The term “alchemy” is known as the process of transmuting base metals into gold or silver. Ancient alchemists placed the metal in a container and subjected it to the influence of a transformative agent—heat or salt or other chemicals—and watched to see what changed. The underlying belief was that any substance can be transmuted—even a poison—and its power used in positive and transformative ways.
I first learned this principle from a South American shaman who, as part of his training, experienced a year of solitude and other rigors. “During this initiation year I experienced an intense yearning for human contact. For seven months I suffered,” he said. “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.”
Look Beyond the Moment
I heard a similar story from someone who struggled with addiction. “I finally hit bottom. It was either kick the habit or die. I’d been an addict since the age of twelve. 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 not to look beyond the moment,” he said. “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, from completely opposing cultures, experiences, 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.
How to Transform Your Emotions
Your base emotions are energy trapped in reactive and protective defensive patterns. Fear, anger, hatred, and all their variations of emotional pain are all emotions that are reactions to danger, violation, or hurt—perceived or real. But within each emotion is a higher emotional state—a non-reactive state—that can respond with love and intelligence to the circumstances of life.
When fear is transmuted it opens you to the quality of courage. When anger is transmuted it expands your capacity for reaching out into life. It can help you set clear boundaries and act with loving fierceness on behalf of your 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.
1. Gather Your Emotions
Acting out strong emotion discharges the energy that you actually need for the alchemy. Learn to manage 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 you cannot easily process it. That is a natural part of life. Being prepared for that situation will help you safely and consciously release that emotion and energy.
2. Don’t Suppress or Avoid Emotions
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 your core. Anger wants to strike, but hatred wants to annihilate a threat in a cool, calculated way. (Think the cold, calculated power of Darth Vader.)
Pain is another reactive emotion. It is a hurt, a wounding, and a sense of loss. There are many causes of pain and many kinds of pain. Often when you think you experience pain, you are more likely thinking it than feeling it directly. You may sense it as a contraction in the area of the heart. You might have learned to cut off pain, or rationalize it, or discharge it through emotional drama. We humans 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. Find the Truth in Your Emotions
Everyone has different ways of managing their emotions. Sometimes you may judge them, thinking you are weak for having certain “negative” feelings. Or maybe being afraid to give them up because they have protected you 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. As a society, we tend to judge this emotion as bad. We think that feelings of hatred make us a bad person. But hatred arises from a deep hurt, often a perceived betrayal, or a 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 yourself, the actual feeling of hatred is a natural protection.
Clearing out your judgments toward 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 you allow yourself to understand the root of your emotions, breathe into it, and open your heart and mind, you will begin to transmute that emotion its higher aspects.
Your emotions are gifts because they are doorways to their higher expressions. The alchemy of emotion can bring unexpected gifts to your life.
This article has been updated. It was originally published on July 19, 2017.
About our contributor:
Leah Chyten is a psychotherapist, workshop leader, and teacher of spirituality. The author of the novel Light, Radiance, Splendor, she lectures and facilitates groups that explore all facets and dimensions of human potential.