“People take different roads seeking fulfillment and happiness. Just because they’re not on your road does not mean they are lost.” - Dalai Lama (goodreads)
In my personal spiritual journey, I’ve come to understand that the goal of meditative practice is to arrive at a place in daily life where one is unperturbed by the vicissitudes of exhilarating or devastating events, where one is engaged in fulfilling work, and where one can exist in harmonious relationship with others. Accompanying this is a fundamental shift in self-identity and a broadening of perspective, where one no longer sees the self as the center of the universe and places far less importance on personal thoughts and feelings. Two of my favorite practices along this journey, reviewed here, are mindfulness meditation and kundalini yoga.
Cosmic man with diagrams of Newar yogic six chakra transformation. LACMA M.91.118.
Why Practice Either?
Mindfulness meditation, taken directly from the Buddha’s teachings, and kundalini yoga, with its roots in ancient Indian tantric practices, can both be regarded as mental training to raise one’s level of awareness. Notwithstanding considerable differences in methodology, are these practices fundamentally distinct?
In the Buddha’s teachings, it is stated that the essence of being human lies in our incessant craving. This craving is manifested in holding on to things (including ideas and belief systems), grasping and clinging, and not letting go—all of which prevent the aspirant from progressing along the spiritual path. “In the common sense, duhkha is a kind of thirsty desire: a sensation of dissatisfaction that always drives you to approach or avoid something based on greed or hatred. In a deep sense, duhkha is emptiness: there is nothing to satisfy you” (Katagiri 2007, 38).
The mindfulness path, then, teaches us how to tap into our minds and bodies in order to identify this thirsty desire—as well as the obstructive and debilitating thoughts that accompany it—and then let it go.
On closer inspection, these destructive emotions that make us grasp and cling are the same hurdles that kundalini yoga refers to as “energy blockages” along the pathways that constitute our subtle body. Our energy matrix comprises conduits that transfer life force (qi or prana) throughout the body. “Holding fears and misconceptions in your consciousness impedes, and even reverses, the flow of energy” (Swami Saradananda 2011, 14).
Grounded in Action
The spiritual warrior is a person of action! Both practices are practical instructions, grounded in the principle of doing rather than believing—the idea is to actively participate in the removal of suffering. Both require dedicated efforts based on a solid foundation of sustained attention training.
The quiescence of the meditative mind is accomplished through many hours of sitting and focusing on a chosen object of attention. After a foundation of shamatha or concentration meditation, mindfulness practitioners will go on to vipashyana meditation, which bestows upon them certain “insights” related to the nature of their own minds and also the realities of the universe.
Kundalini practitioners will visualize their chakras and the mandalas associated with each while chanting mantras, working with the body’s subtle energy in order purify it. They will also gain insights into their own mental blockages by observing “where in the spine do they spend their time” (Selby 1992). Thus, they too will gain precious insights into the workings of their minds.
As mentioned, one of the key teachings of mindfulness meditation practice is the understanding and management of desire and craving, since these ultimately lead to addiction and suffering. When craving arises—be it for alcohol, drugs, power, or sexual union—one neither judges it, nor indulges in or denies it; one simply observes the raw quality of the emotion that is arising. This form of observation, accompanied by labeling the emotion, has the surprising effect of moderating the impulse to act on the craving.
The aim of kundalini yoga is also to enable the practitioner to let go of craving. The Sanskrit word for letting go is anahata, which is also the name of the heart chakra in the kundalini yoga teachings. Anahata is to become unstuck, using the practice to balance out obsessive compulsions. Do you find yourself worrying about survival, food, and safety, or do you crave sexual intimacy, intellectual fulfillment, or spiritual enlightenment? Are you besieged by a fear of public speaking? Do you fear relationships? Are you hungry for power and control over your fellow humans? Do you have resentments that stem from early childhood, when your needs were not met by your caregivers? These issues begin to surface as the kundalini yoga practice deepens, just as they might surface at a vipashyana retreat. All these thoughts, stored in the seven chakras or energy vortexes that exist in our body, are painstakingly examined and released.
Thoughts versus Energy
We may think of the human body as an onion with five layers that go from dense to subtle energy forms. The physical body is the outermost layer, powered by the second layer, the breath. The breath is then powered by the third layer, i.e. the qi or prana—the life force or “inner winds”—while the inner winds are in turn powered by the fourth layer; that of thoughts. The thoughts originate in what Geshe Michael Roach calls “world seeds,” or “vasanas” according to Vedic texts (Roach 2004, 21). Vasanas (the innermost layer) originate from our own deeds and experiences and are recorded in the unconscious mind. To awaken this subconscious, hidden mind and bring it to front stage is the primary objective of our practice.
Negative vasanas result in negative thoughts, which work their way down to poor physical health. The practices of yoga and meditation both work on all five levels, either from inside out or outside in. We can start with physical hatha yoga and work our way inwards, or start with the purest thoughts of compassion (tonglen meditation) and work our way outwards. It is interesting to note that mindfulness meditation uses the crucible of thoughts to release negative tendencies, whereas kundalini yoga works on the energy system of the body. Both are part of the subtle body, i.e. not seen by the naked eye, but are different planes on which the practitioner is focusing, with the ultimate goal of releasing the hidden tendencies.
Living from an Awakened Heart
The key to mindfulness meditation is the awakening of compassion in the heart, which then begins to work at all five levels of the body. The practice is also intended to help end a dualistic view of the world, in which “the mind thinks of itself as separate; [whereas] the heart knows better . . . When we touch beneath all the busyness of thought, we discover a sweet, healing silence, an inherent peacefulness in each of us, a goodness of heart, strength, and wholeness that is our birthright. This basic goodness is sometimes called our original nature, or Buddha nature” (Kornfield 1998, 99).
Kundalini practitioners also aim to live from the heart. They seek to activate the heart chakra and, from there, to regulate the flow of energy to the lower chakras (which are rooted in the world of matter, survival, and procreation), as well as to the upper chakras, wherein lies the world of thought, communication, intuition, and enlightenment. “With its unique place in the center, equidistant from the first and seventh chakra, [the heart chakra] marries the world of matter and spirit, of concrete and abstract, of knowledge and wisdom, of earth and heaven” (Selby 1992, 147).
In conclusion, both practices use different methods but arrive at the same place, namely an awakened heart.
Dalai Lama XIV Quotes (goodreads)
Katagiri, Dainin. 2007. Each Moment is the Universe: Zen and the Way of Being Time. Boston: Shambhala Publications.
Kornfield, Jack. 1998. “To Heal the Body, Mind and Heart.” In Breath Sweeps Mind: A First Guide to Meditation Practice, edited by Jean Smith. New York: Riverhead Books.
Roach, Geshe Michael. 2004. The Tibetan Book of Yoga. New York: Doubleday.
Saradananda, Swami. 2011. The Essential Guide to Chakras: Discover the Healing Power of Chakras for Mind, Body and Spirit. London: Watkins Publishing.
Selby, John. 1992. Kundalini Awakening: A Gentle Guide to Chakra Activation and Spiritual Growth. New York: Bantam.