Unlocking the Secrets of Tantra: A Deeper Dive into the True Meaning and PracticeApr 19, 2023
Speak the word "tantra," most people imagine esoteric rituals, uncomfortably long eye-gazing sessions, or wild sexual practices engaged by hedonistic new-agers. However, Tantra's true meaning and scope is far more exciting and transformative than these sensationalized, whitewashed stereotypes. Fundamentally, Tantra is a complete spiritual system that seeks to balance and harness our nervous and energetic systems for personal empowerment and non-dual Self-Recognition or God-Realization.
In this article, I will humbly and over-simplistically attempt to summarize the origins and history of Tantra, the fundamental principles of Tantric practice, and the intrinsic role of Awareness and the power of its energy of creation. I will also discuss what Tantric Yoga is, its benefits, and how it relates to spirituality. Finally, I will offer guidance for integrating Tantra into your daily householder lifestyle and suggest resources for further learning and practice.
With gratitude and reverence to the scholars, master teachers, and awakened ones that have come before to make these wisdom teachings known, I humbly bow. It is only because of their tireless work and unbroken Awareness that I am here attempting to unlock the power of Tantra for you. My only intention is that I may help in revealing the rich tapestry of wisdom and techniques that lie beneath the surface of the most common and harmful misconceptions.
The True Meaning of Tantra
The word Tantra comes from the Sanskrit language and has many meanings, including "weave," "loom," and "warp." The verbal root tan means: "to extend," "to expand," "to spread," "to spin out," "display," "put forth," and "compose." Therefore, by extension, it can also mean "system," "doctrine," or "work."
These definitions point to the essence of Tantra as a system containing some technology or methodology for expansion, liberation, and Self-Recognition. The word Tantra also refers to the divinely revealed scriptures containing some view of reality, theories on creation, and practices or methods for transforming the duality of the individual into liberated non-dual Awareness.
Tantra is a non-dual science mapping a view of reality that generally considers [God] Consciousness or Awareness to be the most fundamental principle of creation and objective experience. Although I recognize my bias, I am comfortable stating that Tantra is the most precise and subtle science of universal and individualized Consciousness ever recorded by humans. The Tantrikas of the past were describing a mapping of reality that is quite accurately aligned with the principles of quantum mechanics. Subsequently, it provides a holistic approach to spiritual awakening, combining meditation, mantra, yantra, visualization, and energy practices to awaken to our most whole and purest Self.
Notice my use of the words [God] Consciousness and [Goddess] Awareness and Self [I Am] throughout this and other articles. They are synonymous. Try re-reading the previous statements with this in mind.
Tantra is the investigation of that [Goddess] Awareness or [God] Consciousness, which is the totality of our shared reality and our own Self. As Tantra will reveal, Consciousness is the only reality. It is the one and only Self, and everything you experience is an expression of that one Self.
At its core, Tantra is about embracing everything in life as a path to spiritual awakening, considering nothing that you can think of that is not this [God] Consciousness, including our relationships, sensations, emotions, thoughts, sense perceptions, and even our sexual energy. Tantra ultimately teaches us ways within our moment-to-moment experience of revealing our essential nature as this pure, independent, and creatively free Awareness, or [God] Consciousness, which is the source and reality of everything, including your thoughts, feelings, sensations, perceptions, and so on.
Instead of rejecting or suppressing these aspects of our experience, Tantra teaches us to harness their power for spiritual transformation and liberation. Ultimately, by allowing and integrating all aspects of ourselves, we may access more naturally expanded levels of Awareness, peace, and joy.
In this way, the true Tantra meaning goes far beyond the myths and misconceptions surrounding it. Tantra is not simply about sex or wild rituals; it is a profound spiritual practice that can lead us to a more fulfilling, peaceful, and awakened life.
The Origins and History of Non-Dual Tantra
The history of Tantra is a rich and complicated subject matter, which I am certainly not an expert on. I aim only to provide Tantra's most general and overly simplistic history for context. The origins of non-dual Tantric Yoga can be traced back roughly 1500 years to the ancient civilizations of South Asia. Tantra emerged as a distinct and dominant spiritual tradition around the 5th century CE, drawing on earlier teachings and practices from Vedanta, Buddhism, and other spiritual traditions. Its spread and popularity peaked around the 9th or 10th century CE and lasted into the 14th or 15th centuries.
