Chapter no 46

Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman's Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia

To understand what that experience was, what happened in there (by which I mean both “in the meditation cave” and “in me”) brings up a topic rather esoteric and wild—namely, the subject of kundalini shakti.

Every religion in the world has had a subset of devotees who seek a direct, transcendent experience with God, excusing themselves from fundamentalist scriptural or dogmatic study in order to personally encounter the divine. The interesting thing about these mystics is that, when they describe their experiences, they all end up describing exactly the same occurrence. Generally, their union with God occurs in a meditative state, and is delivered through an energy source that fills the entire body with euphoric, electric light. The Japanese call this energy ki, the Chinese Buddhists call it chi, the Balinese call it taksu, the Christians call it The Holy Spirit, the Kalahari Bushmen call it n/um (their holy men describe it as a snakelike power that ascends the spine and blows a hole in the head through which the gods then enter). The Islamic Sufi poets called that God-energy “The Beloved,” and wrote devotional poems to it. The Australian aborigines describe a serpent in the sky that descends into the medicine man and gives him intense, otherworldly powers. In the Jewish tradition of Kabbalah this union with the divine is said to occur through stages of spiritual ascension, with energy that runs up the spine along a series of invisible meridians.

Saint Teresa of Avila, that most mystical of Catholic figures, described her union with God as a physical ascension of light through seven inner “mansions” of her being, after which she burst into God’s presence. She used to go into meditative trances so deep that the other nuns couldn’t feel her pulse anymore. She would beg her fellow nuns not to tell anyone what they had witnessed, as it was “a most extraordinary thing and likely to arouse considerable talk.” (Not to mention a possible interview with the Inquisitor.) The most difficult challenge, the saint wrote in her memoirs, was to not stir up the intellect during meditation, for any thoughts of the mind—even the most fervent prayers—will extinguish

the fire of God. Once the troublesome mind “begins to compose speeches and dream up arguments, especially if these are clever, it will soon imagine it is doing important work.” But if you can surpass those thoughts, Teresa explained, and ascend toward God, “it is a glorious bewilderment, a heavenly madness, in which true wisdom is acquired.” Unknowingly echoing the poems of the Persian Sufi mystic Hafiz, who demanded why, with a God so wildly loving, are we not all screaming drunks, Teresa cried out in her autobiography that, if these divine experiences were mere madness, then “I beseech you, Father, let us all be mad!”

Then, in the next sentences of her book, it’s like she catches her breath. Reading Saint Teresa today, you can almost feel her coming out of that delirious experience, then looking around at the political climate of medieval Spain (where she lived under one of the most repressive religious tyrannies of history) and soberly, dutifully, apologizing for her excitement. She writes, “Forgive me if I have been very bold,” and reiterates that all her idiot babbling should be ignored because, of course, she is just a woman and a worm and despicable vermin, etc., etc. You can almost see her smoothing back her nun’s skirts and tucking away those last loose strands of hair—her divine secret a blazing, hidden bonfire.

In Indian Yogic tradition, this divine secret is called kundalini shakti and is depicted as a snake who lies coiled at the base of the spine until it is released by a master’s touch or by a miracle, and which then ascends up through seven chakras, or wheels (which you might also call the seven mansions of the soul), and finally through the head, exploding into union with God. These chakras do not exist in the gross body, say the Yogis, so don’t look for them there; they exist only in the subtle body, in the body that the Buddhist teachers are referring to when they encourage their students to pull forth a new self from the physical body the way you pull a sword from its sheath. My friend Bob, who is both a student of Yoga and a neuroscientist, told me that he was always agitated by this idea of the chakras, that he wanted to actually see them in a dissected human body in order to believe they existed. But after a particularly transcendent meditative experience, he came away with a new understanding of it. He said, “Just as there exists in writing a literal truth and a poetic truth, there also exists in a human being a literal anatomy

and a poetic anatomy. One, you can see; one, you cannot. One is made of bones and teeth and flesh; the other is made of energy and memory and faith. But they are both equally true.”

