Working with Emotions in Spiritual Practice

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So emotions are pretty complex and endless, but here are four of the big ones that are hard to deal with. Often these will arise in the midst of a meditation or prayer practice and many people of talked with feel that it makes it impossible to continue practicing. My attitude is the opposite. It’s great when this stuff comes up in spiritual practice because then we have a chance to work consciously with it! So here are a few ideas for how to proceed.

Sadness

Strategy: Feeling the pain, allowing tears while anchoring part of awareness in a refuge of peace, love, and joy.

Example Affirmation: I can let myself feel this sadness while still remembering the love and joy that possible in life.

Example Prayer: God, I cry out to you in my pain. My tears are my prayers to you. Please spread Your infinite compassion upon these hurt and tender places. Let me take refuge in your light in the midst of this darkness. Amen.

Anxiety/Panic

Strategy: Recognize the desire for certainty that gives rise to anxiety. Evaluate the likelihood and true badness of the worst case scenario. If the badness is less than death, then affirm one’s ability to cope with the worst case scenario. If the badness is death, affirm one’s acceptance of the small chance of death and willingness to continue even in spite of that possibility.

Example Affirmation: My greatest fears are unlikely to materialize, but I cannot be certain that they will not come to pass. I am comfortable with the unknown. If that which I fear should come to pass, I will handle it. No matter how difficult it might be, I am capable of rising to the challenge.

Example Prayer: God you are my courage. Strengthen my trust in you, and help me to surrender my desire to control that which is beyond controling. Please, Lord, grant me confidence in my ability to thrive and be at home in this human life with all its ups and downs. Help me to always remember that come what may, you are my strength and my guide, and with your help I will overcome all obstacles.

Shame

Strategy: Respectful witnessing with unconditional positive regard

Example Affirmation: I feel this sense of being lesser, this feeling of being put down and stepped on, I see this desire to hide and cover up this part of myself even from my own eyes. I will not let this part of me hide away because it is beautiful and deserves to be known and cherished.

Example Prayer: God, when You knitted me in my mother’s womb, nothing was hidden from you. You saw me then and now as Your perfect creation, made in Your own image. Help me to see myself as you made me, help me to see holiness and honour even within those places that now seem most wretched to me.

Anger

Strategy: Loving containment of destructive aspect, affirmation and expression of assertive aspect

Example Affirmation: I am strong enough to embrace this fury within without harming myself or others. I have a right to stand up for my own needs and desires and I will not let myself be pushed around by anybody.

Example Prayer: God, let my rage burn itself out in the safety of Your strong loving arms. Lend me Your power to nobly protect that which needs to be protected.

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5 Flavours of Divine Love

I’ve been immersing myself lately in writings on bhakti yoga (the yoga of devotional love). These aren’t as easy to find as instructions for other types of yoga, and many of them are hidden away within Krishna focused sectarian texts that can be rather off putting because of their dogmatism and exclusivism. However, there is much to be gained from attempting to penetrate the sectarian code and apply it more broadly to spiritual experience.

The bhakti tradition of India is truly remarkable because of the depth and intensity with which it develops the practice of devotional love. One thing I like about all Indian spiritual approaches is how they push things to the max with a single-pointed concentration that leads to deeper and deeper realization of given ideal. The theme of devotional love is, of course, present in all theistic religions, and prayer within Judaism, Christianity, and Islam is a form of bhakti yoga. However, in mainstream religious practice, the devotional relationship is only developed to a modest level of intensity. In the bhakti tradition, it is developed to an unimaginable level of intensity.

The bhakti tradition describes many flavours of devotional love called bhavas (moods) or rasas (relationships). The lowest level, which isn’t even considered to be an authentic bhava at all would be a bargaining relationship with God (or often a god, angle, spirit, demon, power, etc). This is the level on which the worshipper makes a sacrifice, says a prayer, or takes a vow for the sake of receiving some benefit. It doesn’t matter whether the benefit is something material or something lofty like enjoying a heavenly reward after death. Either way,  there is the feeling of a tit-for-tat exchange. It’s a business relationship, and there is little or no love present. True bhakti begins when one repudiates this type of relationship.

The bhavas are presented in an order that seems roughly to map onto the level of intensity of that bhava, but since each can be cultivated to many levels of depth, there is really no saying that an experience of the first bhava will be less profound than that of a later bhava. Also, the bhava’s may not be experienced in this order by actual spiritual practitioners who are exploring this contemplative territory. Different psyches may have a predisposition for different modes of relationship with the divine.

With those caveats in place, the first bhava is called santa bhava, meaning peaceful. In this mood, the devotee is like a child being taken care of by it’s all-loving parent. The devotee must realize that God loves us completely and unconditionally. God meets all our needs, and answers our prayers, not because we earned it, but because it is simply in God’s nature to be all loving. Here God is perceived as all-powerful, but the aspect of power is in the background, the foreground is the aspect of God being all-nurturing. As we deepen into this mood and begin to realize it more fully within our daily life it creates a psychological foundation of deep trust and faith, which is supportive for entering the higher moods. Without developing this mood deeply, our ego will tremendously resist the next mood of selfless service out of fear that its legitimate needs won’t be met.

Michelangelo_-_Sistine_Chapel_ceiling

Santa Bhava – God as creator and all loving parent

When we have finally reassured ourselves of God’s constant, unconditional, and unlimited love for ourselves, we can begin to let go of need to constantly reassure ourselves of this love. We trust on a gut level that that parental love from God will always be there in the background, and this frees us to focus more on our own love for God. Out of gratitude, there emerges a deep desire to serve the Cosmic Person who is constantly giving us so much. As this love-born desire to serve grows stronger, we begin to notice the aspect of God’s power more strongly than we did in the santa bhava. When this awareness of God’s power and majesty grow so strong that our resisting ego is overwhelmed and finally surrenders, we are into the next Bhava.

