Because the physiology is what supports the direct experience of awakening, it must be purified and refined to handle the new experience. That process is said to be done through the pranas (life energy) or vayu (air or wind) which are Shakti in coarser form.
In Ayurveda, they describe how we come into this lifetime with influences from 6 bhavas (houses). Half of these are from the body (bloodlines and care), the other half from our soul (jiva). Two of those are Atman (Self) and sattva (purity/clarity). Whatever development we cultured prior, we bring into this life and pick up where we left off.
These 2 aspects have a big influence on how we experience awakening. The primary awakening is to Atman, our cosmic nature. This is known as Self Realization or Cosmic Consciousness (CC). It is Self waking up to itself. But even this is not driven by Self. It is driven by that which is beyond consciousness, sometimes called grace or the mystery or That. It does not necessarily follow any particular convention. As we are essentially here to have a unique experience of the whole, our process and awakening will inherently be somewhat unique.
The other aspect of awakening, sattva, is experienced as refining perception and feelings. Thus we come to see some of these mechanics for ourselves, plus the way the world comes to be. This includes all the layers of creation between source and the gross physical, both in our body as koshas and chakras and in the world as expression. This phase is known as God Consciousness (GC) or by some euphemisms like Divine or Celestial Consciousness. Unlike the other stages which start with a realization, this stage reaches its realization at the climax in God Realization, after the later Unity shift.
This refinement can begin long before spiritual awakening or may begin well after. It’s a kind of parallel process. But subtle perception is not spiritual awakening. And awakening without subtle perception is more limited and flat.
The awakening to Self deepens into Unity with all expression until we transcend Atman into Brahman.
These stages of development beyond Self Realization are understood by some traditions, particularly Vedanta, Tantra and Zen. We could say stages of awakening are punctuation marks in a much larger process of evolution that is ongoing.
With the context of stages of awakening, we can come back to kundalini and Shakti. Understanding Shakti is a little like trying to understand consciousness: both arise before the mind and thus cannot be understood by the mind until their foundation is directly experienced. In fact, they are the essence of mind itself. Mind can be said to be the inside surface of self-aware consciousness. It’s activity is driven by Shakti.
The counterpart of Shakti is Shiva. Shiva is representative of absolute, pure Being and the observer. Observation or awareness flows with attention and intention, with Shiva and Shakti.
Those with a powerful awakening may have vivid experiences and a clear sense of a kundalini awakening. But until we can view it after the fact, from outside the process, our perspective will be localized. Those with mild shifts and few direct experiences of the energy process will tend to lean on others to fill in the gaps. The only real way we’ll understand it is with a clear inner vision of the energy physiology throughout the process. That’s not very common yet.
While Shakti expresses within creation, because it’s motive force arises beyond it, it is not bound by any of the conventions we might make about it. We can describe typical pathways but Shakti is never limited to them.
It is typical for Kundalini to open and then rise and fall through the sushumna (spine) nadi until it reaches makara (just above the 3rd eye) where it becomes stable. From there it rises to bindu and the crown. Shakti rises to join Shiva. Some experience this process beginning with the root chakra, while others in the feet or somewhere else.
How it is experienced may depend on when and if it gets noisy and where the noise is experienced as coming from. We may become aware of the process part way in. Much of it remains very subtle and out of awareness.
How I see the process aligns with my interpretation of the Kundalini Vidya tradition, as described by Joan Harrigan, PhD. Awakening, Cosmic Consciousness or Self Realization happens when the kundalini reaches the crown chakra. Then, through “advanced process”, Shiva and Shakti descend together through the chakras, awakening more subtle values. These correspond to the further stages mentioned above – GC at the heart, Unity at the gut, and Brahman at the root.
This also aligns with Zen’s Adyashanti, describing “head, heart, gut” and his conversation with Loch Kelly in “Journey After Awakening.” And it aligns to Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, with a Vedic background, as seen in one of his rare talks on the subject (Lake Louise, 1968): “The Kundalini finds its absorption in all these centres…and eventually here in the cortex… a thousand-petaled lotus.
And by the time Kundalini comes here, everything, the whole thing becomes full of light. Full of light means full of awareness. Light means not this light, but pure Being. And when this whole area becomes aware of Being clearly, then it is Cosmic Consciousness.”
When Shakti completes the descent, Kundalini Vidya describes a rising again to a chakra based on the needs of the life. In two cases I know, Shiva has instead descended whole-body to the heart. This may be equivalent or something different. (see below)[Update – it’s different. The process may pause at the heart but it continues to the root.]
For a time, I took this process to be the underlying energetic dynamic that lead to the subjective experience of awakening stages. However, various kundalini traditions describe it taking place in two other ways. Not as alternate possibilities but as how it actually unfolds.
Another kundalini tradition describes a circulation of the vayus (airs) clearing the channels, then the descent of Shiva as grace, without a Shakti rise. As Harrigan points out in Kundalini Vidya, mantra meditators are inclined to notice little in the way of obvious kundalini experiences until the rise reaches the third eye. Many could thus align their experience with something like this but I don’t know the details of such traditions and Kundalini Vidya aligned on many points.
The third perspective sees awakening during a single rise. It begins in the gut, with CC at the heart and Unity at the crown. This does not align with my own experience but is how others saw it unfolding for themselves.
In this variation, after Shakti rises to the crown, it descends to the heart via the amrita channel. It takes the mind with it, dissolving the mind in the heart. That is what is described as full release, full embodiment. This puts the heart descent I mentioned above in a different context.
[UPDATE] This part is supported by the Kashmir Shaiva scriptures and it’s Spanda (The Doctrine of Vibration).
It occurs to me this version of the rise may occur when the upper channel is more clear than the lower and Shiva descends to meet Shakti part way up. Thus the awakening, the meeting of Shiva and Shakti, occurs at a lower level. Or it may simply be a variation in how it is subjectively being experienced.
A related example: the white light in the head common around awakening may be attributed to the pranas coming together in the gut, but experienced in the head. However, I attribute it to the opening of makara above the 3rd eye. A drop of the Divine Mother. I can note that once open, makara can be seen by some others as a white light in the head. All this suggests interconnected events being experienced different ways. And indeed, the KV tradition tells us the crown manages the opening of the lower chakras but we typically only experience the effects in those lower centres. More detail is necessary to clarify.
I’ve also run into some individual variations that describe other combinations, like a concurrent step-by-step rise and descent. But in some cases, I have to wonder if concepts are directing experience.
If we come back to the Koshas, we can see that most of our subjective experiences revolve around the body, energy changes and perceptions. These involve only the grossest 3 bodies. Many of these are side-effects of deeper changes out of our clear experiential range. Thus, there is no one obvious energy process that fits all people.
Clearly, the energetic process is not the underlying mechanism I once thought but rather the physiologies adaptation to a deeper shift and the experiences that result from that.
Broadly though, we know there is purification, refinement and opening taking place on all levels while the body is prepared for, then adapting to, unfolding awareness.
Let’s clarify this further by going into a little more detail on two aspects of subjective experience: What we notice and where it’s experienced.