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Talking Tantra 

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Anshu Bahanda: This is Anshu Bahanda on Wellness Curated. Thanks for joining me on this podcast. My mission is to empower you with health and wellness so that you can then go and empower others. 

I have, today, someone who’s an absolute legend. We have Seema Anand, who will be joining us. She is a mythologist and storyteller. I know, she doesn’t need an introduction to a lot of you. She works on the preservation of ancient Indian literature and she’s affiliated with the UNESCO Initiative for preserving oral traditions. Seema is the author of the book, Arts of Seduction. (Bell chimes). There is so much in this podcast. Listen to this.

What is Tantra?

Seema Anand: So tantra, I mean, when people actually translate the word, they say that it means to grow the mind or to illuminate the dullness, bring light to the mind. In my head, tantra when we say to grow the mind, what it actually means, when you look at it in practical purposes, is that if you were to become so aware of everything around you, this is what they say in a lot of the introductions when they start to teach you, is that we have at any given point, like 5 million stimuli around us. Okay. There is so much going on around us. We pick up a very small number of things and what you actually can focus on is an even smaller number of things. So, the idea is to be able to declutter the mind, to make it so active, to make it so sharp and crisp that you can start to pick up all of the stimuli around you, that’s what’s called growing the mind to a point where they say that you would almost be able to see the atoms with the naked eye. So, if you have a wall in front of you, like when we talk about quantum mechanics, they say that if it’s a wall, it’s made up of a certain mass. You keep walking into that wall. Eventually, after 1 million times of doing it, maybe you’ll figure out how to displace the atoms and the molecules so that you can actually walk through it. This is about understanding where those molecules are placed and to be able to walk through it. That’s why people take it amiss and think that we’re talking about magic and black magic and things. But it’s just about becoming so aware that your mind is that sharp. 

AB: From what I can understand, to get your mind to be that sharp, you’re expanding your consciousness. 

SA: You’re expanding your consciousness, you’re understanding how to see beyond the fogginess, the things that obstruct your vision, your mind, your brain, your consciousness. It’s about understanding how to get past a lot of that.

AB: How and why did Tantra come into being?

SA: I personally think, that it’s probably one of the oldest philosophies. I think that it was there before we can actually pinpoint when it came into being. And it literally is, like I said, a philosophy much like others. Now, of course, we believe, the Hindus believe that Lord Shiva actually teaches it himself, and this was the teachings and wisdom that he gave. So, tantras are dialogues. There are many, many tantras. The Tantras are dialogues between Shiva and Parvati. And in some, it is where she asks questions on how to understand this universe and he responds. And they say that in some he asks the questions and she responds. So, the Tantras are the dialogues between the two of them. And I imagine that like any other form of philosophy or form of understanding, it came about in an effort to understand this universe around us. 

AB: Given sort of we have a vague idea, to start going into this conversation now about what Tantra is, what would you say are the benefits of Tantra?

SA: It’s about improving your life. It’s about bringing that kind of balance and awareness to your life. It’s about understanding how you don’t let the emotions that constantly surround you. I mean, we’re human beings, we live with emotions, so it’s not letting the emotions cloud your understanding. So let’s say something awful has happened and you’re panic-stricken, you’re going to react to that thing in that moment of panic, will you be making the perfectly right decision or not? Detachment is about understanding. I mean, you’re human. You’re always going to feel all of those emotions. It’s about understanding how to manage those emotions so that you can bring this balance to your life and continue to grow your mind. It’s an ideal. It’s not something that any of us really ever get to that wonderful pinnacle of self-balance and understanding, but it’s something that we all work towards. And as I said, the whole idea is to achieve the divine, to achieve Moksh, to achieve nirvana, whatever the word is that we’re looking for, to achieve God. And so, we believe in Tantra, that there are a million different ways of getting there. But the interesting thing is that it acknowledges every single way, but it makes it procedural. So, everything that you do, if you say that this is about elevating your mind, then you have procedures to it. It’s not haphazard and you don’t thrash around.

AB: From your experience, I know you’ve been teaching Tantric meditations and things. So, from your experience, for a lot of us who have no experience with Tantra, what is the best way of learning it, practicing it?

