|Focus on Kundalini
An East-West Experience
An Interview with Philip St. Romain on Kundalini Energy and Christian Spirituality
Christian Spirituality and Kundalini Energy
Focus on kundalini: Here we focus on the much talked about Hindu notion of kundalini. What does it have to do with Christian spirituality? The word kundalini has appeared a number of times in previous newsletters in a somewhat general and undefined way in order to describe various upheavals of psychic energy. This prompted one Christian Prayer and Contemplation Forum member to write:
I am not happy with your indiscriminate use of the word kundalini. This word has a history and a background. It is the serpent power that lies dormant at the base of the spine and can be awakened. It is related to sexual energy. It is a mysterious power. I am not sure that it is a good idea for a Christian who begins to experience energy (and I know what it is like and experience it myself) to immediately call it kundalini. Is it not enough to call it energy? And then we can begin to dialogue with kundalini. There is a lot of energy and light and fire in St. John of the Cross. I would not call it kundalini.
Something similar can be said about Zen. If a Christian practices Zen under a recognized teacher, then he or she can claim to be practicing Zen. But for anyone who sits in the lotus in absence of thought - for such a one to say that he or she is practicing Zen is not a good idea. The Zen people don't like it. And perhaps (though I cannot state this dogmatically) the kundalini people would not like us to claim that our kundalini is awakened. Is it not better to stick with dialogue until we find out what is what?
Fair enough. Let's try to get a better idea of just what kundalini is and how it relates to Christianity. Our first contribution comes from a Forum member who experienced an awakening of kundalini energy before becoming a Christian, and has spent a great deal of energy searching the world for information on how to cope with this awakening.
An East-West Experience: In 1969, when I was initiated into transcendental meditation, I felt tremendous peace and heard a soft snapping sound in the crown of my head. I now believe this was a knock at the door through which kundalini would eventually enter into my life.
A little over a year later, and a serious of unusual inner experiences, an unimaginably brilliant white light burst upon my being. I was startled and sensed I was on the verge of merging with the universe and leaving behind forever everything in the world near and dear to me. I jolted out of the meditative state and, trembling, phoned the local TM center. I made an appointment that day to see a TM teacher with the hope of finding some answers for what was to me an otherworldly and confusing occurrence.
When I arrived at the center I described what had happened to me to the teacher. "That's nothing, just celestial perception," he said. Inwardly I had to laugh. Here I was having had the most astounding spiritual experience of my life and he says, "That's nothing, just celestial perception." Looking back this was probably the best response I could have received; it dismissed the anxiety and reduced the awesome encounter into merely a glimpse into the heavens.
The next day, which in the midst of activity, kundalini energy began to stream slowly up into the crown of my head as it had in the past during meditation, and as I closed my eyes at night before falling asleep. In the following days it flowed up continuously. I knew I had reached a point of no return - I felt I was entering into a permanent state of higher consciousness. It was a little unnerving, yet at the same time extremely exciting.
With the passing of a few years, many of the advantages of kundalini flowered in the garden of my spirituality. I often had sensations of almost unbearable joy. Peace beyond belief sometimes seeped into my awareness. On occasion, expansions in consciousness seemed to reveal "the heaven within." Along with these enjoyable, but fleeting experiences disadvantages began to emerge: when I attempted to do extensive reading or studying, too much of the current would build up in my head, causing me to awaken throughout the night and be exhausted during the day. Physical exercises done daily had the same effect. I also had to drop out of college due to overpowering amounts of the energy surging into my head from all the necessary hours of reading and concentration to complete the courses. Had I attempted to persist, the relentless intensity of the energy would have led to a mental breakdown.
I was deeply disappointed at this unexpected turn of events. It ran contrary to all I had read and been told about meditation enlarging the capabilities of the mind. In my case it had stunted my intellectual growth and the opportunities higher education could have afforded me.
After 20 years of meditation, and no cure for my kundalini condition, I left TM and took initiation with a highly respected guru, Dr. Rammurtimishra, who had helped people with kundalini problems. I had some extraordinary spiritual experiences under his guidance and, for a while, the upward flow appeared to be balanced, but after 2 months away from him, the problems resurfaced. If I had been able to visit him on a weekly basis, the current may have remained stable, but this was not possible.
