Eric Brown • • 13 min read
The Alchemy of Nihilism: Transmuting Meaning from the Void
“Step into the fire of self-discovery. This fire will not burn you, it will only burn what you are not.”
The ancient alchemists of old pursued a vision of turning coal into gold.
The transmutation of physical matter from one manifestation to another, through a proto-typical chemistry-like approach.
Though we still eagerly await the arrival of coal-originated gold, the theory and practice of transmutation has another promising, and much more tangible application — nihilism.
Nihilism, the overwhelming sense of subjective/objective existential meaninglessness in life is plaguing modern societies today.
As the rise of the scientific worldview took hold, and the death of God came to pass as Frederich Nietzsche would say, we found ourselves with a galaxy-sized void to fill. Though science has much to offer us, it has faltered to engineer a suitable overarching structure of meaning and fulfillment that can carry the collective burden of society’s dreams.
Though what many fail to realize is that Nihilism, as it is known now, is not the end-point, is it not the final destination of a society doomed to emptiness. Nihilism is but a stepping stone on the path, a marker on the trail of meaning guiding us forward, letting us know that if we continue on our path, beauty is just up ahead.
Foundations of Transmutation
Transmutation is the process of turning one substance into another, through focused energy and effort. Across any alchemical process, transmutation follows 3 distinct stages:
- Observation — Very specific recognition of the material and components of that which you wish to transmute.
- Deconstruction — Breaking down the material into its base components, the most fundamental elements.
- Reconstruction — Restructuring the fundamental elements of the original substance to create something new.
Through these steps, the Gnostic Alchemists sought to the turn coal into gold, the pinnacle of transmutation, taking an undesirable black rock and transmuting it into the shining beauty praised by society. The Philosophers stone.
The sacred secret hidden in here is the recognition that the alchemical process of transmutation can be used to manipulate more than just coal. We can transmute other physical matter, emotions, even ideas — reconstituting their base material into a wholly new substance.
This is a fundamental recognition in the Kybalion, one of the ancient Hermetic alchemical texts. The Kybalion acknowledges that the universe is mental, and therefore all transmutation is mental transmutation. Those who understand this, understand existence.
We can take depression and despair, hallmarks on Nihilism, and transmute them into meaning and fulfillment.
“Everything is dual; everything has poles; everything has its pair of opposites; like and unlike are the same; opposites are identical in nature, but different in degree; extremes meet; all truths are but half‐truths; all paradoxes may be reconciled.”
— The Kybalion
One of the 7 fundamental hermetic principles is the Principle of Polarity, stated above. This postulates that everything exists in a spectrum, the only difference being that of degree. For example, hot and cold are not opposites, they are just different degrees of the temperature spectrum. The same is true of light/dark, colors, good/bad, etc.
The process of transmutation let’s us change the degree being expressed, thus letting us change something into its apparent opposite.
Forunately for us, we can use this along the spectrum of meaning: moving from nihilism, up into the upper echelons of deep fulfillment and rich vitality.
Through the 3 stages of transmutation we outlined, we transform the doom and gloom of Nihilism into a life-affirming, self-empowering narrative that can drive us to take action in the world, for ourselves and the collective.
Before we begin, I must introduce a final concept important to the ancient art of alchemy: the law of equivalent exchange.
The law of equivalent exchange follows the first law of thermodynamics, energy cannot be created or destroyed, only modified from one form to another. Therefore, in order to create a massive energetic shift like the one from Nihilism into Meaning — we must invest a massive amount of energy.
This work is difficult. You will be tested. But for those who persist through the process, who carry on through the chasm of Nihilism — a life beyond your wildest dreams awaits.
We begin with Observation.
Observation is the act of truly seeing the current state of reality. We must see the world as it is, outside of our predetermined biases and methods of perception. We must see the Truth of our present existence.
This is uncomfortable. The deeper you look, the more you see. The horrors that once lurked comfortably in the shadows of our psyches are now shown to the world through the spotlight of our undivided attention.
