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Context and Guidance

May 12, 2009

Another factor which contributes to the current lack of success in interpreting alchemical texts is the loss of the proper context: a group of students under the discipline of a guide with firsthand experience of the fruits of alchemical practice. Such a guide would need a solid working knowledge of a sufficient range of alchemical texts, be able to support all interpretations of these texts through reference to the literature of the Hermetic/Alchemic Tradition, and have intimate knowledge and experience of the states, stages, and stations mentioned in the texts. It is probably needless to say that the opportunity for such study is exceedingly rare in these times, and never common in any time.

  1. xiaoyaoxingzhe
    March 11, 2010 at 2:10 am

    How does the context of a group of students under the discipline of a guide contribute to success in interpreting alchemical texts? Or is it not the *group* as such, but the guide with the firsthand experience that is the key?

  2. March 11, 2010 at 1:33 pm

    Groups serve as a collective memory of sorts. That is, each member of a group brings a new context in which a text must find life. Each member’s reading of a text will be subtly different (depending upon capacity, history, and training) and the embodiment of the text in (and by) each reader will develop that reader in unique ways. This is of value to each individual composing the group if they take the time and apply the concentrated attention necessary to register the states of the other readers, before during and after readings.

    The guide (with firsthand experience) is (as you say) also necessary to the group and to each individual. The guide provides not only basic exegetical guidance regarding technical terms and phrases, but also assists the group in harmonization by providing guidance regarding how the text applies to each participating member and to the group as a whole (both theoretically and practically). The guide also cautions against attachment to the various states that may be engendered through engaging the text and assists individuals and the group in staying on the path and avoiding sidetracks.

    However, a guide can only do for a group what the group, and the individuals composing it, will permit. So a certain minimum trust is required. Often times those involved extend insufficient levels of trust, or extend trust for the wrong reasons or purposes. This is something that must be monitored and periodically adjusted.

  3. March 11, 2010 at 3:10 pm

    Could you say more regarding the matter of trust? Or is it that you have defined the dilemma i.e. one proven premise is insufficient trust, the other is inappropriate trust and somewhere in the horns of that dilemma we prove ourselves?

  4. March 11, 2010 at 3:52 pm

    With regard to ‘insufficient trust’ in the guide, this is often indicative of insufficient trust in oneself, and insufficient basic trust in the fundamental availability of guidance that exists independent of any specific guide. Such a lack of trust curtails development. One can hold a person to be untrustworthy, and this is a genuine concern, but lack of Basic Trust itself is entirely an interior affair and little development is possible where and while this is the case.

    As for ‘inappropriate trust’, this concept covers a great deal of ground. It can indicate a willingness to trust another to do that which one can only do for oneself. It can indicate being willing to entrust a another with your money, property and life, when all that is necessary is to trust that person enough to provisionally accept their guidance on certain matters pertaining to theory and practice until one is able to verify the veracity of that guidance for oneself. It can also refer to being willing to give up autonomy in favor of dependence upon an ‘authority,’ whether such authority is vested in a person, an institution, or even an ideal.

    While the inference that these constitute the “horns of the dilemma” between which “we prove ourselves,” is not exactly the case, such a view is not so far off the mark that we cannot provisionally allow it to stand as a functional summary position.

  5. May 29, 2012 at 6:27 am

    xiaoyaoxing , have you any examples of ‘Nature’? If it’s fixed abode is in man, as you and Titus B suggest, what sort of things is the artist looking for in Him or herself, what is he/she to do?

    James, In line with the topic of trust; I visit your site regularly, and it would be nice to know a bit about yourself, you mention that you are a retired ‘teacher’, do you find alchemy influencing your day life and outlook. Just curious.

  6. xiaoyaoxingzhe
    May 31, 2012 at 5:13 pm

    Otove,
    The first part of your question is close enough to being a good question as to merit an answer. (To make it better, add a bit of the work on the question you have already done yourself – have a look back at the questions I have asked James on this site and see which ones he gave the best answers to – they are usually the ones where I have obviously put in a bit of work first. Now in this question, you signaled some of that work by mentioning Titus B).

    The second part of the question (though not addressed to me, and I cannot speak totally for James) is rather unlikely to receive any sort of answer at all. One reason is that this alchemical lineage tends to work anonymously, and discourages personal questions. This has several reasons, two of which are as follows.

    The first is that questions like this are often simply an attempt by the questioner to convince himself that the “authority” is in fact an authority. The refusal to answer forces the questioner to use other means (eg one’s own conscience, one’s own rational abilities, one’s own sense of truth) to assure himself that the time spent attending to what is on offer is worthwhile.

    The second is that questions like this may be common on “social” sites. But this site is not functioning as a social site. Common courtesy and human regard are crucial, but the focus is on the subject at hand.

    I am stating these things much more clearly than they would often be stated, to save you time (James would say that I am holding your hand). For many students (myself amongst them) they learned how to ask good questions slowly, through rejection after rejection. But good questions are the key, and if I can help you ask good questions, I don’t mind a bit of criticism.

    Now, to specifics: Nature has several meanings in alchemical literature.

    I. One is that of “the creative and regulative physical power conceived of as operating in the material world” (OED) or just the material world as such, the day-to-day progression of life, the “wonderful things of Nature”.
    This usage appears in passages like this:

    Question 111
    Q: Cannot Nature perform this of herself? A: No; because she stops short after the first sublimation, and out of the matter which is thus disposed do the metals engender.

    Comments: The alchemists unanimously state that nature, without the assistance of art, has no chance of performing the necessary transformation — it can only begin it.

    Question 118
    Q: Does Nature, in her work in the mines, possess a menstruum which is adapted to the dissolution and liberation of this sulphur? A: No; because there is no local movement. Could Nature, unassisted, dissolve, putrefy, and purify the metallic body, she would herself provide us with the Physical Stone, which is Sulphur exalted and increased in virtue.

    Comments: The nature-led life, even at its best, is still not able to dissolve the rind. In the New Testament this too is mentioned in Luke 7:28:
    I say to you, among those born of women there is no one greater than John; yet he who is least in the Kingdom of God is greater than he.

    Question 144
    Q: Is everything contained in this subject? A: Yes; but Nature, at the same time, must be assisted, so that the work may be perfected and hastened, and this by the means which are familiar to the higher grades of experiment.

