What does tantra mean?
In India, tantra is viewed as a more comprehensive system for spirituality, even going all the way to enlightenment - depending what you think that is. More generally, in the West we are more practical, and tend to think more about results and getting things done, whereas in the Eastern model, people tend to look further than this lifetime and are more mystical. What I call neo-tantra is more about people having better sex or better connections, and that’s what people are usually looking for when we talk about tantra in America.
So how did tantra become translated from a path to enlightenment in the East, to sex in the West?
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Well, this is why it’s tricky. I don’t like it when people say that tantra is not sex. It’s wrong to say that tantra was taken from India and made into some bastardized version in America. One of the things that makes tantra unique is that it always was a results-oriented practice. In that way it is similar to shamanic practices, which are goal-oriented insofar as the aim is to get rid of blockages and negative energy so that people are filled with positive energy. You could also frame this in terms of working with kundalini, as in activating the potential energy.
Tantra sees the energy that is dormant and unactivated in a person as their sexual, primal, core energy. That root of kundalini shakti - the primal sexual creative power - is in your sex organs and second chakra. Your sexuality is deeply connected with your subconscious patterns and cravings that drive you to experience pleasure and procreation. Tantra has always been engaged in harnessing sexual energy, which is why I take issue with the strain of tantra teachers who say tantra isn’t sex, and don’t want to be associated with sexuality at all. I think that actually creates another level of shame around our very natural, primal human existence. I think it’s harmful to shame sexuality and only creates spiritual schizophrenia when these separations are used in yoga or tantra.
Yoga and tantra are not religions. Religions often create moral codes through which we judge each other (or ourselves) and create shame. When we repress sexuality, we can see how it has created abuse and violence in that shadow. For me, tantra is an excellent tool to bring human sexuality into the light so we can be healthier and reach our full potential in sex and every other area of our lives.
I feel that tolerance is probably the highest mark of somebody having any spiritual realization. I have travelled and met with many teachers. I have studied with my guru in the jungle in India and worked with a Sufi teacher in Istanbul and learned from Native Americans on a reservation in the US. What I love when I meet somebody who I consider to be a master is that they’re very interested in other people's approaches. These people never told me what the results of a certain practice “should” be - instead they ask me to have my own experience and listen inside. In contrast, the teachers who would like to disassociate sexuality from tantra might be quick to tell you that your experience should not feel sexual. Another teacher might have an agenda to tell you that you “should” feel sexual when you don’t. In either situation, we are left with a dogma instead of freeing people to reconnect to their body and sensuality and feel their own truth. What I think is valuable is giving people the tantra tools and encouraging them to have the discipline to do a self-inquiry practice. I aim to teach people to observe themselves and watch to see what results come from that. I don’t want to teach people to memorize words from books and to feel trapped by what they “should” feel. I want to help them awaken through their senses and feel that light and power moving through their bodies from the inside out.
How does sexuality connect with spirituality?
To me they're inseparable. Our really big disconnect comes from compartmentalizing our sex lives apart from our spiritual lives. This deep interconnection between sex and spirituality can actually be found right in mainstream Western psychology, since Freud taught that our libido is what’s driving us at a deep level. For many people, their neuroses and imbalances are related directly to desire and sexual energy. I think it’s extremely important to learn how to tap into that in a healthy way. This enables us to create better relationships with other people and with ourselves. We can take spirituality and ‘flip the script’ to stop making our bodies the enemy of our spirituality. We can actually use our bodies as the rocket fuel for our life, whether the goal is enlightenment or a better job or having an orgasm. As far as I’m concerned, spiritual life applies to the whole spectrum of human endeavours. It’s really a matter of what life you want to create.
Yet, we live in a society where both spirituality and sexuality feel like they’re taboo.
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I think they’re both taboo, and then you’re sometimes forced to choose one side or another exclusively. For example, I grew up in spiritual subcultures my whole life. I grew up in a Christianity-based religious cult, and went on to live in ashrams. I’ve consistently been in these environments where spirituality was acceptable but sexuality was not. This was problematic for me as a very sensual and passionate woman.
Yet, what keeps me going forward is that I’m a fiery woman! I feel very passionate about the experience of life. I really believe that when I’m having a beautiful connection with someone or sex, God is ecstatic that we are sharing the most beautiful connection it’s possible to have. I think so many people take the view that God must think we should just be reading scriptures, and that sex is goofing off. I just find it hard to see that the spiritual community tends to devalue that most essential thing, which is how we all emerged onto the planet to begin with...
I’ve been taught in the Buddhist tradition that there are 3 moments when we directly experience the nature of mind: at birth, at death, and in orgasm.
I would say that when you have an orgasm, that’s samadhi. You’re in the spiritual state - you lose your ego for a second and feel connected with everything. Fear dissolves into pleasure and we feel a sense of happiness, harmony and union.