|A Jungian View of Kundalini
The basic elements of the Hindu view of kundalini, that is kundalini energy itself, pictured as a serpent coiled sleeping at the base of the spine, chakras or energy centers strung like beads along the spine, the energy channel through which the energy ascends and the ultimate goal at the crown of the head towards which this energy tends, find counterparts in C.G. Jungs psychology. He, too, knows of a fundamental energy that he called psychic energy, centers of psychic activity that he named archetypes and a final goal of psychological development that he described under the heading of individuation. Lets look briefly at each one of these Jungian concepts in order to better compare it with kundalini.
Jung, following the physical sciences, conceived of the psyche as a closed system endowed with a fixed amount of psychic energy. The energy in one part of the soul did not differ qualitatively from that in another part, but the psyche as a whole possessed a definite quantity of energy that flowed through both the conscious and unconscious. After carefully observing the psyche Jung framed what he called the law of equivalence. Since there is a fixed amount of energy in the psyche, if energy is expended or disappears from one area of the psyche, we can expect to appear somewhere else. If, for example, I was to devote by energy to a form of meditation in which the discursive mind is quieted that energy would flow elsewhere and I might find myself suddenly daydreaming about the dinner I was going to have when my period of meditation was over, or it might give rise to the kinds of illusions that are familiar to Zen meditators. The important point is that this energy is never destroyed, but flows throughout the psyche activating now this part and now another.
Jung founded his natural science of the psyche on an intensive observation of psychic images and the energies attached to them and this intensive observation led him to what he called archetypes. He noticed that all over the world whether in ancient myths or modern dreams certain basic patterns seemed to organize different images in similar ways. The actual images were different but the pattern was the same. For example, I might dream of climbing the stairs in a tall building, another person might be climbing a mountain, and an ancient shamanistic ritual might call for the shaman to ascend the pole of his tent. Yet all three sets of images could have the same underlying meaning. This pattern Jung called an archetype and compared it to the axial system of a crystal which somehow guides the formation of the actual structure of the crystal. Put in another way, the hypothesis of archetypes allowed Jung to begin to describe the underlying structures of the soul. The myriads of psychic images that he examined were not simply random debris cast off by the psyche, but point to the very nature of the psyche that gave birth to them. The psyche then, could be said to be in some way made of archetypes.
But these archetypes are not simply static parts of the psyche. Psychic energy flows from one of them to the next and the more energy that an archetype possessed the more it attracts our interest and attention. Further, both archetypes and psychic energy aim at a goal that Jung called integration or individuation. In simplest terms this meant that the whole personality both conscious and unconscious has to be given its due. Consciousness or the ego is not the only part of ourselves and not even the center of our psyches. Our real center, which Jung called the self, manifests itself in a dialogue between the conscious and the unconscious. The self is the realization of the whole being of the psyche.
It is tempting to identify Jungs psychic energy with kundalini energy, the archetypes with chakras and individuation with realization. Both psychic energy and kundalini are depicted as energies intrinsic to the soul, and they both have a built in sense of direction and purpose. Archetypes and chakras have close affinities as well. They are the articulations of the soul and manifest its structural complexity. Although less overtly than chakras, archetypes invoke the different dimensions and layers of the soul and body. In fact, on occasion, Jung identifies the farthest reaches of the unconscious with the body. Both are the focal points where energy gathers and is transformed. Both the chakras and the archetypes are interconnected among themselves and form purposive energetic systems.
Could these similarities be accounted for by Jungs knowledge of Eastern thought and kundalini in particular? It is certainly true that Jung was well acquainted with kundalini. In the fall of 1932, for example, he gave a series of seminars on kundalini. But these notions did not play a formative role in the creation of his psychology.What Jung does in regard to Eastern thought is to create a Jungian style interpretation of it. The convergence we see is that of two very different and independent ways of thinking about the deeper aspects of the psyche and all the more eloquent for that. Despite these deep analogies I really dont think it is possible to identify the two systems. The process of individuation is intimately connected with kundalini realization which appears to be a form of enlightenment for they both are fundamental processes taking place in the depths of the same psyche and there is no doubt they strongly influence each other. But when we read modern accounts of kundalini awakening and similar ones of the journey to individuation it just doesnt sound like they are talking about identical experiences in different vocabularies. Growth in individuation is not necessarily accompanied by the arousal of kundalini energy in the classical sense even though it is surrounded by powerful transformations of psychic energy. The attainment of some degree of enlightenment can coexist with serious psychological problems and thus a lack of integration. Nor is there any immediate correspondence between the chakras and their rather precise localization and the various Jungian archetypes.
