Part 1 - Demons and Angels
In spiritual literature and tradition, the concept of the "dark night of the soul" has the feel of a good dramatic story. Tales come to mind of demons threatening or attacking, or of violent convulsions of pain or fear overtaking the monk or nun who is innocently but determinedly focused on his or her devotions and life of service and humility. It conjures up medieval images of ghouls and just about everything that modern Catholicism and protestantism before that rejected with an embarrassment born of the scientific method.
But, like or not, struggles with demonic forces are well established in the Christian tradition in the lives of such luminaries as Teresa of Avila, Padre Pio, St. John of the Cross and St. Francis. In the eastern traditions, the list is endless and the tales even more bizarre, indeed, fanciful. In both east and west, angels and devils figure prominently (and with a studied naturalness) in the lives of the greatest saints. No less than Buddha himself was subjected to a final temptation by Mara (the devil) just as was Jesus Christ. So often in fact do such entities appear, whether benevolent or malevolent, that to dismiss them seems folly to anyone sincerely walking the spiritual path.
Paramhansa Yogananda explained that there was a period in his life when his legs were paralyzed due to taking on the karma of disciples. He said that astral entities (shaped like corkscrews and saws!) were attacking his astral legs. Yet, when he needed to appear in public and walk to the podium for a lecture, he could suddenly stand and walk, later to slump helplessly into a chair.
Books have been written in modern times on the terrors, trevails and prescriptions for those caught in the throes of "kundalini rising." Kundalini refers to that elemental and existential life force that is otherwise hidden, silent and sleeping in most humans. Oft depicted as a feminine goddess, she might first appear as a temptress to test the purity of heart of one who dares to summon her. If one passes her test she morphs into the goddess ready to lead the warrior to the promised land. But until that time, she is coiled around and guards a great treasure at the base of the astral spine of the human body: the secret of eternal life.
For centuries, the quest to slay her and capture her treasure of immortality has inspired yogis of varying degrees of purity and clarity (kriya yogis, tantra yogis and many others) to give their all.
By modern accounts of Kundalini's awakening power, you'd think that just about anyone who dares to practice certain esoteric yoga techniques or who engages in a life of intense spiritual practices runs the risk that Kundalini, part demon, part angel, will appear and wreak havoc upon one's body and one's life.
Well, "no such luck!" Reports of her appearance are greatly exaggerated. Devotees and yogis have plenty of inner demons consisting of personal desires, fears, ambitions, and neuroses to wrestle with such that it will be a long time before the "real" ones come to dissuade us from the intensity of our devotions. Similarly, it will be a long time before Kundalini herself is stirred enough to cause an earthquake in the mountain of our inner spiritual life.
In fact, it is sometimes said that we encounter such beings only in the final stages before our ascent into final union with God. I wouldn't flatly accept that statement without condition, but that is "what I've been told." Individual karma is so complex that, well, "you just NEVER know." (If a person had spent a prior lifetime(s) toying with summoning spirits through seances and the like, who knows what exacting boomerang effect might be called down.)
While this article isn't about the phenomenon known as possession (by astral entities), this, too, is a well attested to spiritual reality. In cases of possession, however, we are NOT talking about spiritually advanced souls; possession occurs to those with minds weakened by drugs or other debilitating conditions and habits. Fortunately it is extremely rare and nothing for most to be concerned about. While not provable either way, possession seems a more likely explanation for multiple personality cases than any other merely psychological or organic reason.
Part 2 - What is Kundalini?
Returning now to our main subject -- Kundalini -- I have found the most practical and profound description of kundalini is one given to us by the founder of the worldwide network of Ananda communities (based on the teachings of Paramhansa Yogananda), Swami Kriyananda, in his (now) classic text, "Art and Science of Raja Yoga." In that book, Step 12, Philosophy section, he writes, "Kundalini represents the entrenched vitality of our mortal delusion." Yet, as he continues, it is also the single greatest key to enlightenment! "Only by arousing this force from its ancient resistance to divine truth can the soul hope to reunite itself with the Spirit." Need I say: WOW?
With the above understanding, we can confidently state that there is no separate yoga called "kundalini yoga" because in the sense given above, the entire spiritual path consists of raising the Kundalini from her ancient sleep. The words and images may be specific to India but the reality of the spiritual path is universal. The soul's path to God consists of overcoming the hypnosis of our separateness from God (i.e., our commitment to ego) to reclaim our true, soul nature as a spark of God's infinite bliss.