Two years went by and after a never-ending plane flight, I started wondering what would happen to me when I died. Who or what would be there for me? I began to long for the comfort of a personal relationship with God as opposed to seeking oneness with an impersonal being. I was also disturbed at the increasing accounts of prominent gurus in America sexually abusing their students. I had read the spiritual histories of some of these adepts and by their inner experiences, they seemed to have attained full enlightenment - a state where according to their scriptures, "sin would avoid an enlightened being as deer would avoid a burning mountain top." At this time I read books by Christians (Death of a Guru, Lord of the Air, etc.) which reinforced my discontent and introduced me to the Lord of Love.
In some of these Christian writings, I read of people steeped in Eastern mystical experiences who, upon conversion to Christianity, had all the effects of their practices delivered out of their minds and bodies by the power of the risen Christ. I began to believe Christ would do this for me, and the thought of meeting him one day at the doorway of death touched me in the deepest recesses of my heart. A devotion I did not think I was capable of began to grow and blossom within me. It grew so strong and undeniable that one day I fell to my knees, confessed my sins, and invited Jesus Christ into my heart. I did not feel His presence; there were no "celestial perceptions." I just felt elated and in the caring hands of a loving God.
I ceased my Hindu meditation practices; attended Church; read the Bible, and prayed daily. Although the conversion had not removed the kundalini energy, I had faith Christ would take it away in time.
This was not to be. Prayer began to activate the energy. Reading the Bible intensified it like reading the writings of spiritual masters whose subtle energies flow out of their written words. This was incomprehensible to me. From what I had read in the Christian literature, I expected reading the Bible would either quiet down the current or have no effect on it. Instead, it increased it to such a degree that daily Bible reading became impossible - too much energy began to build up in my head with the attendant limitations.
Reading the books of some "spirit filled" Christians with national healing ministries highly stimulated the energy. Prayers to the Holy Spirit charged it up even more. Once while praying to the Holy Spirit in Church, I felt subtle energy gentle pouring into me from above my head. That night when I went to bed, I closed my eyes and kundalini energy erupted like a volcano, though accompanied with reassuring feelings of peace and joy. This lasted two more nights as I slept little, but enjoyed the blessing. This episode perplexed me, however. Why had prayer to the Holy Spirit ignited kundalini energy? According to some Christians, it should have driven the energy out of me. Yet, here it was supercharging it like a guru's shaktipat (energy transmission).
As I continued in my Christian walk, kundalini became as unmanageable as it had been prior to my conversion. Minimal prayer or Bible reading created excessive energy increases and the sleeping difficulties. I was frustrated at not being able to spend more time in devotion to God. Every day I prayed to Jesus to remove the kundalini current and lift the limitations from my life. I prayed to Mary and the saints for intercession. I visited local shrines. I wrote to national Christian healing ministries. Anointed Christians laid hands on me and prayed for my deliverance. I pleaded the blood of Christ. I surrendered it to God, etc., etc., all to no avail.
Then I started coming into contact with Christians in whom kundalini had awakened purely within the Christian tradition. This flew in the face of all the Christian writings that referred to kundalini as a demonic force - a serpent-like spirit that needed to be cast out by the power of Christ.
How, then, I asked myself, could kundalini arise in devoted Christians under the love and protection of Christ? Does this energy exist in everyone and is it the driving thrust behind all impulses toward God, as some spiritual adepts claim? These and other questions simmered in my psyche until my doubts about the nature of the energy gradually dissolved in the light of reason.
Today, 4 years into my Christian journey, I still struggle with kundalini symptoms, but have come to the conclusions that: (1) it is a natural spiritual energy in all of us; and (2) it will ultimately bring me closer to my Creator and, in some way, enable me to be of greater service to others. In the meantime, I await the day when at the doorway of death I will meet Jesus Christ, not as a mystic, but as an individual who attempted to lead a life of... love.
In order to clarify the nature of the kundalini experience we talked to Philip St. Romain. After the publication of his book, Kundalini Energy and Christian Spirituality in 1991, he heard from people around the country, many of them Christians, who are trying to understand the nature of their own kundalini-like experiences.
Forum: Could you say something about your own kundalini experience?
Philip: All day and all night now, there is an energy pushing "upwards" in my system. Its course runs through the heart, which it fills with bliss and good-will toward all creation. From here it flows through the throat, then along the sides of the face, pushing through the ear pinnae, where the most extraordinary sensations of pressure and release are experienced at times. After pressing through the ears, its streams from both sides of the head converge in the middle of the brain, creating a most pleasant "knot" of pressure in the center of the forehead. A new way of seeing is possible from this center. When, for a number of possible reasons, the passageways through which the energy flows become blocked, there is pressure in this area, and a gnawing away by the energy until the block is removed. If I do not consciously cooperate with the "intent" of the energy to work through the block and flow freely, the pressure and pain become so intense that I eventually do cooperate. These are very real experiences to me, now a common occurrence in my everyday life. I have forgotten what it was like to live without this energy, its blocks, its gnawings and breakthroughs. To ignore the reality of this energy would be more difficult than to ignore the reality of my body. It is just that real!
