Alchemy: Filtration

I’m alchemizing again. Is that even a word? Performing alchemy.

That seems to be shorthand for “waiting around while a pile of alcohol-soaked herbs burns down from flames to a pile of glowing hot goop, to pale white ash in my kitchen oven.” The stink is interesting, this time. The herb in question today is Dill (Anethum graveolens). Yesterday it was Comfrey (Symphytum officinale) that got separated and calcined. Tonight, it’s a pickling spice… deeply separated from the cucumbers in the fridge.

Right now, there’s a very hot cast iron pan in my stove, filled with red-hot almost-microscopic coals of burning clumps of dill. In another hour, I estimate, it will all be white ash. Maybe not even that long. This stuff burns away to dust pretty fast. Then it will cool for an hour or so on top of the stove before getting ground up or powdered in my mortar — solid marble beating chunks of ash to dust.

Alchemy: FiltrationAnd then all of that will be added into that foul green liquid in the picture, the stuff coming out of the bottom of the funnel. The powdered ash will sit there for a couple of weeks, absorbing impurities in the alcohol. Then I will filter out the re-blackened ash bits…

Instead of muddy, brown-green goop, there will be a small jar (less than an ounce, really) of highly concentrated dill juices. It will be pure green and translucent, clearer than an Rolling Rock beer bottle, and probably smelling stronger of dill than the typical pickle.

If all goes well.

One of the key steps is filtration. The funnel is fitted with a couple of plain cotton balls in the narrow spout, and the liquid is slowly draining through that bottleneck into the Ball jar in its first filtration. Before the end of the process, the final substance will have passed through this funnel two or three more times, every time becoming purer and more translucent.

Are there appropriate lessons to learn from the process that can be applied to the modern person’s life?

Probably.

The one that’s key for me right now is that there’s a regular straining process going on in our regular lives, a process in which we constantly sieve away the dross of what does not serve us, and retain the pure essence of what does serve us. At least, this is how it’s supposed to work. In practice, most of us hold on to the junk for a lot longer than we need to. We don’t go through the filtration process as often as we need to. We don’t strain away the inessentials.

How does one do that? How does one put a cotton ball in a funnel, and then filter one’s life through that funnel, such that the essence emerges intact in the future life, and the dross is left behind?

First of all, give up the notion that what stays in the filter is dross. It’s not. Filtration is separation of one part of the essence from the other part of the essence. It’s not a dichotomy, it’s a continuum — and although in the fight between dichotomy and continuum, dichotomy wins because it has to — in the cooperative process of filtration, some of the good and some of the bad winds up on both sides of the filter. For different reasons. This is normal.

Second, in order to create a filtration in one’s life, and filter out or separate any good from any bad, one has to establish a semi-permeable barrier.  Here are some semi-permeable barriers which can create the necessary filtration in modern life:

  • No work-work on the weekends.
  • No work-work at home
  • One hour of practice of an art or hobby daily
  • Media fast: no TV or internet for two hours daily
  • No drinking, drugs, painkillers or non-necessary medications
  • No News: no Huffington Post, no New York Times, no Onion, no John Stewart, no Colbert, no Rush Limbaugh
  • No writing or talking
  • No telephone use or cellphone use.
  • No glamour: no use of bathing products or makeup or particularly stand-out clothing

All of these are filters. Some of them are more extreme than others; all can be modified; some of them may not be right for you (or me).  They will expose things that are bad, and things that are good.

The second thing that you need is a container.

When you set a semi-permeable barrier in place, and start trying to live your life through the filter, you discover that there is a life to be lived beyond the filter.  But it’s not your life, in a sense.  You are likely not the sort of person who reads nothing, or who can go for weeks without using a telephone.  THus, it’s important to have a container into which your life flows, temporarily, so that you can observe yourself in a changed circumstance.  Remember, the stuff on both sides of the filter is contaminated with dross — but different filters find different dross.  The semi-permeable barrier exposes flaws as well as essentials: They expose dross — the stuff that doesn’t serve you — on both sides of that semi-permeable barrier.  Good parts of your life will flow through the semi-permeable barrier into the container you have crafted; but so will bad parts, unexpectedly bad parts.  Then you will have to decide what to do about them.  Hence, the container:  you need a time period and a place in which to observe the changes in your life, and record them.   Set your semi-permeable barrier as “No Writing, not even a Post-It® Note”, and have it last 48 hours.  Then, at the end of 48 hours, write down or otherwise record your experiences.  Note the changes that have occurred.  What did you like about yourself as a non-writer? What did you feel you lost by becoming a non-writer? What wound up on the wrong side of the barrier? What wound up on the right side of the barrier?

The purpose of physical alchemy, as we probably learned in school, was to perform proto-chemistry: “take these ingredients; fuss with them: heat them and beat them and smash them and grind them and melt them and aerate them and voila! GOLD!” Yes, that’s true, I suppose.  But the core material of alchemy was always the alchemist himself: what had she missed? what didn’t he know? “Why did that experiment go wrong — the materials, or me?”  And so it proves: filtration is not simply performed on physical materials, but also on the soul.

Via Flickr:
Here I’m separating the menstruum (entinctured comfrey) from the residual.

The next step, calcination, involves burning the residual to white or pale gray ash. That’s combined with the menstruum to cohobate for several weeks.

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3 comments

  1. Fantastic! Applying this kind of symbolism to our lives is one of my favorite things, and I love the route you took in this. One of my favorite books is Edinger’s “Anatomy of the Psyche: Alchemical Symbolism in Psychotherapy” in which the “container” of a deep relationship becomes a crucible.

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