Interview with Tristan: Kundalini awakening and inner stillness
Having come from a Nyingma background myself I am interested to hear how far you went within the Buddhist teachings. Was it strictly Mahayana or did you venture into Vajrayana or any Tummo like exercises?
When I was 19 and 20 years old, I spent 6-months living in a Mahayana Buddhist monastery in Nepal. I was given very basic training in some of the preliminary practices at that time. The practices included things like prostrations, chanting, service to the community etc. I was not taught meditation, which was the practice that I was most interested in. I had already read the life story of the Buddha, and read about how he had sat down to meditate under a tree and became enlightened from this, so I believed that meditation was the real key to self-realization and enlightenment.
I had heard that they would teach Westerners meditation in Thailand, so the next time I had the chance to travel, I went there. I managed to find a monastery in Chiang Mai where they would teach me and I learned basic breathing meditation from the monks. I was also taught inquiry practices such as inquiry into mental attachments and reflections on the nature of formlessness. After 5-days of practice in a cave monastery in the North East of the country, I entered a state of samadhi which lasted for 3-days. During those three days I was unaware of where I was, of who I was, or of what I was doing and was only aware of bliss and light. Gradually after those three days, I returned to a contracted state of being, but was able to remember the bliss and beauty of the awakened state.
After returning to Europe I was taught more of the Theravada practices in various Buddhist monasteries, including Loving Kindness practice (Metta Bhavana), inquiry into the different states of phenomenal existence (Vipassana), and Mindfulness (Sati) practices. Many years later I learned of some of the Mahayana completion stage practices such as the Buddha visualisations and meditations on infinite space. I never studied Vajrayana or Tummo, because my life had gone in a different direction.
You are now a teacher on the AYP Yoga Teacher Training. What attracted you to the AYP approach and how does it differ from other approaches you have experienced?
At around the age of 27 I travelled to India where I ended up living in a yoga ashram. It was the ashram of Amma, who is famous for travelling the world and giving darshan by hugging people. When I was there I was taught some of the yoga practices, including meditation using a mantra. We also had Karma yoga practices and Bhakti yoga practices. I returned to the ashram many times over the next 10 years to continue with my practices and also did many solo retreats. I would find a hut or room by the beach or in the mountains to practice in, and spend many hours each day practising in silence. Most of the time I was engaged in sitting practices or Self-inquiry practice. At the time I was going through a powerful kundalini awakening with rising ecstasy in the body and many experiences were manifesting. At one point I woke up in a room thinking that there was a powerful earthquake, but in fact, it was just my own body vibrating. At another point I believed I was levitating and could see the floor several feet below me. At other times I entered states of bliss that were so strong that I was unable to do anything for hours at a time. I became able to transition between worlds and to see angels and higher beings.
Eventually I felt that I needed to know what was happening and why it was happening. I wanted to know if I was on the right path towards liberation, or simply being distracted by energetic experiences. Unfortunately, the people around me were not able to explain it. So that is when I discovered AYP and Yogani. The AYP writings provide a lot of explanation about the whole process of awakening and about why certain energetic transformations and experiences take place. It also puts them into the bigger picture of enlightenment.
I was attracted to the AYP approach, partly because of the way it explains clearly everything that happens and why it happens. But I also liked the fact that it includes many aspects of yoga, building a system that is much greater than the sum of its parts. The practices are effective and powerful, but also safe.
AYP was what really clarified for me the idea that we are our nervous system, though I had a vague understanding through books like the Master Key which explained the nervous systems significance in our practice, it was AYP that allowed me to begin to work with the nervous system directly while getting almost immediate feedback from the practice. Can you introduce us to this concept, it’s importance in Yoga and perhaps lead up to the role of the Spinal Pranyama.
Most of the changes that take place during the process of spiritual awakening happen in the subtle nervous system, in other words in the system of energy centres (chakras) and channels (nadis) connecting them. And so, most yogic practices are designed to purify and transform this subtle neurobiology. This is the case for asanas, pranayama, mudras, bandhas, samyama and so on. It is even the case for meditation practice of any kind and especially for meditation using a mantra. Mantras have specific vibrations and are designed to affect and purify different aspects of the subtle neurobiology. At the same time, one of the aspects of prana, is that it actually rises up in the body in response to stillness and inner silence. So, in fact, any form of meditation which leads to inner silence (samadhi), will have the effect of purifying the system of chakras and nadis.
Essentially the process of awakening cannot reach fulfilment until the subtle neurobiology is purified. Until then, blockages in different parts and layers of the subtle body, will prevent us from seeing clearly who we really are and experiencing liberation. This is something that I did not understand when I started out on the path. I thought that enlightenment was essentially a mental process and the body was simply a vehicle for moving around on the earth, but otherwise unnecessary.
