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Kundalini

Living a heart-centered life: recasting the chakra system in a more dynamic light

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Living a heart-centered life: recasting the chakra system in a more dynamic light

My intention for this post

As I grow older, I get more and more tired of the ascensionist attitude in a lot of spiritual traditions. Other than the earth-based indigenous traditions (from anywhere in the world), there’s a general aspiration in most spiritual traditions of purification and perfection; of becoming good and conquering evil; of becoming enlightened. This, when taken literally (as is often done), comes at a huge cost to embodied life. It denies all the muck and the contradictions, all the sweat and the blood – all that constitutes lived life. These traditions often appear to minimize living in the un-perfected here and now – the world that encompasses both the mud and the lotus! The focus is on a perfected future. I am thus deeply drawn to spiritual practices and interpretations that emphasize the dynamic rhythm of life. Put another way, I consider a well-lived-life as a willingness to engage in the dance of the mundane and the sacred, rather than becoming a perfected but static sculpture.

In this blog post, my desire is to cast the Hindu/Buddhist chakra system in a novel light, which allows us to use it as a tool for a dynamic life on this earth, rather than another method for spiritual perfection and a release from the mundane.

A primer on the Chakra system

The chakra system is a way of understanding the workings of physical and spiritual energies. This is the philosophy on which the practice of yoga is based. There are many variations and nuances of the system. But at the most essential level, this system posits that there are seven energy centers in our bodies, organized along our spine. Each of these centers has been variously called a Chakra (a wheel), or a Padma (a lotus). Several modern teachers have attempted to show how these chakras may correspond to major nerve plexi; however, that is not the subject of this post.

Here is a brief description of the seven chakras:

The seven chakras

The seven chakras

  • Chakra 1 (Muladhara): translation: “holder of the roots”; root or base chakra located at the perineum; presides over connection to the earth, grounding, issues around survival; type of psychology relevant for this chakra: behaviorism
  • Chakra 2 (Swadhisthana): translation: “her own abode”; located at the level of the sexual organs; deals with issues around sexuality and flow, feminine energies; type of psychology relevant for this chakra: Fruedian/Kleininan
  • Chakra 3 (Manipura): translation: “jeweled city”; located at or just below the navel or Dan Tien; presides over issues around will and power, masculine energies; type of psychology relevant for this chakra: Fruedian/Adlerian/ Nietzschian
  • Chakra 4 (Anahata): translation: “unhurt” or “sound that is made without two things striking together”; sound of Om; located at the heart center; place of the open heart, compassion; type of psychology relevant for this chakra: Jungian
  • Chakra 5 (Vishuddha): translation: “pure” or “purified”; throat chakra; involved with issues around communication, voice and discrimination or discernment
  • Chakra 6 (Ajna): translation: “permission” or “command”; located at the third eye or the Pineal gland; presides over intution, vision, insight, clarity, self-knowledge; place of witnessing the divine
  • Chakra 7 (Sahasrara): translation: “thousand-petaled lotus”; crown chakra; participation mystique, becoming one with the divine; nirvana

The chakra system comes out of the Vedic Hindu philosophy, which is very much ascensionist, with a focus on ultimate perfection and release from the mundane. Thus, the traditional description of the chakra system, and the way it is typically taught in both the East and the West, is as a progressive, hierarchical process, starting at the base chakra and moving progressively to the crown chakra. The image that is often invoked to the explain the energetics of the chakra systems is that of Kundalini, a tiny white female serpent, who lies asleep at the base of the spine, coiled three-and-a-half times around a symbolic lingam (erect penis). With inner and outer work, she awakens in the yogi, and rises progressively through the chakras. The energy in the yogi becomes progressively more rarified the higher the energy (or Kundalini) rises along the vertical series of the chakras, until it reaches the crown chakra where the yogi finds ultimate unity with the divine. At this point, the body drops off, and the yogi achieves nirvana.

An alternate, heart-centered, understanding of the chakra system

I owe a great deal to the comparative mythologist, Joseph Campbell, for the following alternate explanation of the chakra system. I first encountered this description in his video lecture series, Mythos. Mythos is a compilation of a series of lectures Campbell gave toward the end of his life, and thus, contains some of his most mature thoughts.

In the lecture on the Chakra system in Mythos, Campbell starts by describing the seven chakras in a classical way – as centers of energy stacked along the spine. Life energy (Kundalini, the libido, or the “anima” in Jungian parlance) rises step by step through these chakras, from the base of the spine to the crown of the head.

However, Campbell, being the quintessential marriage officiant between the East and the West, has a beautiful take on this model. It is an interpretation that I have never seen anywhere else. Here, I present Campbell’s proposed model, embellished with some of my own thoughts and associations.

