Most philosophies of liberation are fairly clear on one thing: The state of enlightenment, whatever it’s qualities and whatever techniques are appropriate for realizing it, is something that is already innate within each of us. However, we live in a world of physical stimuli, sensation, thought and intention that distracts us from our true nature. In yoga, these nested hierarchies of awareness are known as the koshas, or sheaths. They describe a way of deconstructing our subjective experience of the world. Our awareness comes into contact with the material world through our physical body, which vibrates in concert with the energy which stimulates it from the outside, these vibrations are transduced by our nervous system into sensations which move throughout the body forming energetic patterns which proceed a cascade of symbols, which are filtered into a series of binary decisions, which are made, reinoculated into the web of symbols and expressed as nerve signals which are transduced into mechanical energy and produce vibrations which emanate from our bodies back out into the world. Of course, this process is happening constantly and at speeds which render any linearity utterly diffuse. Energetic exchange between these various levels form the complex layers of meaning, metaphor and personality that seem to imbue the world as we experience it. But behind all of this there is a substratum of basic awareness. A consciousness that is not the physical body, not sensation, not thought, not intention.
Since we are this awareness, it doesn’t quite make sense to say that we need to become aware of it. It also doesn’t quite make sense to say that we need to experience it. We’re experiencing it all the time. It is the space between every thought, every intention, every flash of energy. The process of liberation can’t be a directing of awareness. Awareness can’t be directed. It can’t even really be said to do anything. It just is.
The point I’m trying to arrive at is that whatever spiritual awakening is, it is by necessity something that our body does. It is a process of gradually gaining control over each of these nested sheaths and relaxing their fluctuations sufficiently enough for us to abide in the ground of our own being, which is innate. This is essentially the philosophy that underlies the discipline of Hatha Yoga.
This process of relaxation, at it’s least subtle, is simple enough. Stretch and strengthen the body so that it functions efficiently, acquire a fine awareness of it’s physical mechanics so that it moves through the world with fluidity and ease, using as little energy as possible to do so, and learn how to control it so that tension can be released consciously. But as the process becomes more subtle, a more subtle domain of understanding begins to emerge, one that is concerned with the nexus between the mental and the physical, the interior and the exterior. With the body as experienced by it’s inhabitor, and the mind as propagated into the material world. This is the domain of prana, the energy body.
When you spend enough time meditating you begin to notice that certain phenomena ordinarily considered to be in the domain of the mental, our emotions in particular, actually manifest themselves mainly as sensation throughout the body. These are not quite the same as coarse physical sensations such as friction, heat or tingling. It’s experienced more like a pooling of energy in certain parts of the body. Though my awareness is not trained enough to be expert in these matters, I’ve always been struck by how undifferentiated these energetic sensations become when you focus on them attentively enough. There is very little difference, for example, between the bare sensations of fear, passion, desire, grief or fondness. The difference lies only in where in the body the sensations are experienced and in how intensely they are experienced, otherwise it’s just energy. It’s what happens when these sensations are interpreted by the brain that things get interesting. Patterns of sensation begin to be affiliated with memories, become symbolic of experiences, and a narrative is applied to them which is fed by our concepts of self-identity. Since there is a perpetual exchange between the different layers of awareness, a feedback loop is created, sensations and narratives reinforce one another and we experience it as a specific type of emotion. By quieting the fluctuations of the mind we discover that we can lessen this process of reinforcement and experience emotion simply as energy, in this way our emotions lose some of their power over us. Another thing that we discover is that with sufficient focus this energy is manipulatable, similar to the way we might redirect the coarser energy of a restless leg away from the leg and into our hands by twiddling our thumbs.
Since the most imminent process by which energy is exchanged between our body and the domains ordinarily considered to be separate from our body is that of respiration, these techniques of energy manipulation tend to begin with and focus most prominently on control of the breath. Contemplating the act of breathing invites us to consider an existential conundrum. When we breathe we allow energy from the outside world into our bodies, however, these areas into which the energy flows are cavities, the energy is gradually distributed into subsequently smaller cavities until the cavities become imperceptibly small. Even if we conceive of this energy as particles it must travel through some kind of cavity in order to distribute itself throughout the body. If the physical body that moves is made from the solid material derived from food, then we can conceive of the body as a porous structure made from food-derived solid material which is impregnated with energy which supports it and propels it throughout the world. However, the idea that this energy, by entering our body cavities has gone from being outside to inside, or from being not me, to me, is simply a semantic formality. The conundrum is this: Is your body the energy or the matter? Is your mind the energy or the matter? Is your consciousness the energy or the matter or is it the empty space that it inhabits? All of these domains are spatio-temporally co-tangential but surely what you are is not simply a spatio-temporal domain by which something can be said to become a part of you simply by crossing an arbitrary boundary, say at the opening of your mouth, or a pore, or the protein channels in a cellular membrane.
