Alchemy is the art of causing change. That’s it’s singular purpose: to cause change. These is the most important point. It’s accomplished in two steps, the Solve step, or the “dissolution”, and the Coagula step, or the “recombination”. These are the most important points.
But of course, that’s hardly enough. Dissolve and Recombine? Take something apart and put it back together? How does one do that? And so, there are steps in Alchemy: the Black Work, the White Work, and the Red Work. These are the most important points. First break something down, then clean it, then reassemble it but better. These are the most critical points. Some practitioners add a fourth step, called the Green Work, that follows the Red, which is to somehow advance the work. Thus there are four steps in alchemy, and these are the most important points to remember about the work.
There are really seven phases to alchemical work:
- Calcination — burning away the impurities with fire
- Dissolution — transforming a solid to a liquid through water
- Separation — to separate or break apart through a filter or a process of division
- Conjunction — to bring back together in a new way
- Fermentation — to cause the ideas to bubble and mix up
- Distillation — to remove the toxic waste from the ferment, and refine the improving product
- Coagulation — to bring together the results of all the above processes in order to create a marvel —And the purpose of all these activities is to achieve a marvel, a great change…
- And this is called Projection — the Philosopher’s Stone.
So really, there are eight steps to Alchemy, and these are the most important points to remember.
Ok, but really, all that I’ve just said is “this is the most interesting point” over and over again, while continually upping the numbers.
Have we learned anything yet?
Yes, or at least, I have. You see, as a teacher, I’m not supposed to be interested in magic. Magic is weird stuff, especially when you move beyond cup-and-ball prestidigitation and funny tricks with linking rings, and mysterious games with cards, and funny bits with ropes that have knots in them that shift position or aren’t really there in the first place. Quality magical effects take time to learn how to do, and time to learn how to perform for others: practice, practice, practice, is the as much the mantra of the magician as the musician.
Except, that three years ago, I was asked to take on the task of teaching colleagues how to be design thinkers. That is to say, it was my job to find ways to teach them how to set themselves on a path of continuous professional improvement — how to seek out ideas from their colleagues and build a set of processes for incorporating colleagues’ work into their classrooms, and how to approach their colleagues and offer ideas in a spirit of generosity and team-building.
It turns out, I’m not very good at those things. The teaching part, and the empathic part. I’m really good at showing up, dropping a lot of ideas on the ground or throwing them up in the air and hoping a few of them land somewhere useful. It’s not an effective strategy, really.
And so I’ve been having to break down my teaching of Design Thinking into smaller and smaller steps. Rather like an alchemist.
Did you know that there aren’t really eight steps to Alchemy? There are twelve? Or maybe it’s Fourteen (And maybe, as the colors below suggest, there are really just three (or maybe four? Or maybe there’s a peacock’s tail in there somewhere)?
- Calcination — burn away impurities
- Solution — dissolve in liquid
- Separation — take it apart
- Conjunction — bring the parts together
- Putrefaction — let it rot undisturbed for a while
- Congelation — let it congeal and solidify for a while.
- Cibation — feed it with some material from another project
- Sublimation — heat it up until it become gaseous and then see what remains
- Fermentation — expose it to living beings who eat this stuff up, and see how they digest it
- Exaltation — refine and distill and perfect the almost-finished product
- Multiplication — Make lots of versions of the same thing
- Projection — Send the finished work into the world as an amazing thing
Honestly, there’s no single recipe for the Philosopher’s Stone. You can do it in one step. Or you can do it in twelve. Or fourteen. Currently, I’m trying to dissolve and re-coagulate the process from twelve steps to sixteen, for this mandala I’m working on. And I’m trying to figure out how to refine my Design Thinking poster from five steps to an improved version of five steps. Lots of people are going to have lots of different ideas about how this works.
Break it down and build it back up again, better.
Sometimes ten words is enough for the wise.
Sometimes, those of us who are not so smart need a map, or a diagram, or a mandala. And one of the most confusing things about alchemy, for me, as with design thinking, is that it’s non-linear. I can’t expect to just walk through the twelve steps beginning to end, and have them produce gold, every time. There’s a process, yes, but it’s not the same process every single time. Especially when, like the alchemists of old, you’re trying to bring new gold into the world.
Think about gold for a moment. It’s precious. It makes us rich. It shines. It attracts notice — fame-attracting, if you will. It brings power and influence: if you have it, and you made it, then people want to be around you because you know things.
Gold may be understood as a metaphorical truth in alchemy. Sure. Maybe it’s possible to produce real gold using chemical or physical apparatuses… but it can also be understood as metaphorical reality — that truly excellent work — whether product or service — is also a kind of Gold. It’s why we speak about “comedy gold” for a particularly funny routine, or “gold-plated service” in a restaurant review, or a book as a “golden new classic”. We’re attempting to put the alchemical shine on something. It’s kind of what Steven King meant when he said, “the difference between a word, and the right word is the difference between light, and lightning.”
Sometimes our work has to lie fallow for a time. Sometimes we have to chuck it in a corner in despair. Sometimes we have to let bacteria and viruses and memes have their way with our ideas. Sometimes we have to work them so hard that sweat pours off our brows from the amount of effort we put in. Sometimes we have to feed a dearly-held idea to the fire. Sometimes we have to burn the work until nothing is left but ash, and begin again.
The Alchemists, some of them, were talking about creativity: how to get it, how to manage it, how to activate it, how to use it, how to build it, how to direct it. How to be patient when it wasn’t working, and how to avoid being too prideful when it was. How to deal with disappointments, and how to take an apparent failure and turn it into a success.
It’s the reason that there isn’t just one formula. It’s the reason that magic works different for everybody. It’s the reason that Design Thinking could be so powerful in the classroom, and such a transformative tool for so many students. Because it (like alchemy) is not a recipe book, really. It’s a set of processes that themselves need to be dissolved and recombined in order to achieve results.
Sometimes we have to reach deep into the past to find the tools and ideas that will help us find the future we want. Funny thing, that.