Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Integrative Spirituality: Grounded Contemporary Perspectives

Surface and Depth

There is a famous quote from one of the early Transpersonal Psychologists, Jack Engler, "You have to be someone before you can be no-one."

This is a very simple and direct way of acknowledging a developmental process. In my workshop series and new 8 CD lecture and yoga class series Radical Transformation: A Map to Mind-Body Ecstasy, I use the chakra system as a way to talk about both the developmental process and the mind-body connection. So I'd like to start by using some of the core themes from those lectures as a way to make some distinctions that I think are important for integrative spirituality. I will briefly touch on: experience vs interpretation, conscious mind vs unconscious mind, ego strength vs ego defense, healthy anger vs toxic anger, compassion vs codependence, insight vs belief, literal vs symbolic and of course prerational vs transrational - for more please consult the CD lectures.

Now it might help to start off by defining what I mean by integrative spirituality. My sense of it is a spirituality that integrates attention to mind and body, integrates Eastern and Western approaches, and integrates psychological and spiritual techniques and frameworks.

This is what Transpersonal Psychology set out to do in the 70's, following on from Jung and Maslow and in the wake of the 60's psychedelic mind-expansion, fascination with Eastern myticism and the important work of people like Alan Watts and Joseph Campbell. This zeitgeist produced the extraordinary work of Ken Wilber, Stan Grof, Jack Kornfield, John Welwood, Jack Engler and other brilliant theorists, clinicians, and serious spiritual practitioners.

One of the key observations in this movement has been looked at from different angles that are all related to the above quote from Engler. Wilber's famous essay The Pre/Trans Fallacy, Welwood's concept of "spiritual bypassing," Stan Grof's observation about the "flight toward the light," and much of Kornfield's work points to the problem of non-integrative spirituality being used in the service of avoiding dealing with the necessary awareness work and emotional healing that continuing development and integration require. In other words, spirituality itself (especially spirituality based in magic, mythic and metaphysical beliefs) can become a defense against actual spiritual and psychological growth.

As far as working in an integrative way - I think of both mind and body as having surface and depth components. There is the (surface) conscious mind and the (depth) unconscious mind, each being home to the ego and the Self. The surface level has to do with mental focus, intentionality and ego-strength, as well as cognitive development, critical thinking, symbol interpretation. Goal-setting, Cognitive Reframing, Concentration and even Witnessing meditations are good here, as well as intellectual pursuits that refine critical and symbolic analysis.

Too little surface mind work and one can be very undisciplined, caught up in drama, chronically self-sabotaging etc..

The depth component of the mind invites us beneath the surface - Vipassana, Tonglen and Lovingkindness meditation, psychotherapy, Holotropic Breathwork, certain kinds of yoga, bodywork, and ecstatic dance, all can take us into that shamanic type space where the defenses come down and we go through an experiential process of working with repressed emotions, painful memories, insecurities and traumas held in the unconscious, as well as archetypal imagery, self-parenting and the arising of insight into our personal process and the universal human condition.

As is more often the case than not - too much surface mind work at the expense of depth mind work can create a kind of over-identification with beliefs, an overvaluing of the power of intention, an emphasis on controlling both reality and one's feelings through the mind, and - as should be obvious, a lack of depth in terms of the psyche/soul.

The less common problem has to do with too much destabilizing depth work and not enough of the grounding, calming, focusing ego-strength buiding of the surface work.

One corrolary to this is a kind of unboundaried overabundance of intuitive awareness with a lack of either the structure of ego-strength or the awareness of the depth work - such that the intuitive stream is often undifferentiated from one's shadow material, projections etc and ends up being overly literalized in a kind of superstitious way. Many sensitive and/or traumatized poeple drawn to spirituality take this route.

In Jungian terminology, this alchemical process is one of creating/strengthening the "ego/Self axis." Another way of saying this is that we open up more of a connection between the deep Self and the surface ego. Overall the healthy psychospiritual process creates a stronger channel of communication between the surface and depth, between our conditioned external self and our authentic inward experience, feelings, needs, thoughts and aspirations. It also frees up blocked energy from unresolved conflicts and allows both the developmental process along several lines to continue and the integrative resonance between those different lines to be more harmonious. When I use the word "lines" I am referring to the Integral concept and specifically for my purposes I am interested in the cognitive, emotional, spiritual, and kinesthetic lines of development.

Another doorway in is to talk about the relationship between intention and process. The intention (surface) creates a doorway into a process (depth) which in turn will re-shape the intention as well as the ego setting the intention through input from the Self. It's a feedbaclk loop.

The Self is constantly communicating with us through things like dreams, intuitions, projections, fantasies, emotions, psychosomatic symptoms. Think of the (deep) Self as being more authentically in touch with what is really going on under the surface of the defenses (rationalization, denial, magical thinking, projection etc) - the Self has a clearer picture of the whole of our experience and has acccess to the disowned shadow material of emotions, desires, experiences, resources and archetypes that our ego has not yet learned to tolerate, actualize, and integrate.

As to the body, I think of the body too as having a surface component in it's structural anatomy and a depth component in it's organ system, glandular and blood chemistry. The surface component of the body is well addressed by physical practices like yoga, other forms of exercise and various kinds of bodywork/massage. The depth component can be well addressed by organ cleansing, nutrition, supplement protocols and the benefits of detoxifying sweat and nervous and glandular system stimulation and modulation created by exercise - particularly in this case - yoga and ecstatic dance.

So in terms of addressing surface and depth in both mind and body - the integrative approach I apply is to synergize finely tuned physical practices that allow space for process with with nutritional cleansing/supplementation and various meditation techniques that train for different skills.

This combination of anatomical, spiritual and psychological approaches adds up to an energetic initiation that is quite profound - and a new heightened awareness of the mind-body connection/process.

Altered States, Kundalini, Unwinding

At their most essential level meditation, yoga, breathwork, psychotherapy and dance all are ways to access a revelatory experience of not just the mind-body connection, but a kind of dropped-in awareness field in which the innate intelligence of the bodymind can rebalance, unwind, spontaneously express and begin to awaken to it's deeper energetic and awareness capacities. Part of this revelatory process can include the arising of the altered state awakenings and psychophysical phenomena attributed in the East to Kundalini and in the West to the somato-psychic wave, somatic discharge, unwinding etc...

These states are accesible at any level of one's developmental process. For the purposes of this discussion let's say that these altered state/energetic processes can arise while one's "altitude" is centered in any of the chakras and can also be the result of an unresolved strand of experience (or even what Grof calls a Co-ex system) emerging from any of the chakras/developmental levels. To clarify, i should say that I think of the chakras as being a) anatomical structures: key "high-charge" muscles, glands, organs, nerve plexi, b) a way of talking about how the inward experience of the body in a particular physical area resonates emotions and energetic qualities, and c) a metaphorical/imaginal way of talking about mind-body matrix and it's developmental and healing processes.

Being Someone

So, to return to our starting point - if you have to be someone to be no-one, what does this mean? One has to have a strong, healthy ego, or sense of self, in order to healthily engage in any kind of transcendence of that ego or sense of self. In terms of my chakra model this means that the developmental process in chakras one through three has to be pretty solid in order to move forward to chakras four though seven in a healthy way. Now of course, chakras one through three have to do with several key issues: the right to exist, survival, taking pleasure in our physicality, emotional and sexual trust, gender identity/value, object relations, sense of self, boundaries, will, self-esteem, to name a few...

The difficulty of course comes in two forms: first, whether we realize it or not, most of us have fairly serious unresolved issues in these earlier chakra levels and second, many if not most people interested in spirituality have come to a spiritual path out of some kind of pain, suffering, longing for something that we do not have/feel. So spirituality actually is a bit of a magnet for wounded people. Now, if the kind of spirituality that is encountered is not integrative, it will likely perpetuate the very defenses (denial, rationalization, magical thinking) that are keeping the ego and the Self from being in an integrated fluid relationship. Often there is so much static because of the elaborate beliefs that people take on in the name of spirituality that it is almost impossible at first to be in touch with any real feelings, to enter into any authentic process of going beneath the surface and listening to the psyche, the body-intelligence, the heart wisdom. Intention is often held up as a supreme control mechanism instead of just step one of a process of going within and healing/growing. Intention is given a kind of literalized magic power to affect outer reality, instead of being understood as a way to focus the mind enough to go under the defensive omnipotent fantasies into the places of vulnerability wherein lies the true gift - our disowned aspects of self.

