There is much confusion around Tantra and its practices. Here, this ancient practice is contrasted with yoga and clarified in terms of left- and right-handed versions, as well as the use of the practice today.
What is Tantra?
From the beginning of time, we humans have been fascinated by the power of sexuality. In the Western tradition, this fascination was early dispatched with the story of Adam and Eve, in which sexuality is viewed as an evil serpent that removes us from the favor of God. The West has never really overcome this outlook. Other great traditions – notably Hindu, Buddhist and Taoist – have viewed sexuality in other ways. Primary among these is the ancient disposition coming out of the Indian Subcontinent to view sexuality as a means toward the highest possible spiritual evolution – the achievement of enlightenment itself. This basic tendency and the practices that have grown up around it are called Tantra.
Perfection versus Wholeness
In the Western religious tradition, the ideal reigns. The goal of life is to attain a state of ideal purity: to perfect oneself by refraining from undesirable ways of being, understood as bad, and cleaving to the ideal of the good. This idealism is associated in India with Yoga. Its disadvantage is that it can feed a kind of spiritual egotism that ultimately sabotages well-being. It does this in part by creating its nemesis, the Shadow, which acts out in a twisted way all that the ideal rejects. By contrast, the purpose of Tantra is to achieve wholeness, incorporating and integrating all that one is into a greater whole. The discipline of Tantra is based on surrendering to what one fears and where one tends. The ecstatic states achieved thereby lead to a new, all-inclusive awareness, which is a kind of pathway to the ultimate bliss of true self-knowledge.
Two Kinds of Tantra
Tantra has come down through the millennia in two different forms of practice.
Left Handed Tantra focuses upon self-awareness and surrender, following desires and tendencies to their wildest extremes, but with very sharpened awareness, which over time produces temperance. This has always been known as a dangerous path, because it tends toward addictive behavior, which eventually requires great awareness and daunting discipline to overcome.
Right Handed Tantra is known also as Tantric Yoga or seated Tantra. This highly developed method configures consciousness through the imagery of the spine or a central channel running through the main vertical axis of the body containing the nodes of consciousness, called “chakras.” Each Tantric system has its own scheme, which may include as few as three chakras or as many as 108. An example of this would be the seven chakra model, familiar to many Westerners, in which consciousness is divided into the nodes of survival, sexuality, power, emotion, intuition, intellect and spirit.
The Basic Tantric Disposition
The yogic tendency to achieve perfection in the ideal has proven to have very toxic side effects. As Freud discovered, it leads to the creation of the Super-ego with its destructive repressive mechanisms, which, untempered, generate most psychological pathology. Upon this insight, the entire project of yoga to achieve the ideal gradually has been superseded by the Tantric value of achieving wholeness. Living out one’s tendencies and desires with full awareness leads to a healthy way of being which is not simply all inclusive, but conducive to a more integrated and fulfilling life. With this Tantric attitude comes a new attention to the natural and to the earth, and therefore to the body, its needs and intelligence. It brings forth a new kind of respect for the body as the vehicle of consciousness, producing greater awareness of the importance of natural nutrition and the physical culture originating in disciplines from the East, such as Ayurveda and Tai Chi.
Hedonism vs Realization
There are those who see Tantra as an opportunity to increase the pleasure of sex. This it definitely is and has always been, but Tantric masters understand this to be the greatest danger of Tantra. This hedonistic attitude displaces the all-important aspect of awareness and encourages a distraction in favor of “sexual ecstasy,” intensified pleasure that tends to throw practitioners into dangerous, and ultimately self-destructive addiction. This trap preempts the transcendent gratification possible through the use of such ecstasy to attain the bliss of true consciousness, the ultimate home of the Self.
Tantric Practice Today
Since the sexual revolution of the Seventies, many Westerners have taken up Tantra and Tantric practices. Notable among these is Margot Anand, with her ground-breaking instruction book, The Art of Sexual Ecstasy. By and large, modern Western Tantra is used to enhance sexual experience, with a mere insubstantial nod to the actual path of enlightenment and its hazards.
The sexual practices in Tantra have traditionally been designated for male/female partners only. In a recent book, The ManTantra Letters, however, two intrepid sexual adventurers from Oxford explore Tantric love between men. By means of a letter exchange, Nathan James, who is single, and Victor Bliss, who has a partner, share their exploration of self-realization through Tantric love between men. Both Left Handed Tantra and Right Handed Tantra are given equal value and are explored and practiced at the same time, in complementary fusion. The book covers substantially and honestly the dangers of Tantra and its shadow — possessiveness, jealousy, and addiction.