I like it when science and devotion find places of intersection. I found an article in The New York Times recently about a team of neurologists who had wired up a volunteer Tibetan monk for experimental brain- scanning. They wanted to see what happens to a transcendent mind, scientifically speaking, during moments of enlightenment. In the mind of a normal thinking person, an electrical storm of thoughts and impulses whirls constantly, registering on a brain scan as yellow and red flashes.

The more angry or impassioned the subject becomes, the hotter and deeper those red flashes burn. But mystics across time and cultures have all described a stilling of the brain during meditation, and say that the ultimate union with God is a blue light which they can feel radiating from the center of their skulls. In Yogic tradition, this is called “the blue pearl,” and it is the goal of every seeker to find it. Sure enough, this Tibetan monk, monitored during meditation, was able to quiet his mind so completely that no red or yellow flashes could be seen. In fact, all the neurological energy of this gentleman pooled and collected at last into the center of his brain—you could see it happening right there on the monitor—into a small, cool, blue pearl of light. Just like the Yogis have always described.

This is the destination of the kundalini shakti.

In mystical India, as in many shamanistic traditions, kundalini shakti is considered a dangerous force to play around with if you are unsupervised; the inexperienced Yogi could quite literally blow his mind with it. You need a teacher—a Guru—to guide you on this path, and ideally a safe place—an Ashram—from which to practice. It is said to be the Guru’s touch (either literally in person, or through a more supernatural encounter, like a dream) which releases the bound kundalini energy from its coil at the base of the spine and allows it to begin journeying upward toward God. This moment of release is called shaktipat, divine initiation, and it is the greatest gift of an enlightened master. After that touch, the student might still labor for years toward enlightenment, but the journey has at least begun. The energy has been freed.

I received shaktipat initiation two years ago, when I met my Guru for the first time, back in New York. It was during a weekend retreat at her Ashram in the Catskills. To be honest, I felt nothing special afterward. I was kind of hoping for a dazzling encounter with God, maybe some blue lightning or a prophetic vision, but I searched my body for special effects and felt only vaguely hungry, as usual. I remember thinking that I probably didn’t have enough faith to ever experience anything really wild like unleashed kundalini shakti. I remember thinking that I was too brainy, not intuitive enough, and that my devotional path was probably going to be more intellectual than esoteric. I would pray, I would read books, I would think interesting thoughts, but I would probably never ascend into the kind of divine meditative bliss Saint Teresa describes.

But that was OK. I still loved devotional practice. It’s just that kundalini shakti wasn’t for me.

The next day, though, something interesting did happen. We were all gathered with the Guru once more. She led us into meditation, and in the middle of it all, I fell asleep (or whatever the state was) and had a dream. In this dream, I was on a beach, at the ocean. The waves were massive and terrifying and they were building fast. Suddenly, a man appeared beside me. It was my Guru’s own master—a great charismatic Yogi I will refer to here only as “Swamiji” (which is Sanskrit for “beloved monk”). Swamiji had died in 1982. I knew him only from photographs around the Ashram. Even through these photographs—I must admit—I’d always found the guy to be a little too scary, a little too powerful, a little too much on fire for my taste. I’d been dodging the idea of him for a long time, and generally avoiding his gaze as it stared down at me from the walls. He seemed overwhelming. He wasn’t my kind of Guru. I’d always preferred my lovely, compassionate, feminine living master to this deceased (but still fierce) character.

But now Swamiji was in my dream, standing beside me on the beach in all his power. I was terrified. He pointed to the approaching waves and said sternly, “I want you to figure out a way to stop that from happening.” Panicked, I whipped out a notebook and tried to draw inventions that would stop the ocean waves from advancing. I drew massive seawalls and canals and dams. All my designs were so stupid and pointless, though. I knew I was way out of my league here (I’m not an engineer!) but I could feel Swamiji watching me, impatient and

judgmental. Finally I gave up. None of my inventions were clever or strong enough to keep those waves from breaking.

That’s when I heard Swamiji laugh. I looked up at this tiny Indian man in his orange robes, and he was veritably busting a gut in laughter, bent over double in delight, wiping mirthful tears from his eyes.

“Tell me, dear one,” he said, and he pointed out toward the colossal, powerful, endless, rocking ocean. “Tell me, if you would be so kind— how exactly were you planning on stopping that?”

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