So in this sense "integrative" also means to integrate the aspects of our experience, feelings, needs, potentials that we have relegated to the unconscious because of various disturbances in healthy development in the first three chakras. It is in defense against dealing with this very primal and often painful material that a kind of prepersonal spirituality can spring up - one that dissociates from having to deal with these feelings and usually judges them as unspiritual, too attached, egoic etc - all as a kind of oversimplified misreading of outdated yogic/buddhist philosophy, and then also buys into various prerational metaphysical explanations for how reality works and how everything from your bank balance to your happiness is a function of your intention or will manifesting.


So let's talk a little about the third chakra in my system. I want to start by making a much-needed distinction between ego-strength and ego-defense. We have a social convention of saying that someone with a lot of bravado and conceit who needs to be the center of attention has a big ego. This is technically incorrect - they actually have a small ego - but a big ego-defense. Another way to say it is that they are lacking in ego-strength and are over compensating with an ego-defense. The last thing this person actually needs to do is have their ego cut down to size by more meditation and fierce diet of transcendence. Why? because you have to somone to be no-one. You need a healthy strong ego before you can drop your ego-defenses. How do you develop ego-strength? well, it comes own to internalizing the kinds of positive feedback that only a small number of people in your life can ever really give you. It has to do with a very vulnerable, very young part of us not having received love, acceptance and the kind of mirroring that allowed a strong sense of self to be internalized.

Now, if one is suffering from low self-esteem it is not enough, nor is it integrative, to simply try to set an intention to be more confident - even if it works it is still at some level just an act. Authentic confidence will develop over time from learning how to be present and loving with the insecure part of yourself. Lovingkindness meditation, certain approaches to practices like yoga and dance, and certain psychotherapeutic techniques (not to mention the healing relationship with a good practitioner) can support that process of that healing inner re-parenting.

Kohut is really the master here: We have a primary narcissism as children that is entirely appropriate and that is asking to be mirrored. We need to feel important, special, loved, accepted, admired etc... If this happens for us we relinquish the primary narcissism with an internalized positive sense of self that can tolerate the disappointments, unfairness and struggles of life as we continue growing. If this does not happen sufficiently and/or if there is abandonment or invasion trauma - then we deveop a secondary nasrcissism that is still attempting to get those needs met and that is part of the coping structure of a poorly developed sense of self (low ego strength) that has a hard time tolerating how unfair, disapppointing and out of my control reality actually is....

On to our second distinction: healthy anger vs toxic anger. i think of anger as a third chakra energy. Healthy anger sets boundaries, communicates violations, expresses moral outrage. Healthy anger can be channeled into hard work, creativity, passionate engagement. Healthy anger can create real intimacy - because it is honest and direct. Toxic anger is usually tied to some kind of repressive cycle such that it builds up and needs to be discharged either by out of proportion reactivity or passive agression. Healthy anger is a function of ego-strength. Toxic anger is usually part of an ego-defense.

Compassion vs Codependence

Now if we are "someone" - meaning if we have a healthy sense of self or ego strength, then we can develop compassion. Compassion in the sense of being able to imagine another's suffering - precisely because we can tolerate feeling our own suffering. Compassion is distinct from codependence. In codependence we imagine that we can fix the other person's suffering and then they will give us the love that we need or then they will admire us in the way that we need. Codependence can also be a kind of merging with another person, whereas from the healhty differentiation of ego-strength we can both imagine how someone's suffering feels and know that it is their suffering and not ours. Being able to imagine their feelings allows us to empathize, knowing where their feelings end and ours begin allows us to not be overwhelmed or burdened in such a way that we might shut down - or try to shut them down. Codependent dynamics based in an inability to tolerate the reality of suffering in ourselves and others are extremely common in non-integrative spirituality and give rise to all sorts of defensive beliefs that are the orthodox lingua franca in some circles.

As we engage in practices that allow development and healing to occur, insight arises. Insight is distinct from belief in one simple way: belief is an outside-in phenomenon. Insight is as the word suggests an inside-out phenomenon. In other words imposing a belief that one has decided is worthwhile, or that one has heard is spiritually correct is very different from going through a process that allows insight to emerge experientially.

Symbolic Thinking and Existential Initiation

As we continue to develop into the higher cognitive stages of what Piaget called formal operations and beyond to what theorists like Wilber and Gebser have called vision logic and integral cognition, we develop deepening abilities to understand systems of meaning, poetic and archetypal symbolism and spiritual metaphor. From these stages we are able to reclaim what the rational stage cast off from the literal mythic and magic stages of development and reinterpret it through the symbolic lens of our deeper more sophisticated capacities.

Personally I feel that the great initiation into genuine transpersonal spirituality has to do with integrating the hard-won development of cognitive, emotional and spiritual lines into an existential awakening to the mind-blowing miraculous sacredness of reality as it is in a way that redefines the old world ways of using those terms and finally understands that words like god and spirit actually refer to our own complete true nature and have been a way of trying to wake up to ourselves all along. In that moment the mysterious and the mundane are revealed as one and the same and any metaphysical construct that needs to somehow look outside of reality as it is is seen as a ghostly substitute for this one brutal, beautiful, unfair, magnificent, tragic, grace-filled ride through the inner and outer cosmos.

It doesn't interest me if there is one God or many gods.

I want to know if you belong or feel abandoned.

If you know despair or can see it in others.

I want to know if you are prepared to live in the world with its harsh need to change you. If you can look back with firm eyes saying this is where I stand.

I want to know if you know how to melt into that fierce heat of living falling toward the center of your longing.

I want to know if you are willing to live, day by day, with the consequence of love and the bitter unwanted passion of sure defeat.

I have been told, in that fierce embrace, even the gods speak of God.

~David Whyte

Riding the Kundalini Dragon: Integrating Altered States

It Begins

"Our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different. We may go through life without suspecting their existence; but apply the right stimulus, and at a touch they are there is all their completeness…

No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded. How to regard them is the question…

William James The Varieties of Religious Experience, p. 388

With this quote from a book published in 1901 by a man whom many regard as the father of psychology, I would like to begin a consideration of both the importance and the trickiness of altered state experience and phenomena, be they energetic, psychological, physiological and/or spiritual.

(Note: I got so involved with the information/perspectives I wanted to share here that a more personal account will appear in the comments section below..)

For now let me just say that my journey began at a young age - I began meditating at 15, emulated my 60's idols by experimenting with psychedelics in an intentional way after reading Tim Leary and Ram Das at 18 while exploring minor rock stardom in South Africa, came to the USA and started yoga at 19. I chased the light of new Age peak experiences in my early 20's - travelled to India, spent time in the ashram with Osho sanyassins, sat with countless satsang teachers, tried hard to create my reality, kill my ego and become one with the universe while remembering my past-lives and putting out the intention to call in my soulmate.......

I ended up realizing that therapy was indispensable, that I was in fact using spiritual beliefs to avoid my deep emotions and the reality of suffering, put in many, many hours on the Holotropic Breathwork mat, went on intense meditation retreats, practiced hardcore yoga early in the morning for years, had my body and psyche ripped open by kamikaze bodyworkers, struggled to make sense of the combination of of light and shadow in my charismatic mentor figures and eventually differentiate from them - and over time developed my own approach to integrating and facilitating energetic and altered state process work via yoga, bodywork, dialog, dance and breathwork.

How then to unpack the power, beauty, terror, magic and wonder of altered states and Kundalini experiences?

I will start by putting my perspective in a context. Ken Wilber's Four Quadrant model from Integral Theory works nicely.

