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Spiritual Awakenings

(Kundalini 101: The Energy and How It Works)


The near-death phenomenon affects the experiencer in many ways. But in addition to the many psychological and physiological aftereffects noted earlier in this book, the NDE also appears to stimulate areas of the brain and unleash energy in the body known as Kundalini.
Literally translating to “the curl of the lock of love of the beloved,” this refers to the flow of consciousness or energy, present in all of us, that allows us to merge with our Universal Self. Kundalini, which has been practiced as part of the Hindu religion since around the 5 th century BC, is believed to lie inactive at the base of our spine until it is aroused and called to travel up through the spine causing a state of complete elation.

Barbara Harris Whitfield, an experiencer herself, has been researching the near-death experience and its aftereffects for many years. Below she describes her work with well- known NDE researchers Kenneth Ring, PhD and Bruce Greyson, MD.

Kenneth Ring, Bruce Greyson and I have demonstrated in several research projects that near-death experiencers have almost twice as many signs and manifestations of what we call the "Physio-Kundalini Syndrome"; as do our control groups.

Whether this opening or arousal which happens during our original experience becomes a subsequent trigger for a later experience of Kundalini, is not known. Experiencers often tell of signs and manifestations of Kundalini arousal without having a dramatic Kundalini experience at all. Anyone who desires to awaken spiritually can invite this energy into their lives to guide them through the journey of spiritual awakening. The more we read and learn, the more powerfully this energy may appear to us as signs and manifestations. At the same time, coincidence beyond the average and possibly even psychic abilities will appear. Before reading on, if this is happening in your life at an overwhelming rate, turn to and read the section on the first chakra, especially the part about grounding.

A full-blown experience contains a sense of energy surging up the spine, sometimes fanning out over the upper back and shoulders. Possibly there's a roaring noise in the ears or isolated pockets of heat somewhere in the body. A sense of bliss, joy and peace fill the mind. A feeling of sweet nectar can seem to flow over the face and then energy moves through the throat, heart or navel. This is possibly described as a piercing sensation, but also pleasant. After that, or intermixed can be incredible colors, lights, aromas and/or sounds.

Kundalini Energy and How It Works

WHAT CHANGES US IN A SPIRITUAL AWAKENING? One thing to consider is that we may have had a powerful energy force activated within us. One name that has been given to that energy is Kundalini. Scientists from the Kundalini Research Network (KRN) have begun to define Kundalini as "the evolutionary energy/consciousness force. . . . [Its] awakening effects a transformative process in the psycho-physiological and spiritual realms and results, ultimately, in the realization of the oneness of the individual and universal consciousness."

Transpersonal psychotherapist Bonnie Greenwell, physicist Paul Pond and others of KRN[1] hypothesize that Kundalini is associated with and may be the cause of mystical experiences, psychic ability, creativity and genius. Some observers note that Kundalini may be linked to some forms of mental illness. One of KRN's goals to is make Kundalini known to the Western world, especially the scientific and medical communities, therapists, health care workers and those who have had Kundalini experiences but may not realize it.

Transpersonal psychotherapist Bonnie Greenwell, physicist Paul Pond and others of KRN[1] hypothesize that Kundalini is associated with and may be the cause of mystical experiences, psychic ability, creativity and genius. Some observers note that Kundalini may be linked to some forms of mental illness. One of KRN's goals to is make Kundalini known to the Western world, especially the scientific and medical communities, therapists, health care workers and those who have had Kundalini experiences but may not realize it.

Phenomena associated with the rising or arousal of Kundalini energy is occurring with increasing frequency to Westerners who have never heard of it and have done nothing consciously to arouse it. The term "rising" is often used in this way to describe the arousal of the Kundalini energy to an undetermined level that may or may not complete itself as a sustained evolution of consciousness. Felt as vast rushes of energy through the body, Kundalini-rising can create profound changes in the structure of people's physical, mental, emotional and spiritual lives.

Western Research

Bonnie Greenwell addressed some of the problems and joys of Kundalini-rising in her doctoral dissertation, which she has published as Energies of Transformation: A Guide to the Kundalini Process. This book summarizes her six years of research and experience working with individuals who have awakened Kundalini.