This is the dasya bhava, the bhava of the master-servant relationship. At this point it’s worth remembering that this bhavas are not just intellectual conceptions of God. The forms of relationship are simply metaphors for a profound mystically induced emotional state. These states are not voluntary, but rather come over us spontaneously in the midst of devotional practice. If your mind rejects the idea of being God’s slave, then good, work on the santa bhava and get all your needs met by God. When finally, you feel that your personal needs are abundantly taken care of by God’s infinate love, then, and only then, move on to contemplating God as your Lord and Master, and yourself as a humble servant.  When the dasya bhava first breaks over consciousness and the body, it can be very intense. While the first bhava felt peaceful and comforting, this bhava starts with emotional fireworks. One’s body literally trembles as one beholds the awe inspiring power of the divine. If there is karmic resistance to service from past wounds and betrayals, then this bhava may also manifest as the appearance of a terrible but awe-inspiring demon trying to imprison, torture, or control you. However, eventually, the ego surrenders and a great joy erupts in the heart as one realizes that one has finally found one’s true Master. If this seems strange to you, talk to some people in the kink scene about the joys the master-slave relationships in the human realm. If people can take such pleasure from submission to another human, how much more pleasure is there in submission to the Ruler of the whole universe.

Dasya Bhava: Loving Service to God as King and Master

Dasya Bhava: Loving Service to God as Lord and Master

It is in dasya bhava also that one finds one’s mission or vocation. From the perspective of this bhava, God is seen as having a grand plan for the universe and every living being has its role to play in that plan. If we have been feeling up to this point that our lives lack a central guiding purpose, we will now have a profound sense of relief at having at last found that purpose. We may become passionately committed to altruistic causes, and the work of repairing the world (tikkun olam). At this stage also, we wish to constantly humble ourselves. To feel our own smallness acutely so as to magnify our awareness of God’s greatness.

Mastering the dasya bhava is essential for keeping our sanity as we progress to the later bhavas. For the higher bhavas take us into territory that mainstream society considers more than a little crazy. When we’re being drawn into the mystical flights of deeper forms of devotional love, it is only our continuing awareness of the necessity of divine service that keeps us at least somewhat grounded in the material world. There comes a point, when little else motivates one at all. Without the mood of divine service pulling one into worldly action, a person who is firmly established in any of the higher bhava’s would happily spend their whole lives there disconnected from mundane reality. Dasya bhava is about as far as most mainstream religious practice goes into terms of the human-divine relationship. The bhakti tradition goes, much much further.

The next mood is the sakhya bhava. This is the mood of divine friendship. The type of friendship is that of two kids playing games together. One begins to approach this bhava once the heavy feelings of submission to the divine begin to pass. submission and loving service become effortless, light, and freeing. At this point, the awareness of God’s power and majesty fades into the background, and the foreground awareness becomes God’s playful and mischievous qualities. Whereas the dasya bhava was very serious and goal oriented, the sakhya bhava is light-hearted and non-instrumental. Upon first touching this mood one might find oneself suddenly laughing uncontrollably and feel as if one has just been let in on a great cosmic joke. As playmate, God is no longer held above you, but becomes your equal. This mood can be a profound relief after the strenuousness of the service bhava. This bhava also gives the devotee that long sought after sense of personal intimacy with the God. Whereas before God was the remote King on his high throne, now God is experienced as an intimate companion with whom to share personal secrets and lively dialogues.

Sakya Bhava: God playing all day with his human friends

Sakya Bhava: God playing all day with his human friends

Full disclosure, beyond the sakhya bhava my own understanding is based on only momentary and partial experiences. I’ll do my best to characterize the last two bhava’s based on my limited experience with them and based on my reading of texts by those who have gone deeper.

The fourth mood is the vatsalya bhava. In this bhava, the awareness of God’s power recedes so much that God is experienced as a totally dependant child or infant. The devotee is cast in the role of the child-God’s mother, lovingly caring for God’s every childish need. Now, this bhava sort of boggles the Western mind. We’ve been so conditioned to think of God as being the parent (usually father, but sometimes mother). It borders on inconceivable to experience God as a weak helpless infant. However, the key thing to remember is that bhakti isn’t about rational metaphysics, it’s about emotional intensity. What is more powerful than a mother’s love for her young child? If you’ve ever watched parents of infants or toddlers, you know how terribly demanding they can be, and also how amazingly most parents find within themselves a seemingly unending well of devotion to meet the endless demands. This bhava is said to purify our awareness of God of all fear and of all lingering acquisitiveness. At this stage we realize that our love for God doesn’t require any extrinsic reward whatsoever, neither in the material world nor in heaven after death. The only reward the true mother receives from her child is to enjoy her child’s presence and to know that her child is safe and happy. Similarly, the devotee at this stage realizes that the whole purpose of loving God is simply to enjoy God’s presence and to contemplate God’s intrinsic perfection.

Vatsalya Bhava: Christianity provide a well known example of the human mother to God-child relationship

Vatsalya Bhava: Christianity provide a well known example of the human mother to God-child relationship

There is also a tantalizing sub-text of this mood, which is that the human mother gives birth to God as her son (a familiar story to Christians). This inverts the creator-created relationship we are familiar with. I’ve always felt that there is a paradoxical dynamic around the question of whether God creates human beings or human beings create God. From a non-dogmatic pragmatic perspective, it sure looks as if God is a kind of helpful construct that we humans invented for ourselves, yet at the same time we can’t help experiencing God as an independent existence who created us. The bhavas let us have it both ways. In santa bhava God is our creator and parent, and in vatsalya bhava we are God’s creator and parent. Vatsalya bhava is much more difficult because it requires us to give up our egoic desire for a God that will meet all our needs.

