© El Collie 2000
Among the most troubling and alarming components commonly confronted by those in spiritual emergency are feelings of fear, a sense of loneliness, experiences of insanity, and a preoccupation with death. While such states of mind are often intrinsic, necessary, and pivotal parts of the healing process, they can become frightening and overpowering, particularly when human support is lacking. -- Christina & Stanislav Grof
Speaking at the 1994 Kundalini Research Network Symposium, Christina Grof discussed the "double-edged experience" of spiritual emergence, which can veer between "madness and bliss, terror and divine presence." Although her adventures in chaos eventually became a "benign creative river" that enriched her life, for twelve years she had felt victimized by a daily onslaught of uncontrollable manifestations of the risen Kundalini.
Even the blissful and joyous experiences can be judged as madness by others -- or by ourselves. Christina Grof said that she denied the reality of her own tumultuous years of awakening after the process smoothed out. She told herself she had simply been crazy or spiritually grandiose during that twelve year span.
The paranormal, mystical and psychic aspects of spiritual awakening are most daunting for those whose prior worldview excluded the possibility of such phenomena. It can help to realize as the astronaut Edgar Mitchell has observed, "There are no unnatural or supernatural phenomena, only very large gaps in our knowledge of what is natural... We should strive to fill those gaps of ignorance."
What seems like encroaching insanity is different for each of us. A man who had been blind from birth had little trouble accepting Kundalini experiences which might have been very frightening to someone else, such as spontaneous out-of-body escapades. But he was seriously concerned over his mental stabilty when he began having inner visions and was able to see colors for the first time in his life.
A woman felt extremely threatened and confounded after experiencing a trance state in which invisible beings planted gems in her chakras while she watched helplessly, unable to move or defend herself from them. In our culture, such an account sounds crazy... or possibly like an encounter with hostile UFO aliens. What is most interesting about this is that shamans from Native American, Siberian, Aboriginal and other cultures have long reported similar incidents, where sacred stones or magical crystals are inserted in their bodies by initiating spirits. The Sioux holy man, Fools Crow, spoke of a time when the Great Spirit had implanted seven stones in his body to make him a medicine man. (The stones suddenly apppeared in his body while he was on a sacred quest.) Says his biographer Thomas Mails:
"One stone was in his back, just below the left shoulder blade, and the rest were just under the skin of his left arm and hand. On one occassion he made me feel the stones and move them around to show me how easily it could be done. It was uncanny, since they could be moved an inch or more in any direction... The stones ranged in size from one-eighth of an inch to one-quarter of an inch. They were round, smooth, and hard as any rock is.
"He told me how the stones knew when a bad incident was about to take place. They began to move rapidly
around. Then he would pray that people's hearts would change and the bad would go away so that good could replace
it. Also, when he prayed each day the stones sometimes gave him messages from Wakan-Tanka and the other powers."
Kundalini can be terrifying to those whose religious training condemns as evil all psychic and paranormal manifestation. When confronted with evidence that flies in the face of whatever we have believed to be true, we have two choices: (1) to reject the testimony of our mind and senses; or (2) to re-evaluate our prior beliefs and learn what we can through honest examination of our own direct experience. The second choice gives us permission, perhaps for the first time in our lives, to trust in ourselves.
We may fear that our new consciousness may result in persecution, not without cause. Being in altered states make us very vulnerable, especially if we tend to become lost to mundane reality. Dr. Dianne Skafte, a psychotherapist and professor of mythological studies, says that even slightly entranced states of awareness make her uneasy about losing contact with the outside world: "Unless I remain partly vigilant and aware, a voice warns, someting terrible will happen -- not to my soul, but to my body. Harm may befall loved ones as well. Images such as these arise: I am suspended deep in an alternate reality; strangers break into the sanctuary with shouts and crashing; I am ripped away from my communion; my body is battered, violated. Others... are screaming also. We should have been watching, we should have been watching! Is this a memory from another existence or from the collective memory pool of humankind? Is it a glimpse of things to come? I only know that a vague dread has always kept me from surrendering to totally dissociated states of consciousness.
As John Nelson observes in Healing the Split, "Technological societies warn us to be wary of people who are prone to sudden trances, mystic raptures, and hallucinatory intoxications." When we suddenly find ourselves "prone" to such things, we may not know where to turn for a reality-check.
The Christian saint, Teresa of Avila, had specific criteria for evaluating her own mystical visions:
1. These experiences "have a sense of power and authority."
2. "They produce tranquility, recollectedness, and a desire to praise God."
