Lee Sannella, M. A revised and expanded edition of Kundalini: Psychosis or Transcendence? Dakin Company. Printed in the United States of America. Published by Integral Publishing P.
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Kundalini is a concept that's been developed in the theory and philosophy of yoga. It represents a coiled energy located at the base of the spine, considered like a coiled serpent or the serpent power, and through yogic practice or other circumstances this coiled energy rises through the body, activating various psychic and nervous energy centers.
In yoga this is thought of as an auspicious sign of spiritual attainment. However, from the point of view of Western psychology and psychiatry, these same symptoms might be viewed as psychotic.
With me today in the studio is Dr. Sannella is the founder of the Kundalini Clinic, and is an expert in dealing with individuals, both Eastern and Western, who are experiencing these symptoms of kundalini rising. Welcome, Lee.
You know, it's intriguing. In Western medicine we have the symbol of the caduceus, with the snakes twisted up the staff of Hermes. It's very, very similar to the symbol of the coiled serpent rising in the kundalini theory of yoga.
Do you think there's a connection? One is a popularization of the other. It was known to the ancient Western Greek physicians, as well as to the yogic practitioners. The coil to me means potential. It's a potential energy until it is activated. And the crossing of the snakes has more probably to do with the nadis, or the other accessory energy centers, aside from that which is supposed to be in the spinal canal.
But our modern concept doesn't completely accord with that model. MISHLOVE: Let's step back just a second, because you've introduced the term the nadis, and I think you're referring to centers of energy, like ganglia of nerves, that might be located in the arms, in the legs, around the sides -- sort of like the acupuncture meridians, or acupuncture points.
MISHLOVE: And also in yoga there's the concept of the chakras being central organs of psychic energy located right along the spinal column, basically; the third eye is one we often hear about. These are concepts that have been articulated very cogently and in quite a lot of detail in yogic philosophy, and I gather that these are concepts that you take seriously as a medical doctor. I take seriously the new event in the brain -- a new, as you said, psychophysiological event in the brain, which is what the kundalini is to me.
The peripheral signs and symptoms, and the descriptions which refer to the spinal cord and the accessory systems, whatever they are -- acupuncture or nadis -- are all derivative from the central event in the brain, which is a change itself, which represents psychophysiological change in the whole organism.
This change then gives the person who has spiritual inclinations the equipment with which to more adequately join with the divine, which as you said is the original meaning of yoga.
MISHLOVE: Now, the experience that is called kundalini, this change in the brain -- if one were in a culture such as the Hindu culture or other comparable cultures, if the person had this experience and communicated it to other people, it would be identified in this spiritual context -- "Oh yes, it's kundalini. In our culture, when a person typically has the same experience -- and I gather you've worked with people who have had it spontaneously, or people who have been meditating and all of a sudden had it -- what happens?
SANNELLA: Well, it's largely something which you have learned not to talk too much about, because people have no understanding of it in general, of course, and therefore you're looked at as being quite odd, if not a little bit worse than odd -- more seriously afflicted than just being odd.
People would be happy. A person would be getting a lot of positive attention and support to go through the experience and let it unfold. In our own culture, the response might be quite the opposite. And there are lots of other openings, in the sense that this is not the only one.
Probably we should call it the master opening in the psychophysiology of the human being, but there are lots of preliminary and other states, psychic states, that correspond to the yoga siddhis or powers -- like out-of-the-body states, for instance, or bilocation states, or whatever the states are, and all of them are in a sense real. They are clearly defined in yoga, and people experience them, and if anyone wants to take the time and effort to search them out, they still exist all over the world.
I don't want it anymore. It's bothering me. I can't do my work. It keeps me awake at night. These experiences seem to be breaks with reality. People are hearing voices, seeing visions, having physical ailments for which there is no organic cause. These are all typical symptoms of psychosis. Do you view all psychosis as a spiritual opening? Psychosis may accompany spiritual opening of this kind, either in part or almost continuously, and the two can be distinguished and should be, because the psychosis is something to be understood, but not supported in the same way that you would support a spiritual opening, which is a normal sort of process that man is heir to.
It is aberration without understanding of that aberration as being aberrated. That's a crude definition, but you get a very clear idea of what is psychotic and what is not, simply by talking with someone in the ordinary way. I mean, they might start off on a total tangent, or show absolutely no emotional responsiveness to some things and a super-responsiveness to others, inappropriate affect, and so forth.
MISHLOVE: In developing the procedures in the Kundalini Clinic, you have spent a lot of time with people who are having genuine spiritual openings that would appear to be psychotic, and who need support within our Western context to get through that.
SANNELLA: Well, yes, that's the primary mode of treatment, is support for that part of it which is, as I say, explainable and understandable in historical and cross-cultural terms, because this appears in all cultures. And that part which is universal to man also, which is his aberrated state.
MISHLOVE: I would suppose that the basic kind of support that could be offered is just to be with that person and to let them communicate with you what they're experiencing as they experience it, without judging them.