Over time, tantric Yoga evolved into different forms and lineages, reflecting the diverse cultural and spiritual influences that shaped it. In India, tantric ideas became closely associated with the Hindu culture and traditions, particularly the worship of Shiva and Shakti, the divine masculine and feminine principles (and their forms as one of many other deities). In Tibet, non-dual Tantra was absorbed into the Buddhist tradition, giving rise to the practice of Vajrayana, or "Diamond Vehicle."
The lineages that formed through the ages gave the world the gift of their "Tantras," the word given to the divinely revealed texts or scriptures describing that particular lineage's view of reality and their methods for attaining that specific view. In general, the Tantras teach us to experience ourselves directly as the one God or Goddess that is our own Awareness and power.
I want to make clear that it is only from a small handful of these Tantras that I am most interested in and that I direct my studies towards—most notably, a handful of Tantras from the Trika Shaivism lineage, including the siva sutras, tantraloka, vijnanabhairava, pratyabijna hrydaya, and the spandakarika. Of course, these texts cover many topics, including philosophy, cosmology, ritual, mantra, yantra, meditation, and energy work.
Today, tantric Yoga continues to be practiced in various forms worldwide, offering a powerful and transformative path for those who seek a deeper understanding of themselves and the nature of creation and reality.
The Non-Dual Tantric View of Reality
For all of this to begin to make sense, it is helpful to understand the general view of reality held by non-dual Tantra. At least the idea of reality expounded in the profoundly revealing texts of the Trika, which are the only ones I've personally studied in any depth.
Ok, here we go:
1) The entire universe, including the Self that you call "I," is a manifestation of 36 elements beginning with the one which is free, independent, self-reflective Awareness. It is the only thing (non-thing) that can know Itself. This Divine Self-reflective Awareness (Consciousness) is the only thing that exists. There is nothing other than or separate from That one thing which is pure Awareness, for I am That, You are That, That is That, and That is all there is.
2) Every object observed within the manifest universe exists only as modulations or patterns of, and within this Consciousness, not separate from it. Including thoughts, feelings, sensations, and sense perceptions, which are everything touched, heard, seen, smelled, and tasted.
2) Consciousness and the energies of its infinite patterns are not separate from one another but two inseparable parts of its innate wholeness. In the same way that a reflection of a cityscape in a mirror cannot separate from the mirror, the objective world of form and experience cannot separate from its essential reality as Awareness. These two parts in the Tantric system are known as Śiva (SHEE-vuh) and Śakti (SHUCK-tee). Śiva means Primordial Auspiciousness, and Śakti means Primordial power.
- Śiva (God) is the aspect of reality depicted as the masculine divine. He is ultimately understood to be Pure Consciousness. He is the ground of Awareness within which everything in the known universe manifests, is experienced, and finally dissolved. Everything you can think of exists only as an expression of His own Self. He is the absolute Being-ness or 'I'-ness within which all that can be perceived and experienced rises and falls. He is you. You are He. He is God.
- Śakti (Goddess) is the aspect of reality depicted as the feminine divine. She manifests in her many forms as the Goddesses of Tantra, but what she is, is the infinite expressions of the manifest universe. She is the creative power and objective structures of the cosmos. She is dynamic. She is movement. She is everything felt, seen, heard, tasted, smelled, and thought about. She is the movement of thoughts and thinking. She is the activity of Consciousness (Śiva). She is you. You are Her. She is Goddess Awareness.
3) Awareness/Consciousness chooses to manifest, sustain, dissolve, conceal, and reveal Itself within Its manifest universe. It does so due to its innate desire to diversify and freely express and know its own Self in infinite forms. It is free to be and do anything. On some level, you already know this because you are an individualized wave within this ocean of Consciousness, and everything you feel, think, and perceive are modulations of the one Self—the universal "I."
4) Everything in existence is inherently Divine, for nothing is not this Awareness. That means there is deep meaning in every atom, particle, and wave in the known universe. That means that everything you are, perceive, and experience is a creative expression of the same God/Goddess Awareness at the very core of existence Itself.
Key Principles of Tantric Practice
While Tantric practices and techniques can be diverse, they share several fundamental principles that underpin the tantra meaning:
- Consciousness/Awareness/Self: Tantra revers Consciousness as the most fundamental principle of reality. Tantra seeks to expand our sense of Self as Consciousness (Awareness), enabling us to perceive and experience reality more directly and fully. Meditation, mantra, and self-inquiry help us develop greater clarity, self-awareness, and peacefulness.
