What the ancient practice of alchemy teaches us about psychedelic-assisted therapies
Before the birth of modern chemistry, humans across continents and millennia were experimenting with a mysterious emerging science. From China to India, Egypt, and Europe, alchemists were aiming to discover a series of operations that could transmute base metals like lead into noble metals, like silver and gold. Their ancient texts are cryptic and filled with magic and superstition, which led to alchemy eventually losing its credibility as a robust science. However, it’s impossible not to wonder whether they were hiding something deeper.
It wasn’t until the 19th century that this tradition was recognised as a powerful metaphor for inner transformation. While seeking to elevate matter, alchemists were also subjecting themselves to a similar process of purification and refinement–as the materials changed, so did they. The gold they were pursuing in the outer world was also materialising inside, as the full potential of their personalities.
Thus, alchemy wasn’t just a precursor to modern chemistry, but a symbolic map of the psychological and spiritual evolution now underlying the practice of most therapeutic practices, including psychedelic-assisted therapy.
The alchemy of psychedelic-assisted transformation
At Inlibrium we recognise this inner process in the unfolding of our service. While rooted in science and evidence-based methods, psychedelic-assisted transformation is inherently alchemical–our scientific theories of it simply cannot contain the full story.
For example, you might learn that classical psychedelics like LSD and psilocybin (magic mushrooms) act on the serotonergic system. They interrupt the normal functioning of the default mode network in the brain–a hub responsible for orchestrating your day-to-day patterns of perception, thought, and emotion. By temporarily lowering the activity in the DMN, psychedelics increase activity in other brain regions that don’t normally communicate. Without its habitual filtering, the brain can make novel connections and perceive the world from a different perspective.
From a psychological standpoint, you may interpret this as the dissolution of the ego. As the centre of the conscious personality, the ego is responsible for holding on to your sense of self–not just through the sum of ideas that constitute who you are, but through a clever suite of defences that ensure that you stay the same. As psychedelics melt some of these defences, old memories and trauma can resurface and be processed. Without your usual sense of self, you experience the world differently and with more freedom and creativity. Repressed or unknown parts of you surface and can be integrated, along with the emotions they carry. As your normal sense of self reconstitutes, your ego learns to be more flexible and open to change.
These theories may satisfy your intellect, but ultimately tell you very little about what actually occurs on a psychedelic journey. Much like the alchemists’ tools and substances, they’re a mere representation of a much deeper, more mysterious process that unfolds inside and is almost impossible to describe. The changes you go through are largely ineffable; the transformation is so deeply felt that even the most articulate of us feel lost for words.
But alchemy offers us a different language. Through the metaphors of operations, substances, and transmutation, psychedelic-assisted transformation becomes knowable.
So what does it entail?
The prima materia: beginning where you are
Any alchemical process begins with the prima materia: the starting material for the transformation. This could be anything–in fact, the duller and more inferior, the better. Alchemists used anything around them; there was no such thing as the perfect material, but a complete trust in the process.
Similarly, psychedelic-assisted transformation begins with your prima materia: your childhood experiences, wounding, conditioning, as well as the dreams and the strengths you’ve built along the way are the starter for the work. Everything has value, and nothing is unworkable. The dark material that keeps you stuck today contains everything you need for your next evolution.
The Magnum Opus
Alchemists believed that any substance can become gold. For them, the quality of the original substance, the prima materia, was less important. Instead, their focus was on finding the right recipe for its transformation. This intense creative process is called The Magnum Opus (the Great Work).
Unlike other psychedelic retreats that rely on protocols, we honour that each person shapes their unique Magnum Opus. Therefore, the transformation process is entirely dictated by you; it always begins right where you are. As the alchemist within you awakens, the great work begins to take shape: the length, therapies, and tools required reveal themselves, constantly adapting to what you need. The Great Work of finding your inner gold is a creative practice that’s uniquely yours.
A process of purification
An essential step in alchemical transformation is purification. Before lower materials could transform into gold, impurities are washed away–everything that doesn’t belong to the next evolution needs to go. Impurities are burned away, dissolved in water, separated from the original essence, and subjected to a process of fermentation or putrefaction.
You may recognise these impurities as all the baggage you’ve collected along the way: unprocessed traumas, fears, addictions, or rigid ways of thinking that weigh you down and block your true potential.
In a psychedelic experience, this baggage is broken down to be assimilated. But the old parts don’t just go away. As they’re separated from your real essence, they are subjected to their own transformation. No longer needed, defences and addictions release their energy so that it can be used creatively. What felt stuck suddenly feels revitalised and ready to flow.
But the process doesn’t end here. As old parts die and are reborn, insights arise; a new way of being emerges along with new aspirations and dreams. The prima materia evolves and the new parts need to be carefully integrated into a cohesive whole. In other words, your new self demands to be embodied.
At Inlibrium, this precious process is supported by ongoing integration. Mental, emotional, and spiritual insights need finely attuned practices that support your evolution both within and without. Our holistic approach addresses your health and wellbeing, relationships, and business, making sure that the positive changes have lasting effects.
Discovering your inner gold
Whether they were unconsciously projecting an inner process onto the material world, or knowingly using metaphor to conceal a path for human evolution, alchemists were undoubtedly visionaries. They intuited that the darkest, heaviest substances hold value that others can’t see. They believed in the power of process. They bravely experimented, dedicating their lives to finding the gold.
And while we can’t tell if they ever managed to turn lead into gold, here at Inlibrium we know that the alchemical process always leads to inner gold–that when you dare to subject yourself to radical change, you are rewarded with access to your true potential; and that you life is forever changed by it.
We can all become alchemists of our own lives. Your prima materia contains everything you need for your transformation. Your Grand Opus awaits. And your container is ready.
Are you ready to find your gold?