The crown chakra, called Sahasrara, is situated at the very top of the head, which is an energetic center or portal recognized by cultures worldwide. It’s part of why Jews and Muslims wear head coverings. If the soles of the feet are our closest connection with the earthly realm and the solid ground beneath us, the top of the head, as the opposite pole, is closest to the ethereal realm, the heavens, or the unseen. Thus, it’s widely regarded as a link to our spiritual nature.
While each of the previous chakras had some degree of association with the body, the senses, and the world of duality, this is not the case with the seventh chakra. Traditionally, it signifies a state of total unification with God or consciousness itself.
This chakra is depicted as a lotus with a thousand petals (really, “thousand” is meant to signify some unfathomable number) – an opening of consciousness on an unfathomable scale. Interestingly, there is an acupuncture point at the same location and its name is Bai Hui – “hundred meetings” (again, “hundred” is used to connote some large number). Bai hui is considered to be a place where many different energy channels come together, and it’s a highly significant point in the practices of Qi Gong and Tai Chi.
Many sources have little to say about the seventh chakra, sometimes not even considering it a chakra, but more of a final destination that can only be experienced. Aghori Vimalananda described it as such: “When Kundalini moves from the Ajna [sixth chakra] into the Sahasrara [seventh chakra] the final shreds of identity are lost and the sadhaka [spiritual seeker] merges completely with the Universal Soul. All differentiation is lost, and the result is Nirvikalpa Samadhi, the samadhi (state of profound one-pointed consciousness) in which nothing is perceived except the Universal Soul. All determination and indecision drop away, all fluctuations of the mind disappear. You are finished! Gone to the land of no return!”
Caroline Myss, approaching it more as a developmental challenge, writes that the seventh chakra represents “our capacity to allow our spirituality to become an integral part of our physical lives and guide us.” Much in line with the Daoist conception of Bai Hui, she describes it as an “entry point” for life force to pour into us, and says it “contains the energy that generates devotion, inspirational and prophetic thoughts, transcendent ideas, and mystical connections.”
Myss also states that this chakra “motivates us to seek an intimate connection with the Divine in everything we do,” and she asserts that “seeking a personal spiritual connection shakes us to our core.… In seeking union with the Divine, we are asking to have all physical, psychological, and emotional ‘illusions’ removed from our lives.” Myss emphasizes that, in contrast to the way we typically approach organized religion, which is often motivated by a (first chakra) drive to adhere to the “group mind” or belong to a tribe, the desire for an intimate connection with the spiritual realm invites us to relinquish the concern for acceptance by our tribe.
Myss considers spiritual “crises” to be a challenge of the seventh chakra, and says they present with three symptoms: First, there’s “an awareness of an absence of meaning and purpose that cannot be remedied merely by shuffling the external components of one’s life.” She is clear to point out that simply being unable to find meaning and purpose, but still expecting life to deliver it, isn’t quite the same thing. She says it’s accompanied by a feeling that “something is trying to wake up inside them.”
Second, there are strange new fears. Not typical human fears, but fears that make a person feel they’re losing touch with their identity – that they don’t know who they are or what they want. And third, there is a “need to experience devotion to something greater than oneself.” Myss writes that this is a need rarely mentioned in psychological texts, but that we all need to be connected to “a source of power that transcends human limitation and turmoil … a source of miracles and hope.” Myss says that while these three symptoms could arise from a psychological dilemma, when the root is spiritual there’s no desire to blame other people for the crisis, because there’s a recognition that the cause is within us. She recommends a spiritual guide, rather than a psychological counselor for help in navigating this passage.
In light of the differences between the words of Vimalananda and Dr. Myss, I feel it’s important to state once again that there are two main orientations to the chakras. The historical yogic or Tantrik orientation is that they are stations of spiritual awakening, perhaps traversed one by one through the arousal of a powerful force known as Kundalini, generally through diligent practice, and that mastering each one represents a tremendous accomplishment. (I should also reiterate that there are many different perspectives on the chakras even within the Indian scriptures.) Thus, from this standpoint, arriving at the crown chakra might mean the end of one’s human existence, at least in any usual form.