This lack of identity in no way diminishes the important role that Jungian psychology can play in our understanding of kundalini energy. This can happen in two ways. In the first there can be a dialogue between Jungian psychology and Eastern thought and in fact this dialogue began with Jung and has continued to today. The other possibility for dialogue is much less known but potentially very fruitful for a Christian understanding of kundalini. In it the philosophy of nature of St. Thomas enters into dialogue with kundalini and is aided in this process by its attempts to understand Jungs psychology in the light of St. Thomas teaching on the soul. Any progress that can be made in understanding Jungian psychology in this way will help our understanding of kundalini because of the close interrelationship between them.
A Philosophical Explanation of Kundalini Energy
God and the intuition of being. St. Thomas Aquinas saw with an exceptional clarity into the very depths of things, into the heart of their being, and this insight Jacques Maritain, one of his greatest followers, later called the intuition of being. We are intimately familiar with the differences among things. We say, "This is an apple." or "This is a rose." And we tend to take these differences as the deepest level of things, for they make things be what they are, or so it seems to us. But St. Thomas saw that it was possible to probe deeper. There was another fundamental aspect of things which was the very fact of their existence. No matter how different things are they all exist. He saw that the very differences, or whats, of things were certain capacities to be, to receive existence. Existence revealed itself to him as richer and denser than how it appeared in this or that thing. It was as if both the apple and rose manifested different faces of what it meant to exist. They existed but with a limited existence which was limited by their very nature which made them to be what they are, and these natures or essences could be seen as certain capacities for existence.
Once Thomas saw this the very depths of things became transparent to him, and shimmering in those depths was the mystery of Existence itself. Existence as received and limited demanded Existence unlimited and unreceived. All things pointed by their very being to Existence as uncontracted by this or that limited capacity for existence which makes a thing to be what it is. This fullness of Existence transcends all the limited things of our experience, and in this way it is no thing, not in the privative sense of nothing, but without the limits that come from being the existence of this or that thing. This intuition of being became the heart of St. Thomas metaphysics, and it leads to a metaphysical contemplation in which all things point to the abyss of Existence that we call God.
God as Creator and End. Therefore all things are partial reflections of existence itself. They are a rainbow of creatures that come forth from the fullness of existence and are meant to find the fullness of their meaning and purpose by returning to God. How do we return? By becoming what we are most fully, for our deepest natural bond with God is our very being. The more we are ourselves the more we are united to God. God did not create us for Gods own benefit, for God was already the fullness of existence. God did it for our sakes so we could enjoy existence: our own, that of all creatures, and Gods. It takes the whole of creation to express as fully as possible the mystery of existence, and all creatures have as their deepest goal to return to God by achieving the full development and activation of their natures.
The ladder of being. Lets imagine, in a somewhat anthropomorphic way, God at work creating the universe. God decided it would be fun to see all the different kinds of things that could be made, starting with those closest to Gods own nature, which would be the highest of purely spiritual beings. To be a pure spirit means to have an interior transparency of being that expresses itself in self-awareness and choice. As soon as God created these purely spiritual beings they immediately grasped themselves in knowledge and love. Their whole nature was present to them, and this was so true that God discovered that it was not possible to create more than one being at each rung of the ladder of being for each of these beings, because each one was purely spiritual, filled up completely that certain kind of possibility so that there would be nothing to differentiate it from another creature of the same kind. Purely spiritual beings could only be one of a kind.
However, since spirit is very deep and rich, God was busy for a long time filling these spiritual rungs. But finally God was done, and since the process had been so enjoyable God looked around to see what to do next.
The human soul and the material universe. What to do next was a real puzzle. Was if possible to make something that was not spiritual? And even if it were, what would be the point, for or it would not truly know it existed and could not blossom in knowledge and love. God pondered this for a long time and then the inspiration came for a bold experiment. It was true that every rung in the ladder of spiritual beings was filled, but what if it were possible to use the bottom side of the lowest rung? The result would not be an active spiritual being - all those places were filled -but a new sort of spiritual being, one in potency to become a spiritual being. It would not have an immediately fully activated intellect, but a passive one that had the capacity to become activated. This idea created even more problems. What could activate it? It could not be the higher spiritual beings, for it did not have the capacity for such rich messages. It could not be itself for it was starting off in potency. God thought and thought and finally discovered a way out of this dilemma. What if the ladder of beings could be extended so that there could be an entirely new kind of being which was not spiritual, but found an ultimate expression in knowledge and love not in itself, but in virtue of its relationship with this new kind of spiritual being in potency, and this spiritual being, in turn, would be nourished by these other kinds of beings so that it could activate itself.
