Branded by the Spirit

Chapter 3

Lightning Strikes

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, 1965

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.

After I settled in with my present husband, Charles, although my life was better than it had been in quite awhile, I was vaguely dissatisfied with myself, and sometimes remarked to him that I wanted "a brain and body transplant." (This private joke has come back to haunt me many times over. I've learned to be a lot more careful what I ask for, even in jest.)

When my Kundalini first erupted, 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 the tight bud of human consciousness. I'd explored innumerable spiritual/metaphysical avenues, but never with the desire or intent of activating Kundalini. Yet some part of me seemed to have known this was coming. For instance, while my tastes run to the unusual, I surprised even myself when, just prior to our wedding, I'd bought a prophetic gift for us at a street fair -- a bronze casting of a cobra raised to strike!

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 later discovered this is a common dilemma for those in whom the Kundalini symptoms are primarily physical). 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 attempts. 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 a nightmare. But in the past, aside from the craving to smoke, the worst of the physical symptoms began to fade after a week. Much of my distress came from being so alone in my predicament. Had I been able to find another soul who shared some of these uncanny gifts, I may have been able to handle them with more aplomb. As it was, I learned quickly that trying to talk to anyone about these things provoked skepticism, fear or frustrating misunderstandings. True to form, establishing consonant relationships was of far more importance to me than being a species unto myself with weird powers. For the record, the criteria for spiritual progress are quite different than generally imagined. One does not have to be a paragon of virtue or perfection. I have heard from people who were alcoholics when their Kundalini rose, and from many whose real or imagined shortcomings pressed them to ask, "How can I be worthy of this? Why me?" When the same question rose up from my depths, a voice of quiet conviction answered simply: Because you were ready.

Alarming Symptoms

The sicknesses that arise as a result of a calling are surely the highest form of illness -- a sacred illness which by its power makes it possible for mystical and metaphysical insights to arise... this frequently happens without regard to the feelings and wishes of the chosen one, who, in most cases, is not aware of the fact that his body is undergoing an initiation. -- Holger Kalweit

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, Charles 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 convulsive, 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.

I returned post haste to the doctor. Now my symptoms were attributed to severe nicotine withdrawal, which I could not believe. 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 Charles 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 this sounded extreme, but felt he could help me by tailoring my hypnosis session to include messages of well being 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 Charles and I were getting frantic. Off to another doctor. 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 enervating day at the hospital, a package was awaiting me in the mail. A month earlier, I had sent my first completed book manuscript to my first 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 whether to publish my book or another one on baby massage. The market looked ripe for baby-topics that year, so my book got the ax. 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! It was a metaphysical gust of hot air with a few gems of insight plastered in. 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.

The one good thing that came out of this was my editor's suggestion that I tone down the exclamation marks. I'd been running several exclamation marks to a paragraph. I think I was being symbolically warned to calm down, take some deep breaths, rest up while I had a chance. Something was bearing down on me that would turn the rest of my life into one long string of exclamation marks.

Under the circumstances, rest did not come easy, and if I had known how much worse things were going to get before they got better, I would have thrown myself off a bridge. Prayer was becoming the order of the day.

I was in and out of the hospital for more tests 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 like toothpicks stabbing into my eyeballs.

All the medical tests came up negative. A dozen doctors, four of them neurologists, had seen me, all told. I was repeatedly informed that I was "an interesting case" -- from the mouths of physicians, an ominous euphemism meaning, "We've never seen a disease quite like this."

During this span of ever increasing disability and bizarre symptoms, I was doing some metaphysical counseling by phone. I use the word "metaphysical" loosely, as I was not adhering to any particular creed. Basically, I helped people bring a larger, more spiritual perspective to their problems. I never charged money for this work. I considered it an ongoing learning experience to be invited into the details and depths of other people's lives. It surprised me when I was sought out for my natural ability to do this. Strangers would somehow sense this faculty in me and approach me at parties or other unexpected places and pour out their troubles to me.

At the time, I was counseling a man who was calling me daily. Although I had reached a point where I could barely hold the phone, and had to lay down with it cradled to my ear, helping him deal with his suicidal depression was also salvation for me. His desperation took my mind away from my own condition at a time when nothing less gripping could have held my attention. What was interesting about this, in retrospect, was that at one point I suggested to this man that he might be experiencing spiritual emergence, though it had not dawned on me that this might apply to my situation as well.

One afternoon, thinking he might be able to heal me, my brother-in-law dropped by. He is an acupressurist with innate psychic sensitivity. As soon as he walked in, he became very agitated. 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!

Charles and I didn't know what to make of this. We briefly considered I might be possessed by some kind of malevolent entity. But in my previous experience with astral beings, I knew that animals, plants and children were most immediately affected by negative influences. Our pets and houseplants seemed to be in fine shape. My brother-in-law's kids had come by with him, and while he was trying to do some energy balancing work on me, we'd given them paper and crayons to keep them happily occupied. After they left, I scrutinized the pictures they had drawn to see if there was anything-sinister coming through. Both had drawn jubilant nature scenes, resplendent with child-scrawled greenery, birds and shining suns. At the time, I wondered if the charged atmosphere Charles' brother detected had something to do with the many people who were praying for my recovery. What else could account for the immense energy he had felt radiating from me?

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. Like 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..."

