In the twenty-five years I've been practicing Tantra, I've seen it change from a little known esoteric spiritual path to the most fashionable lovemaking style in America. Now there's even a hit song playing on the radio which refers to Tantra. Despite its popularity, many people, even some who have attended Tantra workshops, are mystified about what Tantra really is. This confusion isn't surprising because, as I always tell my students, ask twenty Tantra teachers "What is Tantra?" and you'll get twenty different answers. Furthermore, while Tantra ultimately addresses All and Everything and is intended to lead to indescribable peak experiences, most Americans are primarily interested in the sexual aspects of Tantra. In light of this discrepancy, it's most illuminating to focus on Tantra as an attitude toward life in general and toward sex in particular. I've adapted the following expression of the Tantric attitude specifically for contemporary Westerners.
Sex is for bonding. Sex is for communing with spirit and with each other and sensing our place in the whole of creation. Our social fabric and our spiritual understanding are unraveling because we have (through 2000 years of teaching that sex is sinful and good girls don't do it) all but destroyed this powerful force whose purpose is to link us together. Sexual union, sometimes in a ritual context, is meant to bond the society, not just the mating pair, together. It becomes a divisive force only when we impose artificial limits on its expression, particularly for women, and turn sex into a scarce commodity.
The sex negative approach many of us were raised with says: "Don't do it! It's nasty, it's sinful, it's disgusting." The sexual liberation movement of the sixties said, "Do it as much as you can! It's harmless, it's fun, it's good for you." This is much healthier than the sex negative approach because it promotes self-acceptance, but it still does not completely heal the split between sex and spirit.
The reunion of sex and spirit comes about when we go one step further by saying, "Sex is sacred, it's powerful, it's lasting, and we should approach it with love, with reverence, and with caring. Sexual loving relationships are a tool for spiritual development." We must realize that, when we join with another sexually and spiritually, we create an enduring linkage which lasts till the end of time. But what are the implications of this knowledge?
Best-selling author Riane Eisler points out that throughout Judeo-Christian history the absolute authority of the husband over his wife has been taken for granted, and male violence against "disobedient" wives has been considered natural and right. Eisler refers to this type of culture which legally and socially favors males, relies upon fear and violence to enforce its values, and makes it easy for men to control women as Dominator culture.
As the 20th Century draws to a close, both men and women realize we need to find another way to relate. The Sexual Revolution has long since faded leaving us with monumental sexual malaise. As Erica Jong's fictional heroine Leila Sand says in Any Woman's Blues, "All my life I've wanted nothing but to bring sex and friendship together and I seem to be farther away from it than ever." Leila speaks for millions of women and men who dimly sense the need to make a deep shift in the way we view sex, love and intimacy.
Tantra implies a shift to a more intuitive, mutually supportive, life affirming way of expressing our sexuality and structuring our loving relationships. While all genders contain both masculine and feminine elements, women tend to be more naturally Tantric. Women have endured thousands of years of stoning, chastity belts, and burning at the stake from a Dominator elite desperate to control feminine power.
As women overcome their residual fears and get back in touch with their natural, loving, feminine spirit, they pave the way for a renaissance of sexual love. As men release their fear-based need to control, and learn to surrender, they can join with women to create genuine partnership.
The new paradigm for love is sometimes referred to as "conscious relationship" because it is an outgrowth of the worlds great spiritual traditions and the modern consciousness movement. Its basic premise is that while traditional marriage is survival-oriented and requires a zombie-like trance in order to endure, new paradigm relationships thrive when we make a commitment to help each other wake-up or become more conscious of letting go of dysfunctional patterns and buried feelings.
Historically, most spiritual paths have emphasized a celibate, monastic lifestyle for serious aspirants. But Tantra offers us a way of utilizing the challenges presented by intimate sexual relationships to hasten the process of spiritual evolution. This process begins with a desire to see through the illusions of our belief systems and come into direct contact with reality. Tantra is consistent with a more conscious approach to relationship in which men and women embrace sexual loving as the leading edge of their healing and growth.
Humans crave erotic love and ecstatic sexuality, but we also fear them knowing how powerless we are in their path. Isn't it safer to create rigid social institutions to contain them, even if we end up strangling the life out of them in the process? Similarly, there have been parts of us that hate and fear the earth, nature and the wilderness because they are scary, dangerous and hard to control. Dominators say, if we kill all the wild beasts, dam the rivers, cut down the forests, pave over the marshes; then maybe we will be safe.
Our ambivalence toward the planet has led us to the edge of irreparable destruction of our natural environment. Hopefully, the Ecology Movement has awakened us to that danger in time to reverse the process. Similarly, our ambivalence toward sex, love and the whole ecology of human relatedness has led us to the point of destroying the very things which make us human. Tantra can teach us how to honor both sex and spirit and come into right relationship with all of life.