Four Quadrant Gloss

UR = Upper Right
UL = Upper Left
LR = Lower Right
LL = Lower Left

Chemistry and Brain States

We know that from an empirical point of view (UR, Objectivity) consciousness, and more specifically our state of consciousness is a function of brain states and biochemistry. Too little serotonin and one is depressed, too much dopamine and one is in the midst of a manic episode, scarring from head trauma can produce epilepsy, ingest just the right amount of LSD or mescaline and the folds in one’s trousers or the architecture of a rose (as Aldous Huxley famously described in The Doors of Perception) can become imponderably mysterious, beautiful, fascinating and spiritually rich. So too the sense of spaciousness, expansive loss of ego and connection to the cosmos one experiences in deep meditation can be tracked in relationship to brain function as in the recent work of Dr. Andrew Newberg:

"During meditation, people often feel a sense of no space. Scientists investigating the effect of the meditative state on Buddhist monk's brains have found that portions of the organ previously active become quiet, whilst pacified areas become stimulated. Using a brain imaging technique, Dr. Newberg and his team studied a group of Tibetan Buddhist monks as they meditated for approximately one hour. When they reached a transcendental high, they were asked to pull a kite string to their right, releasing an injection of a radioactive tracer. By injecting a tiny amount of radioactive marker into the bloodstream of a deep meditator, the scientists soon saw how the dye moved to active parts of the brain.

Later, once the subjects had finished meditating, the regions were imaged and the meditation state compared with the normal waking state. The scans provided remarkable clues about what goes on in the brain during meditation. "There was an increase in activity in the front part of the brain, the area that is activated when anyone focuses attention on a particular task," Dr Newberg explained. In addition, a notable decrease in activity in the back part of the brain, or parietal lobe, recognized as the area responsible for orientation, reinforced the general suggestion that meditation leads to a lack of spatial awareness.

Dr Newberg explained: "During meditation, people have a loss of the sense of self and frequently experience a sense of no space and time and that was exactly what we saw." The complex interaction between different areas of the brain also resembles the pattern of activity that occurs during other so-called spiritual or mystical experiences."

See here for some informative Q&A about Newberg’s work.

Experiential Awareness and Stage-Based Interpretation

In the subjective personal realm (UL), one’s state of consciousness, and particularly how one interprets those states can be discussed with regard to stages of psychological development, traumas (or complications in that developmental process), self-awareness, spiritual practices, education etc. Most significant here for me are the psychological, spiritual and cognitive lines of development.

I will go into the area of stages of development later, but as to spiritual practice, one of my favorite lines comes from New York Zen teacher Baker Roshi, who says “Enlightenment is an accident, but meditation makes you accident prone.”

In other words: the altered state of consciousness sought by the meditator and the stabilized stage of development in which that state is integrated are not guaranteed by meditation – but meditation does set up the conditions within which that process can occur.

Even more than meditation, we see an ever growing interest in yoga practice, especially because of the positive state change that it creates. While most beginning meditators have a good few years of difficult, boring, frustrating and confronting mental excercise ahead of them before states like the one's Newberg is describing start showing up for more than 5 or 10 seconds at a time, yoga is more predictable more quickly, given the specific stimulation and soothing of the nervous system, glands and brain and the circulatory effects of the physical practice.

I would argue that with specific regard to states of consciousness the UL and UR (or subjective awareness and objective biochemistry )are in an interwoven relationship that is almost impossible to separate. The changes in state that yoga and meditation produce are clearly rooted in physiological processes that involve glandular activity, the nervous system, areas of the brain etc – those processes depend upon an exercising of awareness that trains one in generating the physiological activities that drive the state change via either movement, breath, posture and intention/concentration.

Gopi Krishna’s famous initiation into kundalini is a perfect example. This was an ordinary man practicing meditation without a teacher who happened upon a powerful and harrowing experience of his own UR/UL relationship that led him to the conclusion that there is a biopsychic evolutionary principle dormant in the body. For more see his eloquent and powerful account in the classic Kundalini The Evolutionary Energy in Man.

(Please note that whenever I recommend this book I do so with a disclaimer that will follow further down the page. )

Here in the meantime is a short introduction to Krishna, as well as video of an excellent interview with him. It's worth your while to watch this and perhaps have it open in another window as you keep reading....

Regarding the UR/UL relationship, this line from the interview particularly stands out “Yoga was developed in India to make experiments on the brain.”

A man after Dr. Newberg’s own heart!

Mythic and Cultural Interpretive Overlay

Now on to the cultural context (LL) within which states of conscious arise, are conditioned and interpreted. Of course, both the UL&UR factors described above emerge (or fail to emerge) and are made sense of within a cultural (LL) framework. States of consciousness that are universally possible in human beings will be given very different kinds of support or repression, training and interpretation depending on the society in which they are experienced. It is an individual of rare brilliance, disposition and self-realized insight that can step back from their own cultural framework and see their spiritual/altered state experience on it's own terms and as something ultimately transcendent of that framework.

Notice how Gopi Krishna, whose defining experience happened in 1937, has an absolute clarity about the universally human nature of the revelations that arose for him. He expresses in the interview a (way ahead of his time) multi-cultural inclusivity, but we do still also hear his underlying Vedic philosophy and metaphysics.

Principle One: Consciousness and Physiology are Deeper (More Universal) to the Human Condition than Cultural Differences.

In support of the above principle, see this remarkable article by researcher, yogi, professor and psychotherapist, Dr. Stuart Sovatsky on the cross-cultural similars to Kundalini in which he notes that:

“Kundalini/pranic awakening and its cross-tradition similars—the spontaneous spinal rockings known in Judaism as davening and in Sufisim as zikr; the "taken-over" gyrations of gospel "holy ghost" shaking and dancing and charismatic/pentacostal "mani-festations"; the Dionysian "revel"; Quakerism’s and Shakerism's autonomic quaking and shaking; Tai Chi guided by chi itself; the shamanic trance-dance; Buddhism’s and Raja-Yoga’s effortless "straight back" (uju-kaya) meditation; the yogically derived ecstatic belly-dance and Flamenco; and even the full-bodied, spontaneous Reichian "reflex"—literally embody the spiritual path.”

Sovatsy too is pointing out the innate/endogenous nature of transformational processes in the mind-body matrix.

Social Infrastructure

Lastly (and mostly for symmetry’s sake) I will mention the LR quadrant. Suffice it to say that in the West we have almost no social infrastructure, religious or psychological for understanding and interpreting altered states. Religion has mostly become the domain of belief – with little room for direct experience and introspective/psychophysical practices of the sort that engage initiatory energetic experiences. Psychology with regard to altered states remains mostly the domain of psychiatric intervention and homogenization of consciousness. Notable exceptions are the budding yoga/ecstatic dance/meditation communities – they are doing good work, but there is a lot more to be done with regard to initiating, integrating and contextualizing authentic, discerning stage-wise growth.

I would however be seriously remiss not to mention the work of Stuart Sovastky, Lee Sannella and Stan Grof in creating clinical resources for those going through intense psychophysical (kundalini) process. See here for some interesting info on that...

What seems most important in the creation of intelligent and supportive LR infrastructure/institutions is an integration of both the mind-body spiritual/energetic awareness of what may be occurring for the individual and it’s possible value – as well as the cold-eyed realism of DSM-based psychological assessment. After all, in the words of Meister Eckhart “ The madman is drowning in the same waters that the Holy man swims in…”

In other words a good starting point is this: all kundalini is not psychosis and all mental illness is not kundalini.

Bless This Dragon and All Who Ride Her

So, what is Kundalini?

Well I want to begin by putting this word where I feel it belongs. In India, Kundalini is the name of a mythic serpent goddess, said to reside at the base of the spine – to be awakened from her slumber by yogic practice or spiritual grace. On awakening she moves through the chakras, or major energy centers of the body, cleansing them of physical and emotional blocks and initiating a powerful psycho-spiritual awareness process.

I think it is very important to bear in mind that “kundalini” is one culture-bound signifier for an experience that transcends culture. Also we should bear in mind that mythic symbols always lose a great deal of their potency when interpreted literally – especially with any kind of exotic idealized projection of magic onto another culture or time.

The experience signified by the word “kundalini” – as pre-eminent scholar on the subject , Stuart Sovatsy indicates above, is common to many cultures and goes by many names.

Principle Two: Names and Beliefs are Always Secondary to Practice and Direct Initiatory Experience.