    Comments: The subject of Art (the subject of the artist), contains everything needful, it only requires the assistance of Art so that the work of nature is furthered and hastened such that the many and various superfluities are removed through laboratory work (during the Albedo and Rubedo).

    II. Another usage of “nature” is in describing the qualities or properties or essence of something: “earthly nature,” “leprous nature,” “animal nature,” “igneous nature,” a “kindred nature” and so on.
    This usage occurs in passages such as :
    Question 134
    Q: Why is it also termed Mercury? A: Because it is in its nature aerial, and a most subtle vapour, which partakes at the same time of sulphur, whence it has contracted some contamination.

    Comments: This is again a reference to the spiritual continuum from spiritus, to Soul, to Spirit. Mercury here having special reference to the sensory part of the Soul and to the spiritus which through individuation and embodiment have contracted a false sense of self which senses a multitude of exterior things (phenomenal objects), imagines those objects, desires what it imagines, and seeks the gratification of those desires through the exercise of self-will. The state of such a Soul and the activities it engages in are the “contamination” derived from the impure sulphur of which the mercury partakes. The Definitions of Hermes also clarify this point:
    Exterior things are perceived by external organs: the eye perceives the exterior things, and Nous perceives the interior. The exterior things would not exist if there were not the interior. Where Nous is, there is light; for Nous is light and light, Nous. Whoever has nous is enlightened, and whoever does not have Nous is deprived of light.

    III. But the “Nature” you seem to be interested in is that which is often prefaced “Divine” or “Celestial,” or the Universal as opposed to the individual nature. Our individual nature and the Universal nature are one. It is the “scoria,” the impurities and superfluities (or the “rind” referred to in Q.118) that prevent us both from knowing that and living that.

    What we do about it is to engage the discipline of “turning the light around” as is mentioned in the first question of the Short Catechism.

    In the Al-Kemi library is a book which is entirely concerned with the technique of “turning the light around”, and that is Cleary’s translation (NOT Wilhelm’s translation) of the Secret of the Golden Flower. That would be a good place to start.

    N. Flamel says, in his first paragraph of the Summary of Philosophy:

    If you would know how metals are transmuted, you must understand from what matter they are generated, and how they are formed in the mines; and that you may not err, you must see and observe, how those transmutations are performed in the bowels or veins of the earth.

    James once paraphrased this for me as:

    If you wish to know how qualities [or the ‘average’ of the constellated qualities of the nafs] are transmuted, you must understand that they are generated from states resulting from the coming together of the various parts of our nature; and that one may not err, one must observe for oneself how such states come to be elicited and how they come to be transformed within the depths of one’s consciousness and being [the body-mind-spirit complex].

    Much of the essential praxis to do this is covered in this question from the Catechism, however:

    Question 50
    Q: Whither must we turn for the seed and life of metals and minerals? A: The seed of minerals is properly the water which exists in the centre and the heart of the minerals.

    Comments: This answer is probably the most direct — we are informed that we must turn the light of consciousness (the fire in water) around to illumine the ‘Heart’ within. This is also the advice contained within the Philokalia:

    Having collected your attention within you, lead it into the channel of breathing through which air reaches the heart, and together with this inhaled air, intend your attention to descend into the heart and to remain there … the mind when it unites with the heart is filled with unspeakable joy and delight… To start with, you will find there darkness and an impenetrable density. Later, when you persist and practice this task day and night, you will find, as though miraculously, an unceasing joy. For as soon as the Intellect attains the place of the Heart, at once it sees things of which it previously knew nothing. It sees the open space within the Heart and it beholds itself entirely luminous and full of discrimination [the third Station: Discrimination and Divinity]. From then on, from whatever side a distractive thought may appear, before it has come to completion and assumed a Form, the Nous immediately transmutes it.

    Likewise, in the New Testament, Jesus is recorded as saying:
    The kingdom of heaven is within you.

    And in The Secret of the Golden Flower, we are told:

    Look back again and again into the source of mind, whatever you are doing, not sticking to any image of person or self at all, then this is ‘turning the light around wherever you are.’ This is the finest practice.

  7. June 5, 2012 at 2:39 pm

    Thanks xiaoyaoxing for your reply, there is clearly a lot to work through on this site, let alone your reply.

    I guess the prime issue, for me at least, is in finding unity in the thousands of alchemical recipes (Jean Dubuis mentions upwards of 100 different processes, including the famous acetate path).

    Perhaps you could answer this question; how does ‘turning the light around’ relate to the multitude of lab-ware (alembics, athanoors, pelicans, etc) and the reagents and plant matters required in alchemical recipes?

    For example, you say;

    ‘Our individual nature and the Universal nature are one. It is the “scoria,” the impurities and superfluities…that prevent us both from knowing that and living that.’

    Lab-work is directing the soul and it’s sensorium externally, identifying (as Gurdjieff would say) with the external world, so to speak. I get the ‘ora’ part, but perhaps not the ‘Labor’.

    Thanks again, Otove

  8. June 5, 2012 at 2:52 pm

    Also, to reiterate james rhetorical question:

    ‘How can one turn the light around without light being present?’

    The book, Understanding Reality, suggests this aspect (essences as light) is only transmitted from teacher to pupil, from what i recall there is a crucial aspect of the firing process (martial and cultural) that one must seek from a teacher in order to begin the alchemical work. What is the Al Kemi schools stance on the topic of initiation?

  9. xiaoyaoxingzhe
    June 7, 2012 at 5:35 pm

    Thanks xiaoyaoxing for your reply, there is clearly a lot to work through on this site, let alone your reply.
    I guess the prime issue, for me at least, is in finding unity in the thousands of alchemical recipes (Jean Dubuis mentions upwards of 100 different processes, including the famous acetate path).
    Perhaps you could answer this question; how does ‘turning the light around’ relate to the multitude of lab-ware (alembics, athanoors, pelicans, etc) and the reagents and plant matters required in alchemical recipes?
    For example, you say;
    ‘Our individual nature and the Universal nature are one. It is the “scoria,” the impurities and superfluities…that prevent us both from knowing that and living that.’
    Lab-work is directing the soul and it’s sensorium externally, identifying (as Gurdjieff would say) with the external world, so to speak. I get the ‘ora’ part, but perhaps not the ‘Labor’.

