What is Tantra?

spinalchakrasThere 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.

True Success

To Be 95 and Happy


Maud-Key Rock on her 97th Birthday
December 10, 2003

What is true success in this life?

As I head toward three score and ten years, I have been wondering how to evaluate the nature of true success. But I may be too young. It may be that the question is so fundamental that only at the end of life would one have the experience to be able to provide an answer. Realizing this limitation, I have, over the last few years, sought out mentors and inspiring examples.

I have always been attracted into intimate friendships with the old and wise.  Not the least of these was my own mother, Maud-Key Shelton Rock, who lived to the age of 97.  In her last years, I helped her write her autobiography, The Song of My Life, in the last chapter of which she attempted to account for how she had managed to have such a happy life.

But there have also been the timeless masters. One is Boethius, a great thinker of the fifth century AD under the Christian Emperor Theodosius.  He was a high official in the government, but he ran afoul of the emperor and was thrown into prison.  Eventually he was executed by being bludgeoned to death. Having lost everything that defined his profuse worldly success, he writes in prison, representing his illuminations as a visitation from the goddess Philosophia.  Under the duress of his dire situation, she helps him to evaluate the tokens of success he has lost and find true refuge in the neo-platonic light of the One, the Truth and the Good.  This experience he recorded in what became one of the great guides of medieval Christianity, The Consolation of Philosophy.

A second master, one thousand years older, is the founder of Taoism.  Lao Tse was the quirky and legendary source of the Tao Te Ching, which clarifies the true value and path to everlasting life, the Tao.  One law he reveals is how all that makes up life moves between opposites. Whatsoever one has or does in excess one pays for in excessive liability.  To follow the true way of being, the way of the middle, prevents the suffering of excess and its burdens and eventually leads to an understanding of the Tao. Succeeding on this path defines the very nature of success itself.

In my quest I have also been taking counsel from a few other venerables of the past, such as Plato and Plotinus, and a few sages of the present, in particular the Dalai Lama.  Perhaps the framework for an answer to the question of success comes from the greatest of all teachers, the Buddha: all beings desire happiness and the avoidance of suffering.  If we look upon these as goals, they form the parameters of successful life.

So, inspired by these wise and happy examples, let us turn to the question itself.  What is the common view of success and what is a view that authentically fits the case?

The Common View of Success

Boethius’ losses in this world were cataclysmic.  His tract begins with a radical deconstruction of the common view of success. Money, power and sex are mere tokens, because, as Boethius shows, the happiness they afford is limited and their loss creates suffering. Here is a short summary.

Of course, one has to have the good fortune of sufficiency, that the basic needs of life are covered.  Beyond this, the first token of success, accumulating wealth, soon proves to be a considerable encumbrance. The desire for money, “the root of all evil”, hardly produces happiness, though it arises out of the supposition that happiness can be bought, a specious formula that inevitably ends in disappointment and creates unhappiness. Having more money than one needs creates burdens that are unimaginable to the poor. To have a great deal of money means to have proportionate responsibility and to live in fear of losing it.  Wealth generates envy and desire on the part of others, which constitutes a constant personal threat. The more one has, the more one can lose, the fear of which itself becomes a great burden. To be irresponsible with money when others have so little eventually creates a suffering of its own.

Power and fame bring a superficial egoistic satisfaction, but the soul- destroying machinations needed to generate it and hold on to it and the constant anxiety that one can lose it create misery and unhappiness.  Fame often exposes hidden convictions that one is undeserving, which generates agendas of self-destruction.  The envy and jealousy of those who have less prevents real genuine love from happening.  It sets up a situation in which one is constantly having to be on guard and unable to really trust the love of anyone.

Success in love and sex fulfills genuine needs and creates joy, but the greater the pleasure the more painful its transience.  The more one has, the more one becomes dependent upon it and eventually addicted to it.  Sensuality generates the suffering of addiction and loss.

These are the measures of success desperately pursued by the world.  We can dismiss them as mere tokens because they lead to suffering and do not generate true happiness.  The world that elevates these goals eventually comes to be seen as foolish and vain, in a word, ugly. Once this ugliness is realized, just being in this world and observing it can produce suffering in its own right. None of this, which the world pursues with such dedication and vanity, leads to happiness and prevents suffering.

