“Our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different. We may go through life without suspecting their existence; but apply the right stimulus, and at a touch they are there is all their completeness. No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded. How to regard them is the question…” William James The Varieties of Religious Experience, p. 388
With this quote from a book published in 1901 by a man whom many regard as the father of psychology, I would like to begin a consideration of both the importance and the trickiness of altered state experience and phenomena, be they energetic, psychological, physiological and/or spiritual.
My personal journey began at a young age – I began meditating at 15, emulated my 60’s idols by experimenting with psychedelics in an intentional way after reading Tim Leary and Ram Das at 18 while exploring minor rock stardom in South Africa, came to the USA and started yoga at 19. I chased the light of new Age peak experiences in my early 20’s – travelled to India, spent time in the ashram with Osho sanyassins, sat with countless satsang teachers, tried hard to create my reality, kill my ego and become one with the universe while remembering my past-lives and putting out the intention to call in my soulmate….
I ended up realizing that psychological healing work was an indispensable aspect of spirituality, that I was in fact using spiritual beliefs to avoid my deep emotions and the reality of suffering. I put in many, many hours on the Holotropic Breathwork mat, went on intense meditation retreats, practiced hardcore yoga early in the morning for years, had my body and psyche ripped open by kamikaze bodyworkers, struggled to make sense of the combination of of light and shadow in my charismatic mentor figures and eventually differentiate from them – and over time developed my own approach to integrating and facilitating energetic and altered state process work via yoga, bodywork, dialog, dance and breathwork.
How then to unpack the power, beauty, terror, magic and wonder of altered states and Kundalini experiences?
I will start by putting my perspective in a context. Ken Wilber’s Four Quadrant model from Integral Theory works nicely.
Four Quadrant Gloss
UR = Upper Right
UL = Upper Left
LR = Lower Right
LL = Lower Left
This model from Ken Wilber’s Integral Theory creates a way of talking about the relationships between the inner and outer, individual and collective dimensions of reality. Take a moment to look at the image and think about this elegant way of organizing information and perspectives. For the purposes of this article consider that altered state experiences take place in the UL (upper left, individual subjective) ) but are related to shifts in brain activity in the UR (upper right, individual objective) these experiences are then interpreted most often via the cultural lenses of the LL (lower left, collective/intersubjective) and this might happen in the context of specific LR (lower right, collective/interobjective) institutions like churches, meditation centers, psychotherapy offices etc…
So what I will do from here on is talk about these relationships in an attempt to give an Integrally-Informed analysis of (as William James puts it above) how to regard Kundalini and altered states. If the quadrants and shorthand stuff makes your inner geek excited, wonderful – if it just seems laborious, ignore it – there will still be plenty of interest!
Chemistry and Brain States
We know that from an empirical point of view (UR, Objectivity) consciousness, and more specifically our state of consciousness is a function of brain states and biochemistry. Too little serotonin and one is depressed, too much dopamine and one is in the midst of a manic episode, scarring from head trauma can produce epilepsy, ingest just the right amount of LSD or mescaline and the folds in one’s trousers or the architecture of a rose (as Aldous Huxley famously described in The Doors of Perception) can become imponderably mysterious, beautiful, fascinating and spiritually rich. So too the sense of spaciousness, expansive loss of ego and connection to the cosmos one experiences in deep meditation can be tracked in relationship to brain function as in the recent work of Dr. Andrew Newberg:
“During meditation, people often feel a sense of no space.”
Scientists investigating the effect of the meditative state on Buddhist monk’s brains have found that portions of the organ previously active become quiet, whilst pacified areas become stimulated. Using a brain imaging technique, Dr. Newberg and his team studied a group of Tibetan Buddhist monks as they meditated for approximately one hour. When they reached a transcendental high, they were asked to pull a kite string to their right, releasing an injection of a radioactive tracer. By injecting a tiny amount of radioactive marker into the bloodstream of a deep meditator, the scientists soon saw how the dye moved to active parts of the brain.
Later, once the subjects had finished meditating, the regions were imaged and the meditation state compared with the normal waking state. The scans provided remarkable clues about what goes on in the brain during meditation. “There was an increase in activity in the front part of the brain, the area that is activated when anyone focuses attention on a particular task,” Dr Newberg explained. In addition, a notable decrease in activity in the back part of the brain, or parietal lobe, recognized as the area responsible for orientation, reinforced the general suggestion that meditation leads to a lack of spatial awareness.
