They are known as “chakras”, the Sanskrit term for “wheel” or whirling. Some consider them to be a manifestation within the etheric field, our energetic blueprint from the cosmos. They are known to be vital points along channels in the pranamaya kosha, the vital life force “sheath” that permeates the physical body. Although there are hundreds of minor chakras, there are seven that are considered paramount. Seven energy centers essential to our development, and potential transcendence, as a human being.
The chakras are complex and beautiful, swirling vortexes of energy (literally, chakra means “wheel”), and it takes a few books to explain their characteristics in detail. For example, each has an associated color, sound, glandular system, element, etc. – even various deities and animals from Hindu mythology are assigned to each chakra.
From birth to transcendence
This article does not delve into these aspects of the chakras (I offer my references for further exploration of other aspects of these energy centers at the end of this piece), but rather focuses on the practical application of their energies to our lives. The psychological and transformational aspects of the chakras fascinate me the most. In essence, they recapitulate the evolution of a human being: from birth to transcendence, we each make our journey through these seven centers.
The foundations of life
All of us, in each incarnation, begin life’s journey at the 1st chakra. And, logically, this energy center is located at the base of the spine. We come into a body rather helpless, and absorb a tremendous amount of information through our senses. In particular, the sense of smell is associated with first chakra, and we are told that a newborn recognizes the scent of its mother, which helps direct it to the breastmilk. Indeed, as the baby grows, he focuses much of his first year in exploring all the senses – feeling the touch of his mother, the sound of his father’s voice, the warmth of bath water, the taste of his first foods.
We have very simple, and yet critical, needs at this first phase of life. It coincides with Erik Erikson’s model of socio-emotional development. For approximately the first year, developing a sense of trust – in the mother as well as father, in feeling safe, and in getting basic needs met – is essential to survival and healthy emotional development.
These needs include not only food, clothing, and safe shelter, but touch and human connection. Feeling safe, secure, stable on all levels, and knowing that the universe provides for us are essential elements of 1st chakra. When we have these basic needs met, the 1st chakra is balanced and healthy, and we can then engage the next stage of development.
Feeling, sensuality, and autonomy
Moving up to the second chakra, which is located approximately 2 inches below the navel, life changes rather dramatically for the 1-3 year old. She may still breastfeed, but now enjoys many other pleasures of taste and texture through eating food, but also through putting any object of interest in the mouth (which probably began as soon as she had the coordination to do so). The 2nd chakra indeed relates to the sense of taste and the exploration of the world through pleasure in general (including, later, sexuality, although even at this early age one can see the first discoveries of this in a toddler’s fascination with his or her genital area ).
Physical and motor skills are developing at a rapid pace, and so is the understanding of having a body that one can do many interesting things with. And indeed, the 2nd chakra impels the 1-3 year old to explore the world through all his senses and capabilities of his body: sensuality and sexuality are embodied in this chakra. This leads to the desire to control his movement as well as his environment and activities.
Erikson describes this second stage as focused on the development of Autonomy. This is easily seen by parents as their toddlers assert their wills – “no!” is a favorite expression, and exploring electrical outlets, climbing up on kitchen counters, and any manner of challenges to the parent’s constant enforcement of safe boundaries are par for the course. They are learning toilet training and how to use utensils to pick up their food. They begin to understand what behaviors are good and what are unacceptable. This leads to a good deal of frustration for the little one journeying through 2nd chakra. And since this is also the chakra of our emotions, she experiences a wide range of feelings, from unbounded joy to rage.
This second chakra also dips into Erikson’s 3rd stage, focusing on Initiative. Toddlers learn how to initiate their actions in their bodies, and gradually, with their words. They learn to ask for what they want and to express their feelings, which are a huge part of their experience of self. During these early years, they learn about who they are through what they feel, emotionally.
So a successful journey through this chakra involves not only sensing and feeling the world, but developing an ability to modulate the emotions. This involves developing the skill to appropriately express needs and feelings. It also involves an understanding of the results of actions not only through the response of others but also through one’s own emotional reactions. A healthy 2nd chakra allows one to feel a wide range of emotions, to understand those emotions, and also to have an ability to recover from intense experiences such as anger, fear, or even too much excitement and find an inner balance.
Empowerment, capability, and self
Erikson’s 3rd stage, of Initiative, gives us clues to where we are headed at the 3rd chakra, which is located between the navel and the diaphram. By this time, most young children have good enough communication skills to explore many possibilities of what one can “do” in the world.
Not only physical, but intellectual and social endeavors become important. Children long to do well in school, compete in sports, or focus on a special talent or activity that brings them joy. This leads to Erikson’s 4th stage of Industry – feeling one can do things correctly and well compared to a common standard.
