This was the fifth time I had done the workshop. I was lying on the floor, on my back. There was a bit of verbal guidance while my partner applied slow pressure to my legs. Eventually, she came up to my lower belly where she placed her hands. After a couple minutes, she put her chest on my lower belly/genital area.
“What happens for me when the heart and sexual energy come together?” That is, “What is the relationship between these two energies in me?” This was the question I was opening to in this moment (so, too, my partner).
As I had done the workshop numerous times, I’d had many human hearts touching this area, the doorway to my sexual energy. There was soft, simple music in the background. The meditation was guided such that everyone would come to this point of the meditation at around the same time.
My partner gently put her chest on my lower belly and left it there for a few moments. All of a sudden, my eyes popped wide open as I felt surges of energy rushing through my body. A pure, sweet, super alive and intense feeling writhed from the point of contact and opened up into my body. It was as if I was getting injected with a pure, sweet, powerful nectar — the nectar of life.
It happened a few more times during the course of a few weeks at that workshop. That was two years ago. I’ve had similar experiences spontaneously in the past year, but even more intense and without any precipitating outer, physical stimulation (just alone in a parking lot or in my room).
What to exactly make of these experiences, I don’t really know. There isn’t a framework for it that I grew up with; I was raised in Texas in a conservative, fundamentalist, Korean Southern Baptist church. But it all makes sense within the context of Tantric philosophy and practice.
In the West, the word Tantra has come to denote deep, mystical sex, 20-minute orgasms or creatively contorted coital positions. This association between Tantra and sex and orgasm, misses so much of the basic essence of Tantric practice and philosophy, and I hope to clear some of the confusion in this article.
Let me just say here that I am no expert on Tantra, nor do I practice it in any formal way (the workshop mentioned above was not officially a Tantric workshop). Those who know and have studied Tantra may have more to say about its ins and outs, but I’m not going for a technical explication of Tantra here.
I’m offering my perspective, which comes from my experience. I’ve been immersed in spiritual teachings, been an avid meditator and yoga practitioner, travelled through India and have dabbled in a variety of different spiritual modalities for the past five years.
I’ve also studied psychology for over a decade, and have a master’s degree in counseling from a school that is based in Eastern philosophy and spirituality, the California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS). The workshop (which I’ll get more into later) was actually a class I took in graduate school.
Recently, I lived with a Tantrica (a Tantric yogi or practitioner), and it became clear to me that a lot of things I had come to realize on my path directly correlated with Tantric philosophy — at least in how she held it. This realization led me to write this article.
What Is Tantra?
Tantra is an age-old, Indian tradition that branched off of early Hindu thinking some 3,000 years ago. Since then, many schools of Tantra developed, some Hindu, some Buddhist, and some — these days — not affiliated with any religion.
At its core, Tantra is simply a framework or theory of ultimate reality; that is, it is a spiritual tradition. And like any other spiritual / religious doctrine, it has its own message about who we are, what the universe is and what it means to live a fulfilling life.
So, Tantra clearly isn’t just about sex. It is a whole body of knowledge, an ideology, a spiritual tradition and practice with its own worldview.
What is its worldview? What is it saying about us, the universe and ultimate reality? I will try to distill it down to a somewhat digestable form (although it’s one of those things in life that evades adequate conceptualization).
I think one of the basic premises of Tantric philosophy is that all of life, everything you can see, hear, touch, taste, smell — that is, everything you can experience — is divine. Everything.
This means your dog, your computer, the old beat up car down your street, the coffee you drink, the cup you hold, the tree you pass, the hole you step in, the other stuff you accidently step in and even you and me. We are all divine.
What do I mean by “divine”? To get there, it’s helpful to bring in a little Hinduism.
According to Tantra, everything is a manifestation of Shakti. Shakti can be thought of as lifeforce energy. Everything is imbued with Shakti, or Shakti is the energy that imbues everything.
Shakti is a Hindu deity that represents the source of life, the energy that empowers the universe. She is the creative force that unfurls and propels form and life into existence, the primordial goop from which all things emerge.
