From sex to enlightenment in six small steps

ChakraDiagYou’ve heard of the seven chakras mentioned in the Yogic texts. They are energy centers along the spine often depicted as wheels.

I hesitate to bring them up because, well, the topic gets a bit touchy-feely and new-agey. Suffice it to say that one does, during pranayama (breath control) and the higher four of the eight stages of Patanjali’s Ashtanga yoga concentrate intensely on these chakras, perhaps visualizing them in their rainbow colors.

In this post I will not try to prove or disprove that the chakras exist. Instead, I would simply like to point out that Western culture seems to have the same concepts, especially if one views them more metaphorically than literally, as more mythos than logos.

Compare the hierarchy of chakras in the human body to the left to the hierarchy of needs as described so famously by the American psychologist Abraham Maslow to the right. Remarkably similar, aren’t they?


I believe the idea is the same.

In the yogic vocabulary, the root chakra above the anus (essentially in the male prostrate) and the sacral chakra just above it (near the female ovaries) govern our most basic drives: individual survival (eating, excreting etc) and genetic survival (sex).

Maslow lumped these together in his ‘physiological’ needs at the bottom of his pyramid. He believed that if somebody is choking you and you are not getting oxygen, breathing is the only need you care about. Once you can breathe again, you may notice that you are thirsty. Once you have drunk, you may notice that you are hungry. Once you have eaten, you may notice that you desire. And so on.

The next chakra (going upwards) is the yellow solar plexus just below the navel. In the yogic conceit, this governs our will to power. (So I sometimes think of the sacral chakra as Freud and the solar plexus as Nietzsche.) Maslow calls these “security” needs, but you notice that they involve what we consider the trappings of power: money, property, status, and so on.

Now we get into the higher or ‘nobler’ chakras.

In the yogic vocabulary, the first of these is the green heart chakra, which governs deep, selfless, non-sexual love (not Aphrodite but Hestia, if you will). Maslow calls these the ‘love and belonging’ needs for friendship, family and intimacy. Even the color corresponds. (Which is interesting: Green = envy in the West but love in the East.)

The blue throat chakra in Yoga governs intellectual clarity, the ability to communicate, creativity and so forth. This is where artists, scientists, writers and orators draw their inspiration. Maslow calls these ‘esteem’ needs, which is the reward of such things.

Yoga then distinguishes between two more chakras: the third eye behind the brow which is indigo and the source of inner peace and meditative calm; and the crown (depicted in the Western tradition as a halo) just above the head which is the area that is energized during enlightenment (ie, very rarely for most of us).

Maslow lumps them together under “self-actualization”, which is arguably the goal of life and the definition of success. Maslow studied biographies (as I did for my book), and developed a theory about what sort of qualities people have who self-actualize. Perhaps that’s why they called his approach “Jewish Buddhism” at Esalen. 😉

More about self-actualization anon.

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16 thoughts on “From sex to enlightenment in six small steps

  1. It will be interesting to find out levels of acceptance of libertarian concepts in a country as directly proportional to the % of people reaching at least stage 4 in the Maslow pyramid.

    Who is going to defend civil liberties, artists, minorities or vote for educated technocrats when more than 70% of a country is running around for basic physiological needs?

    This is the single major problem facing India and other developing countries who have working democracies.

  2. To Reem’s mention of libertarian concepts, I’ll add the degree (sic) of worriedness about climate-change, since those most worried about it (climate-change) are the white-wine sippers, salad nibblers, joggers, Sunday-morning helmet-wearing bicyclists, and Vivaldi-listeners.

    Which is to say that small minority of the world’s peoples fortunate to be in the top part of Maslow’s pyramid.

  3. You guys have indeed hit on two great examples–ie, concern for liberties and concern about climate change–for which we humans are ill equipped by nature.

    As Reem said, if most Indians live through the first two chakras, with all their energies consumed by finding food and shelter and medicine and perhaps having babies and trying to make them survive, then Phillip’s Vivaldi-Pinot Grigio types cannot expect these Indians to expend energy for liberties or against climate change.

    Until, that is, those liberties are gone and their absence threatens everybody at the first and second chakra. Or until the climate does change so catastrophically–unleashing new pandemics out of new swamps and jungles–that we all equate climate change with a first-chakra threat.

  4. I haven’t read a description of Maslow’s hierarchy for many years. Is there a temporal component to this? To what extent is this cylclical and, if so, what time scale is reasonable? If I really achieve enlightenment, will I know it because I stay enlightened? I think I go through most of this hierarchy (unfortunately some elements less than others) about every thirty minutes. Just when I’ve wrestled the idea of ‘respect for others’ to the ground, I’m back to excretion.

    • I’m laughing.

      Neither the ancient yogis nor the venerable Abe Maslow ever had to contend with a … Mr Crotchety in the crucible of intellectual debate.

      First, as long as you’re excreting you’ve got that need filled, so that you can move to a higher one! it’s only if you can’t excrete (or breathe, or drink, or sleep, or eat, or feel safe) that you become obsessed with that need to the detriment of the higher ones. So, er, here’s hoping that you … you know.

