THE DARKNESS BEFORE THE DAWN
One thing that comes out in myths is that at the bottom of the abyss comes the voice of salvation. The black moment is the moment when the real message of transformation is going to come. At the darkest moment comes the light.
-- Joseph Campbell
Some parts of the spiritual journey feel as if we're lost in a wasteland, not knowing where we are or where we're going, and wondering if we're just traveling in circles. For long stretches of the journey, the quest requires great self-investment for seemingly little in return. For individuals who adhere to a particular spiritual discipline, commitment wavers during these dry spells. For those in whom the Kundalini has autonomously risen, there is no alternative, no possibility of backing out. Kundalini has Her own unstoppable momentum. At times, despite the dynamism of this Force that has reshaped our destiny, we sink into doubt. What began in fear or amazement has gone through seasons of joy, hope, disillusionment, and despair. When, we ask ourselves, does the process bear significant fruit? How long must we suffer through the daily pummeling of body and psyche?
As weeks turn into months and years, our faith in the benevolence and guiding presence of the Spirit is sorely tested. Radiant gifts of bliss, beauty and unmistakable blessing are overshadowed by long sieges of pain, torment and physical/emotional depletion. Even if we want to surrender to the workings of the process, often we do not know how.
Charles Breaux says that after an initial six months of "incredible 'peak experience,' the dross began spewing out" into his external life. He wrote: "These last seven years have been one intense drama after another, the deepest and darkest karmic patterns within me have been relentlessly quickened by the power of Kundalini." At the end of his book Journey into Consciousness, he confesses that he continues to wonder if the necessity for letting go will ever cease.
Kundalini can give us wings to transcend the pettiness of the world, then plunge us into the depths, daring us to find the treasure buried there as well. In the beginning, when the Kundalini is moving upwards, Dr. R.P. Kaushik said "it is a negative force -- it is destructive. It destroys all your attachments, all your material possessions; it is destroying everything," which can lead to "a dissatisfaction with everything you have." Kaushik notes that such feelings of frustration and desperation intensify as the energy works to clear through the six and seventh centers. "The yogis have described this movement in a beautiful language," he continues: "The serpent, when it awakens, starts devouring and eating everything that is in its way. When it has gone to the crown center, then from there it descends downwards, as a creative force -- the descending triangle or the Shakti triangle. This is the positive movement..." (from The Ultimate Transformation)
Spells of depression are a common feature of the transformational journey. I am, in fact, in a funk as I write this. At times I doubt the value of writing anything for this site and question the benefits of Kundalini. From where I sit at this moment, it seems as if years of the process -- and of my life in general, for that matter -- have been little more than an endurance test.
In The Stormy Search for the Self, Christina and Stanislav Grof describe it well:
"Not only do those facing such an existential crisis feel isolated, but they also feel insignificant, like useless specks in a vast cosmos. The universe itself appears to be absurd and pointless, and any human activities seem trivial. Such people may see humankind as being involved in a rat-race existence that has no useful purpose. From this vantage point, they cannot see any kind of cosmic order and have no contact with a spiritual force. They may become extremely depressed, despairing, and even suicidal. Frequently, they have the insight that even suicide is no solution; it seems there is no way out of their misery."
For many of us, the splendor of spiritual awakening has been comparatively short-lived while the time spent suspended in pain seems interminable. Yet this is the nature of the shamanic path. Of the countless interviews and autobiographies I've read, the two most repeated words to issue from the mouths of shamans are "spirit" and "suffering."
Give me everything mangled and bruised,
And I will make a light of it to make you weep.
And we will have rain,
And begin again.
-- Deena Metzger, Leavings
A woman experiencing a lengthy Kundalini awakening told me of a period where she was having frequent nightmares from which she awoke screaming. All these terrible dreams had the same theme: "they" were hacking her to pieces. Eventually, these dreams began to change, and instead of being chopped up, dream figures were putting her back together in a way that made her -- like the Bionic man -- "better and stronger" than ever before.
This is a shamanic dismemberment experience, a symbolic transformational drama which has been recognized in the wisdom traditions from time immemorial. In Sumerian mythology, Inanna was a sky goddess who had to pass through seven gates of the underworld, each time being stripped of deeper parts of her being until she was naked and lifeless. In the book, Shaman's Path, Rowena Pattee describes the Egyptian enactment of this drama in the myth of Osiris, the pharaoh who was slain, dismembered and supernaturally resurrected to conceive his son Horus. In the Greek mystery religions, Pattee says that "Dionysus was torn to pieces by the Titans while his heart was rescued by Athena, goddess of wisdom, suggestive of the wisdom born of the dismemberment experience."