3. "They impart an inner certainty that what is envisioned is true."
4. The visions "are clear and distinct, with each part carrying great meaning."
5. Healthy altered state experiences "result in a life of improved ethics and increased psychological integration.
They give strength and peace and inspire love for God." This canon (especially points 2 and 5) seems to apply equally well for distinguishing between healthy and psychotic altered states. Another major major difference between an episode of psychosis and a transcendent altered state concerns grounding. I have been in extreme states, but I have never lost awareness of the "rules" of consensual reality, nor have I been unable to communicate my experiences coherently to others who remain in ordinary consciousness. Those who lose their bearings traversing multiple realities also lose their ability to make themselves understood.
Joseph Campbell compared the plight of the mystic and the mentally afflicted to the difference "between a diver who can swim and one who cannot." The mystic, wrote Campbell, "enters the waters and finds he can swim; whereas the schizophrenic, unprepared, unguided, and ungifted, has fallen or has intentionally plunged, and is drowning." Darrel Irving spells out this difference in more literal terms: "One person perceives Kundalini as a healing, bioelectric current of energy passing through the body and another person feels that someone is trying to electrocute him or her. It may be that a delusional person is more self-centered, less able to see the broader perspective; it may be a problem of self-integration."
Irving suggests that whatever the cause of the psychotic break, if one is to successfully navigate the tidal waves of Kundalini-shifted consciousness, "it is vitally important to see clearly, to have a strong sense of self, and to have an unremitting desire to know what is real, to see the true as true, and the false as false."
While psychic and mystical experiences can contribute to our spiritual development, it is important to be discerning. Entities from the lower astral realms and our own subconscious shadow material can contaminate our perceptions. Just because information comes to us through a trance or in other seemingly magical ways doesn't prove its source is reliable. Whatever information or insight we receive from any level, exterior or interior, disembodied or human, needs to be held up to scrutiny by our hearts and minds. Be very careful with this. Blind faith and unquestioning trust in first impressions are not sound spiritual tools.
At the opposite extreme, relentless self-doubt can create problems when we are faced with non-ordinary perception. Gail Rossi, publisher and editor of the New Age newspaper Odyssey, had an enlightenment experience of cosmic unity which turned into a long ordeal of mental torment when she was unable to give it credence. In retrospect, she confessed: "That fear of losing my mind, once it was allowed to enter, grew and fed on itself until there I was, smack dab in the midst of the single most profound mystical experience of my life, and instead of feeling love and light and peace and acceptance I felt paralysed by something beyond my control." In a similar situation, a man who was experiencing highly symbolic synchronicities as a result of his awakened Kundalini simply could not believe the testimony of his own eyes. So great was the dichotomy between his experience and what he believed to be possible that he "flipped out" and had to be repeatedly hospitalized.
We can better maintain our equilibrium in the face of intense mystical and new paradigm experiences if we take the middle road, being neither excessively wary and rejecting of these revelations, nor too quick to decide that we completely grasp their meaning. Everything that happens to us is meaningful, but sometimes the significance is not what at first glance it appears to be. During a period when I was extremely psychic, some of the seemingly clairvoyant flashes that came to me later proved unfounded. At one point I thought I was getting psychic messages that my father had been killed in an automobile crash. As I write this five years later, he is alive and well, and has not been involved in any car accidents. Fortunately for me at the time, I did not immediately assume my psychic impression was correct; I took a reserved wait-and-see attitude.
I have seen people go off the deep end when they abandoned reason to embrace their nascent psychic awareness. This is apt to happen when one confuses surrendering to Kundalini (which is to say, to the inner Spirit) with relinquishing critical thought. Surrendering to an experience is allowing it to unfold completely. This is an agreement within ourselves to stop fighting against the current; it is not a form of mental collapse that turns us into vegetables. The more access we have to expanded levels of consciousness, the more crucial it becomes to balance trust and open-minded acceptance with vigilant self-honesty and responsible rationality. Keep your heart open but question everything.