After centuries of hiding in nearly every culture on the globe under the guise of a secret esoteric truth, the Kundalini experience is reported more and more frequently among modern spiritual seekers, and it appears to be occurring even among people who are not pursuing disciplined or esoteric spiritual practices. When this happens to those who have no understanding of the profound correlations between the physical and mystical experiences, it can leave them bewildered and frightened, even psychologically fragmented. When they turn to traditional physicians, psychotherapists or church advisors, their anxiety is compounded by the general lack of understanding in Western culture regarding the potentiality in the human psyche for profound spiritual emergence and its relationship to energy.[2]

How Kundalini manifests itself in experiencers is called the physio-Kundalini syndrome.[3] Researcher Bruce Greyson did a scientific study of the physio-Kundalini hypothesis. He reported those results at the 1992 KRN conference.

As a group, near-death experiencers reported experiencing almost twice as many physio-Kundalini items as did people who had close brushes with death but no NDE, and people who had never come close to death. As a check on whether the physio-Kundalini questionnaire might be measuring nonspecific strange experiences, I threw into the analysis the responses of a group of hospitalized psychiatric patients. They reported the same number of physio-Kundalini [index] items as did the non-NDE control group. There were two unexpected and ambiguous "control" groups in my studies: people who claimed to have had NDEs but described experiences with virtually no typical NDE features; and people who denied having had NDEs but then went on to describe prototypical near-death experiences. In their responses to the physio-Kundalini questionnaire, the group that made unsupported claims of NDEs were comparable to the non-NDE control group, while the group that denied having NDEs (but according to their responses on the NDE scale, did) were comparable to the group of NDErs. In regard to awakening Kundalini, then, having an experience mattered, but thinking you had one didn't.


Because Western medicine does not acknowledge the East's physio-Kundalini model, symptoms of Kundalini arousal are often diagnosed as physical and/or psychological problems that fit within the Western allopathic diagnostic categories. For example, the shaking, twisting and vibrating so well known to experiencers could be diagnosed as a neurological disorder. It is also hard to recognize the energy presence because it manifests itself in so many different patterns. Because its symptoms mimic so many disorders of the mind and body, even people familiar with the Kundalini concept are unsure whether they are witnessing rising Kundalini energy or distresses of the mind and body. The danger is in accepting prescriptions for drugs that Western physicians give to alleviate symptoms and possibly stopping the continuation of this natural healing mechanism. Any symptoms that can be alleviated by using the Kundalini model should not be treated and suppressed with drugs.


In studying the manifestations that Kundalini arousal may take, Greyson compiled a questionnaire entitled The Physio-Kundalini Syndrome Index, containing 19 manifestations in three categories:

Motor manifestations

  • Spontaneous body movements

  • Strange posturing

  • Breath changes

  • Body locking in certain positions


Sensory manifestations

  • Spontaneous tingling or vibrations

  • Orgasmic sensations

  • Progression of physical sensations up the legs and back and over the head

  • Extreme heat or cold (in isolated areas of the body)

  • Pain that comes and goes abruptly

  • Internal lights or colors that light up the body (or are seen internally)

  • Internal voices (and internal whistling, hissing or roaring noises)


Psychological manifestations

  • Sudden bliss or ecstasy for no reason

  • Sudden anxiety or depression for no reason

  • Speeding or slowing of thoughts

  • Expanding beyond the body

  • Watching the body from a distance


Kenneth Ring and Christopher Rosing reported almost identical results as Greyson's in their latest research, The Omega Project: "Near-death experiencers reported experiencing almost twice as many physio-Kundalini items as did people who had close brushes with death but no NDE, and people who had never come close to death."[4]

The Concept of Energy

Kundalini is a natural phenomenon with intense psychological and physical effects that can catapult a person into a higher state of consciousness. This analysis is based on the reality that we are extensive fields of consciousness as well as biological beings. As fields of consciousness, we have a spirit-body made of various energy systems. Various experiences can manifest in the energy or spirit body. These can be highly emotional and are usually connected to activities in the autonomic nervous system and the hormonal and muscular systems of the physical body. These experiences can be repressed in our memories but are manifested as stress in our energy/spirit/biological body. Felt as "blocks in our energy," they can be released emotionally and physically.[5] Thus, Kundalini is fueled by emotion and helps us to release a lifetime of buried stress, resulting in a physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually more healthy person.


