The alchemy of kintsugi living

Image by Angelo Rosa from Pixabay

The alchemists of old are known for their attempts to turn lesser metals into gold through a series of chemical and physical treatments.

For many years, my mental image of them was that of greedy quacks who were hoping to make a fortune through some kind of trickery. I’m sure that’s true for some of them, but that’s not what alchemy was originally about.

The original goal of alchemy was about inner transformation. It came from the belief that it’s possible to turn the base metals in ourselves into gold. The attempts to do that in the physical world were simply part of the quest to learn to do that in their inner selves as well.

I’ve since read one of their primary source texts, and it’s clear that they did not expect this inner transformation to happen easily. The steps they describe are filled with discomfort and even pain, much like the harsh reactions they submitted their base metals to.

Here’s the notable thing, though: in neither the physical experiments with base metals nor in the process of inner transformation was the alchemical process ever about removing the less valuable to replace it with gold. Nothing was deleted or thrown away here. The base metals or base parts of ourselves were actually the source of the gold.

They were not deleted or removed; they became gold.

Pema Chödrön puts it like this in Taking the Leap: Freeing Ourselves from Old Habits and Fears:

There is a formal practice for learning to stay with the energy of uncomfortable emotions—a practice for transmuting the poison of negative emotions into wisdom. It is similar to alchemy, the medieval technique of changing base metal into gold. You don’t get rid of the base metal—it isn’t thrown out and replaced by gold. Instead, the crude metal itself is the source of the precious gold.

That sounds an awful lot like kintsugi living to me.

The point of kintsugi living is not to remove the painful, broken places in our lives and replace them with something better. It’s not about deleting the broken places in our hearts and selves so that we can replace with something else.

It’s about facing those painful, broken places head on and staying with the discomfort they bring long enough to allow them to transform into gold.

Those broken places aren’t parts of ourselves or our lives to be thrown away. They are the very source of the gold that develops through our own healing and inner transformation that manifests itself in our outer lives.

This doesn’t mean that there might not be things, relationships, or circumstances that we might decide to let go of as part of the process of transformation as we decide that they no longer fit or are no longer good for us. What it does mean is that we don’t attempt to delete the entire experience of those broken places by ignoring them, burying them, pretending they don’t exist, or covering them over with a “prettier” facade.

The next time you are facing broken places in yourself or in your life, rather than attempting to just delete them and move on, take inspiration from alchemy to try a different approach. Try staying with the discomfort and pain, leaning into them as a source of rich transformation, and watch how that practice gradually transforms those broken places into gold.

As you look back, where can see formerly broken places that have been transformed into gold over time? What was that experience of alchemy like for you?

What would it look like to lean into any current broken places into your life to allow that discomfort to work toward transforming them into gold?

What places in your life have you been trying to delete that you might benefit more from facing and allowing them to transform you?

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