At the heart of the recent scandal in Anusara—a yoga group that subscribes to a Tantric philosophy John Friend terms Shiva Shakti Tantra—lies the responsible or irresponsible use of those very archetypal symbols Shiva and Shakti, especially our relationship with our innate power, our Shakti.
In Anusara, it is emphasized over and over that it is Bliss we need and want. When Shakti unites with Shiva, according to Tantra, that is when the ultimate Bliss is experienced.
What is perhaps not emphasized in such contemporary Tantric circles, however, are the challenges Shakti must go through before the transformation into the tranquility, compassion, and unconditional love of Shiva is realized.
In other words, it is all too common in some spiritual groups to focus all the energy on that ultimate Bliss and too little on what prevents us from experiencing it. When mesmerized by a teacher’s aura of bliss and power, it is not always so easy to separate the shadow from the charismatic splendor.
When shadowy projections lurk in the teacher himself, we must be on guard. But how can we guard ourselves from someone splendid and powerful when we may not have discovered or dealt with our own shadow and our own projections? Indeed, the combination of a sinner in a saint’s garb and naïve followers can be a recipe for yogic misalignment.
John Friend has been in a position of power with Bliss high on the agenda. In Tantra, it is Shakti which represents power and creativity, both constructively and negatively. Too much emphasis on Bliss while dealing with Shakti energy, especially its sexual expression, can easily lead men in power astray.
It is precisely when in a position of power and domination we teachers need to tame Shakti through our practice and our ethics of yama and niyama. But sometimes, we are overpowered by the secretive allure of Shakti. We are lead astray by her sensual attraction, and we end up in relationships resulting in dysfunctional, unethical or unprofessional alliances.
In such situations, you have basically two choices—to live a lie and a double life, or to step down and face the music of brokenhearted students and the prospect of having nobody to adore you and your teachings. This in itself is a huge shadow issue some teachers cannot accept. Living in denial and convincing close students that denial is truth, they just keep on going.
Others deal with it more gracefully; they take a long sabbatical, or step down from a position of leadership. Time will tell if John Friend’s admission of wrongdoing and the current reorganization in Anusara is the beginning of the end, or a long sabbatical for John Friend and a graceful transition for Anusara.
What I have learned from Tantra is that the best way to confront our own or an organization’s shadow is to confront it, to bring it out into the open. As poet Robert Bly aptly put it, and I paraphrase: to reach into the long, dark bag left behind us to discover its hidden secrets.
Since this is all about Tantra, what does Tantra actually say about the human shadow and how does it relate to the Shiva Shakti Tantra of Anusara? In a way, it has all to do with the Shiva Shakti of Anusara.
Tantra certainly does not say life is all Bliss. This very notion, that life is all Bliss, which is so strongly emphasized in Anusara, may have been the very cause of the dysfunctions of power and sexuality in the first place; the very root cause of all the blisters. The simplistic idea that life is all Bliss and no dukha (suffering) can unravel the best of us, even the most blissed-out yogi.
The Tantra of Dissipating Structures
Warning! For those unfamiliar with Tantra or with a scientific bent of mind: there are metaphors ahead! The frequent use of the terms Shiva and Shakti used here are not literal Gods and Goddesses. They are archetypes, psychological and spiritual, indeed natural energies, similar but not entirely identical to the polarities of Yin and Yang, Male and Female, Harmony and Disharmony, Consciousness and Energy, Animus and Anima.
While the power of Shiva is all nondual consciousness, union and Bliss, the power of Shakti is expressed in two ways: as a force that gracefully inspires us toward Bliss and Shiva and a force that not-so-gracefully pulls us away from the state of Shiva-consciousness. The former is Vidya Shakti, which moves us toward harmony and union, and the latter is Avidya Shakti, which moves us toward disharmony and disunion.
These ancient, yogic insights remind us of Nobel Prize winning scientist Ilya Prigogine’s “dissipating structures” of nature. He termed this scientific discovery “stillness in motion” and used the image of the dancing Shiva to symbolically describe it. In other words, all expressions of life have two opposites—that which dissipates, that which breaks down, that which creates psychological shadows and that which creates balance, harmony, light. This insight led to further advances in open systems theory. And this science is Tantric to the core.
