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The Serpent Flowering, with mythologist Norland Téllez, Ph.D.

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    Mythologist Norland Téllez, Ph.D. is our guest this week in Conversations of a Higher Order to talk about “The Serpent Flowering” (click link to read), his most recent addition to our MythBlast essay series. These discussions are a rare opportunity to directly engage mythologists active today in furthering and expanding upon Joseph Campbell’s work. Though I’ll get the conversation started, it’s your participation that makes this work. If you find these discussions of benefit and would like to see them continue, please  post your comments and questions for Dr. Téllez and keep the conversation going.

    Let’s begin.

    Norland, you always go deep – but this essay may well be my favorite of all your contributions (thus far!). The opening paragraph stands on its own as a profound, deeply felt expression of the subjective and collective experience of life. And I so appreciate the way you differentiate between the consumer culture version of yoga as a self-care product, and the transformational experience of the actual practice of haṭha and kuṇḍalinī yoga.

    I have a question, or maybe I might better phrase that as a concern, related to what might be called “spiritual colonialism”:

    Like many who frequent these forums, I participate in multiple transformational rituals from other cultures: I have been included in “sweat lodge” ceremonies, regularly joined in sesshin at a Zen Center and have sat zazen on my own zabu and zabuton for decades, have ritualistically consumed mushrooms, datura, and peyote and other psychedelics with intention and discipline (which literally saved my life when my doctors told me I was terminal, and midwifed intense spiritual transformation – not anything I would dismiss as “a form of experience seeking”), regularly participated in darshan and prasad at Hindu temples, and more.

    You write

    [T]he awakening of primordial creative energy requires the strongest container or vessel to integrate it within a frame of culture.”

    Point well-taken – but what about those raised in the dominant Judeo-Christian culture which offers no strong “container or vessel” to help hold and integrate that primordial creative energy (which is why I sought – and found – that far outside the confines of the rather anemic spiritual tradition in which I was raised)? Are our only options to join the Trappists or immerse ourselves in some other mystic yet monotheistic Christian discipline, or perhaps forego spirituality altogether? Or are we expected to follow the relatively modern mystical cult of individuation associated with depth psychologies (applying the anthropological / historical / mythological meaning of cult, rather than the modern, narrow pejorative popular sense re religious abuse)?

    I understand the critique of what might be called cafeteria spirituality (which I think of more as a “sampling,” rather than deep, decades-long committed practice). But for those drawn to comparative mythology not as an academic discipline, but as a guide for finding one’s way through life, where does cultural appropriation begin? Is the practice of kuṇḍalinī yoga denied to anyone not born and raised Hindu, or participation in a sweat lodge reserved exclusively for descendants of the Sioux in North America and the Sámi in Europe?

    How would you thread that needle?


      Thank you Stephen, as always, it is a great pleasure to be here with you and our readers to discuss the many thoughts that were stirred in my lates mythblast The Serpent Flowering.
      In my research on contemporary masters of kundalini yoga, I came across Sadhguru who as far as I can tell is the real thing. In his video on Kundalini Yoga: Awakening the Shakti Within  he plainly states: “kundalini yoga is in its essence the most dangerous form of yoga, because it is the most potent” (4:06 – 4:12)

      In this video he also makes the point that it is not for everybody; he says that one can get by quite nicely, “to live a complete physical and intellectual life” (2:00) with less than 20% of the available chakras (21 out of 114 chakras). At which point the question arises: why would you want more than the wholeness of your life if not for some kind of experience seeking? As to the energy stored in the remaining 93 chakras, Sadhguru even states: “you do not need it if your intention is just to live well” (2:51)? There are countless millions in the world who would be more than happy to achieve this modest goal, which would imply the eradication of a certain systemic criminality that bars the majority of earth’s population from basic human happiness.
      This points to my concern about such practices, not so much the issue of “cultural appropriation” but of the kind of elitisms and enormous privilege they imply. The analogy to nuclear energy that Sadhguru brings up with the erroneous claim that “the easiest and best way to produce energy on the planet is nuclear energy actually” (5:03) is symptomatic of the enormous blind spot in the guru’s vision, for when nuclear reactions go “right” as he sees it, he doesn’t see what most of us see: the mushroom clouds over Hiroshima and Nagasaki—let alone when things go “wrong”!

