A Certain Man
A certain man wishes to be a prince Of this earth; he also wants to be A saint and master of the being-world. Conscience cannot exist in the first: The second cannot exist without conscience. Therefore he, who has enough conscience To be disturbed but not enough to be Compelled, can neither reject the one Nor follow the other…
from Serpent Of Light
The American writer Jean Toomer (1894-1967), who is famous for Cane (1923), an avant-garde collection of lyrical portraits of black rural and urban individuals, underwent an experience in 1926 which drastically changed his life. He never called it kundalini, but its effects surely resemble what the Indians claim for an awakening of the lightning serpent. The account that follows is based on Toomer’s own words as collected in A Jean Toomer Reader (Rusch, 1993). Toomer was a light-skinned black man who had lived among poor and middle class whites, growing up in Washington, D.C. After his initial success with Cane, he went to France to study with Georgei Ivanovitch Gurdjieff.  Thus he was by no means unacquainted with the idea of mystical experience when in April, 1926, he stood on the platform of the 66th Street “L” station in New York City. Having “an enjoyable feeling of being at large in the world, at peace with myself,” (Ibid., 33) he allows several trains to pass. Suddenly he is “startled by an uncommon inward event” that held him “suspended” and a voice inside said, “This Is It! . . . What it might be I could not imagine” (Ibid., 34). He felt in the hands of a “Power,” as though he were “a pod outgrown by a great seed” (Ibid., 35). He beheld a process of “motion,” “creating,” and “awakening,” though he was peripheral to “It.”
I was being transported. I was. Not my body. It stood motionless on the “L” station. . . . I was taken into that-being, and instantly that-being became this-being, my being, and that-me ceased to exist, and I was one and whole . . . alive in a life so different from ordinary life that there seemed to be absolutely no relation between the two (Ibid., 39). I saw the same night-universe I had seen all the nights of my life. But how purely those stars shone, and what a quality in the darkness! No night had ever seemed so sheerly beautiful, so fresh, so original (Ibid., 41).
He realized that he is not a body or an ego but a “being” that “precedes the birth of the perishable body and succeeds its destruction” and that this long existence enables real accomplishment (Ibid., 43). Looking down from the platform, he saw people walking and driving and realized that they were not awake and did not know that they lived as “beings with bodies” (Ibid., 44). He found he was experiencing “the stupendous reality” of the universe “with his whole being” and not just with his thought (Ibid., 45). The people he saw below were “earth bound” but not “in touch with the earth”; they moved rigidly, had few expressions and no vital connections (Ibid., 46). After sleeping the night, he found that the experience continued. He enjoyed everything he did, the water of his shower, the taste of a modest breakfast, the washing of the dishes (Ibid., 52-6). “A weight has been lifted. . . . Presently I asked — What weight? All at once it dawned on me. The weight of that-me!” (Ibid., 57). Outside on the street, he saw a drama of failed salvation:
Human beings, without their conscious minds knowing it, were putting themselves into situation after situation the real function of which was to make each individual meet and contend with, and in some measure overcome the very things in himself that blocked the way to his real being and proper consciousness (Ibid., 67).