In these ancient stories, something magnificent and creatively abundant occurs after the original being is broken apart. These myths infer that all creation is the result of a single divine Self which has been sacrificially fragmented. The Inuit Indians of the Arctic celebrate Takanakapsaluk, the dismembered goddess whose severed parts form all the creatures of the sea. And in pre-Aztec religion, the earth itself was created out of the dismembered parts of the goddess Tlalteuctli. As the myth goes, ever since she was torn apart and turned into the earth, Tlalteuctli she has wept and cannot be consoled accept through the "blood" of torn open (i.e., spiritually consecrated) human hearts. "To sacrifice our hearts," says Kate Duff, "is not to give ourselves away, but to keep ourselves true, by freeing our hearts from distraction and realigning ourselves with our appointed destinies. Ironically, we often find our true selves, and engage our souls, when our hearts are broken, bleeding or sacrificed." (from The Alchemy of Illness)
Those of us who are being transformed may have graphic dreams or visions of being brutally cut up or torn apart. This phase may be preceded (or accompanied) by visions or dreams of catastrophic disasters, such as earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, nuclear holocaust, etc. Our primordial fears are triggered by these scenarios. Unfortunately, some of us also have literal dismemberment experiences when the Kundalini is purifying our bodies and psyches. Our bones, joints, vertebrae, internal organs, eyes or other parts of the body may be gravely affected by the process. Serious injuries or diseases may occur which seem to be permanently destroying us.
Our very survival seems to hang by a thread. Kundalini researcher Tontyn Hopman reminds us that "awakening encompasses both the state of being in harmony with the Tao and the knife-edged path with its violent purifications and sudden, catastrophic perils." The dangers of the path are not illusory, he tells us: "Everything may really be at stake... The Spirit knows no half measures or lukewarm adjustments. How else could a person be transformed except through the most intense experiences?"
Anyone who has suffered a serious illness knows what a nightmare long term disability and chronic pain can be. In some cases, other personal crises such as deaths of family members or friends -- which sometimes occur in uncanny clusters around the individual with risen Kundalini -- are the hardest part of the process. Sickness, injuries, and loss of loved ones are human ordeals that eventually confront us all, no matter what our Kundalini status may be. But it does seem that the risen Kundalini increases the likelihood of crisis in our lives. The Shakti Goddess will utilize everything possible to shake us up, break us open and pare us down, casting off everything we thought we had or knew or were.
Says Holger Kalweit:
"Many shamans were critically ill, socially unacceptable, and psychically confused over periods of several years; during their time of suffering their body and psyche adjusted themselves to an alternate mode of perception. This continuous biopsychic process of transformation often culminates in experiences of dismemberment, which represent the zenith and turning point of inner change toward a spiritual state of being." (from Dreamtime & Inner Space)
At its deepest level, the dismemberment experience dismantles our old identity. It is a powerful death and rebirth process. The experience of being stripped to bone forces us to examine the bare essence of what we are. The divestment of everything superfluous is a fierce teaching. We learn what is truly important and what is nonessential to our physical, emotional, mental and spiritual survival. Loss impresses upon us the temporal nature of life. Especially if we are ill, we are forced to let go of things precious to us. These sacrifices, says Kate Duff, may take the form of "our savings, marriage, mobility, or pride, even our own flesh and blood." Through these losses, "we are reminded that nothing lasts forever or belongs to us; everything comes from and returns to an original source."
In the most intense phases of transformation, we may be so disoriented or physically ill that we need to be helped with even our most personal needs. There have been periods in my process when simply crossing a room felt like scaling Mt. Olympias. A psychic I consulted when I was having a hard time with Kundalini symptoms insisted that I "get a business card" and immediately set myself up as a healer. You've got to be kidding, I thought. In the shape I was in, I wouldn't have been able to hold a job as a paperweight.