- Energy: Tantra recognizes that everything is energy and that our spiritual growth depends on our ability to identify, harness, balance, and direct this energy within us. Practices such as pranayama (breath control), mudra (energy seals), bandhas (energy locks), and visualization help us to cultivate and refine our inner energies.
- Non-duality: Tantra teaches that all of existence is interconnected and that the ultimate nature of reality is non-dual, beyond the apparent separation of the subject (Awareness) and object (energy) - Self and other. By recognizing the non-dual nature of existence, we experience a profound sense of fullness, peacefulness, and freedom from the limited sense of separation experienced by the individual mind, body, and personality.
- Integration: Tantra teaches us to integrate all aspects of our experience in each moment, including our bodily sensations, mental activity, emotions, desires, and relationships. By embracing each moment with full Awareness and understanding, we become better able to digest and liberate the energies within us at any given moment.
- Embodiment: Tantra emphasizes the importance of embodiment- Literally to BE in the somatic experience of the mind and body. We must realize that our body is a channel for the divine power of Awareness and a doorway to full recognition of this Truth. Practices such as asana (yoga postures), Qi-Gong, dance, somatic therapies like Somatic Experiencing (SE), and specific meditations help us to connect with, purify, strengthen, and expand the capacities of our nervous and energetic systems.
Understanding the Role of Energy in Tantra
The idea of energy or power plays a central role in Tantra, shaping our experience of ourselves and the world around us. Tantra teaches that the universe is pure [God] Consciousness, creatively free, independent, and complete with its powers of knowledge, will, and action. Its energy flows through and animates everything, including our bodies, minds, emotions, and the objects of our sense perceptions.
According to Tantra, we have a complex system of energy channels, or nadis, running through our bodies, interconnecting our physical, emotional, and mental aspects. The most important of these channels are the ida and pingala, which represent the feminine and masculine energies or the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems, and the madhya or sushumna, which runs along the spine and is the central channel for Consciousness and energy to flow freely when these opposing forces are balanced.
Tantra also speaks of the chakras, or energy centers, located along the sushumna within the subtle energetic body, representing different qualities of our awakened Consciousness. The chakras appear as wheels or lotus flowers, with each chakra having a specific number of petals and associated attributes. In addition to the standard seven chakra mapping popularized by Western occultism, several other chakra mappings are taught in the Tantras of various lineages, including five chakras, ten, twelve, twenty-one, and so on.
In Tantra, the goal is to purify, strengthen, and harmonize the energies flowing within our subtle energy bodies, clearing any blockages and allowing the energy to flow freely. Various practices, such as mantra, pranayama, mudra, visualization, and meditation, are prescribed to clarify our attention and cultivate and refine our inner energies.
When the energies flowing through ida and pingala are balanced, synonymous with the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems becoming simultaneously active, we experience a profound sense of aliveness, groundedness, vitality, and wholeness. This is Tantra's true power and potential: a path that harnesses our energies for transformation and liberation, thus opening the doorways to spiritual non-dual Self-Recognition.
What is Tantric Yoga and Its Benefits
First, it is crucial to understand what the word "yoga" means. When speaking of Yoga, I am not referring to the modern physical practice of yoga postures that you typically think of. In general, the word "Yoga" refers more to the practice of different meditation practices or perhaps the state of being attained by practicing those meditations.
Tantric Yoga is the practice of certain meditative and energetic practices taught by the Tantras, which feature the entrainment of attention, breath, mantra, mudra, bandha (energy locks), visualization, and intention or attitude. (Thank you, Christopher Wallis, for the word)
The gifts of Tantric Yoga are many and varied, depending on the specific practices and techniques employed. Some of the most common benefits include:
- Increased vitality and well-being: By cultivating a well-balanced and well-regulated nervous and energetic system, Tantric Yoga can help us to experience incredible energy, power, and peace.
- Enhanced Self-Awareness: Tantric Yoga helps us to develop greater Self-Awareness, enabling us to understand better our thoughts, emotions, sensations, patterns of conditioned behavior, and the underlying unity of our shared reality.