      Switching from maslow to Eastern philosophy: I’ve always believed that enlightenment is instantaneous but fleeting. this is the Zen view–you know, someone tells a Zen anecdote or hits you with a staff and you suddenly achieve sartori.

      The alternative view is that enlightenment comes after a long hard slog of meditative work–sitting under bodhi trees getting shat on by birds and what not, as the Buddha did. How would I possibly know? Also, I imagine that you slip back out of enlightenment again as soon as you achieve it.

  5. At this very moment, I am meditating on the Gita and the expansive set of hymns it is. We are studying this text for my class on Wednesday.

    I’d like to go out on a date with Arjuna. He sounds like my type: sensitive but focused, studly but introspective. Yeah.

  6. Andreas – great post, as usual making innovative intercontinental connections and provoking interesting responses.

    If you’ll forgive my belated contribution and grant some liberties… I’d like to make other huge leap involving chakras and Maslow’s hierarchy and another domain:

    A key problem we face is that Western capitalism focuses on and optimizes the lower layers of the chakras/pyramid (you might say our more base instincts) leaving us burdened by errors of the Enlightenment (Western not Eastern).

    Re ‘humans being ill equipped by nature’ – the best short summary on this that I’ve encountered is from Daniel Gilbert (author of “Stumbling on Happiness”)
    “If only Gloabal Warming were caused by Gay Sex”

    Here’s hoping for an intellectual climate change soon.

    PS – can’t get over Cheri’s chakra mixing & the idea of her as a Bond Girl.

    PPS summarizing Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness: the hedonic treadmill inevitably leads us head on into the next level of the worry hierarchy. Particularly if the pace is set too fast, stumbling is inevitable.

  7. Remarkably similar indeed.

    The study of man must come up with some similarities even if it spans 3000-4000 years.

    Enjoyed the comparison and your vivid sense of analogy. Not much, if any news below the sun but so many interesting models and efforts to describe the same, the one, the darling of the Universe: Man.

  8. Excellent post. A couple of quick comments on chakras.

    Its believed that we share the bottom 3 chakras with 99.9% species on this planet meaning that these are animalistic chakras and if a human consciousness is stuck at that level then humans do behave like animals. When you read about the violence in rwanda and liberia, cambodia or even WW II you come to realize the power of the bottom chakras to take over and transform men into animals. History provides enough evidence of that and in fact the ancient religions of India attempted to redeem humans from the bottom three chakras to higher consciousness chakras through yoga, meditation and nirvanic enlightenment.

    Its a pity that 70% of indians are stuck in the cycle of daily sustenance but keep in mind that yoga itself which is in my opinion is the outcome of the largest mind research ever conducted in human history was probably a result to weaken the power of the bottom chakras and strengthen the top chakras that hold the key to attain true enlightenment and redeemption from suffering caused by the bottom chakras.

    But like everything else in human history the ever changing cyclical and non-static nature of things would mean these experiments of ancient india has been forgotten replaced by new world orders that is moving away and back to the violence and animalistic orders that exist when the bottom chakras are on the rise will mean we are probably around the corner for resurgence of yoga or something similar.

    Andreas, if you have not already seen it I recommend Joseph Cambell’s mythos series that explains each and every chakra its metaphorical symbols and purpose beautifully.
    Its available on Netflix.

    • What I would like to see is the graph of various countries GDP or Military expenditure or per capita income with what we think the chakra that country is stuck in. I would like to see that graph visualized using Hans Rosling’s visualization tool. (FYI : )

      I am willing to bet that it would be a sort of bell curve with both the richest and poorest countries stuck in the bottom 3 chakras and country like bhutan or thailand or maybe even one of the scandinavian countries striking a balance between the chakras.

      I am afraid a country like tibet probably spent all its energy on the top chakras ignoring the reality of the world and hence they don’t have a country anymore and are perhaps forced to think about bottom chakras now.

    • Deep thinking, Suresh.

      I’ll see if I can get Campbell’s Mythos on iTunes. (You probably know by now, having browsed the HB, that I’ve read his books. Hard to read, but monumental scholarship.)

      And Rosling is great. I saw him on stage at TED once, swallowing a sword after his graph visualization. That famous Swedish humor.

      Now, regarding your other thoughts, you’ve taken a bold step here, by changing your focus from the INDIVIDUAL to GROUPS. This is always controversial (for instance, in evolutionary biology: the concept of group selection has been frowned upon, although kin selection passes muster; the “main action” is still in individual selection.)

      Yoga (I love how you call it “the largest mind research ever conducted in human history” :)) can help an individual to raise his awareness to the higher chakras. But can good policies raise an entire society to a higher chakra?

      I must ponder this. Certainly, your example of Bhutan would be the test case. They are pioneering the GHP (Gross Happiness Product) as a replacement for GDP, I’ve heard….

    • You are right I am stretching it by shifting from Individual to group. Its probably totally unrealistic to expect chakras to align at the group level. The kundalini operates at the individual level and traverses the chakras at the individual consciousness level.

      I got carried away and being bit playful and irrevential to the concept. Maybe got influenced by the movie Batman forever wherein Riddler tries to harness everybody’s brain waves and channels it to himself :-). If only we could harness the svadhisthana chakra power of men and women in a society (or maybe even just the women 🙂 ) like Riddler..hehe

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