Whether this energy is called Chi, Ki, prana, Kundalini, bioenergy, Ruach ha Kadosh, Holy Spirit, vitalforce or simply energy, the assumptions about it are similar. Several healing aids use a concept of releasing this stored energy: Shiatsu, polarity, acupuncture, acupressure, Reikian body work, bioenergy integration, holotropicintegration, T'ai Chi and some forms of massage. In discussing an energy model, there is a common limitation set up by the tendency to concretize the energy, to make it tangible, to view it as physical stuff with physical properties. The concept of energy in the human body, and any form of life, is best understood as dynamic, a verb not a noun. There is no such thing as energy in physical form. Rather, there is activity described in energetic terms.


So when we speak of life energy, we characterize activity, not a measurable physical entity. According to the Chinese explanation, energy is like the wind, invisible but with visible effects such as waves on a pond stirred by a breeze. The concept of energy is a useful way of describing the deeper hidden patterns and processes that underlie the more visible effects. The results of the energy, the visible waves on the pond, can be seen in the lives that we lead, the love that we share and the selfless service that we extend. Or as the Bible puts it, "By their fruits you shall know them." (Matthew 7:20.)


This invisible energy appears to be a deep, hidden pattern or process of integration that unifies all of our dimensions, physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. We could also call it the creative intelligence that is working to make us whole.[6]


My first encounters with Kundalini energy were intense. Over the years they have tapered off to gentle, subtle and infrequent. Here's an example of a joyful experience:

I'd take my daily four-mile walk in the hot Florida sunshine. Often, I came back feeling euphoric and swam or showered and then meditated. Sometimes I perceived tingling sensations moving up my back and feel myself surrounded in Light. I became acutely aware of the love that connects and is all living things. Sometimes, I felt sweet currents like honey flowing downward in my head, behind my face. I felt my hands expand and then my very being went out into It. I chuckled inside over my feeling of bliss and I heard the chuckle echo and rebound through the Universe. On the days that happened, I perceived the energy fields around everything.

Chakras - Energy Centers of Transformation

Chakra is Sanskrit for wheel and describes energy centers or transducers that convey energy from one dimension into another. In this case the energy is conveyed from our environment to our energy body to our physical body, or in reverse-from our inner life to our awareness (if we are awake or conscious of our inner life) and then out to our environment. There are seven major chakras, and many more minor ones, contained in our subtle energy body that interact with our physical body. Each can be visualized as a center where many of the streams of energy-nadis or meridians-come together through the human body. Each chakra mediates a different level of consciousness with the outer environment.


This system works for our growth and healing potential. Chakras modulate discrete frequencies that represent every variety of human experience on the mental, emotional, physical and spiritual levels. A pain in our hearts, a bright idea, a gut feeling, a tingling up our spines are all feelings originating in the vortex of a chakra energy center. So are experiences of oneness, sexual desire, self-pity, a beautiful singing voice and even addictions.[7] A lump in our throat, butterflies in our stomach, pressure in our heads-all originate from a chakra picking up our inner life or perceiving the outer environment, then broadcasting it to us through our physical system until we feel it and can focus on it.


After a spiritual awakening, many of us want to stay in the higher chakras, the higher spiritual levels, and not deal with the lower three. However, we need the balance of all seven.


Beginning at the bottom, the first chakra is located at the base of the spine and opens down toward the ground. It keeps us alive in the body and draws sustenance from the soul or True Self. It is our sense of grounding, our work of survival on the planet. When working properly it is our sense of security. An imbalance brings on fear.


When we talk about getting grounded we mean staying with issues of this reality, coming back to practical issues and common sense. Experiencers and spiritual seekers in general have a tendency to intellectualize and fantasize, or go into their heads and indulge in wishful or magical thinking. A great many New Age concerns can turn into escapist delusions. This danger can be averted by solid grounding-getting down to basics, or first chakra issues.


The problem of staying grounded comes up over and over again at support group meetings and research conferences. If you need grounding, it's advisable to stop reading books on Kundalini for a while.[8] Put yourself with safe friends who are grounded, take a barefoot walk outdoors - if possible, hug a tree or lie down on the earth. Adjust your diet to foods that are grounding, like meats, root vegetables such as potatoes and carrots-and the favorite standard among researchers and experiencers, fast-food french fries! The salt and grease will bring you down immediately. We also agree that during these periods you should meditate and practice yoga less.

Grounding requires the willingness, honesty and courage to face ourselves as we are and our world as it is - no distance, no exclusions, no avoidances, no anesthesia. When we are solidly grounded our heart chakra can function openly because our first chakra is balancing it.


