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The Golden Elixir

Evolutionary Change and the Post-Modern World

Lee Irwin

There is a creative tension, one we all face, in reconciling the teachings and traditions of the past with the tremendous global changes of the present. Our current era is one of dynamic change, fraught with all the eddies and currents of conflicting interests and aspirations, stirred by the plasmic energies of technology, and heated by increasing sensitivities of personhood—in gender, age, ethnicity, community, language, ideology, and local, layered identities no longer confined to simple bodily perceptions. Our awareness is increasingly enhanced by interconnectivity, electronic media, and a multitude of cross-disciplinary perspectives. Our thinking is no longer able to dwell in the immediacy of a particular perspective without tremendous resistance to alternatives that pull us, often, in contradictory directions.

Everywhere there is froth—popular ideas, fads, events, and views—that arises from the sea of turbulence like airy phantoms whose allure is an effervescent image that all too often quickly collapses into the same turbulent sea from which it came, promises unfulfilled. We live in an age of promises and compromises resulting in both disaster and possibility, on an unprecedented scale, where suffering and violence is still a widespread human, animal, and planetary problem. Transformation has hardly begun to heal the fractured psyche of our collective life; savage brutalities continue to be enacted, confusions mislead, fears paralyze, and death is still a barrier full of dread. I cannot describe the world as balanced or harmonious, even though I fully believe that it is the inherent power of cohesion, manifest in and through the natural world, that pulls the tide of our confusion back toward a calmer, more mature perspective in the Now. We are veiled beings; even in the moments of our most ecstatic insights, there are still more veils to be lifted, still more seeing to be beheld, more depths to give perspective, and more living necessary to nurture the gift of life into its full flowering.

I believe that the unfolding of our potential, our capacity to grow into the sacred human, is a long process and that in this ongoing process the turbulence of the present, its eddies and whirlpools stirred by remarkable technologies, sciences, and discoveries, is only a phase, a stage we will pass through into even greater challenges. Yet, even as a stage, I know that it surpasses my own life and existence; I will not live to realize the changes I see coming. But when I lift a veil, I see technology brought into new balance with the deeper needs of humanity; what stands forth for me is the need for healing, for human respect for all life, for a reverence that holds life as a sacred relation based in love as a profound depth of care. Does love evolve? Do we really believe that we are able to be more loving than the great souls and hearts of those gone before us who have loved intensely, bravely, deeply, even to the sorrow and sacrifice of their own life? Is it not possible that those gone before, without the gloss of technological abstraction, without the glamour of globalization, saw the pain and sorrow of suffering more directly, without buffering, and acted?

Is it not also true that our problems, our insufficiencies, stem from the very lack of the love needed to bring balance into the world? We are perhaps more deficient in love than ever before because we are also so distracted, so idealistic, so removed from suffering which is utterly real, painful, and embodied. The animals suffer; without doubt we are their destroyers. The land suffers; we plunder and exhume and build, barely thinking of the resources and qualities we burn. The water suffers; it is polluted and stained almost beyond recovery. Human beings suffer, deprived of heart-centered leadership, lacking education and a just context for growth. The solution is not technology or evolution, but a recovery of an inner vitality of relatedness, a loving kindness that can provide the context for healing in the face of change. As creative agents of this radical change amidst competing practices and ideas, it is our challenge to each become a stable center whose grounding is not moved by the wind, who can bend and not break, move and not fall, or if fallen, get up and forgive.

