Colleen Szabo is a writer, symbolist, counselor, and graphic artist currently living in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Academic credentials: summa cum laude Bachelor’s in Psychology from University of New Mexico, and a Master’s in Counseling Psychology from Institute of Transpersonal Psychology, now Sofia University, in Palo Alto, CA.
I spent decades as a “spiritual seeker”, starting with Yoga when I was 14. I explored Christianity, The Course in Miracles, Sufism, the teachings of Rajneesh/Osho, Gangaji, Eckhart Tölle, Martha Beck, Rumi, and many more. I realized at some point that the countless teachings I had at some point loved and moved on from add up to the alchemical approach I now teach. Carl Jung said once in a letter that he did not choose alchemy; it chose him, and Jung’s alchemy is indeed a perennial philosophy. With Jung’s help (technically his followers) alchemy chose me, too, though it took some wrestling on my part! For alchemy means that I am in service to All with no fixed reference point excepting myself. I am my own North Star. In a sense all humans are born to this; we are all natural symbolists and alchemists, capable of cooking up a life of destiny and depth. However some of us, like the fictional Harry Potter and his ilk, are destined to enter alchemy’s teachings consciously and wholeheartedly, though our culture may not understand or support the orientation.
Alchemy as a philosophy is difficult to define, but it underlies and imbues all human experience. My alchemy is based on the basic magical rules of As within, so without, All is not as it seems, and There is no separation. My everyday alchemy and its symbolic interpretation is based on understanding the properties of things (plates, trees, colors), behaviors (crying, eating, thinking), and events (marriage, winter, birth). This understanding of properties is, of course, the foundation of traditional magic worldwide. It means to break the thing down into its origins, its composition, and to understand its purposes and associations from the human perspective.
Humans are natural alchemists. The most obvious of everyday alchemical activities would be cooking. When we cook a meal and consume it, we engage in numerous alchemical activities; the choosing of ingredients, their peeling and chopping and grinding and combining, the use of the 4 elements of air, fire, water, and earth. We use shape and color and the properties of hardness. We use time and the elements to break things down into their parts. When we take food into our bodies, we do the same; we cut and grind, we containerize and use fire and water to extract nutrients and then eliminate that which is no longer useful to us. The foodstuffs themselves are also the products of the (more or less in my culture) natural processes of the Earth Mother’s powerful alchemical magic.
The setting we use for the consumption of food is an added value alchemical container arena. Consider the differences between eating at McDonald’s, TV dinners in front of the screen on a little folding tray, bento boxes with their sweet and careful presentation, the peasant European style family table by the fire (our kitchen ranges and ovens are the common replacement for the older fireplace), and the fancier forum of linen tablecloth, candles, crystal, and porcelain table settings in a separate dining room. The differences are part of the meal’s alchemy, of the event’s energetic signature embodied in that experience by the participants. That alchemy is symbolized, in a sense, by the setting, because the elements of the setting bear energetic qualities. The same is true in stories and night dreams.
My basic alchemical education came first from Yogic philosophy, mostly through studying the chakra system, and then from Carl Jung, mostly by way of his students, who wrote numerous interpretations of alchemical stories; fairy tales, dreams, myths, religious texts, and more. Once I acquired a foundation in alchemy and its symbolism, the whole world was imbued with meaning, and that meaning is directly intended for my entertainment and edification. That’s one of my favorite aspects of living the alchemical life. The other favorite aspect is that I thoroughly understand the nature of existence as a cocreative journey of transformation, or healing, in common parlance, for the universe is always on the move. Another crucial lesson alchemy teaches is that we are multidimensional beings; symbolism as I use it is a language of multidimensionality, meant to sync the earthly human experience with the experience of soul and spirit.
One of alchemy’s crucial differences from “New Age” spirituality and the large organized monotheistic religious experience in general is that alchemy asks us to enter or face the darkness within our psyches and discover what lies beneath our fear and hatred, our suffering, our conditioned separation from joy and abundance. This quest is the mystical imperative that’s found, for example, in Judaism (alchemy as a highly respected Western philosophy was probably brought to Europe by Jews) and Christianity. Mysticism of any stripe usually involves bringing light to inner darkness; the old alchemical work of turning lead to gold. The round of holy days in contemporary monotheistic religions has deep mystical and alchemical meaning; however, the average contemporary will never know what that deep significance is, for that is not part of education in primarily mundane cultures.
In a time when the darkness of a whole planet is exploding into common view, everyday alchemy is an approach that can indeed lend tools for transforming the darkness into light. As written in Sun Tzu’s famous (and of course often symbolic) Art of War, “If you know yourself and know the enemy, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.” The world “out there” speaks to us of the inner condition, and presents infinite opportunities for transforming our inner lead to gold. Though we are taught that we can more easily change our reality through resisting and otherwise manipulating things “out there” (usually other people), the alchemist soon sees that our own darkness which has not been transformed within keeps popping up like a bad penny. For the alchemist, charity truly begins at home, as we change the world one life at a time.