Welcome to part two in our alchemy and herbalism series. In part one, I shared with you how throughout history as science became more of the dominant worldview, a mechanistic model stripped the spirit and the meaning out of cultures and systems and traditions, and we looked at how that affects our perspective of people and plants and ultimately our practice of herbal medicine. Alchemy is an incredibly potent and sophisticated system and tradition that allows us to bring science and spirituality together.
But how exactly does alchemy do that? How does alchemy unite the science and the spirituality of herbal medicine? That’s what we’ll look at in part two of this series. We’ll talk about the philosophical foundation of alchemy. As we learned in part one, the tradition of alchemy is about coming to a balance of philosophy and practice. There’s a certain way of looking at and understanding the world around us and the fundamental pattern of nature that is the philosophy of alchemy, and then we want to do something with it—we want to practically apply that philosophy, and that ultimately becomes the practice. A quintessential practice of alchemy is preparing and administering medicine. There is an herbal pharmacy side of things and a therapeutic side of things, which is what we’ll cover in parts three and part four of the series. But first we’ve got to understand the core philosophy of alchemy, which is summarized nicely in the age-old adage that I’m sure you’ve heard before: “as above, so below.”
“As above, so below” is an old saying that means that the whole and the part are connected. The cosmos, the great pattern of the natural world and creation, which is the above or what traditionally is referred to as the macrocosm, is mirrored in the microcosm, in individual species. The whole and the part are ultimately one. The whole is within the part, and the part is a facet of the whole. This is a profound teaching that I first learned about in my early twenties, and it totally blew my mind. The whole universe is interconnected, everything is one, and everything is in this grand web of interrelatedness.
It was profound and mind blowing, and I didn’t know what to do with it. The philosophy made a lot of sense, but it wasn’t until I got deeper into alchemy that I realized that it takes a profound understanding of the world and then applies it in profound ways that are helpful in the way that it heals people and helps people in a medicinal context. There is a dynamic of the macrocosm and the microcosm, “as above, so below.” The center of the philosophy of alchemy is an understanding that nature is not chaos. Nature is not random. There is an underlying order to the cosmos that we live in. And within the underlying order, there’s a pattern to creation. There’s a pattern to life, a rhythm to the way that the seasons turn and the way that the stars are placed in the sky and the way that the planets orbit around the sun and the way that plants grow and the way the water cycle is and that everything about nature occurs according to these natural laws, to this underlying cosmology and fundamental order of the universe. That’s the macrocosm.
What is that pattern? We turned to nature. There’s a fundamental pattern in the cosmos, and the alchemists understood that the order of our solar system, that the way that the solar system is structured, is a reflection of how everything in life is structured. They also looked to nature. They looked down here on the earth and saw the elements, the earth and the water and the fire and the air and the space, which is another underlying order pattern of creation that determines the qualities and the characteristics of the whole and of the part.
I describe these as the two layers of energetics. The seven planets of our inner, visible solar system and the elements here on earth form a fundamental blueprint of the natural world. This is the foundation of the pattern of the macrocosm. Alchemy takes that and shows how everything in nature—all of the plants and the animals and the stones and minerals and people—contains that underlying pattern within them. Human beings also contain those planetary qualities within us. We contain those elemental virtues within us as well.
What makes us all different and so varied is that we all have them in different relationships to one another. Some are in greater excess, and some are more in deficiencies. Some are expressed, some are not expressed. But they’re all present within us. The whole system of astrology is built on that understanding.
Understanding the Macrocosm Changes Your Approach to People and Plants
So let’s look at what this does for our understanding of people and of plants, how we see the macrocosm in a person, how we see the macrocosm in a plant, and how that shift and understanding changes how you’re going to approach working with people and plants as an herbalist.
Typically as an herbalist, someone comes to us looking for help, often with the physical body, sometimes more on a psychological, emotional level, but also sometimes on a spiritual level. One of the other fundamental organizational structures in alchemy is referred to as the three principles that we all have: a body, a spirit, and a soul. This is the fundamental breakdown of a person. We have our physical organs and tissues. We have our spirit, our mind, our psychology, our emotions. And we have an essence, we have our soul. Often in a reductionistic or mechanistic or not holistic understanding, those parts of the self are seen as separate. We have one way of looking at the body. We look at it through the lens of science and anatomy and physiology and biochemistry, or we look at it through a more traditional lens such as energetics, looking at someone’s humors or their doshas, or their constitution.
