Let's start with a potentially disappointing disclaimer: This is not a story about sex. Or at least not only about sex. The subject matter is decidedly more encompassing and perfuses many aspects of our existence. Imagine living a life in curious awareness of every moment, in resounding resonance with one's feelings and emotions, connecting to others with sincerity and open-hearted audacity, fully harnessing the bodily potential and using it to transform and learn continuously. To not back down from, avoid or suppress challenging experiences, whether they be physical, emotional or spiritual. But to instead face them head-on, in a humble yet inquisitive manner, unearthing what is truly underneath. To take life for what it really is: an unimaginably intricate and yet ultimately musical journey, surely filled with plenty of challenges and hardship, but simultaneously purposeful in every waking moment rather than just in the imagined future. Imagine there existing a vast set of ancient teachings to guide and instruct everyone who this way of living might appeal to. That, as I've come to learn, is Tantra.
The Sanskrit word Tantra is etymologically combined from the verbal roots "Tan", meaning "to expand", and "tra", an instrumental suffix to the preceding syllable. As such, the word can be interpreted to mean "An instrument for expansion". Simultaneously, Tantra also refers to a spiritual doctrine with guidelines on how to "weave" one's various states of self (physical, emotional, energetic, mental, spiritual) together in a constructive pattern. All this may sound somewhat abstract and even esoteric, and it definitely is, but that is by no means cause for scepticism or uninformed disregard. Instead, curiosity is in order, which is why Maria and I signed up for a five-day Tantra immersion retreat at an ashram in the peaceful hills of northern Thailand. Together with a bunch of like-minded novices, we learned about some of the basic principles of Tantric living, their theoretical base framed within Buddhist and Hindu philosophies, and their practical implications taught through yoga and focused group work. It is from this perspective, as an absolute beginner with insights only just emerging and errors practically guaranteed, that I am sharing my thoughts on this truly fascinating spiritual path.
Tantrics could be considered to be people that really make the most of life, by way of curious introspection of every waking moment, leading to enhanced awareness, appreciation of what is observed, and love for the process of living and the flows of energy that occur in the universe within them and in the world around. Contrary to many other spiritual systems, which seek purification and transcendence through abstinence and abnegation of earthly distractions such as sexual intimacy, material possessions and overall sensory load, the way of Tantra embraces them all and really gets down in the spiritual dirt. The principles pervading Tantric teachings can, and are meant to be applied within the otherwise (extra)ordinary lives that we all live. That does, however, not mean that they are somehow easier to learn or apply, in fact quite the opposite. As profoundly meaningful and admirable as prolonged ascetic discipline can be, for most people it constitutes an artificial and often temporary refuge from the "real" world, and might therefore be less sustainable throughout life in the long run. To truly practice presence in the face of all possible everyday situations is a far more daunting task, and one that Tantra attempts to assist with through five main principles: Resonance, polarity, transformation, Eros, and love.
In order to truly connect with one's inner feelings, Tantric practioners learn to resonate with the specific frequency of vibration that a specific emotion triggers in their body. While there is a physics-based analogy for the theory behind this practice, based on resonant frequencies of electromagnetic wave systems, I usually find that attempts at validating spiritual practices through generalized and imprecise scientific explanations do injustice to both the tremendous alternative value of the former and the intellectual rigor of the latter. Instead, the value of Tantric resonance lies with the realization that not only do we all have the capacity to recognize the energetic fingerprints of our feelings inside our bodies, we can actually manifest authentic emotional states of our choosing at any time, provided we have sufficient focus and insight. Practically, this implies that we can conjure feelings of profound joy and love inside ourselves, and, perhaps even more importantly, in others as well. With training and time, one can learn to connect more deeply with friends, loved ones and people in general through such shared resonance and infuse them with it, whether in direct interaction or at larger gatherings. Profiency at practicing resonance in daily life forms the very basis of a more attentive Tantric structure for existence.
Treading into some deeper and often treacherously misunderstood waters, we encounter another one of Tantra's core principles: polarity. As a spiritual and at times religious practice, Tantric teachings have traditionally relied heavily on archetypes and allegories. Arguably the most important one of those is the concept of the divine masculine and feminine, personified through the divine beings Shiva and Shakti. These archetypes are expressions of the more general idea of duality through polarity, which heavily influences most of Buddhist philosophy. It means that in this earthly world, everything that exists, exists in dual pairs. Where there is up there is down, where there is heat there is cold, where there is an observer there is the observed. In such a world, enlightenment can be considered as the loss of duality through spiritual practice and the subsequent realization of oneness with everything that exists. Tantra recognizes one of the most important forms of duality in the masculine and feminine archetypes. They form a polar opposite system, as do their respective energies, and when full fusion between them can be achieved, true Tantric oneness and potential enlightenment may happen. Shiva, the male archetype, represents the determined, stably focused observer, the progenitor of knowledge and the seeker of liberation through dissolving transcendence. The female archetype, symbolized through Shakti, is the observed, the recipient that becomes pregnant with all that is received and gives birth to it with wild power, envelopping every moment with vibrant energy. Both archetypes are of vital importance on their own, yet can never achieve oneness without fusing with the other. It is important to emphasize that while the Shivaic and Shaktic archetypes refer to male and female qualities, they are not intended to assign stereotypes to people based on their gender. Men and women can (and usually do) possess female and male archetypal qualities, respectively. What is important is to recognize the specific balance of the male and female within our own personality, in order to gain insight and potentially exert control over the way these manifest through our thoughts and actions. The Tantric principle of union through polarity is applicable far beyond romantic relationships, even though it is perhaps most alive there. Understanding polarity, and the fundamental impact it has on our shared human experience, is therefore a lifelong Tantric pursuit.
