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Tantra for the West
An interview with Dr. Jonn Mumford conducted by Chris Burgess.
What is Tantra?
Chris, in answering your questions, I would like to weave my way between the academic, turgid, tedious extreme and the populist simplistic, stupid replies so common in queries about Tantra. I don't know if I can succeed but I am delighted to have the opportunity.
When we start using the word Tantra we have to accept that most Westerners conceive of Tantra as sexual and often do not realize that Tantra is an Indian philosophy that includes sexuality as a minor factor.
Not many people know Mark Twain visited India and his summary was: "The Indian may seem poor to we rich Westerners but in matters of the spirit it is we who are the paupers and they who are millionaires" - Samuel Clemens (1895)
Secondly we have to face the fact that only Indians (Hindu, Buddhist or Jain) are really capable of understanding Tantra.
Notwithstanding this, I maintain that a bastardized, Western sexual Tantra is better than no Tantra at all - a bit like "nouveau riche is better than no riche!"
Tantra is probably a 2500-year-old doctrine, although many Indologists date the first texts as ca. C.E. 6th century.
What relevance do you think the practice of Tantra has within modern Western Society?
Tantra is relevant today because it represents a holistic view of the universe as a cosmic dance personified through male (Shiva) and female (Shakti) principles.
This Tantric approach currently blends nicely with some feminist paradigms and the revival of paganism in the West. Mother, divine Shakti or Kali reigns supreme as a cosmic power, incarnate, enshrined and evident in women. Consequently each woman is a living altar for the worship of divine Mother.
"Tantra is the science of the Earth-mother, substituting feeling for logic, sensation for cerebration, and active touching for passive viewing." - Ecstasy Through Tantra
The Tantric male and female are dual cosmic principles. The two aspects are Consciousness (male) and Energy/matter (female) and in this model everything is endowed with consciousness: no-thing is dead!
How does Tantra "fit" into Western culture?
This Tantric stance is diametrically opposed to our current Western materialistic, rational, so-called "scientific" view. We have reduced life to an arid wasteland of consumerism and blind particles so that it is no longer a question of "the blind leading the blind" rather it is a case of "the blind copulating with the blind" no one need even worry about "leading".
Existence has become a meaningless and accidental collision of subatomic particles and when these coagulate into collages of DNA and RNA a biological drive ensues: ensnaring us and producing a mirage of meaning and continuity.
Is there any spirituality left in the West?
About the only transcendental experience we have left is through SEX. SEX is the magic volatility that keeps the illusion of life manifesting, literally, birth after birth. The Tantric view is not so far removed from Biological Determinism. Love and passion are nature's confidence trick (Maya) necessary to ensure perpetuation of the species. At the baseline a potential baby exists for every passionate spark between lovers that is really what it is all about!
"Orgasm is the only spontaneous, natural experience of a deathless, birthless, timeless, sorrowless dimension." - Ecstasy Through Tantra
In Bombay I had a Jain Guru who used to say that "If you removed Sex and Gold, the earth would cease spinning and become a mere frozen mass orbiting in space".
So could we talk specifically about sexual Tantra?
The sexual aspect of Tantra is about TANgible TRAnscendence utilizing the physical vehicle of flesh coupled with the flash of love and lust to catapult into a profound altered state of consciousness.
This is much easier postulated than actually accomplished! Human sexual activity is the most powerful force within us and breeds endless emotional and mental children not to mention actual physical progeny.
Tantra is not dangerous but sexuality can be dangerous, and it can also be wonderful. Most of us survive our encounters with intimacy and sexuality.
Psychic offshoots of sexuality pervade every aspect of our existence and can include ecstasy, joy, despair, suicide, lust, love, murder, power drives, art, music, repression, suppression, social revolution, and social disintegration.
Can Tantra enrich our relationships?
Our European culture has reached a temporary impasse and certainly the disintegration of English-speaking countries is witnessed by a profusion of phone contact relationship-sex clubs as advertised on late night TV; the emergence, since the 1950's, of serial killing on an unprecedented level; and the new phenomenon of "stalking" at almost epidemic proportions. These are symptoms of a society that has alienated its members from each other.
In such an atmosphere it may well be that Tantra can contribute to meaningful relations and deep spiritual opportunities for some. I say for some because the deeper aspects of Sexual Tantra are not something everyone responds to and in fact a theory is currently postulated that receptivity to altering your consciousness through Tantric sexual ritual may be an inherited genetic factor.
I tend to agree with this theory, and it is not so ridiculous as it may seem. We know that hypnotic receptivity now appears to be an inherited factor, and if you review Colin Wilson's earlier books you will discover he wrote about many geniuses who experienced sexuality as a complete mind-body tonic that could set them operating creatively for weeks.
Ernest Hemingway described Paris as "a moveable feast," and I think sexual Tantra is also a "moveable feast" with something for everyone who cares to pursue it. What individuals get may range from serious exposure to the classical texts (Agamas) through to the popular superficial, silly renditions of "Sacred Sex". It is all there and it is all valuable for someone somewhere!
Will sexual Tantra "work" for everyone?
