Base metals transmuted into gold is the classical definition of alchemy. The metal is placed in a container and subjected to the influence of a transformative agent. There is an ancient belief that once any substance is transmuted, even a poison, its power can be used in positive and transformative ways.
I first learned this principle from a South American shaman, who, as part of his training to be a shaman, experienced a year of solitude and other rigors including fasting rituals. In telling me this ancient principle, he recounted, “During this initiation year I experienced an intense yearning for human contact. For seven months I suffered and then one day I felt Mother Earth rising up to hold and nourish me and after that my pain was gone. And to this day I feel the power of my connection with her and she helps me in my role as healer.”
I heard a similar story from a former drug addict: “I finally hit bottom. It was either kick the habit or die. I’d been an addict since the age of 12. Words cannot describe the living hell I endured. The only way to get through it was to stay completely present, moment-by-moment and train myself to not look beyond the moment. Passing through the worst of it I experienced a powerful confidence that I could do anything I put my mind to doing. I knew that I had the ability and willingness to go the distance with anything I wanted to attain in life. It continues to serve me well.”
I was surprised to hear very similar experiences from two men on opposite sides of the world, completely opposing cultures and education. Both men experienced a transformational element (in their cases, a combination of pain, determination and desire) that resulted in radical change in their lives. The intensity of the pain, the strength of the desire, and the grounding of determined perseverance created the confluence of forces needed for their transmutation.
These are both examples of the alchemy of emotions.
Our base emotions are energy trapped in reactive and protective defensive patterns. Fear, anger, hatred and all its variations, emotional pain, are all base emotions that are reactions to perceived danger, violation or hurt. But within each emotion is a higher emotional state, a non-reactive state that can respond with love and intelligence to the appropriate circumstances of life.
When fear is transmuted it opens us to the quality of courage. When anger is transmuted it transforms into an expansion of our capacities for reaching out into life, for setting clear boundaries, and for acting with loving fierceness on behalf of our wellbeing and the wellbeing of others. Pain transforms into loving compassion and kindness. Hatred transmutes into positive power and love, and paradoxically leads to inner peace.
So how can you transform your emotions into their higher qualities? There are three key ways:
1. Don’t act out the emotion. Acting out any emotion discharges the energy that is actually needed for the alchemy. Learn to contain the emotion you’re experiencing by breathing, grounding the energy of the emotion, and exerting the mindfulness practice of awareness.
But let’s face it, sometimes an emotion has too much “charge” and we cannot easily process it. That is a natural part of life, and being prepared for that situation will help you safely and consciously release that emotion and energy.
2. Don’t suppress or avoid the emotion, instead experience it fully. Invite and engage the emotion by taking the attitude of curiosity and allowing. For example, how does hatred or anger or fear feel in your body? Anger has a lot of dynamic energy, often in the arms or jaw. It wants to strike out. Hatred is cool, contained deep in the body. Hatred can be found in the forehead, the eyes, and contractions in our core. Anger wants to strike, but hatred wants to annihilate whatever threatens us in a cool, calculated way. (Think the cool, contained, calculated power of Darth Vader.)
Pain is another reactive emotion. There are many causes of pain and many kinds of pain. Pain is a hurt, a wounding and a sense of loss. We often think we are feeling pain but in fact are more likely thinking it than feeling it directly. Pain is often sensed as a contraction in the area of the heart, because we feel pain in the heart. You might have learned to cut off pain, or rationalize it, or discharge it through emotional drama. We often judge ourselves for feeling pain. But when you actually feel your pain without trying to get rid of it, you open the door for compassion to take its place.
3. Develop a sense of truth and understanding. We all have different ways of managing our emotions. Sometimes we judge them, thinking we are weak for having certain feelings. Or maybe being afraid to give them up because they have protected us for a long time. It is important to understand the relationship you have to your emotions in order to move forward.
Hatred is a great example here because as a society we tend to judge this emotion as bad, or think that feelings of hatred make us into a bad person. Hatred arises from a deep hurt, often a perceived betrayal or deep fear of being annihilated. It’s a natural defensive emotion. Jealousy, self-rejection, disdain, contempt, arrogance are all variations of hatred. While it can be dangerous to act on hatred or turn it against ourselves, the actual feeling of hatred is a natural protection.
Clearing out your judgments towards emotions like hatred is a core component of the alchemical process. Have you ever forgiven a friend for a personal slight, and felt an immediate lightening in your spirit and mindset? Once we allow ourselves to understand the root of our emotions, breathe into it and open our hearts and minds, you will begin to transmute that emotion its higher aspects.
Our emotions are gifts because they are doorways to their higher expressions, and the alchemy of emotion can bring unexpected gifts to our lives.