Branded by the Spirit
"The incidence of disturbances having a spiritual origin is rapidly increasing nowadays, in step with the
growing number of people who, consciously or unconsciously, are groping their way towards a fuller life."
-- Roberto Assagioli, Psychosynthesis
In 1991, my life imploded. I was overtaken by strange and frightening physical symptoms heralding a process which would change me in ways I never could have imagined. As my symptoms grew increasingly bizarre, a series of synchronicities as uncanny as the illness itself led me to the dumbfounding discovery that I was in the midst of a Kundalini awakening. I had not been doing any practices designed to arouse the Kundalini, nor had I ever personally known anyone who had gone through this experience.
Kundalini is a process of revelation and spiritual renewal which radically alters our sense of self and our awareness of life. Because the benefits of Kundalini are widely touted in metaphysical and spiritual circles, many people are unaware of the difficulties it can present. Spiritual seekers (and teachers who give methods for awakening Kundalini) often assume that the only difficulty is in triggering the release of this transformative energy. Few are aware of the prolonged and sometimes arduous process that follows Kundalini arousal.
Long considered the most secret and sacred intent of yoga, Kundalini can also be awakened by meditation, prayer, bodywork, psychedelic drugs, a life crisis (such as extreme physical or emotional trauma, a near-death experience or the death of a loved one), childbirth, menopause, certain ascetic or esoteric sexual practices, or it can occur out of the blue. Kundalini is most likely to rise spontaneously in people who are spiritually inclined, creative, sensitive, open minded and open hearted -- all risk factors I knew nothing about until after the fact.
When I was first thrust into the volcanic physical, mental and emotional upheaval which would transform my life, I did not personally know another soul who had been through what I was experiencing. Since then, I've come to know hundreds of people who have found themselves immersed in this same extraordinary process. Few among us consciously sought to awaken the legendary forces of rebirth, although some were engaged in practices they later discovered were triggers for Kundalini. Whether by invitation or fate, those of us who have had this spectacular power take over our lives had never imagined how much it would alter every aspect of our being.
When the process began, I didn't know what hit me. I was not completely unfamiliar with the concept of a Kundalini awakening, having read about it many years earlier. I knew that Kundalini was the Hindu word for the mysterious agent which unfurled human consciousness. I'd explored innumerable spiritual/metaphysical avenues, but never with the desire or intent of activating Kundalini. I didn't connect my symptoms to the rising of the "Serpent Power" until five months into my illness. Prior to this, I had spent grueling months in limbo. Neither I nor my doctors knew what was constellating my strange illness.
I'd initially dismissed the increasing weakness in my arms as unwelcome signs of aging. But now something seemed seriously wrong. An enormous weight was bearing down on my chest, making me labor to breathe. I couldn't seem to get enough oxygen; I felt dizzy and light-headed. Having smoked for twenty-five years, I figured the dues collector had arrived. While I draw the line at do-it-yourself appendectomies, short of emergency, I turn to doctors only as a last resort, after I've exhausted my self-healing efforts. Fortunately, I have been fairly healthy for most of my life. But this time I knew I was in over my head. Scared and contrite, I made the first of what was to become, for me, an unprecedented number of trips to various medical specialists.
My dreaded chest X-ray came up clean. I was given an EKG for good measure, and my heart passed with flying colors as well. All the same, I stopped smoking immediately. The elephant sitting on my chest didn't budge. My symptoms multiplied and worsened, which at first I accepted as inevitable. I had no expectations that whatever damage I'd incurred would be healed overnight. I had tried to quit many times before and withdrawal had been nerve-wracking. In the past, aside from the craving to smoke, the worst of the physical symptoms began to fade after a week.
This time, the symptoms of my as-yet-undiagnosed illness continued. Worse, my swallowing reflex had somehow short-circuited. When I tried to eat, the muscles that contract in swallowing simply refused to cooperate. I found myself gagging and having to spit out the food. I could only get down liquids, which depended more on the pull of gravity than the cooperation of my throat muscles. A month without cigarettes, and instead of the typical weight gain, I was steadily losing pounds. Concerned about my lack of nourishment, my husband Carl crushed vitamins for me with a mortar and pestle; I daily dissolved this potion in a tablespoon of honey which I was able to wash down with lots of water. This and watered-down baby food was my sole fare for weeks.