An even more radical way of looking at vatsalya bhava is through the idea that as God is worshipped by us, so human beings are worshiped by God. By this stage of the process, we have already internalized and integrated the God of santa bhava. We ourselves are now the very parental creator who we started our bhakti path by worshipping as God. However, as this divine creator, we become aware of our creation as God. In other words, when we are worshipping God in the mood of santa bhava, God is worshipping us in the mood of vatsalya bhava, and vice versa. That’s a pretty tidy picture and it fits nicely with my tagline “Love yourself as God loving Godself.”

The highest bhava that I’ll mention today is madhurya bhava (Ramakrishna describes even higher bhava’s but we’ll leave those for another time). The madhurya bhava is the mode of romantic or erotic love. This bhava has provoked great controversy over the centuries. The controversy, of course, surrounds the implication of sexuality in the relationship with God. For all its spiritual creativity, India has a profoundly conservative sex-negative culture. Of course, another perspective is that sexuality and religion were allowed to happily co-mingle until the 19th century, when under the influence of British Victorian morality, the yogi’s had to sweep the sexual aspect of madhurya bhava under the rug. I’m not a historian, so I don’t know which narrative is correct. Either way, today the sexual aspect of madhurya bhava is often seen as an embarrassment by traditional writers and they’ll often try to rationalize it away.

The major controversy comes around the term “lust”. Most traditional commentators I’ve read say that the erotic love of God is devoid of all lust. But what does “lust” really mean. If we take it to simply mean sexual desire, then we have a seeming paradox. The descriptions of madhurya bhava are frankly erotic in nature, whether one looks at the Gopi’s love for Krishna or the love described in the biblical Song of Songs. All attempts to rationalize away the eroticism of these texts are delusional. When a text writes of the desire to kiss and fondle the beloved, there can be no doubt that sexual eroticism of some kind is involved.

Madhurya Bhava: God is experienced as a romantic-erotic lover

Madhurya Bhava: God is experienced as a romantic-erotic lover

Yet, another idea is that “lust” means to a sort of grasping acquisitiveness. It is the ego’s need to gain something for it’s own selfish benefit, to grasp and cling to love or sexual pleasure as a possession. In this meaning of the term “lust,” it makes perfect sense to say that madhurya bhava is devoid of lust. If one has cultivated the previous vatsalya bhava, one has already gone beyond all feeling of acquisitiveness in relation to God.

The flawed assumption of many conservative writers on this topic is that sexual desire necessarily involves an acquisitive mindset. These authors regard all sexuality as solely ego driven, which may be a sign of their own sexual repression and lack of sexual integration. Yet, many of us have experienced the profoundly generous and selfless potential of sexual desire. The desire to give another pleasure in the bedroom is very often more powerful than the desire to take pleasure for oneself. In the most enlightened human sexual partnerships, each partner wishes to give the other pleasure, and each accepts pleasure for the sake of pleasing the other. This type of sexual partnership approximates the ideal of erotic love between a human and God. God of course, doesn’t need us to give Him/Her sexual pleasure, nor at this stage of devotion, do we feel any need to receive pleasure from God. Yet, we ardently yearn to bring pleasure to God, and the greatest pleasure our human minds can conceive is sexual pleasure. So God forms a body of light in a human form and allows us to pleasure Him/Her, and He/She gives us as a free gift which we don’t expect or demand in any way: the pleasure of His/Her touch.

It is said that madhurya bhava is the knowledge of oneness in separateness and separateness in oneness. This is a higher level than simply knowing oneness with God. When we know oneness with God, we know God only impersonally, we bathe in the divine ocean but we cannot see the shore. To know God as erotic lover is to transcend the dualism of the manifest and the unmanifest.

Those who are really deep into madhurya bhava pretty much seem to go insane (at least for a time). Chetanya and Ramakrishna are examples of this divine madness. It makes a person forget all worldly duties and do nothing but dance and sing and bask in the perfection of divine love. I mean think about it, if you could really experience a full-spectrum constant love relationship with the ideally perfect partner who is present in every atom of the whole universe, would you be able to keep up normal appearances? I don’t think so. Think how silly people can get when they have just fallen in love romantically with a human partner, now imagine that silliness multiplied many thousand fold in intensity, and you’re well into territory that our society would characterise using the DSM. The risk of being labelled mentally ill might be enough to keep most people from ever trying to achieve madhurya bhava. Certainly, even in bhakti circles, there is often the sentiment that this level is only for the great saints of the past, not for us mere mortals today. Yet, this is just conservatism in another guise. If it was possible then, it is possible now. The only limitation is the willingness of the spiritual practitioner to really go for it. The very greatest spiritual teachers, the ones who have actually tasted the ultimate realizations themselves, tell us to go for it, and to forget about any societal limitations.

Of course, there are many levels of realization of all these bhavas. An average person tasting the madhurya bhava might be profoundly moved and transformed, but then be unable to sustain the state for more than a moment because of the intensity of its energies. Even after mastering a given bhava one doesn’t necessarily stay in it all the time, one can slip in and out of different moods seemingly at random, although there may be a deeper intelligence guiding the process.

~May you love yourself as God loving Godself

5 Flavours of Divine Love

Hindu Deities: Objects of Worship or Basic Principles?

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Hindu Deities: Objects of Worship or Basic Principles?

As I continue to immerse myself in the teachings of Hindu spirituality, it strikes me that a lot of confusion could be avoided by distinguishing between two different uses of the gods and goddesses. The first use is as a deity or object of worship. Each spiritual practitioner is supposed to select a deity that is his favourite, called the Ishta Devata.  Ishta Devata means “desired divine-form.” I find the this approach refreshing, compared with religious traditions that require worshippers to use a single idea of God as the object of worship. In yogic philosophy, we worship a specific form of God because we like it, not because it’s some grand universal truth. There is a even a God-form for those who don’t like worshipping God with a human form called the Virata Purusha or cosmic person. The Hindu description of the Virata Purusha is pretty close to the non-embodied personal God worshipped in Judaism and Islam. The concept of the Ishta Devata (just ishta for short) allows us to have our religious cake and eat it with a healthy serving of universal toleration. I can be completely passionately devoted to the Supreme Lord of my heart, while also recognizing that this form of God is not for everyone. Yet, God remains one and indivisible. Unlike the gods familiar from Western Polytheism, the Hindu concept of deity or God-form does not involve any fundamental separation within the ultimate divine reality. All deities are understood to be so many facets or faces of the one indivisible God. Thus, we also get to have our monotheistic cake and eat it with a sweet coating of delicious polytheistic icing.

