Creating Quintessence: The Balancing of Elements by Tiffany Lazic
Earth, air, fire, and water each carry their own signatures, guiding us in their own different ways. Ancient alchemists spoke of a transformative fifth element, quintessence, which was created when each of the other four elements achieved perfect balance. Using our own lives as the alchemist’s crucible, we can discern those places in which we are elementally out of balance, shift ourselves to create cohesion, and experience the magic of quintessence in our lives.
Alchemy has its beginnings so far back through the reaches of time that its source has become mythic. Said to have been gifted to humankind by the Egyptian god Thoth, alchemy is best known as the esoteric science of transformation, presenting the steps for transmuting base lead into precious gold and creating the elixir of everlasting life. There have been times in history when this was approached quite literally, prompting a quest for health and wealth that made alchemists particularly popular with royalty. Perhaps if alchemy had kept to the areas of longevity and finance, it would have enjoyed a different history. But one key aspect of the alchemical process is that the work, what is being worked upon, and the one doing the work are inextricably linked. To put it more simply, if the alchemist is to successfully transmute lead into gold, the alchemist must pay attention to his or her own inner workings, transmuting anything of a base nature within as part of the process. The achievement of inner gold is not that far from the recognition that the divine resides within.
This was not a popular sentiment with the church of the Middle Ages, and thus it became quite dangerous to be an alchemist. The image of the slightly crazed old man hidden away in a dark room surrounded by books and beakers comes in large part from the fact that were he to stand in the light of day while he worked, he probably wouldn’t live to see the next day.
In the twenty-first century, we are not so concerned with the creation of gold nor with the juice of immortality (lottery tickets and age-defying serums notwithstanding). But there is growing interest in the path to enlightenment, joy, and authenticity. It is exactly the potential to uncover this path that makes alchemy so exciting and relevant. The ultimate goal of alchemy is the attainment of the Philosopher’s Stone, which is sometimes referred to as “the intelligence of the heart.” Paulo Coelho states in his much-loved parable The Alchemist, “Because, wherever your heart is, that is where you’ll find your treasure.” The treasure of alchemy is the wealth that comes from knowing one’s own nature and living from that place of truth.
What do the alchemists of ages past teach us about attaining the precious Stone? Though the stages involved in completing the alchemical process are notoriously (and intentionally) confusing, there are a few details that remain consistent. One of the main aspects of alchemy is the belief that there are four basic elemental building blocks to all of life. It was the Greek philosopher Empedocles, writing in the fifth century BCE, who implored in his book, Tetrasomia (The Doctrine of the Four Elements), “Now, hear the fourfold roots of everything: enlivening Hera, Hades, shining Zeus. And Nestis, moistening mortal springs with tears.” Nature itself has a fourfold structure that is represented by earth (Hera), water (Nestis), air (Zeus), and fire (Hades).
These four elements are familiar to anyone with even a passing interest in magical work and the creation of sacred space, but the second key aspect in alchemical teaching is that when one has brought all four elements into perfect balance with each other, there is the revelation of a fifth element, the quintessence, which transcends them all. Another Greek philosopher, Pythagoras, referred to quintessence as “aether.” It was thought to be the air breathed by the gods, purer and finer than the air of the human world. In the creation of sacred space, quintessence can be seen as the center of the ritual circle, the sitting place for the gods and goddesses, and often the place where the altar is situated.
In alchemy, quintessence and the Philosopher’s Stone can be seen as interchangeable. Clearly, the key to achieving the intelligence of the heart is in bringing the four elements into balance. Brilliant men, many centuries, and hundreds of books have all grappled with the question of the attainment of the Stone. What follows here can only be, at best, a teeny morsel of all the wisdom available on this topic, but for those who are intrigued by the inner application of elemental balance, here are some basic pointers:
The Earth of Body
If we have any hope of achieving a balanced, open, and full heart, we must pay attention to the needs of the body. There can sometimes be an impulse to elevate the significance of spirit, dismissing our human needs as somehow “less than.” But if the body is to be a strong vessel for the containment of spirit, it needs to be well cared for. The element of earth urges us to get adequate rest and fuel ourselves with nourishing, healthy food. It highlights the importance of safety and security. When we are balanced in earth, we enjoy our work life and our home life. We feel capable of meeting survival needs, making sure we are able to pay our bills, keep a roof over our heads, food on the table, and clothes on our backs. This is not a call to extravagance. One can create balanced earth simply by recognizing and meeting basic, simple needs.
The Water of Emotions
Emotions pulse through us as surely as does our blood. They bring color to life, even though there are many emotions we would rather not experience. We have a tendency to want to avoid emotions such as fear, sadness, anger, despair, hopelessness, and anxiety. They do not feel nice at all, and often they drop us into a dark, mucky, awful emotion called shame. We feel sad at having been left out of a group outing and almost instantly find ourselves thinking, “There must be something wrong with me, and that’s why I wasn’t invited.”