In India there is an entire science of the energy of the subjectively experienced body. It is ancient, incredibly complicated, and enjoys remarkable consensus for something so abstract. This energy we are discussing, which is distinct from the ordinary western understanding of energy because of its ability to be transduced into the realm of the subjective, is called Prana. Upon some deep analysis of the distributive patterns of Prana throughout the body it was discovered that it seemed particularly prone to pool in 7 locations throughout the body, and that these patterns of energetic pooling seemed to locate themselves according to particular types of stimuli and tended to be interpreted emotionally and symbolically in different ways according to their location. These 7 locations are called the Chakras.
The Chakras are said to arrange themselves in the centre of the body and follow roughly the path of the spinal column from its base at the sacrum to the top of the head. They correspond to specific systems of the physical body and in turn correspond to an ascending spiritual hierarchy of needs that is in many ways also symbolically related to those systems. They are as follows:
1.) Muladhara Chakra – Also known as the “root” chakra. Located at the base of the pelvic floor, upon which the seated body rests. The sensations that appear here seem to relate mainly to issues of basic survival, to the mundane checklist of ensuring the continued functioning of the body. It is said to be concerned with the physical world and not really with the abstract concepts that seem to stimulate the higher chakras.
2.) Svadisthana Chakra – The second chakra. Located behind the genitals in the lower abdomen. I think most people are fairly well acquainted with the feeling of energy pooling in this part of the body, and also fairly well acquainted with what that energy means. This is the world of desire. Sexual desire in particular, but also sensual gratification in general.
3.) Manipura Chakra – Located around the stomach, this Chakra is said to be concerned with issues of power, influence and control. The link between anxiety, stress and the health of the digestive system is well understood at this point. Most forms of anxiety manifest themselves as intense sensation in the gut and can very easy lead to physical problems like indigestion, food intolerances and ulcer.
4.) Anahata Chakra – The Heart Chakra. At this point the understanding of the energies represented begins to take on a more abstract, metaphysical quality. As we’ve moved up through the chakras we’ve moved from the purely physical, to the relational and then to the egoic. The heart chakra is said to be about love, but it’s a type of love that is quite distinct from sensual desire. Empathy is probably closer to the mark. The feeling of seeing yourself in other people, or the feeling of being connected to the world around you. When your heart stirs, it is the feeling of your separate identity dissolving for just a moment.
5.) Vissudhi Chakra – The Throat Chakra. This one has always seemed the most nebulous to me. The most difficult to pin down the ramifications of. Alot of the popular literature on the subject talks about this chakra, which is centered on the organs of vocalization, as being concerned with creativity and communication, but I think if we accept the model that the arrangement of the chakras represents an ascending spiritual hierarchy of needs, as a journey upwards towards the ultimate self, then most of the feelings associated with the dynamics of art and self-expression fall squarely in the realm of the 3rd chakra, though it seems almost common sense that an energy associated with the ability to communicate attaches itself to the throat. I think what the Vissudhi Chakra is really all about is language. If the lower chakras represent states of relationship with the perceived world, the Vissudhi Chakra represents the creation of the world that we perceive; a world that is for all intents and purposes made out of language.
6.) Ajna Chakra – The Third Eye. Once we relax ourselves past the barrier of the creation of a world of objects through language there is no more distinction between one aspect of the holarchy and any other. There is only form and emptiness staring into each other and seeing one another into being. This is the third eye.
7.) Sahasrara Chakra – Crown Chakra. This chakra is said to be located slightly above the crown of the head. The awareness represented here is one in which all forms of relationship are transcended; Dualism, the 1 that implies 2, the emptiness that implies form. It is the heart of the paradox of being. It is the incomprehensible chaos of God.
The inward journey that the chakra system proposes is the purpose of virtually all forms of tantra. There are countless methods intended to raise the energy through them and thus achieve the goal of Samadhi. There is also a confused jumble of not-totally-coherent popular wisdom floating around most of which is only tangentially related to tradition. However, regardless of the methods and regardless of how literally you take their spatio-temporal existence it is important to remind ourselves that what the chakras represent is a process of relaxation. A process not of relaxing our body, but of relaxing our identity. The less complicated our identity is, the clearer we see the nature of the self, the nature of the world and the nature of consciousness. The higher we get, the less we know, not because we become ignorant of anything, but because we realize that there are fewer and fewer objects of knowledge to know about. Our ordinary conception of intelligence is turned on its head, the memorization of multitudes of discrete factual minutiae becomes an act of misapprehension and our task becomes remembering the one thing that is. Of course for most of us nature has predisposed us to be attached to one perceptual level or another and this is what we can think of as a blockage in our chakras, but if we are lucky enough to touch those more general echelons of perception perhaps we can conceive of our life as a dance between echelons; between flesh, beast, man, biome, mythos and god, and learn to hold each of them very lightly, secure in the knowledge that whoever we think we are at that moment, we are never merely that.