Question. How is the ancient Eastern doctrine of the chakras being used today in transpersonal psychology?
Response by Gerald Schueler, Ph.D. © 1997
The yogic system of the chakras (centers) and nadis (channels) is "a five-thousand-year-old way to integrate body, mind, and spirit" (Nelson, 1994, p. 161). The chakra system originated in India about 4,000 years ago but was relatively unknown in the West until Sir John Woodroffe published The Serpent Power under the pen name of Arthur Avalon (1964) in 1918.
The Eastern systems of Kundalini Yoga and Tantra postulate that we have a subtle or etheric body, or aura, that surrounds the physical body and interpenetrates it. This subtle body has its own system of organs, veins, and blood in the same manner as the physical body. The seven subtle organs are called the chakras or psychic centers. The subtle veins are the nadis or channels. The subtle blood is psychic energy called prana.
When air enters the physical body during inhalation, prana is said to enter the nadis of the subtle body simultaneously. By using yogic posture and breathing techniques, coupled with appropriate visualizations, the prana can be made to enter the lowest chakra at the base of the spine and to cause kundalini (feminine creative energy) to rise up the central channel or sushumna nadi, which lies along the spinal column. As it rises, each of the seven chakras are stimulated or activated, in turn.
The figure below shows the traditional locations of the seven chakras within the human body. Each is envisioned as a lotus flower with specific numbers of petals, colors, and geometric shapes.
(Avalon, 1964, Frontispiece)
Kundalini itself is usually personified as a goddess who represents the feminine creative energy of the universe. It is an evolutionary energy that usually lies dormant at the root center at the base of the spine. Her activation of the centers is said to cause all sorts of associated phenomena, from psychic powers to physical health. (Avalon, 1964; Judith, 1987; Krishna, 1970; Montoyama, 1981; Mookerjee and Khanna, 1977; Nelson, 1994; White, 1979). Jung (1996) equates the goddess, Kundalini, with the anima.
Each chakra is associated with specific gods and goddesses, but all of these deities are projections from within rather than external (Zimmer, 1960). Sannella (1989) concludes that "the entire process of kundalini action can be seen as one of purification or balancing" (p. 102). Activation of the higher centers is associated with the transcendence of the personality, and thus, the importance of the kundalini in transpersonal psychology.
Table 1 below shows important correspondences for each of the seven chakras. Transpersonal psychology views each chakra as representing a specific state of consciousness and archetypal element. The first and lowest chakra is a four-petalled lotus symbolizing survival and the element Earth. Thus the first chakras is associated with practical matters such as survival, movement, and action. The second chakras is associated with sexuality, the third with power and dominance, and so on.
TABLE 1. Correspondences (Judith, 1996, p7)
TABLE 2. Identity Correspondences (Judith, 1996, p 30)
1. The root chakra (Muladhara). Located at the base of the spine, this center guides the development of the fetus and infant before the ego develops. Its primary activity is physical and mental survival as it prepares the ego for relative independence. The ego is merged with the Self.
2. The typhonic chakra (Svadhisthana). Located at the genitals, the second center acts throughout early childhood encouraging the ego to develop its sense of being a separate self. The ego lives in a world of wish-fulfilling fantasy as it separates from the Self. Its primary activity is desire. Relationships with others are begun, but colored with fantasy and idealization.
3. The power chakra (Manipura). Located at the solar plexus, this center urges the young adult toward a career and to obtain a suitable mate. The ego gains maximum individuality, and also separates or alienates itself from the Self. Its primary activity is the fortification of the ego.
4. The heart chakra (Anahata). Located at the heart, this center urges the ego to seek a more universal attachment with all humanity. Its primary activity is compassion, and it is considered to be the first spiritual level.
5. The inspiration chakra (Visuddha). Located in the throat, this center reopens communication with the Self. Its primary activity is creativity. This center urges the ego to develop shared goals with others. "Western psychology generally holds that this is the highest stage that a person can reach in life" (Nelson, 1994, p. 164).
