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The Tantra of Tenderness (I)

Emerald Lotus and Black Swan


What is Tantra? Today, you will usually hear the word used in the context of “Tantric sex,” and if sex interests you at all, this clue may be intriguing. Delve a little deeper and you are likely to encounter the sensational claim that we, mere mortals, can attain a mystical state of cosmic consciousness and turn into gods through performing the sexual act as a religious rite—such is the Tantric practice. This sounds like a deal anyone in their right mind wouldn’t refuse. Alas, who on the planet these days is in their right mind?

(Above: Tantric couple from the mural complex of the LakshmanTemple at Khajuraho in north central India. 950 – 1050 CE. Acknowledgements to sunya.net for the magnificent photos used in this essay.)

A Little Background

When Tantra was discovered by Orientalists late in the 18th century, its sexual element was not immediately clear. British philologist and mythographer Sir William Jones (1746 – 94) probably introduced the word into English around 1790. Initially, it connoted something sinister, “left-handed,” smelling perhaps of black magic. Tantric writings were understood to be magical texts, rather like medieval grimoires.They contained instructions for divination, casting spells, and other ceremonies, including sexual rituals. The genre also included high-toned metaphysical and cosmological treatises that seemed to use sexual intercourse as a metaphor for cosmic processes. Sexuality in Tantra was to remain deeply misunderstood for almost two centuries.

British explorer and collector Sir Richard Burton (1821-1890), a key figure of the Romantic Movement, may have known about Tantric writings. He translated some erotic literature of India and Arabia, including the Kama Sutra. The forbidden book flourished in the literary underworld of Victorian pornography. The Kama Sutra is not a Tantric text, however. It is a Hindu marriage manual or how-to book for naive newlyweds. Nevertheless, its popularity improved the atmosphere in which the graphic sexual element in Tantric literature could be appreciated.

Rediscovered during the sexual revolution of the 1960s, Tantra subsequently took on a New Age aura. By now, it has almost gone mainstream. Well known in the West, it is generally defined as “sexual yoga.” Google “Tantric sex” and you get about 1,700,000 English pages. Many of them advertise courses, programs, and seminars, so there are ample opportunities out there to get hands-on training, if one is so inclined. I myself have never practiced Tantric sex of the kind offered in these courses and seminars, nor of the kind prescribed in traditional Hindu texts, so I am experientially unqualified to comment on those practices.

I don’t do Tantric sex, and never have. I do Tantra, with sexual accessories. In this essay I will try to explain the difference.

Full-Body Kundalini

I will begin by saying that I consider the Tantra of my predilection to be integral with Gaian shamanism. This is the telestic shamanism of the Mysteries, aimed at direct communication with Gaia, whose body is the planet earth. Gaia-Sophia, to give her full name, is the matrix of supersensory emotive intelligence that animates the natural world and all its creatures, including human beings.

These two practices, sex and shamanism, belong together in a Gaian perspective. Ideally, at least. They complement and reinforce each other.

Tantra is a way of heighten the experience of bliss that is natural to human beings and all sentient life, down to the molecular level. In Tantric sex you sink right into full-blown molecular bliss. This is also what happens in visionary trance induced by psychoactive plants, or medicine plants, when the practice is done correctly.

The complementarity of these two practices should be obvious. Tantra enhances and deepens the capacity to sink into bodily pleasure, so it improves the corporeal tool for Gaian practice. Conversely, Gaian shamanism induces a massive tenderness, bonding us to the earth in a way that makes sensual-sexual pleasure all the more deep and delicious, when we get around to it. Although deeply erotic, visionary trance does not lend itself to the enactment of sexual desire. But Tantrically enhanced sexuality does induce certain kinds of visionary effects. As far as I know, these shamanistic effects, which can be quite spectacular, are not described in current popular expositions of Tantra presented as sexual yoga or an intimacy enhancement technique for couples who want to spice up their bedroom routine.

Kundalini is a mysterious force often mentioned in connection with Tantra. Years ago at the Institute for Creative Mythology in Santa Fe (fancy name for my studio on La Vereda off Palace Avenue), I suggested that kundalini is a grounding force that connects our bodies to the planet. Traditional teachings do not describe kundalini in this manner. Rather, it is said to be an interior force stored in the body that rises up the spine to the “crown chakra” and stimulates a bodiless state of cosmic consciousness, or awakening to the divine nature of all things.