      Another great Master I found on youtube takes a more historical approach to teaching kundalini yoga, Swami Tadatmananda in his video Kundalini Yoga — as Envisioned by the Ancient Yogis from whom I took the term “experience seeking.” This is an important notion which he himself got from his own guru, Swami Dayananda Saraswati, who was constantly warning him about it. This line of criticism impressed Swami Tadatmananda so much that he decided not to teach kundalini to the west in principle—and I think he was right:

      “My guru strenuously warned us about a problem he called “experience seeking”; he said that conventional life is driven by the never-ending pursuit of new and better experiences. People love to watch new movies, dine at trendy restaurants, and travel to exotic places, but experiences like these could never lead to perfect peace and contentment. As a young man Swami Dayananda observed the problem of experience seeking when he lived in Rishikesh, a sacred town in the foothills of the Himalayas. In 1960s he was sought out by American and European hippies who had indulged in sex, drugs, and rock and roll and now they wanted to experience meditation. But if meditation is just another experience to be enjoyed then it’s not so different from sex, drugs, or anything else. In this way, some practitioners of kundalini yoga might merely be seeking exciting new experiences instead of seeking spiritual growth. It’s easy to fall into the trap of experience seeking, especially when this yogic practice seems to hold the promise of bliss and ecstasy. (4:31- 6:08)

      This is what Swami Tadatmananda cites as the first of two basic reasons that made him avoid teaching kundalini yoga in the West. It is with the second reason, however, that we glean the blind spot in his presentation. The second reason stems from the fact that he is “completely turned off by the way it is distorted and misrepresented by contemporary western yogis” with “dazzling rainbow-hue chakras and bodies emitting fountains of light from every pore” depicting a “practice which has virtually nothing in common with its ancient origins.” (6:14-6:42) The irony of course lies in the fact that he himself is making use of such glitzy illustrations throughout his talk. In a symptomatic way, the use of such images seems to say: this is an inevitable distortion and travesty, for the minute we want to address a contemporary audience, we must enter the stream of its marketing and commodification.

      To take up the issue of “cultural appropriation,” I cannot but agree with Jung on this score, although I am much less frightened of the void that at first emerges:

      I am convinced that the growing impoverishment of symbols has a meaning. It is a development that has an inner consistency. Everything that we have not thought about, and that has therefore been deprived of a meaningful connection with our developing consciousness, has got lost. If we now try to cover our nakedness with the gorgeous trappings of the East, as the theosophists do, we would be playing our own history false. A man does not sink down to beggary only to pose afterwards as an Indian potentate. It seems to me that it would be far better stoutly to avow our spiritual poverty, our symbollessness, instead of feigning a legacy to which we are not the legitimate heirs at all. We are, surely, the rightful heirs of Christian symbolism, but somehow we have squandered this heritage. We have let the house our fathers built fall into decay, and now we try to break into Oriental palaces that our fathers never knew. Anyone who has lost the historical symbols and cannot be satisfied with substitutes is certainly in a very difficult position today: before him there yawns the void, and he turns away from it in horror. What is worse, the vacuum gets filled with absurd political and social ideas, which one and all are distinguished by their spiritual bleakness. But if he cannot get along with these pedantic dogmatisms, he sees himself forced to be serious for once with his alleged trust in God, though it usually turns out that his fear of things going wrong if he did so is even more persuasive. This fear is far from unjustified, for where God is closest the danger seems greatest. It is dangerous to avow spiritual poverty, for the poor man has desires, and whoever has desires calls down some fatality on himself. A Swiss proverb puts it drastically: “Behind every rich man stands a devil, and behind every poor man two. / 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 ¶28-29)

      This is finally why I cannot agree with the premise of your question, that the “Judeo-Christian culture […] offers no strong ‘container or vessel’ to help hold and integrate that primordial creative energy.”
      In my opinion, the Judeo-Christian legacy offers the strongest of vessels, particularly well-suited to our peculiar psychic make-up in the West. There is no need for the childish “horror” Jung invoked above, for he is merely describing the spiritual adulthood that no longer needs religious ideology to cope with. In Jung’s own analysis, it is much more dangerous not to avow our spiritual poverty, for that is precisely where the problems begin: the need for “experience-seeking” and commodified substitutes. Jung above all shows his own spiritual greediness, his own inability to accept our metaphysical nakedness, as the desires of “the poor man.”
      Instead of Jung, we must learn to follow the example of a God who is left without a God at the height of his crucifiction, the moment in which, with a loud voice, God himself becomes an atheist: “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46).