Dr Newberg: “During meditation, people have a loss of the sense of self and frequently experience a sense of no space and time and that was exactly what we saw.” The complex interaction between different areas of the brain also resembles the pattern of activity that occurs during other so-called spiritual or mystical experiences.”
In the subjective personal realm (UL), one’s state of consciousness, and particularly how one interprets those states can be discussed with regard to stages of psychological development, traumas (or complications in that developmental process), self-awareness, spiritual practices, education etc. Most significant here for me are the psychological, spiritual and cognitive lines of development.
I will go into the area of stages of development later, but as to spiritual practice, one of my favorite lines comes from New York Zen teacher Baker Roshi, who says “Enlightenment is an accident, but meditation makes you accident prone.”
In other words: the altered state of consciousness sought by the meditator and the stabilized stage of development in which that state is integrated are not guaranteed by meditation – but meditation does set up the conditions within which that process can occur.
Even more than meditation, we see an ever growing interest in yoga practice, especially because of the positive state change that it creates. While most beginning meditators have a good few years of difficult, boring, frustrating and confronting mental exercise ahead of them before states like the ones Newberg is describing start showing up for more than 5 or 10 seconds at a time, yoga is more predictable more quickly, given the specific stimulation and soothing of the nervous system, glands and brain and the circulatory effects of the physical practice.
I would argue that with specific regard to states of consciousness the UL and UR (or subjective awareness and objective biochemistry )are in an interwoven relationship that is almost impossible to separate. The changes in state that yoga and meditation produce are clearly rooted in physiological processes that involve glandular activity, the nervous system, areas of the brain etc – those processes depend upon an exercising of awareness that trains one in generating the physiological activities that drive the state change via either movement, breath, posture and intention/concentration.
Gopi Krishna’s famous initiation into kundalini is a perfect example. This was an ordinary man practicing meditation without a teacher who happened upon a powerful and harrowing experience of his own UR/UL relationship that led him to the conclusion that there is a biopsychic evolutionary principle dormant in the body. For more see his eloquent and powerful account in the classic Kundalini: The Evolutionary Energy in Man.
(Please note that whenever I recommend this book I do so with a disclaimer that will follow further down the page. )
Here in the meantime is a short introduction to Krishna, as well as video of an excellent interview with him (at the bottom of the page). It’s worth your while to watch this and perhaps have it open in another window as you keep reading….
Regarding the UR/UL relationship, this line from the interview particularly stands out “Yoga was developed in India to make experiments on the brain.”
A man after Dr. Newberg’s own heart!
Now on to the cultural context (LL) within which states of conscious arise, are conditioned and interpreted. Of course, both the UL&UR factors described above emerge (or fail to emerge) and are made sense of within a cultural (LL) framework. States of consciousness that are universally possible in human beings will be given very different kinds of support or repression, training and interpretation depending on the society in which they are experienced. It is an individual of rare brilliance, disposition and self-realized insight that can step back from their own cultural framework and see their spiritual/altered state experience on it’s own terms and as something ultimately transcendent of that framework.
Notice how Gopi Krishna, whose defining experience happened in 1937, has an absolute clarity about the universally human nature of the revelations that arose for him. He expresses in the interview a (way ahead of his time) multi-cultural inclusivity, but we do still also hear his underlying Vedic philosophy and metaphysics.
Principle One: Consciousness and Physiology are Deeper (More Universal) to the Human Condition than Cultural Differences.
In support of the above principle, see this remarkable article by researcher, yogi, professor and psychotherapist, Dr. Stuart Sovatsky on the cross-cultural similars to Kundalini in which he notes that:
“Kundalini/pranic awakening and its cross-tradition similars—the spontaneous spinal rockings known in Judaism as davening and in Sufisim as zikr; the “taken-over” gyrations of gospel “holy ghost” shaking and dancing and charismatic/pentacostal “mani-festations”; the Dionysian “revel”; Quakerism’s and Shakerism’s autonomic quaking and shaking; Tai Chi guided by chi itself; the shamanic trance-dance; Buddhism’s and Raja-Yoga’s effortless “straight back” (uju-kaya) meditation; the yogically derived ecstatic belly-dance and Flamenco; and even the full-bodied, spontaneous Reichian “reflex”—literally embody the spiritual path.”
Sovatsy too is pointing out the innate/endogenous nature of transformational processes in the mind-body matrix.
