Yearning for Ascension: The Cosmic Axis and Its Symbols

If your body is a temple, your spine is its most sacred place. This awareness has little to do with the vertebral structure that allows human primates to hold their vertical posture; instead, it indicates the approximate location of sushumna, the channel where kundalini flows.

Kundalini is the energy through which universal consciousness keeps manifesting its infinite possibilities at the macrocosmic and microcosmic level. When it is asleep in its abode at the bottom of the spine, this energy lets out just the tiny trickle that is needed to sustain the physical body. The vertical thrust of its awakening allows one’s awareness to expand, thus peeling off layers of illusion as it begins to restore cosmic consciousness.

The verticality of this spiritual impetus, however, is not limited to the awakening of kundalini—nor does it begin and end inside the human body. Most notably, those who survive near death experiences often report of a tunnel of light opening up above their head, and ascending through this tunnel takes them to celestial realms. Similarly, mystics from a variety of traditions describe entering a channel of light that, populated with angelic (or, at times, demonic) forms of consciousness, gives them access to alternate realities. A cross-cultural comparison of such accounts led religious phenomenologist Mircea Eliade to use the Latin phrase axis mundi, cosmic axis, to refer to the invisible vertical structure perceived by individuals keen on exploring the mysteries of the universe.

Gustave Doré’s Celestial Rose. Engraving print for Dante’s Divine Comedy, courtesy of the Project Gutenberg

If, as Carl Gustav Jung posited, there is such a thing as a collective unconscious, the axis mundi is one of its core archetypes—one which is frequently reproduced in the sacrality of natural features. In some shamanic cultures, for example, trees embody the human quest for a deeper harmony with the spirit worlds. The roots of trees reach deep into the earth, their trunks cross the atmosphere, and their branches stretch into the sky, thus allowing shamans to move across non-physical realms above and below their own. In their empowering sacrality, shamanic trees closely resemble the tree of life, whose symbolism finds echoes not just in the Jewish Qabbalah but also in the Hindu and Buddhist chakra systems.[1]

Sacred peepal tree (ficus religiosa) in India. Image by Emma Giannini

Aside from trees, other natural features have become embodiment of the cosmic axis—mountains and caves, for example. In India, Mount Kailash and Mount Arunachala are both regarded as the abode of Lord Shiva, and goddess Vaishno Devi is said to dwell inside a hilltop cave in the northern state of Jammu. In France, Mother Mary allegedly appeared inside a grotto, and several Catholic sanctuaries sit atop steep mountains, thus offering pilgrims an opportunity for penance as they physical rise towards the object of their worship.

Worshiping Mary in Lourdes’ grotto. Image by Kamil Szumotalski via Unsplash

While nature provides spiritually minded people with abundant representations of the cosmic axis, the malleability of the built environment has proven just as helpful in this quest. All world religions have thus developed architectures that are symbolic of ascension. While tall domes implicitly echo the experience of a crown chakra opening towards the sky, belltowers and minarets alike represent the human longing for a celestial abode. And for those who prefer less subtle symbols, the Jacob’s ladder engraved on the façades of many an ancient cathedral shows how to climb upwards on the wings of angels.

Temple architecture on the Ganges at Haridwar, India. Image by Emma Giannini

In conclusion, the axis mundi characterizes both the direct experience of transitioning from one realm to another and our longing for spiritual progress. Symbols are helpful reminders of the depths of consciousness and, at times, may have transformative powers. However, while some believe that climbing a sacred mountain may bestow a special grace on them, serious seekers know that the real work of ascension is internal. Finding your sushumna in meditation and encouraging prana to flow through it will help you develop the awareness of your own axis mundi, thus allowing you to expand your consciousness beyond the confines of your physical body.[2]

Image by Emma Giannini

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[1] The symbolism of the Tree of Life is the origin of the Christian Christmas tree.

[2] This is a topic of my Inner Alchemy course, which I will resume teaching once the pandemic is over. Keep checking in for updates!