Especially in the Eastern traditions, psychic manifestations are regarded with disdain, since they do not lead the seeker to the deepest revelations of Self and Cosmos. Yet even teachers who advise their followers to ignore "distracting" psychic abilities admit that at a certain stage in spiritual development, these gifts are naturally bestowed upon us. Much depends upon the attitude we take toward these abilities. The greatest danger of psi gifts is that they will distract us from the primacy of love. Bradford Keeney warns of this: "The experience of being psychic, of having precognitive dreams, and even of having healing powers are side effects of one's spiritual journey. They are not the core of what spirituality is all about. Getting attached to miracles and special powers is an example of getting trapped by what the Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa called 'spiritual materialism.' The path of spirit always follows the heart, not the hunt for personal power or magical entertainment for the psyche. When dreams are used to feed the heart, they bring us closer to spirit. As our heart becomes more filled with spirit, we are less impressed and tempted by the flash of extraordinary power."
From personal experience, I have not found psychic perception to hinder more profound levels of enlightenment.
I think parapsychologist and physicist Milan Ryzl is right in his assertion that "Once ESP becomes fully
integrated into the everyday life of each individual, only truth, honesty, respect and understanding can enter
the human relationships and solve problems in all respects of daily life." For humanity as a whole, the widespread
flowering of extrasensory awareness could be a great boon in our evolution if, as Keeney so wisely cautions, we
live from our hearts.
The Deep End
It can be especially threatening to our grip on reality to experience mythological or archetypal dramas, such as a case recounted by the Christina and Stanislav Grof, in which a woman took on an unexpected, transcendent identification with death: "All around me I could see swirling images of death: gravestones, crosses, a grinning skull and crossbones. I saw hundreds of bloody battlefields, concentration camps, and hospital wards; there were scenes of dying everywhere. I felt as though I was both reviewing and participating in all of death throughout history. And then my experience shifted and I suddenly felt as though I, whoever that was, was responsible for it all; I had become Death itself, the Grim Reaper, the Pale Horseman, and it was I who was calling humanity away from life."
Marie-Louise von Franz, who worked closely with Carl Jung for 31 years, brought up another important point: "One of the most destructive syndromes in a psychotic interval occurs when people are overwhelmed by emotional or hallucinatory experiences and cannot express them... The worst is when the thing is so overwhelming that they simply turn white and sink into bed and become catatonic. One knows they are going through the most tremendous inner experiences, but outwardly they lie in bed like a piece of wood and refuse nourishment..."
A woman whose Kundalini had risen was prone to such mentally implosions. She told me that during these episodes, she neither ate nor slept. Her eyes would become sunken, her body skeletal, and both she and others who witnessed her in this state feared she was dying.
The psychotic state can be transmuted, said von Franz, if the person "can say something about it, and can describe it even in a stammering way... then they are no longer lost and the healing process is already underway." Of course, von Franz also warns that sometimes it is not the content of the altered experience itself that is the problem, but the manner in which it is communicated. She gives the example of a woman who ran around to different psychiatrists, "accusing them all of being idiotic rationalists who do not believe in God," and then boasting of her visions. Such provocation can quickly get one medically certified as schizophrenic!
Being frozen in a noncommunicative state is not a definite indication of psychosis. Yogis, shamans, mystics, as well as those who are experiencing spontaneous spiritual emergence, are known to enter very deep trance states in which the body remains motionless for hours or days. Far from being trapped in mental chaos, these superconscious experiences can be indescribably sublime and spiritually productive. In other times and other cultures, individuals with innately passive, otherworldly natures, were recognized as born ecstatics. As such, they were valued and sheltered by family and tribe to ensure their survival. I have on occasion spoken to individuals with risen Kundalini who were in transient psychotic states. My immediate impression was that they had lost their bridge -- they were unable to recall or distinguish the gap between inner and outer, ordinary and altered realities. Talking with such people was like trying to converse with someone stuck in a dream. Therapists who are skilled at translating the symbolic language of the psyche can establish a rapport with someone caught in psychosis, although Christina and Stanislav Grof caution that this is most difficult when the psychosis is fraught with paranoia.
I met a woman undergoing Kundalini awakening who evinced a mental condition known as a borderline disorder. She devoured everyone she knew in desperately needy, engulfing relationships. When I met her, she was seeing three different therapists weekly, and was furious with them all because none of them instantly returned her frequent, middle-of-the-night telephone calls. When I finally had to tell her that I could not, as she insisted, be exclusively available to her 24 hours a day (she panicked and felt "abandoned" if I needed to use the bathroom, eat a meal or sleep), she turned against me. As is typical of the syndrome, she immediately crossed me off her "only person who understands me" list and added me to her enemy hit-list. (This was my first personal encounter with a borderline personality. Even for professionals, borderlines are hard to treat.) For most people, the dissociative states that may accompany spiritual awakening resolve of their own accord, usually in a matter of hours or days. Yet for the person suspended between dimensions, and for concerned friends and loved ones, even these brief flights into the netherworld may be a terrible eternity. The most common recommendation for reeling someone back from the edge (short of medication) is to ply them with sweets or induce them to eat red meat. These foods are biochemically grounding.