SA:  It’s a way of life. It’s actually about understanding how you practice everyday things. It’s literally about everyday things. It’s not like the big, huge, fabulous sets. It’s literally about how you practice everyday life to get yourself to the next point. The very first thing that I did when it came to tantric meditation because I’m not a great person for meditating, it took me a long time to understand exactly what to do, how to do it, to even bring myself to this point. And funnily enough, aren’t you? I was taught that it’s not about clearing the mind. It’s not about saying, “okay, I will empty the mind and focus on one point”, or none of that. It was about listening. So, you shut your eyes and you listen. And as you listen very carefully, you start to pick up the tiny noises, the minuscule bits. That’s where Tantric meditation for me began. And I still didn’t get it. When I started my studies in Tantra, I was in a very uncomfortable situation. I think, I’ve said this before. I was sitting in the Kumaon hills. I’d been given a little bursary to go and do some research and where I was, it was thoroughly uncomfortable because there were no proper toilets. There were a million mosquitoes. It was hot. It was like, I hated it. I hadn’t had a bath in about eleven days. My hair was so greasy. It was awful. It was just awful. And I wasn’t really thinking straight. But as you know, I’m a storyteller. I work on stage. And storytelling is different from theater. When you’re doing a play, you have a script that you can either dramatize and that’s like your prop, or you have other people, or you have props, so you have a million different things that you can use. 

When you’re a storyteller, you literally stand on that stage and you have to connect one on one with the people, because you’re telling a story and you have to fill that entire huge stage just with your words and your being. It was fine when there were smaller audiences. As the audience got bigger, we were in an auditorium, and the lights go down. You can’t see the way people are reacting because that’s how you pick up a story. You see how they’re reacting. You make it faster; you make it slower. You change things. I learned to listen to breathing, so I rehearsed the story so that it would just come naturally. But my entire being was focused on listening to how the audience was reacting, by just literally listening to the collective breath. And that is literally where I then got into this in a bigger way because my first experience of it was not like it was very, I don’t think I want to do this, but yes, you then start to get into it and you start to understand energies from there. And yeah, for me, it’s been a really incredible journey. 

AB: So, you would advise that people basically, if they’re trying to get into it, just start with a basic meditation?

SA: Yes, basic meditation, where I would literally say that you shut your eyes and you listen because a lot of things come into your head. You listen to all the things, allow yourself to listen to them, because if you think, I’m not going to listen to anything, it’s impossible because that’s when the distractions come in. So, you actually decide, okay, I’m not going to see those things, but I’m going to listen. And in Tantra, the reason that they start with this is that we say that the channels of energy exist in your body, and the motivations for those channels exist in your brain. But there is no direct connection between those motivations and the channels that come through the eyes, which is why the placement of the eyes when you sort of start to proceed with Tantric meditation is so, so important. And I know somebody once said to me, “are you trying to say that blind people can’t meditate?” No, I’m not saying that at all. I’m just saying what the belief is, at least in one strand of Tantra. Okay? So, when you shut your eyes, you actually have to rely on various other senses. You don’t necessarily pass the motivation of energy into your body. You actually first have to focus it in your brain and understand where it’s coming from. So, my advice would be if you’re going to start your tantric meditation, start with listening. 

AB: Listening. And you touched on something interesting, which is that tantra is very misunderstood. Can we go into that a little more before we delve deeper? 

SA: Yeah, because a lot of the practices are sexo-yogic, and a lot of people get stuck on this idea that it’s about sex. And that’s where everything kind of just falls by the wayside. Sexual energy is an extremely powerful energy. We know this because when at any point a person is intimate with somebody else… if you’re having sex with somebody, it’s the only time, particularly if you actually go as far as going into an orgasm, it’s the only time where every single function in your body changes. Everything goes into function; every bit of your metabolism comes into being. And so, we believe that this is when your energy levels are at their highest and this is what should be harnessed. So, with that little tiny bit of information, most people are like, “oh, this is about sex. This is what we’re going to do” And unfortunately, that’s where most people get stuck.

It’s very hard to actually get past this one point. We always say that pleasure or desire rises inside you, it’s like the sap of a tree. It’s like a giant force inside the tree. When spring comes and desire rises in the tree, the sap kind of shoots up inside you. That’s what pleasure is like. It kind of comes into being and it starts to shoot up inside you. 

