Reply To: The Serpent Flowering, with mythologist Norland Téllez, Ph.D.
There is indeed a lot of overlap between Eastern and Western Religion and it is the work of any good “catholic” like Campbell— kath’ holou “on the whole, in general”— to look for what is common to both, to seek the universal and general, and to focus on the Elementary Ideas which underlie both traditions. But as to the ambivalence you detect in my writing about kundalini, I should clarify a bit. For this “double edge” in a way extends to the whole of myth and mythic ideology— call it “theology” or “religion” or even “depth psychology.” Campbell also understood that myth was a kind of cultural womb from which we were supposed to be born anew. The point is not to remain in this womb of myth but to be born out of it. So Campbell writes in Flight of the Wild Gander:
In India, the objective’is to be born from the womb of myth, not to remain in it, and the one who has attained to this “second birth” is truly the “twice born,” freed from the pedagogical devices of society, the lures and threats of myth, the local mores, the usual hopes of benefits and rewards. He is truly “free” (mukti), “released while living” (jivan mukti); he is that reposeful “superman” who is man perfected though in our kindergarten of libidinous misapprehensions he moves like a being from another sphere. / The same idea of the “second birth” is certainly basic to Christianity also, where it is symbolized in baptism. “Except a man be born of water and of the spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. ” One could ask for no more vivid rendition of the doctrine of the two wombs: the womb of the mammal and the womb of perfected man. (38)
The main contrast Campbell works with at such points is between spiritual adulthood vs spiritual childhood. Spiritual childhood means a state of in-ness in the womb of myth, a kind of metaphysical containment which is characteristic of the sense of belonging to an ideological fantasy or creed. So we can understand why Campbell obviously runs against the grain of the church as the institutionalized form of Christianity, but when it comes to India or the East in general, he treats it as if it were pure esoteric wisdom without institutionalized forms (and of course we would have to reckon with the wonderful Caste System as the institutionalization of Indian lore). This is why I cannot agree with the pseudo-Campbellian depreciation of the Christian myth, a certain ideological devaluation, which Campbell could not have learned from reading Jung or Freud. This is where Campbell falls out of his own level as a depth mythologist, especially when this critique of Christianity is served with the romanticization of uprooted Eastern traditions.
Now to answer your question more directly: should people stay clear of the practice of kundalini yoga? No, by all means, say yes. For I always say, live and let live; whatever floats your boat. I’ve never been one to tell people, or prescribe to them, what they should or should not do. But this question is not really for me to answer but for Swami Tadatmananda, who, finding the argument from his guru Dayananda irrefutable that Western practitioners are bound to use kundalini as a form of “experience seeking,” decided against the teaching of it. Do you think he was wrong to believe this?
Should people stay clear of the practice of kundalini yoga? What did the other Master, Sadhguru, say? He also warned us against it, branding it as a “dangerous” exercise not to be toyed with. Rather than berating the practice, this warning against it, on the contrary, proves that we’re dealing with the real thing—it is just not for “everybody.” This is a crucial point, or rather, we should recognize in this general “policy of deterrence” an archetypal feature of true esoteric initiation.
The initiant, animated by an idealism that knows no bounds, comes to the threshold of the sacred precinct only to be told: No! You may not enter; this isn’t for you; you are not ready, etc. It is exactly what Giegerich describes in the Soul’s Logical Life as the policy of “No Admission,” for in many cases of true initiation:
[…] the newcomers do not come as intruders with evil or inappropriate intentions. They are motivated by idealism. They want to acquire precisely what the institutions they have come to offer, wisdom and righteousness. But their idealism is not welcomed with open arms. It is offended, frustrated. There is a harsh rejection. No praise for a noble intention, no attempt to utilize their eagerness and to increase their motivation. No promises of free tuition and high positions later on. / We know of similar reactions from Zen masters or great master craftsmen in Eastern Asia to novices who come to be apprenticed to them. The first encounter often has the character of a “No!” Similarly, Asian temples meet the visitor with images of gruesome looking temple guards, often in the guise of threatening demons. Entering the temple requires one’s overcoming the narcissistic offense that such a greeting of one’s pious endeavors entails. In all these cases, one meets, as one might put it, with a policy of deterrence; there is a threshold; obstacles are being erected. Jung, too, owned up to such a policy, when he wrote in a letter, “As a matter of fact it was my intention to write in such a way that fools get scared and only true scholars and seekers can enjoy its reading.” (16)
So you can see why our agreement with the yogic masters is profound. For who can think otherwise? Apparently, only those who can’t get past their offended narcissism when they hear that they’re not welcome. And we’re not. Literally. We lack a modicum of self-reflection. For who can think so freely as to believe that any such religious practice should be “for everybody”? Or that I am somehow entitled to them? Only we the people who have grown up in a culture where everything has been commodified and sold for mass consumption in the grandest scales.
Once again, should people stay clear of kundalini? According to the yogic masters themselves, as we heard above, the answer is: yes, stay away. This is a dangerous practice; it is not for everybody; you can live perfectly happy without it. Who am I to disagree with them? Nevertheless, what I would say is slightly different. I would say that western people who wish to engage in kundalini or any such “exotic” practice should be aware of the following irrepressible fact: that within our own spiritual-ideological atmosphere and climate every such importation of “exotic” practices acquires a radically different meaning, no longer the same meaning it had within its own cultural context. This is a fact of hermeneutics: in order to understand or recapture the “same” meaning, we must learn to say it or practice it quite differently. And likewise, if we state the same meaning in the same way it was stated before, it will mean something quite different today. There are many examples I can give, but I don’t want to go to far on this tangent.
Let me just say that a religious tradition grows like a plant on the soil of material histories. We should not expect that we can transplant them wherever we please without injury to their living essence.
This also in line with Jung’s thinking on the topic, although he is rather melodramatic—not to say hysterical—about it. Nevertheless, he also agrees with the fact that our spiritual maturity lies on the other side of mythic ideology and shows how the Christian vessel is there to take us further on, to the mature level where consciousness is finally left with its own intrinsic truth as the truth of the world:
Just as in Christianity the vow of worldly poverty turned the mind away from the riches of this earth, so spiritual poverty seeks to renounce the false riches of the spirit in order to withdraw not only from the sorry remnants—which today call themselves the Protestant church—of a great past, but also from all the allurements of the odorous East; in order, finally, to dwell with itself alone, where, in the cold light of consciousness, the blank barrenness of the world reaches to the very stars. (CW9i ¶29)
Now at the same time, I think it is impossible to have a fair picture of the strength of the Christian tradition without taking up the work of René Girard, as we have done in the past. For he makes quite clear that rather than being exhausted, we simply take for granted, in a thoughtless way, the extent to which our ideological habits and attitudes, our deepest values and sympathies, have been thoroughly penetrated by the Christian myth.
This would be another topic for another day, perhaps, but suffice it to say that we are far from having exhausted our heritage. We only suffer from thoughtlessness about it. Neither should we let religious fundamentalists or institutions with their political manipulators define for us the true nature of our own spiritual tradition. (When a book collides with a head and the ring is hollow, it’s not always the fault of the book!) Our problem is not the tradition itself but our failure to reflect on its inner core from an angle of depth.