Tantric sex: an erotic meditation

Published in Alternative Medicine magazine,
January 2002

©Johanina Wikoff. All rights reserved.

According to Hindu mythology, the sexual and spiritual union of Shiva with Shakti gave birth to the universe. The god Shiva is seen as the embodiment of pure consciousness and his consort, the goddess Shakti, as the embodiment of pure energy. Together they represent human existence in an erotic act of love that is a unifying, balancing, creative force.

In the West today, many people are adopting the perspective of sacred sexuality as a catalyst for transforming intimate relationships. Tantra, a branch of yoga and spiritual philosophy, stands in contrast to most schools of yoga, which ask you to renounce aspects of life that might be a distraction to spiritual development. (Dietary restrictions, celibacy and vows of poverty, for example, are common practices.) Tantra, on the other hand, asks only that when you eat or make love or drink wine, you do so consciously, with presence, awareness and non-attachment. Thus, making love becomes a conscious sensual meditation.

The East has long recognized the power of sex to transform consciousness. The 12th century Tibetan Buddhist teacher Gedun Chopel wrote in his Treatise on Passion about the compatibility of sexual pleasure with spiritual insight, telling us that “a consciousness of orgasmic bliss is used because when the experience of pleasure is powerful, one’s consciousness is totally involved with pleasure and thus completely withdrawn [from external distractions].”

“The Sixty-Four Arts,” a body of teachings that speak to what every lover should know, are referred to in the Kama Sutra and Ananga Ranga of India, The Perfumed Garden of Persia and the Pillow Books of China and Japan. In Tantric, or Vajrayana, Buddhism as practiced in Tibet (see sidebar on page 121), the Sixty-Four Arts are used to further spiritual development. This process views ecstatic orgasm as a vehicle to subtle and powerful levels of consciousness that can reveal the nature of reality — and thus release us from craving.

There are really no “techniques” in Tantra besides cultivating awareness and presence. Rather than renouncing pleasure, Tantra uses everything in life, including sexual pleasure, as an avenue for exploring the profound nature of consciousness.

Tantra comes to the West

I have been interested in the Tantric teachings for more than 30 years, since my first introduction in a San Francisco bookstore. On this occasion, I was looking through a well-illustrated book on sexuality, and noticed a section on Tantra. I was drawn to the illustration of a couple sitting in what is often referred to as the Yab Yum position. The woman is sitting meditation-style astride and facing her partner. They are devotedly looking into each other’s eyes. (Yab Yum, like Yin Yang, expresses the union of masculine and feminine energy, and literally means Father-Mother in Tibetan.)

This meditation, I was later to learn, is conducive to opening the heart, bringing partners into emotional resonance. They breathe deeply and visualize their energy being drawn up from the sexual chakra (energy center) to the heart chakra. (These energy centers correspond to different emotional states and experiences.) The partners then imagine themselves directing feelings of tenderness and compassion to the instinctual nature of sex.

On closer observation, I saw a series of drawings depicting the couple coming together and moving away, turning out to the world, still in an inward meditative state with their hands together in the respectful gesture of namaste (pronounced “na-ma-stay” ), which is commonly used as a greeting in Indian culture and an acknowledgment of the spirit within all beings. The couple then returns to face each other.

This illustration spoke to me at a time early in my study of meditation with Chogyam Trungpa, a teacher of Tantric Buddhism, which focuses on raising energy through the chakras and mastering many of life’s contradictions and problems.

At that time, my intimate relationship was a concern. When I worked, made love or engaged in relationships, I was often distracted and unable to stay present and connected. I was preoccupied by a nagging hunger for an elusive feeling of at-oneness. I was aware of a well of emptiness beneath my longing, but my fears and lack of know-how prevented me from working with my emotions. Staying sexually involved and occupied with the issues of relating were how I attempted to ease my anxiety. The Tantric teachings were the first time I encountered the idea that I could transform my troubling emotions. The practice of conscious sexuality especially appealed to me.

Since I have been involved with the Tantric teachings for a long time, people often ask me about the sexual practices. What they usually want to know is how to improve their sex lives.

Tantric sex in the West is a modern development consisting of practices taken from Eastern traditions and Western psychology. A modern version of Tantra might include teachings from Wilhelm Reich, Carl Jung, Shamanism, New Age thought, the study of sexology and contemporary ideas about relationship styles and forms. These are often taught in books and workshops where they are melded together in a sometimes enlightening experience. Other times, though, the offerings seem more “New Age Tantra Lite,” packaged to appeal to the sexual and spiritual dabbler.

In my own experience, the workshops attract those who want to improve the quality of their relationships as well as people who are looking to meet someone. Frequently men and women who attend have been sexually abused, or they may habitually use sex to stave off loneliness. It’s not surprising that people’s experiences vary in these settings.

Keep in mind, Tantric sexual practices were originally sacred rituals practiced by people who did not view their lives psychologically as we do in the West. At its core, Tantra is a vehicle for transformation and spiritual awakening and not intended as therapy for sexual abuse, sexual dysfunction or marital issues. Pleasure is not the goal, but the vehicle to expanded states of consciousness.

