A few years ago, Mara Carrico wrote an article called ”The Truth About Tantra” in Yoga Journal, in which she made the following prediction: the next revolution in yoga in America will be Tantra.
While I had my hunches that we would see an increasing interest in genuine Tantra, Carrico was spot on prophetic! That is, she predicted a vigorous new interest among yoga enthusiasts in the deeper study of Tantra philosophy as opposed to the bedroom slackers who dabble in the more shallow Sex-Tantra. Or Neo-Tantrics, as prolific yoga scholar Georg Feuerstein has dubbed those who often mistake the Kama Sutras for the Yoga Sutras. Those who mistake orgasm for enlightenment.
That, says Tantra, is to misjudge the rope for a snake.
Since Carrico’s article was published, John Friend and his limber army of Anusara devotees have taken the country and the world by storm, one twist and forward bend, one studio at-a-time. He has indeed been busy, both promoting a philosophy deeply rooted in Tantra and teaching a yoga practice that—well—is at least in part grounded in the Hatha Yoga practices that flourished during the Tantric renaissance of the early Middle Ages (400 AD).
At first glance, it seems that Anusara and its thousands of enthusiastic followers have dug themselves some deep Tantric roots while they at the same time are creating that next Tantric-yogic revolution.
The members of the Anusara Kula (family), just like the Tantrics of old, are, they say, more interested in Bliss with a capital B than in mere copulation. On this important topic the Kularnava Tantra, a well respected authority on the subject, speaks with a straightforward voice:
“If [you] could attain perfection (siddhi) merely by drinking wine, all the wine-bibbing rouges would attain perfection. If mere intercourse… would lead to liberation, all creatures of the world would be liberated…”
So what is Tantra, according to Anusara? In the group’s own words: ”The vision of Anusara yoga is grounded in a Tantric philosophy of intrinsic goodness. In this philosophy we take the premise that everything in this world is an embodiment of Supreme Consciousness, which at its essence pulsates with goodness and the highest bliss. All of creation is divinely danced into existence for the simple delight and the play of embodying the Supreme’s own blissful nature.”
As a frequent writer on everything Tantric, I could not have said it any better. This poetic vision of Tantra resonates with everything that I have learned, both philosophically and experientially. Tantra is about becoming the bee that seeks the nectar of Bliss. Indeed, says Tantra, we humans are not hardwired for suffering, as some mystics will claim, we are hardwired for Bliss.
(But intrinsic goodness is not the only aspect of the universe of Tantra, however. There is another Tantric concept, let’s call it intrinsic badness. We shall return to this issue later. For now, let’s focus on the Bliss.)
Bliss in both Tantric and yogic terminology is Ananda, which is different than the sensory bliss of sex, good food, and a hot chocolate aphrodisiac. Ananda is extrasensory, Kama is sensory. Ananda is not skin deep, not a short-lived orgasm, it is experienced beyond the body, in the deep within, the metaphoric flower that blooms in the deep reality of the soul.
To put it succinctly: Tantric yogis developed hatha yoga to still and purify the body to prepare it for meditation. Thus the ultimate bliss Tantra talks about is not the bliss of asana but the bliss of samadhi.
Yes, it is blissfully relaxing to practice asana, but that feeling, which for most is short-lived and is quickly lost in a days work, is not the Bliss of samadhi. To achieve that Bliss, the asana practice needs to be internalized and grounded in deep, sitting meditation—in pratyahara, pranayama, dharana, then dhyan, and if you’re experienced and graced, the Bliss of samadhi. Very few, if any, yoga studios teach that kind of Tantra, that kind of classical Asthanga, or Raja Yoga. Not even Anusara.
But Tantra is not about denying or suppressing the body’s needs, either. In the words of the Buddhist Tantric teacher, Lama Yeshe: “There is no reason at all to feel guilty about pleasure; this is just as mistaken as grasping onto passing pleasures and expecting them to give us ultimate satisfaction,” he writes in his widely acclaimed book Introduction to Tantra: The Transmutation of Desire.
No need to feel guilty about pleasure, but there is a need to distinguish, to discern between pleasure and bliss, between kama and moksa, between lust and liberation.
So, Bliss, according to Tantra is spiritual ecstasy, spiritual love, spiritual liberation. It can be cool as a monsoon breeze, as in the case of the archetypal, detached sage Ramana Maharshi, whose Ananda-state was not expressed in dance as the wild man Ramakrishna did, but to sit and smile in silence like a modern Buddha.
