Welcome to Integral Alchemy – the inner science of life, harmony and growth.
In the Chinese tradition of Taoism there is a discipline or school referred to as inner alchemy: practices involving mind and body, actions and thoughts that lead to a deeper kind of health than most of us understand when we speak of the word. Western minds, however, conditioned through rational science, materialism, life-style and media can often find the practices and truths behind this alchemy obscure and hard to trust. Let alone that classic texts in ancient Chinese about this subject are hardly straight forward and require oral instructions to understand.
Integral Alchemy aims to create access, not to the classical texts, but to the simple essence of the alchemical practice – whether that be called Taoist or something else.
Since not all minds are alike and not even one mind operates from the same level and perspective at all times during its life, it is only natural that we need varying approaches to gain access to certain manners of existence, knowledge, wisdom – or ultimately – the absence thereof.
This is what “integral” might mean here: An attempt to use many perspectives in order to transcend the ordinary mind.
In eastern traditions transcending the ordinary is often shrouded in cryptic, riddle like poetry and symbols and goes along with a very deep teacher-student relationship. This relationship is unlike anything we have in western society – trust, filiality and obedience mark it. For western learners this can be a difficult hurdle to overcome – both the language/manner of explaining the practice and the relationships with teachers are foreign to their way of thinking and living. Even highly developed people may find it difficult to access the esoteric wisdom because certain terms have been hijacked, misunderstood, misused and remain beyond scientific interpretations or worse have been erroneously linked to misunderstood scientific concepts and thus to many this wisdom has been discredited.
Instead of continuing to exacerbate these circumstances Integral Alchemy is intended to offer a synthesis of western thought (analytic methods to view the mind, life, health, universe and practice) and the subtle teachings from ancient masters of the east, without falling into the trap of trying to prove or disprove concepts through science, or even creating a modernized system. In fact, at the heart of Taoism lies the idea of naturalness, which rejects conceptualizations and systematizations as abstractions leading to a distancing from truth and therefor life/vitality.
For westerners this is a very difficult stance to accept, since the occidental culture values abstract thinking. It is thus sometimes helpful to use concepts and abstractions in order to obtain access to practices which awaken the potentialities within our mind in which abstractions then no longer are the highest form of operation.
My own story is marked by this: trained as a physicist, rational thought and the scientific method were to me the pinnacle of human achievement, even though I had already experienced thought beyond rational abstractions. Drawn to mystical traditions like yoga and Taoism my mind still struggled with those parts of these practices that were esoteric and spoke of energies and ultimate reality. Even though intuitively and from personal, spontaneous experience I knew what these things were, I could not allow myself to fully enter a practice involving them without a scientific understanding.
It took a certain, very objective and abstract explanation of mind, spirituality and the universe, but particularly mind, in order for me to drop my resistance and accept that the development of mind and thought could transcend abstract and rational thought. And that beyond those, things like energy, eternity and truth made perfect sense. This explanation was Ken Wilber’s Integral Theory. While it’s not everyone’s cup of tea to read his books, the message I want to convey is very simple:
The reason many people reject a deeper practice (we call it spiritual practice, but that already sounds very airy-fairy to westerners) even though they feel a certain curiosity towards it is not necessarily lack of will or discipline or even disposition, but a fundamental belief system that simply can’t join the transcendental ideas from the mystical practice with their current way of thinking. It is not possible or useful to prove the veracity of mysticism to anyone. But what is possible is to show that the mind can exist in more states than what we generally accept to be the “right” or most valued state. Once this boundary is crossed, we are free to explore and test the veracity of the mystical ourselves and begin a practice – or not.
What are the benefits of an Alchemical Practice?
In reality this question presents a kind of paradox to the practitioner and any attempt to answer it results in a loss of the essence that is behind the actual practice. The idea of benefits or results from any kind of action is rooted in a certain mindset, which the practice – among other things – seeks to transcend. And even that is said in a way that does not quite reflect the nature of practice, since seeking itself is also transcended until the mind is utterly free of influences from the outside, pulling and pushing it in any direction.
Modern science and the general understanding of health professionals agree that meditation is beneficial for mind and body by means of relaxation, concentration and other things. Modern creations such as mindfulness and apps for guided meditations have been born from this idea, however they are strictly based around the idea of getting a return for the effort put in. Practice meditation and you will be more relaxed! Practice meditation and you will have better concentration.
While this may be true, according to most wisdom traditions, the full potential of the mind can only be realized when this mindset of returns is cast off. It’s hard to explain. We cannot answer the question, “what do you meditate for?”, without operating from this mindset of returns, since the question implies that there is a definable result or outcome. We can speak of clarity of mind and describe many of the attributes of a mind that is trained and developed in the methods of meditation and alchemy, but they fail to capture the reality of the truly unfettered mind. And that is perhaps an appropriate symbol: The mind that is developed through alchemical practice is impossible to capture.
We can also point out that modern science as well as ancient traditions agree that the mind is a huge factor in the health of the human organism as a whole. In fact, when we speak of training or cultivating the mind we mean a significantly broader field of study than what you would expect. We’re not talking about the psychological entity responsible for thought, emotions and self-image alone, but also about potentialities that go beyond that and are often denominated energetic studies which interface directly with the body. The mind is thus not seen as something separate from the body as is usually implied when spoken of body and mind, but rather we propose to see it as a more subtle phase of the human being, where the body is the most solid phase. Transcendence would hence be the least solid or most subtle phase in a continuum of states ranging from gross/solid to subtle/ethereal.
In ancient Taoism translations of texts often speak of cultivating the mind, but very often it is also simply said that one is cultivating one’s conduct – without the distinction and thus reduction of which particular state of one’s being one is actually working on.
The words “to cultivate one’s conduct” and the meditative nature of the practice can make it seem like it’s very eremitic and independent of society. This can be true for some – often the ancient sages retreated for several years to cabins in the mountains and lived as recluses – the integral emphasis here is to bring cultivation into a variety of living situations so that they too can be transformed according to the principles of harmony and balance. This means that cultivation takes place within the interpersonal space, as in you-and-me or “we”, as well as within the systems of our environments (economics, biosphere, …). For this the ancients already had developed guidelines of ethical behavior and the three treasures or virtues: compassion, frugality and humility.
Other guidelines were also developed to maintain one’s physical health in order to assist the deeper cultivation of more subtle planes. These guidelines include culturally accepted ideas which we can find among other places within Traditional Chinese Medicine like choice of food and amount of sleep, manners of breathing, exercises like qigong and many other things. But contrary to the core principle of Taoism which is naturalness and the rejection of artificial systems, often these guidelines were systemized and turned into “recipes for health” – which might even have some health benefits, but are not in full accord with this principle of naturalness.
The more natural approach would be to access a state of mind of deep connectivity to the universe and immediate reality (body, mind, environment, social field), in order to intuitively live in a way that is healthy and harmonious. But at the beginning of one’s practice this access is not necessarily possible – which is why certain guidelines are given by masters to students. These kind of guidelines too will be discussed here. It is a mistake to think they can be ignored or altered at will, but it is also a mistake to think they must be followed like a recipe for all eternity. All systems are eventually transcended. The intuitive and spontaneous mind can then guide itself.
My personal practice consists of TaoYoga Arts™, which I also teach – a system of guidelines and exercises… to be transcended at a later time.
To learn more about the practical aspects of integral alchemy please read this link.