Alchemy of Transformation
Posted on September 4, 2015
In our journey with the hero, we have reached the critical point of transformation. Here, pain and suffering becomes strength and wisdom. Through my thinking and meditation around the mythological rebirth or resurrection, I have come across another human archetype that has been around about as long as mythology itself: alchemy.
On the surface, alchemy can been seen as transforming something without value into something of great importance. This is best known as the quest to turn lead into gold. But the history and mythology around alchemy is much deeper. First, alchemy involved a personal and often spiritual quest into the nature of being and the world. It was a search for a deeper knowledge and wisdom, and one had to be worthy to live the life of the alchemist in order to realize its rewards.
Second, alchemy was the foundation for chemistry, and chemistry the foundation for a scientific revolution. This revolution included physics, biology, and nearly every other natural science – all of them can trace roots back to the alchemist’s laboratory. One of the most famous alchemists was Isaac Newton, who also became one of the founders of physics and is still considered one of the smartest men to have ever lived.
Third, alchemy danced on the cultural line between science and witchcraft. If the state supported the alchemist, the spiritual and financial costs were valued due to the possible rewards to the state. On the other hand, if the alchemist did not deliver, or if the religious tide turned in a different direction, the alchemist often shared the same fire with the witch, as someone practicing dark magic and in league with evil.
For our traumatized hero, something amazing is happening on both a spiritual and physical level. On the physical level, the traumatized brain is healing through neuroplasticity. The brain that was once seen as worthless or weak transforms into something strong and powerful. This video provides a more in-depth look at this process.
The alchemy of neuroplasticity is truly astounding. Through hope, new and healthier behaviors, mindfulness, insight, and support from others, the chemical makeup of the brain changes and our hero can become someone that comes back to our communities and contributes great things. Just as with alchemy, we are still trying to work out the mysteries of how brains can change so dramatically.
The healing brain is no longer dominated by the trauma, and instead pulls strength from surviving the experience. To me, this strength is one of the most powerful things I have ever experienced in my career. Overcoming trauma, addiction, homelessness, poverty, and violence may be some of the most difficult challenges in the human experience, which is why I do not hesitate to use the word hero to describe those who emerge from these traumatic lives.
I see transformation as spiritual because there is something more than just a change in biology that I feel when I’m in the presence of these heroes. To hear someone account their traumatic past and bridge that into their present success touches something deep inside myself. I gain great vicarious strength in the presence of those who came out of the abyss to find peace and success back in the “normal world.”
Besides the scientific and spiritual aspects of alchemy, there is also the state. I hope that after our examination of the mentor’s role in the transformation it is clear that we all need other people when trauma enters our lives. Just as the state either provided or vilified the alchemist, the state continues to play a critical role in how the scientific and spiritual aspects of healing become available to people needing help and a path out of their abyss.
This is a typical representation of the alchemist. Books, equipment, and tools all over the place. The art of alchemy speaks a clear message: if the alchemist can just find the right mix of knowledge, materials, and processes, spiritual and economic greatness awaits.
I see this as very similar to our work as the mentor in the hero’s journey. For each client, we try to find the mix of resources, psychosocial support, medication, and referrals that help to shine the light of hope into the abyss, illuminating a path the hero is motivated to travel. Kings and queens who believed in the transformational power of alchemy invested heavily, providing all the necessary resources needed for the exploration.
The same situation faces our hero. Does the state value the person’s potential enough to give mentors the resources they need to reach into the abyss and shine light into the darkness? This light must be a combination of support and resources, if the light is to reach someone immersed in pain and suffering. Too often, we are not given enough time or resources to send much more a just a flicker of hope into the overwhelming darkness.
Over the next couple of weeks, we’ll examine two processes that I think are critical to the transformational process: mindfulness and mindsight. This week, I want to provide space for you to tell stories of transformation. Please feel free to use the comment section to celebrate the transformations you have been privileged to mentor, or even share your own story and experience.