    Ah, now we are getting to some of the specific misapprehensions (which are, in fact, part of the ‘scoria’) that are causing you trouble. Very good.
    A friend of mine was learning to fly-fish, and after several years of failing to connect with a fish, he finally hired a guide to take him out on the stream. “When am I going to start catching fish?!” he complained.
    And the guide said: “When you stop making mistakes, you will start catching fish.”
    That certainly applies here.

    Of course, it depends on the type of fish you want. If you want to work with plants and reagents, you are on the wrong site, and there are many to whom you may apply for guidance.
    Alembics, pelicans, athanors and so on do have a place in the work of this lineage, but will not be found cluttering up our basements.

    “Lab-work is directing the soul and its sensorium externally”. You put this forth very confidently, but I am curious as to the source of this statement, as it is diametrically opposite to the understanding of our school. You might try searching “laboratory” on the site to see what I mean.

    Now Gurdjieff is a difficult source to work with, due both to his unusual sense of humour and his extreme use of a variety of “expedient means” with his students on an individual basis. It could be said that these were prescribed, like medicines for the individual student, and taking medicine prescribed for some one else will have the type of result you might expect, no matter how famous the doctor is.
    In other words, not everything Gurdjieff said applies to all people at all times.
    Not knowing this, many people have tied themselves into knots.

    If you have a specific quote from Gurdjieff about identifying with the external world that you think relates to the question you are asking, it would always be much better to actually provide the actual quote and the context, instead of just saying “as Gurdjieff would say”.

    I get the ‘ora’ part

    Do you? What do you think it means?

    As to “finding unity in the thousands of alchemical recipes,” the original mandate of our school is to distil the essential from the superfluous. It is very easy to get caught up in the mystery and excitement of the esoteric, but amongst those who are not peddling such wares (which would include all the authors quoted on the site or to be found in the Al-Kemi Store) one is constantly directed toward the fundamental, and reminded that the process is natural and unforced, like Nature itself.

    For example, Burckhardt p. 72 notes: “gold corresponds to the sound and original condition of the soul which freely and without distortion reflects the Divine Spirit in its essence, whereas lead corresponds to its ‘sick’, distorted, and ‘dead’ condition, which no longer reflects the Spirit. The true essence of lead is gold. Each base metal represents a break in the equilibrium which gold alone exhibits.”
    As we have seen through this site, “metal” corresponds to a “state of the soul”.

    “If thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light.”

  10. xiaoyaoxingzhe
    June 7, 2012 at 5:38 pm

    Also, to reiterate James rhetorical question:
    ‘How can one turn the light around without light being present?’
    The book, Understanding Reality, suggests this aspect (essences as light) is only transmitted from teacher to pupil, from what i recall there is a crucial aspect of the firing process (martial and cultural) that one must seek from a teacher in order to begin the alchemical work. What is the Al Kemi schools stance on the topic of initiation?

    Again, specific quotes will be much more useful than the general statement “this book suggests”. Where in the Wu Zhen Pian (Understanding Reality) does it say that essence as light is only transmitted from teacher to pupil? (ie, instead of forcing me to guess what page you are referring to).
    Having said that, you may find the 3rd paragraph of p. 111 in that book to be most apropos.
    Again, the whole of p. 86 is worth several repeated reads.

    Furthermore, the beginning of the alchemical work involves clearing away the brushwood in preparation for planting the field. You (well, we) are doing that. The “firing process,” at least in some aspects, would be similar to ensuring that you plant the crop in the right season. There is quite a bit of work to do before that, as any farmer (who knows Nature intimately) would tell you.

  11. June 10, 2012 at 3:39 am

    Hi xiaoyaoxing, well, i dug out the, Wu Zhen Pian and many other of Cleary’s excellent books on Taoism.

    If you turn to P.14 2nd paragraph “seeing essence “, here the author implies that essence is light or some ‘modulation’ thereof, with this in mind, and skimming ahead to page 111 as you suggest, we find, “…There is a process of cultivating essence….[a] step…transmitted by a genuine teacher…” Which I was (loosely) referring to in my previous post. There are then numerous cautionary warnings of impending disaster to those who begin without instruction.

    This comes back to the enigma, ‘How can one turn the light around without light being present? To the best of my knowledge and assuming metals [philosophical?] to be various states/stations of the soul (a continuum from Spirit to spiritus) under the influence of Nous, or the essential experience of light as self, that these metals are refined to become eternally incorruptible.

    Assuming this to be correct, the student has two things to receive from a teacher, Knowledge of the Alchemical Procession, and that essential seed, knowledge of essence/self as light. The farming analogy is fruitful here, as a keen gardener, I know that with all the will in the world, the beginner is at the mercy of nature, they can only prepare and guard the land, and hope for the best. He/she is dependent on accurate guidance from a veteran. So where to begin? How can one turn the light around if it is not there?

    Many Thanks, Otove

  12. James Raedan
    June 10, 2012 at 9:35 am

    Hello again, Otove!

    As regards my rhetorical question: “How can one turn the light around without light being present”, one must keep in mind the context:

    “We are also told to take care that Essence is actually and not just potentially present otherwise sense will dominate and the work will be ruined.”

    This is further explained below:

    The term ‘Teacher’ can be somewhat misleading because in contemporary usage it often indicates someone who imparts information, which is accurate as far as it goes, but it does not go nearly far enough. ‘Guide’ or ‘Mentor’ might be better terms, but these also fall a bit short. However if we roll the connotations and denotations of ‘Teacher’, ‘Guide’ and ‘Mentor’ into those of ‘Exemplar’ we are very nearly there. Be that as it may, even ‘Exemplar’ falls a wee bit short, for an ‘alchemist’ not only imparts information, he also leads the way; he not only leads the way, he also provides an example or model for the disciple (person under discipline) or ‘auditor’ (a person not yet accepted into discipline, but who nevertheless is permitted and encouraged to listen while keeping silent until such time as he has learned to ask good questions) of the result of that transformation; he not only models the result, he also mirrors the state of the disciple back to him so he may be aware of his real state as opposed to what he may imagine his state to be; he not only provides an accurate assessment of state, he also acts as a midwife (as Socrates/Plato would have it) for the ‘birth’ of the ‘Rational Soul’; he not only assists in drawing out the Light, he also provides a manifest locus for contact with the Source. So, in closing, he does not supply ‘Light’ or ‘Essence’ per se, rather he facilitates contexts in which all the necessary elements exist so as to provide opportunities through which impediments and veils may be observed and removed so that the ‘Light’ may coruscate and be “actually and not just potentially present” such that the disciple is transformed thereby. Any mention of transference of light by a legitimate Exemplar in a legitimate Tradition is an expedient (or provisional) teaching to be dropped when experience supersedes theory.

