Everything Is and Isn’t – Examining Tantric Practice
Deej Juventin, 2012
An Internet search for Tantra returns 26.5 million results. Many of these are for schools, traditions, and teachers, offering different interpretations of what Tantra is. Some make strong claims as to what Tantra must involve, such as the need for a guru, or the worship of the Hindu gods Shiva and Shakti. Rather than necessitating a search for the one true Tantra, the unprecedented access to knowledge currently being experienced presents an opportunity to let go of faith and dogma, and shift our focus to an exploration of tantric practice, something which is accessible to everyone. Tantric practice allows us to follow our embodied wisdom to expand and enhance our experience of living, here-and-now.
A Brief History
Human beings have probably been practising tantrically since the earliest cultures and civilisations (Barratt, 2006; Sinha, 1993). The systemization of Tantric spiritual practices, and the name Tantra, emerged in India around the 5th century. Tantric spirituality flourished in India for several hundred years, until invasions from the Moguls from the 11th century introduced Islamic beliefs, and began to drive tantric practice underground. The subsequent arrival of Christian missionaries furthered opposition to tantric practice in India.
Between the 7th and 13th centuries, tantric spirituality became installed in Tibet, where 4 main schools of Tantra evolved. Tantric spirituality was popularly practised in Tibet until the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1949. With Tantric teachings now driven underground in Tibet, many teachers went into exile. Tantric teachings began to spread across Asia and the Western world.
Indigenous shamanic traditions from across the globe teach of the interconnectedness of all aspects of life. Shamanic cultures use practices involving visualisation, breath, sound, movement and touch, that connect with, build, balance, and direct energy. Taoism from China, Sufism from the Islamic cultures, Western mysticism from the Greek-Roman mysteries through esoteric Christianity have all taught ways to connect through the body to what is.
Through thousands of years and across continents, many teachings in tantric practice have evolved. We now live in an unprecedented time, when teachings and traditions once limited to specific times and locations, are becoming widely available. Ancient, once secret teachings in tantric practice, and re-interpretations of these teachings, are now accessible.
What is Tantric Practice?
Barnaby Barratt (2006) defines tantric practice as :
“…a sacred path of spiritual methods that awaken our awareness of the subtle energies that create the realities of the universe…” p13.
When we practice tantrically, we are being present to what is, through the body. This allows us to experience the flow and vibrations of life force, or subtle energies, known in different traditions as chi, prana, kundalini or spirit – the erotic flow of life, where erotic means life-full. This subtle reality is an experience distinct from the reality present in our thoughts.
As we come into the world, we learn to objectify – to form concepts of things and thoughts as separate realities, dividing the world into ‘what is of me’, and ‘what is other’. Language allows us to represent reality, rather than experience it. Without language, for an apple to exist in your reality you need to experience it through your body, to feel its textures, to taste it, to smell it, to see it, to hear the sounds that can be made with it. With language, you can talk about an apple, describe it in your mind, explain it, evaluate it, place it in context with the other things and thoughts that your mind has constructed into stories that seem to be reality. But none of this is an apple – you have created representations of an apple. You can attempt to convey this concept of an apple to other people, who might believe they understand, but they have not had your experience of an apple.
Our minds are powerful. They become busy creating our representational reality, and our awareness is frequently focused on these busy thoughts. This is what we call the chattering mind. In tantric practice, awareness is placed on what we experience through the body, rather than focusing on the thoughts from the chattering mind. In the quietness between thoughts we can feel what it is to be. With practice over time we can choose to shift our awareness from busy thoughts in the mind, to the felt experience of embodiment – being present to what is through the body.
Experiences of Embodiment
I teach an Ecstatic Breath class every week in my local community. We consciously breathe, sound, move and place our awareness on sensation through the body, for an hour and a quarter. Participants regularly report embodied, often blissful, experiences. I asked the participants to attempt to describe their experience of embodiment. Aware of the paradox in attempting to describe the indescribable, and with smiles on their faces (paradox is amusing), the participants suggested the following words:
Flowing; expanding; merging; becoming; ecstatic; separateness disappearing; expanding into nothingness; full into the universe; nothingness yet present; instantaneous expansion and contraction; connection to all that is; bliss; everything’s dancing; the Yabbi pump of reality; everything is and isn’t.
Everything is and isn’t.
These words seemed to particularly resonate with the class, and warrant further expansion:
“Everything is” – the fluid, vibrational, erotic (life-full) nature of reality.
“Everything isn’t” – a) everything is constantly changing, there is no fixed, permanent reality; b) what we perceive of as solid matter and gross reality is in fact energy vibrating at different frequencies.
