The Alchemical Process Called "Fermentation" And How It's Good To Rot

Pickle yourself! Keep reading to see what I mean by that.
Publish date:
June 24, 2011
pickles, alchemy, darkness, fermentation, tough times

Even if you don’t wear awesome robes and have a gold fetish, alchemy still has relevance in your life. Alchemy in general refers to the process of transmutation, and in the case of living as a human being, that can mean simply making yourself a happier, more authentic version of YOU. In order to do that, there are seven steps, and today we’re going to focus on the fifth, which is called Fermentation. It’s not only very easy to identify as a stage, it’s also easy to forget as part of the entire methodology.

Here’s what fermentation feels like:

Everything has gone wrong.

You’ve been dumped for no reason. Your job is tyrannizing you, or you were just fired. Your relationship with your family sucks, and you can’t see it getting better. Someone you were close to died. The more you think about it, the more you realize most of your friends are actually jerks. Independent projects keep falling through. Something’s wrong with your health, you can’t ignore it anymore. Homelessness is on the horizon, and certainly after that comes mental illness. It’s raining. The phone company is stealing from you. And you’ve got ketchup on your favorite shirt. Why does bad stuff keep happening, why why why, you didn’t do anything to deserve any of this. Piss off, life!

And you’ve tried so hard to make it better, you really have, and for a second you thought things might start looking up. No, it all keeps piling on, higher and higher, and you’re now exhausted, uninspired to do anything about any of it. The darkness is washing over you, there’s no stopping it.

You are putrifying, alchemically speaking. St. John of the Cross calls it the “dark night of the soul.” Think about what fermented foods are—they’re versions of their former selves that went through a curdling process to create good bacteria and vivacity. There’s also that cheesy metaphor of caterpillar metamorphizing into butterfly—you really think that fuzzy worm knows what is going on when it’s spun itself into a claustrophobic cocoon? It must feel like death at that point, and all it can do is wait.

If you would like more corny yet entertaining and often beautiful metaphors, go read that bestseller The Alchemist. If you would like more practical, technical advice, read On Becoming an Alchemist by Catherine MacCoun. She describes fermentation as “what’s found at the bottom of the plunge into darkness, not the plunge itself.” Getting there means that “physical senses have a dull, glazed over quality,” and things you used to love have lost their “credibility and zest.” Ambition and compliments mean nothing. You have the apathetic blahs. And on top of it, she says, “One is entirely alone with thoughts that wouldn’t be worth sharing even if someone showed up to listen.”

The most difficult thing in life is to not take action when it’s bleak and it hurts and you feel ALONE. By “inaction” I mean to allow yourself to stew in your juices, to feel it and say, “I’m OK just sitting here, totally miserable.” Really, simply sit in it, and don’t try to “do” anything. Rot a little. By holding still and being quiet, everything that’s going on is actually working through you, and you are becoming much stronger and more interesting for it. Your tears are your brine, friend! Get pickled!

So get really scared things will never get better. Feel it. Go there. Ache from loneliness. Let go. Don’t be afraid to break a little, and to do it on your own. You’ll be OK (though if you really feel like you won’t be, please go seek professional assistance). Your system isn’t working, or else you wouldn’t feel like this. You have to untangle in a heap in order to make room for new order. It might take a while to work out the knots, so be patient with yourself. You are actually slowly rousing your inner oomph. And when you conscientiously hit rock bottom, and pay close attention to what that looks like, laugh at yourself. It’s all so ridiculous, isn’t it? Swearsies that very soon after this, things will begin to change.

For a good online resource on all of this, go here.

What do you do when you’re fermenting? Are you going through it right now? What happened afterward?