My mentor, the Aghori Vimalananda, was fond of his whisky. I was fond of his drinking, for when he drank (usually Scotch) his already profound ability to speak meaningfully and insightfully on spiritual subjects would dramatically expand. Whenever we would imbibe together he would encourage me to pursue the same enhancement of awareness by reminding me to digest the whole of the experience: “When you drink,” he would say, “always be sure that it is you drinking the drink, not the drink drinking you. Once the drink starts to drink you, you are finished.”
Vimalananda applied this principle to every substance and every action in his daily life, seeking to extract the vital essence (rasa) from each situation and experience, converting the essence thus extracted into the single flavor of existence (ekarasa) that he sought to experience: the bliss of Undifferentiated Consciousness. By virtue of having so long pursued this flavor, he had by the time that I met him achieved samarasa, a state of profound composure in which every external action, however pleasurable or painful, generates the same bliss within. Samarasa represents the savor of samabhāva, the state of mental, emotional, and spiritual equanimity; each promotes the other. Vimalananda insisted on maintaining level-headedness under all circumstances because it is through equipoise that the path to the serene ecstasy of samarasa passes.
The search for samarasa is a primary goal of the Indian spiritual path known as Tantra, a science about which much is speculated today, and little is known. Simultaneously more and less than a “religion,” Tantra is a corpus of beliefs and practices, developed over many millennia by loose affiliations of nonconformist seekers, who sought to free themselves from their numerous limitations and become truly independent, or svatantra (literally, “self- functioning”). Once svatantra, a human can live immersed in samarasa as a well-integrated individual, freed from one-sidedness, personal idiosyncrasies, and pointless preferences.
Life and Tantra would both be simpler if we humans were not so asymmetrical. We each of us are born partial to one side of our bodies, and almost all of us overuse the side we favor, and underutilize the less-favored side. We each prefer particular substances and actions, and avoid their opposites; we display dosha preferences and pranic predilections. Our many partialities emerge from ancestral inheritance, personal constitution, astral influences, cultural factors, and the residues of previous existences; they ultimately result in that set of specific physical, pranic, emotional, and mental attitudes with which we define ourselves. Possessing such patterns and standpoints is normal; deliberately reinforcing them promotes abnormality. But it is so tempting to seek the comfort of what is familiar, easy, undemanding that most of us hold tenaciously to our limitations and invest more energy in maintaining our patterns than we would need to invest to balance our disparities and create true stability and symmetry.
Life improves when we pay more attention to what we need and less to what we want, for what we are partial to makes us “partial”: limited, incomplete, one-sided. Human nature drives us to avoid uniqueness for its own sake, for those who fail to conform to the tenets of their tribe often find themselves expelled from it, and for much of our history such ejection was a death sentence. Safety lies in remaining in the mainstream, running with the herd, tending enthusiastically toward the mean, working assiduously to fit in. The human drive for self-preservation induces in us the drive to conform to the gang’s prevailing consensus reality. Competing with the will to self-preservation is the will to self-actualization, which directs us to free ourselves of imperfection, which drove the development of Tantra. We belong to “a species which features as its main attribute a radically disconnected multiple personality with no control over which persona is active at any given moment” (as E. J. Gold wrote pungently in his book Alchemical Sex). These personas are sets of personal attributes that have been compiled into more-or-less stable alignments that permit us to play specific roles in specific situations. At different times on the same day one may be called upon to serve as parent, child, boss, subordinate, club member, and friend, and most of us are able to shift from one consensus reality to another as required, each persona extracting some rasa or other from each transaction, often veering from the thrill of triumph to the agony of downfall several times in the course of that single day.
Practitioners of the alchemy that is Tantra learn to navigate their personas more adroitly through the sea of the world, steering themselves clear of the currents created by personal irregularities and those of their fellows, skirting dangerous karmic rocks and reefs as they sail toward the safe haven of personality unification. What makes Tantra as a blueprint for personal revolution unpalatable to the consensus realities of most cultures is that Tantra is shighra & ugra: it employs intensity (that which is ugra) to obtain speedy (shighra) results. It is in fact said that it is easier to ride a tiger or dance on a scimitar than it is to succeed at Tantra.