The second chakra is approximately two inches below the navel. If it is healthy and well-balanced, the second chakra is responsible for fluid actions and nurturing, being able to accept our own feelings and tolerate others. We feel at home in the world. If damage was done to this chakra in childhood or if it is out of balance now for some other reason, there is a sense of separation, abandonment, rejection, anger, rage, fear of loss, etc. Many teachers believe that this is the chakra of emotional healing, going back to very early childhood development. The second chakra is also the seat of our sexuality.


The third chakra is called the solar plexus and is at the level of the diaphragm. It includes the realms of social interaction, education, mental development and career. It equips us to interact effectively with the fundamentals of the external world. The virtues of justice, fairness and equality, and the institutions of law, politics and education develop from the third chakra. Feeling hungry or empty is also a third chakra expression.[9]


As I said above, avoiding these first three chakras is another way of attempting spiritual bypass or high-level denial. Since we need to live in the physical world, we will achieve harmony and balance only by embracing these three levels of consciousness defined by chakra one, two and three. Not to embrace them invites dis-ease, disharmony and imbalance.


During a spiritual awakening, our partially dormant and often totally shut down upper four chakras may be aroused or opened. Anyone pursuing psychospiritual growth will, over time, open these chakras. If we are aware of this and encourage these openings by doing our emotional work-dealing with our unfinished business-we will know when our consciousness level is shifting from one chakra to another.


The fourth chakra is located at heart level and relates to our capacity to love, to open up our hearts and to give. When this chakra is blocked a person may appear to be cold or inhibited, or may exhibit passivity in his or her life. This chakra governs joyfulness and is the master control center for regulating the emotions. Many, if not most, NDErs that Bruce Greyson, Ken Ring and I interviewed appeared to have had a heart chakra opening. You can tell by a vivid description of love-what we thought it was before and especially what we know it is now. In the classic A Christmas Carol, Scrooge's transformation at the end of the story is an excellent example of a heart chakra opening.


We have heard of a few cases where relatives have taken experiencers to court because of the after effects of a sudden heart chakra opening. Like Scrooge, these new experiencers want to give away their possessions. I will discuss more about caution in the next chapter under the sub-heading "Romantic Projection" (p. 83). I don't mean to be a wet blanket on expressions of the heart; expressing my heart and extending myself on the heart level is my reason for living. It is the way I live, but I need to caution that heart openings without healthy grounding can backfire and we can hurt ourselves, our families and unsuspecting others.


The fifth chakra is located in the throat and is a synthesis of head and heart energy. Those who have opened this center are able to express their heart experience of being alive. We are standing in the Light of our own soul. We are truly in a relationship with ourselves and the Universe.


The sixth chakra is between our eyebrows and often is called the third eye. Its opening is a direct result of spiritual practice. Meditation, selfless service and compassion are its prerequisite. From this opening there is a realization of unity, a marriage of opposites, the blending of male and female, mind and emotion, resistance and flow. In our inner life we discover our soul flame's identity and fall madly in love with our self.(10) It used to be that the closer we got to God, the more paradox there was in our lives. Now we move closer to God and at the same time confusion and paradox dissolves. In more grounded terms, this means a synthesis between both sides of our brain (see chapter 7), which then births a higher wisdom and creativity.


The seventh chakra at the top of the head funnels unlimited spiritual energy in and draws energy up from the lower centers in the process we know as enlightenment. We do not pray; we are prayer. We are no longer doing, just being. We have become our Higher Self.[10]

A Word of Caution

Ego Inflation 

The experiencers with Kundalini symptoms who contacted Bruce Greyson and me often were scared, concerned, and wanted to know more. Some wanted to help with the research and occasionally claimed to be authorities. Some claimed that their Kundalini arousal had transformed them into gurus.


Probably the biggest problem at this early stage of understanding is ego inflation. Many who have read the Eastern literature identify strongly with the gurus. Eventually we pass through this stage, realizing that we are Westerners and that it's hard to translate these Eastern metaphors when our cultural roots are so completely different. Our reward for getting through ego inflation is humility, which is the solid foundation of a truly spiritual, healthy and whole human being. Some don't experience ego inflation and others get stuck in it.


Humility is the willingness to continue learning our whole lives. Being humble is that state of being open to experiencing and learning about self, others and God.[11] In this openness we are free to avoid the pitfalls of ego inflation and to connect with God again here in this reality. In this state of humility and second innocence, we can experience whatever comes.