Either way, we have one set way of looking at the body, and other ways of looking at the mind and emotions, and other ways of understanding the soul, but they often are very separate. The beauty of this pattern of the macrocosm, the order of nature, is that it shows you the dotted line that connects the body to the mind, to the emotions, and to the soul through one system. For example, the planets and elements are incredibly rich with correspondences and associations and meaning and ways they govern different facets of who we are. The water element creates a certain type of constitutional pattern, the way it relates to certain organ systems like our lymphatic system, our urinary tract, our kidneys, our mucosal membranes, the reproductive system, the way it relates to our emotional being, the way water also carries these teachings for us as a soul on this earth of how to live in harmony with that element.
And the planets are the same way. That’s the basis of astrology. Many people think of astrology as only our psychological temperament or our personality, but often it’s overlooked that astrology also includes physiological attributes, where each of the planets also govern certain organ systems in the body, certain tissue types, certain pathological patterns. They create certain types of constitutions but also affect the psychological and spiritual sides.
The Macrocosm and Microcosm in People
As an herbalist, when you integrate this pattern of the macrocosm and see it within people, you’re learning to see what’s behind the physiology, what’s behind the psychology, what’s behind everything that’s going on. You’re relating it to these archetypal forces of planets and elements, and this helps you see deeper into the underlying root cause of why someone is having the struggles that they’re having.
Some of the most challenging work that we face as herbalists is figuring out what is going on with this person so that I can help them. What’s so profound about alchemy is that we’re not seeing the person in isolation. We’re viewing that person in their relationship to the totality of life, to the cosmos, and to the earth, and seeing closer to their essence. That takes our work with herbal medicine to a significantly deeper level, because now we’re able to heal that person on a vital, essential level, which creates a transformation for that person. It’s not just putting a Band-Aid on their symptom; it’s literally transforming them on a deep, archetypical level that is close to their essence.
For example, if a person has chronic respiratory tract issues, maybe they struggle with asthma and they get a bronchial constriction, and maybe they get anxious and nervous, and their nervous system is wound up tight and they’re nervous and anxious all the time. Perhaps they complain about difficulties with their communication and their self-expression and their ability to translate their inner world to the outer world through language. Looking at the physical side, maybe the psychological, emotional side, and that spiritual side, that all has to do with Mercury. All of those things are governed by the planet Mercury. So as an herbalist, sometimes we might say that certain herbs are good for asthma, and these herbs are good for nervousness, and these herbs are good for helping with communication and helping the mind, or these flower essences help you feel like you can express yourself.
That’s all good. There’s nothing wrong with that. Except that often when we practice herbalism in that way, it doesn’t work because that approach is hitting only the surface. What’s behind that asthma? What’s behind that constriction intention in their lungs and in their nerves? What’s behind that difficulty with communication? According to the alchemical perspective, we all contain these archetypal forces within us. We all have the planets. We all have the elements within us. It’s all based on our relationship with those archetypes and our ability to embody and integrate and express those archetypes in their, for lack of a better term, our highest virtue, our most virtuous expression. Each archetype has a light side and a dark side, or it has a good way of expressing itself and a not-so-good way of expressing itself in terms of whether it’s in harmony with its greater environment or not. And so in this example, we might say that this person does not have a well-integrated Mercury. That Mercury is trying to convey a message to that person, ultimately by giving them a challenge of wanting to work with them, wanting to be in better relationship with them, wanting them to be able to learn from Mercury, but Mercury has to wake you up. It has to get your attention so that you can come to understand it and become more whole.
The ultimate goal of alchemy is wholeness. Healing is our ability to be in relationship and harmony and balance. The macrocosm and the microcosm are in perfect alignment and harmony. And when that occurs, it ultimately leads to a degree of spiritual illumination. So there’s a medical aspect of alchemy, but there’s also a spiritual aspect. Our spiritual evolution and our healing journey are just two sides of the same leaf. I hope this was a helpful example of how we’re looking at the macrocosm in people and how this pattern of planets and elements help you to see the essence of what’s going on with the person and to see the pattern of relationship between the physiology, the psychology, and the soul.
The Macrocosm and Microcosm in Plants
This blueprint or map applies equally to plants. When we’re looking at a plant, often we separate its different virtues and properties out. As we discussed in the last post, we see the chemistry and the actions and the physical properties and the more subtle properties, and they’re all over the place. There isn’t anything that brings them together. This was a big challenge for me when I first started studying herbal medicine. I had a difficult time learning about plants because it was looking at just the chemicals. Here’s how these chemicals bind in the body. And over here are all the herbal actions. And over here are the organ systems they hit. Over here are the symptoms they treat. It was all over the place.
