The Secret of the Golden Flower

The Secret of the Golden Flower

I want to share a story with you about The Secret of the Golden Flower.[1] How I came across it, the journey it took me on and something of what I learnt along the way.

The story begins

Lü Yán, also known as Lü Dongbin (796 CE-1016 CE) was a Tang Dynasty Chinese scholar and poet who has been elevated to the status of an immortal in the Chinese cultural sphere, worshipped especially by the Taoists. Lü is one of the most widely known of the group of deities known as the Eight Immortals and considered by some to be the de facto leader.[2] The legendary Taoist Master taught the Golden Elixir of Life in the ninth century CE – this alchemical formula is amongst the most intriguing and mysterious texts in the whole of Eastern Mysticism. Lü Yán himself attributes it to Kuan Yin-his who may also have been the original inspiration for the Tao Te Ching the bible of Taoism.

More than a thousand years later, in the early 1920’s, a thousand copies of this alchemical text were printed and distributed in Peking, under the name The Secret of the Golden Flower. A copy of this book fell into the hands of Richard Wilhelm[3], and that, I suppose, is where our story truly begins

Wilhelm the German sinologist and theologian spent twenty-five years in China making an in-depth study of Oriental culture. He translated the text (as well as the I Ching) and being a personal friend of Carl Gustav Jung[4], asked him to write a psychological commentary to be included in the published versions in German and English.

The idea of having Jung write an accompanying commentary was to make this most mystical of Oriental texts accessible to the Western Mind. Anyone who has reads the original text will understand the difficulty of penetrating to the essence of the Lü Yán ‘s teaching. Jung’s commentary, although itself challenging, framed the text and provided a psychological and symbolic interpretation of the esoteric text.

About eighty years later, in the late 1990’s, I enter the picture.

My Story

At the time I was studying martial arts, specifically aikido and Chinese boxing[5], with Dr John Williams. Dr Williams was the third of three masters I studied under over a period of fifteen years. Speaking frankly, I was a fanatic. My training regimen at the time (and understand I was not a professional athlete) was a minimum of two to three hours a day.

I began every morning with an hour-long exercise called the Iron Body. An exercise involving standing a single posture, a deep horse stance, and performing various stretches and rhythmical breathing whilst remaining in the posture. The experience of the exercise is difficult to relate but suffice to say that like all true martial arts the body and mind were used as tools to temper the spirit. – a form of physical alchemy, if you will.

During this time, at a point where my training was at its zenith, I had occasion to visit an antiquarian book store in the centre of Johannesburg. The bookstore was spellbinding. Small and hidden away with towering shelves, placed too close to one another, laden with the most fascinating books. Well fascinating that is, if your interests were of a Gnostic and mystical bent. Mine were, and I spent hours going through books I had not come across before.

I left carrying out as many of these treasures as I could possibly justify and more than I could afford at the time. Amongst these books was a little volume with Chinese characters inscribed on the cover, published in 1950, a copy of the book in question The Secret of the Golden Flower. It is lying next to me on my desk as I write this post (somewhat worse for wear I’m afraid).

I read it in a sitting. No great feat, it is only 138 pages, cover to cover.

This wasn’t exactly the first time I heard the name Carl Gustav Jung, but it was the first meaningful impression he made on me. Not a good impression I must say. I was downright angry with him and his arrogance at “psychologising” this profound mystical text!

I can look back on it and smile now, but it was far from humorous at the time. The golden light that Lü Yán spoke of, its circulation through the microcosmic orbit and its crystallisation into the Golden Flower, was after all an exercise to which I had by this time devoted not hundreds but thousands of hours![6]

And here was Jung suggesting that this whole process could and possibly should be understood psychologically and symbolically! God damn-it that was irritating!

Maybe you can guess what came next.

Yes, you got it! I spent the two decades, to be exact, at the time of writing,[7] studying the magnum opus, the 20 volumes of the Collected Works, of C. G. Jung. Determined to penetrate to the core of the mystery I had stumbled upon the secret of the Golden Flower, the Diamond Body and the promise of eternal life!

It is difficult to put into words what I learnt. I am going to try though, but I ask you to bear in mind that the map is not the territory.

What exactly is the secret Lü Yán taught?

To speak of everything here would be too much. I will try and explain the core though, the key point that when truly understood reveals everything.

To be alive is to find yourself split between two opposite poles:

What you want, and

What you have.

As long as you are alive, and I mean truly alive, not breathing and pretending to be alive, those two poles are not destined to meet. There may be the occasional moment in the throes of passion or the ecstasy of a transcendent experience (more or less the same thing) where you feel as though the two opposites are united. However, this moment of non-duality is necessarily brief, and all too soon you return to your default condition of longing.

This longing can take many, many varied forms. It is however in the final analysis a simple dynamic- you are not where/who/how you want to be.

There is an image that you hold close to your heart that if realised would be a balm for your soul. Realising this desire is what drives you and keeps you awake at night. You dream of it when you sleep and imagine it when awake.