Lastly (and mostly for symmetry’s sake) I will mention the LR quadrant. Suffice it to say that in the West we have almost no social infrastructure, religious or psychological for understanding and interpreting altered states. Religion has mostly become the domain of belief – with little room for direct experience and introspective/psychophysical practices of the sort that engage initiatory energetic experiences. Psychology with regard to altered states remains mostly the domain of psychiatric intervention and homogenization of consciousness. Notable exceptions are the budding yoga/ecstatic dance/meditation communities – they are doing good work, but there is a lot more to be done with regard to initiating, integrating and contextualizing authentic, discerning stage-wise growth.
I would however be seriously remiss not to mention the work of Stuart Sovastky, Lee Sannella and Stan Grof in creating clinical resources for those going through intense psychophysical (kundalini) process. See here for some interesting info on that…
What seems most important in the creation of intelligent and supportive LR infrastructure/institutions is an integration of both the mind-body spiritual/energetic awareness of what may be occurring for the individual and it’s possible value – as well as the cold-eyed realism of DSM-based psychological assessment. After all, in the words of Meister Eckhart “ The madman is drowning in the same waters that the Holy man swims in…”
In other words a good starting point is this: all kundalini is not psychosis and all mental illness is not kundalini.
Bless This Dragon and All Who Ride Her
So what is Kundalini?
Well I want to begin by putting this word where I feel it belongs. In India, Kundalini is the name of a mythic serpent goddess, said to reside at the base of the spine – to be awakened from her slumber by yogic practice or spiritual grace. On awakening she moves through the chakras, or major energy centers of the body, cleansing them of physical and emotional blocks and initiating a powerful psycho-spiritual awareness process.
I think it is very important to bear in mind that “kundalini” is one culture-bound signifier for an experience that transcends culture. Also we should bear in mind that mythic symbols always lose a great deal of their potency when interpreted literally – especially with any kind of exotic idealized projection of magic onto another culture or time.
The experience signified by the word “kundalini” – as pre-eminent scholar on the subject , Stuart Sovatsy indicates above, is common to many cultures and goes by many names.
Principle Two: Names and Beliefs are Always Secondary to Practice and Direct Initiatory Experience.
In my own study, personal experience and clinical practice, I have observed phenomena that have led me to the conclusion that the serpentine imagery invoked by both the Kundalini mythology and the caduceus/Hermetic symbology refers to an innate physical process in which the body makes spontaneous movements that:
a) at their most basic level of expression release tension and stress,
b) as they are expressed more deeply bring deeply held emotions to the surface, and
c) as the stress, trauma and conflict get processed ultimately express as an ecstatic and pleasurable full-bodied fluid aliveness.
These movements are called “kriyas” in the yogic tradition, the “reflex” or the “orgasm reflex” in Reichian body-based psychology, “unwinding” in Craniosacral therapy, and are said to relate to “primary process” in Primal Therapy. They are also seen in Network Chiropractic, Shiatsu, Ecstatic Dance and Holotropic Breathwork. The Kalahari Bushmen in Southern Africa have an all-night dance ritual in which certain participants will begin to shake and experience a burning in their spine which they will then be able to share with others in the group via a healing laying on of hands.
The awakening of energy and softening of what Reich called the “body armor” or chronic muscular tensions has implications for every aspect of our psychological and physical functioning – instinctive, sexual, emotional, creative, spiritual etc…
My perspective is that the UL experience signfied by the words chakra, shushumna and kundalini respectively have UR correlates in the nerve plexi that branch off the spinal chord, the dural tissue that surrounds the brain and spinal cord, and the biopscyhic life force energy that is running body and mind.
The video that follows down the page will illustrate how I interact with this reality on a daily basis. What you will not see is the powerful opening into the unconscious and the ensuing psychospiritual process that can also emerge.
Somatic Experiencing creator Peter Levine is a Phd. Biologist who has done fascinating research on the way animals release intense nervous system activation after life-threatening situations by laying down and surrendering to full-bodied release that looks like they are just vigorously “shaking it off” but when the videotape is slowed down it reveals sequences of movement that look like running and biting, fleeing and fighting. The nervous and glandular energy aroused to sustain the threat to survival has been discharged. Levine also teaches that a natural nervous system homeostasis that cycles between tension and release, resource and trauma can be re-accessed and utilized to allow managable and integratable processing of unresolved intense stress that still lurks in our physiology.
So breath, touch, movement, emotional process, all can serve as an entry point into this altered state in which the mind-body system processes, releases, re-enlivens and rebalances itself. In my work I use yoga, dance, breathwork and hands-on bodywork as doorways into this powerful process. The novel and revelatory experience of energy can serve as a resource, as can elements like touch, breath, sensation, music, trust etc…
To experience my work come on an Transformation Retreat. There’s one coming up in November!