Even so, the trend toward positive sexuality and respect for the feminine that the new Tantra movement supports is a positive direction. I agree with the remarkable thinker Riane Eisler that many people today are turning to a way of being based upon equality through partnership rather than domination. As Eisler points out in her book Sacred Pleasure, the Earth- and Goddess-revering cultures that thrived prior to the Aryan invasions held sexuality as a sacred expression of life. These ancestors were grounded in lives that honored the seasons and bodily rhythms; expressed the sacredness of life through ritualized sexuality; and shared power equally between men and women.

Today, there is a reawakening of these values, and people are again embracing the partnership model. We see evidence of this in respect for the Earth, the Feminine, Eros, the body and senses, equality between women and men, non- hierarchical structures, androgeny and bisensuality, and our attraction to spiritual practices such as Tantra.

Tantra reached many people between the 8th and 12th centuries after the teachings were taken out of the hands of the male priests and introduced as a practice in homes and forests, often by women teachers. The current reawakening and embrace of Tantra reflects our need and desire for equality, for a strong feminine and masculine where one does not dominate, but both partner each other and embrace the sacred in their lives and in their beds.

The danger is that as Tantra becomes popularized, its essence will be lost. Our approach in the West is to select the aspects of practices that fit our lifestyle, and so we often only get a superficial understanding of the teaching. One of the most important and difficult-to-grasp teachings of Tantra has little to do with sex. It is the capacity to coexist with seemingly contradictory states of being, thus making peace with life’s dualities. Cultivating openness and fluidity requires practice and guidance. The sexual aspects are traditionally reserved for those who have demonstrated their capacity for these powerful rituals.

Still, if you ignore the sexual aspect of Tantra you miss the point. Sexual energy is the creative power that fuels the dance of existence. Sex is important to Tantra because Tantra teaches that everything we experience is fuel for transformation. Everyday acts of eating and making love fuel spiritual awakening.

One aspect of Tantric sex for men focuses on transmuting sexual energy by learning not to ejaculate. This can become a spiritually empowering practice, as well as a way to extend the pleasure of intercourse. The Taoists speak about the health-giving aspects of withholding semen, while Gedun Chopel wrote about the pleasure of not reaching for more pleasure. Ecstatic states of consciousness open when one is not attached to or striving for more pleasure.

When we make love without a goal and view our beloved with awe, sex has the potential to take us beyond pleasure. Orgasms that begin locally in the genitals spread until every fiber of our being is vibrating with life’s energy. The energetic quality of aliveness, release and pleasure that we call orgasm can be a portal to unbounded states where distinctions between self and other dissolve and we feel a sense of oneness not only with our lover, but with all of existence.

As I reflect on my 30-year relationship with the Tantric teachings, I continue to be touched by the subtle and enduring truths that the teachings have shown me about myself. I have learned to work with my emotions and become more authentic, more connected to myself, to my beloved, to pleasure and to life.

Unarguably, these ancient esoteric teachings have found a place in modern lives. In Tantra, there is a continuum from seeking better sexual relationships to seeking to know the meaning of life. And whether or not we agree with all the interpretations, Tantra has the potential to awaken our capacity for connection and wholeness, taking us in a positive healing direction.

The Roots of Tantra

Tantra, or Vajrayana (pronounced “Vahj-rah-YAH-na” and meaning “The Diamond Vehicle”), influenced Buddhism in Tibet, Bhutan, Nepal, Ladakh and Mongolia thousands of years ago. Rather than removing themselves from stimulating influences and upsetting emotions in order to focus on transcendence, Vajrayana practitioners embrace paradoxical and contradictory states. Practitioners transcend the polarities of life, such as pleasure and pain, attraction and repulsion. Profound and intense feelings arise in meditation. As the energies are deeply experienced, they begin to change form and yield to a spacious, grounded sense of balance. The Buddhists call this natural state of goodness the “ground of being.” We experience it as a feeling of tenderness, joy, fluidity, generosity and peace.

As the Vajrayana tradition evolved, it was carried out of the monasteries and spread amongst the people. The teachers, often women, called Dakinis or Sky Dancers, used daily life, relationships and the senses to transmit their teachings. Using rituals, including lovemaking at the funeral grounds, they provided reminders of the impermanence of all things. But, it is essential to keep in mind that the sexual teachings of Tantra are just one aspect of a vast picture.

Ideas for bringing a Tantric perspective to your life

  • Pay attention to your breath
    It is a great vehicle for sensitizing yourself and becoming present. Breathe deeply into your belly, feel it rise and fall. Focus on the exhalation and relax as you let go of the breath. Rest in the space between breaths. Try this when you are sitting quietly in meditation. And when you make love, remember to breathe.
  • Create a special place for connecting with your beloved
    Select what you bring to this space with care and consideration. Sound, sight, smell, taste, touch and thought all add to creating a rich environment.
  • Notice the “suchness” — the intrinsic quality — of things
    Your lover, your child, your pets, the flowers in the garden, all things have a uniqueness unlike any other thing. Practice appreciating these qualities. This cultivates gratitude and reverence.

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Johanina Wikoff maintains a private practice working with people who have a commitment to personal and spiritual growth in their life, as individuals, couples and groups.

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