Years ago I made the contrary claim that kundalini, rather than ascending, grounds our bodies to the earth based on experiences of full-body kundalini. Classic texts on sat-chakra-nirupana, the method of raising “the serpent power” through the seven chakras, emphasize the vertical electric rush up the spine and do not mention full-body kundalini. Verticality is still the prevailing view on the dynamics of Bhujangi, “the whip-coiling one,” to cite one of its many nicknames.

But there is more than one way to spin a yogi, and more than one way to have the kundalini rush.

At sixteen I underwent an involuntary kundalini arousal—attack might be a better word. It lasted six months, off and on, getting ever more intense, to the point where I thought the force of the seething electric bolts running up my spine would kill me. Finally, I had to surrender to that overpowering force. Just let it kill me, if that was going to happen. When I did that, it suddenly stopped, the attacks subsided. The operative word here is surrender. I did not have kundalini, it had me. And I had no idea what it was or what it was doing to me. I had to surrender what I did not have and did now know to come through that experience alive.

Having undergone one kind of kundalini experience, the cool-electric-fluid-shooting-up-the-spine type, I was prepared to have another kind later on, because I knew how the primary sensation felt. However, I was not informed beforehand that there was another way to experience the kundalini rush. At that time, the early1960s, there was no information about full-body kundalini. Today, the Internet has 25,000 English pages that mention it.

At this point some definitions may be helpful. All words defined are Sanskrit.

kunda, kundala: Literally, a coil or cord of rope. Mystically, the force coiled in the interior of the earth, planetary serpent power. All myths recognize this power by the prevalence of the serpent, Mother Snake, python, anaconda, Rainbow Serpent, and so forth in thousands of variations. Ayahuasca trance and other psychoactive states present lavish visions of kundala, the serpentine mother force. Call it the kundalini of the earth: planetary kundalini. Kunda in Sanskrit also means pit, cavity, recess. Mahakundala, the great coiled power, is rooted in the core of the earth itself. Bhujangi is Sanskrit slang for a whip-coil force rooted in the earth. The root bhu- means earthbound, telluric.

kundalini: Literally, eeny-weeny kunda or kundal-eeny. This is the microcosmic correlate to the planetary force, serpentine power packed into the human body at the molecular level. It concentrates macrocosmic power and connects individual bodies to the planetary body. Kundalini is prana, solarized life-force, but in the particular form prana assumes when integrated into the sexual organs and somatic circuitry of the human body. (Animals also have kundalini: consider a purring cat. Felines are intensely sexual. A sexually excited domestic cat will remain calm and content because its sexual force is displaced from the loins toward the heart and pumped into its lungs, causing it to purr.)

kundalini yoga: Traditional practice of raising the serpent power from the base of the spine through the seven chakras and into the head. The Serpent Power by Sir John Woodroffe gives a definitive explanation of this practice, its cosmological basis and implications. Also called by the more expansive term, kundalini tantra.

full-body kundalini: The ecstatic flush of kundalini through all the cells of the body at once. Diffusion, rather than a concentrated vertical streaming up the spinal column. Tibetan Buddhism describes visionary effects that arise at the so-called development and perfection stages of Dzogchen when full-body kundalini surges through the nadis (rlun in Tibetan), microscopic channels in the body. I call this sensation the “coral effect.” Unlike Hindu Tantra, Tantricism of the Indian Mahayana and Tibetan Vajrayana schools does not explicate sexual practices, although they both use the image of the yab-yum or mating gods.

yoga of sex: a common way of describing Tantra as a yogic practice in which a couple use the sexual act as a ritual for raising kundalini. Hence the title of the book by Omar Garrison: Tantra – The Yoga of Sex.

The No-Orgasm Rule

I discovered full-body kundalini in Santa Fe due to an erotic entanglement with a woman who had defected from the “yoga farm,” an ashramic community founded by New Age guru Yogi Bhajan. The farm was located in Espanola, north of Santa Fe. Members of the ashram (or cult, if you will) were often seen around Santa Fe, where locals called them towel-heads because of their white turbans. This twenty-four-year-old woman, whom I will call Charlotte, had been practicing kundalini yogi for a year or so and was just not getting off. The practice involved abstinence, denial of sexual intercourse. But oddly, it also involved partnering with a man who also practiced abstinence, with the intention that the couple would strive for spiritual enlightenment together. Huh? Anyway, that was the rule for couples in the community founded by Yogi Bhajan.

lakshmantemple771 Lakshman Temple, Khajuraho. Devadasi or sacred courtesan, shown holding a book—a gesture consistent with the notion, evident also in European tradition, that eroticism and literacy go together.

