A FEW NIGHTS AGO I woke up to a strange but familiar smell. It was a scent that had woken me up in the middle of the night once before, almost a year ago: a warm, electric, incense-like presence. It was so overpowering I had to get out of the room in order to breathe fresh air. My partner at the time woke up and I said: can you smell that?
It kept recurring so I asked some cunning men of my acquaintance what they thought of the situation. They both felt it was a daimonic spiritual presence, and what is more, it was apparently very keen to contact me. They suggested communication.
The proprietor of the esoteric perfumery, The House of Orpheus, gave me some incenses to use which matched my description of the smell. Warm, solar, electric. On Halloween, I burnt the incenses and performed a rite of insight meditation to commune directly with this most aromatic of daimons.
It revealed itself as a solar spirit. It gave me its name and its symbols. I recognised them from the Greek alchemical manuscripts which I had been translating at the time. But more specifically, it admonished me to take up certain practices that I had previously worked with but which had fallen into neglect. These practices were a series of daily solar meditations—invocations to Ra-Helios—that I used to perform before the rising sun. But the most important practice that I was specifically admonished to resume was not any external rite. It was the crux of inner alchemy itself: the cultivation of the golden elixir.
In Taoist alchemy, the golden elixir (jindan) is the vital force cultivated in the “field of cinnabar” (dantien): the storehouse of essence and energy located at the body’s centre of gravity. Frequently likened to an embryo, the golden elixir represents the nascence of our divine nature: the emergence of the immortal principle at the root of our very being. Its seat at the body’s centre of gravity correlates closely with the Indo-Tibetan practice of generating yogic heat through an “inner fire” cultivated just beneath the navel. This “inner fire” (Sanskrit caṇḍālī, Tibetan tummo) is generated by drawing the breath down through the subtle body’s serpentine channels, compressing them at the vital centre, and then radiating it through the body. Ultimately, this practice serves to purify the axis of being through which consciousness surpasses death.
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In the nights before this strange smell (and its daimonic reminder) returned to my life, I had two distinctly alchemical dreams. In the first dream I was adding a yellow, gunpowder-like substance to a large glass vessel containing a liquid substance. I sealed the vessel with a heavy glass stopper, but I’d put too much of the yellow powder in. When it reacted, it blew the glass stopper right through the roof.
The next night I fell asleep reading, oscillating between the Latin text and English translation of the Rosarium Philosophorum—the “Rose Garden of the Philosophers” (a sixteenth-century alchemical text). I dreamt that I was holding a sphere of pure metallic gold. It was perfectly round, and polished to mirror-like clarity. It was heavy. It had very real gravity, and as I held it I could feel its profound weight.
The following night, I was half expecting a third alchemical dream. But what came was the smell. And it all fell together:
Aurum nostrum non est aurum vulgi.
— Our gold is not ordinary gold —
In Chinese inner alchemy, the vital essence cultivated in the lower dantien is visualized as a golden ball of energy radiating like a sun. In these practices you “hold” the sphere of energy in your hands as you guide its radiant presence. Significantly, the energy generated has to be properly contained. Before you cultivate this energy in the vessel of your body, you must first stop the leaks in your vessel, otherwise the energy dissipates. The message of the two dreams was thus perfectly clear: You have a powerful mix. Seal it, hermetically. Otherwise you’ll blow the lid off. Sky-high. Seal the vessel and you will hold the golden elixir.
* * *
As these pieces were falling together, I had been corresponding with Austin Coppock, an astrological colleague who was aflame with an alchemical influx of his own. Among other things, we were discussing the cross-cultural intricacies of eastern and western alchemies. Austin pointed out that the present planetary emphasis—the conjunction of sun and moon, as well as Mercury—were all currently congealing in the second decan of Cancer. This decan acts precisely as a philosopher’s womb—a vessel and furnace. And like the alchemical receptacle, it must be sealed to accomplish its purpose. “The inner alchemy of China”, he writes, “emphasizes the importance of locating these leaks within both the body and the psyche. These traditions describe emotionally errant states of mind as thieves, because they steal from us. These burglars steal our attention and our energy—the inner resources required for our great work”.
While I was familiar with this idea from my own study of these traditions, it was clearly being brought to my attention via a series of obliquely connected events. Through synchronous channels, a singular message was being reinforced: the way of the golden elixir pivots on a fundamental vigilance. Inner and outer behaviours that dissipate energy and awareness must be uprooted. Rudderless thoughts, emotional sinkholes, fruitless behaviours and habitudes—all must be calmly yet rigorously relinquished in order to bring our power back to its rightful centre. The approach is essentially meditative, and yet it is a meditation free of all formal structure, for it permeates all aspects of life. When our very body and being becomes the vessel of the great work, every act, inner and outer, potentially reveals (or conceals) our primordially immortal nature.
Aaron Cheak, PhD, is a scholar of comparative religion, philosophy, and esotericism. He is the author and editor of Alchemical Traditions: From Antiquity to the Avant-Garde (Numen Books, 2013), and founding director of Rubedo Press.