In the video below, I am demonstrating energy activation in a workshop with students from my bodywork and yoga world using breath and touch to release stress and tension – and enter an ecstatic state. In a more formal healing session this work would go on longer and start to access both emotional process and physical structural shifts. This is just a glimpse.
Open Sky Bodywork
If you haven’t seen energetic process like this before, it will usually bump right up against the cultural taboos we all carry- taboos about the body, vulnerability, touch and sexuality. Think of the images you are seeing as illustrating the awakening of an embodied ecstatic state of consciousness that is not limited by the shame that those taboos enforce. We are conditioned to live in a very limited framework that does not allow for very much emotional honesty, pleasure, open-ness or vulnerability – and yet it is in the discovery and development of our capacity for precisely those things that we become more fully ourselves and that we awaken to authentic and grounded spirituality.
I would hazard a guess that it is this kind of ecstatic group ritual space that the Christians in ancient Europe (and wherever else they colonized) were so offended by and branded as Satanic or related to witchcraft. In the article above Sovatsky mentions both the pre-Patanjali ecstatic Tantras of ancient India as well as the Dionysian revels of ancient Greece. It should however be noted that the naturally occurance of energetic process in ancient cultures does not mean that their interpretation or integration benefited from the contemporary perspectives (Integral analysis, mind-body integration, depth psychology, modern science, postmodern insights etc..) we can now bring to bear! The way lies ahead, not behind us…
My initial experiences of energetic unwinding/kundalini came through Holotropic Breathwork, an experiential therapy that involves deep sustained breathing, pre-programmed evocative music and the occasional application of physical bodywork techniques.
The work (like any truly effective practice or therapy) softens the barrier between the conscious and the unconscious mind, and allows physical tensions, repressed emotions, memories, longings and insights to emerge into awareness and be processed in an experiential, embodied way. It produces a profoundly altered state of consciousness in which instinctive animalistic body states, infantile and childhood memories and feelings, unacknowledged truths and deeply spiritual capacities can and do all arise. As this process unfolds it is standard to go through the unwinding/kundalini processes I have been describing.
One of the most striking, perplexing and undeniable stimuli toward altered states has to be psychedelic or entheogenic sacraments.
For the sake of brevity, this piece of writing can only gesture toward all the different reference points I am wanting to establish, so for now I will just say that the use of plant medicines that produce altered states is something that anthropologists have found to be ubiquitous and widespread, from Mesoamerica to Africa to India to Ancient Greece, to Egypt and Sumeria, to the Amazon Rainforest to Mexico to Siberia. For more on this a good starting point is the book Persephone’s Quest by R. Gordon Wasson et al.
There is considerable evidence and highly educated guesswork that suggests that humanity’s interactions with potent psychoactive plants and fungi may have played a major part not only in the development of culture, mythology and spirituality/religion, but also in evolution itself. For more on this see references in Joseph Campbell as well as the more explicit work of ethnobotanist Terrence McKenna and writers like James Arthur, Daniel Merkur, Robert Forte and pre-eminent scholar of world religion Huston Smith.
Stan Grof – called by Ken Wilber the world’s greatest living psychologist, spent his early years doing extensive clinical research on the psycho-spiritual implications of altered states and specifically of the information revealed via psychedelics. He later developed Holotropic Breathwork as an alternative approach when psychedelics were outlawed.
Personally, seeking out and then learning how to integrate altered states has been a central thread in my life story as an adult. From early experiences with psychedelics (like Jack Kornfield, Stan Grof, Ram Das and most of my counter-culture spiritual heroes) to meditation retreats, psychotherapy, bodywork, holotropic breathwork and yoga, I have found that altered states present two very difficult problems with regard to integration:
Principle Three: States and Stages Are Not the Same Thing.
In the altered state the barrier between the conscious and the unconscious mind becomes more permeable – creativity blossoms, mythic archetypes emerge, long hidden emotions and memories arise and potential spiritual capacities like compassion, insight, and equanimity may be experienced.
See Stan Grof for more on this, but also Abraham Maslow, particularly his idea of “self-actualizers “ who guide their lives by their “peak experiences.”
What Transpersonal Psychology has grown to understand in the last 40 years is that entry into a peak altered state, while convincing and authentic at the time is not the equivalent of having reached the stage of development to which the state is alluding.
