Sex and Spirit: The Path of Tantra

In most spiritual traditions, sex has long been held as an obstacle to enlightenment. It has been seen as something to overcome, to transcend or to go beyond. Those who preach celibacy have often been praised as committed seekers who endeavor to conquer the burdens and illusions of Earthly desires. The underlying and usually unquestionable assumption is that sexual denial eventually leads to enlightenment.

Definitions of enlightenment vary, but commonly the word enlightenment means the realization that the entire Universe is contained within ourselves. But doesn't the Universe include our sexuality and our lust? How can we be required to deny an integral part of our humanity in order to become a fully realized person? This was the question asked by the founders of Tantra over one thousand years ago. These great mystics rebelled against the repressive and moralistic codes of organized religions and the rigid practices of the Hindu priesthood — particularly against the widespread belief that sexuality had to be denied in order to attain enlightenment.

Today this ancient spiritual practice is largely a source of controversy and misunderstanding in our own culture due to mainstream media. Many people know of Tantra primarily because of the involvement of popular stars such as Sting, Woody Harrelson, Michael Tucker, Jill Eikenberry and other celebrity tantrikas. The movie "Bliss," starring Terrence Stamp, gave millions a rare, though somewhat shallow and one-sided view into the world of Tantric healing. How is Tantra relevant to us today? Is it possible these ancient teachings might be our way out of the darkness we find ourselves in at this point of our evolution?

What is Tantra?

Authentic Tantra is a yogic spiritual journey that follows the path of ecstasy and teaches us to embrace our sexual experiences, deepen our relationships and embrace physical pleasures as an aspect and expression of our spiritual self. Tantra is a discipline and a body of practices which makes sex sacred, using sexual energy to increase, improve, expand, explore and enjoy one's spirituality. It is not about casual encounters, group orgies, role-playing, role models or ego enhancement. Tantric sex is about appreciation — appreciation that the lover we are with is a manifestation of divine energy and that our sexual relationships can become fuller vehicles for intimacy, self-knowledge, and spiritual evolution.

Tantric texts offer wide and varied, sometimes conflicting, advice concerning human sexuality, but one area they all agree on is the importance of sex within a loving and stable relationship. To the Tantric practitioner sex is not merely about a simple act of sensual pleasure but about a deep and profound exchange of energy. This divine energy is a part of the energy of God, the fundamental organizing principle of the cosmos.

History of Tantra

The Hindus believed that the creation of the universe was an erotic act of love between the god Shiva and his consort Shakti. Shiva was worshiped as the embodiment of pure consciousness in its most ecstatic state, and Shakti as the embodiment of pure energy. They also believed that the joyful dance between Shiva and Shakti is reflected in all living beings and manifests itself as pleasure, beauty, and happiness. This is the nature of the divine, the root of all that exists. Sexual ecstasy was seen as a taste of this divine nature in human form.

The founders of Tantra originally came from all walks of life: royalty, aristocracy, tribal people and people practicing all kinds of trades and crafts. The movement was mainly formed outside monasteries because these lay people wanted to practice yoga and spiritual disciplines outside the walls of monastic life where they would be required to be celibate and separated from members of the opposite sex and from their intimate and family relationships. The people who practiced Tantra were called tantrikas. Ultimately they migrated across Asia and their practices and beliefs were incorporated into Taoist and Buddhist traditions.

Early Tantric mystics felt that if a force as powerful as sexuality was banned or repressed in outward expression, then it was bound to surface as part of the dark side of our character, emerging in such a way as to cause suffering for ourselves or others. They felt that a celibate lifestyle did not, in fact, represent a mastery of one's sexuality, but rather a repression and even a flight in fear from it. Tantrikas scandalized mainstream society and were often condemned and persecuted because they were teaching people to embrace all of life with no contradiction between the sacred and the sexual. Because of the persecution, Tantric masters began to guard the teachings and only transmit them orally to chosen disciples and only after long periods of preparation and purification. The first Tantric writings appeared in the 3rd century but were written in symbols that only initiates could understand. Many of those surviving texts still have not been fully deciphered today.