Jung discovered that one of the best ways to prevent, or ease an episode of psychosis, was to give the unstable individual a crash course in as much religion, mythology and metaphysics as possible. An altered state is much less likely to veer into psychosis when the person has a broad mental map of the territory. The following two cases of spontaneous Kundalini awakening might have brought joy rather than terror if these individuals had received adequate metaphysical/spiritual preparation: After Margo's Kundalini had spontaneously risen, she was bewildered by a sense of constant deja vu. She fell into trances easily, several times blacking out. Walking around in a world that seemed to have become a hologram, she saw halos of light around everyone and at times saw Christ in people's faces. Having never been religious, these experiences -- which would have spelled rapture to a mystic -- were a source of dread to her.
In the second case, Dana had a vision of a bandwagon full of people who seemed to be greatly enjoying themselves, but as soon as she recognized one of them as a friend who had died, she became deeply alarmed. The people on the wagon -- each one a friend or relative of hers -- tried to reassure her that they were happy and all was well, but this only frightened Dana more. She knew that they were on the wagon of death, and tried desperately to warn them and call them back, but they remained wholly unconcerned, laughing merrily. Within a year, every person Dana had seen in her vision had died from accidents or sudden illness. The loss of this many close friends and relatives would be a shock for anyone, and more so after her premonitory vision. But rather than take comfort from the message of immortality and wellbeing communicated by the people in her lucid dream, Dana became morbidly depressed and afraid of her own mind.
Someone who is familiar with the concept of the subtle body, chakras, inner light, extrasensory perception, past lives, astral entities, spirit guides, and transformational themes such as shamanic dismemberment and death/rebirth, etc., will be less likely to freak out if such experiences are encountered. While reading or hearing about such phenomena cannot wholly prepare us for the actual experiences, prior knowledge gives us an intellectual frame of reference if and when these prodigious things start to happen. The more information we have about nonordinary reality and universal rites of passage such as the Dark Night of the Soul, the less shattering these experiences are likely to be if we encounter them on our own journey. This same safeguard is found in the yogic instruction in which the initiate is provided with a sacred verse to contemplate. The verse accompanies a spiritual practice intended to open a chakra; the resultant direct experience illuminates the meaning of the verse. Vedic Scholar Joan Harrigan says this formula of theory (i.e., the map of the process), practice and experience provides a safety factor, for without the theory or archetypal map, the experience can be too overwhelming and the initiate may be in danger of falling off the path, suffering psychological harm, or becoming impeded in his/her progress.
Brugh Joy points out that all the world's esoteric schools employ a special image or symbol as an aid in centering: "The image may be that of the Buddha or of Christ or Mohammed. It may be a mandala, a dot in the center of a circle, a cross... What's important is that something be established and available for the individual to use for centering, no matter what is happening in either the outer or the inner level of Beingness."
Encountering transcendent or primal unconscious forces without the protection of such centering tools can be dangerous. As Joy says, "the psyche is blown on the winds of the Unconscious, with little hope of integration or maturation and with the great possibility of psychological injury or death."
During several weeks of my Kundalini awakening, when I was in a continuously exalted state of consciousness, I chanted "Ram" (one of the Hindu names for God) nonstop, even in my sleep. This was of tremendous help, enabling me to remain calm and reverent through many extraordinary experiences. This type of spiritual anchoring is not being taught by many who, lacking a sense of the divine nature of the energies, nevertheless teach and promote methods for awakening Kundalini.
All the traditions warn of the very real danger of losing one's way in the nonordinary realms. There can be trouble if these experiences lead to personal inflation, which is most likely to occur when crude ego-desires intrude upon psychic gifts and spiritual insights. As the spiritual teacher Arthur Osborne warned, "the more elevated a man's consciousness becomes and the more his higher potentialities are activated the more dangerous to him is a divided state of mind with desires pulling him both ways," leaving him torn between worldly and spiritual aspiration. Grandiosity and paranoia seem to team up in cases of Kundalini psychosis. In the course of his spontaneous Kundalini process, Roger began experiencing telepathy and was able to guess with uncanny accuracy which song would play next on his car radio. He became unhinged over this when he decided it meant that he was controlling the minds of the radio DJs and of the entire listening audience. Later, he believed that because he had this power, jealous demonic entities were after him. He went on a messianic crusade, trying to convince everyone that the human race was in danger of imminent demonic takeover, and that we all must arm ourselves for a world war against the evil ones.