The modern Western orientation is that the chakras are subtle, functional energetic centers that color our mental, physical, and spiritual life. They represent stages of development, with each chakra being associated with a set of challenges, and each capable of producing signs and symptoms of imbalance.
Even though the Western version is more accessible to me, I must admit I don’t feel the same kind of reverence for it that I have for the historical tradition. Our modern interpretation is one of too many cases of Westerners discovering and appropriating something fascinating from another culture, running it through our filters, cross-referencing it with other philosophies, and reinventing it. Some of our extrapolations are still theoretical and haven’t been tested over time.
There are pros and cons to purism. Sometimes dedicated instruction in a tried-and-true methodology is safer and more effective than trying it on in a casual, self-directed way. And learning a synthesis of a variety of philosophies might result in our missing out on benefits that could only be realized through a deeper, more formalized immersion in any one of these philosophies. But purism can also get us stuck in laborious or ineffective practices that have only endured because of blind adherence to tradition. In any case, there are very few Westerners who are willing or able to undertake an exploration of the chakras in the way that they were historically approached (and even fewer teachers capable of guiding such an exploration). So, in my opinion, the most effective role I can play is to meet my readers where they are and offer them something they can assimilate, with the hope that if it resonates with them, they’ll earnestly pursue a deeper study and personal inquiry.
Here I’ve partially copied a table from Anodea Judith’s book, Eastern Body, Western Mind: Psychology and the Chakra System as a Path to the Self. These interpretations are not exactly traditional, but I think you’ll find them thought-provoking.
**Click to enlarge**
I realize I digressed quite a bit in this article, but I wanted to return to the challenges I presented at the outset of these articles – balancing the traditional and the modern, and weighing the value of precise accuracy against that of better comprehension. Only toward the end of writing these eight articles did I become aware of some of my own biases, and I want to mention them here for two reasons. First, I’d like to let them go. Second, perhaps this will help some readers notice and relinquish their own biases.
Here goes: I tend to put more stock in Eastern sources of spirituality; I tend to feel Westerners are looking for shortcuts and are rarely willing to commit to a lifelong spiritual practice; I tend to feel that historical spiritual teachers were sages and that modern ones are often charlatans; and I tend to feel that old practices are more legitimate than new ones because someone just “made the new practice up” (even though that’s exactly what someone did with the old practices). With these subconsious biases, I felt a lot of conflict in writing these articles – partly because I’m a Westerner and I’m contributing to the co-opting of this philosophy! But the fact is, I could be wrong about all of these notions, and indeed, my own life experience doesn’t support them. I have known Westerners who are enlightened, who are fiercely committed to doing their work and cutting through their illusions, who are absolutely authentic in how they present themselves, and who are probably more effective at facilitating positive change among their own people than an outside might be.
If you’d like to try an exercise to build awareness of this energy center, try this stance from Qi Gong and Tai Chi. Stand with your feet shoulder width apart and a slight bend in your knees. Make sure the insides of your thighs are slightly engaged as you spread your knees a bit so that they are in line with your feet. Bring your hands out in front of you as if you were resting them on a big Buddha belly. The palms face the abdomen and are a few inches apart. There is space under each armpit (enough for a tennis ball to fit there) and the elbows are lifted slightly so that the arms form a circle. Now for the magic. Imagine that there is a string attached to the very top of your head – directly in line with the tips of your ears – and that it’s pulling you upward. Imagine that you’re suspended by this string. It makes it effortless to stand in this way. Next, imagine there is another string attached to the tip of your tailbone – or a place at the absolute base of the torso, in line with the point on the top of your head. Imagine that this string pulls downward, coaxing you to deepen your squat (still keeping the knees in line with the feet, not letting them go past the line of your toes). The lower string pulls down and the upper string pulls up. You spine gets longer and longer. You are suspended between these two forces. Breathe deeply, engage your body while remaining peaceful. And stand here for a minute, or five (or twenty!).
I hope you’ve benefited from this series and I wish you the best in opening to greater self-awareness, peace, and freedom.
Dr. Peter Borten