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Reflections on a ‘Kundalini’ experience – I

I’ve started working on an autobiographical writing project recently – looking back on some of my earlier writing, and reflecting on what experiences and ideas prompted me to do a particular piece, placing it within the context of my personal trajectory at the time, and how my ideas have changed since. An example of this process that I thought would be of interest to enfolding readers follows, an examination of the events which contributed to one of the first essays I ever wrote relating to the general subject of tantra, entitled “Kundalini: A Personal Approach”.

“Kundalini: A Personal Approach” (read it here was first published in the third issue of Chaos International magazine, in 1987. It began as a lecture – the first lecture I’d ever given – the previous year, at Leeds University Occult Society, but the impetus to write came from what I thought of at the time – and for some years afterward, as my own ‘kundalini’ experiences.

Kundalini is a difficult subject to write about at the best of times, and I still find that I am rather diffident in writing about my own experiences, particularly as, as the years have gone by, I have become less and less sure that what actually happened to me was, in fact, an authentic ‘kundalini’ experience – insofar as my understanding of what constitutes ‘kundalini’ has changed enormously over the decades.

First though, a little background to provide context. In 1984 I was living on the outskirts of York, in a kind of anarcho-hippy/punk communal house, and was in the second year of a three-year diploma working towards the qualification of Occupational Therapist. As for my magical practice; by that time I’d been actively living as (or being obsessed by being) an occultist for about six years. Although I’d had some contact with some of the foundational texts and ideas that later came to be known as ‘Chaos Magic’; done some initial forays into Lovecraftian magic; had my interest in tantra stirred by a series of visions of the goddess Kali and done a year’s correspondence course in Qabalistic magic, my day-to-day and ritual practice was very much anchored in Wicca, as I’d re-established contact with the Coven which had initially initiated me back in 1981. Re-reading my diaries of that time, I find that it’s perhaps most appropriate to characterise them as a bricolage – not the kind of self-conscious bringing together of disparate practices which became popular in the late 1980s, but rather, what you’d get with someone who’s read a great deal – and once I became interested in the occult I read anything I could get my hands on – but not really approached the material in any critical or interrogatory fashion. My diaries for 1984 are full of stints of pranayama, tarot readings, bits of qabalah and gematria, occasional yantras and drawings of magical artefacts seen in visions, and early musings on the nature of ‘chaos’ – all punctuated by regular lunar and other rituals either done solo or with various other members of the Coven (oh, and some really awful poetry). And for the most part, I accepted the pronouncements of authority figures – be it the High Priestesses of the Wiccan covens I had contact with; the very few ‘experienced’ Ceremonial magicians I knew, or the textual authorities who wrote books.

In amidst all of this I must have come across some descriptions and accounts of the so-called ‘raising of the Kundalini’ – most probably in the work of Gopi Krishna and Kenneth Grant’s first Typhonian Trilogy – and perhaps in the reams of Theosophical texts that were pretty much the only occult books in the local library of my hometown, or the Iyengar Yoga group I attended in my teens. By that mysterious process of unconscious assimilation I’d formed ideas about what ‘kundalini’ was, what it involved, and perhaps most importantly at the time, that it was something that only happened to ‘adepts’ – and whilst I laboured under many illusions about what I was doing and my own occult development, I still had the sense not to try and label myself as an ‘adept’.

By October 1984 I had formed a magical partnership with a woman who I met at the college where I was studying. She’d spent some years on an ashram practicing Siddha Yoga, and I very much regarded her as an authority on all things regarding yoga. She was interested in Witchcraft, and although I tended to characterize our relationship as one of mutual sharing, I very much regarded her as a ‘guru’ figure. So when I began to experience strange sensations and feelings with no apparent and obvious cause – such as muscular spasms, hot and cold flushes, mild hallucinations, feelings of being bodily dislocated and, a “knotting” sensation in my lumbar region, and I asked her what was happening to me, her assertion that this was “the serpent beginning to shift” made a kind of sense. After all, what I was experiencing seemed to accord with this idea that the kundalini is a latent power or energy that lies ‘dormant’ at the base of the spine in the human body, and can be awakened by various stimuli or even spontaneously.

“It began as a scream in my head – ‘Kali’s scream’ I thought. It echoed on and on, I felt it like a white light which shot down my spine, coiling around Muladhara, which opened with a blaze. A cold fire, like every nerve was alight spread throughout my body – I could feel my fingertips tingling and I began to tremble and twitch and felt a very jarring disorientation, which worsened to a sensation of whirling if I closed my eyes. These unpleasant sensations lasted well over an hour, and I struggled with fear and tried to keep a grip on myself.”
(Diary entry, 8 October 1984)

When I first wrote about these experiences in 1986 I think I was unconsciously trying to achieve an attitude of clinical, observational detachment, but what comes across from re-reading my actual diaries of the period is that I was pretty scared by it all and found these eruptions of sensations and feelings – particularly when I found myself to be having something akin to a minor ‘fit’ to be, for the most part, unpleasant. This wasn’t a kind of blissful spiritual awakening, but quite a disorienting experience, that happened in fits and starts, over about a month, until it gradually seemed to subside.

questioning ‘Experience’
There’s a tendency, I find, to think of experiences such as these as a kind of ‘pure experience’ – a direct, unmediated apprehension of the real which is ‘beyond’ intellectual process or conceptualizing. The adjective “experiential” tends to imply that it is non-rational, intuitive, and non-conceptual (in the cognitive sense), devoid of intellectual activity (see Experience – III: Some conundrums for some related discussion). In both my diary fragments and the 1986 essay I simply accepted the veracity of the experience, and it was some years before I started to wonder how much the experience I had was shaped, structured and informed by my prior reading on the subject.

Was, for instance, the experience so frightening because I’d read and absorbed other accounts of ‘kundalini awakening’ that also stressed these qualities? If my partner hadn’t been around to provide me with the interpretation that it was “the serpent beginning to shift” – how might I have attempted to deal with these experiences? How far was my experience shaped by the European tendency to frame bodily energies in terms of electricity or thermodynamics? Did I, in fact, have a ‘kundalini’ experience at all?

What prompted this change in attitude? It didn’t happen overnight. It wasn’t really until the late 1990s when I began to read more scholarly accounts of tantric ideas – and English translations of tantric literature. I became particularly interested in scholarly accounts of the different chakra schema, and in attempts to look at how these different schemas evolved over time and were articulations of particular ideologies. Coming to recognise that there were a great number of chakra schema – differentiated by text and practice – and that texts dealing with kundalini also differed according to ideology or approach really caused me to question the facticity of western accounts – which tend to treat the location of chakras etc., with the same fixidity that is given to anatomical organs (see Christopher Wallis’ essay The real story on the Chakras for related discussion). An early example of this fluidity of ‘inner anatomy’ I came across was in Paul Muller-Ortega’s 1988 book, The Triadic Heart of Siva which summarises a passage from the 9th-10th century Vācaspatimiśra’s commentary on the Yogasūtra which places the root of the Susumna Nadi in the lotus of the Heart (nearly all the western texts I’d read at this point locate the root of Susumna Nadi in the Muladhara).

By this time, I’d more-or-less come round to the idea that much of our so-called ‘inner experience’ relating to concepts such as inner anatomy, inner planes, “energies” and so forth – despite the tendency to treat it as though it were an ahistorical, culturally-independent facticity – were cultural artefacts. I’ll try and say more about this line of thought – and where it seems to have taken me – in the next post.