The Serpent Flowering
Life is hard; it wears us out. We are worn down by the tooth of time as well as luckless circumstances that are well beyond our personal control. We are worn down by people, especially those closest to us, as well as by medical conditions. The world overwhelms us and makes us feel small; we are afraid, and in the grip of an anxiety that will not let us rest, even in sleep. And yet, despite our sleeplessness and weariness, life presses on. Through death and destruction, this life force, which is identical with Spirit, continues to beat on, seeking its birth and renewal through new forms of creation.
The élan vital which the French philosopher Henri Bergson wrote so eloquently about in his book Creative Evolution (1907) is an archetypal idea that has been around from time immemorial—going back to the esoteric teachings of the ancients all the way down to the Star Wars saga. Every culture and people have had a mythic concept for a kind of universal life force or generative power that pervades all things, including so-called inanimate matter. Indistinguishable from Heraclitus’ “everlasting fire, kindling in measures and going out in measures” (The Presocratic Philosophers. Ed. Kirk and Raven, p. 199 fr. 220), this life-force is both mortal and immortal, creative and destructive, at the same time.
What the ancient Maya called itz, embodied in the image of Kukulkan (Feathered Serpent), and what the Hindus called Shakti, embodied in the image of Kuṇḍalinī (Coiled Serpent), is a philosophic notion of all-encompassing “cosmic” psychic energy. This is the archetypal dragon of the libido, which was also known to the Hermetic tradition as the uroboros. Such a revolving snake principle expresses a certain revolutionary movement of the deep psyche and its self-transcending creative energy.
The snake that gives birth to itself also incestuously makes love to itself, putting its own tail in its mouth; it is the seminal member and womb of creation in one. It represents the source and origin of all life and the place where it comes to renew itself in time. The uroboros is both alpha and omega, an image of death drive and sexuality intertwined; both self-fertilization and rebirth come to be as one. The notion of this life force or “cosmic” sexual energy is always found at the heart of mythology. It is perhaps for this reason that Campbell’s enthusiasm was most palpable just here, when speaking of this life force. As Bradley Olson writes quoting Campbell in his latest MythBlast, this is “the animating principle, a principle [Campbell] called ‘the deathless soul.’” (Myths of Light, 44) It is here that Campbell’s passion for myth truly lights up. Like Jung before him, he was endlessly fascinated by the mythology of India (given the fact both men were schooled on the subject by the same master, Heinrich Zimmer).
Yet these great minds, deeply appreciative of Indian lore, were quick to recognize how yoga in the West can become distorted and hollowed out as a commodified form of exercise and relaxation which in no way interferes with the ruling order of the status quo. A staple of the wellness industry, this sort of “Western yoga” seems far removed from the complete inward turning the ancient yogis had in mind. As Campbell writes:
The irony is that most of the yoga that is taught to people in the West is this sort of yogic calisthenics. You have probably seen the books on how to practice yoga at home—something like doing athletic warm-ups—it’s teaching a setting-up exercise. But here we think of haṭha as the thing itself rather than a form of preparation.
This haṭha yoga is a preparatory “Yoga of the Body” which here takes the place of the ultimate in the popular consciousness of the West. As Jung also recognized, this purely physical yoga may “delude the physiologically minded European into the false hope that the spirit can be obtained by just sitting and breathing.” (CW11 §907) Involved as we are in the West in the pursuit of “obtaining spirit” as a commodified experience, Yoga simply feeds the already deepened channels of capitalistic ideology. For this reason kuṇḍalinī yoga in the West became a form of “experience seeking” little different than a drug trip or psychedelic experience. Rather than the profound transformation of the psyche as a whole, both conscious and unconscious, the practice of yoga becomes another ephemeral hedonistic pleasure. Rather than a revolution of consciousness in a new dawn of creation, yoga becomes another psychotropic technique for the smooth functioning of the status quo and its hierarchies of power.
Every guru acknowledges the fact that this supreme form of yoga—and the kuṇḍalinī serpent itself—is indeed the most dangerous and profound. It has the potential to wreck your life or to regenerate it—or perhaps both at once! For the awakening of primordial creative energy requires the strongest container or vessel to integrate it within a frame of culture.
In kuṇḍalinī yoga the journey begins with the awakening of the serpent energy that lies “coiled” or dormant at the base of the spine. As Campbell explains: “The goal of this yoga is to bring this serpent power up the spine to the head so that our whole being will be animated by the serpent power, so that our psyche is drawn up to full flowering” (Myths of Light 27). Already inclined to view things from psychoanalytic angles, Campbell was fascinated by the parallels that can be drawn between yoga and certain psychotic and schizophrenic states.
It fascinated me long, long ago to realize how close yoga experiences were to those described by Freud, Adler, and Jung in their discussions of the deeper regions of the psyche into which people fall. (28)
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. Culminating in a certain state of [un]consciousness—indeed, the highest mystical experience!—we become as One with the Divine. This famous unio mystica is a theme that Campbell returns to again and again throughout his work and life: follow your blissful state of identity with the One.
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