The image that comes most strongly to mind is that of a Soul Tree, one deeply rooted in the robust, rich soil of embodied life, where the fruit of this Tree is every individual soul, nourished by a Golden Elixir. This elixir is the sap of the Tree, a clear, moist, generative flow of living vitality that rises from the nourishment of the roots, synthesized with the light of every leaf, to produce growth and fruitfulness. The good fruit is the embodied life, the dropped soul who springs to life and craves the recovery of that elixir; who sinks roots into the local soil, draws moisture and light, and despite storms and winds and terrors, is not stunted, but suffers through the changes, ring by ring, however thin or wide, to sink deeper into the archetypal depths where love can flow freely and thus inform our knowing of the world. Even if the leaf is small, even if the flower but a tiny mandala, still the fruit can be sweet or pungent, or healing, whatever is necessary in that context. The fruit cast off by every tree is nourished by its soil; it embodies the local and the deep elixir; growing in context, its vitality thrives through higher light and deep wetness to produce the endless variety of the possible in actual forms.

When I read the writing of a great teacher, or hear inspired words, observe a work of art or dance or hear the music of the soul—sometimes sorrowful and sad, sometimes joyful beyond words—I celebrate deep connections to the past. Those souls inspire me and I will never cease to reverence their lives and art and teachings. But present souls also inspire me and make me more aware of the depths of partnership; they challenge me soulfully to open and to share the joys and sorrows of others. Is that evolution? Or is it an affirmation of an ancient truth—to love and be loved, to heal and be healed, to know and be known? And doesn’t that love come out of the earth, the very place of manifestation, through body, the very temple of divine indwelling? Like DNA, the two strands are entwined—the one strand of recovery and the other of discovery—I recover the depths of soul that I know was known before, transmitted through generational wisdom, embodied by others, lived in joy and sorrow; and, I discover the emerging context, the new and the just-coming-into-being. The linkage between them is life itself; it is like Jacob’s ladder, which, linking the two aspects, we climb at the risk of becoming fully human and therefore, fully responsible for the healing of the world we co-create.

This gives me a sense of place, of belonging to humanity, of rootedness as a shared Elixir of transformation. I believe that the Golden Elixir is a kind of essence that expresses or symbolizes divine indwelling, in me, in you, in all nature—the Infinite Within All. And this Elixir, which is life vitality, a fluid medium, a taste of honey, can open mind and heart to greater awareness, is, indeed, the Gift of Life. It is intrinsic, we do not create it but we can, somewhat to our own detriment, distill it, refine it, and turn it into a vanishing, diminishing vapor through abstraction and removed ideas or words. It’s not the words that matter, but what they communicate; not the type of tree, but the value of the fruit; not the juice, but every part—the root, the body, the heart, the soul, the sap, the mind, the leaf, the whole being harmonized. It’s not exactly evolution and it’s not exactly something from the past; perhaps there is no “exactly” but only the loving approximations we make through gestures of caring communication with others.

In recovery we can grasp and be grasped by the past, resonate and share insights, find our common roots, out innate capacities of ecstasy, love, and enlightenment. And in discovery, we can see unfolding of potentials in the emergence of vaster, more complex insights, technologies, and therapies of healing. To me, the fascination of the present (and future) lies not in the virtual possibilities spun from the matrices of transdiscipinary and transglobal relations. Nor is it the discovery of critical detachment from any point of view, or the affirmation of new cosmologies, sciences, and ideas about our humanity. What stands forth for me is not what we discover but what we do with it, how we use these discoveries to provide a remedy for our detached, ungrounded, destructive tendencies. The vision of a shared future, one honoring community, relatedness, and co-creation depends on our capacity to truly honor our differences at the same time that we support a deepening harmony of thought and action for the benefit of all. This honoring goes to the root, to the very sap of our growth and development; the fruitfulness of our development, its sweetness and nurture, requires this rootedness. Not simply in the past, but a rootedness in the elixir, the flow and continuity of positive life-force that supports enhanced awareness without losing a humble connection to all that has contributed to our capacities for a shared freedom. Grounded, we can grow; grounded in enduring values that sustain and inspire.