A more spiritual way of looking at the situation is expressed by the meditation teacher, Shinzen Young:
"If Nature (or 'God') has given you so much pain that you cannot do anything else other than be with it, then there is a message here: you are not expected to be doing anything else! In other words, spending time -- even long periods of time -- just feeling pain is a legitimate calling in the eyes of God and Nature. Assuming that you are making at least some effort to purify and evolve consciousness by being with pain in a skillful way, you are engaged in productive and meaningful work." (from Break Through Pain)
Young goes on to say that not only is this inner work valuable for us as individuals; it is also a psychic contribution to the rest of the world:
"...whenever a person does something, it makes it easier for others to do that thing, even though the others may have no direct contact with or even knowledge of the original person's work... According to this theory, a person isolated and cut off from contacts, who is working to purify through pain, is in some way making it easier to all other sufferers in the world to do the same; a worthwhile and meaningful job indeed!"
With this understanding, Young encourages us to "sacramentalize" our pain by regarding it "as a kind of imposed monastery or sacred ceremony."
Anthropologist and mystic Felicitas D. Goodman notes that Siberian shamans regarded dismemberment as an essential phase of initiation for healers. To her surprise, Goodman discovered that this archetype seems universal. In her trance work with Westerners, those who had spontaneous dismemberment visions were invariably destined to become various kinds of healers.
The world around us falling apart in times of crisis parallels the psychological fragmentation which already exists within us. "One of the major themes in the literature on the transformation of consciousness is the notion that the disjointed, separated, fragmented parts of the psyche can be and need to be synthesized into a harmonious, integrated whole," Ralph Metzner reminds us. Often it isn't until our life is in shambles that we become aware of the parts of ourselves which have become dispossessed. "In the core of our being we are singular and unified; at the surface of our interactions with the world, we are multiple and dispersed," says Metzner. "In transformation we seek to recover that original unity." (from The Unfolding Self)
This is precisely the task of shaman, as Joan Halifax explains:
"The shaman is a healed healer who has retrieved the broken pieces of his or her body and psyche and, through a personal rite of transformation, has integrated many planes of life experience: the body and the spirit, the ordinary and nonordinary, the individual and the community, nature and supernature, the mythic and the historical, the past, the present and the future." (from Shamanic Voices)
Completing this restorative rite is serious business for the soul. Says Kalweit:
"The lonely struggle with the forces of nature, during which one is at their mercy for better or worse, is a requirement of shamanic training, because only when the apprentice becomes aware of his smallness and helplessness, when he becomes modest and humble, can his spirit blend with these tremendous forces. An awareness of the interwoven mystical unity of nature is an essential experience during initiation of of the shamanic view of the world in general."
"The cure for dismemberment," says Metzner, "is re-membering: remembering who we actually are." As Halifax puts it: "To bring back to an original state that which was in primordial times whole and is now broken and dismembered is not only an act of unification but also a divine remembrance of a time when a complete reality existed."
The positive side of the dismemberment experience is that it eventually leads to a "resurrection" -- a higher state of spiritual development. The darkness which had seemed endless and impenetrable is at long last revealed to be simply a very hard passage -- the proverbial tunnel, at the end of which is a beautiful, welcoming light.
The Long Haul
All of this wisdom evaporates pretty fast when one is suffering. Yet I've noticed that my darkest periods frequently precede a breakthrough of some sort. They seem to be a means of emptying me so something new can fill my cup. A longing for death can mean that we are approaching a turning point. We have reached a place of nothingness which seems barren but is in actuality a realm of dormancy, a wintering of the soul without which there can be no spring. "Right before a change, we encounter all our obstacles to that change," counsels Caroline Casey. "This is known as a `sunset effect': as the pattern goes down, it glows most vividly." (from Making the Gods Work for You)
Everything that lives follows its own internal rhythms of growth and decline. The Kundalini process also develops in cycles of expansion and contraction. The state of expansion may give us a taste of the eternal, but we're not home free. As Roberto Assagioli says:
"Such an exalted state lasts for varying periods, but it is bound to cease... The inflow of light and love is rhythmical as is everything in the universe. After a while it diminishes or ceases and the flood is followed by the ebb." (from Psychosynthesis)
It can help to understand that the first stage of any transformational process is chaos. Things blow up, fall apart, go berserk. In alchemy, this chaotic phase is referred to as the prima materia which forms the basis of the work which will eventually produce the "gold" -- the desired outcome (or spiritual treasure). "The prima materia is in a state of conflict all the time," astrologer Liz Greene explains, "blind, potent, undirected, but full of raw power and constantly embattled." (from Dynamics of the Unconscious)
When we find ourselves in this initial phase of transformation, everything is precarious. The old anchors and safety nets no longer hold. We feel confused, miserable, hopeless. Cultures more attuned to the cycles of nature regarded adversity as a possibility for growth. The Chinese word for crisis is wei-chi, meaning a perilous opportunity.