If the principles of resonance and male-female polarity are mostly specific to Tantra, the third principle, transformation, is one that modern Western society is certainly more familiar with. It states that in every instance of our lives, we are changing beings, and in order to live a fullfilled life it is crucial to not only accept this change but to actively seek it out. Change can occur on many levels, from that of the most insignificant daily habits all the way up to devastating crises and spectacular revelations. Tantra teaches that by seeking out change that we desire with meaningful intent, we can maximize our potential while minimizing the occurence of changes that we did not wish for. It is important to set goals in life, but one needs to carefully determine how far beyond one's comfort zone is safe to tread without falling into the traps of hubris and overreach that will ultimately lead to self-resentment in the face of never-ending failure. Push yourself every day, expect more of yourself than you did the day before, but always with kindness and self-love and within the bounds that you have determined to be reasonable. A Tantric life is a continually transforming one, and the learning never ends. With every new concept learned, a door opens to a potential realm of previously inaccessible knowledge. Only by fully embracing that there exists no stage at which one will be able to claim wisdom, can one potentially achieve it.
It should be obvious by now that Tantra goes far beyond its popularized Western interpretation as a manual for better sex. Tantric teachings do cover sexual practices extensively through the principle of Eros, yet always contextualized within the overarching framework of resonance, polarity and transformation. Talking about Tantric lovemaking without considering this background is like explaining a rainbow to someone who has never seen the sky. But I would of course be lying if I said I wasn't eager to get to the classes covering this particular principle. What we learned was that the main particularities of Tantric lovemaking are not only related to how we interact with partners, but also how we constitute ourselves. Eros is juxtaposed to simply Sex, the way a heartfelt, considerate, attentive and loving sexual experience is opposite to an instinctive, selfish, possessive and emotionless one. Establishing that bond, through vulnerable exposure and patient foreplay, is a crucial precursor to any form of Tantric lovemaking that may follow. And throughout any lovemaking session, curiosity, attention and the willingness to be transformed remain vitally important in order to resonate through the experience together, fusing eachother's polar energies into ever higher states of connectivity and extacy. In order to achieve this on a more physical level, all partners can apply bodily techniques to sustain and nourish erotic energies inside themselves. Perhaps surprisingly to some, and definitely to me, men are not advised to ejaculate at all during intercourse. Instead, they train to separate the parasympathetic response of orgasm from the sympathetic one that triggers semen release. It's a tricky balance to strike, but it is achievable through practice and allows for those who master it to have an unlimited amount of full-body orgasms. This way, the energetic depletion following ejaculation is avoided, and the resulting conserved energy can be converted into much prolonged lovemaking and general post-coital vitality. At the same time, this "coitus reservatus" approach is beneficial to any female partner, whose arousal-to-orgasm development process generally requires far more time to reach completion than a male's. The Tantric approach to male lovemaking is so utterly and positively different from what seems to be the norm in Western society, that it was frankly baffling to me that so little awareness exists around it. Practicing Tantric intimacy essentially has the potential to transform anyone who is willing to dedicate themself into a sexual grandmaster.
The final, and arguably deepest principle of Tantra is love. The ultimate reason for even considering to live Tantrically is the realization that what gives life meaning, beyond anything else, is love. Love for ourselves and the ones around us, in its most selfless and giving way. All the other Tantric principles follow effortlessly from this pursuit. The love we can achieve through resonance, through fusion via polarity, and the transformative power that love has on all of us. And of course, Eros without love is completely meaningless. True intimacy is loving, even in its most extreme renditions. In fact, Tantra welcomes any form of sexual expression, as long as it originates and terminates in generously given and reciprocated love. The general approach a Tantric takes to love is a proactive one. Instead of expecting the world to love them for their actions and manipulations, love needs to be the preface to the story. It should never be the expected consequence of one's efforts and entitled assumptions, but rather a bottomless source of inspiration and selfless outpouring. It prioritizes intentful giving over greedy receiving, and as difficult as that can be at times, even my (relatively) youthful self has witnessed many examples of the truth to this theory. A Tantric lifestyle is inundated with love, and it aims to increase the capacity for loving in anyone adhering to it.
All of these new insights were a lot to wrap my head around, and most are still sinking in. On some level, I have been suspecting and feeling the truth of these princinples for a long time, intimately as well as otherwise, but it was nevertheless a revelation to find out that they have existed for over a millenium, and confirmed time and again by empirical observation, standing a longer test of time than any scientific theory I know of. During the retreat, we engaged in empirical verification and practiced the Tantric concepts with eachother - in a properly contextualized and strictly non-sexual way -, opening our hearts to eachother, resonating together through touch and dance, expressing our polarity in deep converstation and experiencing the union of the masculine and feminine archetypes through embrace, loving words and kind gestures. We learned specific Hatha yoga poses to release and isolate particular clusters within our physical bodies to unlock emotional awareness, circulate erotic energy and we meditated on pure feelings of love.
It's funny how a journey of a few days can be so truly impactful across the ocean of one's lifetime. And yet, I feel like my introduction to Tantra has given me a new perspective on life and how to live it. And it also makes me hopeful that, whatever may come my way on the road ahead, I have new tools and methods for meaning that will guide me along.
November 14th, 2022