- Emotional balance: Rather than avoiding, rejecting, or suppressing our physical and emotional sensations, observing the Tantric way can help us to intimately experience, process, digest and liberate the energies of any moment, leading to emotional balance and resiliency.
- Greater mental clarity: By calming the mental noise by focusing our attention on the very fact of Awareness itself through various meditations, mantras, and so on, Tantric Yoga can help us to develop greater mental clarity and insight.
- Spiritual Self-Recognition: Through the total integration of body, mind, and spirit, practicing non-dual Tantric Yoga can lead us to the ultimate realization of the Self as the very [God] Consciousness that is the cause of the performance of everything we perceive and is perceivable, as the known universe (to loosely quote Tantric master Ksemaraja in the first sutra of the pratyabijna hrydaya, the Recognition Sutras).
Exploring Tantric Yoga: Practices and Techniques
Tantric Yoga offers a rich and varied tapestry of practices and techniques for cultivating, balancing, and strengthening our nervous and energetic systems and recognizing our purest selves. Here are some of the most common methods and techniques:
- Meditation: Set aside time each day for meditation, starting with just a few minutes and gradually increasing the duration as you become more comfortable with the practice. Tantric Yoga offers many meditation techniques that can make this somewhat daunting, so rather than worrying about finding the correct method, learn to abide in your core Self as Awareness purely for the sake of being Awareness itself. There's nothing to do! With practice, this will grow until each moment becomes a meditation in being the Awareness that you are. Try following this guided practice to experience what I'm attempting to point towards.
- Mantra: Mantras can be worked with in a few different ways and require some guidance to learn the correct pronunciation and method of recitation. Experiment with chanting or repeating a common bija (seed) mantra, such as "Aum," "Hreem," "Haum" or "Sau" to achieve different effects and results. Take a deep breath in and on the out-breath, and relax into the vibration of the sound flowing through you. I'm suggesting an essential Tantric practice called Ucchara. You can learn the method here. Begin with a simple and safe mantra, as presented, and work with it daily for at least a moon cycle. Then notice the quality of that energy in your body/mind.
- Mudra: Mudras are energy seals that help direct and balance the energy flow in our bodies. There are so many mudras that are given for varying purposes. There are way too many to bother listing any here. It is most common to see mudras involving the hands. Other mudras involve the tongue, different urogenital muscles, the inner gaze, and even one's inner attitude or state of being.
- Pranayama: Breath control is an essential part of tantric Yoga, with various techniques used to anchor our attention or to balance, expand and refine our nervous and energetic systems. Ultimately pranayama leads us to the breathless state called khumbhaka, which is a form of spontaneous breath retention that, to some systems, is pranayama's ultimate point and meaning.
- Bandha: Bandhas are energy locks that help to regulate and redirect the flow of life energy in our bodily system. Common bandhas in Tantric Toga include Mula Bandha, Uddiyana Bandha, Jalandhara Bandha, and Maha Bandha. These are subtle techniques that need to be learned from an experienced teacher.
- Visualization: Use visualization techniques, such as imagining your breath as a current of electric energy traveling in an orbit around your spine to purify, refine and awaken your powers. Or imagine a space permeating your entire body to experience the fullness of the pure Self as pure spacious Awareness. These are just examples, again requiring some guidance.
- Attitude and View of Reality: Develop a daily practice of aligning your philosophy and perception with non-dual Tantra's view of the universal and individualized Self. Cultivate the experience of being aware of Awareness Itself in each moment. Become grateful, open, and in awe of the blessings of life itself.
By exploring these and other practices and technology of Tantric Yoga, you can unlock the secrets spoken of in the Tantras and experience its transformative power for yourself.
The Connection Between Tantra and Spirituality
Tantra is inherently spiritual, recognizing that our ultimate goal as human beings is to awaken to our true nature and experience the divine "I" Consciousness as the very essence of ourselves and the world around us. Tantra reveals that we are all part of one vast, interconnected web of existence and that our individual Consciousness reflects the universal Consciousness—a microcosmic fractal of the macrocosmic whole.
By integrating all aspects of our experience, including our body, mind, emotions, sensations, desires, and relationships, Tantra offers a powerful and transformative path to non-dual spiritual awakening. Through meditation, mantra, visualization, and energy work, Tantra helps us expand our Consciousness, dissolve our sense of separation, and experience the profound unity and interconnectedness of all things.
