When we’re thinking about herbal medicine making, some of the topics that generally come up amongst herbalists are linear in their approach to how we prepare herbal medicine. What part of the plant do we use? Should it be fresh or should it be dried? What percentage alcohol should we use? Is it better as an infusion or a decoction? What are the chemicals in the plant, and how do we best extract them? That’s usually what we’re looking for and discussing amongst ourselves as herbalists. How can we make the best, most powerful, and effective herbal medicine? I think that’s important. We need to know how to make effective herbal medicine that is concentrating and extracting and preserving all of the medicinal virtues within a plant.
The Alchemical Approach
When we start digging into the alchemical tradition and the practice of spagyrics or herbal alchemy, we’re not just concentrating on the chemistry of the plant, but also concentrating the energetics and the spiritual properties of the plant. The whole goal of spagyrics is that we are preserving the life force of the plant, the wholeness of the plant, its body, its intelligence, its spirit, and its soul, so that it will heal the whole person. It’ll heal our physical being, our psychological and emotional being, and even heal us on more of a spiritual level as well. It’s not common that the dynamic of intention is discussed in standard herbal medicine making, but it’s an important part that’s discussed quite openly in the alchemical tradition. They say in alchemy that it is the intention and the state of consciousness of the operator, the person working in the laboratory context, that has a very powerful influence on the medicine that we are preparing. So there are a couple ways that I think are important that we can follow to get ourselves in a good internal state that’s conducive to making high-quality herbal medicine, especially in the context of preparing spagyrics.
So I thought I’d share with you my thoughts about the importance of intention and the state of our mind and our heart when we are preparing plant medicine, as well as taking it to a deeper level in terms of what our role is as an herbal medicine maker within the context of alchemy and combining not just the outside laboratory dynamics of alchemy but also bringing in the inner alchemy, our internal spiritual work and the way that we’re able to move these energies that we’re working with in the external lab and work with them internally as well. I hope you enjoy this discussion on a sometimes seldomly discussed aspect of herbal medicine making.
The Alchemical Process
The goal for someone who is practicing the art of alchemy is that we ourselves have our own direct connection and relationship to the archetypal forces of nature. In the context of spagyrics, we’re working a lot with the seven planets: sun, moon, Mars, Venus, Jupiter, Saturn, and Mercury. Through Mercury and Venus and Mars, we can have a connection to Neptune, Pluto, and Uranus. The goal is that we have our own connection to and relationship with these archetypes. When it comes to our intention and our own internal space when we’re creating spagyrics, the goal is for us to be very clear and very clean.
I always say the lab and the medicine making spaces are both laboratory and temple, so to speak. You want your mind and your heart to be very clean, very pure. You don’t want to be in there thinking bad thoughts or stressed out or arguing with your partner or worrying about a bunch of things. You’re very present, you’re very here, you’re very now, and you’re focused on the medicine that you’re creating. That’s the first way to approach it. As you become more aware of your own connection and relationship to the planets, and you’re timing all of your preparations accordingly to those celestial influences, there are ways that you can become a vehicle through which the energy of that planet can build up in your system. You can draw that planetary energy into your body and build it up and allow that energy to move through you and through your intention and through your prayer to infuse that into the medicine that you’re preparing.
My teacher Robert Bartlett has a cool chapter in his second book, The Way of the Crucible, called “The Alchemical Eucharist.” For those of you not familiar with the term Eucharist, it’s another way of talking about communion, the holy communion, and how the alchemist as the operator can function as a bridge between the medicine that you’re preparing here and the celestial force that you’re wanting to anchor into the medicine there. We are that bridge between the above and the below.
I always say that in herbalism we harvest plants and in alchemy we harvest planets. There are passive ways that we harvest those planets, and then there are active ways that we harvest those planets. Passive ways are by timing everything accordingly. Through making sure you’re preparing your St. John’s wort essence on Sunday at the sun hour, you’re innately bringing that solar influence into the medicine. So you’re timing it accordingly. But the more active method is through your meditation, through the inner alchemy. One of the most important attributes of inner alchemy is that we are building a relationship to these seven planetary qualities, to these archetypal forces, that we come to understand their color and their vibration and their sound and their feeling. What does it feel like when Mars is moving through you? What does it feel like when you feel that upliftment of Jupiter? This is where the meditation comes in, where working with your spagyrics helps you to get a handle on those felt sensations, where meditating with your planetary hours and the timing mechanisms so you can really feel those influences comes into play. This is also where a working knowledge of the Kabbalah comes into play in the work with alchemy, in that the Kabbalah shows us certain ways of establishing connections and communion with these celestial forces.