Whew! This posed a whole new set of problems. If a creature was not spiritual, then that meant its very essence or nature was such that it was not transparent to itself. It could not immediately become what it was meant to be, and it could never reach spiritual awareness. God saw that once the threshold of spiritual beings had been passed, then these new creatures would have a new kind of fundamental capacity to become what they were meant to be. Their natures or forms were too weak to immediately express and activate themselves. This was no longer the fundamental capacity that all things had by the fact that their natures were certain capacities for existence. This was a new kind of capacity, a capacity for the essence to become itself, to reach its own fullness of existence.
Matter, space and time. All this was very puzzling. God saw that creating this lowest spiritual being in potency was going to be quite a complicated matter. If it were to be stimulated in order to activate itself, it would need some sort of stimulus that was as active as possible and as close as possible in nature to it, something as digestible as possible, as it were. It would need the highest and most active form of this whole new class of non-transparent beings. Unfortunately, this highest form could not exist if it, in turn, were not aided to full development by the next highest form, for or it, too, was very much a being in potency to become what it was. And this next highest form demanded the one immediately below it, and so forth down the whole new ladder of material beings. So God saw that it was necessary to start at the very bottom rung of this ladder and create the most elemental forms of this new kind of being.
God created this kind of being and was amazed at what it was like. By nature it had no capacity to be present to itself like spiritual beings did. It simply lacked the necessary ontological density. Therefore if it could not be partless it had to express itself in part outside of part. It had to exist as a material body. And since it could not be all at once fully what it was meant to be it could not completely fill this lowest rung of the ladder of being. It needed other beings of identical nature to try to express what it meant to be this particular kind of thing. Thus was born a multiplicity of bodies, and the relationship between these bodies is what we call space. And all these bodies in virtue of their common nature were dynamically bound together and interacted and moved each other to realize their potential, and this change and motion are what gave rise to time.
In this way God created the material universe and inscribed in it was a primordial urge to reach up in ever greater complexity toward consciousness, which was its own way to return to God.
Stages in the journey. Naturally St. Thomas in the 13th century did not know about evolution, but if he had I doubt he would have been disconcerted. He would have plotted the main stages of that journey something like this. First came the basic elements which arranged themselves into systems of greater and greater complexity, and after a very long time they reached the threshold of vegetative life. This life could not be the simple outcome of a random association of minerals but demanded, according to Thomas, a life principle or soul. He reasoned that life was more than being a body, for not every body is alive. There must be a vital principle that makes something be alive and organizes and directs that life. This new vegetative life had within it its own instinct to develop in the direction of greater self-awareness, and finally it reached the threshold of animal life with its motion and sense knowledge, rooted in an animal soul. Animal life, too, continued the long ascent toward genuine spiritual consciousness until it had reached the very threshold of the lowest of spiritual creatures. There was no way a material being could cross this threshold and give rise to spirit, for it was a different kind of being, but its own inner instinct had brought it to a peak of receptivity, and when this happened God infused in it the lowest of spiritual beings which is the human soul.
The union of body and soul. Finally, all the rungs of the ladder of being were filled. The creation of the lowest of spiritual beings had demanded the creation of the whole material universe. The human soul was at once the crown of this material universe and the recipient of all its riches which it needed in order to activate itself. And it would be wrong to imagine that the human soul was somehow added to a physical body, a vegetative soul, and an animal soul as one more principle of organization or life. Its union with the universe was much more intimate than that. Thomas insisted that the human soul took up in itself and virtually contained these other principles. They were now contained within it in order that the unity of the human being would not be impaired. They became dimensions within the higher density of the spiritual soul and thus were present to it from within to help it activate itself. Our bodies then in all their richness of elemental forms, vegetative life and animal awareness do not contain the soul, but rather they are contained in the soul.
As human beings we straddle the very boundary that divides the universe into pure spirits and material beings. We possess the material part of the universe within us and it stimulates us to become aware of our spiritual natures, and the bond of being that unites us with all material things. The human soul is one of the strangest of creatures. It is spiritual but it is meant to be united with the whole universe through the body, and since it starts out as spiritual being in potency and is so united with material creation one soul does not fill its rung in the ladder of being. A multitude of human beings are necessary in order to express what human nature is really like. And because all human beings are partial expression of this same human nature, we are drawn to each other and are meant to help each other find full expression of what it means to be human.
