into a heightened state, like through prayer or meditation, our aura extends outwards. When you do group work, maybe group meditation, group ritual, it extends outwards even further--a lot of people say, in average ritual work, maybe 12 feet in diameter. When you're working with minerals and the intense energies that they give off, it expands even further.

A human being's aura would expand when they're doing spiritual work that involves minerals?

That is correct. At this event, many of us who were not physically next to the furnace had noticed that there was a tangible, palpable, energetic field about 50 yards in diameter.

You're sort of trained to see this now, this aura that other people can't see?

I wouldn't say trained. Think of it in terms of an attunement. I'm more sensitive to what's going on inside me, but also to what's going on outside me. That idea of inside-outside breaks down, heading from duality to unity. That's what this is all about--increasing your personal integration and realizing that there is no difference between what is in and out. If I become more unified within myself, I must become more unified with the rest of creation. And you begin to feel it, you begin to notice it. Now, on the other side along this process, there's very positive, tangible benefits particularly in terms of health and well-being. You simply don't get sick as often. When you do, you heal much more quickly. You have the advantage of having some very powerful spagyric or maybe mineral tinctures around that can help other people get well very quickly. I've seen near-miraculous healings with very simple spagyric products, and I do not use the word 'miraculous' loosely. People who just really were told, "You've got a few weeks left to live." This is something anyone with a good heart and a good mind can do.

Can you describe what the man at the furnace was doing?

He was working with some very toxic stuff: mercury, distilled mercury, he was working with antimony and was creating an amalgam along with iron and essentially making gunpowder in a small, red-hot crucible. He was doing this under certain astrological conditions-that is, the sky had to be clear, couldn't be cloudy.

It created a very tangible and palpable field quite far away that many people noticed.

Was the point of this furnace work to create this field?

No, that is the by-product of the synthesis of the energies that were present. To put it in astrological terms, he was taking the energies of the earth, the energies of the moon, the energies of Mars and he was combining them all into a synthetic being.

So he was doing this to make this powerful combination.


The point of doing it was for the process of doing it, not because the end product could be used?

Yeah, there's no use of an end product from it. And in fact, not only is there no usable end products from it, but that's just step one of a very long process. You would take that step and do it over, seven more times, each time refining it. You're pulling it out, you're putting it back, it just gets stronger and more pure.

In a typical month, which sort of alchemical processes do you engage in?

You could plan your month out according to the moon cycle if you wanted to do distillation and calcinations.

One can very easily take the base of the week or say the astrological sign that you're in, combine it with the lunar cycles and take tinctures for that purpose. So prior to a full moon, on a Tuesday in Aries, would be really great time to take a Mars tincture because that would give you a lot of energy; it would really help boost you up for the year.

You said that taking these substances could make prayer and meditation more intense or help you reach a different level. How does that feel?

You take the experience and you amplify it. I wouldn't want anyone to think that each person's experience is going to be identical, because we're all working through different stuff, but there are going to be common characteristics. Tinctures of Venus are always going to be very harmonious, socially oriented, bringing things into happiness and artistic expression and romantic.

If you'd taken a tincture related to Venus and then started painting a picture, you might reach higher heights of artistic skill?

Very much so. Just as we said earlier, if you take a tincture of Mercury, it would help you in a writing or articulation area.

And so these substances don't necessarily have a strong effect if you're just doing the laundry? it's when you're focusing on this certain thing you want to get done?

Think of it as a psychic vitamin. You're just boosting up your receptivity. You take Vitamin C because you want to fend off a cold or when you have a cold. So what you're doing here, you want to keep your receptivity high.

To sum up, if someone said, "I thought alchemy was all about changing to stuff to gold," what would you say?

It's about changing yourself. If you change yourself first, then you either learn how to change gold or it won't matter to you. It's about proving who you are.

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