Forum: Just what is kundalini energy?
Philip: It is easier to say what it is not than what it is. Quite frankly, I don't know what it is. What is feels like, however, is pure life energy, uncolored by emotion or passion. This life energy is of a strange quality, however. Unlike emotional energy, which I know most definitely belongs to me, the energy I have been describing does not seem to belong to me. There is an impersonal quality to it which at first seems quite strange, but later becomes most satisfying. In saying that it is impersonal, I do not wish to imply that it is anti-personal. It is not. It seems to be completely non-subjective, that is all. How to describe the reality of life energy that is neither personal nor antipersonal is most difficult.
Forum: What are some of the physical consequences of awakening this energy?
Philip: Here are some of the most basic ones:
1. Inner vision illuminated when the eyes are closed, especially during times of prayer and meditation. Visual background turning blue, purple, ultraviolet, gold, silver, or white, sometimes forming circular, amoeboid, or tunnel-like patterns. 2. Sensations of heat and/or cold in different parts of the body, especially the shoulders and the top of the head. 3. Tingling sensations in the brain, ears, forehead, spine, and other parts of the body. Feeling like an electrical current is shooting through these places, often snapping or popping through nerves. 4. Sensation of a warm, energized fluid slowly pushing its way around the brain and/or up the spine. 5. Perception of inner sounds -ringing, chirping, buzzing, ringing in the ears. 6. Strong compulsion to close eyes tightly, especially during quiet prayer. 7. Alteration of breathing patterns - sometimes slow and shallow (especially during meditation), short and choppy, or deep and smooth. Growing preference for abdominal breathing. 8. Sensations of electrical energy rippling through reproductive organs. 9. Sensations of gaseous bubbles arising from the area of the reproductive organs. 10. Compulsion to move facial muscles and bodily limbs in yoga-like postures. 11. Sense of an inner eye seeing with the two sensory eyes. Sense of warmth and strength emanating from the center of the forehead.
Forum: What about the psychological consequences?
Philip: The first is the healing of emotional pain. There is no longer a background of anxiety, shame, guilt, and resentment in my consciousness. With the healing of emotional pain has come a stabilizing of my moods.
The second major psychological consequence is the diminishing of my false self ego. Something of my self experience was once acutely attuned to the emotions of shame, anxiety, guilt, and resentment. This dimension of my self experience was inherently defensive and controlling, intent on making my life meaningful by doing the right kinds of things. It made me restless and desirous, robbing me of the beauty of the NOW. Since it was a compensation for emotional pain, this dimension of ego was lost when emotional pain was healed.
Forum: What is the goal of this process?
Philip: The healing of emotional pain, the diminishment of the false self ego, and the purification of the body are all beneficial. They are not the real goal of this energy process, however. The goal seems to be the awakening and embodiment of the true self. The consequences described above are prerequisites for this awakened embodiment.
Listed below are a few phrases from my journals which attempt to state some of the most characteristic features of the true self.
1. A direct, non-conceptual realization "That I am." 2. Non-interpretive attention, awake to the fact of self as the subject of attention (not the object, as is the ego.) 3. Being awake to myself prior to any thought, act of will, or movement of my consciousness. "Before I think I am, I am." Knowing this. 4. Knowing without a doubt that "I am here," looking out of my eyes. 5. Knowing that the "I who am" is one with all that is, and feeling this in the heart.
The body center in which the true self awakens is the center of the forehead, sometimes called the third eye in occult literature. When the energy flows freely into the third eye, the true self is realized. As the energy flows to the top of the head and beyond, the cosmic dimension of the true self is seen. Without making intellectual judgments, one can clearly see that there is a level from which all things arise, and all things are one at this level. Although the senses continue to perceive the distinct separateness of things, the intuition of oneness can be so strong as to eclipse the information of the senses. When the cosmic sense is strong and I gaze upon an object, I feel its existence in my heart as though it is somehow within me. This holds true even when gazing at people, although with people and higher animals, I am intuitively aware of the existence of another freedom separate from myself.