The essence of 3rd chakra is the development of the sense of “self”. And this is experienced by capability – what “I” can “do”. What “I” can think, write, speak, dance, run, draw, and show others: this is “me”. We develop our sense of empowerment in this chakra. “I can get my own needs met and I have a sense of who I am”.
It’s not surprising that the sense of sight is associated with this chakra – we want to be seen by others for who we believe and feel we are. This chakra strongly influences us up through adolescence (and sometimes through our whole lives), as we shift to Erikson’s 5th stage of Identity, in which each of us considers what our abilities are, what goals we may have, and what we believe is possible for us. A healthy 3rd chakra gives us a sense of self-identity, personal power, and being capable.
The turning point: love, from self to other
This brings us to a pivotal point in the chakra system. Each chakra thus far has focused solely on self-development: at the 4th, the heart center, there is a decided shift to the other. Thus, relationships become the focus. In adolescence, according to Erikson, our self-identity becomes intertwined with group identity. Developing friendships, and perhaps even intimate relationships, is the main focus of the teenager’s socio-emotional development.
Connecting with others is the essence of 4th chakra. Often, we express our connection and caring through touch, the sense of this energy center. A hug, an arm supportively placed across a friend’s back, and holding someone’s hand all express this desire for connection and expression of caring. This is the chakra where we begin to understand love. On a basic level, we realize the love we have for parents, friends, and then even intimate partners.
This begins Erikson’s 6th stage of learning Intimacy. We learn to give and receive, to understand the needs of others, and to make long-term commitments to relationships. On a spiritual level, we open to the possibility of unconditional love, undefined by any relationship or expectations. We develop compassion for the suffering of others, the courage to serve the greater good, and perhaps even to sacrifice our own desires for the happiness of another. When we feel loving towards others, allow ourselves to be loved, and are able to express kindness as well as forgiveness of self and others, our 4th chakra feels open and strong. This can take a lifetime to develop within ourselves.
From this 4th chakra on, the journey of the human being turns increasingly away from the individual self, more towards the collective, and ultimately towards the transcendent. 4th chakra awakens us to the giving and receiving of love, even on the spiritual level: perhaps for the first time, we may understand being loved by God as well as loving Him/Her. This is the deeper layer of unconditional love that lies dormant in 4th chakra, for as we open ourselves to that Infinite Source of love, we find increasing capacity to hold others in that space of acceptance, forgiveness, compassion, and innocence.
Expression and communication
This takes us to the threshold of 5th chakra. At the throat, it is hardly surprising that this chakra embodies communication and expression. It is related to sound and speech – and not only the ability to speak our truth, but to listen deeply (the sense of hearing). We revisit the 2nd chakra’s creativity here but in outward manifestation. Now, creativity takes form in our words, actions, career choices, and home life, as well as through artistic expression.
The throat chakra also is the container of our knowledge – we begin to “own” what we know at this point of our evolution. From young adulthood through mid-life, we journey into college, vocational studies, or our first jobs, through our career (and perhaps a few career changes). We may marry and begin a family. Along the path we continue to learn in a variety of ways, and we may even be compelled to pursue deeper knowledge – exploration of the mysteries of life, scripture, and spiritual study.
Eventually, within 5th chakra a longing grows to share what we know and understand. It dawns on us that it is not enough to just know, but the continued development of our species depends on sharing what we know.
As Erikson states about his 7th stage of “Generativity”, we develop a concern in “establishing and guiding the next generation”. Besides the obvious expressions of passing on what we know to our own children, there is a drive towards “making our mark” through our own unique contribution to the world. We tend to measure this in career success or having a family, but also can be found in pursuing studies of interest, undertaking creative and artistic hobbies, and volunteer work to support those in need of our skills and care. Service to our community arises in 5th chakra.
Beyond the manifest world
Having journeyed through our development as physical, emotional, mental, relational, and occupational beings (which continue to evolve through our lives), we reach another significant shift at the 6th chakra, located at the center of the forehead. There is a realization of something beyond the doings of the world, the activities we pursue, the relationships we cultivate, and even the thoughts we think.
A realization of a deeper understanding than our acquired knowledge – intuition and insight – come to the fore. Certainly, throughout life, many have noticed these abilities of the mind to “know without knowing”, like a 6th sense. But the 6th chakra specifically develops this inner knowing and wisdom. It also is the seat of imagination, dreams, and integration: the ability to perceive life from a broad view, taking in the meaning of our relationships, all levels of our being, life pursuits, past, present, and future.
