While I still have Jesus as my ishta, or “chosen ideal,” I long ago came to view Him as one Way among many. But though I have sung many kirtan chants, both other people's and those I have composed myself, I still experience occasional resistance to other divine names–a legacy of conventionally exclusive Christian training. This resistance usually breaks down fairly early (when it appears at all) and so it did on this evening.
I felt the moment of breakthrough viscerally, in my body–as though a golden wash of warmth burst out of my heart and flowed down into my arms.
“And then,” I told my skeptical physician wife, “and you’re going to think I’m crazy, but by the time the chant was over, my hands were hot and tingling.”
“Really?” she said, more curiously than incredulously. She then surprised me by saying, “You have more body awareness than I do.”
Now, my wife is far more naturally athletic than I am, and I would have thought that she’d be more physically attuned than I. However, I have two practices specifically aimed at increasing body awareness. One–body awareness through sound–I will discuss in a future entry. The other is cultivating awareness through attention to the chakras.
1. The muludhara, or “root” chakra, located at the perineum (or at the anus, depending on the school of thought,)
2. The svadhistana chakra, located just below the navel (or at the genitals or the spleen, once again depending on whom one asks,)
3. The manipura chakra, located at the solar plexus,
4. The anahata, or “heart” chakra,
5. The visuddha, or “throat” chakra,
6. The ajna, or “brow” or “third eye” chakra, located between and above the eyes, and
7. The sahasrara, or “crown” chakra, located on, or just above, the crown of the head.
The chakras each have their traditional associations–for example, the throat chakra with communication and relationships, the “third eye” with intuition, and the “crown” with superconsciousness and union with the Divine–and “blockages” in, or “imbalances” between them are believed to cause hindrances to spiritual progress, emotional problems and even physical disease.
Let me interrupt myself at this point. If you’re familiar with the Sanskrit word shraddha, you’ve probably heard it translated as “absolute faith in God.” But I subscribe to what I believe to be a more nuanced and realistic definition: the willingness to suspend disbelief long enough to give a thing a try and see whether it works.[i] (For me, this experimentalism is probably the single most bracing and refreshing thing about Hinduism/Yoga; nothing is to be taken on blind faith, but everything is to be put to the test. As Kabir wrote, “If you have not lived through something, it is not true.”[ii])
I am exercising a great deal of shraddha toward most of the traditional beliefs about the chakras. Whether they are each really located at or near an actual neural plexus, whether they literally “open” as kundalini energy passes through them on its journey up the spinal canal, whether they truly become “blocked” or “imbalanced”–any or all of these things may be so, but you can’t prove any of them by me.
For me, the great revelation of the chakras is the enormous leap in body awareness one can make through attending to them. I’ll talk more about that in future entries; for now, I’ll just say that turning our awareness toward these centers can open us up to what is going on in our bodies, especially as they respond to emotional-spiritual stimuli.
Why is this awareness important? Because we are embodied beings, and all our experiences–including our experience of God–are rooted in what Bhagavan Das calls “this precious human body,” the only vehicle we have in our striving toward spiritual liberation.
We are all so overstimulated that it is easy to miss the “still, small voice” of God in our lives. Awareness of our physical being can help put us in touch with the God who is, as the Islamic hadith says, “closer to you than your jugular vein.”
“One needs to do so little, really, to experience God,” wrote Anthony de Mello. “All one needs to do is to quieten oneself, become still–and become aware of the feel of one’s hands. Be aware of the sensations in your hand…There you have God living and working in you, touching you, as near to you as you are to yourself.” [iii]
The great Carmelite mystic, St. Teresa of Avila, knew vividly the value of our embodied experience, and how our bodies allow us to be the Presence of God in the world:
Christ has no body now on earth but yours–no hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which Christ looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which Christ is to go about doing good. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.
[i] Paraphrased from talks by Swami Tyagananda at the Boston Vedanta Center.
[ii] Translated by Robert Bly.
[iii] de Mello, Anthony, Sadhana: A Way to God. Gujarat Sahitya Prakash, 1987.