Charlotte, a voluptuous Pisces sometimes mistaken for Bo Derek by wide-eyed tourists wandering around Santa Fe, wasn’t too happy with that rule. No long after she left the ashram with her big tallow-colored dog, Magnolia, she came to me for an astrology chart. I told her in the course of the reading that doing sex, rather than not doing it, was a far better way to get kundalini up and running. Told her with a straight face and a scholarly air. It was, if I must say so myself, about the best pick-up line I ever concocted. Normally, I did not seduce my clients. I was quite ethical in that respect. Male astrologers have to fight off a lot of women, about 90% of their clients being female. Alas, the rigors of the starry trade.

Well, I didn’t seduce Charlotte, either. She just showed up one evening and jumped my bones. It was late in December, a brilliant winter night in the high desert, two feet of fresh powder on the ground, the constellation of the Twins rising in jeweled splendor over the Sangre de Christos mountains. Charlotte turned on every cell in my body like the lights on a Christmas tree. Watch out where you can get from following your own advice.

Charlotte and I then proceeded to do Tantra, but not kundalini yoga as she had known it. Far from it. After all, she was fleeing a situation where abstinence was strictly required. Yogi Bhajan’s method of kundalini yoga was eccentric in pairing off a man and woman to do non-sexual practices together, in tandem, as it were. In classical Tantric sex, the couple engaged in the sacred act do not abstain from sex—obviously not, for intercourse is the primary rite—but they abstain from the deflating effect of orgasm. The key to the practice resides precisely in that second abstention: by not letting orgasmic release dissipate the blissful sensations generated by sexual congress, they raise their pleasure to a higher level and attain a divine state of illumination. They realize ananda, cosmic bliss, and melt together into the serenity of “the oceanic feeling,” a term introduced by William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience, 1901. They experience the divine play of the universe, lila, that lovely word (pronounced LEE-Lah). They see the world mystically transformed and themselves as its resident divinities, their bodies bejeweled, draped with flower-garlands, radiantly alive, steeped in sublime fragrances.

Such is the promised result of the no-orgasm rule of Tantric sex in Hindu tradition. The same rule applies in other quasi-Tantric practices such as the so-called Tao of Sex, a Chinese variant popularized by Mantak Chia. Purveyors of the Chinese methods tend to emphasize health and regeneration more than the lurid erotic kicks of Hindu Tantricism, but China as well has a hoary tradition of boudoir eroticism with mystical pretensions.

Quite early in my mystical career, not long after that kundalini attack, I discovered Taoist Yoga by Lu Kuan Yu. I also steeped myself in Eliade’s masterpiece, Yoga: Immortality and Freedom. These books taught me that retention of semen was fundamental to Asian yoga. This technique was, it seemed, the single most important factor in mystical attainment and physical regeneration, if not a requirement for immortality. Would you like to live forever but never have an orgasm? The yogi directs the semen to his own brain, the old texts insisted. Is this a genuine mystical technique, or just a bizarre way to masturbate? I wondered.

Personally, I didn’t care too much for the idea of a semen-soaked cranium. I did very much like the idea of a semen-soaked woman, however. The requirement of raising semen into the head and distilling it into cosmic nectar looked skewed to me. It seemed just plain unnatural. Not to mention caddish. And horribly selfish. In Talk Dirty to Me, an excellant study of pornography and sexual mores, Sara Tisdale wrote:

In the depth of sexual passion the skin of the other has the quality of a treasure; the mundane secretions our bodies make are honey, manna, light. To be cut off from each other’s fluid is a terrible thing; our fluids are meant to mingle, we long for this mingling that is both so outrageous and so pure.

Sexual Tantra

I guess I came across Tantra: The Yoga of Sex by Omar Garrison around the time I collided with the luscious Charlotte. This book was, and still is, the best mainstream introduction to classical Tantra. Published in 1964, it is authentic, as far as I can tell, and contains a lot of valuable information. For instance, Tantric adepts teach that sexual intercourse has eight aspects or stages: 1 dwelling upon sex in thought, 2 discussing it, 3 keeping company with a prospective sexual partner, 4 flirting, 5 intimate conversation, 6 the desire for union with that particular partner, 7 the determination to couple, 8 the act.

Consider the specificity here, inviting delicate and delicious awareness of each stage, and of the transitions between the stages. The passage from the idea to the act, savoring each step along the way, may be regarded as a slow-motion ritual of continuity—another translation of the word Tantra. This progression adds a whole new dimension to the oft-times tedious process of getting laid. (Below: coitus at the Devajagadambi Temple, with vertical statue rotated to put the woman on top, a custom that become popular in the 1960s.)


