Welcome to the first part of a four-part series discussing alchemy and herbalism. The tradition of alchemy is a tradition dear to my heart. I’m excited to share some of these teachings with you because the alchemical tradition was the missing piece of the puzzle on my quest for a holistic system of herbal medicine. One of the main ways that it sparked something deep within me is the way that alchemy brings together science and spirituality. That’s what this post covers.
Alchemy Unites Science and Spirituality
In the modern paradigm of herbal medicine, the integration of and synergy between science and spirituality is critically important. Science and spirituality are often seen as diametrically opposed ways of viewing the world. One is materialistic, mechanistic, and reductionistic, and the other is circular and based in faith and belief and things that to most people haven’t been scientifically proven—though biology of belief and quantum physics are now providing scientific explanations for the invisible aspects of life.
Alchemy is an ancient system that unites these two worlds. The root of our word chemistry comes from alchemy. Historically, alchemy was not only the original science but was also seen as a sacred science. Not only was there observation and exploration of the natural world and looking at chemical virtues, but there was also seeing a deep meaning, that there’s purpose, that there’s sentience, that there’s intelligence, that anywhere there is life there is a spirit, but there is also a body, a material side.
Throughout history, alchemy gradually became desacralized and turned into chemistry. That gradual removal of the spirit happens in a lot of different areas of life and knowledge and history and traditions, and they became more mechanistic and reductionistic. Alchemy turned into chemistry, astrology turned into astronomy, and herbal medicine turned into modern pharmaceutical medicine.
Alchemy can offer herbalism a critically important balance of being able to look at a plant and understand it on a pharmacological biochemical level but also to understand the spiritual side side of that plant, to see it as a living, sentient, conscious being that has the capacity to heal us on the spiritual level as well as the physiological level. That is the kind of healing people are looking for these days and the level of healing needed. Many of my students and fellow herbalists say that more and more people are coming to them asking for help on levels beyond the body, looking for help in their psychology, looking for emotional support, and looking for spiritual support. Alchemy is an incredibly sophisticated and refined system for helping people on that level. I’m excited to be opening up this doorway for you and sharing what I see as some of the core fundamental philosophical aspects and practical applications of alchemy that you can put to use in your work with herbal medicine.
What does it mean to bring together science and spirituality? What does an integrated model of herbal medicine look like? One that can honor the physical and the spiritual side of both people and of plants, as well as life and nature as a whole. Herbal medicine has been practiced in that way for a very long time, but as science has become a dominant force in the world, herbalism has suffered. Some people don’t think that plants have sentience or intelligence or consciousness or that they can heal us on a psychological and emotional or even spiritual level. And that’s okay. But at the same time, it also denies what thousands of years of culture, tradition, and ways of practicing medicine have recognized.
Alchemy is unique because science was born out of alchemy. It forms an excellent bridge between the two. But spirit was removed from our approach to healing people with plants, and it affected how we approach practicing herbal medicine today. For example, when we’re looking at a plant with a mechanistic understanding, we understand a plant based solely on its chemistry. We see that there are biochemically active constituents in the plant that bind to certain receptors in our bodies, and that’s what’s responsible for the healing attributes of plants. While that’s true, it often negates traditional models of understanding such as looking at the energetics of a plant in terms of how it affects the ecology of the human organism and in terms of how it influences temperature and moisture and tone and different aspects of the body. At the same time, there are herbalists on the other end of that spectrum who focus more on as psycho-spiritual approaches to working with plants—working with plant-spirit medicine, or working with flower essences, or more subtle forms of healing that are focused less on the body and more on the mind and the emotions.
What challenged me for a long time in my thinking and in my working with people is there was always a split, there was always separation. We look at the body through one lens, through anatomy and physiology and biochemistry. Then we look at the emotional side and the psychological side in a totally different way. And we look at the spiritual side in a totally different way. It was all over the place. It wasn’t an integrative approach that saw the relationship between the body and the mind and the heart and the soul.
Unity and a Holistic Approach
Unity is one of the core teachings of alchemy. We’ll look at that in more detail in the next part of this series, including the teachings of the microcosm and the macrocosm. Alchemy sees the human organism is a whole being. There’s just one you. The body isn’t separate from the mind or from the emotions or from the soul. They’re all inextricably woven together into wholeness. One of the key things that we have to understand about working with people is that what’s going on in the body is a direct reflection or influence upon the mind and the heart and the soul. The more that we’re able to see those dotted lines, to see those core patterns, to see the essence of a person, the more effective our work with herbal medicine will be, especially if we’re trying to work in a way that is equally addressing the body, the psyche, and the soul.
