What is Tantra?

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With the accelerating interest in Tantra today, more people are becoming familiar with the term, but have no real feeling

for what it refers to. Television shows such as “Sex in the City”, movies such as “American Pie 2″, and celebrities such as Sting are all contributing to a mainstreaming of the word. When asked, many people will probably reply that it has something to do with sex, or sex orgies, or promiscuous sex. If they have a little more familiarity with Tantra, they may respond with images of sex with very little movement or in meditation, probably devoid of excitement and passion. Many people also reply that they don’t have a clue.

So, what is Tantra? First of all, a bit of history: Tantra’s roots probably start about 2000 years ago in India or Tibet. It may be considered a form of Buddhist mysticism that emphasized contemplative stages of experience on the path to achieving Enlightenment rather than focusing on doctrines. Like many spiritual traditions, the mentoring relationship between student and teacher was considered an essential component, so that the student learned to control their mental and physical processes rather than be dominated by them.

The steps toward Enlightenment begin with initiation by the master. Through meditation and participation in the outer world, the student is directed to focus upon the transitoriness of life, the relation of cause and effect of one’s actions, and the suffering of humankind, building sympathy through outward experience. After this sense of compassion is evoked in the student, they are given yogic or contemplative exercises that help to produce inner experiences that correspond to the stages of spiritual growth. Meditating upon and identifying with various deities who symbolize qualities that the student wishes to integrate within themselves furthers the process of connecting with the Divine within. Mantras (sounds), mudras (meditative gestures and postures), and yantras (visual symbols such as mandalas or representations of deities) may all be employed to assist in deepening the experience.

The culmination of this process includes several preparatory stages leading to the maithuna or sexual coupling. This act is considered to be different from ordinary mating in that the initiate has already realized the voidness of all things and can act without attachment. Whereas the ordinary sex act gives rise to only momentary pleasure, the maithuna is the symbol for the attainment of Enlightenment and eternal bliss.

The sexual act becomes a symbol of the unification of all dualities. The familiar symbol of the yin and yang represents this union of duality. In Tantra, an important understanding is the balance between male and female as an essential goal. The dualistic concept of male and female is envisioned holographically, from the cellular level of an individual to the cosmic level in the universe. In the chakra system, for example, each chakra maintains its own balance of male and female principles. Without this clear understanding, some people mistakenly believe that Tantra can only be practiced by a heterosexual couple. Tantra is relevant to everybody, regardless of sexual orientation, because we are all striving to be in balance on every level: within the individual self, within the relationship between two people, and within our broader relationship with the universe. Archaic, rigid beliefs around gender roles have nothing to do with balancing the male and female principles.

The concept that voidness alone exists, beyond good or evil, is an essential component of Tantra. Tantra teaches acceptance of all that is, and insists upon the absolute value in everything. The notion that everything is a manifestation of consciousness supports the wisdom of releasing judgement. The concept that the body is a wonderful gift through which to experience spiritual development and that the pleasure our bodies can give us is, indeed, the streaming of Source energy through us is profoundly liberating from the fearful, constrained training of most westerners.

So how is Tantra relevant to westerners? Tantra teaches us how to deepen our presence within our own sense of self and in relationship with our beloved. In lovemaking, rather than rushing toward a brief orgasmic release, Tantra teaches us how to relax and take our time, cultivating the experience of multiple full-body orgasms for both men and women. Especially for women who often take longer to arouse, an atmosphere that supports timelessness and delight with whatever is happening along the way is a powerful boost to connecting with their erotic selves. Removing pressures to perform, hurry up or respond in a pre-conceived fashion profoundly liberates all of us to explore who we really are as sexual beings.

As Tantra emerges

in the west, it naturally is blending with western ideas that are diluting the eastern traditions. There are differences of opinion as to the wisdom in these alterations. However, in the Tantric tradition of accepting all that is, it makes sense that revisions that make Tantra more accessible to westerners can only be beneficial. The basic values in Tantra of honoring the Divine in our self and each other support deepening respect and tolerance of difference. Western culture with its confusion around sexuality stands to benefit enormously from a perspective that is simple, honoring and allowing.

Whether one chooses to explore the eastern traditions of Tantra or simply enjoy the tremendous enhancement it offers to our intimate relationships, Tantra opens up a whole new world of possibility to westerners. Thanks to the increasing body of literature available from recognized Tantra teachers such as Margot Anand, westerners have excellent resources through which to explore Tantra and its relevance as a spiritual path.

Sources: Anand, Margot, The Art of Sexual Ecstasy, New York, Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam (Penguin Putnam, Inc.), 1989. Encyclopaedia Britannica, Vol. 15, p.290-291, Chicago, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., 1986. Kuriansky, Judy, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Tantric Sex, Indianapolis, Alpha (Pearson Education, Inc.), 2002.

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