Often, the more radical the transformation, the more severe the crisis which precedes it. Shamans and spiritual teachers have long understood this principle: the greater the initiation crisis, the greater the potential for beneficial growth. As Z. Budapest puts it: "Turmoil is fertile soil necessary for the soul to find eternal wisdom, insights, and eventual peace of mind." Of course, there are no guarantees. Initiation is never totally predictable or safe. The glamorous idea that Kundalini initiation is an internal refuge of bliss is quite misleading. More often, as Alice Bailey warned, our initiations are expensive rites of passage, bringing upon us "increasing work and increasing responsibility."
"Lest we have considered difficulties and darknesses for too long and become a little dismayed," advises Michal Eastcott, "let us remind our selves that the truth of this promise is always before us every night -- it is then, in the darkness, that we see the stars." (from I : The Story of the Self)
In Fire in the Soul, Joan Borysenko says that "crisis resolves in one of three ways." The ordeal may end when "we slowly put ourselves back together again and life goes on in the same overtly or vaguely unsatisfactory way that it did before," or "we become so terrified, agitated or depressed that we commit suicide or stay in the desert of mental illness; or we come out transformed, emerging with a new strength, wisdom and vision."
This third and most healing possibility is the great alchemical "secret." On the heels of chaos comes a developmental restructuring. This is paralleled in Nobel Prize winner Ilya Prigogine's discovery that large perturbations of energy cause living systems to fall apart, then re-coalesce in a more elegant order. "First destruction, then creation -- this is the way of the Goddess, the Shakti," says Vicki Noble. "The fire burns through the old structures, eradicating them, transmuting their energies to a higher vibrational level." (from Shakti Woman). Or, as Deepak Chopra expresses it, "...life shows itself as a miracle of renewal. All the order that dissolves into chaos comes back as another kind of order." But this new pattern is rarely apparent immediately; more often, it comes into being in fits and starts. We begin to notice something shifting in our perception and response to life. Some of these changes are dramatic and extraordinary; some are more subtle and vaguely familiar, as though lost or atrophied parts of ourselves are reemerging.
Sometimes our initiation is one of joyful expansion, heralded by a sense of soul-elating freedom. Feelings are intense and we are hyper-energized, immersed in sublime experiences and soul-nurishing realizations. Although we may be soaring out of control, we have no doubt that we're in flight. There is a breathtaking sense of being swept into the numinous, carried aloft by fantastic forces. In the expansion stage, particularly in an intense Kundalini awakening, the manifestations are so powerful that we are ripped away from our ordinary concerns. In the contraction stage, we may feel more grounded, but so also may our usual fears and troubles come flooding back, often amplified because we may be in a worse predicament than before the process began. It may seem like we've made no progress at all. We may feel ourselves physically or mentally deteriorating in a terrifying way, and fear that we've fallen from grace as well.
Whether it comes on like a sudden crash or takes hold more gradually, contraction has an anticlimactic tone. Things seem to fall into a state of decline. If the expansion state seemed fraught with significance, the contraction phase may be characterized by oppressive meaninglessness. We may still feel the spiritual process at work within us, but now the dazzling perks are gone. No more epiphanies, no more beautiful visitations, no amazing signs of divine intervention.
Depression deepens into despair as we watch the magic of our recent transcendent experiences slipping into a self-doubting fog. Like a little child checking the mirror every day to see if he has grown, we keep taking inventory of our condition, searching for any positive changes. The whole thing may seem like some kind of cosmic joke on us. We may begin to seriously question if we are truly in a transformational process at all. Are we hopeless cases, beyond redemption? Has something gone sour with the process itself?
The expansion stages are generally shorter than the contracted states which may seem to drag on forever. But this is also the natural rhythm. As the contraction stage continues to pull us lower and lower, we can easily feel as if we are "losing it." Our past conditioning and the opinions of those around us may work very much against us in this phase. Such painful experiences are roundly condemned, as Marc Ian Barasch observes, "in a culture that celebrates surfaces, speed, and success... We try at all costs to resist our descent, because we believe that once we hit bottom, there will be no return." (from The Healing Path) But if we allow ourselves to be drawn into this dark chasm, at the very nadir of futility and anguish, the process shifts once more.