Bliss can indeed be ecstatic, as was the case with cosmic poets Rumi, Kabir and Mirabai. Either way, the Bliss we are talking about, is not the pleasure of deliciousness, as Rumi put it, but that which gives deliciousness—namely that which is profoundly beyond the ulterior needs of the ego, that which has truly and freely blown the heart open wide to receive the wind-currents of the Divine.
How true is Anusara’s philosophy to the philosophy of Tantra? Does the following paragraph from John Friend’s Shiva Shakti Tantra philosophy reflect the inner essence of Tantra?
”Life is good. Indeed, goodness is the absolute nature of the universe. There is no intrinsic or absolute evil in the universe. However, because we are born free to choose our own experience, human beings are capable of mistakes and deliberate malevolence-moving out of alignment with the Divine in a way that creates suffering and harm. Although nothing has a malevolent or evil essence at its absolute nature, goodness takes on a relative state in the world of manifestation.”
I mostly agree. Depending on how we define evil, however, there is actually an intrinsic badness in the universe. From the very start, says Tantra, there was trouble in God’s paradise. This shadow-side to the Divine is built into the very essence of nature. And that, to me, is Tantra’s insightful elegance, an insight that satisfies both reason and intuition.
Yoga philosophy express at least two distinct views of the universe: nonduality (Vedanta), and qualified nonduality (Tantra). That is, while Vedanta on the one hand sees Brahma as real and the world as an illusion, Tantra sees both the world (Shakti) and Brahma (Consciousness, also called Shiva) as real. In its essence, says Tantra, there is only Brahma, that is the absolute ground, the absolute goodness, in Anusara terms, the universe is made of. But, if that was all, Tantra would basically be Vedantic and otherworldly, which it is not.
In Tantra, Brahma=Shiva +Shakti. It is Shakti (Cosmic Energy), which binds Brahma in the form of Shiva (Cosnciousness) and creates the world. And while doing so, the nondual Brahma becomes qualified, becomes dualistic, becomes the world. Hence, Tantric cosmology, recognizes the world as relative truth and the Divine (Brahma) as absolute truth. The world undergoes change while Brahma does not. So, Shiva (Consciousness) and Shakti (Energy) are just two different expressions of Brahma (Cosmic Consciousness).
In contrast to Anusara’s ”notion of an absolute goodness” there is also an absolute badness. In Tantra, Shakti is both Vidya Shakti—the universal energy that propels us toward divine goodness, toward the Divine) and Avidya Shakti—the universal energy which pulls us away from the Divine. In other words, Tantra says that good and bad, pleasure and suffering, is the very hallmark of creation. We’ve been potential jerks and saints from the very beginning!
This universal truth is recognized by Tantra as unwholesome tendencies (vrittis) located in most of our chakras. And thus the Tantric enterprise is to seduce Shakti to reunite with Shiva in this very life through yoga, through the raising of Shakti as kundalini, through overcoming our innate lethargy and badass tendencies for un-yogic mischief.
It is in recognizing this intrinsic good/bad, ignorance/enlightenment, pleasure/suffering dichotomy that Tantra scores an important philosophical and practical point. It ain’t all Bliss, Shri, and goodness in our universe, and the sooner we recognize and embrace that truth, the better we’ll all be!
In Tantric translation, this means we differentiate between that which is real and that which is unreal. That means we open up to the higher flow of intuition (viveka) through regular cultivation of deep trance-meditations. And that’s why I’ll say it again: the yoga movement needs to include more meditation after all these asanas!! (While the yogis of old did a lot more meditation than asanas, a good start is at least 1/2 hour of meditation after every 1 hour of yoga) Then that bliss will last a heck lot longer!
When these meditation trances are grounded in feeling, in emotion, in the heart, and in the mind, there is union, there is harmony, there is yoga. This takes time and practice, diligence and discipline rooted in the deep soil of the balanced body, in the worldview of yogic ethics—in ahimsa (non-harming), in asteya (non-stealing).
Tantric knowing is grounded in wisdom. It knows the difference between sex as a natural, passing pleasure and the spiritual love that is the lasting, all-embracing satisfaction.