So, one of the reasons that yoga is so powerful as a vehicle for enlightenment is because of the practices that are designed specifically to purify the subtle nervous system. Spinal Breathing Pranayama is one of these practices. It involves moving the attention up and down the spinal nerve between the root chakra (perineum) and the ajna chakra (third eye). This channel is called Sushumna in Sanskrit and is the central and most important channel in the subtle nervous system. By working directly inside this channel, we are able to purify not only the channel itself, but also the first 6 chakras which are connected to it, and all of the other energy channels in the body, as these are connected to it as well. This is the main practice that I used to enter states of ecstasy.
Within Franz Bardons Hermetics one of the things we begin in step 1 and continue throughout our training is that of Vacancy of Mind – VOM. I see this similarity in AYP, the difference being that AYP expands upon this idea and how it relates to your expression in the world. Can you talk about the cultivation of stillness? About what comes from it like the bliss and the idea that prana comes out of this stillness?
Stillness is something that we begin to experience at a certain stage on the path. It is actually always there, it is just that we are usually too busy noticing other things such as thoughts, or objects of the senses. But as the mind begins to calm down through spiritual practices, we begin to notice that even when things are present in the mind, such as thoughts or feelings, or sensations, they always exist within and are surrounded by stillness and silence. In fact the stillness and silence of the mind are vast, like an ocean and actual mental objects and objects of the senses, simply come and go within this silence. Gradually the stillness and silence move more towards the foreground of our experience and the objects of the senses and mental objects move more towards the background. Inner silence becomes our bedrock and natural way of functioning in the world. In yoga this is referred to as sahaja samadhi or savikalpa samadhi and the experience of it is bliss which deepens into the experience of unconditional love.
I mentioned above that prana rises up to meet stillness. In Tantra this is described as Shakti rising up to meet Shiva, where Shakti is prana, or everything that moves in the universe, and Siva is stillness or inner silence. In the analogy, Shiva and Shakti merge and this is the process of enlightenment, the merging of ecstasy and bliss. So, it is not really that prana comes out of stillness, but really that the two are inseparable and are different aspects of one thing. This has been variously described as “stillness in action”, or “emptiness dancing”. Even in the absolute stillness and silence at the centre of our being, prana still exists in its latent, or unmanifest form.
Now the next question I think will be of great interest to anyone doing self work and especially those studying Franz Bardons Hermetics and the work of the soul mirrors.
Samyama is something that I think can sometimes happen almost naturally when we go deep enough in our meditation. Often being something we know we touched but cannot quite describe….. Samyama as presented via AYP I think is extremely clear and well described. Can you introduce our readers to it and how it relates to self development and the practice of the other limbs? Is inner silence the only prerequisite?
Samyama is certainly a natural outcome of meditation and is experienced at a certain stage by everyone with an effective spiritual practice.
In AYP, Samyama is an actual practice, involving the use of nine or more words, called “sutras” which are touched upon one at a time, and released into stillness. We touch upon the faint feeling of the word and then release it immediately into silence, for about 15 seconds. Each word is touched upon twice and the whole practice takes about 10 minutes in its basic form. A more advanced form of the practice takes about 20 minutes, involving more repetitions.
The practice works by incorporating the last three limbs of yoga: Dharana, dhyana and samadhi. With dharana we bring our attention to something, dhyana is a merging with the object and samadhi is transcendence, going beyond the object into stillness and silence.
This process of samyama, of releasing mental objects automatically into stillness, is a natural outcome of our spiritual path. As inner silence becomes more and more established, we find that when thoughts and emotions do arise, there is much less of a tendency to get attached to them, or to feed them with more thoughts and emotions and we find that we naturally let them go into stillness. Things arise and they dissolve and the stillness and silence remain. This is the natural process of samyama.
All of the eight limbs of yoga are connected, so as things change with the last three limbs, this will also affect the other 5 limbs. It will affect the yamas and niyamas, because when things are automatically being released into silence, our conduct automatically becomes pure. If the intention to harm someone arises, it is simply released in silence and we do not act on it. At the same time, there is an energy that comes up within us, that is motivated by compassion and love. So, we find ourselves naturally being compelled to do actions that will help others in the world.
The process of samyama is also very relevant for the process of self-development. The idea of self-development in yoga is really the process of moving from a state where we are identified with things that are not actually who we really are (the body and objects of the mind), to a state where we know who we really are. When we are identified with the body and with objects of the mind, such as thoughts, ideas, memories and feelings, it can be very hard to shift from that position. Even if we can understand intellectually that we are not a collection of temporary objects in the mind, but are rather the awareness that underlies them all, the attachments can be so strong, that we cannot move beyond these identifications. But as the process of samyama begins to arise, we find that when these attachments with objects of the mind arise, they are automatically released into stillness. Things that kept us attached to a false sense of self for years, simply begin to fall away, and no longer have any power. They lose their “sticky” quality. In their place we begin to notice that we are simply aware, before, during and after anything arises in the mind. We come to identify ourselves with this awareness, which is the witness. This process of the cultivation of the witness is a very powerful, if not the most powerful stage in the process of Self-realization.