In my own study, personal experience and clinical practice, I have observed phenomena that have led me to the conclusion that the serpentine imagery invoked by both the Kundalini mythology and the caduceus/Hermetic symbology refers to an innate physical process in which the body makes spontaneous movements that :

a) at their most basic level of expression release tension and stress,
b) as they are expressed more deeply bring deeply held emotions to the surface, and
c) as the stress, trauma and conflict get processed ultimately express as an ecstatic and pleasurable full-bodied fluid aliveness.

These movements are called “kriyas” in the yogic tradition, the “reflex” or the “orgasm reflex” in Reichian body-based psychology, “unwinding” in Craniosacral therapy, and are said to relate to “primary process” in Primal Therapy. They are also seen in Network Chiropractic, Shiatsu, Ecstatic Dance and Holotropic Breathwork. The Kalahari Bushmen in Southern Africa have an all-night dance ritual in which certain participants will begin to shake and experience a burning in their spine which they will then be able to share with others in the group via a healing laying on of hands.

The awakening of energy and softening of what Reich called the "body armor" or chronic muscular tensions has implications for every aspect of our psychological and physical functioning - instinctive, sexual, emotional, creative, spiritual etc...

My perspective is that the UL experience signfied by the words chakra, shushumna and kundalini respectively have UR correlates in the nerve plexi that branch off the spinal chord, the dural tissue that surrounds the brain and spinal cord, and the biopscyhic life force energy that is running body and mind.

The video that follows down the page will illustrate how I interact with this reality on a daily basis. What you will not see is the powerful opening into the unconscious and the ensuing psychospiritual process that can also emerge.

Somatic Experiencing creator Peter Levine is a Phd. Biologist who has done fascinating research on the way animals release intense nervous system activation after life-threatening situations by laying down and surrendering to full-bodied release that looks like they are just vigorously “shaking it off” but when the videotape is slowed down it reveals sequences of movement that look like running and biting, fleeing and fighting. The nervous and glandular energy aroused to sustain the threat to survival has been discharged. Levine also teaches that a natural nervous system homeostasis that cycles between tension and release, resource and trauma can be re-accessed and utilized to allow managable and integratable processing of unresolved intense stress that still lurks in our physiology.

So breath, touch, movement, emotional process, all can serve as an entry point into this altered state in which the mind-body system processes, releases, re-enlivens and rebalances itself. In my work I use yoga, dance, breathwork and hands-on bodywork as doorways into this powerful process. The novel and revelatory experience of energy can serve as a resource, as can elements like touch, breath, sensation, music, trust etc...

To learn more about my work see my 8 CD set of lectures and experiential classes: Radical Transformation: A Map to Mind-Body Ecstasy.

To experience my work come on a Transformation Retreat.

In the video below, I, and some close friends from my bodywork and yoga world use breath and touch to release stress and tension – and enter an ecstatic state. In a more formal healing session this work would go on longer and start to access both emotional process and physical structural shifts. Music at the end is by my friend Jesse Hozney from his CD Music for mass Transit. Unfortunately can't find info on the main track - let me know if you recognize it....

Open Sky Bodywork

If you haven’t seen energetic process like this before, it will usually bump right up against the cultural taboos we all carry- taboos about the body, vulnerability, touch and sexuality. Think of the images you are seeing as illustrating the awakening of an embodied ecstatic state of consciousness that is not limited by the shame that those taboos enforce. We are conditioned to live in a very limited framework that does not allow for very much emotional honesty, pleasure, open-ness or vulnerability – and yet it is in the discovery and development of our capacity for precisely those things that we become more fully ourselves and that we awaken to authentic and grounded spirituality.

I would hazard a guess that it is this kind of ecstatic group ritual space that the Christians in ancient Europe (and wherever else they colonized) were so offended by and branded as Satanic or related to witchcraft. In the article above Sovatsky mentions both the pre-Patanjali ecstatic Tantras of ancient India as well as the Dionysian revels of ancient Greece. It should however be noted that the naturally occurrance of energetic process in ancient cultures does not mean that their interpretation or integration benefited from the contemporary perspectives (Integral analysis, mind-body integration, depth psychology, modern science, postmodern insights etc..) we can now bring to bear! The way lies ahead, not behind us...


My initial experiences of energetic unwinding/kundalini came through Holotropic Breathwork, an experiential therapy that involves deep sustained breathing, pre-programmed evocative music and the occasional application of physical bodywork techniques.

The work (like any truly effective practice or therapy) softens the barrier between the conscious and the unconscious mind, and allows physical tensions, repressed emotions, memories, longings and insights to emerge into awareness and be processed in an experiential, embodied way. It produces a profoundly altered state of consciousness in which instinctive animalistic body states, infantile and childhood memories and feelings, unacknowledged truths and deeply spiritual capacities can and do all arise. As this process unfolds it is standard to go through the unwinding/kundalini processes I have been describing.


One of the most striking, perplexing and undeniable stimuli toward altered states has to be psychedelic or entheogenic sacraments.

For the sake of brevity, this piece of writing can only gesture toward all the different reference points I am wanting to establish, so for now I will just say that the use of plant medicines that produce altered states is something that anthropologists have found to be ubiquitous and widespread, from Mesoamerica to Africa to India to Ancient Greece, to Egypt and Sumeria, to the Amazon Rainforest to Mexico to Siberia. For more on this a good starting point is the book Persephone’s Quest by R. Gordon Wasson et al.

There is considerable evidence and highly educated guesswork that suggests that humanity’s interactions with potent psychoactive plants and fungi may have played a major part not only in the development of culture, mythology and spirituality/religion, but also in evolution itself. For more on this see references in Joseph Campbell as well as the more explicit work of ethnobotanist Terrence McKenna and writers like James Arthur, Daniel Merkur, Robert Forte and pre-eminent scholar of world religion Huston Smith.

Stan Grof – called by Ken Wilber the world’s greatest living psychologist, spent his early years doing extensive clinical research on the psycho-spiritual implications of altered states and specifically of the information revealed via psychedelics. He later developed Holotropic Breathwork as an alternative approach when psychedelics were outlawed.


Personally, seeking out and then learning how to integrate altered states has been a central thread in my life story as an adult. From early experiences with psychedelics (like Jack Kornfield, Stan Grof, Ram Das and most of my counter-culture spiritual heroes) to meditation retreats, psychotherapy, bodywork, holotropic breathwork and yoga, I have found that altered states present two very difficult problems with regard to integration:

Principle Three: States and Stages Are Not the Same Thing.

In the altered state the barrier between the conscious and the unconscious mind becomes more permeable – creativity blossoms, mythic archetypes emerge, long hidden emotions and memories arise and potential spiritual capacities like compassion, insight, and equanimity may be experienced.

See Stan Grof for more on this, but also Abraham Maslow, particularly his idea of “self-actualizers “ who guide their lives by their “peak experiences.”

What Transpersonal Psychology has grown to understand in the last 40 years is that entry into a peak altered state, while convincing and authentic at the time is not the equivalent of having reached the stage of development to which the state is alluding.

In other words a vision of the mountain top doesn’t mean you don’t still have to start climbing from the bottom when the vision fades...

Principle Four: While Altered States are Available to Everyone Regardless of their Stage of Development, One’s Interpretation of the Altered State will be Entirely Dependent on One’s Psychograph (or combined developmental profile.)

In other words: One’s general stage of development will determine how one interprets the altered state once they are back in their steady state. So the same experiential territory might be interpreted completely differently by someone with a literalist faith in mythic religion, as opposed to someone who has done a lot of psychological work, as opposed to someone who is very invested in New Age metaphysics, or someone who has a background in Adveita Vedanta. The tricky part is that because the (primary) altered state is so convincing, our (secondary) interpretive lens will be lent an often unwarranted authority….

This is a very difficult trap to side-step - and then proceed with as grounded and accurate an interpretation as is possible...

So integration has to include perhaps both the attempt to step back and look at the experience with some degree of objectivity, as well as consulting with guides or “community of the adequate” members whom we trust and respect. This will help put altered state work squarely in the necessary "three strands of science realm."

Integration, as well as even being able to manage altered states is also a function of something I call the “trauma/resource ratio.” Each of us has a different ratio between overwhelming traumatic occurrences and resources that support groundedness, self-esteem, compassion, courage etc…This is not something we choose but is the product of the complex relationships between genetics, life experience, childhood, gifts and abilities we have been able to develop etc… The trauma/resource ration will determine how well we are able to manage and integrate altered states of consciousness and energetic process.

