Alchemy and Herbalism Part I- The Science and Spirituality of Herbalism

One thing I’ve noticed over the years is that the science and spirit of herbalism are commonly taught separately. The problem with this approach is that they are two sides of the same leaf, and separating them leads to a fractured and incomplete understanding of herbalism. The alchemical philosophy unites them to generate a holistic perspective that can transform your herbalism practice into one that’s truly holistic, honoring the physical, energetic, and spiritual attributes of both people and plants.

In today’s blog post, you’ll learn:

  • About alchemy’s roots and how it led to the modern scientific system used today 
  • How alchemy bridges science and spirituality 
  • Ways alchemy can help you become a holistic practitioner 
  • About the benefits of a holistic approach to healing 
  • What true wellness is, and how to obtain it

Table of Contents

 

Preparing Chamomile (Matricaria recutita) flowers for the essential oil distillation – the first step in making a spagyric essence.

Welcome to part one of a four part series where you’ll learn about the intersection of alchemy and herbalism. Alchemy has been around for centuries, and at its heart, this philosophy is all about unity and seeing that the body, spirit, and soul are ultimately one and cannot be separated. The alchemical paradigm of unity connects the modern scientific, traditional energetic, and spiritual teachings that surround herbal medicine, giving us a well rounded understanding of people, plants, and nature as a whole. 

From the scientific approach, plants are studied based on their chemistry. Alternatively, traditional approaches stress the importance of looking at the energetics of plants, such as how they affect the temperature, moisture, and tone in different organs in the body. Lastly, the spiritual approach focuses on how to use subtle medicines, like flower essences or the spirit of the plant, to benefit the emotional, psychological, and even physical part of the person. 

The issue behind teaching them separately is that they are innately tied together and form a larger whole. When you divide them, you get a splintered perspective of herbal medicine. Alchemy helps us to view them as one united system. By studying the relationship between people and plants and how herbal medicine impacts you on the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual levels, you can learn how to identify core patterns and heal people on the root level. Through this truly holistic approach, you restore vitality and health to your body, mind, and spirit.

The Divide From Spirit 

The word “chemistry” has its roots in alchemy, which was the first science as it explored the inner workings of nature. Alchemy was a sacred practice that involved observing and exploring the natural virtues of the world both celestial and terrestrial. This ancient practice was focused on uncovering the sentience and intelligence that lies behind everything in the natural order of life. 

From the alchemical perspective, the body, spirit, and soul are one—a concept that extends to plants and humans alike. Alchemy sees that the body is the most fixed attribute of the soul, and that the soul is the most volatile part of the body, and the spirit mediates between the two, uniting them together. However, over time, the scientific aspects of alchemy were separated into what became iatrochemistry, which turned into chemistry, and further into modern pharmacology, while the spiritual foundation was left behind. This reductionist approach led to the scientific model that exists today. I tend to think of it as a de-evolution process, as alchemy turned into chemistry, astrology into astronomy, and herbalism gave way to modern pharmaceutical medicine. In each of these, the spirit was stripped from the system, the deeper meaning removed from the form, and the relationships between the part and the whole degraded.

Unfortunately, as science became the dominant driving force in the world, the thousands of years of cultural and traditional methods of herbal medicine were dismissed and written off as invalid. Despite this rift, the alchemical herbal tradition serves as a bridge that connects the past to the future, science to spirit, and biochemical herbalism with plant sentience to form a holistic system. 

People today are seeking healing that supports their physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being. And because plants possess chemistry, intelligence, and consciousness, they have the ability to heal us on each of these levels. The alchemical philosophy offers a sophisticated and refined system for finding healing that encompasses each part of your being. 

Science and Spirituality—Two Sides of the Same Leaf

The cultural divide between science and spirituality is felt across the globe, and herbalism is no exception. The alchemical philosophy played a crucial role in my herbalism practice by bridging the gap between these two paradigms, and I think it’s an approach that can play a critical role in the future development and refinement of herbal medicine. 

On one end of the spectrum, some herbalists exclusively rely on the biochemical model, ignoring the energetic and subtle aspects of plants, which cannot always be quantified by science (though it can be clinically at times). On the other end, some practice primarily from a spiritual perspective, such as flower essence practitioners, who incorporate the spiritual side of plants into their practice. 