Searching long enough I beg the moon and stars above for sacred love.

It’s an amazing shakti. The energy doesn’t divide itself and say, “okay, this bit is what’s going to use for thinking about something. This bit will be used for cooking something. This bit will be used for going running”, it’s energy. It goes through. Now, what happens with most people is that the second chakra that we have, which is around where the bowel sides, where the sexual organs are, a lot of people’s energy gets stuck over there. For some people, I know that this is what they say. They use these sexo-yogic positions to actually release the energy from there and move it upwards. 

AB: Okay.

SA: You come together in the sexo-yogic position. You do this in a way that stills the two bodies. So tantric sex is not wild sex, it’s not crazy sex. It’s not where you’re thrashing around doing stuff. The idea is to bring yourself into complete balance. If you’ve noticed, with anything, if something is in balance, it’s going to be still. If something is moving, if it’s dynamic, that means that the energy levels are not equal. If you look at the sexo-yogic positions in tantra, the two people, when they come together, their positions are absolutely identical. So, they will mirror each other. And the idea is to bring about complete balance. And the cycle of this connection, the circuit is completed by looking into each other’s eyes. So, you do this position. So, if one person has their arm raised, the other person will have the mirror arm raised, et cetera. So, you bring about total balance, total stillness and you connect finally through the eyes. 

AB: Should we talk about tantric sex first now that you’re delving into it? 

SA: So, there’s no such thing as tantric sex. I think, we keep saying this, and I know that Sting has made it very famous, and people out there are going to… there are people running courses across the world talking about how to have tantric orgasms and tantric sex. And I’m sorry, but that is just not correct, it truly isn’t. You know, in tantric sex, it’s actually about maintaining that position, holding it, letting all of those energies rise up. There are also ways of using different sexual positions for healing or for moving energies around the body. When you have sexual practices, it’s all about breaking certain bounds. This idea that only this can be considered the path to God.

AB: Okay.

SA:  That was one of the things that was being broken down that no, this is not the only part. Just because you scrub something clean, et cetera. Everything has been created by God. Everything has to be understood. So, there is a certain level of determinedly going out there and saying that this is not impure. The other thing that in Tantra we tend to do is there’s a lot of cremation ground practices. There are a lot of things around dead bodies and so on. And again, it’s about understanding that cycle of life and death that it begins from there. If one thing even stops, everything in creation stops. If life and death do not happen simultaneously. I know that a lot of people also say that the idea of doing the cremation ground practices or meditation in the cremation ground is to get past your own fear. It’s not necessarily just the temporal fear, the outside fear of, “oh my God, I’m in this place”, but also, I think that one of the greatest fears that most people have is death. Interesting. I also know that in some of the Tantric practices, they’ll always say that if a particular saadhak, if a practitioner is practicing certain sexo-yogic positions, the other partner should be somebody from a lower caste. Now, this is told to us in a lot of the text. Again, the idea behind this was that the Brahmins are supposed to be really pure.

AB:  Right.

SA: So, if there is anything inauspicious in the cleansing that has to be done, the very pure Brahminical practice, or the practitioner cannot absorb that. So, it has to be somebody who has the strength to absorb that. So, they become auspicious because they can take away the inauspicious. 

AB: That’s a very interesting way of looking at it. 

SA: It was about breaking down so many of these stereotypes in our brain because these stereotypes are what cloud our brains. We even have one particular Tantric Goddess Matangi, I think it is, who is worshipped with leftovers and with menstrual blood. 

AB: Interesting, right?

SA: So, it is about literally breaking down those things that we set up as barriers, because we believe that that is the right way of doing something, and it just adds to our own delusions. 

AB: So, going on to something like Tantric Buddhism, can you explain to us what is Tantric Buddhism? 

SA: Again, there are several theories that Tantra was being practiced by the Buddhists a long time before it enters the Hindu canons. I don’t know if it was practiced as a thing that went side by side or just that the Buddhists, when they leave India, they take a lot of these practices. A lot of their Buddhist Tantra practices are so much more powerful, they kind of go two steps further. And I think that they have just taken those procedures and those steps a little bit further. So, whether you have the sky burial, as you know, in Buddhist Tantra, they have this idea of the sky burial where you will take the dead body up to a mountain peak and you invite the vultures to eat the body.

