Alchemy Unveiled – Part 3: The Philosopher’s Egg
Some may have included the philosopher’s egg in Part 2: Preparations for Alchemy, but it is important (and difficult) enough to warrant its own entry.
In laboratories, refineries, and the like, retorts are used for the purpose of distilling a liquid substance, or of extracting one substance from the matrix of another (natural gas from coal, for instance). They are bulbous containers, often of glass, with long tubes leading into them. In laboratory alchemy, the retort used is a single piece glass bulb-and-tube, of which the tube narrows toward the end and curls downward to prevent gases from escaping. If a perfect Hermetic seal is required, the tube stem can be heated up and melted closed.
I have read a lot of books and articles on alchemy which have claimed that this retort is, when applied to the alchemist herself, the human aura. This is only partly true. If we consider the aura to be the final barrier between “self” and “other”, it is part of the philosopher’s egg, but certainly not the entire thing. In fact, the egg is the whole personal self of the alchemist. At least, this is potentially so in everybody, but only a few dedicated practitioners ever realize it to any considerable degree.
I’m sure that most of my readership is familiar with the Magician’s Pyramid, otherwise known as the Four Powers of the Wise: to know, to will, to dare, and to keep silent. In case anybody reading this is not familiar with them, let us explore them briefly.
To know is, as one would expect, the power of knowledge. It is also the power of understanding. In everyday speech, we may not starkly differentiate between those two, but they are not always the same. It is possible, for instance, to know that the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but to have no understanding of the intellectual, emotional and moral meanings and implications of those actions on the part of our government in the name of our citizenry. A fact may easily be known, but it takes study, contemplation and dedication to gain insight and understanding. The power “to know” encompasses both. Thus, it is both analytical and synthetic mentation combined in the form of the reflective mind.
To will is not simply “to want”, but instead to have single-pointed focus on a particular goal. Even the focus of a child wishing for that one specific toy or gadget to be waiting under the Christmas tree is too vague for us to call it “will” in the sense of this power.
To dare is the most straight-forward of them all: All the well-focused ideas in the world are rather useless if we don’t actually enact them, and this requires a degree of courage that can sometimes be dangerous for those of us whose egos are entirely bound up in success. There is always a chance of failure in these things, and if we do not have the daring necessary to push on even through failure, even a small slip-up can turn catastrophic.
To keep silent is the most widely misunderstood and, therefore, neglected of the four powers. It is also the main subject of interest in the construction of the philosopher’s egg. The rest of this article will focus on explaining it in both theory and practice.
First, theory. To be entirely honest, I have yet to encounter a fully satisfying explanation as to why the enactment of this power is so necessary. I don’t think there’s any clear-cut way of explaining it or understanding it intellectually, yet it always works out in practice.
A common understanding, and one which can serve as a springboard for contemplation, is that we must be very secretive about our alchemical practices. If we are not, the explanation goes, we waste our own energy through idle words. Moreover, the skepticism, jealousy or other negative emotions and thoughts of those whom we have told will set up currents of energy which act as obstacles for our work.
This bit of theory is, based on my experience and the experiences of others with whom I have spoken, basically correct, though not always for the reasons that we would expect. I will take them in reverse order.
The average person, and that includes the vast majority of occultists – let us not fool ourselves, is constantly walking through a field of the thoughts and emotions projected or left behind by others. We are not generally capable of differentiating between our own thoughts and feelings and those of others. They “feel” the same, regardless of their source. This means, among other things, that we are very susceptible to any thoughts and feelings specifically directed at us. A well-meaning friend’s skepticism may not entirely destroy our own belief in the process or goal, but if the doubt happens to pop up at certain specific phases of the operation, all of our work could go down the drain, which will only create more doubt, thus potentially sabotaging the entire process.
This is not to say that we shouldn’t have a healthy degree of doubt, but that it, and all other mental processes, need to be firmly under control. That control is not an easy attainment, so in the meantime we must use some method of insulation from external influences. For that, we have a policy of silence. Do not talk about such things to others, and they will have no opportunity to project doubt or malice your way.
This brings us to the first part of the theory: by some mechanism, we lose energy by talking to others about these things. This mechanism, whatever it is, is a complex one. I have heard it conjectured that it is a literal energy expenditure inherent in the act of speech, but this doesn’t explain anything. The fact is that problems are caused just as much by IMs, text messages and e-mails as by physical speech. It seems instead that energy is transferred through the act of communication itself. Given the symbolism of Hermes/Mercury, that would make sense. This might be a mechanism by which certain Masters have worked upon their disciples, such as Jesus, Shakyamuni Buddha and the Great Rishi Ramana.
Unlike those Masters, however, we have a limited flow of energy at any given time. Ordinary conversations do not make much of an impact, but the more elevated our conversations become, the more of our energy we focus into them. As such, it behooves us to create something of a seal to allow that energy to build up and create pressure. That is the key to much of alchemy: just as in a chemical lab, heat causes expansion, but pressure on the expanding substance creates more heat. Of course we must remember that we are speaking symbolically here, but we unfortunately can’t be any more literal than this due to limitations of language.