Your Kundalini awakening occurred way back in 1991. Currently in 2019 we are lucky that there is a lot of information available regarding Kundalini and its awakening but I imagine back in 1991 this was not the case. I have several questions regarding this:
- Firstly for the benefit of those not quite sure can you describe what Kundalini and what it’s awakening actually is.
- Back in 1991 were you aware of what was happening to you? Did you get assistance from your teacher?
- We hear varying reports of how life changing this experience is, for some it hits them like a rocket, I had a friend whose toes turned black and had to do a lot of balancing to calm things down…while others seem to glide through an awakening with no apparent change.
- What impact did it have on your life?
Kundalini is a process of energetic awakening that occurs in the subtle neurobiology. Normally, prana is concentrated in the pelvic region. But when kundalini awakens, this prana rises up through the body, transforming all of the chakras and energy channels. The whole process takes many years or even decades to complete. Gradually the body is brought into a state of permanent ecstatic-bliss.
When I first experienced the awakening of kundalini, the notion was hardly known about in the West. There were a few books available on the subject, but essentially it was presented as a myth, that some people in India believed in, but which was essentially untrue. It was considered to be a superstition.
When I was about 22 years old, I was lying on my bed one day in England and felt a “spark” of energy rise up my spine and then explode in the centre of my head. It was a very beautiful and ecstatic experience. After that, I began to experience various energetic symptoms. One of the most noticeable initially was that my body would shake when I was calm and still. I did not know what was happening to me, but I had a strong sense that whatever it was, was supposed to happen, and that I would be fine. I felt that this was something spiritual and not something that I should go to a doctor about.
I did not actually ask my teachers about it. In the Buddhist Theravada tradition, there is no recognition of kundalini as far as I know, and I had a feeling that they would not be able to help. My Mahayana Buddhist teacher was in Nepal, and communication in the Himalayas at that time was very difficult. At the same time, I was not suffering, so I did not see any need to understand the process more than I did. At that time, it was simply an interesting side-effect of my spiritual practices.
The effect of kundalini depends to a large extent on the state of purification of the subtle neurobiology at the time of the awakening. If the subtle nervous system is fairly purified, then it will easily be able to handle the higher flows of prana that come with an awakening. But if the subtle nervous system is in an impure state, then the chakras and nadis will not be able to accommodate the energy and that is when people can experience difficulties. The important thing is to have an effective spiritual practice, which will purify the subtle nervous system so that when kundalini awakens, it can flow easily through the chakras and nadis.
Kundalini changes your life completely. Put simply, it changes every aspect of your life and the way that you see the world. This has been my experience. It is not only that the body comes into a state of permanent ecstasy. The awakening of the higher chakras brings about the experience of spiritual intuition, bliss, divine love and unity. So kundalini plays a major part in the whole process of liberation.
For those planning to begin Yoga or is currently studying/self studying yoga who are looking to go deeper into their practice what kind of practices and schedule would you recommend?
The AYP practices involve beginning with 20 minutes of meditation twice a day, followed by a few minutes of rest. Once this routine has been established, 10 minutes of Spinal Breathing Pranayama can be added to the beginning of each sitting. This can then be enhanced further by adding mudras and bandhas to pranayama practice and adding a short asana routine before pranayama. How to build up a practice is described in detail in the AYP lessons.
The most important thing is to make meditation the core of any yoga practice. Meditation develops the stability and equanimity that we need to be able to manage the journey over the long term. The highs and lows of ecstasy can be daunting at times, unless we have a core of inner silence to fall back on.
The other important thing is to do only what is manageable. If we take on a practice that is over-ambitious and which we simply will not have time for, then it won’t work. So doing something that takes less time, but which we can actually do each day, is more valuable. Yoga is a bit like learning to play a musical instrument. If we practice only once a week, we will not make much progress. But if we practice every day, we will.
Where do you see the future of Yoga? Will it become further commercialised or will we see a return to the inner practices?
It is hard to say. It is tempting to think that the modern commercialisation of asana practice in the West is just a fashion trend, and will pass like all fashion trends do. But at the same time, more and more people are moving beyond just a weekly asana practice and are learning about the deeper more spiritual practices of yoga, such as meditation, pranayama and Self-inquiry (Jnana Yoga). So, the commercialised side of yoga can actually serve as a way for people to learn about the higher teachings and practices, even if it often happens indirectly. At the same time of course, the higher teachings are becoming increasingly accessible, because of the internet, and interest in the full-scope teachings of yoga is growing. So, I am quietly optimistic that we will see a sea-change in human spiritual consciousness over the next few decades.