What makes tantra tantra? Contemporary tantra master John Hawken (with whom I have served a three year apprenticeship) suggests several defining principles in his excellent book “Realisations”.
Here is one of them: Tantra replaces duality with polarity.
Duality conjours up a world of either/or: I am either good or bad, successful or unsuccessful, firm or yielding, diligent or lazy, spiritual or base, transcendent or immanent. Duality is the friend of purists who sieze one pole or the other, render it morally and socially acceptable, then shame and blame all the ‘non-purists’ playing at the other pole, driving them into hiding in the shadows and ironically splitting the world in the crusade to Make Things Proper. Examples: the Protestant Work Ethic ( hard work is acceptable, rest is sloth) the New You Movement (faster, fitter, smarter is acceptable, ‘good enough as I am’ is pathology), New Ageism ( higher chakra stuff is spiritual, lower chakra stuff is animal and to be avoided).
Duality has its still-beating heart in the Judeo-Christian Traditions which rate abstemiousness as sacred and indulgence, as profane and sinful. This is particularly true of ‘sinful’ sexual polymorphousness. The word ‘sin’ actually means ‘separate’, separate from a self-righteous God, a gaseous vertebrate sat on a white cloud hugging all the acceptable traits in heaven whilst condemning all the sinning opposite-trait-hugging nonconformists to the fiery dungeon of hell. And, since this division is artificial and not god-given at all, the adherents of the acceptable secretly partake of the disreputable behind closed doors, and do so often in an exploitative way that is traumatising to others: the widespread sexual abuse of children by catholic priests is a notable example.
It’s not hell that’s so awful, it’s the fact that everything is dualistically split in the first place. Duality spawns the Demon of Perfectionism, whether it’s being a perfect god-fearing citizen or working to acquire a ‘perfect’ body. Duality deals in absolutes: to fail to reach perfection drives us to work ever-harder to do so. Of course, we cannot, by definition, ever get there and the effort leaves us crippled with burn-out and shame as a result. This is an awful, dystopian way to live.
Our efforts render us obedient to the priests of perfectionism, and, to the extent that we are engrossed in the drama of ‘Getting It Right’ we don’t have any surplus energy enabling us to step back and look at the bigger picture. Doing this would enable us to ask ‘Who or what is determining what is acceptable in this world and why?’ And the next question which inevitably follows on from this one asks ‘What is there to stop me from being my own authority?’
The answer to the first question is, fundamentally: ‘ There is an authority outside yourself, a malware that got bluetoothed into your psyche from a very early age. It tells you what is ‘right’ and what is ‘wrong’ and it seeks to keep you controlled like sheep in a pen. And it does this because this authority fears what would happen if people became their own authority’. The answer to the second question is ‘Nothing but your own fear of your freedom and amazingness.’
What this means, is that instead of viewing the meaning and value of life as something which The ‘Perfect’ Other shoehorns us into, we step barefoot into the ring of this very big Circus as a participant-observer and get into shamelessly playing with ourself, other people and this amazing environment. We melt the dualities of work/play, chaste/erotic and perfect/imperfect, experiencing them as spectra of experience rather than absolute divisions. Each spectrum is like a Field upon which we play, with a certain percentage of the quality of each pole in the space we occupy and we are free to savour the quality of this space and move into other spaces at will.
Some of us have been making a start on playing on the Fields since the 1960’s when people started to question, think for themselves and react against the perfectionist mentality. Over the last sixty years, some of us have made great strides in deconstructing patriarchy, ethnocentricity and dualistically-based theology, leaving those who have not done so more visible and perhaps more dangerous as a result. The most significant contemporary movements in this respect can be found in the emergent embodiment and sex-positive cultures. Cleanly taking their sensual pleasures in ways limited only by their own ingenuity and playing with others within the safety and trust created by conscious consent, individuals within these cultures are exploring those Fields poled by sensitivity/stimulation and domination/submission amongst others. Nobody is imposing moral judgements, standards or rules in these cultures: nobody is shamed for Doing The Wrong Thing.