Taken together, everything is and isn’t implies the interconnectedness and impermanence of everything.
Through Tantric practice, there is a knowing through our bodies – our sense of embodiment – of subtle energies. Experiencing these subtle energies challenges our representational reality and the beliefs we have constructed about who I am, and who I am not, what I am, and what I am not, what is real for me, and what is not.
Our concepts of self have been constructed and practiced over time. Much of this process occurs outside of awareness. When we practice tantrically, and begin to have experiences that are incompatible with a fixed view of self as an individual entity separate from the world, the concept of self that we have constructed is threatened. Because of this, resistance is a part of tantric practice. This is challenging, mentally, emotionally and physically.
In the words of a Sufi poem: “The ego does not go with laughter and caresses.” (see Vaughan-Lee, 1995, p17).
In the process of learning to live in the present moment, old habits often resurface, and may even seem to intensify at times. This is a natural part of the process of letting go of a fixed view of an unchanging absolute self.
Why we practice
Tantric practice requires patience and perseverance, a commitment to practice. What reason is there to commit to tantric practice?
Through conscious practice we learn to let go of repetitive and compulsive thinking. Belief structures that do not serve us dissipate, allowing us to accept the human experience, and to put our full awareness into the process of living.
We learn choice over where we place our attention, and how we are-in-the-world. We learn choice over our body’s functioning, so we can move between excitement and relaxation, reducing stress in the body and allowing a greater sense of well-being.
Tantric practice allows us to accept the pains and joys of life through to death, letting go of evaluation and judgement. In acceptance of the full human experience, and in alignment with subtle energies, we learn to affirm life, live compassionately, and therefore ethically.
We develop a greater sense of authenticity, and become aligned with the ethical eroticism of life. All existence is vibration, with the most powerful vibration being love. Tantric practice aligns us with this vibration, allowing us to experience genuine joy in life, and to live more fully.
Some Basic Tools
Tantric practice uses breath, sound, movement, awareness, and sometimes touch, to still the chattering mind so we can be present to what is, through the body.
Breath can be governed by both the somatic and autonomic nervous systems. When we are not paying attention to the body’s processes, we continue to breathe. But we can easily choose to alter our breath, and to focus attention on the sensations that breath creates in the body.
Close your eyes for a moment, and focus on the movement your breath is creating in your chest. Notice your chest rising on the inhale, and falling on the exhale. Let go of any thoughts to focus completely on the sensations in your body. If for a moment your awareness is fully on the sensations in your body, you are kick starting tantric practice, creating an opportunity for embodied awareness.
Sound is vibration. By consciously using sound, whether created within the body or externally, we alter our vibrational experience. Moreover, all of our nerves pass through the throat as they pass from the brainstem throughout the body. By creating vibration in the throat, we vibrate the nervous system, creating sensation through the body. When we focus on these vibrations, we can move from thought-focused to embodied experience.
All life is constantly moving, in the flow from birth to death. Although our culture may have taught us to attempt stillness, there is at every moment movement in the body. Allowing the body to move freely allows us to let go of thoughts, and move into felt experience. Conscious movement, such as undulating the pelvis to the rhythm of the breath, can also bring our awareness to the felt experience of subtle energies.
Breath, sound, and movement all focus awareness on the sense of embodiment. Many tantric practices use visualisation, or to include all the senses in the invitation to practice, imagination, to focus our awareness. For example, you might imagine you are breathing sensation in a circular orbit around the body. With practice, this technique, known as the microcosmic orbit, brings us present to the flow of sensation in the body, and to subtle energies.
When people begin to practice the tools can seem overly deliberate. Persevere. With practice, they become methods to kick start our innate ability to be in the flow of erotic embodiment. The body’s processes take over, and we are shifted into present awareness of subtle energies.
Between a Man and a Woman
Some people have been put off tantric practice by the misconception that Tantra can only be practiced between a man and a woman. This belief may be supported by teachings that ask us to focus on the masculine and feminine. Although these qualities are part of the universal human experience, the words masculine and feminine carry a gender connotation. People may be misdirected into believing that masculine qualities are naturally more present in men, and feminine qualities in women.
If we replace these general categories with more specific words, we can see the gender association is misleading. Qualities often characterized as masculine include strong, rational, assertive, competitive. Qualities which may be considered feminine include sensitive, nurturing, communicative, intuitive. All human beings have access to all these qualities, although to be accepted in our gender role, we may have learnt to show certain qualities more freely than others, and therefore have more practice in one set of qualities over the other.
When we focus on embracing certain human qualities over others, we are focusing on creating a specific representational reality. We are not engaged in tantric practice.