No price seems too high.

It is the Crown Jewel that when obtained will satisfy the deep longing in your heart.

That desire lives in all of us. It lives in you and it lives in me. What differs between us is only what it looks like and our willingness to admit it to ourselves and others. Also, it doesn’t stay the same, what it was yesterday is not necessarily what is today. You know what I’m talking about:

  • The job/career/profession you have always wanted.
  • The dream home.
  • The passionate and beautiful lover.
  • The longed-for holiday.
  • The perfect body.
  • The fantasy car.
  • The divine child.
  • The outrageous sex.
  • The ideal life.
  • The perfect you.

Or, simply, the longed-for solution to that which troubles you. That which plagues you and leaves you feeling incomplete in some way.

This dissonance or split mirrors and symbolises a more profoundly troubling paradox. One that lies at the heart of our being and psyche: the paradox of being born and yet knowing that one day you will die. [8]

From this tension or paradox, the golden light is created. This is a precious commodity; one might say it is our very life force. Typically, it is spent in pursuit of the want or what the Buddhists call the ten thousand things.

However, the Master teaches us that when the light is held within and circulated through the microcosmic orbit and when this is done for one hundred days without interruption the light crystallises and the Golden Flower is born. In the terms of Jungian psychology, as I came to learn, this is referred to as the Transcendent Function.[9]

This is the secret, this tension between have and want is not an affliction, a curse, nor should it be the cause of frustration (although it so often is). Rather it is this very divide that propels you into the future, a much brighter and bigger future than the one you imagine, if only you allow it to.

And how do you know when this has happened? Well simple…

The whole body feels strong and firm so that it fears neither storm nor frost. Things by which other men are displeased, when I meet them, cannot cloud the brightness of the seed of the spirit. Yellow gold fills the house; the steps are white jade. Red blood becomes milk. The fragile body of the flesh is sheer gold and diamonds. That is the sign that the Golden Flower is crystallised.  (SGF, p. 54-55)[10].

Wilhelm puts it this way,

The Golden Flower alone, which grows out of inner detachment from all entanglement with things, is eternal. A man who reaches this stage transposes his ego; he is no longer limited to the monad, but penetrates the magic circle of the polar duality of all phenomena and returns to the undivided One, the Tao[11]

What does this mean to us mere mortals, in real terms, in the world today- you ask?

Well bear in mind that any answer is reductive, it is a truth that needs to be experienced rather than spoken about. However, I would put it this way- from the fire that is your desire, when properly contained, a phoenix rises. A new you is born: stronger and more refined. Your subtle body is created.

This subtle body is capable of great things. Things that right now you cannot even imagine. Things that transcend the mundane, the pedestrian and the commonplace. We might say that until this subtle body arises, you, the big you, remain unborn.

What does it take?

It takes a high degree of honesty with yourself and not a small amount of courage.

The realisation and admission of your desire/s. Liberation from the rationalisation that it is okay, that actually you don’t really want ‘it’ whatever it may be.

You need to own your pain, your longing, your desire- not deny it.

Then knowing that there is every possibility of failure you need to pursue your dream.

In this act of owning and pursuing (but not having) an inner tension arises in you, this is the light from which the Golden Flower can be crystallised.

If you allow it, tending the alchemical furnace with careful attention and love this tension will grow inside you (this is circulating the light through the microcosmic orbit) until it reaches a point where it (you) feel as though you can take it no more and are ready to burst.

This is the eye of the needle- hold on.

What comes next, I cannot tell you, you need to experience it. To quote the Master though:

This crystallised spirit is formed beyond the nine heavens. It is the condition of which it is said in the Book of the Seal of the Heart: Silently in the morning thou fliest upward. [12]

It would be less than honest if I were to say this is easy, or that it is open to everyone- it’s not and it isn’t. Not everyone’s fire burns that brightly, once it may have, but a thousand compromises and ten thousand rationalisations frequently dampen the flames.

And even for those that the fire burns very brightly an intelligence is required to see the process through that God or nature does not seem to bestow in equal measure to all.

That is to say, this is not for everyone.

For those few that are able to heed the master’s teaching and practice this inner alchemy the rewards are abundant. A great adventure, a journey through forgotten lands to a new world- a world waiting for you to arrive.

Is it worth it, you ask?

What do you think?

Until we speak again,



[1] Taoist alchemical text attributed to Lü Dongbin of the late Tang dynasty. The publication referred to in this post is the version translated from the Chinese by Richard Wilhelm with commentary by C. G. Jung, translated into English by C. F. Baynes, published in 1931, revised and republished in 1962.


[3] (1873 – 1930) a German sinologist, theologian, and missionary. He lived in China for 25 years, became fluent in spoken and written Chinese, and grew to love and admire the Chinese people. He is best remembered for his translations of philosophical works from Chinese into German that in turn have been translated into other major languages of the world, including English. His translation of the I Ching is still regarded as one of the finest, as is his translation of The Secret of the Golden Flower.

