Interview to Lee Irwin: “The Alchemy of the Soul”

This is an interview to Dr. Lee Irwin, that I realised in Charleston, South Carolina, during my recent trip to the USA. It’s already been published on the Italian blog La Poesia e lo Spirito. The Italian version is available see below.
Dr. Irwin is the Head of the Department of Religious Studies of the College of Charleston, and an expert of Comparative Religious Studies and spirituality. Thanks to this his colleague (professor of Italian Literature) and writer Massimo Maggiari, I had the pleasure to meet him after reading his essay The Alchemy of the Soul – The Art of Spiritual Trasformation (Lorian Press, 2007), focused on the observation of the interior dynamics of the human spirit as a creative process of continual evolution and transformation, integrated with the rest of the universe.

First of all, I’d like to ask you something about your book, The Alchemy of the Soul. Which is the basic meaning: “spiritual transformation” or “alchemy of the soul”?

My view of that is a transformative process. It’s not really a state of being as much as it is a developmental process of gradual change and transformation. I think different stages of the process have different focuses. The whole point is that of realizing at which stage you are, in order to see the things you need at that particular stage and the elements that you will need to take with you to the next stage, working creatively with those in a developmental perspective. So, if for instance, you’re married and with children, that’s your context, while if you’re a single and you live a different kind of life, that’s another context. I think it’s all very contextual, and you need to find the key that will facilitate transformation in that particular context. Yet, I don’t think this path has an end; the alchemy of the soul is an ongoing process, that we keep developing right up to the moment we die, and maybe we’ll continue developing even after death.

– Over the last days we’ve been reflecting with Massimo Maggiari over coincidences in life, and the way the world confirms for us that we are on the right way, or gives us hints as to the way we should change our behaviour, and thus to identify our path, in other words our mission in life. How is all this connected to the theme of the alchemy of the soul and the art of spiritual transformation? What do you think about synchronicities and the events that are particularly meaningful to us and very often surprise us? For instance, it quite often happens to me to read a sentence on an advert that answers a question that I’d recently posed myself.

The context of the alchemy of the soul, the way I understand it, is not just that of personal psychological development. It is true that we have to take responsibility for our own development. However I think the context for that process is much, much larger than the individual. It’s larger than the society in which the individual is located and extends itself into ontological and cosmological depths of creation, so that the transformational process isn’t isolated from this larger context. One of the tasks for this kind of transformation is to extend our awareness in such a way that we can become more sensitive to the kind of guidance that can come to us from the world around us. This might occur in surprising moments and unexpected forms, through synchronicities (or coincidences), because we become increasingly more sensitive to what I would call almost a form of clairvoyance (“clear seeing”): we see more deeply into the world around us and we can read the signs that are there, and take them as a stimulus for growth. The creative context of development is spiritual, not merely influenced by our deepest psychological aspirations and desires, but also deeply informed by a current of development and direction that we share collectively. So, we are all engaged in this process of developmental transformation, that we keep our focus on it so that we map it to the world we live in; and the world maps itself to us in terms of our state. What happens is that the blinds fall off our eyes, and we see more symbolic meanings in the things occurring around us. But we have to learn to think outside of the box, i.e. beyond the normal way of reasoning, and that is a big challenge for people, because it’s always easier to fall back into collective ways of thinking and perceiving, and when that happens to me the signs disappear. It’s a process of differentiation that pulls you out of the collective, and at the same time a larger arena opens up and reveals surprising depths and hidden sources of empowerment. You’ve got to liberate yourself from collective stereotypes, in order to see all this.

-In your book you write that when we start this process of personal fulfilment and liberation, at first it’s a painful process, because we are afraid we may remain isolated from the others, but then we may discover that there’s a new horizon, and the fear we had to remain alone kind of vanishes, and we find other contexts, involving people with whom we can share and interact, in this process. However, there’s a tough moment, which is when we see darkness around us, although we know there’s a light beyond it; so, we have to get over that, somehow, in order to reach that light. This actually reminds me of the reflections of St. John of the Cross, saying that we have to go through darkness in order to reach light. In this process of the alchemy of the soul, what do you think can help us see the light even in the darkest of the moments? What can we hang on to?