It is my belief that the realization of the true self is the goal of our human development. I see the energy process we have been talking about as directly related to this goal. Indeed, it may well be that this energy is none other than the energetic dimension of the true self, and that the awakening of this process signals the dawning of the true self.
Forum: If kundalini is such a central human reality, why is it that many people who appear integrated and devoted to the interior life don't seem to experience it?
Philip: This may be explained in a number of ways:
1. The energy has risen to the 4th or 5th chakra, but not much higher. They would certainly be moved at these levels to do many great works, but they would not be experiencing the fireworks that come with a fuller awakening. 2. They laid such a good foundation that the fully awakened energy was hardly noticeable to them. 3. They are moved by extraordinary graces to do these works, but it has not resulted in personal transformation. They have not integrated their own body-mind with these movements of the Spirit through them. As we know, some of our Catholic saints seem to be of this type: not much personal integration, but lots of willingness to be used by God. 4. The awakening has been so gradual that it was imperceptible. 5. Elements of all of the above, in combinations.
After these two discussions of kundalini, it is time to ask about the relationship between Christian spirituality and kundalini energy. Is a Christian understanding of kundalini energy possible? I think that it is not only possible, but necessary. As more Christians begin to experience this process, it becomes more and more crucial that a renewed Christian spirituality help them understand what it is, how to deal with it in practical terms, and how to integrate it into their Christian practice. This is obviously a tall order, but one that definitely belongs to the future of Christian spirituality.
Let's begin to sketch the approach that a Christian spirituality could take. First, two extremes have to be avoided. It is not appropriate to immediately write off kundalini as some sort of demonic or alien force that Christians should exorcise from their lives. This is not only insulting to our Hindu brothers and sisters, but it is simply not true if - as the experiences recounted here indicate - kundalini is a naturally occurring energy of the soul.
Nor does it seem correct to demand that we immediately and without discussion identify kundalini energy with the Holy Spirit as if any other solution would be in insult to Hindu sensibilities, and the erection of some kind of two-tier system of mysticism with Christians inhabiting the upper regions.
The discussion of what kundalini is and how it can be related to Christian mystical experience is not identical with the question of who is holy or close to God. As a Christian I believe that God calls every human being to divine union. This is a concrete call, present in the depths of the heart of every person regardless of their religion or lack of it, and we respond to this call by our love. It is entirely possible that someone who is without any conscious religious belief is closer to God than we as Christians are. It is even more possible that Hindus who have devoted their lives to seeking the Absolute - whether they wish to call it God or not - would be just as close or closer to God than devout Christians. The exercise of kundalini yoga in such a situation would become the means by which they draw closer to God. But even if we grant this and I do - it does not mean that we have to identify the awakening of kundalini with Christian contemplation. Let's say, then, that every person is in the same existential context called to the same supernatural destiny, but responds to this call in and through the concrete circumstances they find themselves in.
Ah. I have used the word supernatural. I don't think that we as Christians should automatically flinch when the word supernatural comes up despite the misuse it has suffered at the hands of Christian theologians. It is a perfectly good and even vital word that points to a fundamental distinction that I would not want to try to do without. In essence it says that God's nature is not the same as my own. I have been created. There are two fundamentally distinct ways in which I can be united to God. In the first I am united to God by the very fact that God has created me, and sustains me in existence moment by moment. In this case, the more I become myself and realize the potentialities of my own being, the more I am united to God Who is the author of my being. My very existence is the bond that unites me to the source of existence. At the very center of my soul, or heart, there is a point where God touches me by sustaining me in existence. We could call this a natural union with God.
In actual fact, as Christians we believe that God has from the beginning destined us for a supernatural end, or union, in which we will share in God's own life and nature. But this kind of union must be a free gift of God because it is above - but not opposed to - the capacity of our created natures. If it were not above our own capacity, that would mean we would already be God by nature. This supernatural destiny, or union, doesn't take away the natural union we have with God, but transforms it.
When I read accounts of the awakening of kundalini, they don't sound the same as the accounts of the Christian mystics, and I don't think that this divergence can be ascribed simply to differences of language and culture. The Hindu experience of kundalini seems to lead to an experience of union with God as the intimate author and sustainer of our existence in the depths of our being. It appears to be a natural energy of the soul that is meant to lead us, both body and soul, to the center of our being that is in contact with God. While at first glance the experience of kundalini and the way it is described seems alien to a Christian world view, I believe that a Christian philosophical and theological explanation will eventually be fashioned, and I will simply indicate some of the elements that I feel belong to that kind of explanation.
