Tag Archives: tantra

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.

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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