The experience lasted about two weeks (Ibid., 31); and although it did not continue, it certainly changed his life. For it became the theme of his subsequent writings over a period of forty years — most of which did not find a publisher. Although Toomer says little that would encourage us to think that his awakening began in an arousal of the body, as is universally said of kundalini, it is well known that Gurdjieff employed hard labor, complicated dance techniques, and Sufi breathing exercises in his training (Guiley, 1991). Thus it is reasonable to think that what occurred on the elevated subway platform in New York had been begun through physical training in Paris. Toomer’s initial “enjoyable feeling of being at large in the world and at peace with myself” appears to be a sort of premonitory state of heightened awareness which he refuses to interrupt by boarding any of the trains passing through the station. In short, he was cultivating a condition of preparedness as he unconsciously waited for that “uncommon inward event.” What happens next is the upsurge of a power far greater than his ego. An alien voice from within says, “This is It!” Apparently he has had an unconscious familiarity with this power and has been expecting it. No doubt he had learned of its existence in a theoretical way from his association with Gurdjieff. But the fact that an unconscious voice announces it suggests that he had felt a bit of this kundalini surge in the past, subliminally, and remembered it somewhat the way the smell of a certain brand of soap or the flowering of a particular plant can bring back scenes from our childhood. In Toomer’s case, the “memory” is fragmentary, and he is hardly prepared for the magnitude of what faces him. The ego that remembers the struggle of his racial identity, that has crafted the well-received Cane, and that has sought out Gurdjieff is revealed as merely a secondary player in his life. The “that-being” that surges into existence before his eyes and that he knows pre-existed his bodily life and would survive his death appears to have much in common with what the Indians call atman or “self.” He even employs the Upanishads’ formula, “Thou art That.” “I fulfilled the first stage of the ancient testimony — `Thou art That'” (Ibid., 39). A huge “eternal identity” places his temporal ego in a context wholly unfamiliar to his own habitual awareness and that of his contemporaries. What surges forth in him is as much a cosmic as a personal vision. “My very being was at the disposal of the Power that had come” (Ibid., 34). “I beheld that other being as a stranger entering my life” (Ibid., 35). “Living waves” traveled from the base of his spine to his head and beyond, revealing a “veritable body,” a “second body” that “opened the creature to the creator within” (Ibid., 37). All of this he sees as an “awakening” from a former state of sleep, along the lines of Gurdjieff. His experience exemplifies Vimalananda’s statement of the goal, “Tantra aims to replace the limited personality with an unlimited, permanent one” (Svoboda, 1986: 9). The aim is to be “self-functioning” (sva-tantra), “free of all limitations, especially the limitation of his or her own personality” (Svoboda, 1994: 21). Toomer’s observation of the robotic life of his contemporaries on the street placing themselves in situations designed to awaken them from the devices that were keeping them unconscious also recapitulates the doctrine of Vimalananda.  Svoboda’s guru says that ego (ahamkara, “the sense of me and mine”) employs the same energy as kundalini, actually steals that energy in an effort to maintain the sense of who I am right now as the outcome of my past memories and prevents me from discovering what I might become (Svoboda, 1994: 18).
It takes tremendous energy to remember things. This is why Kundalini never gets an opportunity to wake up in most people, much less to rise. So long as your memory is strongly committed to your own karmas, all of Kundalini’s energy will be taken up just in the act of remembering who you are (Svoboda, 1997: 135).
Toomer insists that his experience did not take place in a state of trance: “This was no trance I had entered, but a higher state of consciousness in which many of my ordinary faculties were retained” (Ibid., 40). It is clear that he understands “trance” to be a limited sort of awareness, perhaps a condition of “dissociation”; and his assertion that his experience not be so demeaned as to be termed a “trance” comes from his conviction that limitations were shed, not taken on. His awakening amounts to an enlargement, not a restriction of the conscious field.  This is not a problem for our understanding of non-dissociative trance, namely a heightened state of consciousness in which one is so gripped by the reality of the subtle plane that it cannot be doubted. We see no doubt in Toomer. He knows without question that he has been introduced to a larger reality and a larger mode of being than what is available to his unaided ego; and he observes his contemporaries fighting this discovery, all unawares. Still, it is a dangerous discovery that Toomer has made. Others have been destroyed by it. We can only think that his association with Gurdjieff has not only made the experience possible but given him a mindset for utilizing it.
A different rhythm is established in every intense experience of eros, which invests and transports or suspends the normal faculties of an individual and may open vistas onto a different world. But those who are the subjects of such an experience almost always lack the discernment and sensibility to comprehend anything beyond the emotions and feelings that affect them; they have no basis for self-orientation (Evola, 1983: 2).
Evidently the vistas opened by erotic trance were not too much for Toomer, but they were too much for those who refused to publish his subsequent writings — or at least they were judged to be too much for his potential readers. His experience surely validates Vimalananda’s observation that once our eyes have been opened to this larger reality there is no going back: “For after the initial crisis abates, one discovers that there is no way to return to one’s previous comfortable mindset” (Svoboda, 1994: 20).
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