One of the main ways that alchemy supports us in working with people is having a very holistic lens through which we’re able to see a person and start to understand the core patterns that we carry, such as the root causes of the struggles that we face as human beings and how health isn’t just the absence of disease but rather a whole state of being of wholeness unto itself, along with wholeness in our connection to nature and to the wholeness of life.
Therein lies the seed for our spiritual development. And a core attribute of the alchemical lineage that has had a profound impact on my personal approach to life and herbalism, is that healing and evolution are two sides of the same leaf. As we focus on healing ourselves, whether that’s in our body or other levels, we evolve, we change, we grow, we become renewed and rejuvenated, and we emerge on the other side of that healing in a greater level of wholeness and harmony within ourselves and within nature. This dynamic of healing and spiritual development or evolutionary process and the pathway of the soul is something we’ll discuss in more detail later on in this series. But this is one way that alchemy supports our understanding of the connection between science and the body, spirit, and soul of a person. And the same applies to plants.
When we’re looking at a plant scientifically, we come to understand its physical healing attributes through its chemicals, its energetics, its actions and organ system affinities, and even through what types of diseases or symptoms it generally heals. But when I was first studying plants, I wanted to learn about the psycho-spiritual properties of a plant, however, none of the herbals I looked at ever had any information on it. They had only small single-paragraph descriptions or big lists of what they’re good for. If I wanted information about how those plants would work on more subtle levels of being, I’d have to go to flower essence repertories or go to the plant itself and decipher and determine it from within the heart.
There was always this split, this separation in the way we view people and plants. Alchemy has the ability to unite those together into a significantly more holistic worldview. Looking at a plant, and just like with people, this alchemical understanding allows you to see the relationship between what that plant is doing within the body. When you take that plant into your body, where does it go to? What organ systems does it reach into and touch? When it goes into that organ system, how is it shifting the ecosystem of that organ? How is it healing us on that physical level?
The whole way that a plant is healing the body, is the same exact pattern that’s healing within our psychological and emotional being. It’s the same pattern of which it’s healing on the spiritual side as well. Just like in a person, there is an essence within the plant, there is a core singularity within the center of a plant, and that is the core medicine of the plant. That essence within the plant is a pattern, and that medicinal essential pattern within the plant is reflecting on what it does in our bodies, what it does in our minds, what it does in our hearts, and what it does within the soul. It’s one thing that reflects on multiple scales.
So this is a dotted line allows you to connect and understand a plant on a significantly deeper level than just something like “this herb is good for anxiety” or “this herb is good for a cough” or “this herb helps you overcome grief” or “this herb helps you be more open-hearted.” While that’s all very valuable information, it’s at the surface level. Alchemy allows you to see what’s beneath the surface, what’s behind the different layers within a plant, so that you can understand it holistically. The holistic understanding of a plant and the holistic understanding of a person allows you to cultivate a holistic practice of herbal medicine.
Alchemy as Transformation
Transformation is one of the ways that people often talk about alchemy. Alchemy is almost a replacement word for transformation. That’s often how the word alchemy is used outside of the context of its actual traditional lineage and body of knowledge. A big part of my purpose on this earth is doing my best to preserve these teachings of alchemy and continue to grow and expand them and make them applicable and practical so that people can heal.
There is an incredible level of power within this tradition and its teachings to bring about healing for people, especially during these times on earth where we’re things are significantly harder both individually and globally right now, all of life feels like it is shifting! Healing ourselves by supporting and helping others to heal is what’s going to turn the tides in a positive direction.
Alchemy as Philosophy and Practice
These are just some of the high-level ways that alchemy is beneficial for herbalists because it changes our perception. We no longer see the plant and we no longer see the person in isolation. They’re not an island. We see them in relationship with each other and to the wholeness of life itself, to the pattern of nature, of creation, of the cosmos. That’s why alchemy is, in the truest sense of the word, the most “whole-istic” system of medicine, because we see the whole plant and the whole person in relationship to the wholeness of life.
So, in the second installation in this series (coming out next week!), I’m going to share with you one of the core philosophical teachings in alchemy and the age-old adage that you’ve probably heard before: “as above, so below.” This first lesson surveyed alchemy at a high level, but over the next few weeks, I’m going to bring it down into some more practical applications of alchemy so you can see how it can be used in your work with plants on a more grounded level.
Everything in alchemy is always a balance of philosophy and practice. If we have practice with no philosophy, we’re just bumbling around and don’t know what we’re doing. But if we have all philosophy and no practice, then we’re just sitting in our armchairs thinking about interesting things, and that doesn’t help anyone. So the first two posts of this series are going to be talking about the philosophy of alchemy. And then in the last two, I’ll dig into some of the practical aspects and show you how this can help you on your plant path.
In the spirit of the plants,