Not everyone has the same intensities and results from sexual experience, and this is as it should be. Not everyone enjoys exotic cuisine, and there is no good reason why they have to or should. I mention this because the magazines can get hold of Westernized so-called "Tantra" and promote it as a "must" like multiple orgasms and the "G" spot.
Be that as it may everyone who wishes can gain something from Tantra and what is gained is a reversal of our present Western condition. And what is that condition?
"Our culture has divorced mind and body (Cartesian dualism), brain and spinal cord, cerebral cortex and limbic system; slain intuition ("inner tutor") for logic, and castrated emotion for thinking." - A Chakra & Kundalini Workbook
Does sexuality have a deep and inherent spiritual or mystical impact on us?
Tantra recognized the deeply embedded and pervading profound aspects of human sexual activity long before Freud, Jung and Biological determinism.
This dance of Shakti emerges through the centuries and exists deep inside us as a most primal force. The recent dreadful plague of False Repressed Memory Syndrome, with accompanying fantasies of ritual abuse, bear stark witness to the depth of Sexual Archetypes within us and the awesome entwining of sexuality with mystery and magic. The eruption of "False Repressed Memory Syndrome" at the end of the millennium is reminiscent of Salem and the Witch-hunts of earlier centuries.
For many of us anything to do with sexuality is an irresistible magnet and object of total fascination - it makes sense that the very self-same power that materializes us could hardly be ignored.
Evidence of this sexual obsession is currently demonstrated by the horror of the American press indulging in an uncontrollable "feeding frenzy" over sexual scandal allegations while much of the rest of the World is engaged in life and death issues of war, genocide, and poverty that could well use American consideration.
This power of Divine Mother perpetuates history and a spawn of empires; Helen of Troy ("the face that launched a thousand ships") and Cleopatra are just two examples from the ancient world, equaled by an endless parade of incarnate Shakti as the beloved "Femme Fatales" of history and mythology right up to this century.
This mystique for the feminine is inherent in Tantra and indeed in Indian culture. We have amazing parallels creeping into renaissance Europe and in our current puritanical society beset by fundamentalists and the far right radical feminists it is refreshing to contemplate them.
My favorite quotation is: "The nakedness of woman is the work of God." - William Blake 1757-1827 C.E.
And when it comes to the question of who holds the alchemical power balance to remedy the current ills of our society perhaps it is worth considering Basil Valentine's statement around 1500 C.E.: "The operation, as the ancients say, is in truth convenient for women"
So Tantra may very well be relevant to today's society!
"The Tantrist seeks freedom (Moksha) through life (Sensation, sentient, sensual) and not through escape (abstinence, abstaining, absence), using the body as an instrument of evolution." Ecstasy Through Tantra
Do you think many people simply use it as an excuse for sensual indulgence / attachment?
Beyond the shadow of a doubt, and this is understandable and permissible for very often the pretexts we use for our actions stick and bear fruit so even pretending to do something for a spiritual reason may actually encourage us to evolve.
People do not realize that individual differences make for individual sexual drives and appetites. Actually there is not a "normal" sex drive - rather you may have "averages".
A simple way of expressing this is "when you are hot you are hot, and when you are not you are not". Not only is it a false idea that "normal" sex drives exist but it is also a misconception that your sexuality stays the same throughout your life. Celibacy may be quite appropriate at one stage of your life but not another.
Some people have little or no sex drive, and contrary to the media bombardment, that is absolutely appropriate for them, just as others may comfortably manifest bisexuality or homosexuality.
Tantra is increasingly invoked as a solution for sexual problems something it was never designed to do.
"Tantra is the way of the Hero (Vira) who neither rejects nor fears any aspect of life." - Ecstasy Through Tantra
And in the words of a Tantric proverb: "He who would rise must first thrust himself up with the aid of the earth."
If people want sensual indulgence and think the sexual aspects of Tantra will provide this that is fine and they will get more than they bargained for I mean this in a positive sense! Sexual Tantra requires concentration and patience and developing these qualities always improves anyone.
The whole process of Tantra is one of integrating personal existence through profound awareness and appreciation. I always recommend people start with "Ecstasy Through Tantra" and later incorporate Part Six of "A Chakra and Kundalini Workbook" for additional techniques. I maintain that a couple interested in Vamamarga (sexual Tantric path), and living on a desert island, would only need these two books and after a couple of years of coupling they may not even be interested in leaving the island ever!
"This ritual is the coupling Yoga of left and right hemispheres: intellect and feeling; Adam (mind) and Eve (body)". A Chakra & Kundalini Workbook
To what extent do you think people are looking for a "quick fix" rather than long-term spiritual development?
Very often so-called "Sexual Tantra" is used as a "quick fix" just as Yoga is often presented as a "therapy": Neither Yoga nor Tantra were ever intended as "therapies" and enlisting these practices to "fix" something is strictly a twentieth century invention not without some use!
A big problem with this question is the very word "Spiritual"! Perhaps we should reserve the concept of "spiritual development" and "spiritual" for the Dalai Lama and a few others:
The rest of us mere mortals are struggling to evolve and understand ourselves, cultivate patience and tolerance - in short integrate character traits that our grandmothers used to encourage in the days before even nuclear families disintegrated.