The first three chakras: basic ego consolidation

I posit that as the energy rises from the first to the second, and from the second to the third chakra, it can be thought of as a consolidation of the Ego in the modern psychological parlance. This allows us to function with more ease and grace in the quotidien world. From mere survival (focus on one; undifferentiated consciousness; first chakra), we move to sexuality (interaction between two; Kleinian idea of obsession with the good and evil breast; second chakra), and then to will and power that engages the larger world (three plus; Fruedian idea of the problem of three: the Oedipal complex; also Adlerian and Nietzschian “will to power”).

The fourth chakra: the center of our being

A Tibetan  thanka  depicting the  yab-yum  of  Vajravarahi and Chakrasamvara

A Tibetan thanka depicting the yab-yum of Vajravarahi and Chakrasamvara

Then, the energy rises to the fourth chakra. This is the mid-point of the chakra system. This the place where the mystic heart opens. One hears the “unstruck sound of Om.” From this point on, according to Campbell, the energy, instead of being directed outward, is now directed inward. He has a beautiful name for this qualitative change of stance. He calls it the “turning about of Shakti.” The ego now turns the outward-directed energy, which was thus far only interested in finding a footing in the outer world, to face itself and enter a deep embrace of acknowledgment. It is about arriving home – to be welcomed home into one’s own center. As a visual image, Campbell cites the Yab-Yum dieties of Tibetan Buddhism, where two deities are seen in profound erotic embrace. This is the place where we truly meet and engage with “the Other.” This is the place where prejudices begin to melt and morph, and we find inside ourselves what we until now belived lives only outside of ourselves.

Arriving at the fourth chakra thus qualitatively changes our energetic relationship both with ourselves and with the rest of the world.

Engaging the “upper chakras”

Using the energy of the lower chakras to engage the upper chakras, and vice versa

Using the energy of the lower chakras to engage the upper chakras, and vice versa

Once the heart chakra has opened, once one has heard the unstruck sound of Om, one can take the energy that was developed in the third chakra (will and power), and move it up to the fifth chakra. It is the same enery of will and power, but rather than directed outward in an acquisitory stance, it now manifests as speaking one’s truth, as taking a stance in life that is authentic for the individual, and as the development of a finely honed discrimination between the real and the shiny counterfeit.

Once this has happened, this energy of authenticity is taken down to the second chakra, and combined with the sexuality and flow, and the engagement with the “Other.” This “purified” and erotically charged energy is then moved up to the sixth chakra. This allows for vision and intuition of the sixth chakra that is informed by both authenticity/discrimination and flow/acceptance/erotic intensity. The result is the human being beholding his/her divine object. An image that may be evoked here is Dante beholding Beatrice in the Divine Comedy.

Dante beholds Beatrice in the Divine Comedies; painting by Henry Holiday  (1839–1927)

Dante beholds Beatrice in the Divine Comedies; painting by Henry Holiday  (1839–1927)

Finally, though, this beholding is not enough. There is still a separation between I and Thou. At this point, this energy of the highly rarified vision is taken down to the first chakra of grounding and embodiment, and is then brought back up to the seventh chakra. As this happens, all barriers break, and the subject and object become one! This is participation mystique, or nirvana. As an image, one may think of the Hindu Ardhanarishwar, the androgynous Shiva/Shakti in one body. There is no longer any separation between the pairs of opposites.

Ardhanarishwara: Shiva and Shakti in the same body; Mankot School, Western Punjab Hills, c.1710-20

Ardhanarishwara: Shiva and Shakti in the same body; Mankot School, Western Punjab Hills, c.1710-20

Living from the heart center: the heart as the fulcrum of the machine of our lives

The heart as the fulcrum on which life choices are balanced

The heart as the fulcrum on which life choices are balanced

But for Campbell, a person who is to live an embodied life, cannot stop here, at the top of the ladder. For you cannot live in this world without engaging the pairs of opposites – joys and sorrows, life and death, light and darkness, depression and escstacy.

So, our goal is to keep returning to the heart chakra – to live centered at this place of open heart and compassion, with the freedom to move fluidly between the other chakras as demanded by life moment to moment. The heart thus becomes the fulcrum of the machine called our life!

This is a dynamic, “breathing” model for life that can be lived with grace and dignity in the midst of all its suffering and ambiguity.

So, at the end, I leave you with these words from my favorite Irish poet and philosopher, John O’Donohue, which seems to summarize this way of living:

“We need to return to the solitude within, to find again the dream that lies at the hearth of the soul. We need to feel the dream with the wonder of a child approaching a threshold of discovery. When we rediscover our childlike nature, we enter into a world of gentle possibility. Consequently, we will find ourselves more frequently at the place of ease, delight and celebration. The false burdens fall away. We come into rhythm with ourselves. Our clay shape gradually learns to walk beautifully on this magnificent earth.”

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