Alchemy is very much like all the other things we do in life. It is work, art, love, science, and greed. It is a process by which we understand our world and navigate our way through it. This is because "alchemy" is not as simple as the entertainment world would lead you to believe. In most conversations if you bring up the word alchemy, most people will assume you are referring to "the process of turning lead into gold", or "the process of turning 'base metals' into gold."
This is not untrue, but it is also not the entire picture - as it is quite difficult to capture the entire picture of any idea. Alchemy is more than just turning things into gold, but let's examine what this idea really means at its roots, and I believe we will discover the actual process of alchemy along the way.
Let us break down the phrase into its constituent parts:
If alchemy is a process, that means there must be steps to it, one could not simply snap their fingers and transmute (change) a metal like lead or iron into gold. If we look at examples of renaissance alchemy we will see that there are usually tools involved: beakers, flasks, burners, tubes, liquids, etc. Tools are key to being able to do the work in question.
If alchemy truly involves turning lead into gold (or whatever metal into gold), then there must be a process involved there which acts as the transitory tunnel between the two; there cannot be a simple immediate leap. You need to place the lead into a crucible and heat it up in order to break it down. Once it is broken down, you can begin the next step.
The process after breaking down the substance is quite complicated and there are varying accounts of how one might do it. At the end of the day, we still can't turn "base metals" into gold. In fact, this is probably not the real goal of alchemy. "Gold" is a concept, much like happiness, or energy, or love. Gold may mean "Au" on the periodic table, it may refer to the shiny yellow ore and refined ingots that people love to covet (and engineers love to use as an electrical conductor). But the word "Gold" refers to more than just this. If we take a look at the alchemical symbol for Gold, we see that it is in fact the same symbol as is used for The Sun. So is the goal to create the Sun? Not quite.
Plato used the Sun as a goal as well, but in a different way. The allegory of the cave places someone in a dark cave where they are bound and only able to see shadows cast on a wall in front of them. They have no concept of anything except these shadows - images of trees, people, cars, dogs, whatever. At some point, the person becomes unbound and is able to turn around. They see the bonfire that is projecting the light, and the see the objects which were casting the shadows: small figurines of trees, people, cars, dogs, etc. Not real people, not real trees, just depictions of them, even though these are more real and three-dimensional than the shadows they cast. The person then finds that they are in a cave and that there is in fact a way out of the cave. When they reach the surface, they discover real trees, real people, real cars, are more animated and alive than the figurines. The person then glances up and sees the Sun in the sky, and realizes that this is the source of all their world, it gives life and allows balance between day and night, it warms the world and serves as an anchor for our orbit. The sun is, in this sense, truth itself. In Plato's words, it is an image of the Form of Good.
So then perhaps "gold" is an allusion to the idea of truth and goodness, and not just a reference to the metal, or even just a reference to the hot ball of gas we call the Sun. We must realize that we are not talking about things as they are, we are talking about the aspects that make up why a thing is the way it is. We are talking about ideas, and using real world examples to better understand these ideas, to make them more tangible. We are breaking down concepts and things in order to better understand what makes them up, in order to peer into their essence and learn from them. We are dissecting a phrase into its base parts, and using these to build a better definition for what that phrase really means. We are doing alchemy. Right now, right here in this blog post. We have taken the phrase "alchemy is the process of turning lead into gold", and we are running this idea or concept through the alchemical process. I have broken it down into its different parts, and explored these parts individually. I have used tools of allegory, allusion, reference, and rhetoric to transmute the sentence into a better understanding of how alchemy actually works, and I have done it with alchemical philosophy.
This is a dialectic, however, and as you may have guessed, we are not done with this process. There are two more steps we must hit, and we will not hit them within this article. The third stage involves carrying this idea with you, allowing it to steep in your mind and further refine or develop itself naturally - like the pages of a book which yellow and ripple as it is read and reread or collecting dust in a box somewhere, or beaten down by the sun. This is a process which unfolds naturally over time. At the end of this, we may find a "perfect" understanding of alchemy, and in this we have achieved the Rubedo (the reddening): The Philosopher's Stone. If you have ever encountered this stone in media (Harry Potter, Full Metal Alchemist, etc) you may notice that the stone is usually depicted as red. That is because it is the Rubedo, it is not a result of the Rubedo, it is the red itself.
As you may have guessed, the word perfect up there is in quotes for a reason. There is no such thing, but for however small a sliver of an instant, we can imagine that it does exist. We can catch a glimpse of the feeling that we are hitting on the right thing, that we have figured it out or understood it purely. In that same moment it is broken down because now we have defined it, and the process must start over once again.
Alchemy is endless, and it is everywhere. I urge you to look into your daily life and discover where this process unfolds for you or people around you. You may find that it is more prevalent than you first thought.