I personally don't believe you can stop people looking for quick "fixes" nor that this is necessarily a bad thing. You are unlikely to come to grief reading "Ecstasy Through Tantra" looking for a quick "fix" and along the way you can learn some interesting concepts and apply the techniques for new experiences.
E.g. The chapter "Love Asanas" introduces the idea of sitting-up postures for making love and when you experiment and understand the basis behind this another dimension of psychosexual experience opens this can lead to transcendental states.
What role do you think a sense of humour has in spirituality?
I often say the minimal definition of mental health is the ability to love, labor and laugh.
The word "humour" goes back 2500 years to the Greek doctrine of Temperaments and until the last few hundred years "humour" was a term equivalent to what we would now call "neurotransmitters". Laughter is good for the immune response system and encourages positive balances of neurotransmitters. When we are depressed we lose our sense of humour.
Whatever the spiritual life is? I don't think it can exist without gentle humour and compassion.
What importance do you think should be given to the attainment of "psychic/yogic powers"?
"The demonstration of siddhis is a by-product of one-pointedness (Ekagrata) and neural equilibrium (Yoga), through years of technique (Kriya)." A Chakra & Kundalini Workbook
The depth of psychophysiological knowledge possessed by the Tantric Yogic practitioners over a millenium ago is stunning. They practiced and understood concepts of physiology that Western physiology never understood. Turn to page 58 in Ecstasy Through Tantra to find out the implications of "swallowing your tongue" and try page 23 for an in depth discussion of the Vajroli Mudra technique.
I mention this because the empirical knowledge of the body and the autonomic nervous system, possessed by ancient practitioners of Tantra and Yoga is almost beyond belief.
"We are conditioned from infancy to fear fire, blood, and steel, and the conquest of such fear is symbolic of the ascent of spirit over matter." A Chakra & Kundalini Workbook
When we realize this we can see how easily they also stepped into the parapsychological and ESP realms.
"Indeed, in India some of the secret Siddha Yoga Kriya is inherited from father to son and may be passed down generation after generation. Immunity to fire and pain is not a trick in the sense of sleight of hand or mirrors, but rather is the ultimate confidence trick." A Chakra & Kundalini Workbook
The demonstration of so-called Siddhis are useful for inducing an altered state of consciousness in other people so they become aware of possibilities and are prepared to strive beyond self-imposed boundaries.
"Confidence literally means a mental state of togetherness (Greek prefix con) in perfect trust, faith, and fidelity (Latin fides) to one's own true self in short, 'trance-consciousness' or transcendence of the little self which is so habitually filled with doubts and insecurities." A Chakra & Kundalini Workbook
Siddhis, of and by themselves, are not intrinsic proof of spiritual evolvement.
What are the inherent dangers for would-be sexual Tantric students?
I am not a great advocate of protecting people from themselves, non-the-less it seems appropriate to emphasize "Caveat Emptor" buyer beware!
In theory individuals should come to no more grief than in normal life relationships but we are breeding the American pattern of abdicating self-responsibility and always blaming someone or something else for our woes.
We tend to ignore political affairs when they burst into the public arena: and find it rather laughable when relationships break up at the point that someone says "I would love to marry you but my spouse won't let me!"
Traditionally, Indian Sexual Tantra has absolutely nothing to do with RELATIONSHIPS! Traditional Sexual aspects of Tantra have everything to do with transcendental Experiential, Existential Experience and absolutely nothing to do with personal relationships.
This is almost impossible for Westerners to grasp and they immediately interpret this as a license for licentiousness and promiscuity.
On a practical basis and in spite of what I have said above, for Westerners the best chance of a Sexual Tantric experience is within a loving relationship where both partners utilize whatever they can understand and implement about Sexual Tantra. The pair binding will deepen immensely and this bonding process will continually mature fed by mutual Tantric practices including the right-hand Kriya Yoga techniques.
What advice would you give anyone starting Tantra?
For Europeans in a European society, given what we will do with a bonsai version.
Don't get involved with any school that passes American style confrontational group therapy off as part of Tantra it is most certainly not!
Realize that if you start a sexual relationship with someone espousing Tantric Sexuality only three possibilities exist just as in normal relationships.
- You may be disappointed and discover it was just a con for "sex". "Nothing ventured nothing gained' and many an evening spent with a date ends the same way. As Mae West said "Such a big issue over such a little tissue!"
- You may discover that the cocktail of "Western Sexual Tantra" that you experience is more than you wish to cope with and decide to stop it. Most women tell me that is the essential message in the film "9 1/2 weeks".
- You may experience something quite interesting and remarkable that could open new sexual horizons, at the least, and expand spiritual awareness into a new dimension, at the best.
As a final word I might say that any group with the temerity to advertise itself, directly or by implication, as a "Sexual Tantra Group" cum "Sacred Sex" organization - ISN'T!
"The heart has reasons that reason knows not of. Do you love by reason?" - Blaise Pascal 1623 - 1662
© 1998-2003 Yoga Magic Pty Ltd/2003 Kailash Center for Personal Development, Inc.
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