    Rais-el-Aflak, ‘Lord of the Skies’, mentions this:

    “Almost all men who come to [the Tradition] have strange imaginings about man. The strangest of these is that they can progress only by improvement. Those who will understand me are those who realize that man is just as much in need of stripping off rigid accretions to reveal the knowing essence, as he is of adding anything. Man thinks in terms of inclusion into a plan of people, teachings and ideas. Those who are really the Wise know that the Teaching may be carried out also by exclusion of those things which make man blind and deaf.”

    Robert Browning, in his famous poem, ‘Paracelsus’ relates that:

    “Truth is within ourselves, it takes no rise
    From outward things, what’er you may believe.
    There is an inmost center in us all,
    Where truth abides in fullness;…and to know
    Rather consists in opening out a way
    Whence the imprisoned splendour may escape,
    Than in effecting entry for a light supposed to be without.”

    So, it is not that “Light” is absent and needs to be supplied (that is merely a way of speaking – a provisional teaching) so much that the ‘Light’ (to which we are all heirs) is obscured under a hard matrix of adventitious defilements (often called ‘accidents’, ‘scoriae’ or ‘dross’ in alchemical texts). WORK with an alchemist provides ample opportunity for said matrix to dissolve (which process or ‘occasion’ is often termed ‘putrefaction’ or ‘distillation’ while the fruit of this is often termed ‘sublimation’ in the texts).

    The term ‘Initiation’ is not widely used within authentic alchemical lineages, though it is often used within organizations derived from Victorian era occult circles. In authentic traditions, the transference of a certain essential something is either discussed under the guise of ‘laying on of hands’, ‘manuduction’ or ‘projection’), while the thing so transferred is referred to as ‘elixir’, ‘stone’ or ‘powder’, and occasionally as ‘Light’ (though not often in the source texts themselves). You will find references in the literature to the fact that the ‘laying on of hands’ by an alchemical adept is NOT mandatory, for the Source (or Divine Nature) has ‘obstetric hands’ (the so-called right ‘Hand of God’), though ‘nature’ does not.

    Xiaoyao did you a great service by reflecting your state to you, though you have partially deflected much of the potential salutary impact – all of which is par for the course at this stage. You want information which you have not as yet demonstrated need (whereas the alchemical tradition operates on a need-to-know basis); you have declared what you believe you know, yet your words and actions do not indicate that this is knowledge so much as opinion; you have come to this site for assistance, yet you deflect opportunities for transformation (that is, opportunities for more than informational learning).

    Again, all of this is very typical, but no-one can assist you in any real way while you remain in this state (termed ‘lead’ or ‘Saturn’ – inverted gold).

    Paracelsus has indicated that we should:

    “…learn from Alchemy, which is otherwise called Spagyria (i.e. separative activity). This teaches you to discern between the true and the false. Such a Light of (Divine) Nature is it that it is a mode of proof in all things, and walks in Light. From this Light of (Divine) Nature we ought to know and speak, not from mere phantasy, whence nothing is begotten save the four humours and their compounds: augmentation, stagnation and decrease, with other trifles of this kind. These proceed not from the clear Intellect (Gr. Nous), that full treasure house of a good man, but rather are based on a fictitious and insecure foundation.”

    Therefore – with regard to how one must approach and engage an ‘Exemplar’, ‘Teacher’, ‘Guide’ or ‘Mentor’, or even the hermetic/alchemic textual corpus itself, one is well-advised to abide by the words of Sir Francis Bacon:

    “Read not to contradict and refute; nor to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider.”

    We are also well advised to heed these words of Roger Bacon:

    “There are two modes of knowing: through argument and experience. Argument brings conclusions and compels us to concede them, but does not cause certainty nor remove doubt in order that the mind may remain at rest in truth, unless this is provided by experience.”

    I hope that helps you appreciate Xiaoyao’s diagnosis and prescription as much as I do. He is here to assist you, and sometimes that means applying ‘adhab’ (or ‘chastisement’ which must be well-timed, well-aimed, and well-delivered so that it serves to indicate to the auditor or disciple the many and various flaw(s) in their approach to the ‘Teacher’ and ‘Teaching’ thus enabling him to benefit from the guidance inherent in the context of a particular event/moment/occasion.

    If you are here to be transformed by alchemical work, then you are most welcome to remain. But if you are here to have your existing beliefs about alchemy confirmed, you will probably get very little satisfaction. How we approach trans-formative work—its ‘Exemplars’ and its literary remains—is of great moment, for a skewed approach means a skewed result – a magnification and proliferation of error rather than its elimination (a reverse alchemy so to speak).

    So, make really sure of your understanding of ‘ora’ … everything depends upon it.

    Be well.

    P.S. – I have taken the liberty of replying to you because the rhetorical question under consideration was not from source texts, but from my words and in this particular case it would be best for you to have an answer from the horse’s mouth, so to speak, so that, in the future, you do not have to wonder whether Xiaoyao speaks for me: he can and does, even though humility prevents him from saying/asserting as much.

    Remember, even a single rebuke from a genuine Exemplar is worth more than any amount of praise from one who is false.

  13. xiaoyaoxingzhe
    June 10, 2012 at 9:15 pm

    At the same time, Otove, I would like to thank you for giving the opportunity for a “moment” of learning for the rest of us (myself included). It takes some courage to put oneself forward in a public forum, but this very service you perform by giving others the chance to observe the back-and-forth process (what has been called the “rough and tumble”) while reining in the protests of ego, creates the conditions by which you, in turn, may be served.