True Well-Being

In contrast to this, I have the experience of my mother at the end of her life.  Granted, she was blessed by good fortune with basic health, beauty, talent, money, the faithful love of a good husband and three children who adored her.  But, at the age of 95, she achieved a whole new level of beauty, which drew comment wherever she went, she had enough money to be moderately gracious, and she was radiantly loving with every person she met.  So she has taught me to understand a formula for true success in life.  It is really quite simple, and I have taken it on as my lifetime ambition: to be 95 and happy.

In considering such a life we have to consider fate. Are we fated to succeed, or do we have something to do with it?  Life success is a combination of prudence and good fortune.  Prudence is a rare concept these days; it means practical wisdom representing regard for and adherence to the basic laws of Being and existence, which Lao Tse called the Tao. Good fortune is not earned in the present, though it may be the result of good actions or karma from the greater past, as all Hindus and Buddhists believe.  In the present, however, it must be given.  In the exercise of prudence, on the other hand, there is all freedom.  In this regard, well-being is not mere fate, but a matter of choice, moment to moment.

There are successes in life, many occasions of the token variety described above.  But here we are considering success in life as a whole.  This has physical, emotional and intellectual/spiritual components.  And these we will turn to now.

To be 95…
To achieve this advanced age much good fortune is necessary.  First of all, one’s fundamental needs must be covered.  Second, one must live in a good time.  Having long life in a period of general suffering, with all the infirmities of age, hardly seems desirable.  But given that one lives in a felicitous, or at least interesting time, in order to reach this age, one has to have the blessing of good genes.  This blessing however cannot hold up into advanced age wit
hout the appropriate culture of the body, which is all about choice.

Genetic blessing means there is a kind of guarantee on the body until about forty, but from then on out, physical well-being is a function of awareness and care. In this way, success means that one has learned over the years to avoid the hazards of the time, like our fast food and environmental carcinogens.  But much more, it means that one has learned true physical culture, how to honor one’s body and keep it going.  In my view health is a practice. It is so fundamental that it should have the highest priority. The earlier one begins, the better.  Bodily culture begins as a hobby, but as the guarantee starts running out, it gets cultivated into an art, and, towards 95, it becomes a full time job.

To reach 95 is a measure of success, because it means one has been blessed with good fortune but has also been an appropriate steward of that fortune.
On its own, however, the achievement of physical well-being does not suffice as life success.

…And happy
We all seek the false tokens of success.  For most people they are what life is all about.  But as Philosophia showed Boethius, in time they inevitably disappoint and lead to despair. To be happy at 95 requires that one is successful in dealing with this despair.  It means that one has found out how to be happy in spite of life’s disappointments, a very great challenge in its own right.

Central to this happiness is finding and growing into the true love potential in one’s heart.  For some this means mating and breeding.  For those fortunate ones for whom marriage and family go well, there can be deep fulfillment and happiness.  For many others, marriage or family lead to great suffering.  Most basically, however, happiness of the heart comes from being able to choose to be with whomever one loves, to develop the skills for achieving harmony with them, but also being able to deal with their loss.  All of this requires the fundamental life skill of forgiveness, not just of others, but of existence itself.

The real success here is that one finds true value, coming to terms with one’s being to its Source.

This brings us to the crux of the matter. When Philosophia appears to Boethius, she informs him that while he may believe that God rules the world, he does not know what he himself is, and this absence of self-knowledge is the cause of his weakness.  Self-knowledge is the substance of her further revelations.  This is the discovery of one’s true nature, not just in the sense of  ‘finding oneself’, or one’s true identity in the world, a precondition for some earlier worldly success, but more in the sense of one’s ultimate nature, which, unborn, though knowable, extends beyond the beginning and end of life.

My friend Frank Kelly is the last surviving senior member of an august group of Olympian intellectuals, the Court of Reason, which was known as the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions in Santa Barbara.  Frank is on the cusp of 95 and has discovered that we are all radiant beings, which he describes in his book, Living in Eternity’s Sunrise.  Having realized this radiance as his own true nature, he is a deeply happy soul.

The venerable teachers discussed above and many others clarify the way to this radiance.  Many who succeed in this way find it through religion. My mother, who was not a philosopher, found this Source through her simple but authentic Christian faith, which quietly sustained her throughout her life and flowered into deep happiness in maturity.  Others need to find it through philosophia, the maturity of wisdom.  Socrates taught us that the potential of wisdom is innate in all of us, but it has to be cultivated and allowed to mature.  This can be understood on an analogy from botany.  A plant grows naturally, but it has to be unimpeded and cultivated.  The human psyche flowers into wisdom, but it takes great abilities to get out of the way of this process and at the same time to nurture it. This is known in Buddhism as ‘skillful means’.  Great teachers show us how to do this.