I will get closer to home now and explain how transitioning from duality to polarity transformed my life on a yoga mat. When I began practising postural yoga in 1983, I had this notion that there were ‘perfect’ poses requiring stamina, strength, flexibility and a symmetrical body to accomplish. Since I had, at the time, a functional scoliosis, I was ‘imperfect’ so my task was to become perfect through diligent practice. On a daily basis, I would push myself towards ‘perfection’ secretly knowing that I could not attain it because of my ‘disability’.
During these practice sessions, I would experience a lot of muscular pain because of the aggressive manner in which I was driving myself. I was not really in my body at all: I was daydreaming about the coffee I would reward myself with once the practice was over. When I lay down in savasana, I was no longer in pain and experienced joy and relief. But these feelings were short-lived because my attitude of aggression and self-deprication carried like smog in my pranic winds and left my body full of aches and cramps during the day. Pleasure/Pain, Perfect/Imperfect…I was the slave of these Demons of Duality. And, of course, I told nobody about this shameful state of affairs, although many of my teachers urged me to be more lenient with myself in these first twenty years of practice.
Gradually, things started to change. The energy I gained from my postural sadhana enabled me to experience the sensations in my musculature less and less as pain and more and more as intensity. This enabled me to focus on those sensations instead of the cappuccino (which is like the promise of heaven after a vinyasa of purgatory). As I did so, I began to experience power and joy in those sensations: not pleasure exactly but certainly something fulfilling, appealing and worth cultivating in life.
The energy I was unleashing through being mindful of what I was doing elevated my consciousness so that I could witness what I was experiencing and gradually, the poles of pleasure/pain and attachment/aversion dissolved into a moment-by-moment open-hearted experience. I let go of the illusion that I was imperfect and deficient in some way: I just was. And this gave me a sense of physical comfort and ease because my prana was carrying thoughts of wellbeing rather than frustration and shame.
I began to experiment with my practice. Freed from a hardcore dualistic mentality, I began to spend some days on the mat being gentle with myself: other days I’d be rigorous. After all, there’s a Field between the poles of ascetism and pleasure which I was free to play on. I gradually learned to trust my heart and body in terms of what I needed on a day-by-day basis. Sometimes, I felt like not stretching, or doing any kind of practice at all, and I did not feel guilty when I stayed in bed. I felt liberated, shamelessly free to be perfectly imperfect, spontaneous and curious about my responses to yoga practice, and, in time, my whole approach to life.
Melt the dualistic way of thinking and we clear out the toxic shame and guilt that ride through our nadis and keep our fascia contracted and knotted. It’s a gradual process and it requires that we learn how to energise ourself, and learn to listen to the responses of our mind, heart and body as we do so. These are the only two instructions that we need to take into any practice with us. Freed from the need to Get Things Right, we get to use our integrity to explore and experiment because there’s no such thing as Getting It Wrong. And without the befogging anxiety this generates, the way is cleared for us to Figure Out What Works For Us.
The tantra which John Hawken has taught myself, my wife Rose and the thousands of others over the last thirty years is all about losing the constraints of externally-imposed authority and becoming your own sovereign. We are not liberated into the land of do-as-you-please when we transform in this way. A quality tantra is true to its shamanic roots and the self-sovereignty we cultivate naturally aligns us as guardians and celebrants of the planet, sometimes wild and ecstatic, sometimes still and thoughtful, sometimes grieving over the state of the planet, sometimes laughing and dancing in tune with its deep essence.
We can learn to choose who we wish to be in any moment: serene, silly, slothful, silent, screaming, solid, squelchy, sinuous. And this happens when we are in free play somewhere in the field between the opposites of the many poles offered by life, unsnagged by the dualistic thorns of antiquity. These days, in all of our workshops, whether tantra, yoga, meditation, coaching or psychotherapy, I offer guidance in this freedom. Come and watch me demonstrate a posture that I’m not very good at. Come play in the Fields Beyond Failure.