1. The Hindu system of chakras, or energy centers, that stretch from the lowest and most material center at the base of the spine to the highest and most spiritual one at the top of the head are a reflection of their understanding of the different levels of the soul.
Christian philosophy, following Thomas Aquinas, has developed a similar picture in which the human soul contains vegetative, sensitive or animal, and spiritual dimensions.
2. The awakening of kundalini is a process of transformation by which the energy that was in the lower centers moves up to higher ones, and is,transformed, causing a spiritualization of the personality.
For Christian philosophy the vegetative and animal dimensions of the soul are rooted in the spiritual dimension. The soul is not in the body, but the body is in the soul. The soul is not hindered by having a body, but the body is the way in which the soul becomes activated and fulfills its spiritual potentialities. Therefore, the activation of the vegetative and animal levels of the soul are the way the spiritual dimension realizes itself. Seen in this light kundalini looks like a conscious awareness of this natural process of spiritual activation.
3. But what is most important in all this is an understanding of the goal of this process. In kundalini the energy reaches the highest center and causes union with the Absolute. How this is described varies according to different Hindu schools of philosophy. Some are more theistic, while others, like the Advaitan school, identify the soul with the Absolute.
Christian philosophy in the person of Jacques Maritain has begun to develop its own explanation of this kind of union. It is as if we were to voyage to the center of the soul, and there encounter the point where God is pouring existence into it. Then we would experience the substantial existence of the soul as it comes forth from the hand of God like a powerful spring of fresh water. We would experience God in and through the existence of the soul. Therefore, we could call this experience a natural union with God, or even a natural mystical experience, or an experience of the Self, meaning an experience of the existence of the soul as it comes forth from God, the source of existence.
4. But why, then, do some Hindu schools of philosophy identify the soul with the Absolute? The way in which we travel to the center of the soul is by putting aside all limited ideas, feelings, sensations, and so forth. But when we arrive at the center in this way we experience God in and through this emptiness which was the means we had to take to come to this center. Therefore, it becomes very easy to identify the existence of the soul with God as the source of existence and with the existence of all things, for they are, indeed, experienced in a night that does not allow them to be distinguished. From a Christian point of view, however, they are distinct.
5. This kind of mystical experience should be of the highest interest to Christians because it is a foretaste of what appears to be the natural goal of the human spirit, and it can teach us about the nature of the soul and what its destiny would have been if it had not been elevated by grace. This kind of understanding is a wonderful foundation for grasping the nature of Christian mystical experience. This does not make this kind of mystical experience identical with Christian contemplation. The one could be called a natural metaphysical mysticism, and the other a supernatural interpersonal mysticism. But ideally they should both go hand in hand, and this, indeed, seems to be happening more and more as Christians seriously undertake various kinds of Hindu and Buddhist kinds of meditation.
The next issue of the Christian Prayer and Contemplation Forum received a number of responses to the last issue on kundalini energy and the Hindu-Christian dialogue.
The first responder had previously written the Forum about her own journey in which Hindu spirituality played a vital role. Here are her two letters:
Response #1: I've been listening to the tape you did on Christian-Hindu dialogue with Wayne Teasdale (The Heart of the Christian-Hindu Dialogue: A Conversation with Wayne Teasdale - an 84 minute video.) He talked some about the "danger" of Christians coming to advaita and remaining there rather than going on to experience the dynamic, personal dimension of the Godhead.
I'm not sure danger is the right word (and there really are no right words because language is an inadequate medium for the spiritual) to use because, at least in my own experience, I have no control over how God reveals himself to me - it's not something I can initiate.
Being brought up in Protestant Christianity - the side we see is the personal incarnational God of history. When I was about 30 God no longer revealed himself in a personal way - He left me in silence - leaving a very strong sense of the absence of God. I didn't know how to respond to this - it was totally foreign to what I'd been taught about God. I remained in the church and doing spiritual reading, but gave up verbal prayer entirely for 5 years. Then I started reading Zen and Hindu books on meditation and started sitting in silent prayer. The silence is no longer so empty - it often feels full to the brim. Is this advaita or a dynamic experience -inter-relational? I haven't the slightest idea.
About a year ago (after 2 years) I began verbal prayer again, but silent prayer is the mainstay. Many times I have longed for the personal dimension of God, but the impersonal remains. It seems to me that God gives what we need and what we're able to receive. Are advaita - impersonal unity - and personal unity different words to describe the same experience? Are they at different levels? Is one deeper than the other? For now, these are unanswerable questions for me.
