A couple of weeks ago someone messaged me on twitter saying, "My buddy just told me about tantric experience! What is that?"
I replied, "In essence, tantra is the use of (sexual) energy to refine consciousness and awareness."
Only a few months ago David Cameron joked to journalists that he was taking a tantric approach to policy making on the EU. Whatever you might think of the joke - I laughed and rolled my eyes - it was a good measure of the extent to which the word 'tantra' has become embedded in mainstream consciousness.
Its been more than twenty years since Sting was (mis)quoted and the image of marathon tantric sex sessions was imprinted on the popular psyche. Nowadays people are increasingly curious about what else tantra can offer. I'm often asked about its philosophy, cosmology and its subtler insights on intimacy.
In answering these questions I feel like an interpreter, working between two very different languages. Traditional tantra is a highly esoteric field. Finding ideas and approaches to benefit modern, twenty first century living is a selective and interpretive process.
Tantra is a complex set of theories and (embodied) technologies. A traditional tantric practitioner aims to use their entire human mechanism to impact the reality they experience. It is a discipline of awareness. I work to increase my skill in managing my physical, mental, emotional and spiritual awareness.
Tantra recognises sexual energy as a potent force in the human body, but it is not interested in sexual pleasure. It uses that potent force as a catalyst to produce different states of consciousness. The realm of intimate pleasure belonged to an entirely different discipline - that of the kama sutra. (Kama means 'desire'; not to be confused with karma which means both 'action' and 'consequences of an action'.) So, teaching tantra in the context of intimate pleasure is an interpretive act (karma) in and of itself.
Kama. Karma. Tantra. The words got me thinking about meaning. 'Tantra' has several meanings. The three most common are:
What can I say? Sanskrit etymology is a weird and wonderful thing.
These three meanings are a good a starting point from which to discuss tantric philosophy in relation to sexual pleasure.
Expansion: In tantric ontology expansion is a core dynamic in the mechanics of the universe. 'Expansion' also refers a practitioner's incremental increase in knowledge and skill. Thirdly, it describes certain modes of directing your awareness. Fourthly, in relation to sex, it refers to the increased flow of blood, fluid and breath in the body as a whole, and the swelling of the genitals in particular.
This is where my interpretation begins. How much of yourself can you pour into your body? To what extent can you relax your muscles, feel your breath and fully inhabit your body? The more you do this the more of yourself you share with your partner; and the more turned on you are. The key lies in the degree to which you can focus your attention in your body. When your mind wanders bring it back to the flesh. In essence, the practice is to bring your full attention to the point where flesh meets flesh.
Thread: The image of threads weaving across a loom is a visual representation of tantric cosmology. Life's ephemeral aspects - the threads - are woven on the loom of a more enduring reality. On a personal level, its a reminder that our experiences are fleeting; the experiencer endures. The image is primed to trigger metaphysical questions about the nature of self and experience.
To interpret - when you intertwine with your partner's body you weave a momentary tapestry between you. Its a tapestry made of flesh and feeling, which, because of its impermanence, can be woven differently each time. What tapestry do you want your lovemaking to weave? What qualities do you want to bring through your fingers, face and muscles? Tenderness? Possessiveness? Devotion? Nonchalance? You can weave endless varieties of yourself for your partner.
I'm often asked for advice on how to keep the spark and spice in a long term intimate relationship. Variety is the spice. By choosing different intentions for your lovemaking you access your internal spiciness. This is an exercise in managing your consciousness - a truly tantric practice.
Liberation: This is the most hardcore, esoteric meaning of the word 'tantra'. In tantric philosophy the soul (the loom) seeks liberation from the work of the body (the action of weaving the tapestry). This has nothing to do with death. It is about the soul not being limited by the ephemeral identity of the body's actions. The tapestry is constantly changing and depends on the loom for its structure. 'Soul' is a problematic word and needs clarification. For me, soul is the part of you that witnesses every moment of your experience, whether you are awake, asleep, crying, orgasmic, bored, happy - every moment.
We limit our experience of sex in one of two ways - either through the expectations we have of our own performance or the expectations we have of our partner. Both restrict our experience. When sexual energy is shared between two people it takes on an intelligence of its own. Allow that intelligence to breathe and sex becomes magical. The practice is to give up attachment to specific outcomes. You might have chosen an intention for lovemaking. But in the fleshy moment of sex, you have to give up attachment to it. That's the liberation.
What is this tantric experience? Attention in the body; Intention for the body; Surrender to the body.
Esoteric philosophy doesn't offer quick fix solutions for better sex. It offers ways of unlocking self awareness - a complex and consuming act.
But it is worthwhile karma. Sex has the potential to be the most scintillating solution to the dilemma of the human condition. That potential is subtle and elusive. It wants to be nourished by a delicate weave.