[4] (1875 – 1961), founder of Analytical Psychology, more commonly referred to as “Jungian Psychology”.

[5] A back-yard version of the Shaolin Boxing style, known as Fujian White Crane.

[6] There is possibly some hyperbole in the statement. I trained in various styles of martial arts with a strong focus on the development and circulation of chi or “Qi” – traditional Chinese culture, is believed to be a vital force forming part of any living entity. Qi translates as “air” and figuratively as “material energy”, “life force”, or “energy flow”. Qi is the central underlying principle in Chinese traditional medicine and in Chinese martial arts – for a period of about fifteen years. So, training time in total was no doubt was well into the thousands of hours. However, the specific mediation, the circumambulation of the Golden Light through the microcosmic orbit, I learnt only from Dr Williams and focussed practice time was more modestly in the hundreds, rather than thousands, of hours.

[7] March 2019. This is the second draft of this post, originally written in 2011.

[8] At an even deeper level, philosophical speaking, if not psychologically, it is simply the experience of duality. Taoism is essentially a teaching to understand the meaning and method of living in a dualistic universe.

[9] The remarkable capacity of the human psyche for change, expressed in the transcendent function, is the principal object of late medieval [and Eastern] alchemical philosophy, where it was expressed in terms of alchemical symbolism. Alchemy also had a spiritual side which must not be underestimated and whose psychological value has not yet been sufficiently appreciated: there was an “alchymical” philosophy, the groping precursor of the most modern psychology. The secret of alchemy was in fact the transcendent function, the transformation of personality through the blending and fusion of the noble with the base components, of the differentiated with the inferior functions, of the conscious with the unconscious. – C. G. Jung, Collected Works.

[10] Secret of the Golden Flower, pp. 55 – 55.

[11] Ibid, p. 18

[12] Ibid pp. 24 -25


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Comments (6)

  • Joan Reply

    Appreciation. Much Love ❤️ Light
    I Am taking course 🙌🏻✨❤️🧚‍♀️

    March 3, 2022 at 4:23 am
  • Gail Smith Reynolds Reply

    I had just signed up for the course when I stumbled on this very intimate conversation regarding your own journey. Thanks for the map, and I understand it’s not the territory, but your effort to share it with me resonates and l realize once again l am tumbling into something ….. tangible, experiential, and sensory. I like that…. not that I have any idea what I am doing, on e again.

    March 11, 2022 at 5:32 am
  • Lisa Russell Reply

    I enjoyed reading this. Is this book still in circulation?
    The tension is real after a lifetime of wanting and desiring, that feeling when inside oneself and knowing when it is a time to let go of that which propelled self onward to something real and valid.
    I am sensing an openness to new vitality, that is coming to the surface, through mindfulness and giving up all intoxicants.
    Quite excited.

    March 30, 2022 at 5:00 am
    • Stephen Farah Reply

      Lisa, yes I believe it is.

      March 31, 2022 at 8:59 am
  • Pavlina Gogueva Reply

    Thank you for both: the text above and the comment. They made me think about my whole life journey for self improvement and always finding the next step or side of me to master. The info sums ups the meaning of life and unfolding evolution and preferred aim when one is ready. I am rediscovering newly meditation, awareness of my energy, and a new possibility.

    March 31, 2022 at 6:18 pm
  • Warren Reply

    Hi, came across your article and very much reminds me of myself in the 1990’s NYC. I trained in martial arts 2-3 hrs a day. Ran and practiced some more another couple of hours every other day etc,. While self defense focused, intellectually, I also applied as part of my spiritual path. My dear childhood friend Erik (who recently passed) was a spiritual partner in arms and lent me the book (which I held onto for years before surprising him with its return). He was big in Aikido and admonished the method I was involved with for its intentionality. But I found the more one practices, the better one gets, and the more one see’s another more skilled, the more humble one becomes. There was a peace and confidence associated with the effort. Still the idea of defending oneself or the opportunity to apply what was practiced dissipates. I wouldn’t want to harm another anymore than I want someone to harm me. But for two occasion’s, I peacefully accepted the role of humble wimp as the most effective means of self defense. The other two times, the situation was diffused quickly with only surface level evidence and l see it as a reflection of spiritual growth. Sharing because I so identify with your story. That said, I practiced the microcosmic orbit daily. Often rather nonchalantly while sitting on a park bench. On the subway to and from the dojo. On the bus to work. Basically, whenever. Then, probably on the 100th day or very close to it, the energy became too much and up I went (while riding a bus to 42nd Street by the NY Public Library). The crystallization first felt internally (Im guessing as I could feel it in my body as I rotated the energy) activated in what I felt as my kidneys. There was a familiar energetic sensation that in the instant I didn’t add much attention to, but as it rose up my body… up, up, and away! Here, many years later, I’m thinking of taking the practice up again as a means to regulate my emotional state and prayerfully transcend it (or make progress). Any thoughts? Cheers!

    March 19, 2024 at 5:55 pm

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