Sinha (1993) claims that the basis of all Tantrism is the worship of Shakti and Shiva, the female and male principles. There are schools of Tantra that teach Shiva-Shaktism, and schools that teach worship of the divine feminine principle, or Shaktism. When we focus on the worship of an external deity, or deities, we are practising a form of religious worship, rather than tantric practice. However, meditation on qualities that are within you and all human beings, represented by images of deities, can be considered tantric practice when there is connection through the felt-sense in the body.
Tantric practice allows every human being, regardless of gender, to experience a felt sense of subtle energies through the body. Meditating on images of gods or goddesses is one way to experience this only if we are meditating on qualities that are part of our felt experience, that is, an image of our own internal spiritual existence. If we are focusing on devotion to an external deity, we are practising religious faith. Gender is of no relevance to tantric practice, as an embodied experience of subtle energies is available to all human beings regardless of their chromosomal, hormonal, or genital make-up. There is no need for any form of external focus.
This embodied view of Tantric Practice is supported in the writings of Osho:
“Tantra trusts in your body. Tantra trusts in your senses. Tantra trusts in your energy. Tantra trusts in you – in toto. Tantra does not deny anything but transforms everything.” (Osho, 2009)
Traditions Old and New
There are many traditions that teach erotically embodied conscious practice, each with different teachings and terminology. This knowledge is entering the collective knowledge in the Western world. Some very brief examples include the following. From Tantra the concepts of chakras (energy vortices in or around the body) and mantras (sounds that focus the attention on the felt experience). From Taoism the meridians along which energy flows through the body. From Sufism poems, songs and whirling dances that focus the awareness on the divine nature of our connection to life-force (God), and Western mysticism, both pre and post-Christian, with practices for transcending the dualism of self / other (see, for example, (Versluis, 2008)
New traditions are developing internationally, incorporating these ancient teachings with modern pedagogy. There has been criticism that these traditions are not truly Tantra as, for example, they do not require devotion to a guru, or focus on the worship of masculine and feminine principles. If, however, they support people in learning to be in the present moment through their sense of embodiment, then they are furthering the goals of tantric practice.
One such approach is sexological bodywork, which uses somatic education and coaching, grounded in knowledge of anatomy and neurology, to support people in integrating tantric practice into their lives, so that they acquire the skills to direct their own erotic development. Through regular conscious practice, we develop new pathways to arousal, which gives us more choice in how we are-in-the-world, and greater capacity to experience life. For example, many people have learnt to focus erotic awareness externally towards another person, fantasy, or pornography, seldom experiencing erotic embodiment . Sexological bodyworkers support their clients in learning how to bring awareness back into the present moment through the body, allowing a greater sense of empowerment, connection, and acceptance of self.
In a world with a preference for stimulation over relaxation, the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system, which governs excitement, preparing the body for action, can be nearly exclusively activated when awake. This prevents relaxation and integration, governed by the parasympathetic branch, to be experienced in regular intervals through the days. There are repercussions from over-stimulation not only for the body’s physical health, but for how we experience life, and the world we co-create. This bias is evident in the way that many people currently experience eroticism, often exclusively equating eroticism with up-regulating stimulation. In supporting clients to be aware of the body’s natural rhythms, learning to also develop slower, more embodied ways to be erotically, sexological bodywork supports an erotically empowered experience of life, and creates the potential for great change. The potential power of slow sex is further explained by Barratt (2011), who argues that as slow sex grounds awareness in the embodied experience, the potential for a radically different experience of living becomes possible.
Tantric practice is accessible to all human beings, here-and-now. In releasing representational reality to be present to what is through our sense of embodiment, we experience the erotic flow of existence. Free from evaluations and judgements we return to living fully, ethically, and passionately. That teachings in tantric practice are more readily accessible presents not only an opportunity to live an erotically embodied, ethical life, but a responsibility to co-create an erotically embodied ethical world where all human beings can live more fully.
D Juventin, 2012
Barratt, B. B. (2006). What is tantric practice? [Philadelphia]: Xlibris Corporation.
Barratt, B. B. (2011). Sensuality, Sexuality, and the Eroticism of Slowness. Privately circulated.
Osho. (2009). Tantra: The Supreme Understanding. Watkins.
Sinha, I. (Ed.). (1993). The Great Book of Tantra: Translations and Images from the Classic Indian Texts. Park Street Press.
Vaughan-Lee, L. (1995). Sufism: The Transformation of the Heart. The Golden Sufi Center.
Versluis, A. (2008). The secret history of western sexual mysticism : sacred practices and spiritual marriage. Rochester, Vt.: Destiny Books.