  14. June 11, 2012 at 1:47 pm

    ‘Xiaoyao did you a great service by reflecting your state to you, though you have partially deflected much of the potential salutary impact – all of which is par for the course at this stage. You want information which you have not as yet demonstrated need (whereas the alchemical tradition operates on a need-to-know basis); you have declared what you believe you know, yet your words and actions do not indicate that this is knowledge so much as opinion; you have come to this site for assistance, yet you deflect opportunities for transformation (that is, opportunities for more than informational learning)’

    I do wish to learn, very much so! I have read all the texts you suggested, and am willing to concede to any and all of your advice to overcome this Leaden “state/station”.

    You have suggested learning the technical terms, so I will continue to do that, even though any one definition plunges a mile deep. Thank-you for pointing out my mistakes, this format is entirely alien, so I will hold back further questions until the syntax becomes clearer.

    Again thank you, Otove

    Ps. In my opinion ‘Ora’ is a kind of sincere receptive state, where by clearing the way through day to day ‘defilements’, we can become one with God. We try to reach God through contemplation of Good (perhaps?), so that the God can become manifest through Natures actions. Even a bit close ? 🙂

  15. brkkuroi
    September 30, 2013 at 10:27 am

    I have a question for Xiaoyao. First of all, you quote some reading materials concerning the links and distinctions between nature and art. I am very interested in these ideas. In addition, in order to make the best possible use of the site, I would like to know if there is a book that you would recommend(either from the recommended literature or from your experience) that would first of all give an explanation of this idea of the difference between nature and art as well as an overview of some of the terms and ideas discussed here. I am familiar with the literature on the “recommended reading” that is by Cleary, and I have read Burckhardt’s book( but I am embarassed to admit that I only gave his book a cursory skim.) I would like to make the best use possible of this site, but I feel I lack familiarity with the terms and references used.

  16. brkkuroi
    September 30, 2013 at 10:34 am

    My second question for Xiaoyao concerns the nature of asking questions. How do you formulate a question that is worthy of being responded to? Do you learn how to ask questions by engaging in the “rough and tumble” process of asking a bad question, and thus learning(from the feedback which could include adhab) how to ask a correct question or is there ,in addition,also context that you could give for learning how to ask a correct question? Finally, if answers are given on a “need to know” basis how do you tell if a question is based on a true “need to know” ?

  17. xiaoyaoxingzhe
    October 1, 2013 at 7:10 pm

    Thank you, Brkkurui, for the comment. Your interest in nature and art is noted, as is your desire to make good use of this site, and your feeling that you lack familiarity with the terms and references.

    Now, your only specific question is about what book might be recommended that explains the “difference” between nature and art, and give an overview of some of the terms and ideas discussed here. Burckhardt’s book merits a deeper reading, especially for the latter part of your question, but is also valuable for the first. There is another book, however, that you may find useful for an orientation toward the “field of action”, as it were, even though it does not mention alchemy or Hermeticism at all, and that is The Master and His Emissary, by Iain McGilchrist.

    The Cyclopedia on this site offers an in-depth definition of eight crucial alchemical terms, and that is also a good place to start, first reading those definitions, then comparing your understanding against the other uses that appear elsewhere on the site (found, for example, through the search button). Further specific questions can be formulated to elucidate other aspects of those terms, or other recurring terms that you may find.

    The use of language in the alchemical tradition is highly demanding, as James has pointed out, and while this is mainly due to the intrinsic inexpressibility of its subject matter, it is also in part due to its formative historical environment under repressive ecclesiastical regimes.
    These pressures however have created an incredibly rich mode of expression that is both a meditation and a liberation when properly engaged but, as has been said, there are easier paths.

  18. xiaoyaoxingzhe
    October 2, 2013 at 4:20 pm

    This is a good question! It is practical, cogent and (relatively) concise. A good question is often designed after careful thought about what exactly you need to know.

    In the previous comment, for example, you implied a question but ended up making a statement about your interests and feelings. “Art” and “nature” are both used in many senses (as evidenced by that reply to Otove’s query about “nature”) and your implied question is too broad to elicit a useful answer. A possible answer, demonstrating this uselessness by equivalent vagueness, might be “Alchemy is the effective relationship between art and nature” — it is completely accurate, but where does that leave you? You will note this type of indirect instruction often in Zen question and answers, but it is not unknown elsewhere.

    “Need to know” is signalled by many things. Questions, after all, are asked for all sorts of reasons: thoughtless automatic reaction, urge to score a point, desire for attention, making a statement about oneself, random curiosity and, occasionally, need to know. If you have ever attended a seminar you will have experienced all of these arising from an audience and would probably have no difficulty ascertaining which is which.
    It makes things easier for all involved (and I can testify that it teaches one much about one’s own thinking) if you have spent a little time reviewing the true reasons for asking a particular question, then formulate the question as precisely as possible, and express it with adab.

    By the way, just in case you were not aware of it, all of the quotes in reply to Otove’s question about nature are to be found on this site, specifically the questions in the Short Catechism of Alchemy, which is located in The Library.

  19. brkkuroi
    October 3, 2013 at 9:01 am

    Xiaoyaoxing, thank you for your careful and thoughtful response.

  20. brkkuroi
    March 5, 2015 at 2:48 pm

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VnfKjVYE9vo Xiaoyaoxing, I just recently watched the link which I have shared with you(Idries Shah on the lataifas) and it reminded me of the recommendation which you made above : Xiaoyaoxng: “There is another book, however, that you may find useful for an orientation toward the “field of action”, as it were, even though it does not mention alchemy or Hermeticism at all, and that is The Master and His Emissary, by Iain McGilchrist.” It struck me as I was listening how the lataif are all subtly interconnected, and I thought that the “mind ” or ‘qalb’ latifa might correspond to conscious knowledge while “spirit” might correspond to real knowledge, but I want to be careful with my use of terms, and I don’t want to mix terms, but it does seem to me that Shah is indicating that the “mind” and “spirit” latifa function together like the unity of conscious knowledge and real knowledge. In addition, it sounds as if Shah is saying that when the “mind” and “spirit” are working together then the sirr (innermost consciousness) becomes accesible.Again, however, I don’t want to misuse alchemical terms or frames of reference so I wanted to know what you thought.

  21. March 9, 2015 at 5:47 pm

    brkurroi,

    If I did tell you what I thought, how would that help you?