This is where most of society stops. As the discomfort rises, we turn away. We distract ourselves with flashing lights, constant notifications, shallow conversation, pre-packaged dreams and goals. It is no mere coincidence that the our economy is built upon the foundation of constant entertainment and distraction, it is deliberate — a creation of the collective consciousness to avoid seeing Reality as it truly is.
For those who have explored Buddhist teachings before, you’ll notice a resemblance in Observation to the classical definition of Enlightenment — to see things as they truly are, in a time before self-interpretation and meaning-making.
This is no coincidence. Enlightenment is not the final destination of this process, it is the first step.
Through systematic questioning, investigating, and probing, we begin to see the Truth of our situation. The isolation of the individuals, the destruction of the biosphere, the evil contained in the hearts of all of us, the unneeded suffering and unskillful living that pervades the developed world at present.
What follows next is where the difficult work begins. In Observing the world, we begin to bear the collective burden of our actions. The ways in which you contribute to the world, the atrocities of the past, the damage presently being done. Never before have we as individuals been able to clearly see and absorb the weight of these revelations — we are not evolved to hold this immense burden.
Unless something is done, we begin the crumble under the pressure, all things sacred and meaningful to us collapsing under the weight of Nihilism. We see the emptiness, and begin to drown in it.
To remedy this, we must pick away at the weight we now carry. We must Deconstruct the black mass of Nihilism into its base elements, so that we might begin to rebuild again.
You can only move onto the next step once you have completed the last. It’s not that you can’t, it’s just that the efforts will be in vain. What use is deconstructing phenomena that you haven’t seen clearly? You will never arrive at useful or actionable insights from this.
Take your time before moving from one step to the next.
Once we are seeing clearly — through our own biases, expectations, and illusions, beyond the standardized narratives that society has given you — we begin deconstructing.
Deconstruction is the process of breaking phenomena down to their smallest constituent parts. In alchemy, this would be breaking down substance into its base element particles. Breaking them down in measured amount of carbon, nitrogen, salt, etc.
We need to see exactly what we’re working with here.
In order to rebuild meaning out of meaninglessness, we need to work with the raw ingredients.
Through the process of deconstruction, you begin to notice that things look very different on an atomized level than they do at the level of base perception. Normal societies suddenly become complicated systems of incentive structures, archetypal persona interactions, and game theoretic dynamics — among the additional deluge that comes as part of the package. Individual interactions become nuanced dynamics of body language, persuasion, authentic connection (or lack thereof), and intrinsically-motivated action.
What concerns us most here, is the recognition that a cold and meaningless universe suddenly breaks down into a limitless playground of potential. You recognize that instead of having to follow any script, structure, or dogma, you are presented with a divine spread of possibilities.
You can design the interactions you want to have, the things you want to do, the character you want to play. Once your world is has been deconstructed down to living LEGO blocks, you are free to rebuild and restructure however you please.
This leads us to the third and final stage of alchemical nihilism: reconstruction.
We have now arrived. We have found the opportunity to create alchemical gold from the coal we observed at the beginning of this process.
From these base elements, we are free to create whatever we please. We can systematically and intentionally construct the life and reality we please. From meaninglessness, we get to create the meaning that we exist in.
This is the secret that is missed with nihilists — that it is only a stopping point on the journey, not the final destination!
You can cross the chasm of nihilism — and move into a world of self-construction, auto-poetic meaning systems designed by and for you. You can imbue anything you wish with meaning, that is one of your sacred gifts. You are the wizard that creates meaning from a meaningless universe.
This frame has come as a byproduct of the scientific method that now permeates society — that everything is devoid of meaning, the clockwork universe ticks on with or without you. But science has not yet managed to derive ought from is.
We are meaning-making creatures, that is our most fundamental nature.
In objective reality, the words on this page are meaningless. It is you who is imbuing them with meaning.
In objective reality, everything is meaningless. You ascribe it meaning.
This is the secret to alchemical gold.