The 11th and 12th centuries were considered the Golden Age of Tantra when it was practiced widely and openly in India. But the Moslem invasion in the 13th century brought slaughter to the Tantrikas and most of the manuscript were destroyed. The Tantric movement was forced underground were it has continued ever since. It has been predicted by the great prophets that the true spirit of Tantra would reappear again to unify the male and female energies. Rediscovering our own inner feminine power (both men and women) might well be the best hope we have to save our planet and ourselves.

Practicing Tantra

The practice of Tantra incorporates elements of all the other great yogic paths: movement, breath, sound, meditation, energy work, ritual, and deep inner exploration. Before we can love another human being tantrically, on an intensely spiritual level, we have to acknowledge the divine energy within ourselves and be able to love ourselves fully. As human beings most of us are bound up with guilt and embarrassment about our sexuality. We are the inheritors of many centuries of sexual bigotry and repression, and it isn't easy to shake that off quickly. The Tantric vision is one of wholeness — of embracing everything — because every situation, whether pleasant or unpleasant, is an opportunity to become more aware about who we are and how we can expand our capacities.

Most people's understanding of sex is limited to the genitals; however, Tantra teaches us that sex is not a genital affair but an experience of the whole body. Genital orgasm is only the beginning. The full capacity of orgasm culminates in ecstatic body-to-body and soul-to-soul communion. When we have learned to relax our body, open our heart and develop our mind with the skills of visualization, imagination and meditation, sex becomes an experience of the whole body, the whole being. When this integration takes place we are ready for a new, qualitatively higher sexual experience in which physical pleasure becomes a delight of the heart and an ecstasy of the spirit.

The practice of Tantra requires more than just the generation of intense sexual energy. It also demands the cultivation of certain qualities of character in order for one to be able to bear everything that such an intensity of energy stirs up. When we learn to circulate and transmute our sexual energy with our partner, a deep healing of our sexuality takes place. Sex is not a hurried and tense affair, but a safe and healthy exchange between partners who respect and know each other intellectually, emotionally and sensually before they enter into sexual union. This is what is urgently needed today — a playful, loving, and comprehensive perspective on sex that makes it safe and ecstatic at the same time. A modern resurrection of Tantra can offer these alternatives and help us to learn how to honor sexual union as a bridge between body and soul.

The Tantric Man

The Tantric male does not fit the macho male image; rather, he is gentle, tender, comforting and yet a hunter-warrior. He is untamed sexually for his sexuality is deep, connective and embraces the power of feeling. He is free to be wild without being cruel, to allow anger without violence, to be sexually free without being coercive, to have a spiritual life without giving up sexuality and to be strong enough to truly be able to love. Men on the Tantric path become more balanced, receptive and gain the ability to express their emotions and communicate well. They begin to develop the more feminine qualities of caring, nurturing and sensual abandon. At the same time, they claim their true male energy back which is seated in the stomach, solar plexus and heart centers. Men need to learn that they have the freedom to receive and let go of the belief they have to be performing all the time. By learning ejaculation control, which is one small aspect of male Tantric practice, men learn how to take the focus away from the genitals. As pleasurable feelings build up, they learn to circulate the energy throughout the cells of the entire body which can lead to a non-ejaculatory full body orgasm. Some men experience this type of orgasm without an erection at all.

When a man learns the techniques for containing his ejaculate, he is able to make love for extended periods of time — in fact, for as long as he chooses. Longer periods of lovemaking mean more intimate sexual play with his partner and more time for communion through intercourse. Another benefit to ejaculatory control is that the man doesn't feel physically wasted from an ejaculation, so he won't shut down physically, emotionally and mentally after sex. This, of course, can be of great importance to the woman who is often frustrated by the sudden withdrawal, literally and figuratively, of her partner, especially if she hasn't had an orgasm herself. Even when both do experience orgasms, his shutting down can be disappointing to the woman, because her orgasm has left her with lots of energy. She wants to talk, cuddle, be intimate and he is not available emotionally.

The Tantric Woman

Women who practice Tantra also learn how to be in their rightful power, which is different from male power. They remember who they are as creators, nurturers and stabilizers. Some women need to learn to surrender and receive in order to relinquish their control issues and this takes them home to their empowerment. For other women the path is opposite — learning to take more control of what is rightfully their responsibility. Women also need to recognize and awaken the male aspect of themselves and learn how to exercise the masculine qualities they have repressed because of a patriarchal, male dominated society. Through Tantra they learn assertiveness, ambition, intellectual striving and questioning.

