I have spoken about Sacred Tantra and Taoism in terms of "inner alchemy," the internal practices that cultivate an alchemical integration of Yin and Yang, Shakti and Shiva, energy and consciousness. The power of the breath and the utility of breath practices were described as an important contribution to this cultivation of inner alchemy. A practitioner of Sacred Tantra and/or Taoism will learn to develop heightened awareness of the intrinsic nature of breathing as well as cultivate mastery of specific breathing ("pranayama") practices that command and utilize the differing qualities in the inbreath and the outbreath.
The interplay of the in breath and out breath offers a readily accessible microcosmic reflection of the endless dance of the macrocosmic complements, Shiva and Shakti. Learning to feel these breath qualities and utilize them to generate inner alchemy constitute a significant part of the workshops I teach and the ongoing practices I encourage. Breath practices affect and direct the subtle energies that move through certain specific, special meridians - the channels the yogis call "nadis". Such directed breathing can very quickly alter brain wave states, raise the personal vibratory frequency, and "drop" a person into a state of meditative inner harmony as the Yin and Yang subtle energies alchemically integrate. Furthermore, couples or partners in the workshops often merge into a mutual meditative harmonious merging state, simply as a result of sharing specific breathing practices. A sense of oneness and closeness is how they often describe the merging. Thus Tantric breathing practices cultivate the intrapersonal (inner/solo) and the interpersonal (partner) alchemy of the Yin and Yang, female and male energies.
Another (less yogic yet very mystical and more poetic) approach to this process refers to the inner alchemy as the "inner marriage" or the "inner romance" of the divine complements, Shiva and Shakti, Yang and Yin, consciousness and energy. This path explores the integration and balancing of inner male with inner female at all levels spanning from the human to the divine, from microcosm to macrocosm. Practices, rituals, actions, and attitudes from this approach contribute to the cultivation of harmonious interplay of one's inner male nature with the inner female nature. Such methods are also employed to bring balance and harmony to the dynamic interactions between men and women. This internal interplay includes psychological, physical, sexual, and behavioral components, and all may be addressed and worked with by employing the methods of this style of Tantra.
Previously I also pointed out that one of the key foundations of Tantra is the cultivation of an "open heart" and mentioned that developing a quiet mind will positively support this opening. The breathing practices shift one's brain waves and quiet the mind, thereby helping to accomplish this. They also raise the personal frequency vibration and influence the heart chakra by expanding its capacity for energy. This is a vital aspect of progressing on the path of Tantra - gradually expanding one's heart chakra to handle greater quantities and more advanced qualities of love energy. Expanding the capacity of the heart results from both individual and partner practices if faithfully practiced over time with the proper intentions. An open, expanded heart can love at deeper, more profound levels, love more unconditionally, love many people simultaneously, and effortlessly offer a radiant healing vibration. Jesus was, of course, a perfect example of this, as are many of the great saints and master teachers. To a lesser degree, we have all experienced being in the presence of someone "of heart" whose loving presence (vibration) uplifted us and who was not daunted by our negativity, pain, or fear.
Thus, one of the natural consequences of inner alchemy is a sense of heart opening wherein caring, loving, receptive feelings and qualities emerge. Overtime, with Tantric practices, these qualities progressively evolve into what the Tibetans call the Heart of Compassion, the Buddhists call "metta" or loving kindness, and the Sufis praise as mercy and compassion. This natural expansive progression is further enhanced by regular meditation and contemplation of sacred thoughts, intentions, beliefs, and attitudes by focusing on gratitude, admiration of goodness, recognition of perfection in each moment, holy role models (saints and masters), and honoring the divine essence in others (Namaste'). In addition, all acts of kindness and service to others from a place of selfless generosity will contribute to the expansion of the Heart of Compassion. Thus in the Tantric traditions, especially those influenced by Buddhism, the regular practice of energy/breath meditations, contemplation of sacred thoughts, and actions of loving service combine to create a synergy that helps the heart evolve.
One of the most powerful, yet tricky, methods for expanding the capacity of the heart is through sensory pleasure. The sexual and sensual practices of Tantra and of the Kama Sutra (the ancient book of the arts of lovemaking) were used, especially by Indian Tantric yogis, to amplify one's capacity for delight-filled, ecstatic states. The ancient Tantric masters recognized the trap in cultivating heightened, sustained pleasure - they clearly identified the potential for getting attached to the pleasure and ecstasy instead of using those states as stepping stones on the evolving path to the Heart of Compassion and the larger purpose of love and states of Oneness. Expanded states of pleasure, delight, and bliss can potentially and easily become self-centered and/or addictive. The teachings show that pleasure and bliss can be used to raise energetic vibration and expand the heart's capacity, but they must be released and transcended in order to evolve to a more vast sense of union and oneness.
Unfortunately, this isn't well understood in the West, where many who are interested in Tantra have been led to believe that the expanded states of pleasure, sexual delight, and bliss are the destination of Tantra. Thus they are unaware of what wonders lie beyond. This distinction is one of the most difficult premises to get across to Western students, as it requires not only patience and trust in the ongoing path but also a willingness to learn to deeply embrace pleasure while not being captivated by it. Probably all mystical schools teach one to "be in the world but not of it."
In addition to heightened ecstatic states, kindness, compassion, and service, Tantra offers both solo and partner practices as well as rituals and group ceremonies that stimulate and cultivate a feeling of deep joy that grows as the heart opens, awakens, and expands. This joy eventually becomes stabilized, pervasive, universal, and is no longer related to any specific external object, situation, or outcome.
Along the way, one of the great tests is to avoid getting attached to the joy, to allow its coming and going, and to embrace with equanimity the joys and the struggles of human existence. As the joy emerges from the opening, awakening heart consciousness, it can feel so deeply satisfying that the Tantra student never wants it to leave and can be devastated and discouraged when it does diminish (as it inevitably will!). Initially, the student wants to choose the joy, like the pleasure-based states of ecstasy, over being in the world, and thus wants to withdraw into self-centered bliss to avoid being distracted by people or worldly matters. Swami Kaleshwar, a Hindu master, has pointed out that this is an early stage of enlightenment that must be transcended in order to eventually attain a higher level wherein one holds with equanimity both the world and the bliss/joy. At this stage one has cultivated and stabilized a compassionate heart capacity that embraces the paradox of worldly negativity and spiritual bliss, and the inner alchemy begins to have such momentum and power that it expands to integrate all the external polarities as well. Embracing and integrating the paradoxes leads to true liberation, to be able to be in the world free of the effects of suffering - that is the true deeper joy! And amazingly, there is even more beyond that!
I hope that this commentary is helpful in understanding the relationship between the inner alchemy practices and the heart opening practices. In future columns I'll describe more specifically some of these practices. Also I hope that you are becoming more than curious about what Tantra has to offer beyond better sex, and seeing for yourself a possibility of true happiness, freedom, and equanimity. The bonus is that from such a place, much more evolved, inspiring levels of intimacy are possible! So stay tuned... Until next month, I wish you many blessings and an ever awakening to alignment with and service to the Will of the Highest.