Tantra as Science
Let’s begin by laying out a few core ideas about tantra. Each of us is born at a certain time, under certain conditions. If you have more of a Western mindset, you think of those conditions not as the influence of past lives or of the stars or planets at any given time, but rather as conditions relating to our parents or the culture that we grew up in, or just timing. We were all born into and exist within conditions unique to each of us, and those conditions have placed certain limits on our abilities, our perceptions, and our relationship to ourselves and others. Tantra is the science overcoming those limitations. In the simplest terms, that’s what tantra is about.
In the depth of silence is hidden the source of love.
Tantra, it might surprise some, is a science. One of the meanings of the word tantra is “treatise,” and that accurately describes it as a massive body of knowledge. Tantra doesn’t ask you to spend endless hours and years studying books on the subject. Rather, it is by its very nature practical. Tantra means that when you do a certain thing (an action or practice), it spontaneously gives rise to a higher level of awareness or a greater sense of freedom. When you do a tantric technique, it automatically produces a positive effect, a spontaneous effect, regardless of your beliefs. That is, by nature, what makes it tantric.
If you go to the oldest, most influential, most pure yoga text, the Yoga Sutra by Patanjali, you’ll find that it is full of tantric practices. The third chapter consists almost entirely of tantric practices. In the first chapter, the thirty-sixth sutra talks about meditating on a light in the heart that’s beyond all sorrow. That is a tantric practice—a practice of joining with some resource that lies beyond. Tantra and yoga share many principles, but in recent times, the two traditions have been dissociated. That separation is a false one, however.
My teachers taught me that yoga was about peace; yoga was about transformation; yoga was about transforming oneself and one’s world. We did our sadhana, our practice, to create internal changes so that our relationship with the world would be transformed. That message has not stood up very well in today’s yoga community, where yoga is often seen merely as a means of stress reduction, or exercise. The idea of tantra has also been distorted and, in the public’s mind, is now often believed to involve taking your clothes off. It is my hope that there will be a reawakening and a revival of the real power of these traditions.
Awakening to the Subtle Realm
In Living with the Himalayan Masters, Swami Rama writes, “In the depth of silence is hidden the source of love.” To what extent do we find silence in our lives? Tantra and yoga together allow us to access the world of silence and the extraordinary knowledge it can impart to us. Perhaps what makes tantra a unique spiritual system is its suggestion that our experience of life is shaped not only by the mind, by our culture, parents and friends, and by the time or era we live in. It is actually dictated by our pranic landscape—by our energy. Tantric visionaries, or rishis, were able to look into the map of the subtle body, pranic body. To begin to discover the source of love, we must plumb the depths of silence and discover what lies there.
This exploration, which is the beginning of self-mastery, is different from the psychological approach to self-understanding and self-knowledge, as it is commonly understood in the Western world. Our experience of life is not only the way we see it but also what we do within it, what we imagine is possible. It’s actually shaped not just by our perception but also by our energy. By becoming aware of the content of our mind (and I use that term to allude not only to our memory, ego, and psychological makeup—the Western conception of mind—but also to include the totality of experiences from this life and previous lives), we can begin to transform our energy. This awakening to the subtle realm is what tantra yoga is all about.
The awakening to the subtle realm is what tantra yoga is all about.
Swami Satchidananda Saraswati, an astute and accomplished yoga master, has said, “When you develop true sensitivity, the world will be an open book to you, revealing on each page new secrets and wonderful knowledge.” He was talking about the world of prana, the world of energy. All the great sages tried to impress upon us that the world we see is barely the tip of the iceberg of existence. Barely the tip. Although it’s not visible, prana is everywhere, animating everything—known and unknown. Everything we see, hear, taste, touch, smell, and sense is animated by prana. How hard is it to access? The simple principle is that the more quiet our mind is, the easier it is to access prana. And the more often we access it, the easier it is to get our mind quiet.
The great mechanism to connect to this field of prana, which then gradually increases our sensitivity and our transformational potential, is not our breath but our mind. The mind’s ability to connect to these subtle fields is perhaps its greatest gift. The pranic body in Western mysticism is called the etheric body. The etheric body’s one main role, from the tantric point of view, is to access the quality of liveliness, the quality of vitality that can dissipate the negative effects of wrong living. The role of the pranic or etheric body is to reduce the impact of our thoughts, emotions, unhealthy diet, and wrong living on the physical body so that we can sustain it, not indefinitely, but for the time that we have life—sustain it so that we can be a vital, creative force.
How do we access the subtle body? It is not as complicated or as lofty as it sounds. It’s called imagination. Imagination and visualization. When I imagine that there is, let’s say, a field of light around my body, is it strictly imaginary? Is it only in my mind? No. That pranic realm is in the mind, in the body, and beyond. So as soon as the mind begins to turn toward some feeling or image related to these subtle realms, one is automatically relating to them.
As I said earlier, yoga has been used, to a great extent, only for self-improvement—to make our bodies feel better, to be healthier, to feel less stress. What we’ve lost is the idea that when I think of another and extend compassion to another, I improve myself. When I help another person, we become literally inseparable. This is what tantra teaches, and it is the key to living in a more expansive way that benefits ourselves and the larger world.
Originally posted at the Himalayan Institute Amrit Blog