So far so good, but the problem arises when one wants to integrate the more specific teachings of various Indian spiritual texts. For example, if one is into tantra, one finds that the main language used by teachers is that of Shiva and Shakti. If one tries to learn about the spiritual path of devotion (Bhakti) one finds that the main language used is that of Krishna and Radha. So what if one wants to practice tantra, but one’s ishta is say Jesus or Genesh? Or what if one wants to practice Bhakti, but one’s Ishta is the fearsome Goddess Kali? (which interestingly enough was the case for the famous Bhakti saint Ramakrishna)? Does this prevent one from learning from the great traditions that are mainly focused on other deities?

I don’t think it has to. However, in order to not get confused, one has to draw a distinction between the deity as an object of worship (ishta) and the deity as a symbol for a universal principle of spiritual reality. To give an example of what I mean. For millions of Shaivites, the God Shiva is an object of worship. His image as a bare chested, blue skinned yogi carrying a trident and drum serve as  meditative focus for the expression of devotion for those who find this image most desirable.

 

Shiva is quite impressive looking.

 

However, in tantric philosophy, Shiva is also the name of a universal spiritual principle, namely the principle of stillness or pure unaffected consciousness. Shiva also symbolizes the masculine sexual energy connected to the phallus, and it’s tendency to penetrate things (literally or metaphorically).

Suppose one is not a worshipper of Shiva, and may or may not resonate with the kind of imagery  shown above. Nevertheless, thinking about the Shiva principle can still be very useful for understanding meditation practice. Whatever tradition one practices in, there is always something that corresponds to Shiva, some aspect of the practice that aims at stilling the mind and stepping back from the constant flux of sensations. It’s helpful to have a single unambiguous term to denote this aspect of spiritual practice, so we can use the term “Shiva” in this way. We might even use the traditional imagery of Shiva to symbolize this concept, if that imagery works for us. However, for many westerners, a different image might serve the same purpose more effectively. For example, the Hermit card of the Tarot, which expresses the same concept of stillness and worldly detachment (although without the overtones of masculine sexuality).

Like the Indian Sadhu, the Hermit embodies the stillness that comes from detachment from worldly desire

 

So let’s quickly sketch the meaning of some prominent Hindu deities qua spiritual principles. I hasten to add that this is by no means a deep reading of these God-forms, but just my somewhat superficial impressions of their general character. Still, I include these here because I hope it will act as a simple map to start you off in reading the texts of tantric and bhakti wisdom.

Shiva – Stillness, stability, peace, detachment, dissolution, masculinity, phallus

Shakti – Movement, creativity, manifestation, power, bliss, femininity (but not the passive stereotype of femininity)

Krishna – The Beloved, attractiveness, beauty, the concept of the ishta itself

Radha – Love, devotion, attraction, the concept of the devotee

Another way to see these two parings is as articulating two lenses on spiritual practice. The Shiva-Shakti paring is the lens of Awareness. The Krishna-Radha pairing is the lens of Love. If you agree with the statement “God is love,” you’ll likely be drawn to Krishna-Radha, if you agree with the statement  “God is Pure Being” you’ll be drawn to Shiva-Shakti. In both cases, there is an active pole and a passive pole.

Passive Active
Love Krishna Radha
Awareness Shiva Shakti

It’s interesting to reflect upon why the genders of the deities are switched relative to Western assumptions. In Western symbolism, it is the feminine that is typically cast in the role of the Beloved. Think of the Arthurian legends and the role of the fair maiden as devotional object of the active questing knights. We might think that Hindus just have more enlightened conceptions of gender, until we stop and realize that India is an extremely patriarchal society. The case of Shiva is easier to explain. When it comes to consciousness (or in the West rationality)  it’s clear that masculinity is associated with greater detachment and in that sense passivity. Yet, the active side of the male comes into play with respect to love and sex.  Here, we tend to cast the man as the great active devoted lover, which would make us think that Radha should be masculine and Krishna feminine.

It helps if we understand that God-forms are always a compromise between the need to symbolically embody a spiritual principle, the need to serve as an attractive object of worship, and the need to conform to societal norms. I think that Krishna represents a sort of compromise between wanting to preserve the masculine power of the Godhead and wanting to make God the Beloved (in the mythology he is after all a politically powerful king and warrior in addition to being the universal Beloved). In Krisha’s iconography, he is often depicted as displaying outrageously feminine beauty with wide hips, doe eyes, and feminine body language. This imagery is intended to be romantically and erotically exciting for both male and female devotees of all sexual orientations.

The male God who embodies the ideal of feminine beauty

Yet, since straight male worshippers need some way to rationalize their homoerotic feelings for Krishna, they are told to conceptualize themselves as Radha, the female lover of Krishna. So the masculine-feminine wires are all mixed up. Both sexuality and gender identity become fluid in the realm of spiritual practice, which is glorious as far as I’m concerned. The Krishan-Radha dynamic is almost identical, minus the pictures, in Judaism, where male Rabbis conceive of themselves Kabbalistically as God’s female lovers.

Hence in addition to the four principles of Shiva, Shakti, Krishna, Radha we have to think about who is playing what role. Which principles are being identified with by the human worshipper and which with the Godhead.