Garrison is pretty good on technical details. He explains how to massage the big toe to shift the flow from one side to the other, and still more fascinating arcane lore. I learned from him the method of breath entrainment for putting a woman to sleep in my arms. He describes the nadis, the chakras, the five vital elements or vayus, and the neurohormonal chemistry of high-end hedonic sexuality. Today we know a great deal more about the neurochemical programming of the body-mind than we did 44 years ago. The latest findings confirm that ancient Tantric techniques were not mere foolishness.

Who realizes the truth of the body will come to know the truth of the universe.
Ratnasara, a Hindu Tantric treatise

Garrison has a chapter on the inner power of sound, shabda. “The merging of mind with the ground of mind is achieved by listening to inner sound” (Hatha Yoga Pradipika). Having had some strange, life-shattering experiences with sound, I found this chapter particularly revealing. In sexual Tantra, the couple are swept into a kind of rush or rushing current, represented in traditional symbolism by the slight of Hamsa, the divine swan. Hamsa is code for the genital embrace of the Tantric couple in perfect union—the fusion fuck. The Swan is not merely a charming, gift-card symbol for the genital embrace. It is the paramount sensation of Tantra, as well as a constellation in the skies, and a cosmological principle.

In Tantra, the woman of high accomplishment is called an emerald lotus, jeweled or fragrant lotus; the man, a black swan. The meaning of these terms both in the technical and poetical senses is timeless and inexhaustible, and goes to the hidden heart of the mystical experience of humanity.

I found a lot in Garrison, but I also found what I had rejected at my first encounter with Taoist yoga and traditional Tantric sex: the elaborate discipline, the orchestration of the conjugal act, the complex visualizations, the stilted yogic postures, the retention of semen, and last but not least, the presumed attainment of a divine state. I wanted the sublime feat of union without all the rite and rigamorole, and certainly without the pretence of divinization. So I rejected all those aspects of classical Tantra and went my own way, aspiring to free-form, spontaneous hedonism—erotic mysticism without the old baggage and religious hype.

What I eventually got to I would call sexual Tantra, by contrast to Tantric sex.

The Triple Flame

In a society whose members resist their own pleasure, they will condemn the pleasure of others, so hedonism gets a bad name. I believe that in our species the capacity for pleasure is the primary measure of accepting life, including its divine, numinous, or supernatural dimension.


Sexual Tantra is an hedonic discipline—”hedonic”  being my neologism to avoid the derogatory and trivializing spin of hedonistic. It is not a practice for attaining godhood, although it opens your faculties to a range of stunning supernatural effects. It is a pleasure pact between a man and a woman who agree to honor and uphold each other’s capacity for pleasure. Beyond that, to celebrate and extend the love of pleasure into a mystical art. Sexual Tantra is a direct path to where the beauty in each of us melts into Beauty, pure and total. Beauty that exceeds your capacity to receive it. Beauty that pervades and animates all that lives. Beauty as advised in Cavalcanti’s poem Donna Mi Priegha:

Only the courageous come to know it,
a feeling ever-fresh, an ever-moving breath
that drives the self-reflecting mind
to look into another form, unsettled,
but roused as if it broke into a blaze.

Plato repeats a rumor that Socrates learned a certain principle from Diotima, “Love is desire aroused by beauty.” This is the threefold formula so passionately discussed among hedonists of the Renaissance, such as Cavalcanti and his protegé, Dante. Love here is Eros, not agape, limited personal love with attachment. Eros is transpersonal and seems to repel attachment even while it propagates intense attraction. Sexual Tantra follows a three-point principle close to the Socratic expression. To love-desire-beauty you add pleasure, and make beauty the encompassing frame of the formula, as well as its goal. Love-desire-pleasure, enclosed in Beauty and leading to Beauty. So burns the triple flame of Tantra.

No one can command or create that triple combination. Many couples get the combo going with only partial success. Some get love and pleasure, some get desire and love, some get desire and pleasure, but a rare few get all three.The flame flares up when and where it will. “Eros is a mighty daemon,” Diotima told Socrates when she initiated him into the erotic arts. Tantra has been called (by Eliade and others) mystical eroticism, an awkward term for a supple art. I propose erotic mysticism. Why mystical at all?