The only distinction to be made between yoga precepts and other spiritual terminology is that the yogis define the steps of awakening in somewhat clinical terms. The masters of yoga describe reversing the normally outward flow of life force to the senses, tissues and organs back through the doorways of the energy centers (chakras) and into the spine wherein the increased energy summons forth from below the Kundalini from her sleeping state; thus roused and reunited with the energy in the spinal centers, the increased energy of the "river of life" begins its upward ascent through the astral spine to the brain.
The saints of Christianity did not have the benefit of an unbroken tradition of the science of soul-awakening but they accomplished the raising of kundalini through devotion, self-mortification (ego-transcendence), selfless action and, of course, the all-powerful descent of grace: God's response to the sincere efforts of the soul. Not unlike the simple fact that the chemistry of a medical drug can function without the conscious will of the patient, so too will Kundalini respond to the sincere efforts of the devotee and to the summons of the resulting descending divine grace regardless of that devotee's knowledge of the clinical details or methods. Suffice to say, however, such knowledge is a great aid to one's efforts! [But just as placebo testing and faith healing demonstrate, belief, awareness and understanding of medicines can make a big difference in their efficacy. So, too, then with kundalini.)
As kundalini rises and touches upon each chakra, beginning at the lowest center, the coccyx (earth or "muladhara"), new insights are received (both personal and universal) just as in climbing a mountain you see farther and farther in the distance as you rise even as you gain climbing experience as you ascend.
Some awakening occurs long before Kundalini actually rises. Yogananda taught that even kind thoughts cause Kundalini to stir in her sleep, relaxing her coils even a tiny bit to send shafts of light upward toward the brain. The opposite occurs with selfish thoughts. Various yogic techniques, moreover, stimulate the chakras so as to magnetize them and help draw Kundalini upwards.
Certain techniques, found especially in hatha yoga, attempt to force kundalini to rise by focusing will power at or around the base of the spine and spinal centers. These have their place but the danger is with the delusion that will power alone can force her energy to stir and rise. Impure ego motivation will counter the pure energy which is Kundalini's rising nature.
In stories like the "Never Ending Story" (never-ending, because it is the story of each soul), it is a child (representing innocence) who must free the kingdom from the Nothingness. Or, in a story such as St. George and the dragon, or Theseus and the Minotaur, it takes a warrior with a pure heart to successfully slay the dragon of ego.
Part 3 - Frontier of Consciousness
Is, then, the image of Kundalini as a temptress or goddess simply a metaphor or is this "real?" Our western and left brain dominated minds are more likely to experience and describe that experience in terms of "energy." But maybe that's because we have a scientific view of quantum realities, that is, of "energies" that are not in organic form.
I think it is safest to say that when one reaches the frontier of consciousness itself and it is no longer a question of one's own imagination and subconscious mind, and the realm of matter and the senses has been transcended, all bets are off. I think the question is actually a non-starter and not relevant to the realm in which the phenomenon actually occurs.
Put another way, the fundamental matrix of reality IS consciousness, so the question has no ready-made answer. Patanjali describes the psychic power attributable to realization of the consciousness of "austerity" (one of the niyamas of the Eight-Fold Path) as the ability to commune with higher beings. As indicated above, there really cannot be a question regarding the existence of higher beings: whether "good guys" or "bad guys."
It is a typical pattern in the soul's evolution that we approach God through good works, prayer and meditation. Our efforts are rewarded with various and sundry inspirations and feelings of joy, peace, love and so on. We encounter, therefore, the more impersonal or abstract experiences of higher consciousness. Even the meditative experiences tend to be of a phenomenal nature (light, sound, energy, etc.)
As we progress, the impersonal begins to be personal. God may come to us in visions, in the form of our chosen deity (godhead), savior, guru etc. This distinction is not in cement and depends both on one's karma and, what is basically the same as karma, our basic temperament: whether devotional, mental (intellectual), or active (energetic). But the basic pattern is somewhat recognizable in the bigger picture of the lives of devotees.
Part 2 - The Battle
The soul may have many of its own demons in the forms of innumerable material addictions: fame, name, romance, sex, security, wealth, health and the various forms of the seven deadly sins. These, however common, are almost trite in relation to the existential battle of which we speak here. It may indeed take more than one lifetime to overcome, say, alcoholism, but the means to do so lay largely, if not entirely, within the domain of the ego (though reaching for divine succor is recommended because spiritually elevating).
Think of the image of the cross: a vertical bar crossed by a horizontal one. The horizontal represents our relationship to the body, the senses, personality and the world around us. We can "get our act together" by self-effort (as I said above) reasonably well. Human virtue, though a necessity and a victory, is largely still of human making. The sense of personal doership remains upper most. It is "I" who conquers and controls my palate; my tongue; etc.