The problem is that there is a lot of knowledge to explore in between these two perspectives. And although many herbalists fall someplace in the middle of them, this divide creates the impression that you need to pick a side. 

The alchemical philosophy taught me that you don’t need to do that. Through seeing the unity between science and spirit, you are able to benefit from both and integrate that information into your practice to become a holistic practitioner. You start to see that you understand the science of a plant on a deeper level by engaging with its spirit, and vice versa. By embracing this unified perspective, you can integrate all of the different parts of herbal medicine into your practice to receive the full spectrum of healing from plant medicine. 

For example, if you practiced herbalism exclusively from the scientific approach, you would focus solely on plant chemistry, its bioactive compounds, and how they bind to receptors in the body to lead to a physiological and chemical response. Much of how herbs are used for people would be dependent on modern research, double blind placebo controlled studies, and the like. Honestly, there are very few herbalists that actually practice this way, as most also incorporate traditional approaches alongside a scientific understanding. 

Alternatively, if you focused on the traditional approach, you would consider the plant’s energetics and how it influences your constitution in terms of temperature, moisture, and tone. You would have a less physiological based understanding of the body and how plants heal, and see things more ecologically. In contrast, the spiritual approach, such as working with flower essences, is concerned with how herbs affect the mind and emotions, and is strictly “vibrational” in how it functions. 

Alchemy provides a holistic lens that enables you to see the dotted lines that connect the different layers of the body with the emotions, mind and spirit. This approach empowers you as an herbalist to develop a deeper understanding of plant medicine by incorporating both the physical and spiritual attributes of plants. As a result, your herbal medicine becomes more effective because you are supporting the whole person.

Nettle (Urtica dioica)

True Wellness

True wellness goes beyond your physical body. It encompasses your connection to yourself, nature, and the entirety of life. Healing is not just the absence of disease, but a state of wholeness unto itself. When you heal your physical, mental, or emotional patterns, you emerge on the other side in greater harmony with your healthiest self. 

Alchemy provides you with a holistic approach to achieving health by uniting your physical, psychological, and spiritual aspects with that of the plants. For example, Nettle leaf (Urtica dioica) is diuretic from the scientific model, cooling and drying from the traditional perspective, and balances excess patterns of Mars in the spiritual tradition. With the three combined, you receive a much more holistic understanding of how Nettle (Urtica dioica) impacts your body, mind, and spirit. 

Just as each person has a core and unique essence, so do plants. When you take herbal medicine, it is not only the biochemical constituents that impact you, but its spirit as well. Its influence touches your body, mind, and soul—leading to a much greater result than just from its biochemical effect alone. 

Indeed, from the alchemical view of health, the plants are used not just to heal sickness, but to support the evolutionary process of the soul. We are all born here with certain lessons we need to learn in this life in order to grow and be in greater harmony with ourselves and nature. These life lessons, or life patterns, are understood through the lens of the archetypes of astrology, most notably the 7 Planets. By understanding the archetypes we need to understand and learn from the most, we select plants associated with them, and work with them spagyrically to help integrate those life lessons into our daily lives. 

A Holistic Lens

Herbal medicine is a vast and complex field you can approach from different angles. Traditional, scientific, and spiritual perspectives each have their strengths and limitations, but they all play a role in understanding the healing power of plants. The challenge lies in integrating these perspectives into a cohesive and effective approach to plant medicine. This is where the philosophy and practice of alchemy come in, as it unites seemingly disparate and disconnected pieces and parts into a unified whole. 

With alchemy, you can appreciate the complex chemistry of plants, the energetics that underpin their actions, and the subtle psycho-spiritual effects they have on your emotions, mental states, and consciousness. By seeing how these different layers work together, you can develop a comprehensive and holistic approach to plant medicine that addresses the whole person by understanding the whole plant.  

Through cultivating reverence and understanding of the interconnectedness of all things, you can use your insight and knowledge to support your own healing and evolution, as well as the healing of the planet as a whole.

Sajah loading the kiln with crucibles of dried herbs ready to begin the calcination process (extracting the salt principle from the herbs)

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