Erikson’s 8th and final stage of life, called “Ego Integrity”, is the ego’s “accumulated assurance of its capacity for order and meaning”. This is integration and inner knowing. It is not only the confidence and ability to create an orderly life and to find meaning in what we do. It is also the wisdom that develops from accumulated life experience. This is beyond what we learned in college or on the job, but what we learned when a relationship ended, a child was born, a parent died, or when we harvested vegetables from our own garden and ate them. Wisdom comes from the ordinary and extraordinary events of life and how we survived and even thrived.
This wisdom reveals awareness of a greater order in the universe and pursuit of the meaning of life. The individual begins to penetrate into the question of what is beyond life and death. Spirituality moves to the forefront as we recognize the impermanence of our existence. The 6th chakra turns us back inward, but not to our personal self – to the exploration of what is beyond the ego and the body.
Erikson’s developmental theory, based in social and emotional development, ends there. But the chakras move on, because yogic theory impels us to look beyond even our thoughts, insights, and ideas. At the 7th chakra, seen as a thousand-petaled lotus on the crown of the head, we move into experience of transcendence – the greatest point of human evolution.
For most of us, this remains a mere potentiality, but a few great souls have awakened this potential at the 7th chakra. They describe it as consciousness itself – oneness with all of existence, an attunement with the vibration of the entire cosmos. Some call it experiencing ultimate truth and reality, beyond form, the source of all known and unknown. Others see it as becoming one with the Divine itself.
The full expression of this last chakra is enlightenment, illumination. It is beyond the pale of ordinary human experience: truly extraordinary, yet achievable according to the ancient yogis through many paths of yoga, such as consistent, steady, and long-held practices of meditation, devotion, selflessness, and internal inquiry into the nature of the universe.
All throughout the lifespan
The journey through the chakras is powerful and transformative, and unlike Erikson’s theory of development, does not necessarily occur in a linear and predictable progression. Some of us skip ahead to higher chakras at different times in life, and often we return to strengthen the energy of lower chakras. In fact, all the chakras can be accessed at almost any time during the lifespan.
The risks of skipping a stage
However, skipping ahead to focus on the experiences of the 7th chakra, for example, without having a solid grounding in the other chakras, can lead to poor, even disastrous results. Some have leaped to meditation without dealing with ego issues: this can result in dissociation from the sense of self, and can make a person blind to their own faults, feeling that they are overcoming them by distancing themselves from them. They may unconsciously react to others in inappropriate ways and cut themselves off from relationships that fall apart, over and over, rationalizing that others just don’t understand how “spiritual” they are.
Healing the undeveloped places
We can also become stuck or underdeveloped in some of the early chakras, and this will impede further growth to the higher states of human expression. For example, if one never had their basic needs met as an infant, they are likely to have a basic sense of insecurity, fear, and mistrust of life. This can impede their studies in school and their career or relationships further on.
A return back to developing an inner security, sense of safety and stability, and learning how to get one’s needs met heals 1st chakra, bringing it into a state of wholeness, from which the inner foundations of other chakras can be further developed.
One can also become stuck or fixated in a particular chakra (such as power-hungry people who obsess in the realm of 3rd chakra), and healing work at that particular chakra plus developing strength and balance in underdeveloped chakras shifts the fixation. Working with a therapist or teacher experienced in the chakras, doing internal exploration of the issues at each one, meditation on the aspects of a particular chakra, using healing stones specific to the chakra, and work with yogic practices for supporting that chakra are some of the various ways one can heal and develop the qualities of these energetic centers.
Your seven center journey
You can do your own internal exploration of these chakras. A simple practice would be to sit in a comfortable position for meditation. Start with a few deep and relaxing breaths to bring you into the present in your body.
Then, beginning with first chakra and slowly progressing up to the seventh, spend some time feeling each one, visualizing them (you can learn the colors, geometric shapes, sounds, etc. associated with each in either of the books below), and especially exploring the issues in your life that arise at each energy center. Take time to journal about the experience of each chakra, and make note of where your strengths are and where you feel you need the most development.
Brainstorm ways that you can bolster lesser developed areas in your life. If your 5th chakra seems closed, tight, weak, or hazy, consider: What wants to be expressed within you? What artistic pursuit to do you long to explore? How can you improve your ability to communicate, or to listen? Do you own what you know? Are you paying attention to sounds, music, or intonation? Whom can you benefit by sharing your knowledge? Or is there an area of knowledge that you recognize you need to develop for yourself? After your internal reflections, end your meditation, and then come up with a simple plan for working on one of the chakras. Conscious development of these seven powerful energy centers can transform your life.
Copyright © 2008 by Constance L. Habash
Sacred Centers – the website of Anodea Judith, author of Wheels of Life and Eastern Body, Western Mind, who offers more western interpretations of the chakras
Harish Johari – authority on the traditional Hindu perspective of the chakras (see his book Chakras) as well as an expert in many fields of Hinduism