Unfortunately, the only help Roger was given was in the form of strong antipsychotic medication, which did nothing to disabuse him of his strange ideas. At the time he contacted me, he had been locked in this peculiar mental condition for over five years, living by his own account a marginalized life of drugged sedation. Paranoid/psychotic episodes often occur when the psyche is confronted with overwhelming or frightening (to the personality) psychological or spiritual information. When her Kundalini rose, a woman who had repressed her own aggressive impulses became convinced that she was a nuclear missile pointed at what was then cold-war Russia. This hallucinated scenario cast her into hours of mental anguish, guilt and self-hatred as she wrestled with the idea that were she, as the missile, to launch, she would be morally responsible for triggering World War III and the annihilation of the world. This was a projection of her terror that if she allowed herself to express her anger, there would be devastating consequences. She now looks back upon this episode with considerable amusement.
Another person wrote to ask me for advice in helping a friend who was experiencing an array of Kundalini experiences, most disturbingly, a sense that he was being watched by someone and that his phone was tapped. He also announced that the human race was in a spiritual war against cold-hearted multinationals. I directed her to some therapists in her area who might be able to help if her friend continued to be overwhelmed by these experiences, although she told me that he had periods of lucidity when he realized he was getting carried away by his "over-active imagination," which was a healthy sign.
Her friend's sense of being under surveillence by something may have risen from his fear of intimacy and relationship -- of being closely seen and heard. He also might have been struggling with an increasing awareness of the presence of the Spirit (angels, spirit guides, intelligences from other realms and even his own Higher Self) and the understanding that none of us are alone here. This realization is joyous to some of us, but can be initially disturbing for materialist types who previously believed everyone to be totally separate and independent agents. This happened to a friend of mine who was an atheist prior to her Kundalini awakening. She became convinced that mad scientists were directing lazer beams at her and putting something in the water that was causing the energies she felt in her body, her shifts in consciousness and other Kundalini phenomena.
The friend's "spiritual war" could have been partly a projection of his inner battle between tendencies toward service/love/creativity and "cold-hearted" selfishness/violence/greed. The conspiracy idea sometimes derives from a fearful misinterpretation of the unity and divine purposefulness and interrelatedness of all creation -- the "benevolent conspiracy of life," so to speak. He may have been getting this confused with a genuine awareness of the misuses of power on earth, where profit-crazed corporations, morally bankrupt political figures, egomaniacal leaders and others who are still operating from the dying imperialist, patriarchal model, are indeed fighting to hold onto their supremacy in the face of an emerging new way of relating to life with compassion, respect and co-operation. In this sense, a "war" does exist, and the future of the world may depend on which way the majority of humans align themselves. This will not ultimately be resolved by warfare, but by a collective inner transformation of the human psyche.
I mentioned this to the woman who wrote to me, not simply to spout my philosophies, but to show that her friend
wasn't entirely nuts in his paranoid/psychotic episodes. He was trying to gain clarity on many issues that were
surfacing in his consciousness to be evaluated and integrated. Through dreams or visions, finding oneself embroiled
in, or witness to, cataclysmic battles between forces of good and evil, is an archetypal stage of spiritual development.
In actuality, this is a deep cry from the soul for reconciliation of these opposing forces within the self as
well as in the collective atmosphere. Psychiatrist John Perry has lamented the fact that American doctors have
been slow to realize that "in the particular state of consciousness we call psychotic, in its first episode,
there are images waiting to be communicated, if someone is there to listen to them. Death and birth, world destruction
and regeneration, messianic mission and program for renewed society; all of these concern both the culture in general
and the individual in particular."
"Expanding consciousness is the riskiest enterprise on earth. We endanger the status quo. We endanger our comfort. And if we do not have the nerve to resolve the ensuing conflicts, we endanger our sanity." -- Marilyn Ferguson
Altered states can be very seductive, especially because one feels immersed in something tremendous and wonderful. A powerful grounding tool (which I believe prevented me from getting lost in my altered states) is a strong attachment to someone besides yourself who would suffer a great deal by your extended absence, be it a partner, your child, your pets or your worldly work.
