There’s a scene in my women’s novel where the main character, Lorna, has an amazing sexual experience. It’s not because her partner has any special abilities in bed, but rather that Lorna, on a new quest to live spiritually in her everyday life, opens herself to the energy of source during the encounter. “The expression ‘best sex I’ve ever had’ seems a massive understatement,” Lorna marvels afterward. “This feeling of expansiveness, of being at one with the world, is the best anything I’ve ever had.”
I didn’t know until I recently spoke with Miranda Shaw, author of the book Passionate Enlightenment: Women in Tantric Buddhism, that what Lorna had glimpsed was a Tantric sexual experience. Shaw, an associate professor of religion at the University of Richmond, says Tantric sex is not so much about sex as many of us think. Instead, the intimate act is merely one of many vehicles practitioners use to connect with the cosmic flow. Western teachers who focus on boosting your sex life through Tantra have it wrong, she claims–the emphasis is more appropriately placed on boosting your enlightenment.
That’s not to say sex doesn’t enter the picture. Read on for more about this fascinating practice–and some of Shaw’s tips for bringing a piece of it to your own bedroom.
Can you describe what “Tantra” is?
Tantra emerged in India in the seventh century as a way to weave (that’s what the word Tantra means) every aspect of daily life, including intimate relationships and erotic experience, into the spiritual path. Strands of Tantra exist in the Hindu, Jain and Buddhist traditions, although my study is Buddhist Tantra.
So Tantra involves much more than sex?
Yes, there are many practices: methods for working with energy, images to contemplate, sacred sounds (mantra) to chant. The central goal is to realize the inherent beauty and perfection of the world and sacredness of all beings, including oneself. Romantic partnerships are a focus of Tantric practice because they are fertile ground for revealing the beliefs and emotions–the illusions–that cause us to suffer and act in ways that harm others. The goal is to see reality as it is and respond appropriately, with clarity and compassion, in a way that contributes to the evolution of the planet toward greater well-being and happiness for all living beings.
But sex is also a major part? Why?
Rather than something that detracts from religious life, sexual experience is a prime opportunity for spiritual cultivation if approached meditatively and as a yogic practice. The central purpose is to tap the cosmic energy that flows through the human body, heighten and concentrate the energy through sexual union, and then use the energy as fuel for spiritual transformation.
Tell me a little about a full-blown Tantric sex ritual as practiced by a serious practitioner?
I prefer the term “sexual yoga” to “Tantric sex.” The practice is advanced and rather technical–a kind of inner “rocket science”–that incorporates mindfulness meditation, emptiness philosophy, yogic breathing, mantra recitation, visualization of deities and symbols, and movement of energy and inner fire (called kundalini) through the subtle yogic anatomy of channels and energy centers (chakras) along the spine. My book, Passionate Enlightenment, describes some practices–-ways to meditate and images to envision–to direct sexual union to spiritual ends.
Is it true that Tantric sex was created primarily for men?
That is a common misconception that appeared in virtually all popular and scholarly writings on Tantra before I undertook my research. But I discovered extensive evidence to the contrary. First, mutuality is a core principle of Tantric relationship. From the first meeting onward, there are protocols to ensure that the man doesn’t manipulate or exploit the woman–she holds the right of choice. Second, Tantric texts emphasize what a man has to do to appeal to, please and merit the companionship of a woman, but there are no corresponding requirements for a woman. In fact, he has to do anything she requests and assure that she is satisfied. The practice is described as his offering of pleasure to her for the sake of her inner yogic practice.
Are there aspects of this “sexual yoga” that the uninitiated can practice?
Sexual yoga is an advanced practice, but anyone can adopt a Tantric, or spiritual, approach to sexual experience. At the core is seeing the experience as an energy event–that is, a merging of two energy fields–and being attentive to how the interplay of energies ignites a dynamic inner landscape of vitality, light and imagery. Allow the light, heat and however that energy manifests to illuminate and replenish your psyche, generate positive mind-states and emotions, and nourish your creativity and life journey.
Contrary to popular belief, the intended benefits of Tantra do not include enhanced sexual pleasure. For that, India has other practices, known as the “arts of love,” as taught in the Kama Sutra. The purpose of this branch of knowledge is to bring a more sophisticated artistry to the stages and skills of lovemaking in order to devote the sexual experience to spiritual cultivation.
Here are a few specific practices:
• Gaze into your partner’s eyes. Sit facing your partner for at least 20 minutes, gazing into one another’s eyes. The idea is to strive to glimpse the pure essence of your partner–the divine, sacred core. You can boost the level of engagement by joining palms, left hands facing upward and right hands downward. Envision sending energy through the right hands and receiving through the left, circulating the current of energy that flows through both bodies, counterclockwise. This practice can be done on its own or as a prelude to union.
• See yourself as radiant light. In the middle of your lovemaking, envision yourself as an enlightened being floating through space in a sphere of light. The powerful energy available during lovemaking enhances your ability to do this. Radiate the joy and harmony of your union throughout the entire universe in the form of light rays or drops of nectar that spread happiness, illumination and healing to all beings everywhere.
• Offer pleasure to the goddess. One sexual ritual anyone can do is called “stri-puja,” which means “worship of the woman.” The man creates an altar-like setting with candles, incense and other symbols of sacredness. He then makes offerings (such as flowers and other gifts), feeds her delicacies, strokes her body with a moistened flower, massages her feet with scented oil, kneels and bows before her, and praises her. The erotic union that follows is his offering of pleasure to her, his goddess. This practice challenges the woman to embrace her sacredness, while, for the man, it is an opportunity to cultivate and express his appreciation and adoration. Surrounding the experience with sacred intent, making it a ritual, can lead to a deeper level of communion and open the way for positive emotions to infuse the relationship, such as greater harmony and gratitude for one another. The experience can go in surprising directions. (Do know that Tantra is not heterosexist. Gay and lesbian couples can adapt this practice however it suits them.)