In addition to the swallowing problem, I felt a constriction like a noose around my neck. Stranger yet, I would go through frequent episodes of repetitive swallowing when I wasn't eating. These would go on for anywhere from a few minutes to an hour, and were most pronounced at night, jarring me from sleep with a horror that I was on the verge of asphyxiation. Much later I learned that both sensations of throat constriction and compulsive swallowing occur fairly commonly with the opening of the 5th chakra (located at the throat).
I returned in short order to the doctor. Now my symptoms were attributed to severe nicotine withdrawal. I felt absolutely terrible. A great heaviness descended upon me, as if hundred pound weights were strapped to all my limbs. My head felt huge and filled with crushed glass and I was in a peculiar altered state; my whole body felt drugged or poisoned.
My two decade study of healing had taught me some techniques for investigating the mind/body connection. With little other recourse, I tried to work psychologically with my symptoms. I told Carl that I had gotten an image of a squadron of "demons" clutching and swaying from my limbs in a Hieronymus Boschian frenzy. These devilish entities seemed to personify a lifetime's accumulation of negative experience: fear, anger, resentment, trauma, etc. (Much later, I realized how apropos this image had been. The rising Kundalini indeed dislodges this psychological dead weight from the system.)
I began to tailspin into terrible anxiety and near-suicidal depression, though, oddly, these feelings didn't seem to be in reaction to my physical condition. I relapsed back to smoking. Though I felt guilty about it, it helped to emotionally stabilize me. After a week, I sought help from a professional hypnotist who specialized in breaking cigarette addictions. I told him of my previous "withdrawal symptoms." He thought these sounded extreme, but felt he could help me by tailoring my hypnosis session to include messages of wellbeing and vitality. I was instructed to listen to the hour-long tape of my hypnosis session twice daily. I did this religiously for about two weeks.
All the same, my condition continued to deteriorate. I began to have trouble lifting my legs. I called the hypnotist for advice. He had never heard of this debilitating withdrawal symptom in his twenty years of practice, but suggested I continue to exercise vigorously to work the toxins out of my system.
It was becoming increasingly difficult to do any kind of exercise, much less anything vigorous. I was doing the best I could, but my ankles turned to rubber and my feet dragged and flopped sideways when I walked. My arms were becoming increasingly useless, and it was hard to move my fingers. I couldn't pick up small items, and I had no gripping strength. Just trying to hold a spoon was a formidable feat. By this time, both Carl and I were getting frantic. Off to another doctor. (At the time, my HMO assigned doctors like musical chairs; I never saw the same one twice.) Once more I was told that I was simply having nicotine withdrawal symptoms.
I became a bedridden invalid, barely able to use my hands even to dress or feed myself. This time, I was given an emergency appointment with a neurologist. He immediately dismissed the nicotine-withdrawal diagnosis, and scheduled me for a complete diagnostic work-up.
Upon returning home from an innervating day at the hospital, a package was awaiting me in the mail. A month earlier, I had sent my completed metaphysical book manuscript to a potential publisher. I'd been flabbergasted when they contacted me to say they liked it, it was well-written, let's go with this. I was hooked up with one of their editors, who discussed with me ideas for layout and minor revisions.
The package contained my manuscript with a cover letter of apology. When it came down to the wire, it had been a toss-up between publishing my book or another about baby massage. The baby-topics market looked ripe that year, so my book got the axe. I was too sick to care. I stashed the package on a shelf and didn't look at it again for three years. I now regard the return of the manuscript as a curtain closing on the pre-Kundalini period of my life. Thankfully the book was never published. By the time I looked it over again, my views on everything had changed so radically I disagreed with most of what I'd written.