Difficulty in managing and/or integrating altered states and energetic process can show up as:

* Ungroundedness or Dissociation
* Regressive Worldview/Belief System
* Overwhelming/Out of Control Physiological Symptoms
* Psychotic Delusions
* Extreme Narcissistic Inflation
* Obsessive Chasing of the Peak State
* Rationalization/Denial of Reality in Favor of "Other Realms"
* Complete Lack of Self-Care Resources

(Sidenote: Cults and toxic Gurus rely on these elements to keep people disempowered and "hooked in".)

Although we do not choose the trauma/resource ratio we start with, we can choose to become authentically aware of our situation and do the crucial work to cultivate resources while finding safe spaces to process trauma. At various stages in one's cycle it is often necessary to step away from practices that evoke energetic proces and/or altered states and spend some time doing the crucial but unglamorous work of grounding, soothing, re-orienting and integrating.

In Closing

I said earlier that I always recommended Gopi Krishna's classic book on Kundalini with a disclaimer/caveat. the reason for this is that Krishn'as experience as recounted in the book is terrifying and somewhat psychotic in places and I have my own theory regarding this aspect of the book.

My observations:

* He had no physical practice to keep him grounded and facilitate processing the powerful energy that was washing though him.
* (In predictably culturally influenced ways) He reveals a very puritanical attitude toward sexuality and
* A very stoic attitude toward emotions. ( So neither his sexuality nor his emotions were outlets for expression, release and relief - they were held in dualistic regard as not being sacred or part of the process. Danger!)
* He felt he had to hide his experience from others. ( A set-up for deepening alienation and paranoia.)
* He had no guidance and no community.

This is a perfect set-up for a pretty bumpy ride. Lots of repression and very little resource - his journey really is very traumatic. That said it is still an eloquent and powerful account of energetic initiation and deep self-realization.

In contrast and by way of conclusion i want to reiterate that energetic process and altered states are powerful, universal human experiences that can, under the right conditions, be utilized responsibly, beautifully and in ways that create not only exciting experiences but also genuine stage-wise growth. This possibility is well-served by:

* An Integral 4 quadrant framework.
* Active cultivation of resource.
* Safe space for processing trauma.
* Responsble, knowledgable and experienced teachers/guides/healers
* Transformational community
* Physical practices that move energy.
* Shadow work that allows for deep emotional process.
* Three strands of science type methodology.
* Continuing education and practice.

These combine well with the four principles I suggested through the piece, and which I will reiterate here:

* Consciousness and Physiology are Deeper (More Universal) to the Human Condition than Cultural Differences.
* Names and Beliefs are Always Secondary to Practice and Direct Initiatory Experience.
* States and Stages Are Not the Same Thing.
* While Altered States are Available to Everyone Regardless of their Stage of Development, One’s Interpretation of the Altered State will be Entirely Dependent on One’s Psychograph.

Thanks for your time!

Reading/Media List:

As listed above, my CD set Radical Transformation: A Map to Mind-Body Ecstasy
Kundalini: The Evolutionary Energy in Man Gopi Krishna
Peter Levine Waking The Tiger
Ken Wilber Collected Works Volume Four: Integral Psychology & Transformations of Consciousnesss
Stan and Christina Grof The Stormy Search for the Self
Alexander Lowen Bioenergetics
Donald Kalsched The Inner World of Trauma

The Four Initiations


I want to talk about four key initiatory thresholds that define 21st Century Spirituality in the realms of Body, Mind, Shadow and Spirit.

In order for spirituality to be substantive it has to include both a theoretical and an experiential component - and those two components have to be in an evolving dialog of inquiry.

In other words it's not enough just to have a cool sounding theory or belief system that you then filter everything through, and it's not enough just to have some groovy experiential space that you enter via a practice, activity or other stimulus. Nor is it even enough to have both an experiential and a theoretical aspect that are somehow connected. I am saying that what is essential is that the theoretical/mental framework and the experiential process have to inform one-another in a genuinely inquiry-based way and thus be in an evolving organic process that is about authentic relationship to truth, beauty and goodness.

The questions: What is true? What is beautiful? What is good? invite us into an open-ended inquiry that keeps the process alive and honest. They force us to reallly look at the veracity of what we think/believe as well as it's ethical implications and it's relatiionship to that intuitive sense of beauty/elegance/meaning in the high sense. When something is innately beautiful it reflects what is deeply true. When we are interested in what is true we are more likely to act for the good. When we are in touch with the good there will be a sense of beauty that we are striving towards.

So these three questions create the conditions in which a kind of spiritual excellence - what the greeks called Arete, can arise. The tricky part is that these three questions do not make us comfortable and they do not give us any easy answers - rather they insist that we engage, inquire and struggle with life as-it-is.

This noble struggle can lead to four key initiations that I see as rites of passage into an integrated 21st Century Spirituality. These four initiations arise in the four domains of Body, Mind, Shadow and Spirit.

Like all initiations they ask us to open to something new and to leave something behind. They invite us into a serious transformational process that takes time and is nothing less than a reshaping of who we are and how we hold our life experience and relate to the world.

As I work with students in all four domains, I invite the use of three key principles: breath, presence and compassion as touchstones and resources along the way.

I will give a brief summary here and then take another four seperate blog posts to expand into each of the initiations:


This is the area where I spend a lot of time on a daily basis, guiding people into a deepening relationship to their bodies. Many approaches to spirituality ignore or avoid the body, but being grounded in one’s physical body is the foundation of 21st Century spiritual practice. The first initiation is into the sacred nature of this body - the only body that you have. Using sensation-based meditation, breathing techniques, yoga, touch and movement I introduce students to an experience of the body as an energetic doorway into ecstasy and deep healing.

This is not abstract, nor does it require any belief. I am talking about a direct experience of both energy flow and the emotions held in the body that confounds the rational mind and is not under the control of the ego - like any initation it is an opening to an ontological reality that was not previously known...and it is extremely potent.

Here is a demonstration of Open Sky Bodywork (formerly Core Sequencing) by myself and some fellow initiates into ecstatic energy....

(To understand more of what you are seeing in this video go to my Riding the Kundalini Dragon article here.)


Many spiritual approaches remain faithful to the ubiquitous cultural taboo against acknowledging shadow material and it's associated deep feelings.

Deep feeling is a doorway into the soulful language of the heart. Rather than avoiding, denying or judging our emotions, 21st Century Spirituality invites an open space for deep feeling wisdom and authentic healing. The second initiation is into our emotional intelligence. Using heart-based meditation and breathing techniques I encourage non-judgmental awareness of the feeling body and creates a sacred space for healing, forgiveness and love. This lays the foundation for profound shadow-work. In our "shadow bag" we carry everything that has been denied, repressed, avoided, demonized etc.. For all of us this means rage, grief, shame, fear, trauma, bbut it can also mean sexuality, creativity, intelligence, intution and many other things that our family or society deemed unacceptable for us to express/develop.

Stepping outside the pervasive circle of shadow denial is terrifiying at first, but becomes revelatory and empowering as we learn how to tolerate the new awareness.


Using and developing the mind is something that either gets completely avoided and seen as unspiritual or "in the way" by many approaches, or gets oversimplified and distorted into the magical thinking "you create your own reality" credo by other approaches.

The initiatiion I am interested in here is two-fold. First, it has to do with strong rational development that utilizes healthy critical thinking (what is true?) to develop discernment that is related to ethics (what is good?). Second, it has to do with cognitive development into the area of interpretive, symbolic, metaphorical intelligence that can engage in hermeneutics at the level of poetry, mythology, art and mysticism (what is beautiful?).

Developing the mind and keeping it strongly engaged is a key component of 21st Century Spirituality. In a sense the initiation here is one of turning the power of the rational gaze and the interpretive intelligence onto our inner an outer worlds with an unflinching integrity.


In all three of the previous initiations there is a window opened into a deepening awareness of the essential consciousness that stands in it's everpresent clarity at the center of mind and body, shadow and light. The three key elements that I invoke and invite people to keep returning to: breath, presence and compassion can also be seen as three names for "spirit."