  22. brkkuroi
    March 10, 2015 at 7:56 am

    It would help me to use the material concerning the latifas in the best possible way to develop. If I am wrong, it will help me to avoid mixing materials in the wrong.If there is a “mishmash” in my thinking, it will help me to distinguish and thus use the materials in the best possible way.

  23. March 10, 2015 at 4:39 pm

    It should be clear, though, that the need for one precludes the possibility of the other:

    “Excuse me, is that a monkey wrench?”
    “Yes. Why?”
    “Because I need it to fix my Swiss watch.”

    What is very encouraging to note, however, is the new orientation toward the practical and the idea of “use” rather than just collecting terms and symbols.
    With that in mind, there is a term that Idries Shah used in that lecture that can set you on a practical path right away, with a bit of thought, and that is the term “posture.”
    What do you think he meant by that?
    He uses it, even more tellingly, somewhere else in that lecture series (I can no longer recall where) when he says “One must learn to adopt a posture that attracts ‘IT’ towards one.”

    Cogent and concise, please.

  24. brkkuroi
    March 11, 2015 at 8:45 am

    The use of the term “posture” is , in my view, multivalent and is used through out Shah’s corpus. The word “posture” refers to an attitude that can be taken not only towards knowledge or development but towards virtually any activity which has an “aim”. “Postures’ can be intentional or unconscious, and the same person may take multiple “postures” during the course of a very short period of time. For example, a student may indicate by their conscious “posture” i.e “how they present themselves’ that they want to be considered a “serious student”. That conscious “posture” may be undermined by an unconscious “posture” that indicates that they want “confirmation for their beliefs” or their unconscious posture may indicate a desire to quarrel or…the list of possible “postures” is endless. The term “posture” is used( in my view) to indicate a “subtle’ (latif) relationship between the body and the mind. There is a very real sense in which the physical postures that a person takes, the degree of tension that they consciously or( more typically, unconsciously) take in maintaining those postures either allow or block the access of “subtle”(Latif) forms of understanding. At the same time, mental “postures” can cause tensions and blocks and “knots’ in the body, and these mental “postures” can also block or allow access to different types of perceptions. Again, the term “posture” indicates a “subtle” relationship between the body and the mind.

  25. March 11, 2015 at 10:40 am

    If I may, AH Almaas wrote the following in, ‘The Diamond Approach’:

    ‘the soul learns the appropriate attitude or inner posture that engages essential guidance, which then leads the soul towards deeper exploration of its experience and life. Other essential aspects arise with the insight and understanding which arise from the inquiry, until the major ego structures are finally seen clearly, confronted and understood.’

    Does, ‘The Diamond Approach’ support what we are learning here, or is it another side track? There is a large section devoted to the Lataif, States, Stages, Stations and Postures, but is a study of this approach a diversion from the essential?

    Thanks, Otove

  26. March 11, 2015 at 6:28 pm

    brkkurroi,

    Yes, I think that is an excellent summing up. What we are interested in are the postures that help our cause, but as you rightly point out, that may involve attention to re-arranging postures that hinder us.
    It turns out that a significant part of the alchemical work involves “ensuring the matter is properly disposed” which could also be phrased “adopting the correct posture vis-a-vis Thy Will”.
    If you feel so inclined, would you care to see what the al-kemi site has to offer regarding advice along those lines?

  27. March 11, 2015 at 6:31 pm

    Otove,

    Very good suggestion. A.H. Almaas is a reliable resource and reference, quite congruent with both the Shah offerings and our approach. What else does he say regarding “posture” that may be of use to us in this discussion?

  28. brkkuroi
    March 12, 2015 at 12:11 pm

    Okay, I found this quote on Al Kemi’s site: “Alcehmy like any science requires certain qualities in its students: sincerity,earnestness, and austerity and discipline to name a few.” I would like to begin with just two for the moment: sincerity and earnestness. “Sincerity” to me means that the simplest and deepest self is linked to the outward expression of that self. Sincerity would also include unpretentiousness and humility. Although these are laudable moral qualities, they also, it would seem to me, are deeply practical qualities. If you are pretending to have knowledge that you don’t have,that “pretension” to knowledge actually blocks understanding because the defensiveness involved in maintaing a “posture” of “knowing” uses energy that could be used to truly understand. The “deepest self” as James makes clear in some of its posts is inherently “limited” where compared to “God” and any pretentiousness or lack of humility acts as a barrier to knowing. Secondly, “earnestness”….”earnestness’ would be directly linked to sincerity, but it would have a more active quality and would include “attentiveness.” “Attentiveness” would be directed outwardly but also inwardly(as in the “turning the light around” exercise. In addition, since as “postures” can be largely unconscious and can be adopted and replaced in the twinkling of an eye,”earnestness” and “attentiveness enable a student to become aware of thoise “postures” as they suddenly appear. The act of directing attention to a “posture” -whether mental or physical- inherently changes the nature of that “posture” just as becoming aware of a “knot “(aqida or “belief”) in the muscles automatically allows that muscle to relax. In addition, I have put the word “God” in quotation marks because as James has pointed out that there are many “unexamined assumptions” attached to that word. The other danger, it would seem to me, is that people will take a “posture” of humility before “God” while using their own images of “God” to express their own latent arrogance. Perhaps the word Truth (Al Haqq) would function better and Truth would be linked to sincerity and earnestness. I am sure there is a great deal which I have missed, but hopefully this is a good place to begin….

  29. March 12, 2015 at 6:53 pm

    Yes, very good. I really want to foster the ability to raed the alchemical writings practically, and am simply using the concept of “posture” to bring some focus, otherwise we wallow in a morass of unfathomable terms.

    So, for example, starting at the beginning of the Alchemical Catechism:

    An alchemist is one who seeks to know where he comes from and where he is going: the Alpha and Omega of human being. He does this by turning the light around to illumine inwardly so that he may know himself. Knowing himself —that is, Human Nature— he gradually comes to know his Lord, that is, Divine Nature [the Spirit of Spirits].

    Posture: looking within with an attitude of investigation

    Q: What should be the qualities possessed by the examiners of Nature?
A: They should be like unto Nature herself. That is to say, they should be truthful, simple, patient, and persevering.