In the blink of an eye, we move from feeling sad to feeling shame: “I’m not good enough. I’m not accepted by others. I’m unlovable.” Very few of us have been introduced to the tools for working through shame. As a result, we stay as far away as possible from those emotions which may inadvertently land us there.
Challenging though it may be, in order to balance water, we must accept all our emotions. This does not mean we accept the validity of every internal emotional stance. Shame, for instance, is never informing us of an emotional truth. But it does mean that we accept that the very presence of an emotion flowing through us is giving significant information about our experience of the world in that moment. Psychologist Eugene Gendlin said that “every bad feeling is a potential energy toward a more right way of being if you give it space to move toward its rightness.” The element of water gives us a place to begin that exploration.
The Air of Mind
As with our emotional life, our thoughts, beliefs, opinions, and perspectives shape our experience of the world. In some sense, this becomes a chicken-egg type of circular interrelationship. Which came first, the thought or the emotion? One approach to this question is the sense that we come into this life as positive, trusting, and open beings but that we all have painful experiences that possibly result in negative, limiting, or even cynical beliefs. We are not born mistrustful, but, after a few heart-wrenching relationships, we may develop the belief that people can’t be trusted so deeply that it feels like it has always been a part of us. Becoming balanced in air requires us to sort through our thoughts and beliefs, challenging those that close our hearts or keep us in fear or isolate us.
Balanced air allows for the differentiation of emotion and thought. This means that I may have a negative emotional experience without defaulting to a negative belief. I may have been hurt in a painful relationship, but I do not close my heart to future relationships, believing that either I am unlovable or all people are untrustworthy. I learn from that relationship, exercise discernment, and step fully into the next relationship when the opportunity presents itself.
The Fire of My Spirit
Motivation. Passion. Mojo. Chutzpah. These are all expressions of the fire within. Absence of fire results in physical lethargy, emotional depression, and mental confusion. Without fire, we are barely engaged in life. We flop through our days as “hollow men,” in the evocative words of T. S. Eliot. The healthy presence of fire enlivens us to purpose. It is not necessarily that we are prompted to achieve a goal in order to draw accolades to ourselves. It is that we feel the swell of spirit move through us, and we are compelled to be the vessel through which spirit expresses itself in our lives. In other words, it doesn’t really matter what it is that excites us. What is important is that we are excited by something. Fire brings a spark to our lives and ultimately, it can be argued, that our purpose in life is to nurture that spark into a gorgeous conflagration. Be the bright light of spirit on earth.
The Quintessence of My Heart
When we are strong in body, balanced in emotions, clear in mind, and impassioned in purpose, we have achieved the fifth element. The Philosopher’s Stone is the inner experience of self anchored in positive self-regard, solid self-esteem, and empowerment. It allows us to gaze bravely at our limitations, knowing that we are not defined by them. We recognize the divine within and allow that to be the compass that guides us. Attaining quintessence is the ability to see that the core truth of who we are has been with us since the moment we came into this world. Certain experiences may have hampered our vision, like massive storm clouds that dim the sun. It does not mean the sun is not there. It merely means the storm clouds need dispersing. Quintessence allows for the sun to shine brightly in our lives once again. Or, as stated in The Alchemist, “The boy and his heart had become friends, and neither was capable now of betraying the other.”
For those whose hearts are drawn to magical working, this whole process is beautiful and powerful when translated to ritual work, particularly around calling in the quarters. Dion Fortune linked magic and alchemy together when she stated that “magic is the art of changing consciousness at will.” The next time you step into the sacred space of your circle, see yourself reflected in the earth of the north, the air of the east, the fire of the south, and the water of the west. Allow yourself to be consciously aware of your physical self in the north, your mental self in the east, your passion and motivation in the south, and your emotional self in the west. As clearly as you would invite an elemental, dragon, or watchtower, invite an aspect of self to be fully present and accepted as integral to your whole experience. Open to the possibility of seeing yourself reflected in the face of the divine at the center, knowing that some aspect of the spark that flames in the Mighty Ones also flames within you yourself. Let your vision be guided by that flame and experience the activation of quintessence, knowing that the intelligence of your heart creates an unshakeable foundation upon which to build a remarkable future. You have achieved the Philosopher’s Stone, and from there nothing looks the same again.
Coelho, Paulo. The Alchemist. New York: HarperCollins, 1993.
Gendlin, Eugene T. Focusing. New York: Random House, 1982.
Hauck, Dennis William. Sorcerer’s Stone: A Beginner’s Guide to Alchemy. New York: Citadel, 2004.