It could, certainly, if that is something that comes natural to the therapist. If it's not, that's a different matter. Some of us are talented in that way, and some of us are talented in other ways. Some of us like to massage, manipulate, and so forth. MISHLOVE: I would think a big problem that a person would have, experiencing a kundalini experience or a spiritual opening, would be how it would affect their relationships with their family, with their spouse or loved ones, with their children.
How are they going to communicate what's happening to them to other people who may have no context within which this would make sense at all? That's one of the main difficulties, and that's why lots of people get more unstable than they need to be, because they don't have this outlet, and they don't have the understanding that surrounds them.
It's quite difficult, and also they're apt to become quite grandiose about it, as a compensation for the put-down or letdown that they feel. Do they get better after a while? How long does it typically take? It may take anywhere from -- some people are furious because they've only had the experience once, and then it leaves, and they look for the rest of their life for it.
I have a few people like this. Other people get very tired of it after ten or twelve years. It depends on what they are doing with it, and whether they have a practice in which it can be incorporated naturally and gracefully, and so forth. If they're fighting it, of course, usually they're successful, not always, in fighting it. It has a way of its own. Because it's part of their natural equipment, which has been called into action, and therefore they should honor it like any other function of the body.
MISHLOVE: Do you find that after a period of time, if a person has this opening, and then they learn how to adjust, to resolve things, to establish a higher equilibrium, that then their life begins to function, you might say, at a higher level?
They may be in and out of that state. It's unusual to have someone who is totally in that divine connection constantly. Those are the avatars who we see in Jesus and Buddha and so forth. You practice in the psychiatric area. You deal with people who are having religious experiences, or spiritual experiences. Can you talk a little bit about the role in which a mental health professional would be working with a spiritual community in dealing with situations, cases of this kind? They are lesser states of intense prana, perhaps; prana is an energy that precedes, usually, the kundalini, or that simmers down to it.
And ordinarily, the thing to do in a spiritual community, if you're a therapist, is first you have to get it in perspective, that people are not going to want to be tampered with in the psychiatric manner, and that's perfectly reasonable. But secondly, when you have people who are persistently, let us say, character disordered, or going back to drugs and alcohol and things like that persistently, and showing other gross signs of immaturity, then ordinary therapy can be very useful for them, and it should be not confused with whatever they're doing spiritually.
But on the other hand, they will not probably advance on this particular path that they've chosen until they become more mature. MISHLOVE: In other words, it sounds as if what you're saying is that normal psychotherapy, mental health intervention, often is to deal with a person on the level of their ego and how their ego is interacting with the world, whereas real spiritual work seems to go beyond the ego. I mean, often we think we are going beyond the ego, and are deluding ourselves. That's the most common.
But in general, what you say is correct. MISHLOVE: Earlier, when I asked you do you subscribe to or accept the theory of the chakras and the nadis, you said not quite; you said there are physiological events going on in the brain that have been interpreted this way by these cultures.
To what extent do you think the people who are having these experiences that might lead them to a higher level of functioning, are being misled by the supermarket of Oriental spiritual traditions that are available? I just think they are sort of cast in concrete. They're a little bit overdetermined. And so it leads people to expect a certain kind of sign to appear, and it may be very, very much different than that, because there's tremendous individual difference, not only in physiology, but in the cultural and spiritual backgrounds that people bring to this experience.
And so the Kung people, for instance, and the Bushmen in South Africa, have a very similar experience, from their verbal descriptions, but it lacks a lot of the very elaborate descriptions that you read about in the classical kundalini. The Taoists, on the other hand, have sort of in between, because they have a model which is closer to our neurophysiological model than either the Kung or the classical yoga models.
MISHLOVE: So if a person were experiencing this kind of phenomenon, and they weren't already strongly committed to one tradition or another, it might be useful for them to look into Taoism.
MISHLOVE: But there's a sense in which what I hear you saying is that spiritual traditions in general differ from your approach, which is a little more scientific, insofar as they might be dogmatic and say this is the way our scriptures say the experience has been reported, rather than looking at the uniqueness of each situation.
Lee, how do you think that this kundalini phenomenon reflects on our understanding of medicine in general, our understanding of the potentials of the human being? What can Western science really learn from all of this? SANNELLA: Well, I think it brings us up very short and reminds us that participation in the universe is what all kinds of development is about, and that the linear, verbal, and logical mind and its usefulness is extremely limited and should not be indulged in endlessly and without relief, and that there's more in our philosophies than are dreamt of in the logical, linear mind, which has been overdone by our science and by our medicine, by our philosophy.
Whatever it is, you name it, it's been overdone. And now we're going to have to learn the subtle language of all of those wonderful disciplines, because they are wonderful disciplines; but they all have a subtle language and a subtle occurrence and a participatory aspect which most of our professionals have shunned, and they're going to have to change or they're going to have to be left behind.
How much does Western science know about this change? But we have a certain amount of laboratory evidence that it really does exist, and we certainly have all the clinical evidence in the world, in every psychic area, to know that they are real. They also can be faked. They're also exaggerated endlessly. They're also completely off-base; but they're also real, and there are a few of them that I have participated in, in my studies throughout the years, because I was very hardheaded as a scientist.
WHAT IS KUNDALINI? with LEE SANNELLA, M.D.
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