6. The shamanic chakra (Ajna). Located in the brow between the eyes, this center allows the ego to be transcended into a higher consciousness. Its activation is often associated with visionary power and prophesy. Its primary activity is insight.
7. The reunion chakra (Sahasrara). Located at the crown of the head, this center marks the re-merging of the ego with the Self. It marks a voluntary dissolution of all self-boundaries. Its primary activity is unity, and its activation is accompanied by an overwhelming sense of the oneness of all things.
Bloomfield (1996) reports that in 1974 forty million adults had experienced the symptoms of spiritual awakening and half, or twenty million, of these repeatedly. He concludes that the number of people who admit having spiritual experiences is quickly increasing. Lukoff, Lu, and Turner (1996) report that from thirty to forty percent of the American population has had mystical experiences "suggesting that these are normal rather than pathological phenomena" (p. 237).
I have found that the system of the seven chakras from ancient Tantric yoga provides a near-ideal way to determine an individual's level of personal and spiritual growth. Using this system, modern transpersonal therapists can respond to their patient's spiritual stumbling blocks with techniques that are specific to that level, techniques that neither demand more of a patient than he can accomplish, nor devalue the higher strivings of spiritually advanced individuals. (Nelson, 1996, p. 307)
Ideally, the chakras will open one at a time with each growing from lessons learned in the past to make integration easy and painless. However, occasionally the chakras open prematurely or out of sequence, causing problems. Grof & Grof (1989) coined the term spiritual emergency to describe such situations. These emergencies can range from minor spiritual setbacks to a major psychosis.
Examples of such problems can include a spontaneous spiritual experience (seventh chakra) where a person feels that he or she is Jesus (an example of ego-inflation). Spontaneous stimulation of the sixth chakra can result in telepathic communication which is misinterpreted as witchcraft or government thought control. Feelings of compassion brought on by spontaneous stimulation of the fourth chakra can result in a person giving away possessions that he or she can't afford. Spiritual emergencies can often merge regressive characteristics with the mystical or supernatural.
Another set of correspondences, by Walter (1994, p. 61), is shown in Table 3 below.
Table 3. (Walker, 1994, p. 61).
1 Muladhara life & death issues root
2. Swadhistha Sex & reproduction issues belly
3. Manipura dominance issues solar plexus
4. Anahata love & compassion issues heart
5. Visshudha vocal & mental projections throat
6. Ajna seeing truth beyond our mental projections brow
7. Sahasrara seeing God crown
The correspondences of Walter (1994) and Judith (1996) are similar. Walter includes the Sanskrit names of each chakra and views the higher three chakras slightly differently (most psychologists would prefer leaving God out of the model).
Knowledge of the ancient Eastern doctrine of the chakras has led to special techniques associated with premature or spontaneous chakra activation. Nelson (1994) says that "the chakras are archetypes" (p. 162) and an understanding of them is crucial for psychology. As archetypes, their activation or functioning can cause altered states of consciousness and can serve as guides to spiritual development. "Because we tend to deny levels of awareness above our present focus, breakthroughs of higher consciousness are usually mis-diagnosed and treated with methods that negate their potential for spiritual growth" (p. 167).
Schizophrenia, for example, can be considered as a regression back to the first or second chakras which results in emotional blunting, delusions, and hallucinations. Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) occurs when someone tries to cope with third chakra tasks without first completing first and second chakra development. Therapy for borderlines should include attempts to stabilize their sense of selfhood in our third-chakra society and assist them in achieving spiritual growth through worldly empowerment (Nelson, 1994).
In summary, the ancient Indian system of chakras or psychic centers is currently being used in transpersonal psychology to help diagnose and catalog a wide variety of mental problems. Many transpersonal psychologists believe that serious psychological problems, such as schizophrenia and BPD, can be resolved by properly activating the client's psychic centers.
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