I’m not a “hard perennialist” — I don’t think every world spirituality is “the same thing in different clothes”. But I also don’t think anyone could read, say, the first essay in Eliade’s Images and Symbols, entitled “The Symbolism of the ‘Centre’”, and not come away thinking that the human use of the central and the axial in sacred contexts hasn’t got something remarkably consistent to it worldwide. That kind of universality does exist.
When Chi Kung, or Yoga, or even Hermetics say, bud off from their original cultural contexts, they too can become something more universalized (or even perennialized). Although knowing some Yogic scripture before having any kundalini experiences is probably an excellent idea, still — you don’t have to be a religious Hindu to practice Yoga. Such a system has become more of a technique, settling into different cultural atmospheres in interesting ways. Techniques instill sacredness, changing the energetic nature of the person practicing, partaking of whatever is in the air around the practitioner as well as of the culture which birthed the technique.
Glenn Morris, for example, practiced mostly Chinese and Japanese Chi Kung ideas, and had not only a kundalini rising (which I suppose should be regarded as universal rather than just Indian), but also strong experiences of Hindu deities. Later, he sometimes used to say ‘the gods are Indian’ — yet he had no interest in Indian spiritual culture prior to his kundalini. (Similarly Andrew Paquette has seemingly never practiced much beyond yoga asanas, yet many of his strongest experiences have been in the Judeo-Christian tradition, in which he had no prior interest.)
Don’t let them hand you that nonsense, then, that people’s spiritual experiences are the result of their cultural expectations. In Jenny Wade’s sensational book Transcendent Sex, the 100-odd people surveyed (all Westerners) had a range of things to tell of including kundalini and light phenomena, encounters with deities and spiritual beings, enlightenment experiences, etc. etc., all of which had occurred during the act of sex. None of these people had any spiritual training, most had no interest at all in the spiritual, and many had no idea what had happened until much later. And they all lived in a culture which taught them that sex and spirituality go together roughly like fish and bicycles. This book alone forever does away with any idea that people’s spiritual experiences are determined by cultural expectation. In fact expectation has nothing to do with it.
Similarly, practicing Chi Kung or Yoga doesn’t necessarily mean you will have ‘Chinese experiences’ or ‘Indian experiences’, or not only those exactly… universalized systems of spiritual energy, they work alongside whatever is available in the life practicing. The locals will take an interest. It’s not easy to determine what causes this person to have that subjective experience accompanying their spiritual and energetic transformation; there’s nothing linear about it. Plenty of Christian mystics got branded as heretics when they’d made it past a few of the veils.
Still, Chi Kung is Chinese through and through. And some aspects of the systems taught over there will always strike modern Westerners initially as a little a strange. For instance, why must all these Chi Kung people be so obssessed with their bellies? Buddha is shown with a fat belly, not because the fellow had an eating disorder, but because he had a lot of energy stored at the navel centre. This is not something that gets written about much in the West. We don’t have fat Merlins particularly.
Glenn points out quite simply that you can store energy there because the intestinal coil holds a charge of chi — which is true as you can easily test for yourself. You can also read Gershon’s very interesting stuff about the digestive tract amounting to a second brain in terms of the neural connectivity, and wonder about all sorts of psychological relationships arising. But instinctive understanding of the spritual implications may seem less easy. It’s all very well for someone to tell you that the navel can be useful in developing the ability to speak with spirits or generate and harmonize energies, but nothing is necessarily set off in the mythical mind about it. And then there is all that Taoist stuff about mixing elixirs within the belly that you can use to become immortal. What are we round-eyes to make of that?
That’s where symbols come in so handy. We do have interest in navels in Western spirituality. The most obvious navel we have is known as the Omphalos, a stone that originally sat in Delphi at the temple of Apollo. It was said in fact to grant communication with spirits and gods. In addition, it marked the spot where Apollo defeated the dragon Pytho — auspicious kundalini imagery. “Omphalos” means ‘navel’ in Greek In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the navel point itself is known as Shen Que, “Spirit Watchtower” or “Spirit Gateway”.
In fact many other omphaloi existed in Greece, usually at oracle centres. In the Jerusalem Church of the Holy Sepulchre lies yet another, Christian one. These points in Jerusalem and Delphi are said to mark the ‘navel of the world’ in their respective traditions — imagery that will resonate with the Chinese Taoist ideas of the navel as the creation point. In fact there are numerous such ‘world navels’. As with the ‘Centre’ idea detailed by Eliade in his essay, it is one that repeats throughout human spirituality. Anywhere can be the centre — the choice is cultural (likely energetic too). Just as we all have an axis mundi in the form of our own spines in Yoga, we all have a centre of our microcosmic worlds at our bellies in Chi Kung.
One could go on. It can be eerie how, even when there seems no evidence of similarities of practice, the symbolism connects universally. Another great symbol connected in Taoism with the navel is the Cauldron, that in which the elixir is mixed. Cauldrons go back very far in China, but of course we don’t lack for cauldrons in the West either, and here it’s Celtic mythology that applies most. Cirlot points out that cauldrons in Celtic myth, associated with rebirth spiritual nourishment and enlightenment, are often found at the bottoms of seas and lakes, which is interesting when you consider the name of the lower navel entrance point in acupuncture, “Sea of Chi”, and that the navel and belly form part of both the water chakra system (see Allisa of the Mists) and the elemental water area of Hermetics. That’s aligned Chinese, Celtic, Indian, and Hellenistic systems in one fell swoop.
The cauldron symbol in the west of course became heavily linked to that of the Grail. That indeed was a vessel that some legends connected with immortality. Just as some Taoist sages are said to be able survive without food by ‘eating chi’, so Chrétien de Troyes shows a man surviving indefinitely on a single communion wafer (symbolic of spiritual sustenance) taken from the grail daily. Cauldrons in the West always have similarly to do with rebirth and regeneration.
A great deal of Taoist-inflected Chi Kung requires you to see the body in a new light. Your organs are spirits, your bones magical items. So here’s another — you have to accept that your belly may just be a major source of power, an Omphalos, a Grail, a Cauldron, a centre of nourishment which can resurrect you from a dead state. All the Chi Kung which has produced so many cures of illness (see Palmer, Takahashi & Brown, etc.) will focus on the ‘tan tien’, the ‘elixir field’, the belly, as a major factor. Meanwhile, Google ‘Omphalos’ and you’ll find it’s still a symbol that fires the imagination of many.