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. Charles 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. I was in a continuous, radically altered state for months, suspended in an etheric, oceanic energy. In Kundalini, I was immolated. My entire being became a transparency, a gossamer presence no longer identified as flesh and bones, existing as a galvanized consciousness in the midst of primordial, sacred 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. I understood with unprecedented depth and clarity why everything I had ever done or experienced had been necessary. I was transported to a place of lucidity that transcended forgiveness; no shard of regret, past or present, could lodge in my heart. With nigh supernatural acceptance, I saw that everything made perfect sense; everything had been scripted by a breathtakingly benevolent, incomprehensible Intelligence whose work -- my life -- I could only behold with 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 Charles 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 Charles 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 a geyser. It was both terrible and hilarious. Charles 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.

Spectacular lights greeted me, 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 Charles touched me, he got a shock but I didn't feel one.) 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 and are so phenomenal I am devoting Chapter Four to describing them in detail. 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 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

During this same period, a series of synchronicities led me to Kundalini literature that was describing my strange symptoms. 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." It doesn't hit everyone this strongly. In six months time, I'd been hurled on a roller coaster of physical and emotional shocks. From the grief and terror of thinking my life was coming to an abrupt end, I was thrown into the equally awesome realization that I was in the midst of a monumental spiritual process. My mind ricocheted from fear to relief; from hopelessness to amazement. Wrestling with a tremendous sense of unworthiness, I was simultaneously shaken by how decisively this experience was sealing my fate as a social outcast. (It is one thing to choose -- or imagine one has choice -- to be a nonconformist. It is another to be given to know and live a reality that few people can conceive possible.)

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 near continual basis. For all its intensity, I knew a Kundalini awakening was considered a great spiritual gift, which led, ultimately, to deep inner healing. Foremost of all my reactions was an almost instant trust in the process. This was (and still is) a potent experience for me. I had never before fully trusted anyone or anything.

Deep into this process, 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 clear vehicle for this incredible surging energy. My heart is so full." With the fusion of fear and love the ancients called "awe," I gave myself to Kundalini. I loved Her with the passion moths feel for the flame; with the allegiance drowned sailors feel for the sea. Because I had been told in childhood that I had no voice for singing, I never sing unless I'm so giddy with happiness I can't contain myself. When my children were babies, I sang to them. And during the most spectacular months of my awakening, I sang to Kundalini-Ma.

It is easier to describe the physical symptoms than the complex mental, emotional and spiritual permutations of this 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. It certainly hasn't been an easy or gentle process, and when the pain is intense, I beg for mercy. But when it lessens, I find myself willing to go deeper, to search further, and to do more of whatever is required of me to complete this work. So much of the untouchable loneliness and fragmentation I've carried with me my entire life is melting away. Before all this began, I'd assumed I was moving downhill, into the latter stages of my life... that I'd done and experienced everything available to me in this lifetime, fearing the rest would be a series of dull reruns. Now everything has been "made new." No wonder this is called the rebirth.

We Are Magical

What was and continues to be as great a marvel to me as my Kundalini odyssey is Charles. He is the most open-minded, steadfast and spiritually attuned human being I have ever known; that he is also my husband is a miracle for which I daily give thanks. Had our roles been reversed and he had been the one on this careening course of illness and phantasmagoric initiation, I don't know if I could have stood by him with one-tenth the faith and fearlessness he has evinced nearly every inch of the way. His trust in Kundalini runs as deep or deeper than my own, a fact that has been sustaining for us both throughout this lengthy journey. Once, during the period when unexpected things were constantly happening, I warned Charles that I felt something weird was about to break loose. Some kind of force was thrusting up from my solar plexus toward my throat. I thought for an instant the "something" would be a scream, and I didn't want to alarm him. The suspense broke as an involuntary sound escaped my lips; to my astonishment, it was a deeply resonant "Om." As wave upon wave of this force sounded "Om" through my vocal cords, I became a living trumpet played by the gods. Amazed as I was by this, I was doubly moved when Charles responded by voluntarily chanting along with me.

Through every twist and turn of this prodigious journey, he has been at my side. I'm not saying there have been no trying times, or that he's never grown weary. The stress on us both has been enormous. Yet with remarkable resilience, Charles always manages to pull through. I doubt anyone else I have ever known would have been able to endure what he has gone through with me with so much grace, love and courage.

Gopi Krishna credited his beloved wife for keeping him alive through his own arduous decades of Kundalini awakening. Krishnamurti's friends kept loyal vigil with him throughout the tumultuous years of his process. The Spiritual Emergence Network founder Christina Grof has thanked her husband Stan, whose faith in her and in the process itself saw her through her 12-year transformation.

When people stick together through thick and thin under circumstances as challenging as this, their spiritual growth skyrockets far beyond what anyone could hope to attain alone. To us, it's obvious that Charles and I are both apprenticed to Kundalini. I'm just the more direct target of this ineffable process, which is transforming us both.

There is an insidious 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 could not have been more awed if I had opened my door to find the streets filled with angels announcing the Second Coming. Although I have gone through periods of extreme pain and have in many ways had my world turned inside out by the fierce Shakti Goddess, I am grateful that Kundalini has come alive in me. The wonders of this process have renewed my faith not only in the Spirit, but also gives me hope for the human race and for the future of this blue jewel of a planet.

The miraculous is always ready and waiting for us to be willing to move into it. The universe is far more magical and amazing than we have dared to imagine. Which is to say, we are magical and amazing too! That is one thing that kept repeating over and over in my head during the peak of my Kundalini experiences: We have underestimated ourselves so terribly! And we have underestimated the glory of the Universe that interconnects us.