In Anusara circles, the word ”kula” is used quite often. In the Indian vernacular, this word has some 20 different meanings. In Tantra, however, it refers to not just the sangha, those that gives us good company, or satsanga, but also to the kula of the kundalini. Which is to say, the container that forms the first chakra (yes, here the Sanskrit word kula refers to the first chakra as a container that houses the hibernating kundalini). In addition, the muladhara chakra also contains four propensities (vrittis):
In other words, the first chakra is not just the “lowest” chakra; it is actually the seat of our spiritual longing for both liberation and Dharmic action. Indeed, our thirst for both physical and spiritual love comes from this inner labyrinthine cave. Thus, according to Tantra, we are hardwired for spirituality, for dharma, for bliss. We are hardwired for lust, as well, but even as much for liberation, for spiritual union, for yoga.
Note here that Dharma (our innate, spiritual nature) is a natural human trait, as natural as the longing for sex. How come then, we humans think of sex a thousand times before we think of Dharma? How come then, we humans often practice sex without any consideration for Dharma at all?
The reason for that, says Tantra, is that kama has a short way to express itself. Lust is expressed in the next chakra as sex, for example, whereas the other propensities have a much longer route to travel up the chakra rungs than kama. Indeed, moksa (liberation) is not truly fulfilled before it reaches the highest chakra, the sahasrara, in the crown of the head.
That is to say, it is easy to love with lust, but not so easy to love from a state of non-attached Bliss. To put it simply, it takes a lot more effort to love with heart than with lust.
But Tantra does not maintain that all our sensory attractions are born from sexual desires. Behind every attraction, says Tantra, lies the pure desire for attaining happiness. Happiness is the ultimate desire of life, not lust. We are indeed hardwired for happiness, for Bliss. But too often we end up with the short end of the happiness-stick. Why?
The answer to that question lies at the very heart of the whole Tantric (and yogic) enterprise: that yogic union is a realization not merely enjoyed as emotion, as fulfilled attachment, but as realized essence. As Rumi urges us, do not long for deliciousness, long for the source of deliciousness.
This realization is of course devastating to the ego, which compulsively craves external, temporary attachments and enjoyments. But the soul, says Tantra, could care less; it is only truly at home in the internal chamber of its own Self, far beyond the busy wanting and craving of the ego.
The yogic journey, says Tantra, indeed the very meaning of yoga, is to seek union. And union is not found in that which disperses and fractures the mind (Avidya Shakti), but in that which unifies the mind, in that which brings it focus, synchronicity, flow (Vidya Shakti).
And to achieve that inner flow, so that the ego can dissolve its fractured self in the ocean of the soul—and thus become a transparent and discriminating witness to its own doings—the Tantrics developed, in yogic synchrony, Hatha Yoga for the body and Raja Yoga for the mind.
And that, my friend, is the true revolutionary message of Tantra: not to seek the temporary bliss of the body, but the lasting Bliss that includes and transcends the body.
But that, of course, is a lot easier said than done. Indeed, it is easy to philosophize about Tantric Bliss, but the important part is how we deal with the blisters. Yes, how is the American Tantric revolution dealing with its own shadow stuff, its own ego-baggage, how is Anusara composting those feelings that do not turn into bliss? How are we yogis dealing with our own pain-body, our own dukha?
There is a tendency among blissed-out yogis to deny or escape our own distress, sorrow, pain, dissatisfaction, our innate Avidya Shakti. I certainly have done my fair share of that, especially during my first few years on the spiritual path. Hopping from ashram to ashram, it was easy to escape interpersonal or personal issues and just move on and instead enjoy that inner bliss in kirtan, or in meditation. There was always another high to catch somewhere.
It took indeed a few years before I accepted in my heart what my guru Anandamurti meant when he said: “Your problems are your best friends!” And what do we do with our best friends? We embrace them! We accept them! No matter how lousy, crazy, stupid, or angry they are!
That embrace of the inner shadow is the Tantric way—to embrace struggle as a natural part of life; to transform and then transcend that struggle. And then, to eventually see reality for what it is—a series of pleasures (sukha) and pains (dukha)—and cultivate the union of yoga to remain peaceful and content beyond the transitory natures of both. That’s the dance of Tantra. That’s what is meant by Tantra embracing both duality and nonduality.
Indeed, this understanding lies at the heart of the mythological dance of Nataraja, where his arms and legs swing between life and death, between birth and destruction. While both feet swing above ground in the air, He is all balance and bliss. That is the metaphor for the Tantrika; to dance with the opposites; to not ever run away from our shadow. To be still in the middle of the storm.
hot on elephant
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