A wiser soul seeks divine guidance in all matters but even an atheist can work towards health, happiness and a balanced life of integrity.
The vertical bar however is the battle of the soul's ascent back to God. At the bottom lies Kundalini: the entrenched vitality of our mortal delusion. Built over incalculable lifetimes, our commitment to ego and separateness, personal likes and dislikes, protection and affirmation is deeply rooted.
At the top of the head is the soul! Eternal, perfect, unchanging and blissful but otherwise unaffected by and not involved with ego's play and unending karma (so called "good" and "bad"). The vertical ascent up what is sometimes called the spiral staircase to heaven is the existential challenge, climbing Mt Carmel (Christianity) or Mt. Meru (Hindu).
Ordinary, clinical depression is bad enough. It can lead in some cases to suicide: ego's worst "crime." But its roots are in the unending play of pleasure and pain, desire and fear, and limitless ups and downs of karma.
Existential depression, on the other hand, is the discouragement we feel (albeit in ego consciousness) in the seemingly insurmountable task of achieving enlightenment. This, in various forms, is, more or less, what is meant by the "dark night of the soul." At one end of the darkness spectrum is the darkness that immediately precedes the moment of enlightenment. This is the "classic" form. How literal it is, I do not know. It certainly makes for good poetry or drama.
Paramhansa Yogananda's most advanced disciple, James J. Lynn (Rajasi Janakananda) spoke of having his inner world of meditation disappear into total darkness. Used to, as he was, the bliss of meditation and recurring visions of various saints and masters, this sudden experience of the void, of "pure" emptiness, was upsetting; presumably frightening; and, perhaps if but for a moment, a challenge to his faith (he didn't give the details; he was a man of very few words). Then, all of a sudden, a small point of light was seen. It steadily came towards him (or got larger) until an ocean of bliss broke upon him as entered cosmic consciousness ("samadhi"). I don't recall if that was his first experience of samadhi or simply "an experience."
More common forms of the dark night are periods in an advanced soul's life when the accustomed divine consolation (whether in the impersonal feeling form of peace, or light, or divine love or in the personal form of one's guru, e.g., Jesus Christ appearing in vision) has gone. It can be a time when the gentle touch of divine inspiration has fled in favor of suffering (mental, certainly but also physical, likely). It can take place during periods of persecution or illness; or, even a loss of one's faith, being tested like Job in the Old Testament. And, as mentioned earlier, it can be in the form of testing by dis-incarnate, evil entities mocking one's faith. Many great saints attest to periods of "darkness" when the light of spiritual consolation disappears to test their faith in God, guru, and the spiritual life and goal.
We ordinary devotees may face diluted versions of the above: loss (temporary or permanent) of one's spiritual vocation; humiliation or embarrassment by a fall from grace; loss of spiritual support from our spiritual colleagues; grief, or other loss; major illnesses and so on. All to the effect of robbing from our hearts our spiritual inspiration, our practices and perhaps everything spiritually with which we identified even for most of our life!
Part 4 - The Ascent
All of these echo the same challenges that all people face on the horizontal plane of their desires and fears. The difference is that on the vertical plane we are dealing with absolute (i.e. existential) realities, not fleeting realities born of the flux of duality. The soul's evolution through countless lifetimes seems never ending, but the soul's struggle to emerge from ego-constricted darkness is absolute and final (unless, for a time, we give up).
There is another cycle of the spiritual path worth mentioning even if it is somewhat off topic: that is when our spiritual "efforts end in ease." This is a phase in our spiritual growth when much of the hard work of overcoming ego and subconscious habits (the horizontal plane) has paid off and our focus on the vertical plane (eyes on the prize, as it were) is propelling us steadily upward. Is there any soul for whom the "ride" is steadily upward, with no dark night of the soul--even at the end? I simply don't know but I'm am willing to bet the salvation of your soul (joke) that there's no free ride.
The dark night, at least classically, comes nearest the end. As the last chakra before enlightenment is that which is the seat of ego, it is, at last, any and all sense of our separateness that must be offered up into the divine, infinite light. This is why I believe that the darkness must be faced by every soul.
The ego, like Moses, who, though he led the children of Israel through the desert of purification, was not allowed into the Promised Land, must be "killed." Or, must BELIEVE he must be killed. The darkness must come, in other words. In God, in Infinity, and in the "end," nothing is lost and everything is gained. But the ego must not believe this; or put more correctly, the ego CANNOT believe this and must therefore face the prospect of its own extinction. This it simply cannot do without a combination of a supreme act of will and the faith born of divine grace.