To live in the Shiva/Shakti dynamic is to know that structures (ecosystems, organizations, bodies, minds) come to life and that part, or the whole, of these structures, also dissipate, transform, or die. And as there is no final death, no final entropy in dissipating structures, they rise again like the phoenix from the ashes: souls reincarnate; organizations restructure. Thus I think of Tantra as a truly ecological form of spirituality.
Avidya and Vidya Tantra
The eccentric force of Shakti, the one that dissipate our body into dis-ease, breaks down relationships, causes that disk in the spine to go out, that energetic is called Avidyá Shakti. Avidyá Shakti has two kinds of pulls in our psyche: Vikśepa Shakti and Avarani Shakti.
Vikśepa means “to drift away from the center.” That is, the compulsive pull we have towards unwholesome activities, such as sex with an employee or a student. The compulsion toward inferiority complexes: “Why don’t I look or behave like that hatha-queen or king up front?” This aspect of Shakti increases the radius in our labyrinthine movement and moves us away from union, away from being centered. Instead of moving toward the center, we get tangled up in the chaotic labyrinths of life and its relationships.
The other aspect of Avidya Shakti is called Avarańii Shakti. In Sanskrit, ávarańa means “to cover”, which is basically just another name for denial. We try to cover our eyes from seeing or admitting to the existence of a problem, a conflict, or even the existence of something positive, such as the potential for a life filled with more silent meditations and awe-inspiring personal encounters.
To flirt with Avarani Shakti is to dance with the devil. When we commit something unethical, we are influenced by Avarańii Shakti. We live in denial, and we think that no one will ever know. But sooner or later “they” usually find out.
So Tantra is all about understanding and taming Avaranii Shakti. That is, before we experience genuine Bliss, we need to deal with our blisters, our buried, psychological imprints, our samskaras. Not just once, but over and over again. And that is what is now happening in Anusara-land. The honeymoon is over.
From a Tantric perspective, these breakdowns are all part of the dance, all part of life. Because at the very heart of life there’s Shiva’s dance, the dance between the two forces of Shakti, between the force of dissipation (Avidya) and the force of harmony (Vidya). That fundamental insight lies at the heart of Tantric Yoga.
Similarly, the influence of the concentric force, Vidyá Shakti, inspires us toward noble endeavors, yogic practice and spirituality, toward union and harmony. One aspect of Vidya is Samvit Shakti, another is Hládinii Shakti.
We are struck by the sympathetic vibes of Samvit Shakti when we suddenly one fine morning wake up and decide to transform our life for the better. We realize we have been living in denial, and we want no more of it. In Jungian psychological terms, the internal attraction of Samvit Shakti opens our horizon and creates room for synchronistic events; we discover what mystics refer to as “a state of grace.” We realize that with effort and trust, everything will eventually work out.
This internal trust and openness invites the even subtler charms of Hládinii, the force that propels and guides us towards the realm some yogis call “supreme beatitude.” In the passionate Bhakti Yoga, Hládinii Shakti is also known as Rádhiká Shakti, who elegantly moves in concentric dance circles toward her divine lover, toward the arms of Krishna.
In Tantra, of course, the metaphor is the union of Shakti and Shiva, but the idea is that surrender is key to spiritual illumination. But before surrender becomes a spontaneous and genuine state of mind, before that yogic smirk transform into a smile of genuine love and compassion, we need to deal with our stuff, our Avidya baggage of hidden compulsions. One action at a time. All of the time.
Hence, from an outsider’s point of view, the Tantric questions to contemplate are for Anusara are these: Is Anusara dealing with its Avidya baggage? Or is it just reorganization for the sake of expediency and keeping up appearances? Is it time for John Friend to have a sabbatical, or perhaps to even step down?
The Three Paths of Tantra
While the Tantric teachings described here are universal, there are a whole plethora of schools, but largely three paths of Tantra, each of which approaches the path to yogic liberation in its own unique way.
The spirit of Tantra implies a dynamic effort to overcome the dominance of Avidyamaya, the forces of ignorance and lethargy that keep us away from doing the inner work needed to attain freedom. These dynamic, physical, mental and spiritual efforts can be carried out in largely three ways and are characteristic of the three main paths of Tantra.