After wrestling through a personal health ordeal that included two bouts with cancer, Paul Pearsall concluded: "Having gone through my own best and worst times, I am convinced that there is an order in our living, and like the matter and antimatter or the quantum world, for every magic moment of insight and celebration, there are 'antimoments' of pain and fear." (from Making Miracles) "The law of chaotic order" says Pearsall, "suggests that chaos -- the actual process of disorder -- is healthy in and of itself. The universe is not a beautiful balance; it is a chaotic miracle." With this in mind, he remarks that "We can live our life in dread of future problems, or we can accept the fact that we could not exist if we were not, like all of the cosmos, in the process of constant change and remember that the definition of the word dread is not only "fear and apprehension" but also "deep awe and reverence."
External crises and their emotional counterparts often serve to release us from everything which prevents us from living authentically. Remember Pavlov and the dogs he trained to salivate at the sound of a bell? When his laboratory was destroyed in a flood, none of the surviving dogs retained their conditioning!
"When our souls are on fire," says Joan Borysenko, "old beliefs and opinions can be consumed, bringing us closer to our essential nature and to the heart of healing." At last, new ways of thinking, perceiving, relating, responding and being take shape from our very core. As Elizabeth Kubler-Ross puts it, we emerge "polished" from the "tumbler" of our ordeals. And as long as we are incarnate on this planet, we will continue this process of spiritual refinement. At intervals, the entire cycle begins again, dissolving and re-crystallizing, waxing and waning. We are being inwardly tempered. It can help to remember this when we find ourselves in the more difficult parts of the process. It's all necessary, it's all purposeful.
Transformation isn't an easy, lightning flash switch. That's why awakening is called a journey -- it takes time to reach the destination. There will be many challenging times ahead of us. Our souls and our faith will be tested. The resultant suffering is part of the universal curriculum. "Adversity marks the history of all the saints and world-servers, and the story of Job is proverbial, wrote Michal Eastcott. "Yet still, when we come under the shadow of these periods, we are apt to forget they are part of the communion of saints, and are a necessary time of preparation and building of fortitude..."
"The active germination of a growth process often takes place at the low, seemingly negative, phases of a psychological cycle," says psychologist Ira Progoff. "Thus, at the very time when the most constructive developments are taking place within a person, his outer appearance may be depressed, confused, and even disturbed."
Our understanding of this process can help us better cope with our experiences. "The birth and characteristics of the new self are determined in large part by the stories we tell ourselves about why the time of darkness has come," says Joan Borysenko. "If we have a strong belief that our suffering is in the service of growth, dark night experiences can lead us to depths of psychological and spiritual healing and revelation that we literally could not have dreamed of and that are difficult to describe in words without sounding trite."
The Buddhists have long understood the art of embracing the vicissitudes of life as just part of the ongoing parade. Says Tarthang Tulka:
"Learning to 'flow' with our experience gives us true stability and freedom. When we discover change as the real nature of existence, our old conception of the world seems dwarfed and limited. Our world comes alive; we are whole again. A new reality emerges from the old, like a phoenix out of fire." (from Openness Mind)
Rachel Naomi Remen comments upon the paradoxical truth that "The less we are attached to life, the more alive we can become." In letting go of what we thought we couldn't live without, we become more deeply able to participate in life. This is not to say that we will all live happily ever after. "Waking up entails remembering your whole self in the midst of trance states and problems and making sense out of them," Arnold Mindell reminds us. "It does not mean being without problems."
In his book Imagick, Ted Andrews correlates the Kundalini process with what he calls the "13th Path" of the Qabalistic tradition. In the Tarot, he relates it to the archetype of the High Priestess. "It is a bittersweet path," he warns, and one that presents us with "a tremendous test of faith." On this path (which is also called "Gateway to Knowledge"), after being divested of all nonessentials and overcoming our karmic obstacles, we are able to discover our deepest truths. "This is the path of the final dark night of the soul journey," says Andrews. "It is here that we have the opportunity to awaken our strongest intuition and ... to impregnate ourselves with the light and love of the divine!"