In this way, Tantra and spirituality deeply intertwine, offering a holistic and embodied approach to spiritual growth that honors the sacredness of each aspect of our human experience - Not only the positive or good ones!
The Connection Between Tantra and Sexuality
I feel it is important to touch on the sexual aspect of Tantra, considering the draw of seekers of modern western "neo-tantra", which is narrowly focused and obsessed with sexual practices and the exploration of pleasure. While a few Tantras DO describe rituals and practices involving sexual energy,Tantra is not so hyper-focused on sex. Exploring the view of reality Tantra offers may however enhance the experience of our sexuality as we become more attuned to ourselves and others.
When sexual practice is taught in the Tantras, it is certainly not taught for the sake of sex and pleasure itself. It is not hedonism. There are rituals described for the purpose of collecting, offering, and consuming the fluids released by both the female and male partners during sexual release. There are also rituals prescribed for yogic adepts with the intention of cultivating sexual energy to circulate throughout the nervous and energetic systems, and to be directed upwards for God-Realization.
I feel it needs to be made clear from the get-go that a well-developed Tantric Yogi may use the sex act as a doorway to the unified Self, but one who is ignorant (samsaran) of the true nature of their Self will likely never be able to do so.
Resources for Further Learning and Practice
I have only provided you with the most generalized summary of Tantra. It is essential to take the time to understand the full context from within which Tantra derives its non-dual view of reality and the practices it offers to align with its view. If you are interested in exploring Tantra further, many resources are available to help you deepen your understanding and begin your practice. Here are some suggestions:
- Books: Many books on Tantra and Tantric Yoga range from introductory manuals to advanced Sanskrit treatises with lengthy commentaries. It can be challenging to discern what is useful and what is non-sense, considering there are so many misconceptions about Tantra. Much of what appears in Audible's and Amazon's popular lists is based on modern neo-tantra, focusing on relationships, intimacy, and sexual practices. Much of it has nothing to do with traditional Tantra. If you want a detailed description of Tantra and Tantric Yoga, some popular titles include Tantra Illuminated by Christopher Wallis and Tantra: The Path of Ecstasy by Georg Feuerstein. Once you understand the different branches of Tantra, choosing lineage-specific teachings to dive deep into their particular system of practice will be helpful. If you are interested in going deeper into the form of Tantra that has inspired the teachings that I present in this article, then take a look at Kashmir Shaivism: The Secret Supreme by Swami Lakshmanjoo + his collection of conversations, The Recognition Sutras by Christopher Wallis, and The Doctrine of Vibration by Mark Dyczkowski.
- Classes: Look for classes or workshops on Tantric Yoga from an experienced teacher who connects to or understands an authentic lineage with a complete method. Consider traveling to a retreat or taking classes online to connect with an authentic teacher. Consider asking the teacher what Tantras they study and teach. If they don't know what you're talking about, keep looking. There are many teachers offering workshops or retreats on Tantric sex. Few of them teach traditional Tantra.
- Online resources: There are many online resources available on Tantra, including websites, forums, and social media groups. These can be a great way to connect with other practitioners, ask questions, and find inspiration and guidance.
By exploring these and other resources, you can continue to unlock the secrets of Tantra and integrate its transformative power into your daily life.
Conclusion: Embracing the Power of Tantra
My hope in writing this summary was to effectively demonstrate that non-dual Tantra is a transformative and liberating spiritual practice that goes far beyond the myths, misconceptions, and sexual hyper-focus that have come to define it in the West. By embracing all aspects of our experience, including our body sensations, sense perceptions, mental activity, emotions, desires, and so on, Tantra offers a powerful path home to the innately peaceful and joyful Self.
Through meditation, mantra, visualization, breath and energy work, etc., we can develop the subtle sensitivity and Awareness required to balance and harness our life energies, leading to greater vitality, power, and Self-Awareness. By integrating all aspects of ourselves, we can experience a profound sense of freedom, independence, and wholeness.
If you are interested in unlocking Tantra's secrets, please seek the guidance of qualified teachers or mentors so that you may begin to explore its transformative technology. Through dedication to your practice, you can no doubt begin to harness the transformative power of Tantra and awaken to your most whole and purest Self.
Are you interested in exploring the transformative power of Tantra? Contact us today to learn more about our classes and workshops on Tantric Yoga and spirituality.