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Tantra: The Science of Self-Exploration

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Tantra: The Science of Self-Exploration

By Mark A. Michaels and Patricia Johnson

What Is Tantra? The word Tantra is becoming increasingly familiar, as a practice embraced by celebrities such as Sting, Woody Harrelson and Scarlett Johanssen, to name a few, and as an exotic, somewhat laughable approach to sex, as depicted in movies and on television - from ''American Pie'' to ''Meet the Fokkers'' to ''Sex and the City.'' Sting's famous assertion that he and his wife, Trudy, make love for seven hours at a stretch created a stir, but his subsequent explanation that this included dinner and a movie, and his more recent statement that Tantra is about experiencing the sacred through relationship, attracted far less attention.

The general public seems to have a vague sense that Tantra has something to do with sex, while those with a bit more knowledge are likely to think of it as a form of sexual Yoga. The former impression, however limited, is far closer to the truth, but Tantra is a vast subject and not an easy term to define. We hope this overview will both provide some insight into and debunk many of the misconceptions that have developed about this remarkable spiritual path.

Many people who attend our introductory workshops give voice to the popular stereotypes and answer that it is something celebrities do, that it is about better sex and marathon lovemaking sessions. Others suggest that it is a way of bringing spirituality into sex, as if the two were ever separate. As Westerners and products of our culture, we cannot avoid the influence of this popular mythology, but in our practice and study, we strive to arrive at a deeper and, we hope, a more authentic understanding.

The myth that Tantra is primarily sexual originated in either scandalous or scandalizing 19th-century accounts of Tantric rituals. In the early 20th-century, Sir John Woodroffe, also known as Arthur Avalon, a British judge serving in India and a Tantric initiate himself, attempted to legitimize the tradition as part of a pro-Independence effort to celebrate Indian civilization; Avalon was one of the few Westerners involved in this effort, which included a number of influential upper-class Indians. Avalon and his circle de-emphasized the sexual aspects of Tantra, since these aspects remained scandalous to much of the general public and perhaps to Avalon himself, even though there is some evidence that he and his wife practiced Tantric sex together.

Today, most ''New Age'' Tantrists have taken the opposite approach and focus on sexuality almost to the exclusion of everything else; we have even heard Tantra defined as ''sacred sexuality''. In many instances, New Age practitioners blend together aspects of Hindu Tantra, Tibetan Buddhist Tantra, Taoism and Western psychotherapy - among other things - and invent something that has virtually no relationship to the original tradition. As a result, most people who contact us think that Tantra and Tantric Sex are synonymous, and that Tantric Sex is synonymous with extraordinary lovemaking abilities, with some ''emotional clearing work'' thrown in for good measure, and that it must last for hours.

We feel it is unfortunate that such a rich and complex tradition has been reduced to such a banal and simple stereotype. At the same time, we were drawn to Tantra because of its sexual aspects, and we are convinced that consciously exploring sexuality is a rich and meaningful path. It can function as a gateway into an experience or way of being in the world that may be more truly described as Tantric. Thus, we hope to strike a balance between the rigorous and uncompromising view of the many modern scholars and traditionalists who dismiss ''New Age'' Tantrism with scorn, and popularizers, who preach the gospel of Tantric Sex, yet have virtually no familiarity with its history and, moreover, have not been initiated into a traditional lineage.

It may be clear by now that Tantra is a confusing and even paradoxical subject, and with that in mind, we offer the following, in hopes that it will give you some new ways of thinking about the meaning of the word Tantra.

Tantra is an ancient tradition that recognizes sexual energy as a source of personal and spiritual empowerment. This sets it apart from most Western traditions and helps explain why most Westerners have reduced it to its sexual elements alone.

Tantra is the magic of transforming one's consciousness and thereby transforming one's entire being. Your body is the most powerful tool for bringing about this transformation.

Tantra is a spiritual science. Tantric techniques have been tested and have proven effective for many centuries. If you practice diligently, you will experience results.

Tantra can be quite simple. Everyone has had Tantric experiences; it is not always so simple to notice them.

Tantra can be embraced in whole or in part. A few simple practices can often produce profound results.

Tantra is goalless, unless exploring and expanding consciousness can be called a goal. Goal orientation is one of the biggest obstacles faced by the aspiring Tantrika; abandoning specific goals and focusing on what you are doing in the moment, with as much awareness as you can muster, are the keys to effective practice.

Tantra is a way of life. The Tantric approach to exploring your own consciousness is an ever-evolving process of discovery that emerges from daily practice.

Tantra can provide you with the means to deepen your sense of connection to yourself, to your partner, to all that is.

Tantra includes practices, which, while often simple, can lead to the experience of extraordinary ecstasy.

Tantra is a technology of mind and body that will lead you to know yourself deeply.

Tantra is for people of ''heroic'' temperament, already presumably healthy. Anyone interested in practicing Tantra should have done considerable work on him/herself before beginning on the path. Traditionally, this type of work often included many years of yogic study and practice; for Westerners, psychotherapy may be the best form of preparation for serious Tantric study, since it provides the student with many of the necessary tools for the self-exploration that is such a central part of Tantra. Our teacher, Dr. Jonn Mumford has written: ''In the West, we have a particular type of Yoga called psychotherapy; it is one of the most valuable heritages that Western civilization has produced.'' He goes on to observe that anyone with a serious interest in Yoga must experience psychotherapy. The same applies to Tantra, but we feel it is important not to blend the two, since the approaches are so radically different.

Tantra is a pragmatic way to loosen the bonds of unconscious, habitual behavior and thereby start to live more freely and fully.

Tantra is a discipline of becoming yourself completely. In the end, there is nothing at all to do. Tantra is pragmatic and non-moralistic. You can utilize whatever tools are at hand for the purpose of expanding consciousness.

To sum it up, one way to define Tantra is to say it is: the science of self-exploration.

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.

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