She exists as potential, but is also the ultimate, dynamic, creative force. Comparing Shakti to a battery isn’t far off the mark. She is a reservoir of energy, a rich, fertile land that is always spurring creation and growth. Shakti is the ground of being.
Another way of framing Shakti is eros or erotic energy. Eros, in Greek mythology is the God of love. Freud used the term to denote the life-preservation instinct that underlies love, sex (procreation) and survival.
In Tantric practice, one taps into this energy. Whether through breathing, visualization, meditation and/or physical touch. The idea is that life force energy is within us (as it is in everything) and can be opened up to and experienced.
The experience that most people report when opening up or connecting to Shakti is one of intense energy and pleasure. It’s like connecting to the battery, but not just any battery — the battery that powers all life.
The universe is always producing, creativity is always flowing, and we are a part of this ever-unfolding process (called “life”). However, we aren’t always aware of this simple fact. In fact, we live very disconnected from it.
Humans think we are separate from it all — that the world we created (society, culture, our job, technology) is somehow its own, isolated reality. And then there’s this other thing called nature, life, the Universe “out there.”
We are a part of everything, and we have been. Our world as we know it is just another leaf sprouting off a branch on the age-old tree of life. So the same source that is underlying all of existence, that is fertilizing the “cosmic tree” is fertilizing us. We just aren’t aware of it.
Tantric practice is aimed at reconnecting with this source. Just as a leaf’s life can be traced all the way down to the roots, which take from the earth itself, so too can we tap into the dynamic force that drives us and propels our life, our creativity, our generativity, our life and all of existence.
This is the viewpoint of Tantra — that we can access the source of Life. That is huge.
This energy is always empowering us, moving us, enlivening the world. But when we connect to it in a conscious way, such that we are aware, open-minded and present, it is a whole different ballgame.
Pleasure and orgasm, independent of the physical act of sex or physical stimulation, is a trademark of a lot of Tantric practice. When we open up to the force of Shakti in a conscious way, the experience is one of intense pleasure — aliveness, openness, and a sumptuous, full-bodied sensation.
I don’t have a rational explanation as to why this is the case. Shakti is erotic energy. Or, perhaps it makes more sense to say that erotic energy is Shakti. Why is opening up to Shakti from within inherently pleasurable? It just is.
Sexual energy, in its purest sense, isn’t just desire or the impulse to be boisterously boinking; it is much deeper and much more profound. This is the case according to Tantra, but it also seems true from my own experience.
As I said, I am not a formal practitioner of Tantra, but my curiosity and spiritual inquiry have led me to the doorstep of realms that are very Tantric in nature (whether to call it “Tantra” or just Life, I don’t know…and I honestly I don’t think it really matters).
I dove into a body of work called Holistic Sexuality (now called Holistic Transformation as the word “sexuality” was ringing in folks who were expecting something different from what the work was offering). It is an inquiry into what it means to be human.
The basic idea of the work is that we are physical, sexual and spiritual beings with a heart that allows us to express these different energies through our human form. Each energy has its own physical doorway — the place in the body where the energy can most easily be accessed.
The legs are the doorway to our physical being, the genitals/lower belly our sexual being, the chest the center for our heart and the top of the head our spiritual doorway.
The work entails simple, structured guided meditations with one or two partners, and uses touch. Don’t get the wrong impression. These meditations weren’t “sexual” or “erotic” (at least in the way you’re used to). The use of another human being for contact was simply to notice what happens for us when certain energies (e.g., the heart and the mind/the energy of consciousness) interact or connect.
The body is an integral part of Tantric practice — the body as a vehicle, as way of listening and learning. Swami Prem Pranama, a Tantric master (now known as Traktung Rinpoche), shared in an interview his view of learning versus the traditional, didactic schooling that focuses on the mind:
“In truth understanding is a whole body act. You must understand with the cells of your body, your mind and your feelings. Listening involves a profound action of the entire self. This action is what practice is. Spiritual practice is the act of listening to the teaching with the whole body.”
