Well, that’s the Million Dollar Question, now isn’t it?
I’ll start by saying that Tantra is a word that means a lot of different things to a lot of different people.
For me, Tantra is a way of life that embraces everything, that welcomes the whole of our experience as something sacred and meaningful, including these bodies, including difficult emotions and experiences, and even including death.
As a philosophy of living, Tantra is a path that isn’t about seeking spirituality by transcending, or going “out there” somewhere for peace, bliss, and perfection, rather it’s about coming down and into these bodies and into the messy reality of our human lives and fully letting ourselves be shaped by our experience.
One hugely important distinction that is often fraught with confusion comes between what is known as “Classical Tantra” and the practices and teachings of “Neo-Tantra.”
There are various complex and rigorous spiritual paths of Classical Tantra which aim at full spiritual awakening as the goal, including Kashmir Shaivism from India and the Vajrayana Tibetan Buddhist path. These paths often involve serious study and personal dedication, meditative practices, and can include various elements of ritual, such as the use of mantras, visualizations, and deity worship. For one to undertake this path means finding a qualified spiritual teacher operating within a lineage and receiving the teachings from them as a transmission.
In contrast, the sexual practices of Tantra most people are familiar with in the West are more accurately referred to as “Neo-Tantra.” This framework was developed within roughly the last 150 years, and aims at more fulfilling intimacy and connection, deeper connection to one’s own body, pleasure and emotions, healing trauma and releasing shame, activating sexual energy in the body, and opening to greater states of orgasmic ecstasy.
The pioneers of the Neo-Tantra movement were greatly inspired by the Classical teachings, namely because as a spiritual path Tantra includes EVERYTHING in the sacred reality, including the body, our desires, and our sexuality. Furthermore, understanding, activating, and transforming energy in our bodies (including sexual energy) is one of the main ways of creating personal transformation. So when the Neo-Tantra folk focused on these pieces of the ancient teachings and ran with them, the sexual revolution became a “sacred sexual revolution.” It’s certainly not what the early Tantriks had in mind in terms of “liberation”, and many Classical Tantra teachers today turn up their nose at Neo-Tantra altogether, but it has become it’s own body of teachings and practices that have been wildly beneficial for countless people and continue to influence the mainstream in ever greater ways.
The paths of Neo-Tantra and Classical Tantra may be vastly different, but share some obvious common elements, such as an appreciation of the mind-body-emotional connection and practices utilizing energy and breath to bring about a shift in one’s state of being. While the Classical teachings aim at complete enlightenment and liberation from suffering, Neo-Tantra aims to liberate one’s body and mind, releasing blocks and traumas from the past, and integrating one’s sexual energy with the energy of the heart for greater personal integration and more fulfilling connection with others.
Coming from a repressive Catholic upbringing, where my body and desires were inherently anti-spiritual, I can say this path has been utterly life-changing for me! These teachings have allowed me to bring sexuality out of the ‘shadows of sin’ and to recognize that I can be both a deeply spiritual being and a deeply sexual being at the exact same time. In fact, I believe that a truly integrated spiritual path is a Tantric one that embraces the body and the fullness of these human lives. When we learn to honor and respect these powerful energies they can be a deep source of healing and nourishment rather than something to be avoided or kept in the closet.
It is important to me that my students understand that much of what is taught in Ritual Tantra courses is material from the Neo-Tantra realm and to give credit where credit is due to the Classical path, referring students to those lineages and teachers where they may choose to continue their study in that domain.
That being said, I began my study of Tantra with Kashmir Shaivism and continue more zealously in Tibetan Buddhist Tantra through Reggie Ray, and these traditions greatly inspire my teachings to go beyond the mere pleasure for pleasure’s sake and “how to have really great orgasms,” but to expand into how these practices can bring about great healing and personal awakening as well as bring us into greater connection with ourselves, our partners, and our lives.
Tantra as a Path of Sexual Evolution in Today’s World