Christianity is an interesting case, that displays some interesting recursive complexity. Jesus is, of course, the Beloved, hence he embodies the Krishna principle. Yet, at the same time, his life and works are the Radha principle, and the poor, sick, and downtrodden of humanity are collectively the Krishna of Jesus himself. Since in addition to worshipping Jesus directly, devout Christians often try to imitate or embody Jesus in their actions, the Beloved of Jesus becomes the Beloved of Christians. This explains Mother Teresa’s statement that she saw her Beloved Jesus in all the sick and hungry she served. For it’s easy to see how Jesus as Beloved could become merged with the Beloved of Jesus. As a result, Jesus makes a powerful ishta for those for whom God is found through acts of selfless service to the needy.

Which brings me to another point. Certain deities were designed with certain types of spiritual practitioners in mind. Jesus is strong fit for karma yogis, those who realize God through selfless service. Krishna is a natural choice for bhakti yogis, those who realize God through devotion. Shiva alone is the ideal for jhana yogis, those who realize God through detached meditation, and Shakti-Shiva is the ideal for raja Yogis and tantra yogis, who realize God by becoming intimate with power and creativity. Of course, there is no telling what deity one will be drawn to. I mentioned earlier that Ramakrishna a bhakti saint had the ishta of Kali. On the face of it a goddess who symbolizes the primal destructive forces of the universe doesn’t seem like an ideal choice for a yogi whose primary practice is devotional love, but it worked for him. Human nature can never be squished into a system, and I thank God for that.

I’d love to hear your thoughts. If you enjoyed reading this post, please write a comment.

~May you love yourself as God loving Godself!

Tantra: The path of divinizing our basic instincts

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So I’ve done two big posts already and I haven’t yet followed through on my promise to make this a blog about Godsex. When most people hear the word “tantra” they immediately think of middle-aged men and women trying to spice up their sex lives with a kind of sexual yoga. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But what I mean by tantra reverses the popular emphasis: it’s an approach to meditation practice that incorporates our sexuality, rather than an approach to sex that incorporates spirituality. This emphasis on spiritual practice over sexual practice is closer to the roots of tantra in traditional teachings of Kashmir Shaivism and Tibetan Buddhism. However, I’m not much of traditionalist either. While I am inspired by those traditions, I enjoy designing my own practices based on what makes sense to me as a modern inter-spiritual seeker.

The basic difference between tantric traditions and non-tantric traditions is that tantric traditions attempt to use all areas of human life as a means to elevate us toward knowing God or becoming enlightened. Most religions and spiritual paths split up human experience into the parts that are conducive to spirituality and those that aren’t. In particular, the parts of human experience that are seen as impure, unholy, or just too distracting are sexual desire and activity, anger and violence, and disgusting things like body fluids, excrement and rotting corpses. Tantric practices encourage us to embrace and even worship these aspects of human life that are left out of mainstream concepts of God or enlightenment. For example, the Tibetan meditation deities Heruka Chakrasamvara and his consort Vajravarahi are depicted as fierce wrathful gods in the act of intercourse. They are decorated with severed human body parts. Looking at the manadala of these guys, it’s pretty clear how the practice is aimed at elevating or liberating the experience of sexual desire, anger, and disgust. There is a similar idea in Hindu tantra with the 10 tantric Goddesses known as the Mahavidyas. Some of these are your standard beautiful wives or cosmic mothers. But others are extremely violent and sexual. One of these goddesses even prefers to have sex with corpses. Another decapitates herself with a scimitar (without dying) and is worshipped with blood shooting out of her neck!

Chhinnamasta the self-decapitating Goddess!

At this point, you might be asking, “What the hell? Why would anybody want to associate God, Goddess, or the Divine with sex, violence, and gore?” I can’t speak for the traditions in question because I am not of those traditions. However, I can speak for my own motivations. Many mystical traditions have teachings to the effect that God or the divine presence is in everything and that we should strive to see God in all things. This is a teaching of the Kabbalistic and Hassid traditions in Judaism, of Sufism, and of mystical Christianity. Yet, when one actually looks at the spiritual life of those traditions, one doesn’t see a lot of praying to God as God manifests in the toilet bowl, or praying to God as God manifests in the act of fucking. In Orthodox Judaism, for example, one is not even supposed to think about God when in a bathroom. How how did so many parts of basic human existence become God-free zones?

The best explanation I have come up with is actually pretty simple: Tantra is hard. Whether one’s ideal of spiritual development is non-attachment, universal divine love, or pure bliss-consciousness, it is particularly difficult to realize any of these ideals with respect to the our most powerful animal instincts. As much as it’s a tidy mystical statement to say that God is in everything, it can be extremely difficult to actually experience the bliss, spaciousness, unconditional love, and perfect peace of the divine presence on a deep level while watching such things as UFC or say a zombie apocalypse movie.

Sex poses a different problem. It’s not that we don’t experience sex as blissful, or post-coitally as deeply peaceful. The trouble is that ordinarily sex leads us away from an focus on our inner world toward the external world of material existence. For mystics, this is a big problem, since the basic message of almost all the mystical traditions is that happiness is found by turning inward, not by seeking pleasurable experiences in the material world. Yet, of all our external world experiences, sexual pleasure and the intimacy of a romantic partnership seem to be the biggest draws. This is why regulating and controlling human sexuality has been an obsession of almost every religion because sex is the peak experience of ordinary physical existence. Nothing else presents such intense competition for our devotion to spiritual life and the inner world as sex, romance, and family life.

I can say from my own experience that mystical ecstasy and divine love are good, amazing, mind-blowing, yet good intimate sex still holds up against even the most peak religious experiences. So the response of many religions is essentially an attempt to crush the competition by denying or limiting sexual experiences. In contrast, tantra takes the approach of “if you can’t beat em, join em.” If sex feels good and God feels good, how awesome would it be to bring Sex and God together in a unified experience of Godsex. Why not strive to attain a new peak experience that blows away both conventional religious experience and conventional sexual experience. Yet, that’s easier said than done. The amount of energy that has to be harnessed in order for the mind to actually remain clear and present to the divine during intense erotic response is really quite extraordinary. Anybody who has tried ordinary meditation knows that it can be a challenge to sit in stillness even with minimal sensory stimulation. Tantra asks us to bring meditative consciousness to the most intense sensory experiences in all of human life.