Spiritual Bypass

If we try to ignore our pain and achieve the higher levels of our consciousness, something, usually our false self/negative ego or shadow self, will hold us back until we work through our particular unfinished business. Trying to bypass the work that needs to be done on our negative ego/shadow backfires. This is called spiritual bypass, premature transcendence or high-level denial.[12] Spiritual bypass can be seen in any number of situations, from being born again in the fundamentalist sense, to focusing only on the Light, to becoming attached to a guru or technique. The consequences often are denial of the richness and healthy spontaneity of our inner life: trying to control oneself or others; all-or-nonethinking and behaving; feelings of fear, shame and confusion; high tolerance for inappropriate behavior; frustration, addictions and compulsions; and unnecessary pain and suffering.[13]


Recently I heard two glaring examples of spiritual bypass. First, a prison counselor complained of inmates who carried Bibles everywhere and refused rehabilitation because they had been so-called "born again." They are classic examples of high-level denial. Second, a family therapist had been treating a severely dysfunctional family in which the father was an alcoholic and sexual offender. 


He had molested all of his daughters and, as soon as that was revealed, claimed instant healing in a spiritual experience. He joined a fundamentalist church whose minister did the family a terrible disservice by supporting the "spiritual awakening" of this charming and persuasive talker, claiming the father no longer needed to feel guilt or remorse.


While at first glance these seem to be extreme examples, many of us know someone who has never done any inner work and is making everyone around them crazy with constant Bible quoting or by extolling some definitive path. When I see someone pushing an exclusive, restrictive system, I become cautious. Spiritual awakenings are universal, include everyone and exclude no one. They include all beliefs, are anti nothing, require no allegiance and embrace all.


1. Including physicians Evon Kason, Bruce Greyson, Robert Turner and Lee Sannella.

2. From Energies of Transformation: A Guide to the Kundalini Process.

3. Bentov, Sannella, and Greyson 1992.

4. Ring and Rosing. "The Omega Project," The Journal of Near-Death Studies, 1990.

5. Working with Kundalini energy and specifically by balancing the chakra system, alternative therapies suggested in this book can do more to alleviate these unwanted sensations than Western allopathic medicine has shown.

6. This information comes from an editorial I wrote for The Journal of Near-Death Studies (13:2, Winter 94) entitled "Kundalini and Healing in the West."

7. From a workshop and unpublished book by Gloria St. John, A Journey Throughout the Chakras. For further information see bibliography.

8. I caution against reading Kundalini literature during emotional turbulence because it can promote more energy flow, or awareness of energy flow into your body. Your false self and True Self struggle for control, and focusing on Kundalini energy, or using it to distract can lead to ego inflation. Stay grounded. The waters are rough enough without making them rougher for yourself.

9. From Gloria St. John's workshop.

10. St. John. op. cit.

11. Whitfield, Spirituality and Recovery, 1985.

12. Whitfield, Co-Dependence, 1991. Small, Awakening in Time, 1991.

13. This is a compilation of C. Whitfield's ideas.

About Barbara Harris Whitfield

This chapter above comes from Barbara Whitfield’s book Spiritual Awakenings: In search of the meaning of the Near-death Experience (Health Communications, Inc 1995). The next chapter in that book is about the energy blocks that impede the kundalini flow and how to clear them and create a life that is free flowing.

Barbara was research assistant to Bruce Greyson, MD, director of research for the International Association for Near-Death Studies at the University Of Connecticut School of Medicine. Having had two near-death experiences a week apart from each other while suspended in a stryker frame circle bed in 1975, she was the one of the key subjects in Kenneth Ring’s groundbreaking book on the near-death experience, Heading Toward Omega: In search of the meaning of the Near-death Experience. Ring writes about her again in his latest book Lessons from the Light. She has taught many courses on the aftereffects of Spiritual Awakenings and has written several books including Full Circle: The Near-Death Experience and Beyond, Spiritual Awakenings: Insights of the Near-Death Experience and Other Doorways to Our Soul, The Natural Soul and co-authored The Power of Humility with her husband author and physician Charles Whitfield, MD.


She has appeared on Oprah, Donahue, Larry King Live, CNN Medical News and more including several documentaries both nationally and internationally. She is in private practice in Atlanta Georgia with her husband Charles L. Whitfield, MD, helping adults who were repeatedly traumatized as children.


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