Tantra was never intended to serve as a starting point on a spiritual journey. Its description as being fast and terrifying (ugra) implies that anyone who seeks to follow the Tantric trail ought first to be thoroughly prepared for it, minimizing physiological weaknesses by using Ayurveda to balance the doshas and rejuvenate the tissues, employing Yoga to purify each nadi (ethereal nerve), circulate prana, and initiate the process of Kundalini awakening. Only after the organism has become comfortable with Kundalini can one afford to consider the actual practice of Tantra.
Kundalini rarely awakens completely at first, and the course and progression of her awakening is never the same for any two individuals. Similarly, there is no one prevailing philosophy of Tantra, no one definition for it, no practices within it so dominant that they can be used to define it. Every attempt to authoritatively define Tantra is bound to miss its mark, because the practice of Tantra is determined by each living lineage and its traditions, and within that practice the process of Tantra is peculiar to the individual. The chief reason for this distinctiveness is that only one or a few of Tantra’s myriad techniques can be expected to actually deliver its desired or expected results in any individual distinct location, occasion, and person. What works like a charm for one individual may be anathema or poison to another; and what works for you today may cease to work for you tomorrow. Keeping to the straight and narrow is a tried and true, slow and steady way to spiritual achievement; those who wish for faster progress must tackle the dangers inherent in unforeseen changes of course at high speed.
When you have for instance accepted the challenge to drink but not permit the drink to drink you, your method for escaping being “swallowed” may change daily. At each drinking session you will at the least have to consider what you are drinking (beer, wine, &c) and what if anything you may eat along with it; the season, time of day, and place of your quaffing ; your age, gender, personal constitution, and current physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual condition, including your overall sense of how “weak” or “strong” both you and your digestive power happen to be; the nature and number of your drinking partners; how the astrology of that day meshes with your own astrology; and your relationship to the deity to whom you are offering the alcohol via your body.
This should not be surprising; after all, if you were in fact a tiger rider, you would survive only if you knew your mount inside and out, and were ever alert to the unknown. Underestimate a tiger and you will rue your mistake, posthumously. Ordinary people typically accuse practitioners of Tantra of deliberately refusing to follow conventional modes of behavior, when in fact it is frequently impossible to both follow an unfolding esoteric route while conforming to the dictates of some group’s exoteric rules of order. Many practitioners of Tantra do however intentionally violate norms, to generate intensity, break down patterns, and release energy for use in self-transformation. A true contrarian, Vimalananda himself often followed this course, defying convention even while appearing superficially to conform to it.
Vimalananda vehemently decried the “conventional wisdom” that Tantra is nothing more than an excuse for orgies, or a system of black magic, when Tantra employs sexual and magical rituals only for selected individuals at those selected moments when they are likely to be able to handle the force of these intense practices. It is true that for most of us the greatest potential for gaining intensity while thumbing our noses at society and its norms lies in harnessing those drives that are the most fundamental to our protoplasmic existence: the cravings to nourish, to sleep, to mate, and to (temporarily) escape from our normal waking consciousness. Aldous Huxley explained that “man is an intelligence in servitude to his organs,” an estimation that is hard to gainsay when one considers that ever since mouths were invented, the chief daily activity of all mouthed beings has been to eat (with each of our senses), and to avoid being eaten. Tantra seeks to free us from this servitude; it does not intend to make that servitude yet more onerous and enveloping, which happens when sense objects take control of sense organs.
The more thrilling the activity, the more attractive to the senses, and thus the more addictive; and all addictions, even addiction to iconoclasm, are potentially deadly. The more flamboyant your contrarian behavior, the greater the potential for you to become entrapped by your contrarian persona. We humans may be a lop-sided bunch, but we also, each one of us, deep inside, crave symmetry. We yearn for one answer, one focus, one key to happiness. Tantra can be of great assistance, provided that you do not try to make it fit your partialities, private and public. Details of Tantric practices become ever more available, with increasing accuracy (LAYoga contributing to this trend with its welcome extracts from the Vijnana Bhairava Tantra); but the transformation they promise can become actualized only when performed from the inside out, by dismantling the internalized patterns that serve to maintain our slanted impressions of who we are.
Discovering equanimity in today’s world is indeed tricky, particularly because it is far more difficult to accept the truth that the key the works at one moment may no longer even fit the lock in the next than it is simply to convince ourselves that only one worldview, one model of reality, one spiritual path is right, and all others are wrong. Such obsession can actually work to our benefit, but only if we use it to create ekarasa by following it relentlessly to its logical end and then, when that obsession is at its peak, let go of it entirely.