Yoga, meditation, intelllectual inquiry, dance, breathwork, bodywork, emotional release all are rivers that find their culmination in any given moment in the ocean of spirit.

21st Century spirituality recognizes the paradox of process and is-ness of immanence and transcendence. In the midst of the process of mental development, emotional excavation, body awakening there are moments, glimpses of freedom, grace, beauty, pleasure, compassion, forgiveness that give the impression of what we can only call "spirit."

Through an authentic and grounded recogntion of and work with the intergated/overlapping domains of mind, body and shadow the fourth initiation occurs - that of recognizing the entire process and it's ground as being itself spirit.

There is nothing to believe in, no need for metaphysics, just an awakeness to what is and on ongoing inquiry into truth, beauty and goodness, via breath, presence and compassion - as well as a stillpoint, a clearing in which it is all arising and passing away...



Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Science & The Sacred: Love, Happiness & Attachment

Was the Buddha the greatest psychologist of the last three thousand years, or was he over-reacting a little? Does true happiness lie in a methodical release of our attachments in order to achieve perfect liberation, or might this be a recipe for imbalance? Surely there is wisdom in learning to let go, but perhaps investing ourselves in love and finding purpose are also essential to the joyful life.

In The Happiness Hypothesis, Jonathan Haidt writes that he considered the Buddha to be the greatest psychologist of the last three thousand years, until Haidt’s research revealed something interesting: passionate engagement with what matters to us in life is key to finding resilience, meaning and fulfillment – not a life lived in dispassionate nonattachment. Haidt, an associate professor at the University of Virginia and a leading light in the positive psychology movement, says we know now that the strongest indicators for human happiness are meaningful intimate relationships with others, along with a sense of purpose in our work and feeling like part of a community. But he doesn’t discard the dharma completely. On the contrary, The Happiness Hypothesis asserts that meditation is one of the only methods validated by research for overcoming depression and positively retraining the brain.

This got me thinking about my own journey. As a diligent meditator and yogi in my twenties, I aspired to what I thought of as a Buddha-like freedom from attachments. The ideal for me was to become a still point of centered awareness: unmoved by life, not needing anyone or anything, free from worldly ambitions – and living, I now see, at a safe distance from my emotions. For me finding balance through my thirties meant seeing that my practice was in some ways perpetuating a kind of disconnection from feeling and living fully. There was also a way it was preventing me from loving deeply. It has taken time and effort to integrate an embrace of my body and heart into what was a very mental and somewhat escapist approach to spirituality, and to realize that it is in the rest of my life that the fruits of my time on the yoga mat and meditation cushion are truly revealed.

My journey into balance includes using both yoga practice and the Buddha’s vipassana meditation as a way to dive deeply into my body and mind. I have had to relearn how to work with the natural emotions, desires and needs that are part of this human experience. What was missing in my earlier practice was compassion and self-acceptance. I came to understand that this had deep psychological roots not only in myself, but also in the common spiritual desire to transcend our vulnerable and mortal humanity. This lack of intimacy with myself was reflected in my personal relationships. Practicing in this new way began to profoundly impact my ability to love and be loved.

In discussing the importance of love relationships, Haidt draws on the research of Harry Harlow and John Bowlby that became the foundation for something called attachment theory.

In Harlow and Bowlby’s defining experiment, baby monkeys were given the choice between a wire mommy doll with a milk-giving tube and one covered in soft cloth without a feeding tube. They would routinely choose the soft mommy, demonstrating their need for soothing physical contact over and above even the need for food. Haidt writes about how our early sense of love, safety and bonding with our care-givers shapes not only how we show up in our adult romantic relationships but also how we eventually relate to our own children. All of this has to do with how we form healthy attachments, and how at both the psychological and biological levels we need to love and be loved to be healthy. The research confirms that physical affection and compassionate relating literally balance our nervous and immune systems, build resilience in response to stress, allow our brains to grow in healthy ways and give us confidence and trust in others and the world around us.

Click here to read the rest of this article at!

Science & The Sacred: Mirrors of Compassion

While teaching a workshop recently, I tried something I had never done before: I demonstrated a sequence without speaking a word. In the hushed movement of our shared breath, the participants observed my modified sun salutation and organized themselves into pairs to take turns witnessing one another. I was hoping to engage a recently identified capacity of the brain that we use all the time, called the mirror neuron system. Discovered by accident when researchers noticed that the same neurons in a macaque monkeys’ brain fired when the monkey reached for food, as when the monkey saw a researcher reach for food, mirror neurons have since been the subject of much study and speculation. Whether we’re considering the brains of macaques or humans, certain brain cells fire as if we were performing the same movements we see in others – even when we are completely still.

The breakthrough technology of functional magnetic imaging (fMRI) – which allows us to track the areas of the brain that are active, while actually engaged in tasks or activities, has found a more complex mirror neuron system in human beings, as compared to the simple mirror neurons in the macaque example. The application of mirror neurons in rehabilitating injuries is being studied, since a person could watch someone else performing a physical task and engage the brain function. There may also be profound spiritual implications. In my workshop exercise, I wanted to facilitate a shift out of the realm of verbal instruction and into this more immediate transmission of mind-body information; this wasn’t just monkey-see, monkey-do – I had an additional, deeper intention.

It turns out that some theorists (amongst them Stephanie Preston and Frans de Waal) believe the mirror neuron system may be involved in how we feel empathy, which is the capacity to intuit someone else’s feelings and imagine them as our own. It is the case that there are mirror neurons for emotions as well as for movement. Studies by Christian Keysers at the Social Brain Lab in the Netherlands show a correlation between experiencing more emotional empathy and having a high degree of activity in the movement mirror neurons. This suggests that the two systems may be linked.

Click here to read the rest of this post at

Toward a 21st Century Model of Healing

Toward a 21st Century Model of Healing
Integrating Yoga, Bodywork, Neuroscience and Somatic Psychology

* Weaving The Strands

In my recent Introduction to Open Sky Bodywork seminar, the pertinent question was raised as to what we mean by the word "healing" and if indeed the sometimes dramatic and powerful experiences that people can have on the massage table can be designated as "healing." We didn't have time on the day to really get into this important and juicy conversation, so I wanted to take a little time right now to share some of my thoughts on the matter.

There are three schools of thought I want to reference in pointing out what I think are substantive claims of healing:

1. The Somatic Experiencing work of biologist Peter Levine.
2. The broad understanding of the post-Reichian body-based psychologists. (That’s Reich, not Reiki in case you’re wondering!)
3. The rapidly advancing discipline of Neuroscience or brain research.

As we will see these three converging areas of inquiry have significant overlap with one-another as well as with yoga and bodywork.

* The Physiological Self (Nervous System)

Peter Levine created his physiology-based trauma healing model because as a biologist he observed that animals in the wild handled trauma differently than did contemporary humans. After surviving a life threatening interaction, like being hunted as prey, getting into a territorial fight or being scared by a helicopter that carried biologists who were tagging the animal for conservation research – he noticed that the animal would go through a physiological discharge of the “energy” that had been mobilized via the secretion of adrenaline, autonomic nervous system activation, increased heart rate, blood rushing to the fight or flight muscles etc.

To do this, when safe again the creature would lie down, shake and tremble. Slowed-down videotape of their movements revealed reveal that their bodies were going through the motions of running, biting, clawing – in other words their systems were enacting the instinctive fight and flight responses in order to complete the process begun by the activation. Even though we still have the same instinctive and physiological responses to stressful situations, for the most part human beings no longer allow this process – a kind of physiological re-set, to occur.

Levine's Somatic Experiencing techniques are a meditative body-based way of accessing this physiological intelligence and allowing for the manageable discharge of this pent up energy. His observation of the physical process that animals go through is, as you will see as we continue, consistent with data from other fields and with some of what we are working with in Open Sky Bodywork. A central idea from Levine that I have borrowed is that of identifying "resources" in one's experience that help create a sense of safety, grounding, compassion and empowerment - and using these (in the form of images, words, colors etc) as a way to mediate the energy discharge associated with trauma or overwhelming experience/feelings.