We can move nicely from here into another facet of silence: secrecy. Hermetists, Rosicrucians and their ilk have been criticized for a few centuries now for their secrecy. The critics often claim that we are merely trying to construct a false mystery around ourselves for the sake of image alone, or because we don’t really have anything useful to say anyway. That is a fair criticism of a lot of orders and lodges, and certain individuals, but not of the tradition as a whole. Another misunderstanding is that we still fear the inquisition or witch hunters. I know of a few people who live in areas in which they actually do have to keep quiet for fear of their own safety or that of their children. This is a sad state of affairs, but luckily not one that most of us have to worry about anymore. Unfortunately, a lot of budding Hermetists themselves seem to misunderstand the purpose of secrecy. A common belief is that we keep things secret just because our methods can be dangerous to those who are not properly prepared to use them. Again, there is a bit of truth to this, but, generally speaking, the techniques which could be dangerous won’t even work for somebody who isn’t willing to put in the work necessary, and most of the people who do put in that work will learn how to circumvent the dangers. So this is not the core.
An analogy from everyday psychology will help. When you have to keep a secret, perhaps some juicy piece of gossip on which you have been sworn to silence, there is always an attendant feeling of pressure. For most of us, it feels almost as if the secret is trying with all of its might to jump up our windpipes and out of our mouths and we must consciously hold it down. The mental and emotional pressure which we build up by the mere fact of holding something in confidence is actually a useful means of increasing the amount of potential energy we have available for our alchemical processes. This is the point which Aleister Crowley badly missed when he complained of being made to take darksome and dramatic oaths only to be presented with the Hebrew alphabet. Had he not been so impulsive and given it a bit of thought, or perhaps had he actually asked someone the purpose of the exercise, he likely would have come to this conclusion on his own. Crowley was a bit of a tosser, but at least he was a well-learned tosser.
It is utterly true that the Hebrew alphabet itself is no secret, so there would be no reason, even under the Golden Dawn’s oath, to withhold the alphabet itself from anybody who asked. The value of the exercise appears only when we steadfastly refuse to reveal even to our closest friends that upon our initiation we had revealed to us the Hebrew alphabet.
The first detail of practice in the construction of the philosopher’s egg stems from this point. We may openly discuss the principles of alchemy all we wish (as I am doing in these articles), but the specifics of our own personal practice and experience with it must remain strictly confidential. To do otherwise means a severe breach of our all-important seal. I can speak from experience here, as I’m still feeling some of the after-effect from certain years-past revelations. It is very easy to overlook this step, and many others will decide almost immediately that it sounds like baseless occult nonsense and jabber on as they please while moving quickly on to the more “interesting” operations only to find it next to impossible to make any real progress. I suggest long contemplation on the power of silence and actually taking my advice.
Once we have a good start in appropriate secrecy, we must move on to establishing the necessary mindset for work. This mindset has two major advantages: first is that it builds on the insulation we have installed by allowing us more and more to recognize ideas and emotions alien to our own psyches, which gives us the choice of either accepting or rejecting them; second, it makes the primary work of alchemy possible at all.
Preliminary Mind-control Exercise
This exercise should be performed at least daily, and will take about 15 minutes each time. Begin by sitting in a comfortable meditation posture. The standard zazen posture is good: cross-legged, back straight, chin tucked slightly so that the spine is straight at the top, a cushion under the buttocks, hands resting on thighs or in a simple mudra. I also often use the common Western posture of sitting in a chair, back and neck straight as above, hands resting on thighs, feet flat on the floor with thighs parallel to it. It doesn’t really matter, though, as long as you are comfortable and alert.
Once in position, take a few deep breaths and relax your body. Ask yourself a series of questions somewhat like what follows:
- Am I my body with its aging, inevitable decay, and all of its senses? No, I am not this for I am something more than matter.
- Am I my personality with its quirks, foibles, constantly shifting identity and confounding emotions? No, I am not this either, for I can observe my emotions and judge them fairly as if from outside.
- Am I then my mind with its thoughts and ideas? No, I cannot be this either for I observe my thoughts as a beekeeper watches his swarm of bees.
The goal is to conclude that “I and my mind are not one, but two.” Contemplate that point for a while before moving on to the next phase of the exercise. Make sure that you have at least intellectually grasped the idea.
Once you have achieved the appropriate mental state, that you are not your mind but are superior to it, build upon that intellectual foundation by closing your eyes and quietly observing your mental and emotional states, each individual thought and feeling, as if completely separated from them. Watch your thoughts go by as you’d watch migrating birds pass above you; they may be beautiful or interesting, but they are ultimately not any concern to you.
Maintain this state for as long as you are able, or until the end of your allotted time. Repeat this entire process at least once a day for a month or more. Do not move on to other exercises until you are sure that this exercise has “taken”. It is even advisable to abandon other practices, for unfocused attention cannot help this process.
This exercise will gradually have the effect of separating your identity from your lower faculties. With time, you will even gain the ability to distinguish “native” thoughts and emotions from those sent from outside, and will be able to accept or reject them on their merit. It is even possible to gain the capacity to know the source of any given thought or emotion. Still, the goal here is not to gain siddhis, but to transcend the need for them in the first place. This exercise will complete the process of the philosopher’s egg; first, you have sealed it through silence, and then you have lifted your awareness beyond it so that, as a true alchemist, you may work upon its contents.