Sometimes I think of God as the Beloved who is hiding from me; the longing is very great, an unquenchable yearning. More of a dualism.
And sometimes a quietness, with peace at the center, is within, and there is a sense of unity with nothing lacking.
Do you or Wayne have any comments or other thoughts/insight ts you'd like to share with me?
I joined the Catholic church this year but also incorporate some Hindu practices in my personal worship. There is sometimes a tension - how to integrate what I learn from Hinduism and retain Christian identity - but I'm not worried about it like I used to be. This seems to be where God wants me and I figure he'll lead me on the path. It's certainly not been a path I consciously chose except to decide to respond to the silence.
I've been mulling over Philip St. Romain's comments on Christianity and Hindu experiences and have some questions and thoughts about it. He wanted to avoid a "two-tier system" that puts Christian mysticism above Hindu, but somehow his explanation still came across that way. He implied that the experience in meditation of emptiness, the experience of "being", is simply a precursor to a more mature phase of Christian contemplation which would be the true fullness we're seeking.
This emptying and putting aside, to me, is in the tradition of Christian mysticism, straight from John of the Cross (although we are made empty to ready us for union). At the very least, there seems to be some overlap here, between what a Christian experiences and a Hindu experiences when they are in silent prayer.
In issue #5 St. Romain gives an explanation of what he calls natural metaphysical mysticism and says it's not identical with Christian contemplation or "supernatural interpersonal mysticism." Perhaps it would be helpful for him to explain in another issue of Forum what he means by "Christian contemplation," in a similar manner to how he explained the Hindu experience.
On his distinction between natural and supernatural, it's hard for me to see a dichotomy here - I see the entire contemplative journey as being initiated by God, and a function of grace. I don't distinguish between 'natural' and another aspect coming from grace.
Sometimes I wonder if the differences among the traditions in describing contemplation are primarily a difference in semantics. For example, the Hindus say the soul is God and we Christians say there is a difference between the two. In my own mind, the center of our being is that which cooperates and is in union with God, and whether I call that center divine or a separate soul is a matter of semantics. At the deepest level, it seems hard to distinguish between the soul and the Holy Spirit, or the experience of God within.
Another example (of possible differences being on semantic): When I've read what Hindu sages have to say about God and the experience of the Absolute, they don't speak of Christ but to me the aroma is of that same Love. They know that love, they are that love - the terms may be different but the experience may be on the level of ,Christian contemplation. What they speak of as sat-chit-ananda (Being-Consciousness-Bliss) may be what we refer to as the Trinity. When they speak of prema, the overflowing love that is oceanic and excludes no one, is this fullness akin to Christian divine union?
To give a few examples - Ramakrishna and Mata Amritanandamayi (Ammachi) - two Hindu sages who experienced both advaita and a more dualistic devotion to and union with Krishna or the Divine Mother - their lives and teachings exemplify this prema. Even the severe advaita of Nisargadatta Maharaj (dialogues in I Am That) gives a glimpse of this same Love.
I'm less familiar with Buddhist works what I have read seems to focus more on emptiness and void than the Hindus do.
We're in new territory here, trying to dialogue with and learn from Eastern traditions. My thanks to P. St. Romain for sharing his insights. I read his book on kundalini a few years ago - not because of experiencing kundalini - I've had no physical symptoms - but in trying to integrate learning from Hinduism and Zen with a Christian perspective. The Hindu teachers I've learned from don't prescribe kundalini yoga, and if they mention it at all, advise that it only be done under the direction of a teacher who can help one deal with the effects. The emphasis in the Hindu tradition seems to be on cultivating faith, love, integrity, the same areas we Christians emphasize.
Wayne Teasdale mentioned on his tape that Hindus tend to just add Christ to the Hindu pantheon, whereas we Christians see Christ as unique and Christianity as being unique, not to be subsumed under Hinduism.
On the other side of the fence, we Christians tend to look at other traditions and assume that the true fullness can only be found in Christian mysticism. Is this the latest version of the old Christian chauvinism? There are so many difficulties anyway when we begin to compare and use conceptual frameworks to try to describe the indescribable.
Maybe the "apples and oranges" metaphor fits here. We taste of the sweetness of God - but just try to define that flavor or to decide whether someone else is tasting that same flavor! Are we all eating apples or are some eating oranges?
