28 February 2012

The Alchemy of Transforming Suffering into Consciousness

Tenth in a series on Eckhart Tolle's "The Power of Now"

Alchemy -- an ancient philosophical tradition practiced by sages who claimed powers such as the ability to turn base metals into gold or silver -- is mentioned by Tolle in chapter two of "The Power of Now."  In the following quote (page 40), he explains how this early scientific method relates to his work in the present day:

"Sustained consciousness severs the link between [suffering] and your thought processes and brings about the process of transmutation...This is the esoteric meaning of the ancient art of alchemy:the transmutation of base metal into gold, of suffering into consciousness." (emphasis mine)

Isn't this the very essence of our work with chronic pain and the spiritual life?  The steps we take away from our mind- and emotion-caused suffering toward consciousness and choice are our very own alchemical process.  We believe that we can take the base metal of suffering and turn it into the gold of spiritual awareness and peaceful presence to what is.

Tolle tells us that we have the power, we are the alchemists:

"Let me summarize the process.  Focus attention on the feeling inside you.  Know that it is [suffering].  Accept that it is there.  Don't think about it--don't let the feeling turn into thinking.   Don't judge or analyze.  Don't make an identity out of yourself of it.  Stay present, and continue to be the observer of what is going on inside you."  (page 41)

I love lists.  I love a simple, step-by-step explanation after I've heard the philosophical or spiritual basis for a practice.  My mind just works that way, in lists, and -- when I am in pain -- it is much easier to pay attention to and absorb the meaning of a few simply written items on a short list than it is a long treatise. 

Here is a list I made from the above qoute:

1. Focus attention on the emotions or thoughts that are causing you to suffer.
2. Accept that the suffering is there.
3. Let go of thinking about it, judging it, analyzing it, whining about it.  ESPECIALLY avoid making an identity (like being a Victim; I have posted about this before) out of it.
4. Continue to observe the suffering.  This is called being present, or staying in the Now.

 I have found that #3, above, is not as easy as it sounds, and that is probably one of the reasons that Tolle has written an entire book rather than stopping with a four-item list.  Later on in Chapter Two, Tolle begins to talk about the ego and how it loves to suffer because it loves to have an identity and loves to have something to fight against.  The ego is what makes #3 so difficult.  But I will save that discussion for my next post.

I would love to hear from you.  Please use the Comment link below, or email me at carold.marsh@gmail.com.  Thank you.


  1. I love this book, but it's been a couple of years since I've read it. Thank you for reacquainting me with it's powerful message. xo Cristina

  2. Hi, Cristina -- I find that Tolle's books usually lend themselves to re- and re- and re-reading. Or maybe I am just a slow learner. :)