    Posture: truthful, simple (sincere, unified, whole), patient and persevering (see commentary for more on all of these qualities)

    The Soul or Psyche (the ‘female’ spoken of in the Gospel of Thomas quote) is the locus of Understanding (Binah). The Spirit or Nous (the ‘male’ spoken of in the Gospel of Thomas quote) is the locus of Wisdom (Hokhmah). Their union creates Knowledge (Daat) or, alternatively, the Rational Soul, which fixes the volatile Real Knowledge of the Essence of Truth and volatises the fixed Conscious Knowledge of the apparent multiplicity of things so that the One does not veil the Other, or visa versa.

    Posture: Psyche aligned with Nous such that Daat is created. (a more advanced posture, to be sure)

    Q: What matters should subsequently engross their attention?
A: The philosophers should most carefully ascertain whether their designs are in harmony with Nature, and of a possible and attainable kind; if they would accomplish by their own power anything that is usually performed by the power of Nature, they must imitate her in every detail.

    This points directly at the necessity for proper POSTURE; for correct functioning one must make sure that any posture one adopts is in alignment with the Design.

    OK, and then if we look at the 12 Keys of Basil Valentine:

    When I had emptied to the dregs the cup of human suffering, I was led to consider the wretchedness of this world, and the fearful consequences of our first parents’ disobedience. Then I saw that there was no hope of repentance for mankind, that they were getting worse day by day, and that for their impenitence God’s everlasting punishment was hanging over them; and I made haste to withdraw myself from the evil world, to bid farewell to it, and to devote myself to the service of God.

    Posture: withdrawal from the attractions of “the world” and devotion to service

    When I had spent some years at the monastery, I found that after I had performed my work and my daily devotions I still had some time on my hands. This I did not wish to pass in idleness, lest my evil thoughts should lead me into new sins; and so I determined to use it for the study and investigation of those natural secrets by which God has shadowed out eternal things. So I read a great many books in our monastery written in olden times by philosophers who had pursued the same study, and was thereby stimulated to a more ardent desire of knowing that which they also knew. Though I did not make much progress at first, yet at last God granted my earnest prayer, and opened my eyes that I might see what others had seen before me.

    Posture: a spirit of investigation beyond one’s normal performance of required service activity but (and note this carefully) one’s ardent desire is not the cause of knowing, but the gift of “God” after earnest prayer

    Anyway, that is enough for an illustration (not that we have exhausted this line of enquiry–far from it!!). As we can see, “posture” is all about HOW to go about the alchemical work.

  30. March 13, 2015 at 2:13 pm

    By the way, if you have a look at the “Burning with water, washing with fire” post, you will see that it is all about the effects of different postures.

  31. March 14, 2015 at 6:27 pm

    And if one was interested in testing oneself, it may be beneficial to see what part “posture” plays in a typical extract from alchemical literature, such as the following:

    Q: What profit may the Philosopher derive from these considerations, and what should he especially remark in the method of creation which was pursued by the Supreme Being?
    A: In the first place he should observe the matter out of which the world was made; he will see that out of this confused mass, the Sovereign Artist began by extracting light, that this light in the same moment dissolved the darkness which covered the face of the earth, and that it served as the universal form of the matter. He will then easily perceive that in the generation of all composite substances, a species of irradiation takes place, and a separation of light and darkness, wherein Nature is an undeviating copyist of her Creator. The Philosopher will equally understand after what manner, by the action of this light, the … firmament which divides the superior and inferior waters, was subsequently produced; how the sky was studded with luminous bodies; and how the necessity for the moon arose, which was owing to the space intervening between the things above and the things below; for the moon is an intermediate torch between the superior and the inferior worlds, receiving the celestial influences and communicating them to the earth. Finally he will understand how the Creator, in the gathering of the waters, produced dry land.

    This does, however, bring in another aspect of posture not heretofore mentioned …

  32. March 15, 2015 at 1:58 pm

    Almaas mentions posture when writing about, ‘ego metabolism’:

    “…From the perspective of the mind, Being can be resisted easily with a slight movement of ego; thus ego must first cooperate by relinquishing its defensive posture. It is up to ego to cease resisting. When it ceases its defensive posture completely, then Being acts.”

    Xiaoyao, you wrote,

    ‘Posture: looking within with an attitude of investigation’,

    Which appears to mirror the following from the, ‘Spacecruiser Inquiry” where Almaas writes,

    ‘By understanding inquiry, we learn the posture of the soul that will invite the Diamond Guidance. When we inquire from a posture or an attitude that approximates the qualities of the Diamond Guidance, we will invite its presence, which will then guide the inquiry more directly and more precisely. Practicing this inquiry is a matter of finding a certain kind of openness, a particular attunement, using ourselves and our capacities in such a way that the soul becomes the right kind of vessel for the Diamond Guidance’

    Has this time spent learning how to ask sincere, concise and cogent questions, over the years been a process of learning the correct method to, “know thy self”?Ie monitoring ones bearing/temperament/posture now and again. Finding how North on the map correlates to the terrain ahead?

  33. March 15, 2015 at 9:27 pm

    Otove,

    Perfect timing, and perfect selection of quotes to bring the conversation to life.

    Excellent choice! Thank you for your effort.

    Learning to ask questions properly is itself adopting a posture of clarity of mind, and learning how to deepen that mind, instead of simply bouncing back and forth in the shallows of random association. Having addressed a topic with this deeper clarity, it then becomes a matter of holding that posture and allowing that clear depth to work for you, bringing out aspects one would never have otherwise perceived. Maintaining that engagement is difficult in the beginning, but a necessary skill to develop, lest one slip back to ‘neutral’ with no gain to show for one’s work.

    For example, here the efforts that you and brkkurroi have put in have taken us (I think) to a useful point of view that can help you approach the alchemical writings in a new way, facilitating understanding.

    With that in mind, if you find other Almaas quotes that you think are relevant to the “posture” discussion, please do bring them up!

