the view from Adyar
Originally printed in the January - February 2003 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Burnier, Radha. "The Alchemy of Experience." Quest 91.1 (JANUARY - FEBRUARY 2003):28-29.
By Radha Burnier
LIFE IS A CONTINUAL ALCHEMICAL PROCESS. All the experiences in life that each one of us goes through have the potential of facilitating a transmutation of consciousness. In fact, life means transmutations which often surpass our imagination and concepts. At the physical level, invisible forces are forever converting forms and substances in mysterious ways. For the most part, we are unaware of these dynamic changes that differentiate life from inertness or nonbeing.
The birth of a frog is an example of the omnipresent alchemical process. After studying the various stages, scientists have described it as follows: The frog lays its eggs in what looks like foam; each egg divides itself into two, then into four, and so on. It forms a little mouth; there after a depression appears that gets shaped into the intestinal tract. In a few weeks, in ordered progression, legs, tail, and every other part of the body take form. The process has been filmed, and when seen in rapid motion it appears as if some cells are pulled out, some pushed in, and the whole body shaped by unseen hands into what will become the little tadpole and later the frog.
Esoteric literature says that there are indeed unseen hands, those of the minor intelligences popularly called "fairies," aiding this creation. But there is also a mind at work behind such wonderful developments, which proceed as if by a plan. These developments cannot be explained away by attributing them to genes, for then the question only regresses: what endows the genes with this power?
In millions of trees and plants, transmutation is also taking place invisibly all the time. We see what goes on outside: growth, flowering, fruiting. Unseen water, minerals, and other nutrients absorbed by the plant are transformed into sap, into energy, into the essentials of physical living, such as growth, reproduction, and reconstruction when it is necessary.
The transformation of the humble worm into the beauty of a butterfly is much admired. But few know what takes place inside the cocoon, which is fantastic, for the worm's organs and tissues are discarded and anentirely new structure develops, a phenomenon that scientists do not really understand. The organs do notdisintegrate as in a dead body but, through the activity of the white blood corpuscles, which normally attack harmful bacteria when they invade the body, the tissues of the organs are devoured inside the caterpillar itself. As the old ones are eaten away, new organs come into existence. As in the case of the frog, this transformation also proceeds step by step, again indicating a plan and a mind at work.
The realization that living is an alchemical process, at both the physical and the subtler levels, makes all the difference to how we live our own lives. Each one of the experiences we pass through should have a share in the total process of transmuting consciousness, the goal of which is delineated in the divine plan that guides all transformation.
Inner transformation sometimes makes itself known, but more often it proceeds invisibly. After Annie Besant experienced poverty, ostracism by society, and finally separation from her dearly beloved child, she arose full of that love for all and that ardor for service that made her so outstanding a spiritual figure. Krishnamurti shed bitter tears when his brother died, but the suffering was transmuted into a profound understanding of loss, death, and attachment that made him radiant with happiness within a few days of the event.
These were perhaps exceptional cases, but just as every day the material taken from the soil by theplant is transmuted into life-giving sap, even ordinary experiences are transmuted into soul-enlarging wisdom when there is real attention in the present. The Dhammapada says that unawareness is a form of death. Awareness is a process of constant renewal, without which life is not life.
Radha Burnier, President of the international Theosophical Society, is also international head ofthe Theosophical Order of Service and the author of several books, including Human Regeneration. This column was adapted from the Theosophist 120 (July 1999): 844-5.