Alchemy in its simplest definition is the transformation and changing of a base material into a refined one. Turning lead into gold, coals into diamonds, but more often than not like pearls formed in oysters through constant irritation are well known examples of this process. Although the turning of lead into gold isn’t something we can readily replicate (and some would say is impossible), all of these things can be viewed as analogies for what people are attempting when they undergo personal and spiritual alchemy.
Within theurgy, or spiritual magic (the term comes from Iamblichus and literally means “god-work”), alchemy is something which is kicked off through a magical operation or aided by magical operation(s) in order to assist in the transformation. Often times this is something which is started by an initiation into a mystery tradition or as part of their initiatory process.
This is a good chunk of what marks an esoteric initiation vs a secular introduction to a group of people; initiations within mystery schools are meant to change a person fundamentally. In these systems magic, alchemy, and the initiatory process are all meant to bring about meaningful changes to a person, and those effects are carried over not just into the individual but in their lives. After all, if your life remains unchanged in the process, it remains more challenging to grow.
Sometimes the toughest aspects of magic are the ones which force a person to evolve. Evolution is painful, personal growth is hard, and often involves examining parts of ourselves we don’t want to deal with. It also can mean letting go of things, situations, and people we’re still clinging to that are no longer serving us. Throughout the transformative process, jobs are lost and gained, relationships ended and began, people relocated, all sorts of upheaval depending upon the individual. But the idea is to wind up in a far better place than the one you are in and to not repeat the mistakes of the past. If you cannot manage that, then the alchemy isn’t working.
While you don’t necessarily need initiation or mystery schools in order to undergo any form of spiritual alchemy, they are useful in that they have a structure and tradition which can help guide the process. Like any tried and true process, if it works, it works–and it’s much easier to troubleshoot when things go wrong. Are you resisting the process, or rushing through it? Are you accepting the changes and learning from them, or are you stubbornly holding onto things which are hurting you?
People can create and initiate their own alchemical process, the most common approach is often done through a form of sympathetic magic to an object. As the object changes, so do you. With a little ingenuity and some creative work, this could be an amazing and life altering project. You can do this with something as simple as burning a candle or creating an art piece such as a painting. As long as what is changing ties into what you want to alter in yourself and your life and has meaning for you, it’s just as effective as any esoteric rite of passage.