  34. brkkuroi
    March 16, 2015 at 12:33 pm

    Over the weekend,(in honor of Otove’s post) I was re-reading sections of Spacecruiser Inquiry. In my understanding, Almaas locates the beginning of inquiry with the latifa connected with heart/ mind (Qalb) while the ability to continue ( or to “hold the posture” in your words, Xiaoyao) requires the presence of the red or spirit (ruh) latifa which has the “energy” and courage to not merely be aware but to resist the “conditioning” which attends the heart’s attachments and also the courage to adopt new postures. The “heart” (again, in my understanding) acts as a interface between the nafs(which is described as being centered below the navel by Shah) and the Spirit(ruh), and thus potentially has characteristics of both. In so far as the posture of inquiry requires the courage to look at the unconscious postures of attachment based on fears and various forms of conditioning, the fiery quality of the red latifa( according to Almaas the red latifa has a fiery quality) is required to not only take a posture of “inquiry” but also to go beyond the fears, conditioning and attachments of the nafs. My own feeling is that this is connected with the passage which you shared above, Xiaoyao,

    “The Soul or Psyche (the ‘female’ spoken of in the Gospel of Thomas quote) is the locus of Understanding (Binah). The Spirit or Nous (the ‘male’ spoken of in the Gospel of Thomas quote) is the locus of Wisdom (Hokhmah). Their union creates Knowledge (Daat) or, alternatively, the Rational Soul, which fixes the volatile Real Knowledge of the Essence of Truth and volatises the fixed Conscious Knowledge of the apparent multiplicity of things so that the One does not veil the Other, or visa versa.”
    I

  35. March 16, 2015 at 2:12 pm

    ‘…learning how to deepen that mind, instead of simply bouncing back and forth in the shallows of random association.’

    I appear to be stringing together yours, Brrkuroi and James’s pearls rather than discovering and integrating my own. which leads me to ask; is this the place to discuss or validate any hints of uncovered essence, or other inner experiences?

  36. March 17, 2015 at 10:40 pm

    There is a compass, so to speak, that can help one align one’s posture.

    Imagine, if you will, a horizontal axis. In our everyday thoughts and actions we move back and forth along this axis, the axis of attraction and aversion, and call it living.
    Now imagine another axis, this one vertical, crossing the horizontal axis. The vertical axis is that which links our deepest self to our highest self, and to our Source.

    The horizontal axis could be termed “my will”.
    The vertical axis could be termed “Thy Will”.

    Day-to-day we rush back and forth on our horizontal axis, loving this, hating that, until the grooves of habit are almost inescapable. We never notice that thin–almost unused–vertical axis as we race by. We cannot. All of our energy is consumed in reacting to this or that.

    Only when we slow down and refuse to use all of our energy on rushing back and forth can we gather the energy that allows us to perceive that thin vertical axis. We perceive it first by a feeling of wholeness. As we gather energy we create a space, a gap, in which for the first time we have choice: the choice to follow our usual predilections, or to align ourself with that vertical axis. The more we make the latter choice, the wider that axis becomes, and the more of a current of vitality and energy can it carry.

    Now, I am not all that familiar with Almaas’s terminology, but from what you have quoted, the red latifa appears to be the willingness to slow down, stop reacting and begin to act: to gather that energy that allows us to first perceive, then align ourselves with, that vertical axis.
    Regarding “heart”, have a look again at the term “heart” in the Cyclopedia and I think you will find it complements what you wrote.
    Looking at “Prayer” again will help with the alignment aspect, and also prevents some of the dangers inherent in overuse of the will and courage qualities involved with the “red latifa” — that of trying to “force one’s way into heaven”.

  37. March 17, 2015 at 10:51 pm

    Otove,

    In all the proper schools that I know of discussion of spiritual states or inner experiences is discouraged or even forbidden except in rare cases privately between a student under discipline and his/her guide.
    This can seem frustrating ( … “but how do I know …??”) yet one soon finds validation in other areas, which need not be specified. One of the handy things about alchemical studies is, however, that this validation appears in the increasing clarity of the texts.

    That is to say, in the beginning the alchemical texts are simply gibberish. As your inner experience grows, they begin to make a bit of sense, then more, and more. Remember when you said you looked for praxis, and I said that for me indications of praxis lay everywhere in the texts? On the other hand, what James is able to elicit from a text always astounds me.

    So take it easy. “Haste is from the devil.”

  38. March 18, 2015 at 9:17 am

    Thank you, I feel truly indebted to you for taking so much of your own time and effort. Reading back through the various comments an suggestions you have made in the past, it amazes me how recalcitrant, blind and will-full I have/do behave(d), not unlike like a Baboon at a dinner party.

    But as you were saying, ‘…here the efforts that you and brkkurroi have put in have taken us (I think) to a useful point of view that can help you approach the alchemical writings in a new way, facilitating understanding.’

    So now is perhaps the best to commit time to decoding and integrating the 12 keys and and other source texts.

    Thanks again.

  39. brkkuroi
    March 18, 2015 at 12:22 pm

    Xiaoyao, thank you for suggesting that I re-read the sections on Heart and Prayer. I also, in addition, re-read the cyclopedia section on the Spirit. I always need a reminder to “slow down” as your description above all too well describes my own tendencies( for rushing about ) From what I understand, the Spirit(Nous) can only become focused within the Soul when the soul is at “rest” i.e.”If they ask you,”What is the evidence of your Father in you? Say to them,:”it is a movement(soul) and a rest(spirit/nous/intellect) It is the Nous which I believe corresponds to the vertical axis which you have referred to. Only when the waters are “still” it would seem to me would the “mud” naturally settle to the bottom(it’s own place) and the water become “clear” or “limpid”. That “stillness” allows the Nous to focus its light and heat. The “red” in the red latifa, from what I understand, corresponds to the Spirit (ruh) . The “redness” can, depending on the context, have qualities that are both spiritual as well as physical. The “redness” could refer to the vital spirit which links the physical body to the nafs, or it could refer to the soul which is directed toward the Spirit.It seems to me that one tricky questions would be how to separate and distinguish( in practical experience not intellectual games playing) the action of the vital spirit from the soul which is directed towards the Spirit .. It seems to me , however, that because of the very subtlety involved your caution about not trying to “storm the gates of heaven” is well taken. I also like Almaas because he as well stresses( as do the taoists it seems to me) that first becoming aware of the unconscious tensions and “postures” which burn up a good deal of energy, is necessary, and this process cannot be pushed and requires a certain amount of reverence on the one hand but also wariness, on my own part, to manically rush into situations.

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