The reconstruction process is yours to channel and steward.
Now, everything becomes relative based on how you assign it meaning. Is the biosphere dying and beyond repair? Or is there a new and wonderful opportunity presenting itself to explore the fields of regenerative culture and strike a symbiotic balance with Nature?
Is the world cold and meaningless — or are you presented with a tabula rasa, a blank slate that you can assign meaning to at will? Structures and systems and dogmas that once dominated and orchestrated your life can now be discarded, as they have been perceived fully, deconstructed, and reconstructed in your alchemical meaning system to work for and with you.
You are the sacred alchemist that gets to do this work. No one else can do it for you.
Through your energy and attention, you weild a great paintbrush, able to paint vast landscapes of meaning and experiences and states of consciousness. Your entire experience is the result of your energy and attention.
Anything you don’t like, you can change. Anything you want, you can make.
The hidden and beautiful secret of this entire process is that is a feedback loop, and can be a virtuous cycle giving you unprecedented power to navigate and articulate your conscious experience.
For in the reconstruction process, you bring new energy, interactions, and possibly physical phenomena into the world. This now changes the world that is available to be observed. People will react to what you say, your actions will ripple into observable consequences, and you will find yourself with a new reality to be observed.
This begins the cycle again. With new information, you observe what truly is, deconstruct it to its base elements, and reconstruct it.
Though this approach to managing nihilism has been presented through the framework of alchemy, it need not be the only frame you use. These are all tools and frameworks meant to assist you on your journey.
This process and feedback loop applies in two other constructs: Jordan Hall’s Sovereignty framework, and Frederich Nietzsche’s model of the Ubermensch.
If you are unfamiliar with Jordan Hall’s sovereignty framework, let’s dig into it quickly.
Sovereignty can be haphazardly summed up as your ability to act as a conscious individual agent in a particular context or circumstance. Not having to rely or lean on external assistance, and being able to contribute beyond just your participation.
This rests on a triadic structure: Perception, Sense-making, and Agency.
You can think of it as a sphere along the x,y,z-axis. If being sovereign is the fullness of the sphere, any deficit in any of these areas will throw off the shape of the sphere. We must be adept and proficient in all of these areas in each context to be fully sovereign.
I’m sure you can see where this is going already.
In Perception — we need to be able to view reality as it is. Free from bias and assumption and expectation, we must get as close to intaking raw sensory data as possible. This is the material that the rest of the process is based on.
Next is Sense-Making — given the information that we are perceiving, how well we able to make sense of it? A prime example here is modern political dynamics. Though we have access to more information than ever thanks to the news and social media, it seems that fewer and fewer of us are able to understand or make sense of what exactly is happening. This is the deconstruction phase in alchemy — are we able to tease apart and differentiate the information so that we can process it, and transmute it into something else?
Then comes Agency — we have the perceptual information, we have made sense of it and have determined an action to take, but do we have the functional ability to act on it? Do we have the agency to complete the choice that we deemed appropriate?
Think of a middle-manager in a traditional corporate structure. Perhaps they have identified an appropriate sustainability measure that their company should implement — they have completed the first two steps — but they have no ability to bring this to life in the company. They do not have the authority, they do not have the Agency. They are unable to complete reconstruction, creating the new reality that they want to based on this information.
And of course, once you have exercised your agency and affected change in the world, there will be new information to perceive based on the ripple effects, and the cycle begins again.
Much of the undertone of Nietzsche’s work was becoming life-affirming. When given the opportunity, to choose and embrace life, instead of rejecting it.
Nietzsche was the Nihilism-detonating O.G.
He navigated expertly through the chasm and caverns of nihilism and arrived at the promised land of Meaning and Life-Affirming philosophy time and time again.
One of his peak expressions of this message was his theory of the Ubermench — or the Overman Theory. This is the actualized, sovereign individual, the one who affirms his existence, who embraces life rather than seeks to escape from it.
In his theory, he outline the 3 stages the Ubermensch must go through: the camel, the lion, and the baby.