In future posts, I’ll look at some simple meditation techniques to start to work with these energies. For now, if you’re interested in this stuff, my advice is don’t be intimidated by the extreme complexity and ornateness of the tantric traditions. At it’s heart, it’s a very simple idea: every facet of human experience can be a vehicle for spiritual realization.

Letting Shakti Lead

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I’ve been starting to work with a very simple but profound set of instructions from a tantric yoga meditation teacher named Sally Kempton. Her book, Meditation For the Love of it,  has an amazing chapter called Letting Shakti Lead. Shakti, in this context, is a reference to the spontaneous, dynamic, creative energy within ourselves. It’s also called kundalini, lifeforce, divine presence, soul, or countless other terms in various traditions. Interestingly across numerous traditions both Eastern and Western, this creative divine energy is associated with the divine feminine principle.

In Therevada meditation, everything is dominated by the masculine principle of pure awareness, detachment, or stillness. In tantra, this is called the Shiva principle. Many spiritual paths favour one of these two principles. The traditions which aim primarily at dissolving the identification with the body, with emotions, and with thoughts, are favouring Shiva over Shakti, while those traditions that emphasise emotion-driven worship and ritual are favouring Shakti over Shiva. The Kashmir tantra tradition taught by Sally Kempton appeals to me because it seeks to balances the two.  By working inwardly in a meditative container with the dynamic energy of Shakti, the process balances stillness and dynamism.

Shakti literally means power. In theistic language, Shakti is the divine power of creation, God coming into manifestation through the various subtle worlds all the way down to the fully manifested physical reality. Shiva is the upwards flowing current whereby created beings dissolve and return to their divine source in the pure no-thingness of the unmanifest. Of course, God in the broadest sense is neither the unmanifest nor the manifest, but rather that which unifies the two. This is what the kabbalists meant by Ein Sof (Endlessness) or what the Zen teachings are probably indicating by saying that Samsara is Nirvana.

I’ll go into this in more detail in a future post, but for now, let’s get down to some meditation nuts and bolts.

So here is my understanding of the letting Shakti lead meditation. I make no claim to be accurately representing Sally Kempton’s work, although my understanding was partially drawn from that work.

1. Let yourself become aware of the spontaneous inner movement or dynamism.

I love this instruction, because it starts with something that is already recognizable to vipassana meditators. In vipassana this would be called impermanence, and regarded as a disappointment relative to the masculine ideal of crystalline permanence. Yet, in the tantra paradigm, this inner pulsation is regarded as the beautiful organic ever unfolding energy of creation. That’s a pretty different take on what in some ways seems to be the same underlying phenomenon. Except that one’s take on an inner experience partly determines the significance that that experience has. So the phenomenon is actually different when you approach it with a different stance. There is no fact of the matter as to whether the Buddhist have it right or the tantric yogis have it right. It’s a matter of what works better for the individual practitioner.

2. Welcome and honour the inner dynamic energy as the Goddess and as the authentic self

This is another step that might seem superfluous at first. Yet, I think it is essential. I’ve always felt that there is a subtle misuse of the term “self” in Buddhist lingo because they regard it as essentially static and free from embodiment. For the Buddhists the self is bare subjectivity. Nothing more than the felt sense that there is something experiencing everything else. In Western culture, thinkers have used the term authentic self completely differently. We mean something that changes and grows. We mean our deepest feelings and drives, and how these shape our personality and life story. That’s simply a different understanding of what the self truly is. Subjectivity may have nothing to do with the self in this Western sense of it. Now, the idea that kundalini is our true self seems more resonant with the Western notion of authenticity than it does with the Buddhist notion of self as something pure and static. Kundalini is ever evolving, ever unfolding. It is not essentially linked to the sense of subjectivity.

3. Ask the inner Shakti “Where would you like to play today”

This reminds me of my experiences with shamanic journeying. You don’t dictate to the spirit guides where you want to go. You ask them to take you somewhere that you need to go. It’s nice to finally be able to do something similar in meditation. The metaphor of play or dancing is key to the tantric vision of reality. All reality is ultimately the free play of the divine, it’s ultimately a great spontaneous dance of Shiva and Shakti. I find this interesting too in light of the central sexual metaphor of tantra and the fact that in the kink world various types of sexual activity are also called “play.” Perhaps this is correspondence of terminology is more than a coincidence.

4. Whatever experiences Shakti leads you to, try to enter inside of it and become intimate with it.

Rather than holding ourselves back and watching the experience unfold on an inner movie screen as we do in mindfulness meditation, with Shakti meditation we dive right inside of it. We let ourselves merge with it. A tip Kempton gives, which I’ve found surprising useful, is to try to perceive the experience as if from the side, rather than frontally. Somehow this facilitates the process of slipping inside of it.

5. If difficult experiences come up, rather than focusing on suffering or dissatisfaction, focus on tenderness, longing, and love-sickness.

This is a subtle difference. It’s like micro tuning the frequency of your consciousness so that pain, frustration, and stress are transformed into very poignant feelings of romantic yearning. It’s based on the idea that all suffering, whatever it’s apparent cause, is actually nothing more than a longing for our divine beloved. The other key is that labelling this experience as ‘unsatisfactoriness’ makes the experience shows up  as something one wants to be liberated from, something one wants to bring to an end. With the subtle tweak we transform the experience from suffering to yearning, and the latter is something that we can learn to love and enjoy in it’s own right. The Sufi teachings talk a lot about this kind of thing. Think of all that romantic poetry that speaks of the lover burning up in the tender agonies of desire yet not wanting to extinguish those flames, but instead only wishing to add more fuel to them. So sweet is the pain of love’s fire.

