I used to think that the main danger to the development of tantra in the West was its co-option by the sex industry to sell its products; so tantric massage becomes almost synonymous with candles, incense and “happy endings” rather than a way of supporting the practice of circulating energy in the body. This has clearly and inevitably happened and is surely unstoppable.
However, I am now wondering if the danger isn’t greater from my own profession of psychotherapy! I have been interested and involved in both tantra and psychotherapy for nearly thirty years but have never seen them as more or less the same. True, tantra can have therapeutic benefits just as meditation can lower blood pressure but it is a side effect of a profound spiritual method or path. Much of the tantra in the West sometimes called “neo-tantra” relies on techniques that are squarely based in humanistic and traditional psychotherapy; Gestalt techniques, body therapy and bioenergetic methods, psychodrama methods. None of these are spiritual practices or particularly connected to tantra. The central methods of tantra are mantras and ritual, mudras and yantras and the shamanic practice of becoming the god or goddess with profound worship of Shiva and Shakti.
The West is busy doing to tantra what it has done to yoga; turning it in to a form of therapy to further polish the ego, perfect the body, sort out “issues” or remove past trauma. In part this is the problematic side of the genius of the West, the discovery of the individual so we can have a dynamic society with much variety, freedom and change but with the accompanying danger of narcissistic grandiosity. Therapy can feed narcissism with the idea of placing the self centrally and perfecting it; and tantra with its method of becoming the god or goddess can give permission for grandiose excesses; “I am Kali so whatever I say is right”.
By having tantra as a commodity in the marketplace, it supports the bringing to tantra of a seeking for what I can get out of it. This is natural within a Western mind-set as tantra is a thing that is bought in workshop-sized pieces. I need to get a return on my investment. I need at least therapy or personal growth from it. I need to buy an exotic lifestyle (no wonder most tantra videos feature lithe bronzed bodies on a tropical beach). I need some ecstatic experiences, preferably some giant orgasms or visions of the divine. This consumer culture fits with another characteristic of Western tantra as it is seen in its most visible, (ie. marketed) form; a privileging of Shakti over Shiva. So tantra becomes the maximum number of “bangs per buck” and the best thing you can say about any workshop or teacher is that they are “powerful”. None of this is wrong but it is important to see to the bottom of the implications. Shakti is the active power of creation; she creates the whole phenomenal world of objects and experiences. As we tend to be addicted to both we become enthralled to Shakti. At its worst tantra workshops become something between a shopping mall and a funfair. In the West this goes along with tantra being seen as the resurgence of the feminine after a few thousand years of patriarchy, aligned with feminism and with the forms of paganism and Wicca which again privileges the goddess.
The core methods of most tantra workshops are breath, sound and movement; all Shakti and designed to intensify energetic experiences. Sometimes this is combined with loud music and encouragement to really “go for it” in dance. When energy moves; issues will emerge and if combined with potentially intense interpersonal exercises will put many people in touch with experiences from the past and strong emotions. Essentially we have moved to the realm of therapy. This is not wrong but it is a path that has been taken away from the direction of the Transpersonal. It has gone to the Pre-personal and Personal using Ken Wilber’s map. In which we are working on an ego which can function in the world not realising its provisional, even illusory, nature. Having entered the realm of therapy when we were aiming for tantra something curious happens. The methods used are ancient! They come from humanistic psychotherapy of the 60’s; primarily an encouragement to strong catharsis and the breaking down of “blocks”. This approach, essentially from Reich via Lowen and bioenergetics has a long and worthy history (Reich started writing in the late 1920’s). It is important to note that clients that this developed from often grew up in oppressive patriarchal families – even Victorian in their outlook. Permission to express and be sexual was often denied. As a result their bodies were armoured at a muscular level with much inhibited movement and affect.
This if often not the case today; people now in their 20’s and 30’s often grew up in families without strong authority or boundaries. Anything could happen and freedom was unrestricted. Chaotic and changeable boundaries and figures are common. Parent or parents who were missing or self-absorbed are common. The resulting issues from childhood are of a fragile sense of self with inadequate mirroring to develop a healthy ego. Impulse disorders become more common; such as self-harm, eating disorders or binge drinking and substance abuse. Narcissistic and borderline conditions are more prevalent than half a century ago. Shame rather than guilt dominates in its typically hidden way. Two world wars physically or emotionally removed generations of men from being strong figures in their families; the fathers or grandfathers of today’s clients. So men lack any role models or archetypes to aspire to and any rites of passage; remaining as perpetual teenagers as portrayed in the media both in sitcoms and in the celebrity lives of musicians and sportsmen.
So if heavy catharsis and the breaking of blocks belonged to the 1960’s how has therapy changed since then? This is huge topic and I can only summarise a few of the changes. It was noticed that heavy catharsis starting with Primal Therapy (A. Janov) and Bioenergetics ( A. Lowen) and co-counselling ( H. Jackins) far from clearing everything out so clients moved on, became an endless cycle in some people or lead to breakdowns not breakthroughs. We now understand much more about neurology and how reinforcing certain pathways increases addictive cycles. Adrenaline and drama are addictive to some. Of course, for people otherwise shut down it gives a sense of relief and more energy but relief is not the same as growth and energy needs a direction, From the Reichian side softer approaches developed such as Biodynamic (G.Boyesen) and in Gestalt more appreciation of the fragile self and what it needed (Polsters) combined with insights from Self Psychology(H. Kohut). Looking at what supported change in therapy E. Gendlin noticed the importance of finding the “felt sense” as an energetic shift within. B. Hellinger developed Family Constellations work with the hidden issues and messages in the family systems. The understanding of the myth of the unitary self in favour of a more plural approach and led to more appreciation of sub-personalities and powerful approaches such as Voice Dialogue (H. Stone) where the energetic shifts mark the move to a different voice or self-state. From trauma the selves can be fragmented and lead to dissociative conditions. They have become much more readily identified and may be common in 5 – 10% of people. Shame, envy and regret have had to be added to primal list of anger, sadness and more anger. Where we work too much directly with the primal emotions we reinforce the pathways in the limbic system and amygdala that produce the fight or flight response as well as the dissociate and freeze responses. These further cut off access to the cortex, the seat of consciousness. It is a sort of privileging at a neurological level of Shakti over Shiva.