If you can locate Patricia Christian Meyer, her comments on Zen and Christian contemplation might shed light on the dialogue. She wrote a book, Catholic America - self-renewal centers and retreats. She included, quite reluctantly, some personal information about her spiritual journey. She speaks of the detachment of the non-Christian tradition (Zen) verses the Christian personal involvement in the love life of the Trinity. She also describes sitting in a silent Zen retreat, hearing a nearby churchbell tolling hymns to Mary and experiencing an overwhelming sense of love and joy," not a-personal" but "demanding that I call it a name." Maybe she would be open to an interview with Forum -either anonymously or not.
Since the Hindu path often includes bhakti - intense devotion to a personal God, maybe on this aspect at least, there are more elements in common between Hindu-Christian contemplatives than between Zen-Christian experiences. Here I'm speaking specifically about the experience of union. Zen, to my knowledge, doesn't use that language. Union implies a personal relationship (versus experience of the void).
Is the experience of "being" different from the experience of union? And if it is, can this be described in conceptual terms? I'm not going to try.
Response #2: Another letter deals with some of the same issues:
The last Newsletter centered on the experience of kundalini energy. It raised some old questions. In particular, the usefulness of the distinction between the supernatural and the natural sparked some thought.
I experienced during a massage on a retreat what my retreat director at the time suggested was one of the chakras. Toward the end of the massage I "saw", in my imagination, I suppose, a huge eye surrounded by a purple sea. It reminded me of the eye of a whale. I also saw an infant being rocked back and forth on huge waves. I have never gone any further with these experiences. It was suggested that more massage work could be helpful to my own spiritual journey. So far, I have not gone back to it.
I appreciate Philip's struggle to come to a better understanding of kundalini energy in the light of Christian experience. However, when he spoke of "two fundamentally distinct ways in which I can be united to God," it made me uncomfortable.
I would like to point out in particular the work of John Duns Scotus. His focus on the primacy of love in all of God's activity holds the key to a central insight of Francis and Clare about creation. It reminds me of Jung's vision of the central human call to individuation. In the Franciscan view of reality, each individual creature is held in existence by a loving creator. God did not have to create anything.
All is gift. All is grace right from the beginning of existence. In this creation reigns the primacy of Christ. Simply put, the primary purpose of the incarnation was not to redeem creatures from sin. If there had been no sin, the incarnation would have taken place anyway. The reason for the incarnation is first and foremost the love of God. Jesus came to say first and foremost, "I am here to love you." Not, "I am here to save you." Sin is not the essential focus but is dealt with in the process of loving.
Christ is the center, the reason for all creation and in him all things hold together. In light of this, I find it hard to relate to a natural end or goal for creation and a supernatural goal or final end for creation. In my view, there can only be one, i.e., the incarnation of Christ. There was not one plan before sin and another after sin--the "felix culpa" theological view.
I must admit I am still trying to understand this Franciscan approach to life and reality. We were trained in a Thomistic interpretation of the Gospel. I understand the desire to not confuse the creature and the creator, the fear of pantheism and the fear of investing too much divinity in the lowly human. However, as I continue to pray and reflect on the mystery of the Incarnation, I grow in an awareness that after 2000 years we have managed to unwrap only perhaps 2% of its depth and richness of meaning.
Perhaps the experience of kundalini is one more piece of the puzzle of "the ocean of being" we live in, move in and, in our great longing, desire to get to the bottom of in all its vast and seemingly endless, restless movement. Indeed, movement toward what? Toward whom?
Eastern Enlightenment and
As one of the contributors to the last issue of the Forum stated, language regarding deep experiences is inadequate, especially when it moves toward "classifying" these experiences. Nevertheless, in the interests of discernment and in properly honoring the experiences of people from different traditions, one is inevitably led to make distinctions. Semantical clarity in such cases is extremely important.
Take, for example, the distinctions between personal and impersonal. For some, personal refers to anthropomorphism, and so they reject this in favor of impersonal language regarding the divine. Any mature Christian must know that there is more to it than that, however! In Christianity, the word personal refers primarily to the realm of relational, intentional being. When we say that God is personal, we mean that God is intentional Being, and not merely a static force underlying all things. The encounter between the human and God is, then, understood to be an encounter between two Freedoms who can mutually affect one another. Christian faith is the means by which a human becomes open and receptive to encountering the personal God. In the context of prayer, this encounter may be mediated through words, images, ideas and emotions (kataphatic prayer), or it may take place in the emptiness of deep, somewhat arid silence (apophatic prayer). Frequently, one begins with words and moves into silence; eventually, the silence prevails. In either case, Christian faith enables and meditates the encounter with God by holding the Christian in an attitude of loving surrender and receptivity to the intentional God. We say that this faith is a gift from God precisely because it sustains in us an orientation to God in spite of our ignorance and selfishness.