Well, it’s not one just moment. It’s actually recurrent. There are actually two sides to that, because on the one hand we might say we have fear and anxiety about letting go and opening up, but on the other hand I can assure you that there’s also the fear that people experience when they encounter the sacred and the divine, which can be somewhat overwhelming. And that’s a different kind of fear. So, in both cases, what is the means for moving ahead? I think that’s faith, not so much in a particular tradition, as in the process and in the integrated wholeness we are part of. I think of the world in which we are immersed as holistic and harmonious, in its depths. So, if I’m in a state in which I’m experiencing fear, anxiety and uncertainty, I can still feel I can trust the process, because deep down I feel that the process is integrative not just within me, but within the cosmos at large.
Another important thing is courage, and also determination. You have to press ahead. I have seen so many people become interested in spirituality, begin to change their world view, open up to new possibilities and then say: “No… Let’s stop it.” So, the commitment has to be “to go on to the next stage”. That means you invested yourself, not just in a will-oriented sense, but also in this idea of faith and trust in the process itself. I actually think that higher powers come in here and act in accordance with our deep intention and help us to move forward, so it’s a matter of being open to and trusting that intuition and sticking with it, without stepping back.

– I went myself through a process of regeneration, especially thanks to holistic medicine – in particular, flower therapy – and awareness meditation as well, and also to a refreshed approach to the Christian faith. And it’s something still ongoing in me. Therefore, I think we can say that nature can help us in this recovery. How do you look at these ‘alternative’ disciplines?

Well, this is something we could call “occult sciences”. I think we are on the very threshold and just beginning to understand all this. One of the reasons is that there’s actually a disjunction between the causal level of why these things work and people’s mental attitude toward them: there’s a lack of continuity. It’s because people see themselves somewhat separate from nature or not informed or supported by it, so there’s a certain degree of resistance to trying to understand what the laws of the psyche, of the soul and the spirit might be, in terms of the effects of these techniques. And I think there’s a very, very wide range of techniques that are still in their early stages of development, and we need to apply and understand how they function, especially because they seem to work in a very subtle way. It’s not something we can measure in a lab, as it’s very subtle, so it requires a world view and an attitude that is supportive of and really congruent with subtle psyche transformations and causes. Moreover, what about spiritual guides and helpers? In all of these fields there’s a gap that many people have trouble crossing over. We need a holistic and integrative science that embraces the occult and the transformative in a way that we can foster these kinds of techniques more and more. It’s a long way to go. What is true is that many people, who have unsuccessfully gone through traditional “allopathic” remedies to solve their problems, in the end have to accept alternative paths, because they’re desperate. We often call “spiritual” what we see disconnected from us because we don’t see the really subtle causal links between it and our present state. And I think the way to grasp that causality is to expand our consciousness. And the alchemy of the soul, in this sense, helps us understand which causal agents are at work, all around us, permeating the world, and then we can find the techniques, like flower remedies or whatever, to focus or channel those causal forces into transformation.

– The Christian approach that is proposed by many Benedictine monks in the USA, but also in the rest of the world, is centering prayer, as well as a form of meditation that emerges from a book, The Cloud of Unknowing, by an anonymous Medieval author. Can you tell me something about this?

This is a big subject, and actually one of the courses I teach (a general course on Western Esotericism) deals with a large part of it. The more traditional view on that is to think of it in terms of mysticism, like in the case of The Cloud of Unknowing and other classical texts that are very fascinating. They offer alternative views on Christianity and different meditation techniques, for example. That’s more traditional Christian mysticism. But there’s a whole other stream (like that of the history of theosophy), that’s inherent to western culture, which by the way is found in Italy, in the Renaissance period, with Marsilio Ficino and other interpreters. That really is Christianity, but a reformulated Christianity that’s quite esoteric and really deserves a lot more study than what it gets. In both Catholic and Protestant tradition there’s a stream of esotericism that develops through authors that are not necessarily mystics, but have written a relevant amount of texts that propose an alternative world view, that maybe challenges certain presuppositions about Christianity.

– What do you think is the value of figures of mystics and saints, like for instance Padre Pio?
How do you relate them to spirituality and the alchemy of the soul? Can they be an even more relevant guide and point of reference than nature and the whole world we live in? What do they add to the perception we may have of this universal process of transformation?

