Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Comparing Piti and Kundalini

A friend wrote the other day and mentioned that in footnote 42 of Silicon Valley Monk, which talks about how traditional meditation texts describe the kundalini or "energy" that I experienced after the 1996 IMS retreat, I say that: "...The experience is so intense and overwhelming that I can hardly imagine it having been ignored, though it is never mentioned in the traditional Theravadan meditation texts from the early 1st millennium AD." The friend then mentions that in fact the Visudimagga does mention these kinds of experiences, classifying them as pīti and says that pīti is of five kinds: "minor happiness, momentary happiness, showering happiness, uplifting happiness, and pervading (rapturous) happiness. Herein, minor happiness is only able to raise the hairs on the body. Momentary happiness is like flashes of lightning at different moments.  Showering happiness breaks over the body again and again like waves on the seashore.”

As I mentioned in my reply to her, I believe my experience had about as much in common with the Visudimagga description as a nuclear blast has with a fireworks display. The experience was not at all about happiness, it was about power. There was a feeling as if the base of my spine was connected up to an electrical socket and a 100 amp current was being run through my body, and this experience went on at various levels of intensity for about 3 years, after which it tapered off. I believe that accounts for the reason most people who have a similar experience call the feeling colloquially "energy". From an objective standpoint, there is likely not enough energy being generated to light a light bulb, but it certainly feels like something quite profound is going on.

About the best description I found of the experience is in Gopi Krishna's book Living With Kundalini. Kirishna was a lay person who meditated daily, and one morning he experienced a kundalini awakening. His description of his experience matches well with mine. On the other hand, the Visudimagga's description has a few points in common, but by and large misses the big picture. In particular, there was not one element of happiness in the experience. My experience at the time was of unhappiness, because nobody could explain to me what was going on, and because every time I sat down to meditate, it felt as if I was going to be electrocuted. The Zen tradition, which is what my teacher at the time had trained in, says nothing about energy experiences, not even the little bit of marketing-like text that the Visudimagga has.

Tibetan texts, on the other hand, have quite a bit to say about energy and have many practices in them to deal with it, and, indeed, to utilize it for purification. Though I have never practiced with a Tibetan teacher and don't claim to even be a novice in Tibetan practices, I did remember having read in one book that the way to deal with such energy was to attempt to channel it out the top of your head (not out your chest like the guy in the photo above). So I spent some time in meditation practicing channeling it. I'm not sure whether that was such a good idea in retrospect but it did seem to moderate the intensity. Daniel Ingram, in his book Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha, classifies kundalini experiences as being part of one stage of insight called Arising and Passing Away (A&P for short). A&P experiences are varied but they all have a characteristic of being quite spectacular and having spectacular after effects. I can sure testify that this was true of mine. He recommends just noting it as a particular sensation and not trying to manipulate it, but that is pretty hard to do when it feels like your body is connected into the energy of the universe.

Ingram doesn't speculate as to what the cause is. Krishna postulates a Hindu cause, the rising of a snake spirit energy up the spine to purify the chakras. This kind of explanation doesn't really do it for me, as it isn't anchored in the brain, which is after all where the experience must be generated. My theory is that it has to do with a rewiring of the brain below the cortical homunculus, which you can see in the picture below:

The sensory cortex has a little map of the body on top of it where each part of the body is associated with a different area on the cortex. This was discovered by stimulating different areas of the cortex in people who were having brain surgery and then having them report on what part of their body felt the stimulation, since many kinds of brain surgery don't require anesthesia. 

Meditation tends to cause one's body image to change in various ways. For example, many people have difficulty driving after a retreat, and I've found that for me it's because the relationship between my body and the car gets redefined. It takes a while for me to get the feeling of the car back. In a similar way, maybe the wiring underneath the cortical homunculus gets rewired by meditation to connect the body up to the pleasure and pain centers in a different way. Probably there are some nexuses there that correspond to the classical chakras, minus those that some theorize are outside the body above the head, which, to me, seem to be either imagination or some kind of remapping of the body image to include space outside the body. A part of the traditional story about kundalini is that it purifies the chakras as it moves up the spine to the lotus chakra at the top of the head.

It would probably be difficult to actually test this theory, but I did suggest to one Stanford professor that it would be interesting to get an FMRI machine  on someone that was having a kundalini experience to see which parts of the brain were lighting up. She replied that it would be difficult to convince NIH to fund such a study (FMRI time being expensive) because there is no real health impact, either negative or positive, of kundalini.

Photo source silentwindsofchange.files.wordpress.com