I think what really matters is how deeply and genuinely we can love, care for others, do our world work without thoughts of self-aggrandizement or concerns about possible errors that paralyze. What do we embody? How do we incorporate and share the life force? We must at least try to do our best, not as what might be or become, but in terms of what is now, embodied by me and by you as real, limited, partial beings capable of drawing on that indwelling elixir for the benefits it brings to all our relations. Perhaps we can embody a new vision or possibility, or perhaps we can be a living presence of what is, will be, or has been. What has been is the unbroken lineage of embodied beings capable of love and healing, overcoming remarkable challenges, and offering in the midst of suffering a true gift of grace. If we can cut through the glamour and stimulation of the immediate present, the subterfuge of the possible, and approach every discovered instrumentality with cautious humility, use what is helpful for the healing of the world and its beings, then, perhaps we can call it “evolution.” Otherwise, we become captives of a dream that has no body, a tree without roots, crystallized salt and dry sulfur that has no mercury to bind them in the slow fire of love. It will take generations to accomplish this transformation, but each of us can add to the beauty if we can become the beauty gifted to us through Spirit. We must become it, embody it, live it, share it—that is the challenge, step by step, day by day—growing, that we might truly be fruitful and multiply.

Thus I would say that the spiritual quest has always been changing, has always been in process. All spiritual traditions bear witness to the dynamics of internal debate, discovery, refinement, over-turning that has always challenged the static tendency toward reiteration and repetition. What evolves is our understanding of the elixir, its work and application; the transmutations in the human heart; the context within which growth is expressed. The outer shell of history is the visible movement, the inner nut is the embodiment of spiritual practices and creative discoveries, and the oil of that nut is the sweetness of the elixir that permeates every illumined soul. The spirituality of the 21st century is really no different, whatever its shell or inner forms, it is nourished by that indwelling vitality that urges us to accept transformation as our path, our gift, to become vessels for the overflowing abundance that affirms, heals, and uplifts a world, a friend, a child, a soul in need, or simply celebrates the gift of beauty bestowed on the world for inspiration.

Prayer of the Earth

My heart is not large enough to

comprehend the Mystery.

Nor resilient enough to resound

to every song, nor subtle enough to

hear every Voice on the wind.

The World is so vast, so great and wide and deep

and all my dreams are like tiny shells

cast by ocean on an endless shore.

I’ve made a mandala of those shells, to leave

a sign; I know it won’t last, be washed

away, taken back into the Deep.

But even if every shell is ground to dust,

the mineral and salts and sweetness

dissolved into oceanic atoms,

I know that the Light will shine

a life-giving heat, evaporate the molecules

of soul, and gather them into clouds

and rains and storms

To spread that water dust on the tongues of leaves,

on the fruit, in the earth, through the root,

into the very entrails of the eater

Where I can live and relive with joy,

both eater and eaten, both nurturer and nurtured

both in-nature and beyond-nature, neither

born nor reborn

But a constant element of what I cannot comprehend.

I celebrate that Mystery, I offer a prayer

whose form is vague but whose

intent is sincere,

I offer thanks, for the life given, for the gift,

the joy and the sorrow, the intensity

and calm, the insight and

the illumined arrow

that pierces my

soul center

as Thy



Lee Irwin is a Professor in the Religious Studies Department at the College of Charleston where he teaches world religions with an emphasis on Native American traditions, western esotericism, hermeticism, contemporary spirituality, mystical cosmology, and transpersonal religious experience as related to dreams and visions. He is the Vice President of the Association for the Study of Esotericism (ASE) and a board member of the Sophia Institute and the Institute for Dream Studies. He has been a workshop leader and group facilitator for over twenty years, particularly in the areas of visionary cosmology and the development of the sacred human. He is the author of many books and articles, including: The Dream Seekers, Visionary Worlds, Awakening to Spirit: On Life, Illumination, and Being, The Alchemy of Soul, and Coming Down From Above: Prophecy, Resistance, and Renewal in Native American Religions.

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Comments (1)
  • The poem is absolutely beautiful.  thank you.

    — Paula Upton, MA on August 10, 2012

18 June 2010

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