I learn best by seeing patterns. As soon as I can see a pattern in something, it all clicks and makes sense. It wasn’t until I started to view plants through the lens of the elements and seeing that, for example, this plant has a fiery red color, and it has spicy, hot, oily constituents that are pungent in their tastes, and they move the blood and they work on the heart and they raise the internal temperature and they’re good for treating fever. I realized that’s all the fire element. And then I was able to see one pattern in the plant that reflects on all of these different scales and levels that we often study in herbal medicine. This is why having this lens of the planets and the elements benefits us as herbalists. It helps us see the relationship between their morphology, their environment, their chemistry, their medicinal virtues, their actions, their energetics, their psycho-spiritual properties. It weaves them all together.
According to alchemy, when we come into contact with the essence of the plant, there’s an essence at the center of the plant. There’s a singularity. And that singularity is its medicine. That singularity is also a pattern that is reflected in its planetary and elemental qualities and characteristics. And that essence radiates outward and affects every attribute of that medicinal plant. When we begin to see the macrocosm in a plant, we’re looking at what element is dominant in this plant, what planet is dominant in this plant. This allows you to understand how it’s going to help a person on a much deeper level.
For example, with the example above of the person with asthma and the nervous system issues, if we think of an herb like lobelia, it’s a picture-perfect expression of the planet Mercury. It has this very acrid flavor to it that hits the back of the throat kind of like bile rising up from your stomach. It’s a relatively unpleasant taste to most people. But the acrid flavor indicates a very powerful, relaxing, antispasmodic property with a very strong affinity for the lungs and the respiratory system and the nervous system. These are all mercurial attributes. Mercury tends to produce spasming, constriction, and tension. Mercury rules the lungs and the respiratory system. It moves through the nervous system, and lobelia is hitting all of these levels.
There’s a lot more we could say about lobelia, but this is just a very quick snapshot of how you can see a planetary correspondence within a plant. So that gives you the understanding that lobelia is embodying the planet Mercury stronger than the other planets. It’s been stamped with that celestial influence. Because we understand that, we’re going to know that lobelia being associated with Mercury is going to work through the psychological, emotional, and spiritual aspects of that planet as well, meaning that it’s going to support the mind and cognition and thinking and language and communication and self-expression and coordination within the body and our movements. Mercury is said to be the messenger of the gods, so the ability to move between the above and the below and the inner and the outer. Mercury teaches us how to bridge our inner world to the outer world, through lots of different means of communication, not just through words.
That’s just a single example of how you start to see the macrocosm, the order of creation and of life within the plant. This is the essence of how we classify and understand and categorize materia medica in the alchemical tradition. We’re not just organizing it based on organ systems or actions or tastes or things like that. That’s all valuable, but in alchemy we want to look at a plant and its relationship to that underlying blueprint of nature and begin to understand them on not just one attribute but on the essence of that plant so that we can treat the essence of the person.
This might sound way out there or maybe woo woo or that I’m flying at 5,000 feet above the earth here. But as we’ve seen, in order for the practice of alchemy to be truly effective, we have to understand what the meaning behind what we’re doing is. If we distilled down to the essence of the philosophy of alchemy, it is these teachings of the macrocosm and the microcosm and learning to see correspondences, patterns, relationships within nature in people and in plants. The beauty of that is that while it can be an intellectual system, alchemy is also a heart-based system. Because the mind divides and separates. The mind compartmentalizes things and works through division and analysis and separation. The heart allows us to perceive unity, to perceive relationship, to perceive correspondences and signatures in plants and in people. So I love that this system is based on balancing our intellectual, rational faculties of the mind with the more receptive, intuitive faculties that are in the dominion of the heart. The macrocosm and the microcosm lays the philosophical foundation for the ultimate practice of alchemy.
The Application of Alchemical Philosophy
Philosophy is great, but how do we apply it? Alchemy is a system of medicine. It’s a system of therapeutics. Ultimately it’s a system of pharmacy, of working with the different aspects of nature and creating a medicine out of them according to this cosmological framework of creation, of the way of the underlying pattern of the natural world. In the realm of plants, that is what we refer to as spagyrics, the specific branch of alchemy that works with the preparation of medicinal plants. In part three of this series, we’ll look at spagyrics in more detail and how we take this understanding of the macrocosm and the microcosm and apply it to working with medicinal plants to create powerful herbal medicines that will heal the wholeness of the person because they contain the wholeness of the plant on a physical level, on an energetic level, and on a spiritual level.