* The De-Armored Self (Musculature)

Wilhelm Reich was a student of Sigmund Freud. What many forget is that Freud was himself a “nerve doctor” – and that the foundations of his psychoanalytic approach came from his theorizing about how patients expressed their inner lives through their physical symptoms of anxiety, trauma, grief and so on. Rather than staying with the “talking cure,” Freud's student, Reich began mirroring his patients physical postures back to them as they talked about their thoughts, feelings and experiences – and then experimented with using his hands to work on the muscles where he found “emotional knots.” Reich later also incorporated breathing exercises and physical movements into his hands-on approach to addressing the psyche through the body. Independent of input from any other traditions, Reich then observed something that we yogis/healers would discuss in terms of the words “prana,” “chi” or “energy.” (Of course we should note that in the current “spiritual” climate, most of what gets paid lip-service re: energy in a very vague way has very little to do with the kind of powerful, authentic and process-oriented reality being discussed.)

Reich found that when people released layers of muscular tension (which he called “body armoring”) and the often associated deep feelings, they would experience “streaming” sensations – as they went still further their bodies would express something he called “the reflex.”

Reich observed that the more people processed through their emotional repression, got in touch with their bodies and released their armoring, the more available they would be to honest vulnerability, authentic intimacy and full-bodied sexual experience in their personal relations. Because of this powerful connection between embodied feeling and sexual surrender he sometimes also called the reflex – the “orgasm reflex.” This wave like motion that included the whole body in a powerful and pleasurable experience of flow. Of course this movement would be impeded by body-armoring and by one’s resistance to certain core emotions or the unprocessed trauma.

This is of course related to the yogic description of kundalini.

* The Neuronal Self (Brain)

Neuroscience has been a most exciting exploding field of inquiry for the last 20 years or so. New innovations in technology have allowed us to photograph the activity of the brain while it is working – in real time as people are engaged in all manner of experiences, including emotions, learning and the profoundly heightened states experienced by long term meditators.

In addition, the last 10 years has given us the science of neuroplasticity – a new understanding of the “plastic” nature of the brain. It was thought for much of the 20th century that much more of the brain was hard-wired than is actually the case. Neuroscience research has shown that the brain is a lot more fluid in it’s neural pathways than previously imagined. With regard to spiritual practice and experience of healing states this is particularly fascinating and pertinent.

Let’s not jump the gun here – neuroplasticity does not imply that everything is absolutely change-able, or change-able in the blink of an eye, that’s a fantasy. Nor does neuroplasticity mean (as some like to claim)we can magically overcome the laws of physics just by willing it so - sorry! But it does tell us, for example, that the grieving process has to do with how we shed neural associative pathways and literally “let go” of old emotional investments. A key principle in this field is that “neurons that fire together wire together,” also that when the reward system is engaged the new wiring is that much stronger. The reward system is that combination of brain and endocrine (glandular) function that generates pleasurable feelings – elation, bliss, ecstasy etc…

What does this mean in practical terms? Well, if we think of transformational disciplines as being about rerouting brain activity, and breaking ingrained patterns – there is enough evidence now to be support the hypothesis that practices which take us into heightened states of consciousness, allow for release of physical/emotional tension and create feelings of well-being may deliver literal transformation and quantifiable healing. Also, that repeated entry into heightened states from the subtle to the ecstatic, may well be a means of positively transforming brain function.

Think of it this way – the negative experiences and traumas in our lives have created loops of association and left traces of un-integrated memories in our brains and nervous systems. Experiential practice, handled in the right way may be able to make us more conscious of those patterns and their meaning and allow for retraining of the neural pathways and hence our responses to, and experience of, our lives. This is not as simple as just magically “believing” the idea or doing some quick-fix ritual – it takes time and involves not only good guidance, but a lot of discipline, patience, compassion and courage. However, the implications are both encouraging and validating of experiences that I and many others have had of Open Sky Bodywork, yoga, meditation and other approaches like cranio-sacral therapy and holotropic breathwork.

To return to Peter Levine’s Somatic Experiencing work for a moment – one of the key dynamic principles in this model is the interplay between the “trauma vortex” and the feelings of being “resourced.” Training our physiology to have access to states of feeling resourced is one of the central aspects of this work. The question here is: What connects you to feeling safe, grounded, supported, in touch with beauty, love, gratitude, pleasure etc?

Sensations, images, places, people can all serve as resources – and the resources are the support system that allows for the manageable discharge of the pent up energy that gets “triggered” when we are confronted with situations that remind us unconsciously of the unresolved events or experiences.

One last observation from neuroscience that is also significant has to do with how we encode memory in the brain. When we are under the extreme stress of traumatic experience a part of the brain called the hippocampus gets shut down by the stress chemicals. The hippocampus is associated with encoding details of the memory like time and place and the sense of self in midst of it. “I was 10 years old, it was on the way home from school and the bully threw a stone at me.”

Another part of the brain – the amygdala encodes memory at a more primitive level – perceptions, raw emotions, without any time, place or sense-of-self information. Usually (after 18 months of age) the two work together in our memory system, but in the face of unbearable or overwhelming experience the hippocampus is shut down and the memory is only encoded at this raw, primal amygdala level.

This means that when associations trigger the unresolved scary or painful memory we often feel as if it is happening in the present. Think of the Iraq veteran who hears a car backfire outside the house and goes into a classic PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) response in which he hides under the bed for hours holding the broomstick as if it were a rifle. Healing involves integrating hippocampus and amygdala function so that those memories and their feelings and instinctive responses can be experienced, discharged, and contextualized - as we will see in a moment.

Luckily most of us do not have trauma that severe, but all of us have unresolved experiences and feelings – its just part of being human. Does this make us “broken?” No, not at all, it just mean that part of any spiritual path should include ways of addressing this unresolved material so as to help us grow, heal and feel more integrated.

The third level of the memory system has to do with neo-cortex functioning that allows us to make sense of our experience and weave it into the narrative of our lives. At this level, we interpret meaning and the memory is integrated as part of our long term identity, understood as belonging to a certain time and place, playing a role in shaping who we are, and as something we are either relatively OK with or still working out.

So the idea here is of a three stage process of memory in the brain that can be derailed by unbearable experience that we do not have the resources to manage. Healing in this context has to do with integrating those three stages or levels - so that we can make sense of our life experiences and understand the narrative of our lives (using the neo-cortex), locate the memory of the experience in time and place with a sense of self (using the hippocampus) and discharge the intense activation/trigger response (caused by the amygdala.)

My sense is that this i what happens when any transformational experience is truly effective - be it a psychotherapy appointment, deep meditation, yoga class, breathwork, ecstatic dance experience or Open Sky Bodywork session. Of course all of these different ways-in will have their own variables and flavor, and healing/integration is not the only thing going on - there may also be moments that are filled with the light of joy, playfulness, pleasure, relaxation, beauty, love and peace. However, approaches that intelligently make space for the shadow-work of deep healing paradoxically also open up space for more light - and for that light to be more grounded in the reality of being human.

* Getting Grounded In The Wild (Integration of East and) West

Given the above schools of thought I think we may now be ready to discuss what I mean when I refer to Open Sky Bodywork as an approach to healing.

Most often in more alternative/holistic/spiritual circles the word "healing" has one of two connotations, one pretty sublime and one fairly ridiculous! The sublime connotation has to do with entering a state of very deep relaxation, feeling cared for, safe - and by the end of the session, de-stressed. This is really nice. On the other hand, the ridiculous connotation runs the gamut from the “removal” of supposed alien implants to people claiming to heal traumas or "clear stuck energy" using everything from magic spells to supposed “quantum technologies” (don’t get me started on the ubiquitous and willful misinterpretation of quantum physics to back up nonsensical beliefs!) to “channeled spirit guides," wood sprites, still more aliens, to - well you get the idea...

This is most often fairly innocuous, well-meaning silliness with perhaps some beneficial relaxation. The tricky part is that these more exotic healing varietals usually require buying into some pretty far-fetched beliefs about the nature of the body, mind, life, hell - the entire universe itself! This presents difficulties in terms of being a well-integrated, grounded, emotionally honest human being - something I think any effective healing or practice-oriented modality should have as it's crucible.

I should quickly point out that the approach I am sharing in my yoga trainings, bodywork seminars and ongoing public workshops can be prone to it's own confusion. Start throwing around words like “energy” and “healing,” and you are bound to run into some pretty wild and wooly associations and beliefs.