Yogananda assures us, however, that nothing is lost. The basic survival instinct was not given us to be simply violated. God is, as the great Adi Shankyacharya of India declared: ever-existing (immortal), ever-conscious (omniscient), (ever-new) bliss. Nonetheless we must pass through the fires of seeming extinction that we be purified of the dross of ego.
Once we have achieved true enlightenment (the experience of nirbikalpa samadhi), the rishis say the soul cannot fall again. BUT: much remains in past karma to unravel the knot of doership. In infinite consciousness, the soul can play as long or as short with this process, for time no longer has a bearing. Sometimes, Swami Kriyananda has told us, a soul remains in the play to aid disciples toward freedom. Patanjali even suggests that a freed soul ("jivan mukta") can inhabit or incarnate into multiple bodies to work out the past karma more quickly. Egads, eh?
Part 5 - So, Where's the Problem?
So now at last we come to the question of problems associated with the rising of the Kundalini energy. At the base of the human astral spine (and human body), we are relatively unconscious. Our consciousness is normally in our head! Our bowels and internal organs "down there" operate wholly without our conscious control and awareness. Kundalini, in any case, in her coiled state at the base of the astral spine, is described as asleep.
Thus it cannot be a big surprise that when she stirs and even begins to rise, perhaps only haltingly, the effect can seem to be independent of--even at variance with--our conscious will and assent. And this is where the oft-reported problems may arise.
Many a great saint has had a sudden, and often rude, spiritual awakening. Even people who are far less than great saints, have moments of sudden awakening (known as "satori" in the Zen tradition). Illness, grief or other shock to one's ordinary life patterns can also shake kundalini from her sleep-like trance below.
The resulting spiritual vision or experience(s) are not unlike hallucinating or being on an LSD (drug-like) "trip." Physical symptoms, psychic insights, loss of physical feeling in one's limbs, loss of appetite and on and on and on..............profoundingly disturbing and yet, alternating, with ecstatic insights and feelings.
All one's normal living (perhaps in marriage, family, business and community) is suddenly turned upside down. (Just as it is, in a way, if you have a tragic accident, say an auto accident or a stroke, and you are hospitalized. Your entire day-to-day life vanishes!)
Much has been made in spiritual literature about these intense spiritual experiences. I do not downplay or minimize any of them. But I do offer not a few caveats regarding them.
- In my experience of the path of kriya yoga as taught by Paramhansa Yogananda, encounters with disturbing kundalini like symptoms are infrequent, if not rare. This suggests to me the truth of what my teacher (and direct disciple of Yogananda), Swami Kriyananda, taught us: that the aid of a true guru combined with proven yoga techniques will minimize imbalances in the awakening and life transforming energy of kundalini.
- In my experience with those who have come to the Ananda center here in the Seattle area, referred to us on account of their psychic disturbances which they have labelled kundalini symptoms, I have found that such persons typically have a smorgasbord of personal issues and imbalances, both psychic and organic.
- Those true devotees who encounter wake-up spiritual experiences, even those which can shatter their normal day to day world, are generally equipped to process them in a positive way.
- Here is a list of imbalances that I have observed in practically all of the nearly one dozen cases (never among our own kriyaban members) that have come to our center for counsel:
- Far too talkative (always about themselves), as if on uppers.
- Far too enamored of their own spiritual stature
- Zero devotion (except to ego) or humility
- Far too enamored of psychic phenomenon
- Often paranoid
- Seemingly bi-polar, alternating between self-aggrandizement and self-loathing.
- Likely to have engaged in extreme practices of various sorts: from binge eating; to intense fasting; to drug and alcohol abuse; poor diet; poor sleep habits; little exercise (or perhaps too much); underweight; nervous;
- Incapable of listening to or, in any case, accepting and implementing any common sense advice. Have answers for everything: "Oh, I tried that."
- Generally have been prescribed medications for mental issues but too often have rejected their use.
- Generally incapable of holding a job, having a committed relationship, or supporting a family.
- Though they say they've come for help, it would seem they want someone (in some established spiritual role) to simply validate their spirituality.
- In the cases above, the admixture of physical, mental and spiritual symptoms is so confused that, while I try to be open to their spiritual needs, what they really need most is to reinvent themselves from the ground up. Diet, exercise, serving others, prayer, devotion....in short, the basics (yamas and niyamas). For some, they shouldn't even attempt to meditate! For all, they need professional help: medical and psychological. Again, this is not an outright denial of their spiritual needs but almost always they are re-defining their physical and mental imbalances solely in spiritual terms, as if to avoid the work they should really be doing. In any case, as it relates to my own personal dharma, I can't help them anyway for the simple reason they don't listen. So it's not really a choice that I have to make (thankfully).
Blessings to all on the Path of Ascension up the Tree of Life!