“I’m so overwhelmed, I don’t know where to start!” is an often-heard lament from denizens of the modern age. There’s so many information flying around, it can pile up fast. If you’ve gotten a backlog, it’s difficult to have any idea where or how to get started decluttering your life.
Fortunately there’s a very ancient philosophy and practice for bringing things into a more “perfect” (read efficient, productive) state. That practice is alchemy.
What is Alchemy anyway?
Alchemy is the art and science of transmuting base metals into precious ones (silver and gold). Using various chemical processes such as refinement and smelting, with each cycle a substance becomes more pure or more rarified.
But Alchemy was not merely a profane art. In fact, the ancients didn’t separate the profane and the sacred as modern culture is apt to do. By refining metals (or making medicines), the alchemist was refining himself (or herself, there were notable female alchemists too!)
That’s in part because Alchemy required developing a way of looking at the world — the cultivation of the observer self — that begins to observe all aspects of life including one’s own internal subjective experience.
Consequently, you don’t actually have to learn how to work with metals to become an Alchemist in your own life. Modern life is teeming with opportunities to become an Alchemist by working to understand the processes that underscore how you accomplish your goals.
Let’s first look at the example of decluttering your space. You can break the process into several rounds, each producing a greater level of refinement (or clarity):
- Refinement Round 1: Declutter space – Take out the trash. What’s left, put away or give away.
- Refinement Round 2: Clean space – Vacuums, dusting and mops. And systems for proper storage.
- Refinement Round 3: Make it a ritual – Set up processes that ensure a clean space by preventing clutter from accumulating. Pick up at the end of each day, or designate a day of the week.
We can also apply the Alchemical framework to decluttering one’s mind space:
- Refinement Round 1: Declutter mind – Get all the stuff out of your mind and on to paper or electronic inbox. Delegate to others what you don’t need to do. Perform a mind dump.
- Refinement Round 2: Clear mind – Learn to relax and clear your mind. And organize a task list what’s important so it gets done.
- Refinement Round 3: Make it a ritual – Set up systems that ensures you remain productive and successful. Schedule a daily meditation time, or a time to review your tasks.
In these instances, trying to move directly to Round there, without going through the first two steps, would be extremely difficult. In fact creating an effective system often requires several rounds of refinement.
The best, most efficient way to optimize your potential is to get your mind into that state of self-sustaining equilibrium. It doesn’t actually take that long to get there, once you realize the journey isn’t a straight line, but a spiral of continuous refinement.
Once you complete the third round of refinement, you will have automatically achieved a kind of self-sustaining equilibrium, in which the energy of the system maintains itself. The Alchemists called this the “philosophers stone” and it was said to be like a fountain of youth, eternally renewing.
This is also the state most likely to produce moments of Flow, how positive psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi describes one of the most desired human states — total immersion in the creative process.
It is absolutely possible. And you can do it.