The goal is for our constitution not to get in the way of the preparation of the medicine. We don’t want to be infusing our personal energy into the spagyrics we prepare. Rather, we want to be an instrument, we want to be a vehicle, a mechanism through which these greater archetypal forces move through us and then imprint themselves on the medicine so that we’re bringing that celestial energy down and into the medicine.
“Flip It Upside Down”
That’s the beauty and the paradox of alchemy and how everything flips around. My good friend Gabriel Quinn Maroney, who I went to Bastyr with, was one of the first guys that I met who was into alchemy, and he taught me a lot and is a genius of a man and a great guy too. He’s a pretty funny guy too. He says, “As soon as you think you know something about alchemy, you just have to flip it upside down.” And I remember laughing with him about that. That’s really funny. He was like, “Yeah, as above, so below. You’ve just got to flip it on its head.” At first I thought that was funny, but then I really thought about it. I was like, wow, actually that’s profound.
I think this is one of those cases too. When you’re preparing the medicine, you are the instrument between the planets and the medicine. There’s two phases of a spagyric: you preparing the medicine in the lab and then the other side of it. Everyone thinks that the spagyric is complete when you finish preparing the medicine in the lab, but really that’s just the first half of it. Again, everything flips. Now you ingest that medicine, and now it prepares you into the medicine. And just as the way in the lab you are the vehicle for that planet to move through you and into the medicine, when you ingest the medicine, now it is the bridge between you and that planet. Now the medicine is going to help you to come into a deeper level of contact with that celestial force of that planet in your meditations and things like that.
Talking about this from the Western esoteric tradition’s perspective, a lot of people think that this sounds really woo woo and out there. But this is what Qigong is all about. There are certain aspects of the Chinese system, specifically qigong, that involve contacting these planetary energies, bringing these planetary energies down, moving them through our organ systems and our tissues and understanding their color and tone and vibration and their vision and their felt sensation in the body, and then becoming a vehicle for that energy to work through you in a healing way.
It’s the same thing in the Western tradition. In this case, we’re using it in the lab to create an herbal medicine. But then it flips on its head and the herbal medicine is working within the laboratory of our body to turn us into a medicine. So one part’s on the outside: we’re in the lab, preparing medicine. The other part is on the inside: the plant is moving within us. We’re working on the plant in the lab. The plant is working on us within our body, which is the lab. I love that you just flip it upside down and it makes sense. That’s how it works.
The Alchemical Path
The path of alchemical medicine is that we are coming into a greater level of connection to the forces of nature, to the forces of life, to the forces of creation, to the elements that exist here on the earth, the planets that exist in the cosmos and in our solar system. There’s intelligence, there’s sentience. These are the great spiritual overseers of life and of nature. Over time, as we as humans become more scientific, more mechanized, more rational, we’ve really lost touch with the understanding that we can commune with these intelligent, sentient forces of creation and that they can heal us, and that they can teach us, and that they hold the keys to our health and our well-being and our wholeness and our spiritual development. That’s what alchemy is all about. It’s about the soul’s evolutionary journey that we come onto this earth to engage with, and also the healing work that we have to do that inevitably comes up when we embark on that spiritual journey of really becoming who we truly are and healing our trauma and turning it into our transformation and seeing our illness as our initiation.
The path of alchemy is the inner work and the outer work, the above work and the below work, the laboratory work and our own work, working on the plants but also the plants working on us. In the same way that we make medicine in the lab as the first half of the spagyric process, everything flips. Then the plants work on us. The plants heal us, the plants teach us, the plants become a bridge to connect us to these archetypes, and then they turn us into a living medicine. That ultimately is the pathway of the alchemical herbalist.
This is how we affect the medicine that we create and the importance of our intention and of keeping our hearts and our minds really pure and really clean when we’re making medicine. But there is also this other level of medicine making in alchemy that involves this deeper level of our internal work and our meditation and learning how to embody and move the energy of these archetypes that we work with.