The experience is often of pretty fascinating heightened states of consciousness, our bodies go through spontaneous motions understood in various traditions as "somato-psychic release," "unwinding," "kriyas," "kundalini," or "the reflex" - for now let's just call it energetic process. But that's not enough - let's define the term as referring to the release of pent up tension in the body. Why use the word "energy?" Because in the felt experience of this kind of process there is heat, tingling, trembling and often an outpouring of emotion - it's a global experience of the body and mind that involves the nervous and endocrine systems and the brain in a very powerful innate response that is common to multiple cultures and traditions throughout human history.

The important question for a 21st century model is this: what is the common element in all of these methods/traditions? The answer of course is the human body and mind. It is not necessary to buy into any otherworldly supernatural or fanciful metaphysical beliefs to inquire into intellectually and embrace experientially the process I am describing and that we were exploring in the workshop. In fact those kinds of speculative, ungrounded beliefs can actually obstruct both the healing/awakening process and our understanding of it.

Myths, metaphors and symbols are by definition non-literal ways of representing experience and ideas. This is why poetry can so powerfully express what cannot otherwise be directly spoken. Think of the symbols I am about to reference as a kind of poetry that seeks to describe an innate human experience. The cultural context and style of the symbols will always be an expression of the given time and place, but the essential experience being represented is available to us now – and should not be confused with a superstitious literal “belief” in the cultural baggage that may also come with the poetry.

The caduceus symbol still used today by the American Medical Association, and seen in yogic, Egyptian, hermetic and alchemical iconography may be a remnant of this kind of experience being prevalent in esoteric traditions. The kundalini serpent goddess said to move through the spine of the yogic initiate, cleansing each chakra level of the body and mind as it moved is, like all mythic symbols, indicative of an actual (but not literal) experiential process. In other words the experience is real - but the serpent goddess is symbolic of the experience. How we then make sense of the experience is another question I will deal with in a moment.

The yogis chose serpents as the symbol of this energetic process because of their undulating motion - a motion me see mimicked in belly-dancing, echoed in love-making, a movement that has it's genesis in the spermatozoan swimming toward the ovum and even deeper than that in the movement of subatomic particles.

The human body is a pulsating, undulating organism. Think heartbeat, blood flow, the peristalsis of digestion, the contractions of orgasm, the movement of cerebrospinal fluid around the brain and spinal cord. When we are "moved" by emotion we tremble, shudder, giggle, leap and sometimes fall over – sometimes we dance or run or engage in the precisely controlled movement of playing a musical instrument to express those feelings.

Indeed, the experience of emotion is a physical event in the body involving blood, hormones, neurotransmitters, nerves, muscles and the brain itself. A simple way of thinking about it is this: the more contraction around any given experience or feeling we have the more we restrict this free flowing, undulating process from doing what it needs to do.

*Holy Trinity

The human brain can be divided into three portions, each a product of the evolutionary process. First the reptilian brain - responsible for instincts and impulses it is the oldest and most primitive part of the brain. Next comes the limbic brain, common only to mammals - it is what gives creatures like dogs, cats, monkeys, dolphins and humans our emotional intelligence. No mater how much you dote on your pet lizard she is quite simply never going to bond with you and be attuned to your moods in the ways exhibited by a Labrador. Next comes the neo-cortex - the most recently evolved brain structure, largest in humans and responsible for all the higher brain functions we associate with very intelligent mammals.

The neo-cortex makes possible poetry, architecture, music, this piece of writing, the computer you are reading it on, the fact that none of us died of smallpox, because a vacine was discovered – we could go on and on. But it has one interesting downside: the neo-cortex has the power to over-ride the limbic emotional responses (resulting in emotional repression) and the reptilian instinctive responses (resulting in the blocking of the discharge Peter Levine observed in other animals.)

Of course the ability to over-ride instinctive impulses and emotional reactions is not a bad thing! It is part of our evolving intelligence that has enabled us to live in peaceful societies, follow laws and consider the rational details of a situation or the perspective of another in situations where we might otherwise lash out violently or cling to a irrational emotional interpretation. So the way forward has to do with a healthy integration of our emotional, instinctive, rational and creative/imaginative faculties.

One of the central challenges lies in continuing to differentiate the inner and outer worlds so that we can understand more clearly the relationships between the two. This has not been done at all well by old world religion or new age spirituality – nor has narrow science done us any favors in this regard. But I will save that theme for a chapter I am currently working on for my book: The Scientist and The Sage.

* Open Sky Bodywork (click for video)

The approach I have developed over the last 12 years integrates the above information with several key elements:

1. Hands-on techniques that both generate energy in the system and evoke heightened states of consciousness.
2. An understanding of the structural anatomy of the body.
3. A deep respect for the vulnerability and complexity of holding space for deepening awareness and profound healing, that includes bringing cognitive awareness to the process and exploring meaning and biographical narrative via dialog.
4. Working with a set of specific “high-charge” muscles that tend to allow entry into mind-body energetic/emotional process.
5. Finding ways to weave the “resourcing” aspects of the experience – pleasure, beauty, safety, novelty etc into the aspects that have to do with integrating previously unresolved feelings and traumatic moments that may be very vulnerable.
6. Exploring mind-body relationships regarding chronic tension and pain syndromes.
7. Educating clients and students about the powerful and beautiful possibilities of an integrated and effective 21st century approach to spiritual practice and mind-body healing/personal growth.

Over the years I have been privileged to support and bear witness to:

a) The reduction or healing of chronic pain syndromes.
b) The healing of deep emotional trauma in ways that created improved well-being and enjoyment of life.
c) The healing of sexual traumas in ways that freed up a previously fearful or inhibited relationship to the body, pleasure and intimacy.
d) The return to healthy menstrual cycle and ensuing pregnancy after years of frustration.
e) The relinquishing of long-held defensive belief systems that perpetuated dissociation, emotional blunting, self-blame and an unrealistic relationship to both inner and outer life.
f) The beautiful initiation into the further possibilities of embodied ecstasy, self love and re-sacralizing of the real world and one’s actual life.

*How does this happen?

I am of course not 100% sure – and I am excited to do a more in-depth empirical study, but here is what I think:

By engaging in our own ongoing dedicated, substantive practices we experientially cover the territory of mind-body process in our own lives and continue developing discernment, compassion, insight and our own integration.

By creating sacred safe space for others and relating to their bodies and minds with respect, kindness and curiosity, we open up the possibility for healing.

By enacting a grounded context with regard to the reality of suffering, the importance of authentic emotions and the healthy raised eyebrow toward dissociated beliefs we encourage healthy integration, grown-up spirituality, and genuine self-compassion.

By using asana, breath, touch, music, and any other environmental elements we start to activate energy and create a shift into heightened states of consciousness. Innate mechanisms in the brain, nervous and myo-fascial systems then emerge as we enter into mind-body process. We can guide this process by working with the high charge points and see how it relates to the structure of the body and places where chronic tension is causing pain – often there are underlying emotions and/or traumas implicated in these relationships. We can also respond in the moment to the process in a myriad of ways that generate feelings of well-being, safety, support etc. This helps smooth out the process and makes what was unmanageable before, manageable now. Which in a way might be a definition of “healing.”

Of course, how I do this on a daily basis may take a while to share, but hopefully this overview gives a sense of what the territory I am excited to share with you looks like!

Coming up:

June 11: Awakened Heart, Embodied Mind: A workshop with Hala Khouri & Julian Walker

August 29 - September 13 & November 3 - 17: Awakened Heart, Embodied Mind: 200 Hr Teacher Training Transformational Intensive

September 24 & 25: Touch, Energy & Healing Workshop

October 9 - 14: Awakened Heart, Embodied Mind Retreat at Esalen

November 3 - 6: Transformation Retreat to Ojai

Click here to learn more! for more info

Recommended reading:
Waking the Tiger by Peter Levine
Bioenergetics by Alexander Lowen
The Neurobiology of We by Dan Siegel
The Stormy Search for the Self by Stan and Christina Grof
The Brain that Changes Itself by Norman Doidge
Quantum Questions by Ken Wilber

That’s all for now,