Often a woman needs to learn the skill to communicate to her man what she wants and not let him inside her body before she is ready. In Sanskrit the word for vagina is yoni, which means sacred space. It would be wonderful if both men and women started thinking of vagina as a sacred space where one asks permission to enter and enters with reverence. The Sanskrit word for penis is lingam, which means magic wand. Tantrikas use these terms because they sound much more reverent and romantic than the medical or slang terms we commonly use for the genitals in modern culture. Many women are now reclaiming their feminine power through the ability to ejaculate. A woman's ejaculate is called amrita or the Nectar of the Gods.

The Tantric Couple

Through Tantra, couples find a way to transcend the gender trap and go deeper into their union. Cultural standards heavily influence the individual's perception of what it means to be a man and a woman. As men become more receptive it allows women to give from a place of freedom rather than duty. We can all go inside and find our "inner man" and "inner woman" since we all have both male and female qualities within us. In a loving relationship, when these feminine and masculine qualities are developed and understood, the union of the two polarities can happen within each person. This is what is meant by ecstatic awareness. It is a state of consciousness that embraces both sexes in one body and then rises above the inner duality to a state of oneness. Tantric sex aims to heighten and prolong the magical connection that develops between two people when they are lost in the ecstasy of love. Great training is required to expand that fleeting moment into a sustainable state.

The Tantric traditions of ancient India and other cultures viewed sexual energy as the source of life itself and one of the most powerful forces available to us as human beings. In these sex positive cultures, sophisticated lovemaking skills were developed and taught as a science and as an art. Since we have repressed sexual energy for so long in the West, we are now beginning to rediscover this precise and highly developed science. By extending and expanding the peak of sexual ecstasy, erotic explorers of the past found that the act of love could become a natural vehicle for exploring altered states as well as deepening intimacy between two loving partners. For Tantrikas the purpose of sex is the conscious creation of harmony and physical well being, the buildup of sexual energy, and the transcendence to spiritual levels of consciousness.

Creating an atmosphere of physical and psychology intimacy is the first step in entering into the Tantric experience. Gazing into each other’s eyes without actually touching allows both people to fully open up to each other and an energy flow to begin. In this way each person immerses himself/herself in the other's presence, becomes filled with his/her being totally and is permeated by the partner's sexual energy. As the woman allows her perception of the maleness of her partner to deepen within her, her passion is activated. A man’s virility is awakened as he embraces within himself the softness of the woman reflected before him. After this non-physical intimate contact has been made, stroking, caressing, massaging and all kinds of loveplay may follow. Conscious touch is one of the primary means of awakening and directing energy in the body.

Once passion is fully awakened in the woman and virility is awakened in the man, the yoni opens up and invites the man in. The lingam must not simply penetrate like a jack hammer; it must be taken in willingly and slowly absorbed into the throbbing yoni. As the ritual for lovemaking unfolds, ecstatic harmony is created through meditation and communication on very deep levels, creating an environment in which sex and love thrive.

Ordinary sex, to a tantrika, is like music played without the main instrument. It might begin beautifully but it ends up being a flat experience. Something is missing. In ordinary sex what is usually missing is the body. We need to learn to amplify our arousal and redistribute sexual energy from the genitals to the entire body. Then sexual orgasm becomes more than just a genital affair or a convenient way of going to sleep. It becomes a healing pathway for couples searching for a deeper way of relating to each other and healing the wounds of past sexual trauma. It becomes a way of bringing spirit into sex and the sacredness of pleasure and ecstasy into everyday life.

Lidia Rodrigues, LICSW is a body oriented psychotherapist and certified Tantra teacher who has followed the path of Tantra for the past twenty years. Lidia has been in private practice for the past 17 years and is also the owner and director of The Healing Center and The Body Mind Center in Arlington, MA. She teaches with her massage therapist husband Eric Beutner at The Institute For Passionate Living in Arlington. Contact Lidia via email: TantrikaLidia@aol.com or phone 781-643-5982. Visit www.TantraInstitute.com for more information.