I think contemporary saintly persons have a crucial importance, because the process of spiritual transformation is not simply a theory, but a reality. Yet, in order to validate that reality we need living examples. The key-point is incarnation. I’m a proponent of incarnational spirituality, and so the fundamental aspect of it is to fully embody the spiritual potential, to the utmost degree we’re able. Saints are the living examples of all this. After that, we have to discover the saint within ourselves, and bring it forward within the process of spiritual transformation, so as to make it real. And there are many possible ways to express such a potential of each of us. Then, there’s one more point: I think that people who come to embody a spiritual tradition and fully actualise it can actually create a psychical field that touches the people, objects and environments around them, sensitizing them to their spiritual ideal, so filling them with an energy you can get sort of “in tune” with. In theory, it’s conceivable to think (and not only in the Christian world) of a mystic who lives isolated on the top of a mountain and, with his prayers and energy, positively influences the whole world.

– In fact, certain signs concerning history and others related to our personal experiences confirm this for us. We are often unconcerned about the meaning of signs and coincidences, yet, when they do have a meaning (which only we, as the “interested party”, can appreciate), that is evident, and needs no demonstration.

Yes, but in order to do that we have somehow to surrender that collective mind that wouldn’t accept it. We have to be on the threshold and open to the newness that might come in there, and not hold too strongly to the collective mentality, because what happens to most people is that the whole thing bounces off them, as they’re actually not receptive enough to let go in such a way that would actually change them. That is they key, the impact of the experience that keeps me going forward and expanding my world view.

– This makes possible a new idea of ourselves, because we let go of the ego and become aware of a self that can potentially embrace the whole world and at the same time be embraced by it.

Yes, and I have a name for that, which is the prophetic self. I think it’s what embraces our change and transformation into something greater. You can see what the next few steps will be, or what the ideal is, and you want to move toward it. I think the prophetic self is a container, and it holds the energy for the transformation that is possible. And the way it works is not bland, but intense and passionate. Thanks to it, we become passionate about spiritual transformation. The prophetic self attracts you, so that, if you are open to its “vision”, the energy flows, and you find yourself moving toward it.

– In fact, we may have a quite clear idea of what we tend to, and then things begin to happen.

You have to live sort of on the edge between knowing and not knowing. And it’s never quite a complete “knowing”. There’s always a “not yet”, something not completely definite (“where am I going?”, “what’s the next step?”, you ask yourself). And that’s related to the passion, the enthusiasm and the inspiration of life.

– So, can we say that the real challenge for today’s world and for every one of us doesn’t so much concern political changes, as the possibility of an “interior revolution”? I mean, although concrete matters are very relevant, isn’t it more important to change from the inside?

The point of an interior “revolution” is crucial, but I’d also add something else: our capacity to maintain higher quality relationships and the sense of relatedness. The frontier for contemporary spirituality is the concept of partnership. The caution I’d have about interior change is that it mustn’t become disconnected from the world. Spirituality mustn’t deny the world. Modern spirituality needs to learn to integrate the intimacy of multiple individual perspectives. We need to learn how to relate everyone’s inner world to those of others. In particular, I give much importance to women’s perspectives on spirituality, which are growing and expanding. This really needs to happen, because spirituality until now has been too male-centred. Together with women we can develop in a balanced way, discovering what the new horizons are going to be. It’s a network.

– And do you think the modern world is ready to accept such a challenge? Or that the “social masks” and the prejudices of people are still too strong? Do you think that the people who experience the alchemy of the soul are a little like the prisoner of Plato’s cave, who got out, saw the light, went back to the cavern and got killed by the others, who didn’t accept their words?

Well, that’s always a problem: prejudices and collective bias. But, “by examples” is the best way. It’s not so much a matter of “speaking” one’s truth, as of “acting” it: “being” the truth that you want to manifest. And I think that, in order to overcome prejudice, you have to show such a good example of loving kindness and care and concern for the others in the “market place”, as it were, to help make the transformation. It’s the “quality of presence” that you embody. So, can you embody that presence in partnership with others, to the degree that it becomes an example to even the most resistant person who can see that there’s something happening there, something good, some energy of connectedness and vision that’s been enacted? That is not necessarily something “threatening”, it rather happens in a positive, unharmful way. Confrontation isn’t very successful. It’s better to lovingly show your truth through what you do.

– So, let’s take the example of a writer. A writer can convey a message, and basically writes and occasionally speaks in public. Therefore, to become integrated in his network, he or she should express their emotional world, speaking from the heart to the heart, rather that from the mind to the mind.

Yes, in fact I had thought of writing The Alchemy of the Soul for many years, but I felt ready for that only when I was sixty.

– And writing can be effective, in this sense, only when the inspiration comes straight from the heart and is genuine.