AB: Oh, wow! 

SA: It’s about breaking down delusions, breaking down stereotypes, breaking down the fear, and totally, literally letting go. And we think that it came from Zorashtra, from the Zoroastrians. But basically, it’s where you have a slab on a mountain peak. You have what they call the body breaker. So, the body will be laid out. The monks will sit around it to chant. The body breaker will then come and slice the body in certain ways, according to certain prayers and according to certain yantras that they’ve decided on. And once the body is sliced, the vultures are then invited to come and eat it. Sometimes the vultures are not interested because they’ve eaten a couple of other bodies, so they’ll have a little nibble and they won’t have anymore. And the monks who are sitting around, not just the monks, but the people who also took the body there, you cannot leave till that has been consumed. And right at the end of it, the body breaker will come back and he crushes the bones that are left over and they mix it with a big ball of yak butter so that it’s sort of made into a ball. And then that is finally flung between the vultures and that’s finished.

AB: So, it’s literally using everything for the circle of life. But also, to a certain extent, it’s that belief that once that consciousness has left your body, it’s just a body. 

SA: Exactly. 

AB: So, what is Agama and Nigama Tantra

SA: The agamic rituals, the everyday rituals. So, gum, which is from Agam and Nigam both is the practice of knowledge. So basically, they say that the agamic rituals are passed down. They were originally revelations by Lord Shiva.

AB: Okay.

SA: And they’re passed down by word of mouth, but they’re about practice. Nigam is the logic. So, there’s the practice and the logic. I mean, if I have to put it in very simple terms, it’s the practice and the philosophy, the thinking and the doing. 

AB: And tell us any advice for people about tantra

SA: I just want people to get past this idea that there is black magic involved or that there is something evil or there’s something dark about it. It’s a philosophy. It needs to be understood and practiced. So, that’s what I really want people to go away with. 

AB: Wonderful. But what would be incredible is if you can tell us how to do meditation. 

SATantra, they believe that everything has been created by the divine, which means everything has to be understood. Every path that you take to God is valid, but it could be hugely different from what I think or from what you think. So, it’s about understanding that somebody else’s idea is equally valid. I’m quite happy to accept it in theory that, yes, everybody should have their idea. They should have the freedom to think the way that they do. But I find it really hard to come to grips with. You draw a circle, one big round circle. You then bisect it, and then you bisect it again. So, you make four bits to it, and you keep going till you have 16 divisions in that circle. You write down your thought, your idea, right at the top, and then you take the exact opposite thought, and you put it at the bottom. So, if that was a clock, then that would be at number six. That’s the exact opposite. And then what you do is literally at every one of those divisions, you start going from your thinking, if you were to shift it by one degree, what would it have become? If you were to shift it by a little degree more, what would it become? And the idea here is that once you’ve written it all down, you realize that every part of that thought is connected. It’s not actually the opposite of what you’re thinking. It’s part of the same thought. You’re just looking at it from a different point of view, from a different side. And depending on how you’re feeling that day, depending on your perspective, you could very easily be on that other side at any given point. 

AB: Wow, that is fascinating! 

SA: You have to be present. You can’t do it while listening to a podcast or watching Netflix. You’ve got to be physically present to be able to think of other people’s viewpoints. You have to be physically present, you have to give it your all. And it’s hard to think what one degree away would be. It’s hard sometimes even to write it down and then to look at it at the end of it and sort of go into every single one of those divisions and see what you wrote. It takes a long time to do. It’s not easy, and it also does a lot to your emotions, but it’s one of the most effective meditations.

AB: So, just give us an idea. What do you put on top?

SA: Okay, let’s take exactly this, I believe that tantra is a philosophy, and somebody else says it’s all about tantric sex. So, I would put down my thought that it’s a philosophy and there are some tantric sexo-yogic practices in tantra, but it is not about tantric sex. And then the next step would be one little shift. You literally change your viewpoint by one degree almost. Allow the other person’s thinking or viewpoint to come in just a teensy bit at a time. 

AB: But Seema, that was such an incredible chat. I’ve learned so much in this chat. Thanks for joining us. Hope you enjoyed the Wellness Curated podcast. Please subscribe and tell your friends and family about it. And here’s to you, leading your best life.