We have been teaching Tantra together for nearly a decade and half and have written three books on the subject. Our teacher, Dr. Jonn Mumford, was traditionally trained and initiated and began studying in India in the 1950s, well before it became for fashionable Westerners to do so. Until his retirement from public teaching several years ago, he regularly returned to India to teach, and his books and ours have been published there, in the land where Tantra was born.
Despite our background and whatever satisfaction being published in India may bring, the word Tantra makes us uneasy. Part of this unease is rooted in concerns about cultural appropriation – a very complex subject and one we think deserves more consideration by contemporary Western practitioners. But for us, authenticity has been an even deeper consideration. The Tantric tradition evolved on the Indian subcontinent in the early Common Era, if not before, and some concerns about appropriation are mitigated by the fact that South Asian and European cultures have been engaged in some measure of culture exchange since well before then (there are accounts of yogis returning to Greece with Alexander the Great.) Even so, the question remains: how can people in the modern West embrace a tradition that is so remote both temporally and mentally?
This quest to understand and communicate how contemporary people can draw on this rich tradition and the values it contains in an authentic way has been central to our work. Ironically, this desire for an authentic modern approach to Tantra has inspired us to write a book, Partners in Passion (coming from Cleis in February 2014,) that is not a Tantra book at all. Though our background in the tradition and our years of study are integral to the book, we’ve come to believe that ordinary people can benefit from applying some basic Tantric concepts without having to attend a Tantra workshop or to accept any particular set of beliefs. One of these concepts is central to Tantric sexual ritual, but it can be applied to all aspects of a relationship.
The earliest form of Tantric sexual ritual probably involved the possession of female practitioners by wrathful deities and the transmission of those deities’ powers to male practitioners through intercourse and the consumption of commingled sexual fluids as a sacrament. Over the next few centuries, “Tantric Sex” became somewhat more spiritualized. The emphasis shifted somewhat from the acquisition of power to producing an altered state of consciousness. In more recent forms of the ritual, the participants worship each other in a microcosmic reenactment of a macrocosmic principle – the universe as an ongoing process of sexual union between a divine ‘masculine’ and a divine ‘feminine’ (masculine and feminine in this context have nothing to do with anatomy or gender roles.)
Contemporary versions of Tantra often focus on ‘sexual healing’ or sexual technique, neither of which has much connection with the tradition. Another modern approach involves using practices that are derived from Tantra in a context that resembles couples’ therapy more than anything else. Tantra’s origins are in a culture and time when ‘couples therapy’ would have been a thoroughly alien concept, when the idea of marrying for love or seeking emotional fulfillment through one’s beloved would have been inconceivable. Tantra is not therapy, although the practices can be therapeutic.
So how can the tradition be applied in a modern context? The answer lies in the sexual ritual, and this answer can be applied to all aspects of a partnership. The role of the partners in the limited context of the sexual ritual is one of service and devotion to the other. Each partner’s job is to facilitate the other, to take the other higher, to build and prolong arousal so that a mystical experience is possible, not to seek personal satisfaction – something that is more likely to be experienced if it is not sought. By keeping this principle in mind, both in and out of the bedroom, couples can develop a deeper, more mutual, and more satisfying way of interacting.
We’re conditioned to believe that getting our needs met is paramount in a relationship. The truth is that if we’re reasonably healthy mentally and have a fairly good sense of personal boundaries, we’re likely to get more by giving than by seeking for ourselves.