If I had known how much worse things were going to get before they got better, I would have thrown myself off a bridge. I was in and out of the hospital as new symptoms developed. An uncontrollable neck muscle tremor made my head shake back and forth in a palsied rhythm, even when I was lying down. Painless little muscle twitches developed over my entire body. I was advised that I might have an incurable and/or fatal condition. Myasthenia gravis (or perhaps some other rare autoimmune disease), brain tumor, lupus, lyme disease and ALS were speculated. With mounting fear, I began to suffer from muscle cramps and an awful systemic burning sensation. The spasms were affecting every part of my body, including my tongue, causing me to slur my words or bite my tongue when talking. The onslaught of symptoms grew outright weird, ranging from a prickling and tingling that roved around beneath my skin, to a horrifying sensation akin to toothpicks stabbing into my eyeballs.
All the medical tests came up negative. I'd been seen, all told, by a dozen doctors, four of them neurologists. I was repeatedly told that I was "an interesting case" -- from the mouths of physicians, an ominous euphemism meaning, "We've never seen a disease quite like this."
One afternoon my brother-in-law dropped by. An acupressurist with innate psychic sensitivity, he became very agitated as soon as he walked in. He told us that the entire house was reverberating with the most unusual energy he'd ever encountered. Stranger yet, he said all this energy seemed to be emanating from me!
Carl and I didn't know what to make of this. We briefly considered I might be possessed by some kind of malevolent entity. It seemed more likely to me that the charged atmosphere came from the many people who were praying for my recovery.
The pain and fear of fast sinking into the quicksand of physical decline is beyond description. Without a clue to the real cause of my illness, I was simply terrified. As the Indian scholar Gopi Krishna wrote of his own experience: "I did not know at the time that I was witnessing in my own body the immensely accelerated activity of an energy not yet known to science, which is carrying all mankind towards the heights of superconsciousness..." (from Kundalini: The Evolutionary Energy in Man)
For several months, I remained in a state of near-paralysis. The physical pain came to a crescendo in the middle of one night. I awoke in agony. Every muscle in my body, from the soles of my feet to the top of my scalp, was writhing and wrenching as if trying to rip loose from my skeleton. It felt as if each muscle and tendon had taken on a surreal life of it's own: a hideous internal mutiny of thrashing, serpentine creatures. If this wasn't bad enough, I was burning up inside. The very cells in my body felt drenched in battery acid. Carl was awakened to my near-delirious cry: "It feels like burning snakes!" We had no idea how apt a metaphor this would prove to be.
Soon afterward, I began to experience more classical, full blown Kundalini manifestations. Heaven's gate did not swing softly open to admit me; it blew off its hinges in a silent blast, demolishing my circumscribed life. Once Kundalini awakens, Jung remarked that one moves into "a world which is totally different from our world: it is a world of eternity." Suspended in an etheric, oceanic energy, I was in an altered state for months. My entire being became a transparency, a disembodied galvanized consciousness in the midst of primordial forces. Nothing could have prepared me for the awesomeness of this experience, not even my past LSD adventures. Yet it would be equally true to say that everything in my life had been leading up to this. Everything had been scripted by an incomprehensible Intelligence whose work -- my life -- I could only behold with reverence and joy.
My sensitivity -- physical, emotional and psychic -- was magnified to the point of the fabled princess who could feel the pea under a mountain of mattresses. Colors were extraordinarily brilliant and my hearing grew so acute than if anyone so much as coughed from another room, I jumped as if it had been a gunshot.
I had outright convulsions, with energy roaring up from the base of my spine and out the top of my head. My world was rife with holy madness. I became a sort of human tuning fork -- mechanical vibrations set me off in a wild way. Once Carl decided to clean some crumbs off the table with the Dustbuster. As soon as he switched it on, I went into a seizure. Energy blasted through my spinal cord and out the top of my head like an geyser. It was both terrible and hilarious. Carl had no idea that my sudden "attack" had anything to do with the vibration of the vacuum cleaner, and my teeth rattled so hard I could only beg in an incoherent stutter: "St...st...st...STOP!" He finally understood, and as soon as the machine was off, my convulsion ended.
I was greeted by spectacular lights, whether my eyes were open or closed. I could feel staggering electricity circulating inside me and I often felt electrical shocks from my own body. (Sometimes when Carl touched me, he got a shock too.) Intense, at times unbearable heat made me feel like a human furnace. Oddly, this heat was not at all like a fever and I didn't perspire. (This is not so in all cases; some people sweat rivers from Kundalini heat.) I was experiencing elaborate, involuntary bodily movements all the while (they are called kriyas and mudras; I've described them in more detail in The Spirit Dance). For several months, I was deluged by mystical experiences. I had visions, heard and inwardly saw guides who instructed and aided me in accommodating the process, and I had vivid clairvoyant dreams.