Most recently the field of energy psychology has blossomed which started in the late 60’s and now incorporates elements from kinesiology. It uses Eastern approaches to the body and energy, such as meridian points and has a confusion of initials, EFT, TfT, AIT, and Matrix Reimprinting. Advances in neuroscience, primarily from brain imaging have led to a much deeper understanding of trauma and the neurology of trauma and its relief and again to more subtle and less re-traumatising forms of body therapy such as Sensorimotor Psychotherapy (P. Ogden) and Somatic Experiencing (P. Levine). Even within the psychoanalytic world intersubjectivity has begun to replace the notion of the therapist as expert and an attuned, strong, flexible therapeutic container is appreciated.
To return to tantra, what these newer developments in therapy have in common is an appreciation of the subtlety of awareness that is required to really move someone on; rather than provide relief by venting emotions or an addictive drama of catharsis. This again brings back the centrality of Shiva and the masculine as the principle of awareness. It is less dramatic and visible than much visible (and audible!) energy work.
When modern tantra again privileges; the feminine, emotions, intense experiences and powerful dramas through its alliance with a rather out-dated idea of therapy it falls into this modern consumerist fantasy; that the self can be perfected and adorned with trinkets, that pleasure is the way to bliss and that being “in the moment” with “what is”; constitutes the whole of life and spiritual practice; that bravado and shamelessness is a sign of spiritual attainment.
The relation of Shiva to Shakti in tantra is best understood not as a divine couple which is a romantic projection and leads to tantra as a sort of couples therapy, nor it is a picture of symmetry, the western democratic notion of a cooperative harmonious couple. Here is an example of this from modern India.
Neither is it the picture of Kali with Shiva lying prone in this way where she has one foot on him and is holding his trident in. This may well be the patriarchal nightmare of triumphant, aggressive “feminism” trampling everything else underfoot.
This picture gives a different story. Shiva is neither reclining nor defeated as in the one above but is in deep meditation providing the platform on which Kali can dance. Consciousness is the “ground of being” and everything arises within consciousness.
The first Shiva Sutra of Abhinavagupta the foremost writer of Kashmir Shavism (eleventh century CE) is “Chaitanyamatma”, which is translated as ‘The Self is Consciousness’ and can also be translated as ‘The nature of reality is Consciousness’, or, ‘Everything is Consciousness’. Matter and the whole phenomenal world is danced in to being through Shakti, the creative power of Shiva. She births all that is. A contemporary metaphor I use for the relationship of Shakti to Shiva is that of the pole-dancer to the pole and the floor. It is precisely the static unmoving quality of the pole fixed to the floor which allows the spectacular and alluring dance of the pole-dancer. Kashmir Shavism, stands as the highest point of traditional tantra formed in the Valley of Kashmir, a crossroads of many traditions for over a thousand years and before the decline in India of tantra with the various invasions of “puritans”, Moslem, Catholic and then British.
I have given some of the reasons for the privileging of energy and phenomena in modern tantra; it is easier, it is addictive, it fits with a western “shopping” culture of exchange, it is an easy source of the essential empowerment of women as patriarchy declines. However, there is another factor which should be mentioned. Most western tantra owes a great deal to the creative fusion of East and West that was catalysed by Osho (Bhagwan Sri Ragneesh) in India mainly in the 1970’s. This has undoubtedly produced proportionally more widespread experiences of enlightenment than any other spiritual movement in history. However it needs to be noted that Osho had a great deal of feminine energy and, particularly in America was surrounded by women. Indeed the show there seems to have been run to a large degree by the wounded masculine within women. Tantra that comes from the Osho tradition generally carries some of this element of the feminine using the wounded masculine as a source of power. Thus it is virtually the norm for tantra to be taught primarily by women who sometimes then bemoan the absence of strong men!
The marginalising and denigrating of the masculine and of consciousness and awareness is sometimes overt but more usually hidden behind the assumptions about tantra, spirituality and therapy that are current. This is partly driven by the very understandable legacy of anger and pain from women. I have three times in tantra workshops, where the participants are charged in separate groups to produce an honouring ritual for the opposite gender, seen the men produce sweet and beautiful experiences for the women and the women in turn produce intimidating and abusive experiences for the men. Also, in workshops (which always have a hidden competitive element) it is common for the men to feel that they are just not getting it or doing it right when the emphasis is on intense experiences.
It is for all these reasons it is important to look at traditional tantra particularly Kashmir Shavism and at the long Western traditions of tantra (including alchemy and Kabbalah) Also important and interesting is the history of tantra in the west (the Tantrik Order of America was set up in 1905,) and practises such as Karezza. The basic formula in tantra is that Presence plus Excitement equals Bliss and Transcendence. Without the presence excitement goes to chaos or becomes addictive. Presence is the supreme quality of the Shiva; the Divine Masculine. In modern tantra and sacred sexuality we have to keep searching to find ways of really recognising and honouring the masculine and in particular the Divine Masculine in its role of serving the Goddess and allowing the full flowering of the Divine Feminine. I hope that in writing this brief piece I have been able to further that.