Death and Tantra
One of my teachers said recently that if he could boil down what Tantra is about to one word, it would be “death.”
It’s true on several different levels. Tantra, at its core, is about the death of who you think you are. It’s a deep surrendering, a relentless inquiry into the masks we use to define ourselves - our stories, our conditioning, our “shoulds” - and it feels like a death. On another level, when we bring awareness to the whole of our reality, including the unsavory parts we usually ignore, this means we must also contemplate death. Death imagery is used in practice to help us face and accept the things that scare us. An entire subset of Tantric practitioners was dedicated to doing rituals in graveyards.
I ignored the fact of death for most of my life - it just didn’t seem real. Or, tragically, I felt I didn’t have time to think about it.
Yet, it is in contemplating death that we see how to truly live.
This teaching struck me particularly deeply because I recently watched my mother pass away. And the experience got me thinking, over and over: Am I really living? Am I doing what I came here to do?
It is easy to know what is important in life when you put death in front of it.
If you are like me, however, you may be tempted to use this idea to beat yourself up for not being brave enough to walk away from what is making you miserable to follow the seemingly ill-advised or impractical passion crying out within you.
Tantra is not about removing ourselves from life or abdicating our responsibilities. Living to our fullest does not necessarily mean going to hang out on a beach all day. It can mean working extra hard at something no one else understands.
Tantra was for householders, leading ordinary lives, and they might even have kept their practice secret because it wasn’t socially acceptable. So the real challenge is, how can we be true to ourselves in the midst of our life circumstances?
It’s our inner experience that we seek to expand. Whatever external circumstances we may have, we practice to also be in touch with the essence of who we are - which, according to Tantra, is pure awareness, blissful and free - and let that inform how we treat ourselves and everyone around us. In my experience this is not easy at all, but fortunately Tantra gives ample motivation.
Meditating on death allows us to return to what is most important to us, in the midst of checking off our to-do lists, standing on the bus, washing dishes, picking up after the kids...
Who are you, really? And are you letting yourself be you? Tantra brings us back, over and over, to this central mystery of life.
Another level on which my teacher’s words are true is as a counterpoint to the idea that Tantra is about sex.
This is a common misunderstanding. Until fairly recently, information to the contrary was not so easily accessible to non-academics. Tantra is actually a deep, sophisticated, and gorgeous system for inquiry into the truth of who we are that profoundly changes how we relate to life. One of my favorite examples is of the Krama, a subset of Tantrics who were fascinated by the process of cognition itself as a means to resting in non-dual awareness - nothing to do with sex.
And yet this misunderstanding has a grain of truth in it. You might ask, and I think you should, if Tantra isn’t about sex, why am I using Tantric principles as a Sex, Love, and Relationship coach?
This is because, similar to death, sex is a place where many of us don’t want to (or even can’t) look. The shaming, fear, trauma, misinformation, and lack of education around this fundamental aspect of our lives is catastrophic for our wellbeing. And this mass shaming of our innate sexuality comes out in behaviors that hurt us all.
The tools of Tantra - awareness, curiosity, acceptance, integration - are perfect for addressing this area of our lives. And because the underlying philosophy has no shame about our basic humanity - in fact it’s quite the opposite - Tantric principles in service of healing our collective sexual wounding is some very potent medicine indeed.