      Can you think of any other God that does this? A God that abandons himself to set tongues a flame in the human community?
      Perhaps the real legacy of our Judeo-Christian tradition is precisely the fact that it prepares us for this spiritual adulthood, where we no longer need metaphysical fathers and mothers, no longer depend on special esoteric experiences reserved for a precious few, but are ready to become an independent source of conscious being accessible to all, a light that reaches beyond the stars into the infinite of the collective soul.



      Thank you so much for your response. It’s refreshing to hear someone speak up for Christian mythology, which generally doesn’t get as much attention from Cambellophiles as the seemingly more exotic traditions. I actually enjoy and am well-versed in Christian theology, but for me it’s pretty much an intellectual exercise – I find no support for my experience and understanding of the mystery of transcendence within Christianity, as practiced in my community.

      I do appreciate your recognition of “a God who is left without a God at the height of his crucifixion,” which is an exquisite understanding that fosters compassion and is indeed key to the Christian revelation (in theory more than practice, considering what Christianity has set aflame over the millennia). Of course, to quote Campbell, “There are as many gods as there are people thinking about God. When Mrs. Mulligan and the Pope are thinking about God, it is not the same God” (A Joseph Campbell Companion, 162); even many within the Christian tradition who embrace that understanding add a lot of extra baggage.

      At the same time, the primary tradition I’ve practiced for decades is grounded in compassion and has no need of “a God who is left without a God,” as not just the Gods, but all the practitioners are “left without a God” in the traditional sense. That may be why there is so much overlap between the esoteric understanding of a Jesuit priest like Teilhard de Chardin, a Trappist monk like Thomas Merton, or even a defrocked Catholic-turned-Episcopalian priest like Matthew Fox, and Buddhism as practiced by a Thích Nhât Hanh.

      Though I am content and fulfilled following my own traditions, I am moved by Christian imagery sans the theology. In Italy three summers ago, I was much affected by the many beautiful renderings not just of the Crucifixion, but even more of the Pietà (Gerardo Dottori’s 1927 “Crocifissione” hanging in the Vatican, and Michelangelo’s Pietà at St. Peter’s, both below, are two examples that particularly arrested me in person – such is the numinous power of a mythic image).

      Gerardo Dottori's 1927 Crocifissione Michelangelo's Pieta

      Your cautions about kuṇḍalinī Yoga are well-taken. From your answer above it seems as if you are suggesting those not raised within a tantric tradition should steer clear – but in your MythBlast essay you write:

      Placed in the same phenomenological order, kuṇḍalinī yoga becomes a powerful visualization of the individuation process as a profound transformation of our whole being in time. This is what makes yoga relevant to the West. Rather than pertaining solely to a subjective experience, kuṇḍalinī can become an authentic mythic perspective into the objective archetypal processes and structures of the encompassing psyche, the so-called collective unconscious, into which every individual consciousness is embedded. The road to enlightenment as the ascent of the kuṇḍalinī serpent through the chakras of the human spine works as the activation of the ‘transcendent function,’ which is the beginning of the individuation process, as a process of rebirth and regeneration in time.”

      I’ll admit some confusion. Here you seem to suggest this form of yoga does have a place, as long we aren’t seeking an “experience” when we practice it? Or are you saying one shouldn’t practice it but approach it as a thought exercise – read about it, embrace the imagery but interpret / integrate it in terms of the relatively recent Western tradition of depth psychology, much as I do the Christian communion?

      Would you mind clarifying and expanding on that a bit? How do we engage kuṇḍalinī as “an authentic mythic image?”

      (On a tangential note, the state of Alabama just days ago lifted its longtime ban on yoga in public schools – as long as there is no meditation, and the poses all have English names. Though that many people who practice yoga as low-impact calisthenics scoff at Alabama’s concern that people might be lured away from church into a demonic cult, as your essay and your post above make clear, there are real hooks on which those projections are able to catch and snag.)


        Hi Stephen,

        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.



        What a thoughtful, clear, and truly profound response – it takes tremendous time and energy to draw all this together and express it with such clarity!

        I especially appreciate this passage:

        For he [René Girard] 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.”

        That is a key realization – whether we embrace or reject it, Christianity is not just the default setting of our culture (at least in the United States), but an invisible filter through which we experience life.

        Thank you so much for your generosity of time and attention addressing these questions arising from your essay – putting flesh on the bones, so to speak.

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