There were times in my own process when I felt an almost irresistible pull toward the "nagual" -- so much that it seemed if I were not resolute in my grounding to the earth plane, I might have been mentally sucked into this powerful vortex. I believe what kept me from totally succumbing to this magnetic force was a combination of grace and my bottom-line vow that I would not allow myself to be dragged so deeply into altered spaces that Charles could no longer reach me. This was a deliberate and conscious decision, made in the knowledge that by drawing my mark in the psychic sand in this way, I might be forfeiting an opportunity for more rapid evolution. Years later, reading Jung's autobiography, I discovered that he had made the same grounding choice, holding firm to his love for his family (who needed him to stay "sane") and his responsibility to his patients. He believed these commitments saved him from crossing the point of no-return in his own initiation journey. No matter how spectacular and extraordinary my experiences have been, I've always retained a clear awareness that this phenomena was of another order than the reality most people perceive. Beyond a doubt, my mental stability has been in no small part attributable to Charles' open-minded and steadfast support during all the phases of my process. He has always shown interest in my experiences, and been a rock of strength and faith in me and in Kundalini, even when other people worried about my sanity.
When we move into the Unknown, we can get ourselves into trouble if we try to drag along social rules, religious decrees, or values absorbed from other people. We are less at peril when we jettison these old programs and turn to both our instincts and our "inner guru" for guidance. This is accomplished through prayer, consecration to the wisdom of our hearts, and by being as absolutely honest as we can. If we fail to do this, even without the intensity of Kundalini whirlwinds, Joseph Campbell warns that we may be heading for disaster: "If the person insists on a certain program, and doesn't listen to the demands of his own heart, he's going to risk a schizophrenic crackup. Such a person has put himself off center. He has aligned himself with a program for life, and it's not the one the body's interested in at all. The world is full of people who have stopped listening to themselves or have listened only to their neighbors to learn what they ought to do, how they ought to behave, and what the values are that they should be living for."
Honoring our naked truths and the values honed from our own joys and sorrows is purifying. Through self-honoring
we gain independence no matter what our situation.
Coming Back to Earth
In emergencies, in some of the shamanic traditions (and in psychiatric treatments of yore), the elders (nurses/attendants) will bring the apprentice (patient) back into ordinary reality by immersing him or her in cold water. This "shock 'em back to their senses" tactic is a last resort. It is uncalled for if the initiate is not trapped in a negative state, but is enjoying a very positive peak experience. However, even ecstatic trances can be difficult to return from. In Energies of Transformation, Bonnie Greenwell presents the case of Rob, who spontaneously entered an altered state in which he says: "I felt I was passing through ... thought forms and sources of collective knowledge like the Akashic Records and Dead Sea Scrolls... I became waves of energy passing on and on past the edges of the universe."
This was at a retreat led by Brugh Joy. Greenwell says that "when Rob woke up from this experience, he found he could neither move nor speak, he had no energy and was completely immobilized." Finally, he was able to make a "hymph" sound that his roommate heard. "When touched, Rob was able to mumble "Get the others -- I need help." It took 20 minutes of hands-on energy treatment from six of Joy's assistants before Rob began to revive.
Anthropologist and shamanic healer Ruth-inge Heinz recommends calmly calling out the name of the person who is locked in a trance state. She then directs the "lost" soul back by telling the individual to "follow my voice" as she continues to speak softly until the person has revived. If no one else is around (or even if they are), prayer and requests for Spirit help are usually very effective in bringing one back into the body.
While the inability to return to (or assume conscious mastery of) the physical body is sometimes a problem after
out-of-body experiences, the opposite complaint is more common: the slightest excitement or fear propels one back
into mundane reality. In the shamanic traditions, the ability to move back and forth between altered realities
without losing one's marbles is an acquired skill. In most traditions, the purpose of inner voyages is to retrieve
superconscious material to help ourselves and others on the earth plane. Simply going further and further out
(or in) with no intent to return may be seen as catatonia or God-intoxicated mysticism, depending on your cultural
point of view. Not all psychotic states involve higher spiritual awareness, however. Even in shamanic cultures,
a distinction is made between holy-crazy people, and those who are simply deranged and insane.
And I saw the river over which evey soul must pass to reach the kingdom of heaven and the name of that river was suffering: and I saw the boat which carries souls across the river and the name of the boat was love.
