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Tantra Yoga - Pleasure And Desire
Tantra is primarily concerned with inner, mystical experiences, contrary to popular notions that it is the Yoga of Sex or a form of couples’ therapy. In Tantra, all mundane activities are opportunities to experience the divine, especially when they are approached with consciousness and intention. While Tantra is a deeply personal path in this sense, the inner journey should generate the awareness that everything is connected; in fact, the word Tantra is often translated as web or weaving, implying a weaving together with all that is. Moments of strong desire and intense pleasure are opportunities to experience this sense of connection directly.
In Tantric cosmology, the entire universe vibrates with pleasure and desire; Tantrics understand the ever-unfolding process of creation in explicitly sexual terms – the attraction and union of male and female polarities, "Shiva" and "Shakti" in the Hindu Tantric tradition. Thus, in Tantra, the experience of pleasure on a microcosmic, individual level, evokes the universal process. At peak moments of pleasure, the practitioner has an opportunity to experience merger, a state of union (or Yoga) with all that is.
This attitude toward pleasure is made explicit in the Vijnanabhairava Tantra, an 8th Century C.E. Kashmir Shaivite text and one of the most important Tantric scriptures: "On the occasion of great delight being obtained. . .one should meditate on the delight itself and become absorbed in it, then his mind will become identified with it."[i] Other verses emphasize that desire pervades the universe and that a person can attain an understanding of the ultimate reality by contemplating desire itself, rather than the object of that desire.
American culture in particular is permeated by an extraordinary ambivalence about pleasure and desire. Desire drives marketing and consumerism with the idea that pleasure can be found in the next purchase; of course, the pleasure is fleeting. As it recedes, it is replaced by desire for another item in a never-ending cycle. Sexuality is one of the main lubricants that keep this wheel in motion. We are conditioned to believe that we will be healthier, happier, more beautiful, that we will attract that gorgeous man or woman in the ad, if we just make the right purchases. While this observation is not new, it is important and too easily forgotten, given the pervasiveness of consumerist messages.
At the same time, our society, largely but not exclusively due to the influence of Christianity, tends to view the body and its pleasures as suspect, at best, and evil, at worst. Eastern religious traditions have their own sexual taboos and pleasure denying attitudes, albeit without a punitive, judgmental deity or the belief in eternal damnation. There seems to be a correlation between the rise of institutional religion and the denial of the body, and this makes sense. If the natural activities of daily life are defined in negative terms, people begin to view themselves as flawed or worse; this makes them more willing to surrender their autonomy and obey the demands of an institutionalized system – religious, social, political, military or economic.
Our Puritan heritage still has a profound impact on our social mores. The Puritans saw wealth as a sign of God’s favor and believed that any form of non-marital sexual activity or desire was a pathway to damnation, since Satan could exploit the body to steal the soul. The marketing of sex notwithstanding, America remains a sex-negative, anhedonic (pleasure-challenged) culture that values work and material "success" above all else. While many European societies are more accepting of pleasure, the legacy of 2000 years of messages that negate or seek to control sexuality and enjoyment is difficult to escape.
Where is the possibility of freedom? We are all caught between the conflicting messages of hedonism as a marketing tool and the omnipresent cultural theme that tells us enjoyment leads to damnation. Some may overreact and convince themselves that self-indulgence is a form of resistance, but they often remain caught in the cycle. Others may capitulate and snuff out their desires in any one of a myriad of ways.
Tantra provides several ways out of this apparent dilemma. By bringing awareness to desire and pleasure, by making a study of what truly makes us feel the vibration of life within us and around us, we can begin to function with more autonomy. We may never totally free ourselves from the cultural constructs that shape us, but if we bring awareness to our actions, recognize those constructs as nothing more than that and commit ourselves to exploring desire and pleasure, deliberately and consciously, we can begin to find ways to get off the wheel.
In practical terms, this means developing new ways of approaching desire and pleasure. Desire is a powerful force that can motivate and inspire. Suppressing it entails suppressing our fundamental humanity, and most people pay a heavy price for doing this. The problem is not with desire itself but with attachment to outcomes, so as a first step, it is important to cultivate an attitude of non-attachment. To paraphrase the Vijnanabhairava Tantra, we should not focus on the object of desire. Instead, we must bring our awareness to the desire itself and recognize it as an energy that is both within and all around us. Armed with this understanding, it is possible to become a little freer, whether or not we pursue a particular object of our desire.
Next, it is important to recognize the sacredness of desire (including sexual desire). Bhagavan Das taught us that when you feel an erotic charge, you can gaze upon the person who awakens it and view that person with reverence and awe, while mentally repeating a mantra of gratitude and praise, such as Om Namah Shivayah (Praise Shiva) or Jai Ma (Praise the Goddess), or whatever form of praise feels appropriate.
The conscious pursuit of pleasure as a spiritual path requires awareness. People generally understand pleasure either in purely instinctual terms or as it is culturally constructed. Few of us give much thought to what truly brings us pleasure, both erotically and in more general terms. By discovering and cultivating the true sources of your own pleasure, you can begin to free yourself from limiting ideas and conditioned responses. The simplest way to begin this exploration is to make a list of the things that give you pleasure and then to examine the items on the list, identifying the qualities of each one and looking for patterns, connections and themes.
Once you have developed an understanding of what we call your Pleasure Palette, you can begin to cultivate a sense of reverence in the context of pleasure. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with seeking pleasure for its own sake, but the experience of pleasure is much richer when it is both understood and fully appreciated. This is true for any experience, from eating ice cream to feeling the breeze on the skin. In the context of sexuality, the awareness of what brings you to the peak of ecstasy can be translated into reverence for your partner and for the experience itself.
The erotic spark exists wherever pleasure and desire are found. It arises as a reminder that everything is divine. Recognizing this and cultivating reverence can transform you; people will feel it and reciprocate, energetically. The benefits will come back to you and multiply, leaving you more open to others, more creative, more confident and sexy, and less constricted by mental boundaries, whatever their origin.
Copyright 2006, Mark Michaels & Patricia Johnson
[i] Jaideva Singh, The Yoga of Delight, Wonder, and Astonishment: A Translation of the Vijnanabhairava (Albany: State University Of New York Press, 1991), p. 68
Mark Michaels (Swami Umeshanand Saraswati) and Patricia Johnson (Devi Veenanand) are a devoted married couple who have been teaching Tantra and Kriya Yoga together since 1999. Their popular workshops have been featured in several publications, including the Village Voice, NOW magazine, and Breathe magazine. The two seek to combine a traditional, lineage-based approach with the best contemporary, Neo-Tantric methods. Their approach includes breath work, meditation, chanting, and puja (a type of Hindu devotional ritual), and their "initiated Kriya yoga" practices aim to lay a spiritual foundation for bringing the heightened awareness and pleasure of sex into everyday life. They are senior students of Dr. John Mumford (Swami Anandakapila Saraswati) and have been named lineage holders of the OM-Kara Kriya® system for the Americas and Europe. Sunyata, coauthor of The Jewel in the Lotus, named Michaels his lineage holder in 2001. Michaels and Johnson have studied Bhakti Yoga with Bhagavan Das and Tantra with Dr. Rudy Ballentine, and they have been featured in Dr. Judy Kuriansky's The Complete Idiot's Guide to Tantric Sex.