Enlightenment. We are now in a position to begin to create a philosophical explanation of kundalini energy. The first step is to examine the nature of enlightenment itself, for kundalini appears to be a particular kind of enlightenment, a direct non-conceptual seeing or awareness that I am and that all things are, that we all exist. It is an experience of the unity of things that they have in virtue of their existence, their common isness. In enlightenment there is an almost overwhelming sense of the oneness of things and our interior bond with all creation. Yet there is no explicit awareness of God as separate from this experience.
What is enlightenment from a philosophical perspective? It is the counterpart to the intuition of being. If St. Thomas metaphysical insight starts with the essence face of creation, the sense of the profound differences among things, and then works its way to their common isness, enlightenment bypasses this conceptual process. It is a direct perception of the existence face of creation. Everything is perceived just as it is with a vibrant richness and depth of being that comes from the very fact act that it exists, and this face of existence is the bond of unity among all things.
In the intuition of being we go conceptually from an understanding of essence as the source of difference to essence as a capacity for existence, and the beings around us as limited and received existence to unlimited existence. We dont have an experience of this unlimited existence, but we see that all things in virtue of their very being demand its existence. In enlightenment non-conceptual means are used to experience the existence of things more deeply and directly. Everything is seen with the freshness with which it has come forth from the hand of God, but since there is no reasoning present, there is no explicit pointing to the existence of God. Rather, each thing shines from within with the infinite mystery of existence, and since this happens in a non-conceptual way it does not lend itself, in the experience itself, to reflection about the distinction between God and creatures.
While awareness of and reflection on the experience of enlightenment is new to Christians the intuition of being opens the way to do it. Enlightenment is the culmination of a natural process of development in which we experience our true natures as sharers in the mystery of existence, and as such it is a precious part of what it means to be a human being. It can only enrich Christianity and allow it to enter into deeper dialogue with those religions of Asia that hold this experience so much to heart. Enlightenment allows us to experience the wondrous mystery of existence that embraces all things, and as such it must be seen as the flowering of that instinct that is in all things to return to God by becoming what they were meant to be, and in the case of the human soul this instinct has blossomed into a spiritual experience of the highest intensity.
Kundalini as an integral form of enlightenment. Kundalini is meant to lead to enlightenment but it does so in a highly distinctive way, for it is a thorough-going activation not only of the mind but the body as well. From the Thomistic perspective we have just reviewed is it possible to make sense of this energy? Does such a process of development contradict what St. Thomas had to say about the union of soul and body? Not at all. Rather, they can mutually illuminate each other. Kundalini is that fundamental energy or instinct of the soul that is inscribed in its very being which urges it to become fully alive and activated so that it can be and see its own existence and that of all things, and experience in them the radiant mystery of existence that we call God. But if the human soul contains within it all the riches of elemental, vegetative and animal levels of existence, then this fundamental soul energy is animating all the levels of the human organism from within. But this presence of the soul is in some sense dormant, lying like a seed in these depths. In order to realize itself it must realize each and every level of its being. In short, the human soul is the inmost animator by which these levels exist and by which they become activated. In a certain way each of us contains the whole evolution of the material part of the universe, and our physical, psychological and spiritual growth is the activation of that heritage. Kundalini is not some strange freakish force coming from without, but it is a striking visible manifestation of an energy that is ceaselessly at work in all of us, both unconsciously and in our conscious strivings. Kundalini is the bursting forth of that soul energy that urges us to fulfill our destiny, but now becomes visible to us either because of our particular temperament or certain psychological gifts or traumas, or as a natural response to some supernatural gift of Gods grace. The whole purpose of this energy is to make each level of our being, starting from the most elementary, fully alive and fully nourishing of the next highest level so that at the end of the process the deepest intuitive powers of the soul are awakened and we can see who we really are and that we are. Kundalini can appear as an impersonal energy because it is not something under the control of the ego. It is very personal in the sense that it is an energy of the soul, but this energy must activate those levels of our being which are far from our conscious control. The human soul is present to the entire body, for it gives it existence. But its lower operations operate through various parts. The Hindu chakras and their associated nerve plexuses are fitting symbols of different levels that exist within the human soul. The traditional picture of kundalini lying dormant in the lowest chakra at the base of the spine is a fitting symbol of the human soul as a being in potency that needs to awake, and this is an awakening that proceeds from the bottom upwards, for the activation of the lower levels is necessary for the activation of the higher. And the activation of each level is the intensification of the powers belonging to each level and their orientation and transformation so they can best serve the human soul, which soul is deeper in them than they are in themselves, for it is what gives them existence. Further, in a highly analogous way, just as the soul is at the heart of these lower levels, God is at the heart of the soul giving it existence. Therefore, the more the soul experiences its own existence the more it is united to God even if in the actual experience the word God may not be used, for the experience happens non-conceptually. God is present in and through the existence of the soul which God constantly sustains.