Ascetical practices that move toward impersonal experiences are lacking in this kind of faith. One might make use of a non-theistic mantra, count breaths, observe thoughts as from a distance, rest in the silence between thoughts, etc. When such practices are utilized outside of a relational faith context, they generally give rise to the kinds of experiences people call impersonal. These experiences are also frequently called natural, existential, or metaphysical, since we can achieve them through ascetical practices. This is not to say that God is not encountered, only that the nature of the encounter with God is different from the kind of experiences that develop in a personal faith context.
As the reader can see, the deciding factor in this discussion on personal vs. impersonal, or natural vs. supernatural mysticism, is the kind of faith held by the mystic. Although the same God is surely encountered by all mystics, Christian faith enables one to "tune in," as it were, to the love-intentional heart of God. As another contributor to the Forum noted, the bhakti tradition in Hinduism opens one to similar experiences, as do the devotional aspects of Buddhism, Judaism and Islam. Faith in an intentional/personal God usually develops in a tradition that communicates a revelation of God as personal/relational. Although the fact of our own intentionality suggests an intentional God, human experience does not let on that God's will is Love itself. This we see most clearly in the life of Christ.
Having make these distinctions, we can now say something about the experience of emptiness and non-duality in prayer. This is most common for those who are drawn into apophatic prayer, so much so that many Christian mystics have actually wondered whether God disappeared (or they disappeared). The perdurance of faith, however, enabled them (usually with the help of a spiritual director) to recognize that this emptiness is actually a very deep state of union with God. The reason one no longer experiences God as an-Other is because the human and divine intentionalities have become one. Intellectually, we know that two freedoms still exist, but experientially, we do not feel any separateness at all. Such a one might feel closer to Buddhist or Hindu descriptions of non-duality than to the devotional expressions of Christian meditators. One might even feel tempted to say that, at this level, all religions are the same, or that the differences between them are merely semantical. This is where matters seem to be "stuck" in many dialogues between Christian contemplatives and mystics of other traditions.
The critical question, it seems to me, is whether or not Christian faith contributes anything to one's experience of God aside from it being a dynamic that leads to nondual states of consciousness. From the foregoing discussion, I have stated that I believe it does because it promotes a receptivity to God as Love-become-present to us in the person of Jesus Christ. The intellectual dimension of faith also leads to a recognition of unity-in-duality, or two-become-one. This is an interpretation, to be sure, but it is one that is integral to faith itself. Without something like Christian faith, it is easy for nondual experiences to become interpreted in pantheistic terms. The consequences of this are many, none the least of which is a devaluation of the reality and uniqueness of the individual. Christian faith, on the other hand, promotes individuation even while leading to deeper and deeper experiences of union.
It is simply a truism, then, to say that the different expressions of mystical experience among the world religions are a matter of semantics, or interpretation. This position does not get at why different expressions and interpretations are used, and tends to minimize the significance of the kind of faith motivating the different mystics. My sense is that it is precisely the different faiths among the mystics of the world religions which account for the differences in not only their expressions and interpretations, but in their experiences, as well. Because these different faiths also have much in common (openness to mystery, surrender of self, etc.), we should not be surprised to find similarities in both experience and expression.
To emphasize the pivotal role of faith in relation to mystical experience is not likely to be a popular position these days, however, for to speak of faith is to invoke religious language. The awakening and formation of faith is also the responsibility of religious traditions, and there are many today who seek mystical experience while holding themselves apart from a religious tradition. Although the God of the mystic does, indeed, go beyond the dogmas and rituals of religions, the intellectual, affective, and volitional dimensions of the faith of the mystic are both nurtured and supported by such beliefs and practices. Indeed, it is doubtful that mystical experience can flower and be integrated apart from the wisdom of religious traditions. (The New Age and Transpersonal mysticisms, for example, generally degenerate into pantheism.) On the other hand, it is easy to understand the disgust with which many today view religion, especially in the West. Apart from a mystical tradition, the exoteric dimension of religion makes little sense, producing instead ideologies, liturgists and dogmatists. This is not true religious faith, however, only a counterfeit. Many Churches are more aware of political developments in the world than of the mystical aspect of Christianity, which is frustrating to those who seek spiritual growth. The best situation, of course, would be for the Church to view mystical union as the goal of religion itself, and to provide formation for all unto this end. This day is coming, but we've a long way to go.
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