Those in the West who have heard of Tantra usually equate it with marathon, well-lubricated sexual encounters. Most modern Westerners (and many non-Westerners educated in “modern” ways) regard sex as a normal bodily function that should be regularly indulged, and many hold that anyone who fails to enjoy sex regularly is unhealthy. Though we can be pleased that sexual repression is waning, and that masturbation is no longer held to result in dire consequences like insanity or early death (or hairy palms), the pendulum has today swung so far to the other extreme that some now hold that to be healthy one must frequently masturbate. Repression has been exchanged for immoderation, but through it all the obsession with sex continues, remaining at the center of attention while shifting its focus. Opinions about sex go in and out of style, whipsawing from the Puritanical to the permissive, but our fascination with sex endures.
Concentrating on sex in a sexually repressive society might be usefully unconventional, but in sexually blasè times and places investing yet further attention on sex can become dramatically counterproductive. The sex drive has been so mightily reinforced in the awarenesses of all gender-denominated beings during each mating season for so many hundreds of millions of years that a pattern of thought, strategizing and behavior has been created that is so (temporarily) pleasurable that only the rarest of individuals ever even dreams of emerging therefrom, particularly when you are a human in a sex-crazed culture. Everyone who seeks spiritual advancement in the modern world will need to examine carefully the nature and depth of their partiality for sex, with an eye to cease reinforcing sexual preferences and attitudes before trying to transform them. Even those who gain the ability to steer their sexual responses into the mystical plane can still become addicted to their very experiences, an addiction that can easily be back-transferred to the means they had wielded.
It is this powerful potential for Tantra to promote obsession and addiction that make it essential to have a guru if you hope for you and your Tantra to thrive. Books and seminars on Tantra can be educational, but the guidance and protection of a contrarian guru is an essential precondition for success in the world of Tantra. As Miranda Shaw observes, Tantra is not a “predetermined set of methodologies”; it is instead a process of extreme makeover that involves the regular, ritual performance of spiritual techniques selected for you by your guru. One of your guru’s chief tasks will be to disabuse you of fondly-held notions, like the New Agey idea that profound and permanent changes in one’s life can be realized simply by desiring them sufficiently (would that one could learn to play the piano by merely strongly craving to do so). Just as it can be reasonably estimated to take at least ten thousand hours of work to master any craft (three hours daily for ten years, on average), one must experiment with one’s practice for thousands of hours before awareness becomes effectively rewired. Good gurus specialize in discouraging students from confusing exciting incidents with tangible progress, downplaying the importance of those profound spiritual experiences that can seduce us into believing that we have achieved something of note.
This applies particularly to pleasurable occurrences, for in opening oneself to pleasure an opening is made also to pain. Tantra’s reputation for turning its votaries into sex machines implies wrongly that the Tantric path consists of one episode of bodily bliss after another, when in fact the very heightening of your pleasure will also heighten the dissatisfaction you will feel in any low-pleasure circumstance. The pain of dissatisfaction with oneself can (if not diffident or masochistic) positively benefit, for as Khalil Gibran noted, “The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain. Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter’s oven?”
Hence the need for a healthily contrarian attitude to one’s own belief systems, overt and implied, personal and shared; the more patterns you can identify, the more can be dismantled. A majority of Americans currently self-identify as consumers, an outlook that promotes acquisitiveness and materialism, even in spirituality; but non-material items like faith cannot be procured as easily as one might acquire a refrigerator or an accountant. Tantra is itself a road map toward independence generated from the previous experiences of earlier explorers, each of whom resisted the seduction of their various revelations until they reached their destinations. Cling tightly to the trees of your experiences, and you may miss the forest of enlightenment in which they stand.
Tantric transformation rarely transpires suddenly and irrevocably; it is usually a matter of punctuated evolution, of (sometimes tedious) reiterations of the same practices day in and day out until a particular pattern is worn away and a persona’s pieces suddenly rearrange into a new configuration. Though Tantra offers the tools, it cannot operate them for you; but lift them and use them wisely, and you will see the results. If you will begin by addressing your long-set patterns, your habitual ways of looking at yourself and at the world, you will soon find yourself embarked on your own personal search for samarasa.
Copyright © 2004
Robert Edwin Svoboda
First published in LAYoga