Proceeding in this way, it would be possible to try to explain some of the other phenomena that are part of the kundalini awakening. If this energy is thwarted in its ascent by physical or psychological blocks it can cause physical pain and psychological disturbances. Its very activation will slow the minds constant desire to conceptualize, preparing it for non-conceptual ways of seeing. The whole physical organism is activated in a new way leading to altered patterns of breathing and spontaneous gestures. And the psychological level of the soul is being transformed, as well, with alterations of the flow of psychic energy, the loss of affective memory, and so forth. And finally, the spiritual level of the soul, itself, is activated leading to the kind of seeing that is called enlightenment.
If these reflections are correct, at least in their general direction, then we stand at the beginning of a fascinating dialogue between the philosophy of St. Thomas and the natural phenomenon of kundalini, and through kundalini with those traditions which have studied it for so long. Thomistic philosophy can only be enriched by such a dialogue which would awaken it to its own resources which, in turn, could shed a new light on kundalini.
Conclusion. The key points for understanding kundalini from a Thomist perspective are the nature of the human soul as a spiritual being in potency which needs to be united to the material universe in the body in order to activate itself, and how the human soul contains and animates these lower levels of material being. We can sum up this perspective in the following questions and answers.
What is kundalini?
It is a fundamental energy of the soul that activates all the levels of the soul, from lowest to highest, fitting it for enlightenment.
If kundalini is such a fundamental, energy why dont more people experience it?
I think we have to distinguish between this energy in a general sense which all of us have and which is operative in our development, from kundalini in a dramatic and manifest form which is limited to a few people. This fundamental process moving us toward enlightenment can take place even if we are not consciously aware of it, but kundalini in its manifest form gives us an invaluable picture of what is at stake.
How important is this kundalini form of enlightenment? Doesnt Buddhism aim at enlightenment without dealing with it?
Certain schools of Tibetan Buddhism have a very deep understanding of this energy and detailed programs to awaken and direct it. Even Zen puts great importance on breathing and a posture in which the spine is straight, even though it doesnt emphasize the physical underpinnings of enlightenment.
Isnt it misleading to equate the outcome of the kundalini process with enlightenment, for one comes from Hinduism while the other comes from Buddhism?
Though there are great differences between these two traditions it is possible to argue that they both aim at the same core experience. David Loy, in his Nonduality, has made this case quite well in regard to the Advaitan school of Hinduism and Mahayana Buddhism.
I still am not sure what a material being is.
What St. Thomas called essence or form is what makes something to be what it is. It is its capacity for existence so all created things, whether spiritual or material, have essences or forms in this sense. But in material things the form, by reason of the very kind of form that it is, cannot grasp itself and be interior to itself. Its being is too weak, so to speak. Therefore it has a new kind of capacity for the form to gradually actualize itself, and this weakness of form has a number of consequences. There can be more than one material form of the same kind, and these forms grasp on existence is not as tight as in the case of spiritual beings. They can loose it and cease to be by becoming some other material form. And since these forms cannot grasp themselves interiorly they express themselves exteriorly in part outside of part.
It still seems strange that you would call kundalini, which seems so physical, an energy of the spiritual soul.
We tend to think of our bodies and souls as two separate things, with our soul somehow in our body. St. Thomas took a very different approach. When, for example, the spiritual soul is created by God and infused in the human embryo it is not somehow in the body, but it becomes the very principle of life by which the whole human being lives. The animal soul of the embryo is rooted in the spiritual soul and receives its existence from it, and the other lower levels of being, as well. This unlocks the mystery of kundalini from a philosophical point of view, for it allows us to see that the spiritual soul is present to every level of our being, and its own full activation in enlightenment demands the activation of all these levels of being. (note: see Philip St. Romains complementary essays on the experience of kundalini and the classical Hindu expression of it at www.innerexplorations.com/ewtext/kun.htm)
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