In other words a vision of the mountain top doesn’t mean you don’t still have to start climbing from the bottom when the vision fades…
Principle Four: While Altered States are Available to Everyone Regardless of their Stage of Development, One’s Interpretation of the Altered State will be Entirely Dependent on One’s Psychograph (or combined developmental profile.)
In other words: One’s general stage of development will determine how one interprets the altered state once they are back in their steady state. So the same experiential territory might be interpreted completely differently by someone with a literalist faith in mythic religion, as opposed to someone who has done a lot of psychological work, as opposed to someone who is very invested in New Age metaphysics, or someone who has a background in Advaita Vedanta. The tricky part is that because the (primary) altered state is so convincing, our (secondary) interpretive lens will be lent an often unwarranted authority….
This is a very difficult trap to side-step – and then proceed with as grounded and accurate an interpretation as is possible…
So integration has to include perhaps both the attempt to step back and look at the experience with some degree of objectivity, as well as consulting with guides or “community of the adequate” members whom we trust and respect. This will help put altered state work squarely in the necessary “three strands of science” realm. Here’s a fascinating video of Ken Wilber talking about how a broad scientific method can be effectively applied to spirituality:
Integration, as well as even being able to manage altered states is also a function of something I call the “trauma/resource ratio.” Each of us has a different ratio between overwhelming traumatic occurrences and resources that support groundedness, self-esteem, compassion, courage etc…This is not something we choose but is the product of the complex relationships between genetics, life experience, childhood, gifts and abilities we have been able to develop etc… The trauma/resource ration will determine how well we are able to manage and integrate altered states of consciousness and energetic process.
Difficulty in managing and/or integrating altered states and energetic process can show up as:
* Ungroundedness or Dissociation
* Regressive Worldview/Belief System
* Overwhelming/Out of Control Physiological Symptoms
* Psychotic Delusions
* Extreme Narcissistic Inflation
* Obsessive Chasing of the Peak State
* Rationalization/Denial of Reality in Favor of “Other Realms”
* Complete Lack of Self-Care Resources
(Sidenote: Cults and toxic Gurus rely on these elements to keep people disempowered and “hooked in”.)
Although we do not choose the trauma/resource ratio we start with, we can choose to become authentically aware of our situation and do the crucial work to cultivate resources while finding safe spaces to process trauma. At various stages in one’s cycle it is often necessary to step away from practices that evoke energetic proces and/or altered states and spend some time doing the crucial but unglamorous work of grounding, soothing, re-orienting and integrating.
I said earlier that I always recommended Gopi Krishna’s classic book on Kundalini with a disclaimer/caveat. the reason for this is that Krishn’as experience as recounted in the book is terrifying and somewhat psychotic in places and I have my own theory regarding this aspect of the book.
* He had no physical practice to keep him grounded and facilitate processing the powerful energy that was washing though him.
* (In predictably culturally influenced ways) He reveals a very puritanical attitude toward sexuality and
* A very stoic attitude toward emotions. ( So neither his sexuality nor his emotions were outlets for expression, release and relief – they were held in dualistic regard as not being sacred or part of the process. Danger!)
* He felt he had to hide his experience from others. ( A set-up for deepening alienation and paranoia.)
* He had no guidance and no community.
This adds up to a perfect set-up for a pretty bumpy ride. Lots of repression and very little resource – his journey really is very traumatic. That said it is still an eloquent and powerful account of energetic initiation and deep self-realization.
In contrast and by way of conclusion i want to reiterate that energetic process and altered states are powerful, universal human experiences that can, under the right conditions, be utilized responsibly, beautifully and in ways that create not only exciting experiences but also genuine stage-wise growth. This possibility is well-served by:
* An Integral 4 quadrant framework.
* Active cultivation of resource.
* Safe space for processing trauma.
* Responsble, knowledgable and experienced teachers/guides/healers
* Transformational community
* Physical practices that move energy.
* Shadow work that allows for deep emotional process.
* Three strands of science type methodology.
* Continuing education and practice.
These combine well with the four principles I suggested through the piece, and which I will reiterate here:
* Consciousness and Physiology are Deeper (More Universal) to the Human Condition than Cultural Differences.
* Names and Beliefs are Always Secondary to Practice and Direct Initiatory Experience.
* States and Stages Are Not the Same Thing.
* While Altered States are Available to Everyone Regardless of their Stage of Development, One’s Interpretation of the Altered State will be Entirely Dependent on One’s Psychograph.
Thanks for your time!
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