If that kind of sentiment gets you excited, then probably, like me you have a romantic temperament, and you’re a natural for tantra. If you think it sounds stupid and trite, then you might be happier with a different spiritual path. The recognition of the divine nature of longing itself has been written about by mystics in many traditions. This is the divine Eros, who in Greek Mythology was responsible for creating the world by bringing together Heaven and Earth. By turning suffering into longing, we make it possible to live divinely infused lives while retaining our consciousness as separate individuals.  This is the way of the Bhakta, the lover of God. It’s another means of breaking out of the Buddhist paradigm. Many great mystics have talked about reaching a point where they were a hairsbreadth away from plunging into the final liberation of non-being and yet for some reason they pulled back. Some are motivated by compassion for those who remain behind (the Bodhisattva). Others are motivated by their profound love for God, and a realization that their path of service to their Beloved requires a degree of separation from Him.

Until next time, Happy Passover for those of you who celebrate!

~May you love yourself as God loving Godself

Busting out of the Dharma Paradigm

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After a lot of work with a meditation practice heavily based on Buddhist meditation techniques, I have decided to try to strike off in a new direction. It’s harder than you might think. It seems that the deeper one gets into a meditation practice, the more all encompassing and self-evident it becomes. It isn’t just a matter of picking a different object or adding a new technique. It’s more about changing a fundamental mindset. In this way the framework in which a meditation practice takes place is a lot like what Thomas Kuhn famously called a paradigm. A scientific paradigm, Kuhn argued, is not just a set of theories and other explicit beliefs about the world. It is a rather a whole set of tacit ways of operating within a domain of inquiry. Kuhn argued that paradigms structure the very entities that one can observe and the problems that one can engage with.

In meditation, which is an inquiry into our inner experience, there is a similar kind of deep structuring of experience by the paradigm of practice one immerses oneself in. To make it concrete let’s look at the Buddhist meditation paradigm. It begins with the assertion that everything in experience displays three basic phenomenological characteristics. These are impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and non-duality (i.e., not being either a subject or an object of some subject). The claim often made by Buddhists is that anybody who honestly investigates their own experience in meditation will find these three characteristics in every part of experience. There is a lot of talk about the idea that this is “just how things are” or “seeing the ultimate nature of things”. A lot of contemporary North American Buddhists even liken Buddhist meditation to science. They claim that it doesn’t involve any faith, but is simply a method for investigating the truth about phenomenal reality.

Hmm…What Would Kuhn Say? (I should get that on an armband!) Kuhn would point out that the entities and properties that the observer expects to see based on their paradigm will influence what they actually discover. In that case, going into meditation with the assumption that absolutely all experience truly displays the 3 characteristics  would make it at the very least much more likely that one would see those characteristics. In fact, it’s not easy for beginning mediators to see the 3 characteristics in a lot of stuff. It takes a lot of work on the cushion to train the mind how to break apart seemingly solid objects into fluctuating, vibrating, flickering sensations. Even then, it’s not always obvious that these fields of vibration are unsatisfying. One often has to search for the dukka (suffering) in the vibrations. Sure enough, in looking for it, one can usually find it. The last one, non-duality (often called no-self) is the hardest of all to perceive. It involves something called dis-embedding. This is where awareness separates itself from the aspects of experience that are normally part of the perceptual background. In effect, there is a kind of radical figure-ground switch, where what was once the perceiver becomes perceived. This switch is followed up with a further effort to see both what was formerly the perceiver and what was formerly the object at the same time. This is pretty neat trick, and it has the result of synthesizing formerly disparate aspects of the perceptual field.

In my meditation practice, I must have gone through thousands of such cycles of perceiving these three characteristics and thereby creating a more synthesized perceptual field. It’s a pretty difficult process, nothing feel-good about it. It involves ripping your comfortable reality to shreds in order that it can be reborn in a less fragmented form. However, the outcome seems worth it to a lot of people. It does reduce the amount of overall stress in the perceptual field and increases the sense of flow and equanimity. However, despite these benefits, it seems to leave out a lot of stuff that’s really essential to living a full and vibrant human life. It is focused on reducing experienced suffering at a very neurologically basic level, but not on creating value, flourishing, or eudaimonia (pick your term!).

The main thing I want to draw attention to right now is just that Vipassana meditation is a highly conceptually structured process, not at all a simple or naive approach to investigating lived experience. There is little doubt in my mind that following the techniques of vipassana meditation will eventually reveal the truths that it posits in experience, but where I object is to the claim that this way of viewing reality is somehow special or ultimate. “The Buddha said so,” just doesn’t cut it for me.

So getting back to Kuhn again, what should we look for if we want to evaluate the Buddha’s teachings as a paradigm for experiencing the truth about phenomenal reality? We should look for something that Kuhn called anomalies.  Kuhn argued that scientific theories are never strictly proven or falsified. Rather, if one looks at the actual history of science rather than thinking in terms of unrealistic and idealized notions about scientific method, one sees that scientists persist in using a paradigm as long as that paradigm continues to generate interesting research problems. When paradigms start to crumble, it is because it starts to get beset by anomalies. An anomaly is not simply an experimental result that is not predicted by a theory. Theories can often be elaborated upon and expanded to try to accommodate unexpected results. This is what scientists do all the time, and it’s not bad science. However, sometimes experimental results start making things difficult because they are so outside of the paradigm that the theories cannot be coherently expanded to make sense of them.  There is a sense not just that things are getting strange, but that the research within the current paradigm can no longer continue without a lot of headaches.

Bringing this back to meditation and Buddhism, what are the anomalies we see. In this post I’m not going to tackle the anomaly of divine emanation, because that deserves a post of its own. Here I’ll point a more universally recognized anomaly, which is an experiential tension between the early Buddhist teaching that life is not worth living, and the pervasive human tendency to experience life as valuable in itself. The early Buddhists scriptures based on the historical Buddha’s teachings are pretty stark when it comes to the value of life. Basically, all lived experience is inherently a burden, no matter how good it seems.  The only reason not to just kill yourself is that it doesn’t actually work thanks to the mechanism of re-incarnation. If it weren’t for re-incarnation, one could save oneself a lot of trouble on the meditation cushion and receive ultimate liberation from suffering through a very simple act. This should be a sobering thought for all those contemporary scientistic Buddhists out there who want to be fundamentalists about the Buddha’s original teachings while simultaneously being skeptical of literal re-incarnation.

But centuries before modern rationalism cast doubt on the idea of re-incarnation, people started to get uncomfortable with this life-denying aspect of the Buddha’s teachings.  Human beings, God bless them, have a serious hankering for existence! As much as it pains us, we can’t help but feel that there is some point to it all (when we aren’t depressed anyway). The Mahayana reformation decided to jettison (or at least indefinitely post-pone) the whole spiritual suicide idea by inventing the idea of voluntary re-incarnation motivated by compassion.

This reform was probably for the better as it made the Buddhist paradigm more encompassing of the data of deep human experience, but it led to some pretty severe tensions within the ideological framework of Buddhism. Zen, resolved these tensions by telling us to throw logic and rationality out the window.  For example, the classic Zen teaching that Nirvana is Samsara is pretty resonant with the teachings of many other mystical traditions that the divine being is both utterly transcendent and utterly immanent at the same time. However, while this is a seeming paradox no matter how you slice it, with Buddhism this whole teaching sits a little oddly, since it is in straight up contradiction to what the Buddha taught.

Well never-mind, all religions are full of contradictions aren’t they? Yes, but I’m not really interested in the logical coherence of a religious viewpoint here, I’m interested in noticing how historical paradigms for meditation practice condition and perhaps constrain that practice. I’ve always felt that a spiritual frameworks should not be unnecessarily obscure. Although the Mahayana (Zen) and Vajrayana (Tibetan) schools of Buddhism do re-appropriate much of the life-affirming and even theistic concepts that early Buddhism repudiated, there is a strong sense that this results in paradox and an inability to speak in clear open language about meditation practice. Of course, Zen asks us to embrace this paradox as part of our practice. But what if the paradox is only necessary because of the unwillingness to step out of the original paradigm structure set forth by the historical Buddha?

It reminds of Ptolemaic astronomy, which placed the Earth at the centre of the planetary system. For many years after Copernicus presented his heliocentric model of the solar system, the Ptolemaic system was still viable, because it incorporated epicycles that sustained the predictive accuracy of the model. Yet, at some point the need for so many epicycles became too burdensome to work with on a practical level and the model ceased to be useful. While Zen and Vajrayana innovations bring an affirmation of life and re-introduce the Shakti principle back into the Buddhist picture, there is an unavoidable tension with the original one-sided teachings of the Buddhist paradigm. The paradigm can accommodate innovation, but the original core elements of the paradigm create unnecessary obscurity, complexity, and confusion, and this shows up and has a definite impact on meditation practice.

The basic tenacity and goodness of the desire for life, for sex, for the richness of meaning is one of the fundamental anamolies that made me never entirely comfortable with the Buddhist paradigm. Of course, it didn’t hurt that my home religion of Judaism has very strong teachings about the importance of remaining engaged with human realities and the fundamental goodness of God’s creation.

So why did I spend so long toughing it out on the meditation cushion looking for the 3 characteristics? The simple answer is that I did it because the technique is so damn effective. It clearly produced results. It created fundamental and permanent shifts in my consciousness that opened me to new worlds of experience, and reduced the suffering I experienced on a moment by moment basis. That’s pretty nice and worth some extra effort and suffering along the way. I also felt that I didn’t have a choice once I crossed a threshold called stream entry. According to the articulation of the Buddhist paradigm put forward by Daniel Ingram, once you cross stream entry, you’re stuck with involuntary vipassana until you either finish the process in total enlightenment or your die. This was like having a gun to my head. I’d better keep going I thought.

Yet, at some deeper level there was always a resistance to the process, always a sense that it was somehow a violation of something sacred, something that in my heart of hearts I knew we weren’t supposed to mess with too much. My individuality, my sacred separateness, my soul, my authentic self, my unique purpose, my sense of service, my self-expression (notice all those possessive pronouns!) These were things that the Buddhist paradigm regards as so much karmic wood for the pyre; attachments to be burned off through practice.

Two weeks ago, I had a major shift in my practice. I felt some deep inner knot untie and my resistance to sensory experience was dramatically reduced. For a few days, I flirted with feelings of selflessness, centerlessness, agencylessness. It was peaceful in the way the desert landscapes can be, but it was not beautiful, for beauty depends on finitude. I had a deep realization that I had to change course. I realized that my days of hunting for the 3 characteristics were over. I had to turn my meditation practice around, break out of the Dharma paradigm!

The adventure of that attempted jail break will be the subject of future posts.

~May you Love Yourself as God Loving Godself

A blog about Godsex!

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Hey,

I’m a meditation teacher and spiritual counsellor. My professional site is over here. I created this blog because I wanted to have a place to share my own thoughts and experiences on the contemplative path without feeling constrained by issues of professionalism and approachability. It’s meant to be a place to share episodes from my own spiritual journey as well as articles and answers to questions about advanced meditation practice.

I am inspired by the great ecstatic mystics of the past: Ramakrishna, Rebbe Nachman, Saint Teresa, Hafiz, and others. My vision of enlightenment is to fully realize in my own experience that reality is nothing other than endless lovemaking among the tantric threesome of Stillness, Desire, and Dynamism.

Yet, my own path has been seriously influenced by the technical approach to meditation put forward by the Pragmatic Dharma movement. So you might find my writing to be an odd combination of super geeky meditation technicalities and very heart-centred devotional writing.

Hope you like it! I love comments, so please post!