Here’s a section from Nietzsche himself on the first stage, the Camel:
“What is difficult? asks the spirit that would bear much, and kneels down like a camel wanting to be well loaded. What is most difficult, O heroes, asks the spirit that would bear much, that I may take it upon myself and exult in my strength?”
As you can see, it is the camels responsibility to take on the weight of reality, to take on the collective burden of society as his own. To rise to the occasion and helping in stewarding society forward.
What you’ll notice here is that this is a by-product of true Observation in our alchemical process. In truly observing the state of reality, you recognize and experience the full weight of humanity. You recognize the self-destructive tendencies, the atrocities being committed, and also all the boundless love and compassion. You take on the full spectrum of human experience and carry that — a weight that would break most people.
From here, the Overman must evolve into the Lion:
“Here the spirit becomes a lion who would conquer his freedom and be master in his own desert. Here he seeks out his last master: he wants to fight him and his last god; for ultimate victory he wants to fight with the great dragon. Who is the great dragon whom the spirit will no longer call lord and god? “Thou shalt” is the name of the great dragon. But the spirit of the lion says, “I will.” “Thou shalt” lies in his way, sparkling like gold, an animal covered with scaled; and on every scale shines a golden “thou shalt.” My brothers, why is there a need in the spirit for the lion? Why is not the beast of burden, which renounces and is reverent, enough? To create new values—that even the lion cannot do; but the creation of freedom for oneself for new creation—that is within the power of the lion. The creation of freedom for oneself and a sacred “No” even to duty—for that, my brothers, the lion is needed. To assume the right to new values—that is the most terrifying assumption for a reverent spirit that would bear much.”
In accepting the collective burden of society and stewarding that himself, the Camel evolves into the Lion. He has risen, and as a result empowers himself, he has stared into the abyss of man and kept onward. In affirming life and embracing this — he has become a beacon, King of the proverbial Jungle.
In going to the desert alone, he is free now to remake and remodel himself.
Now free of the burden and influence of society, the Overman begins the process of deconstruction — of looking deeply for the base elements of himself, of humanity, and of reality. Seeing what is truly there to work with, not with the veils of illusion that society and culture put in front of us.
Through deconstruction, through isolation, through the fierce action of will — the lion has prepared itself for the final evolutionary stage: the Baby.
“But say, my brothers, what can the child do that even the lion could not do? Why must the preying lion still become a child? The child is innocence and forgetting, a new beginning, a game, a self-propelled wheel, a first movement, a sacred “Yes.” For the game of creation, my brothers, a sacred “Yes” is needed: the spirit now wills his own will, and he who had been lost to the world now conquers his own world.”
Free from the collective weight of society or expectation, and in working with the base elements of himself and his surroundings, the Overman can enter a state of child-like play.
With new, unadulterated lenses on reality, he can see clearly, and bask in the full gestalt of his newborn experience.
Free of the burdens that he has been carrying, he is energized, full of vitality and vigour that life imbues us with. Free to create and reconstruct the life and the experience that he wishes to have.
This is the final alchemical stage, reconstruction through spontaneous, serious play.
Regardless of the framework that you resonate with most, whether it be Gnostic Alchemy, Modern Sovereignty, or the life-affirming Overman theory — each of these recognizes and validates the systematic process of taking ownership of the meaningfulness of your life.
Nihilism is an expected part of the process. In fact, if the process is done properly, it is inevitable and unavoidable.
What we forget is that it is not the end. It is but a chasm to be crossed with skill and effort. It is the birthing process of new meaning structures and new levels of sovereignty that were not possible if we remained who we were beforehand.
“Step into the fire of self-discovery. This fire will not burn you, it will only burn what you are not.”
For in the fires of change, deep within the forge of deconstruction, it is not you, it is not meaning that is burned away, it is everything you are not, everything that is meaningless *to you*. The rest, the vital and integral rest, will always remain.
It could not be otherwise.
For nihilism is but another step in our evolutionary process.