This was the basic premise of the Holistic Sexuality work, and why we had physical touch as the medium: so that information would be evoked within the body through the contact and come into awareness. We didn’t think too much, or try to have an experience; we let the experience come to us — just being open and curious.
The woman who co-founded the work — and led the workshops I took — says that when the heart and our sexual energy come together, the authentic experience and expression is aliveness. She refers to sexual energy as the dark, primordial substance of life, the seed or source of creativity (sound familiar?).
Holistic Sexuality isn’t “Tantra,” in the sense that it doesn’t call itself by the name. Nor does it use terms like Shakti or Shiva (the male deity that represents consciousness, the spiritual force. Shiva is the counterpart of Shakti, and the unification of the two is at the heart of Tantra).
But minus all the concepts and terms, the core elements of Holistic Sexuality coincide well with much of the principles of Tantra — spirituality, sexuality, the body, and being open and present to these energies to deeply wake up to them.
Tantra is really about waking up to who or what we really are. Can you say the leaf is separate from the tree? Yes and no. Is the leaf a leaf without the tree? What is the tree? What is the leaf?
Where do we come from? How did we get here? Where do we go after it’s all said and done? Tantra doesn’t claim to have the answers to these questions. As Swami Prem Pranama says:
“Tantra takes the jump into crazy wisdom by eliminating even God from the equation, leaving only the mystery with no ultimate attempt to define it… With Tantra you are not getting somewhere; you are just waking up to the true nature of things as they are. The colors inherent in clear light [as when reflecting it through a prism] are not other than the light.”
Tantra is about sexuality and spirituality, the relationship between the two, how they dance within us, how they can be seen and experienced outside of us, in the material world. We are sexual beings and spiritual beings. They go together.
If all of life manifests from a “primordial goop” or primary energy, then there is a place in us that is connected to all of life, a part of us that is a part of everything. How does this shift our consciousness, our perception, how we are in the world? This is spiritual realization in Tantra.
I’ve focused on sexuality in this article, on Shakti, orgasm, pleasure because there is an emphasis on sex with Tantra in the West, as if that is what Tantra is. Tantra isn’t just about sex. And sex isn’t just about sex. Sex is about life. Tantra brings these two separate-seeming notions together in the form of Shakti — which I appreciate.
The spiritual side of Tantra is the wonder and mystery of it all. For me, having the experiences I had (and still have) around sexuality have opened me up to life in a way that leaves me humbled and mystified.
Yes, Tantra does provide a framework to understand things like orgasm without stimulation, but even without understanding the tenets of Tantra, sexuality can open up to intensely spiritual dimensions — it did for me.
So, more than being about Tantra, this article is about sexuality. I wanted to reframe sexuality, dissociating it from the way it is popularly conceptualized — as a simply physical, pleasure-driven act — towards a stance where it is more about connecting with life itself. Tantra was just the way in for me to say this.
Part of me is averse to Tantra because of how much it is solely focused on sex and orgasm; people get drawn to its glamour and miss its essence, its spirit. But more and more I’m realizing that the path I’m walking is the path of a Tantrica.
This quote by the aforementioned Tantric master brings home elements in this article that I hoped to convey. But it also brings me home; it brings me to my path, to my deepest truth, to the knowing that resides in me. I must be a Tantrica at heart. I’ll leave you with it:
“As Tantric practice takes root in our culture it is important that there be an understanding of the vastness of possibilities that Tantra offers. Waking up into the bliss-mad realm of the perfect union of perception and pure pleasure is really quite something. It is better than what people are dreaming up in the sex workshops. For one who is awake, the relationship to the world, to the elements, is completely different than for anybody else. We have to be able to move into the really magical and wondrous forms of transformational practice where you are working not only with your own body/mind at its most subtle levels, but the elements themselves. That level of awakening needs to be realized. Its power needs to be applied to the culture and the actual ground upon which we live. To work at these levels — the beginning levels and the most advanced levels, which bring radical awakening or enlightenment — to work with all of these is the real gift that Tantra brings. The gift is that we can encompass the whole of our lives, from the ordinary to the most wondrous, in a single path.”