When I think of transmutation, I think about the Transfiguration class at Harry Potter’s school of Hogwarts. The idea of changing objects into something different fascinates me. Imagine being able to change lead into gold, water into wine, or brussel sprouts into cupcakes.
Unfortunately, we can’t really change objects by waving a magic wand. Or can we? I’ve witnessed band conductors teach a ragtag group of students to produce a beautiful piece of music, all with the wave of their baton. Of course, it’s not instantaneous, and neither is transmutation.
Transmutation is a Buddhist practice. It is a change from within. Think of a caterpillar changing into a butterfly. Transmuting our passions takes time. The term passion refers to impulses, delusions, ignorance, and other afflictive mental states. They prevent us from seeing the truth of each moment. They cloud our judgment and are deeply rooted inside us.
These passions are primal impulses. You might be tempted to say these impulses are the same as instincts, but they’re not. Impulse looks a lot like an instinct: It comes from inside, and it’s a powerful force urging you to do something. That’s where the similarity ends. In simplistic terms, instincts are good and impulses are bad.
Impulses are a raw state of energy that can corrupt. When you live by impulse, you are reactive. When you practice transmutation, you change from a reactive state to a more controlled state, from a raw state to a refined state—caterpillar to butterfly.
How do you transmute your passions? Well, first you have to recognize a passion, or impulse when you have one. If it leads you to do something that’s destructive, distracting or nonproductive, that is an impulse.
Let’s say you’re working on writing a paper and you needed to get some information from the Internet. You open your browser and have the urge to check your Twitter or Snapchat feed. That’s an impulse. It might give you a small amount of satisfaction, but you will waste precious time that could have been spent getting the information that you needed.
Don’t feel bad; we all do it. What you should do is stop, take a few deep breaths, and direct your attention to the productive task. What you’re doing is reigning in those impulses and gaining control of the situation. You may have heard the saying “look before you leap.” You don’t rush headlong into a situation, you stop and think. Once you get your impulses under control, your mind can see clearly. This is wisdom.
Transmutation can take time, but the more you practice it, the better you will become at avoiding your impulses, and that is magical. So don’t get caught up in your emotions. Stop and think. Put your passions aside. It’s fine if you’re inspired by the heart as long as you are directed by the head.