The Right-hand Path. Termed Dakshina Marga Tantra in Sanskrit, this so-called Right-hand Path attempts to overcome Avidyamaya, or ignorance and dissipation, through the use of idols, devotional chanting and prayer to the Gods and Goddesses. It is imperative on this path of Bhakti Yoga to realize that the symbolic representations of the Divine are just gateways to the Spirit realm. They are internal archetypes of the mind and Spirit realm. Religious people with a pre-rational mentality often interpret their symbols and ideas literally. This is the potential limitation with such worship. It can lead to religious literalism and, even worse, to fundamentalism and dogmatism.
The Left-hand Path. Termed Vama Marga Tantra in Sanskrit, this path attempts to overcome the deceptions of Avidyamaya by “any means possible” but sometimes without a clear goal of attaining yoga, or spiritual union. Sophisticated representations of this path, as in some schools of Kashmir Tantra, are legendary for their highly advanced sexual practices, and others, such as in Aghora Tantra, for their explicit use of psychic powers. Hence, it is also often considered a path of Avidya Tantra. The main challenges on this path are the many temptations for misusing one’s physical and psychic desires and powers. Fraught with many contradictions and dangers—both for student and teacher—this path has many pitfalls and often lacks any clear ethical or cultural customs to be guided by and may thus best describe what went wrong in Anusara. Today there are only a handful of genuine Avidya Tantrics left in India, most are charlatans and manipulators.
Under the tutelage of one of these genuine teachers, though, a student will follow strict codes of discipline and morality until he or she is ready to lead the unconventional life of a Crazy Wisdom teacher. Because the Left-handed Path appeals to our contemporary excesses of sex, ego, fame and entertainment, it is often the most extreme aspects of this path’s gratuitous excesses that are labeled Tantra in the West. In reality, this path is quintessentially not representative of Tantra, and its exaggerated practices are not very common or required.
The Middle Path. Termed Madhya Marga Tantra in Sanskrit, this has been the most common school of Tantra Yoga and its teachings formed the basis for Yoga practice in general, Shaivism as a distinct non-Vedic culture, the Rajadhiraja Yoga of Astavakra and the Raja Yoga of Patanjali, who presented his philosophical interpretation of it in his Yoga Sutras. It originated with Shiva and has been further advanced throughout the ages by various gurus and traditions. It is generally considered the most mindful and dependable path as it is rooted in the ethics of Yama and Niyama. This middle path toward realizing the spiritual effulgence of Brahma removes Avidyamaya’s veil of ignorance through an integrated and balanced set of physical, mental and spiritual practices. Some also refer to this as The Direct Path since it employs mantras and visualization techniques to focus the mind to go beyond the mind and into a state of pure, flowing meditation. The risk on the Middle Path is to become a Puritan, to become an enlightened neurotic, to think that all the bliss you experience is an indication you have reached a destination of inner balance and integration, when in reality you have many more miles to go.
Wisdom and Warning
Tantra is the path from ignorance and darkness to wisdom and illumination. But that illumination is not found in our projections toward a teaching, or a teacher, nor in some distant, religious heaven. Illumination lies inherent in us all, in all things, in all actions, in all people. In daily life, our challenge is to unravel and to unveil that wisdom and light from within and in all that we touch, say and do.
We term those teachings universal and perennial whose inner wisdom reveals the nature of how things and minds work. Tantra has at its heart a universal wisdom as applicable today as it was thousands of years ago. But Tantra is only as valid and as universal as its teachers and its practitioners. Hence, a final few words of wisdom and warning from yoga writer Georg Feuerstein:
“All too often students transfer Western competitiveness to their spiritual practice, where it has no place. They want to be masters overnight and have their own students before they are ready for the tremendous responsibility this entails. This attitude has led to a mushrooming of Neo-Tantric schools, many of which are little more than caricatures of traditional Tantra. The same criticism applies to numerous Yoga teachers and schools, but where Tantric or Tantra-style teachings are involved, the danger of self-delusion and abuse of power is particularly great. Unless the Tantric teacher is of a high moral caliber, he or she can do considerable damage to students.” –From Tantra: The Path of Ecstasy