The transformational process typically churns up confusion and mental disorientation. Spacing out, losing one's train of thought, and spells of memory loss may be very disturbing. Irina Tweedie described many periods when she could not think or mentally concentrate. At times, my mind was so fragmented I couldn't remember the most elemental things, such as how to dress myself or prepare food. On occasion, my mind would go blank in the middle of doing or saying something. Being ordinarily very focused, these lapses were disconcerting. In an extreme case I know of, a woman lost the ability to understand, speak or think in verbal language for nearly a year of her Kundalini awakening.
As consciousness expands, things can take on a gauzy, surreal quality. At this stage, some people have difficulty distinguishing actual incidents from dreams and psychic impressions. Other dimensions of reality may become superimposed on our perceptions of the ordinary world. One may develop a "prismatic" consciousness, in which myriad constructs of meaning are evident in everything one perceives. The information overload from these multiple levels may lead us to weird and wildly irrational behavior and ideas. We may sound incoherent and obsessional. Others may think us crazy, while to us our actions and ideas may seem perfectly appropriate. Or we may agree that we're losing our minds and be very disturbed about what is happening to us.
When her second chakra opened, a woman created a neighborhood scandal by running around trying to seduce every male in the vicinity. Ram Dass tells of Anandamayi Ma, "one of the greatest saints of all times" who, prior to her Kundalini awakening, was "a very dignified Bengali woman." Yet she spent two years of her process doing cartwheels naked in her front yard. In rare cases, people became self-destructive or threatening to others during extreme altered states, even to the point of committing suicide.
Certain stages of transformation can be devastating. Our ability to endure and recover from these episodes can depend on many factors: our innate resilience, our external support system, our attitude toward the awakening process, our genetic constitution, our karmic makeup, divine grace, etc. In my own case, prayer (both my own and other's prayers for me), and staying centered in my heart have been my lifeline. Others have told me that at the eleventh hour of their suffering, their prayers have been answered -- sometimes miraculously. Those whose beliefs prevent them from calling upon a greater power for help seem to have a more harrowing time of it -- not because their experiences are more hellish, but because they are so deeply alone with them. Yet even existential loneliness can be a significant spiritual experience.
Consuming suffering is one of Kundalini's specialties. I've known physical pain so vicious I longed for the respite of death. I've fallen into such bottomless chasms of grief it seemed I would never stop weeping. I've felt such murderous rage it seemed as if nothing could extinguish my anger, and despair so bleak I couldn't imagine ever having a shred of hope or happiness in my life again. And I have been scared to the point of abject terror. Great fear is a common reaction to the unfamiliar and overpowering experiences arising from expanded consciousness. For the individual undergoing transformation, Christina and Stanislav Grof assure us that some anxiety is appropriate. The reasons for this are many: "... not only are many of his or her familiar belief systems breaking down, but he or she has become exceedingly emotional. The body feels as though it is falling apart, with new physical stresses and bothersome pains. Much of the fear feels completely illogical, however, as it has very little to do with the person involved. Sometimes the individual in crisis can deal with various fears relatively easily, and on other occasions the feelings of fear seem to expand into utterly uncontrollable panic."
Erupting unconscious material may include frightening thoughts or horrifying images. And the seemingly unfounded, free-floating fear mentioned by the Christina and Stanislav Grof feels all the more ominous when we can't figure where it is coming from. At points I've experienced a nebulous sense of impending doom, as if something indescribably horrible was about to happen. This state is generally self-perpetuating -- one feels very uneasy, then becomes afraid of the uneasy feeling, increasing the fear, in an escalating spiral of terror. A literal or potential loss of control -- over oneself, one's environment or one's grasp of reality -- is a common Kundalini experiences that can shake us to the core.
These fears can really come out of left field. Once, late in the middle of one night, after breezing along for four years of publishing Shared Transformation, out of nowhere I got hit with a gut-freezing horror that I wouldn't be able to go on writing or editing the newsletters, leaving our hundreds of subscribers in the lurch and us in legal hot water. This was not a simple exercise in self-doubt -- I've had plenty of those. It was pure self-annihilating terror that was feeding my soul into some kind of diabolical papershredder.
The fact that there were infinitely worse problems in life than this did not escape me, but neither did it put my fear into perspective. The thing that brought me back to terra firma was a very detached and curious observation corner of my mind that watched this internal psychodrama with interest and kept saying, "Now I wonder why I never worried about this before?" It was such an ultimately funny question -- on the order of asking myself "What took me so long to go nuts?" that it had a stabilizing effect.