That’s true, otherwise it may tend to become too disconnected from the world and the real life of the individual, and you can read that result in the text. In fact, we are talking about the alchemy of the soul. So the question is: are you in communion with your soul? Can you perceive through your soul the world and your relationship with the others, rather than, say, through the mind? The point, instead, is the heart. The effort of staying focused on the heart takes a lifetime, as our society is so very mind-centred. We have to come down and centre in the heart, in order to expand into a different kind of perception.

– Maybe, in this sense a good way of expanding this stream of meaning coming from the heart is, sure, letting go of the rational control of the mind, but also developing curiosity and openness to dialogue. So, may we reach even the most diffident individuals by speaking a language that initially speaks to the mind, but offering “drops of heart”, and then gradually letting it leak down to a lake of heart, so that they “find themselves” in it and be “surprised”? We have to take them off of the defensive. On the other hand, speaking to the mind can make us lose trace of the heart, can’t it? It’s a tricky balance, indeed…

Well, I think that the importance that Massimo Maggiari puts on poetry is very important. Poetry can help us to reach or touch even the most rational intelligences. That is a skilful way of writing and speaking, for instance by using metaphors. It’s possible to speak from the heart in a very intelligent way. This is possible as long as you and I, as individuals, make the choice to say that whatever challenge we have to face and whatever context we find ourselves in, we’re going to stay centred in the heart. Then, from that heart-centred position, we will meet whatever person. “I’m not giving up the heart-centred position” should be our motto…

– So to say, the right sentence would be “I am not going to become my interlocutor, in order to persuade him or her”, or “I’m keeping centred in the heart and get to a genuine exchange of energies with them”.

Yes, remain yourself by staying centred in the heart. I remember hearing that the electromagnetic field of the heart is 15 ft large, so that it fills this whole room. In other words, every person’s heartbeat is intersecting with any other person’s heartbeat in this space. Instead, our brain waves are only affecting a few inches from the head.

– Thus, we have to invert the usual (for us western men and women) relation between heart and mind, realising that the heart should lead the mind, and not vice versa. This is a real revolution, and that’s why we are so afraid, because in this change of perspective we find the measure of our own alchemy of the soul, of our “prophetic self”, as you said. Yet, we deny this by saying: “I’m not my heart; I am my mind”, while we are much more that just that. We don’t like feeling diluted into something wider than what we are used to. So, the basic point is knowing our fear more in depth, and realising that it’s the result of the walls we’ve erected all around us. I think this the essence of what even Socrates said about the “knowing of ourselves”.

It all takes retraining. People are influenced by their intellectual culture that emphasizes abstract thinking, as compared to heart-centred thinking. And that requires a re-focussing. In fact, there exists a re-focussing technique: when you have a mental problem (or anyway a problem that you’re trying to solve by thinking about it), refocus, go to your breath, let your heart breath and lead your process of thinking and allow for openness of mind, so that the solution may come to you in a more intuitive and relaxed way. You can’t just say: “I want it now”. You have to say: “I will be patient”, “I will wait”. By so doing, you’ll let the causal, cosmic agents we were talking about interact with you; otherwise, you’ll be so preoccupied that you won’t even be able to notice them. That’s why I recommend meditation practices, as they help the mental over-activities go quiet. The more you can do that, the more enhanced your perception is, and the more your are aware of heart-centred perceptions. Then you are able to guide your thinking. But this requires training. There’s spiritual discipline in there.

– So in the end we’ll become aware that our identity is not our mental image of ourselves, but our heart, our…

…Soul. And it’s not an unchanging entity, but a soul capable of growth. The point is the soul’s development, which is going on throughout life and even after it. The soul is the vehicle for transformation.

– “Panta rhei”, everything flows, and we’re part of this stream, that goes beyond even our individual, bodily entity.

So, what if you ask the question: “Does the soul have a mind?” Yes, it does.

– In fact, the heart gives us hints, so it has a “logical” faculty of its own.

Yes, we can call this “psychonoetic”. Let’s imagine, just for a moment, the soul detached from the body, when you’re dead. So, can you still think?

– Well, I’d intuitively say: “Of course I can”.

Yes, in fact the soul is a thinking, feeling, sensing entity. Therefore, it’s developmental even when it’s outside of the body. Being heart-centred is not just a matter of emotions; no, it’s feeling and thought and perception integrate to the soul itself, not just the body. And all these levels are developmental.

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