Tantra It Is
I’ve done Zen and Vipassana (Theravada Buddhist) meditation. More recently I’ve also tried the tantric breath and sex exercises. I’m going to stick with the latter.
I’ve been attracted to Zen and Theravada for a long time—since my teens. Its sparse and focused aesthetic appealed to my puritan tendencies. No complicated metaphysics, no need for gods, no demands to be faithful or dogmatic—just practical exercises and enigmatic statements. A few pointless rituals, genealogies and guru worship have accumulated around it. But the direct, bare-bones teachings are still easy to perceive underneath. It is an Appolonic approach to enlightenment: Rational, steady, refined and distanced.
I liked Zen and Vipassana because it was just like I behaved anyway: intellectual, self-disciplined, out of touch with my emotions and sensuality. The endless hours of sitting, the ‘stillness’, the ‘witnessing’ of thoughts and emotions—not all that much different from years in the archives and library. But I know people who have been sitting for years and years (in both zendos and archives) and don’t seem any the better for it. In fact, they sometimes seem the worse for it, getting arrogant and competitive about how long they can sit.
It’s also incredibly hard for me. I just can’t shut off or merely observe that chattering mind. One way that history is clearly not like Zen, is that history training works to deeply entangle our egos with our thoughts. We can ‘witness’ the thoughts and feelings of others, but not our own. Our thoughts are our careers, our lives, our glory, our selves. And we never ‘witness’ our feelings. Instead we ignore and deny them, crushing them into warped little balls of neurotic tics and immaturities. For me, a meditation practice that resembles historical practice in so many ways is not the way to overcome my ego’s attachments to my thoughts. This is the way that I built that attachment.
And I can’t help but think that all the sitting is just a method of social control—something that was overemphasized as Buddhism became institutionalized and respectable. This is even more true in the West, where Buddhist meditation is mostly touted as a method of stress reduction. Something to make us moderate, build equanimity, help us accommodate to life’s routines and go back to work.
In contrast, tantric exercises try to harness desires and facilitate the flow of energies through the body as the vehicle to enlightenment. My chattering mind shuts up as I watch the energy flowing inside and out; feel my body distorting, tearing, melting and crumbling; feel the effects of the exercises on orgasm and touch; it keeps me on track. It helps me to see that there is much more than the limited experiences of my rational mind. During the day, I often stop to watch my breathing, feel the energies, notice the colors, feel the textures. It is a dose of stress reduction to be sure—but also reminding me that there is something other than that world of daily concerns and vanity that I have lived in for so long. On the surface tantra seems a Dionysian approach to enlightenment: Channelling desire and fomenting mental effects. But in practice it feels more polytheistic, recognizing the great diversity of forms.
Some tantric practitioners say that it is the faster route to enlightenment. But it is also a trickier and more dangerous one, throwing up many temptations and diversions along the way. I can see that all the mental and sensual experiences that are so helpful now for me can become an obstacle, a distraction on the way to clear perception.
It especially hard to wade through all the neo-tantra that pervades the west. All the promises of greater intimacy and better orgasms and bliss—nice therapy, but I want more than that. Not to mention that tantra can be really expensive, too. And so many of the people involved are New Age flakes who drive me nuts. To be sure, neo-tantra often delivers on the promises of better orgasms and intimacy. That stuff is fine and helpful, but I am after more than that. I want not only bliss and better social functioning. I want to open my mind to what it has never perceived before, perhaps even enlightenment.
The less sexualized tantra associated with Tibetan Buddhism and white tantra aren’t much better. They are often obsessed with social bonding, gurus, incessant dharma talks, helping the environment, special interest discussion groups , social justice, and how to make meditation into a practical part of your life. I’m much more drawn to the rich symbolism of Tibetan tantra than I was in my puritan Zen days. But the p.c. and self-help platitudes make me lose interest quickly. (So far, I like the Ipsalu Tantra exercises–they are straightforward and effective, good focus on spiritual development, with a minimum of rhetoric and promises. We’ll see.)
And yes, I guess a lot of it is about the sex. My desire is not going away, so I may as well try to use it. I’ve spent the first half of my life in classrooms and libraries—with good professional results complemented by lousy personal ones (including lots of lust but no ability to do anything with it). I can’t see that spending the second half of my life sitting quietly would do me any better. With tantra, even if I do not reach enlightenment at least I will have enjoyed myself along the way.