Trying to staunch fear by telling ourselves we shouldn't be afraid, or worse, that our fears will bring the about the very things we are afraid of, rarely works. The irony is that even if this is true, reminding ourselves of it during times of fear generally compounds the issue by making us afraid to be afraid. Sometimes we can ride out these upheavals, reminding ourselves that they are a natural, cathartic and transitory phase of the process. It helps to remember, as Assagioli says, "The nervous, emotional, and mental problems arising on the way of Self-realization, however serious they may appear, are merely temporary reactions, by-products, so to speak, of an organic process of inner growth and regeneration." Singing, chanting, walking, dancing, or involving ourselves in physical activity can discharge some of the anxious energy. Reasoning with ourselves can sometimes alleviate our fears. I remind myself that throughout my life, the things I have most feared might happen to me either never happened, or happened very differently than the way I had imagined they would. Doing anything intended as service to others can be an excellent way of rechanneling raw emotion. Various kinds of bodywork and therapy can help us release and work through underlying issues. Prayer and/or the companionship of a stable, caring friend can be of great benefit. Sometimes all we really need is a hug or a hand to hold. When we are alone, a simple remedy (although often hardest to do) is giving ourselves permission to be afraid. In 1984, when I was ricocheting with panic attacks (which I now recognize were due to a partial Kundalini awakening), I reframed my fear as a trembling, terrified creature which I carried in my arms. When I went out, I would imagine taking this "Fear-being" with me, and would mentally speak to it reassuringly as I went about my business. Creatively recasting the problem from me being afraid to my need to calm a Fear-being entrusted to my care had an immediate and salutary effect. The amazing thing is that however we do it, the more accepting we are of fear, the less we feel afraid.
Although it would seem that our spiritual lives would be easier to sustain in a world free of suffering, our fears and troubles strengthen our connection to the Spirit. The Native American holy man, Fools Crow, understood why this was so. "When life is too good," said Fools Crow, "we think too highly of ourselves and our blessings. Then we decide we are the wisest and favored ones, and we don't think we need Wakan-Tanka [the Great Spirit] and the Helpers any more."
My mother-in-law grew up on a Colorado farm, in an area where wilderness fires were a hazard, particularly for isolate rural families prior to the advent of telephones. As a child, she came to dread the sight of smoke, and this constant threat led her to pray for protection from a young age. Likewise, my own life has never allowed me a sense of worldly security on any level. For a long time, I resented my lack of a material or social safety net, but I have come to appreciate my precarious situation as my soul's way of preventing me from wandering far from the Spirit. I know full well that my fate is daily in the hands of God/Goddess.
It seems to me that much of the transformational process revolves around compassionate acceptance and trust. All of the physical, emotional and mental torments can be finally traced to these issues. Can we have faith in ourselves, faith in the cosmos, faith in our own tumultuous journeys? Each time we can answer "Yes" with every level of our being, we move a bit further, into more clarity, more peace and joy.
We go through cycles of being stripped, dissolved, disintegrated by crises and ecstasies, by darkness and light. Each time we are reduced to nothingness, we find ourselves, as Zen Buddhist Joan Tollifson has written, "beyond all these opinions and categories that we identify with and defend to the death." Sometimes, says Tollifson, we come to that place where "there's no separation anywhere, no need to keep existing, no possiblity of not existing, no need anymore to become anything."
But always we recoalesce. We come back to ourselves, familiar but changed. With each return, we discover ourselves to be both more and less than what we had thought.
Saying Yes to Kundalini, Yes to life, Yes to myself has been the key to my personal healing. I don't assume I'll be spared all pain; I don't even trust that my faith is unwavering and strong enough to sustain me through all possible ordeals. But I trust the awakening process implicitly. Something wondrous is taking place here. My heart knows this without doubt. When I look through my heart I know that the world and each one of us is amazing and wonderful. My heart has also shown me a world that is an ugly, corrupt, hostile place, teeming with atrocities that suck the very marrow from my bones. I have learned that it is not necessary or wise to supplant one of these views with the other. They are not mutually exclusive. The beauty of life cannot be increased by turning a blind eye to life's horrors, but our beauty as conscious beings multiplies the more we are willing to open our hearts in both directions. I may not completely understand what is happening or why it is happening. Yet come whatever troubles, come whatever crises to break and remake me, I know that somehow, somewhere, there is a center of unshakable, invincible love. And no matter how terrible, I know that the nightmares eventually dissolve. Love alone prevails. This is the deepest truth I know; this is the purest solace I have for myself; this is the source of the comfort I extend to others.
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© El Collie 2000