Throughout all this, I was under a barrage of continuously changing physical symptoms, which made me feel -- with not a little gallows humor -- like a hybrid of Linda Blair in "The Exorcist" and Jeff Goldblum in "The Fly". I was being torn apart and re-created at every level. Nothing about the process was predictable. Every day, I was caught anew by astonishment as something completely unexpected developed.
The Mystery Unravels
"At times I feel like a living experiment, an alchemist's vessel in which a marvelous, although sometimes painful, mystery is unfolding." -- Richard Moss, The I That Is We
A series of synchronicities led me to Kundalini literature. I'd serendipitously flipped open one of my astrology books and opened to a passage stating that outer planet transits could release Kundalini. A few Kundalini manifestations were described, all of which mirrored my symptoms. I began rifling through our home library in search of any additional Kundalini information I could find and I asked Carl to keep an eye peeled for Kundalini titles at bookstores. Shortly thereafter, he came upon Lee Sannella's The Kundalini Experience and Bonnie Greenwell's then newly published Energies of Transformation -- two of the most comprehensive Western texts yet written on the subject.
I devoured both books like a pauper at a banquet. They were describing in detail exactly what I was experiencing! By the time I was ready to believe that my Kundalini had risen, I spotted an ad for a spiritual emergence support group in a local alternative newspaper. (This same ad ran for four consecutive weeks. I had never before and have not since seen one like it in that or any other publication.) When I called the listed number, the therapist who was facilitating the group told me that she was also involved in a spontaneous Kundalini process, but her experiences had been less drastic than mine. She put me in touch with the one other person she knew who was undergoing Kundalini awakening -- and it turned out to be someone whose Kundalini symptoms were remarkably similar to mine at the time. The therapist also gave me the new phone number for the Spiritual Emergence Network. (I had tried to call SEN previously, but they had changed location and I had been unable to reach them. The therapist had acquired their new number just days before I contacted her!)
My awakening process has been what the late Swami Muktananda would have called "dynamic." In six months time, I'd been hurled from the grief and terror of thinking my life was unraveling through some devastating illness to being thrown into the equally stunning realization that I was experiencing a monumental spiritual process. My mind ricocheted from fear to relief; from hopelessness to amazement.
Although I'd been sensitive all my life, this was psychically expanding me by quantum leaps. Physically, mentally and emotionally, I was being pushed to the limit on a continual basis. For all its intensity, I knew a Kundalini awakening was considered a great gift which ultimately led to a profoundly enriched level of awareness. I spent most of my days in prayer, meditation and deference to this new central power in my life. To a friend, I wrote, "My mind is overwhelmed. My body is sometimes in pain, but it seems to be getting stronger and more able to be a vehicle for this incredible surging energy. My heart is so full."
It's easier to describe the physical symptoms than the complex mental, emotional and spiritual permutations of the awakening process. So much has happened within me, such upheaval, struggle, pain, beauty, soul-searching, and regeneration. Where this will eventually take me, I have no idea. Each day has become more mysterious to me as this unfolds. Even when nothing particularly spectacular or extraordinary occurs, I feel more wonder and faith than ever before. Kundalini certainly hasn't been lenient or gentle with me, but when the pain lessens, I find myself willing to go deeper, to search further, and to do more of whatever is required of me to complete this metamorphosis.
There is a myth that those who greet Kundalini (or life in general) with open arms and a glad heart do not suffer serious pain or difficulties. Don't believe it. When I understood Kundalini had risen in me, I couldn't have been more awed if I'd opened my door to find the streets filled with angels announcing the Second Coming. Although I have in many ways had my world turned inside out by this ferocious goddess, I'm grateful that Kundalini has come alive in me. During the peak of my Kundalini experiences, a thought rang out in my mind: "We have underestimated ourselves so terribly." The wonders of this process have renewed my faith that the universe is far more magical and amazing than we have dared to imagine... and we are unimaginably magical and amazing too.