With characteristic economy, Lao Tse has formulated true success:
“Contentment is the greatest wealth.”

Dedicated to my beloved and exceedingly successful friend, Francis Lord Thurlow, on his 98th Birthday



The Dignity of Final Choice

The medical model for dealing with death is expensive, degrading, and unnatural.  In the matter of leaving this life how did nature provide?

Edvard Munch,  Death


Notwithstanding the serenity of deathbed scenes in the movies, the actual process of dying is not pleasant.  In addition to the intrinsic horror of it, compounded by our cultural fear of death, the modern Hippocratic inclination to preserve life by any technological means all too often results in a gruesome attack upon the dignity of the dying and the sensibilities of their loved ones.

I once had a beautiful Irish Setter.  She had the delicate grace of a doe, and I loved her beyond all reason.  In our many expeditions into the wilds of the California Coast, she taught me how to fulfill my longing to return to nature.  As she grew old, tumors appeared on her body, and the muscles in her hind legs became so weak she could not get up after she relieved herself.  This was a devastating spectacle, but when I was told I should “put her to sleep”, I could not bring myself to take responsibility for extinguishing her bright spirit.  The very next day she disappeared.  Shortly thereafter, we found her body in a small clearing in the brush.  It became clear that she had taken herself into seclusion, deprived herself of any food or drink and died in her own peace.  I then discovered that animals are inclined to do this naturally.  This innate gesture of dignity, a form of nature’s grace, was her last teaching to me.

When the dying process reaches a certain critical point, appetite and thirst cease.  The organism itself is choosing to die. The desire to stop eating and drinking becomes a drive in its own right.  This radically hastens death.  I am told that ending life in this way is painless and appropriate, as it facilitates the body in shutting down all its functions.   Choosing to die by this natural means is the final dignity.  It is appropriate suicide.

I began to notice how people in our culture die.  What I discovered was that technology can prolong the process almost indefinitely and that this sometimes leads to situations verging on the gruesome.  There is no choice in the matter.  In an effort to restore choice, we have begun to write Living Wills, to assure that at the crucial time, our life will not be technologically prolonged. Nevertheless, grisly last ditch efforts, such as tracheotomies and feeding tubes, are common practice.  The emotional cost for the dying and their loved ones is enormous.  People are kept alive, though they are not really living.  Even when Living Wills have been in place, the tendency at the end to force feed water and nutrition, by the staff or by family who cling to the life of the beloved, supercedes this subtle but definitive message on the part of the dying.  In the case of both my parents, there was a moment when each indicated that they wanted to stop.  In each case it was contravened.

As in so many ways, the innate wisdom of nature is trumped by the intervention of technology compounding the fear of death and loss.  This display of technical virtuosity is not only blind and cruel, it is also expensive.  The medical cost of keeping people alive after the time when they would naturally die is staggering into the billions and mounts sharply every year.

Death in our culture is very complicated.  The dying process is extreme and emotionally fraught.  After all, for the living, death is the worst possibility. There are many angles. Sometimes medical people are in a hurry to remove technology from a patient’s support because the death process is in place and they have no patience for it. Or, if patients refuse food and drink, are they really dying or just wishing they could?  Very often the forced feeding is decided by the family, who cannot countenance allowing their loved one to starve to death.

Therefore, what I am proposing is a change in our collective understanding and customs around dying — that, by common agreement and official custom, we restore this natural practice of choosing to stop eating or drinking as the signal that a person wishes to end life.  At this point, all heroic efforts should cease.  This practice should be broadcast as the legitimate and responsible right of each individual to complete their process of dying.  Until we are educated to accept it as custom, it should be a proviso in any formal Living Will.

I am told that this insight has been integrated into the practice and procedure of Hospice, which more and more handles the process of dying in the United States.  But the option needs to come further into the public awareness. You yourself can begin by becoming aware of it, observing it in nature, and committing to making this choice when it occurs naturally to you.  Let it be understood, by agreement with loved ones and stated in your Living Will, that when you stop wanting to eat or drink, you do not want to be forced to receive nutrition.

Ultimately, this gesture on the part of the dying should be honored as the universal sign — the choice of the dying — to cease all efforts to extend life artificially.  This means that the practice must be elevated to the status of a custom and that each individual understand that this final act is a natural and inalienable right to choose the end of life.

Ceasing to take sustenance is nature’s own way of combining the freedom of choice with the legitimate ending of life.