What is kundalini awakening?
In the Indian spiritual traditions of Yoga and Tantra, sudden energetic awakenings are depicted as kundalini awakening. Kundalini—derived from the Sanskrit word kunda, meaning “to coil” or “to spiral”—is an intense and explosive form of energy that lies dormant in the first and lowest of the seven chakras (or energy centres), the muladhara. When this energy travels up to the highest chakra, near the crown of the head, it results in spiritual awakening.
Many contemporary spiritual researchers and transpersonal psychologists have studied the phenomenon of kundalini awakening, mainly focusing on the negative effects that occur when kundalini rises suddenly and dramatically.
According to the researcher Bruce Greyson, for example, this can cause major disruptions to psychological functioning that resemble psychiatric disorders and often result in a misdiagnosis of mental illness. Other researchers note that it can also cause physical problems, including involuntary spasms and vibrations, burning or itching sensations and lethargy. People may hear voices, see visions of light and have psychic experiences.
Interestingly, traditional Indian texts devote very little attention to these problems. At most, they hint at the potential volatility of the energy, describing it as “a ring of lightning, folds of flaming fire”[Jnaneshvar, 1986, p. 130] or as “fiery energy” that releases “dazzling sparks.” [In Silburn, 1988, p. 42]
The Vijnanabhairavatantra, a Tantric text, describes how depression and fatigue can occur if kundalini energy happens to move back down through the chakras instead of rising up. This text also mentions that if the yogi hasn’t entirely transcended their sense of identification with the body, they may experience uncontrollable trembling.
Presumably, the reason why these texts don’t explore the difficulties of kundalini awakening is because the awakening process occurred in the controlled context of monastic and spiritual traditions, under the supervision of gurus, with a great deal of understanding and preparation. Under these circumstances, such difficulties are probably less likely to occur.
This highlights the point I’ve already made: awakening is much more likely to be disruptive when a person isn’t prepared for it and doesn’t have a framework to make sense of it, and also when it occurs in a non-supportive environment.
Cases of energetic awakening from my research
Energetic awakenings—or kundalini awakenings—are common, although not as common as awakenings through ego-dissolution. In my Ph.D. research, for example, I found five clear cases of energetic kundalini-like awakenings out of 25, as well as two other possible ones.
Like most other cases of sudden awakening, the cases I investigated were mainly triggered by intense psychological turmoil, with the slight difference that they were more likely to be triggered by intense stress (often manifesting as sleeplessness) rather than through factors such as failure or loss.
Kimberley, a case from my Ph.D. research, experienced awakening through explosive energy release shortly after the death of her mother.
One morning, while lying in bed, she sensed her mother’s presence and suddenly felt she couldn’t move her body or open her eyes. She felt heat and bright light around her body and felt frightened but somehow reassured at the same time.
Over the next few days, she had a feeling of “energy rising through my body with a loud screeching sound.” At night, when she closed her eyes, she saw visions of colours and symbols, and “random information at a very, very high speed, like a slideshow, showing frames throughout human history.” During her waking hours, she was acutely sensitive to other people; she was able to sense their feelings and thoughts and see colours around them.
Kimberley had no knowledge of spirituality or esoteric ideas and so struggled to make sense of her experiences. She suspected that she’d “gone mad,” even though she was sure that her experiences were real and that she’d entered a heightened reality rather than a hallucinatory one.
For several weeks, she was unable to work or function in everyday life. She was diagnosed with depression and found it difficult to sleep. She had problems focusing her attention and holding onto information with her mind. Sensing that conventional medicine couldn’t help her, she turned to alternative therapies, which she felt helped to integrate her new state of being.
Overall, it “took two to three years to feel stable and finally understand what was happening.” Now that this integration has taken place, she describes her normal state as featuring a constant psychic and spiritual awareness:
As another example, Simon experienced energetic awakening during a very stressful period in which he was forced to do a job that he intensely disliked, and while his wife was undergoing tests for cancer.
He “literally didn’t sleep at all for a week due to worry and stress….[Then] out of nowhere at 5 a.m. one morning I had what I now realize was a sudden uncontrolled kundalini awakening.” There were shooting pains and convulsions of energy going up and down his spine, and he had the experience of regressing to previous lives, and “had the clearest understanding of God and the universe.”
Even though Simon knew almost nothing about spirituality, he, like Kimberley, was sure he was undergoing some form of transformation. But there was no one to give him any guidance. He went to see a doctor, who transferred him to a psychiatric hospital where he was locked up and medicated.
Initially, he went along with the doctors’ diagnosis, believed that he’d gone mad and took all the medication he was given. But after a few months, once his condition began to stabilize, his certainty that he’d undergone some form of positive transformation returned.
He read the work of Eckhart Tolle and other authors (including Waking from Sleep: Why Awakening Experiences Occur and How to Make Them Permanent, which was how he came to make contact with me), which helped him make sense of his new state of being. He began to attend a Sahaja Yoga centre and to realize that he’d undergone a spiritual awakening.
Simon described the changes his awakening brought to him as follows:
It took several years for Simon to feel that his wakeful state had fully settled and integrated and that the disruptive effects of his sudden transformation had faded away completely. But finally, he began to feel a powerful ongoing sense of contentment and fulfillment, one of the effects of which was a new enjoyment of inactivity and solitude.
He recognizes that this is one of the biggest changes he has undergone: “Now I look forward to nothing better than sitting and meditating in thoughtless awareness….I don’t get bored anymore. I only work two days per week and all I do otherwise is read books, go for walks and meditate. In the past, I couldn’t sit still for five minutes. I had to be doing something or going somewhere. The transition from that to being able to sit and do nothing is massive.”
As a final example, Eric experienced an energetic awakening after a Yoga retreat.
He’d suffered from serious psychiatric problems earlier in his life, and shortly after the retreat, he experienced his “first manic episode for 10 years,” probably triggered by the intensive Yoga practice. He had “several experiences where my consciousness seemed to rise suddenly, the energy meridians in my body were energized, and my mind became sharper and clearer.” He was sure he was undergoing a spiritual transformation, but was admitted to a psychiatric ward where the staff was skeptical and hostile.
However, he managed to persuade them to discharge him after a few days, and on the same day, he had a “breakthrough” experience: “My mind was becoming quieter, and at the same time the world was becoming sharper, more real, and the experience was lasting. I went for a swim while my friend taught a class at the gym, and for the first time in my life I experienced myself as consciousness. I went home that night still feeling very clear, and my mind was still quiet.”
This was followed a few weeks later by another shift in consciousness, which led to a stable, ongoing state of wakefulness. This occurred while he was having a shower one morning: