Tag Archives: human experience

Tantra: The path of divinizing our basic instincts

Standard

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.

Advertisements