Because Eros is the force that draws you into Beauty: Eros works through desire aroused by beauty, and leads desire into beauty. Beauty is supernatural—the beauty of Gaia, for instance, from which all earthbound beauties arise.

The mystical is what shuts your mouth in awe: muein, to close the lips or murmur. In sexual Tantra, the thrill of the mystical deepens every time the hedonic rite is performed. Murmuring of sweet nothings and dirty talk alike, belong to this rite.

Sexual acts in reverence for the triple flame are pornographically vivid. They become so by a power that molds erotic sensations as tallow is molded into candles: your senses burn like candles, votive lights. The vulgar word fuck does not convey the sense of a sacred act, perhaps. Not to some people, but it can. Likewise for the whole brief inventory of four-letter words: the aforementioned one starting with F (rhymes with suck), three starting with C (rhyming with runt, rock, and flit), and one with A in the British spelling (rhymes with sparse). Spoken in a mystical hush, these profanities have the ring of prayerful recitation.

I do not apply the word “lovemaking” to sexual Tantra, and never have. It’s an insipid term. Besides, you don’t call the act of breathing airmaking, do you? Just so, you can’t call Tantrically inspired sexual intercourse making love. Love is one third of the Tantric flame, along with desire and pleasure. Three braids of erotic warmth. Three colors of the votive light, but the base of the light is tallow. In sexual Tantra, the most refined, tenderly savage passion radiates this hue.

A consort or partner in Tantra is called a Tantrika( pronounced TAHN-treek-ah, rhymes with papreeka, accent on the first syllable). Tantrikas can be lone and solitary, or coupled. A lone Tantrika is one who once had a partner but lost him or her. The Tantric pair are not lovers, or not merely lovers. They are something immensely more complex and fascinating. Something that defies the human condition and crushes mondanity. To coupled Tantrikas, the erotic flame is a third element, standing independently of the passion between them. The triple formula replicates itself in the Tantric lover’s triangle of man-woman-flame. All rituals of this art derive spontaneously from base-three permutations: he will be the momentary holder of love, desire, or pleasure, or she will be, in matching combinations. If he holds pleasure, and she love, that is one match, for instance. If they both hold desire, another match. Each act of intimate touch runs through these combinations in a different way.

Tantrikas recognize their love is not ordinary by the continual presence of a third element, so that no problem of love can arise between them as just two people. The love triangle has its third point not in another person but in the transpersonal Eros. Loyalty in Tantric love is keeping faith in the flame, as much as in the couplehood of those who “worship” it, and more also. In so-called lovemaking, Tantrikas revere and preserve the erotic flame. In sexual Tantra, the conjugal bed is a shrine for fucking. Tantrikas do not regard intercourse as an expression of love, however, but as an offering to the love that burns eternally in the triple flame. Tantrikas do not make love, as conventionally understood: they do Tantra and make love a component in a three-part ritual of surrender. Tantra is the art of tenderness. The celebration of pleasure. The liberation of desire. The consolation of love. All that for Beauty. All that to be in pure simplicity as Beauty-full as you truly are.

Because the sexual act can be an offering to love rather than an expression of love, it can also be both. But it cannot be love’s expression in its complete mystical spectrum of wonders, if the offering does not proceed the need for love. Tantra fulfills this need, but not by the usual routine of gratification. In sexual Tantra, personal love in the couple emerges as a side-effect of their consummated pleasure. (The European troubadours, who were contemporary with Asian love cults such as the Krishna-worshippers, also understood this hedonic principle.) In other words, Tantrikas offer themselves hedonically to the love that will arise between them, before it arises. This they do by mutual surrender in that place of tenderness where touching and being touched are paradisical.

If the subtle principle that offering to love goes before the expression of it gives you a tingle, you may have Tantra in your fate.


Pornographic mural, Lakshman temple, Khajuraho.

Fuck Religion

Contrary to what you may gather from some of the language I am using here, I am extremely averse to comparing sexual Tantra to religion and I despise Tantric religiosity as much as any other kind of religiosity. I am constantly reminded of the comment Henry Miller made about D. H. Lawrence: “I don’t see the point of making a religion out of anything as simple as a good fuck.” I tend to agree. It’s surely odd that I, the writer who has said “Fuck religion” loud and clear on many occasions, should be peddling “the fuck religion”—which could be street slang for Tantra.

But it is a rare privilege to be a Tantrika, and what is rare comes close to being sacred in some ways. Also, pornographic love does have sacred and cosmic connotations. Why? Because it is enacted in the mystery of embodiment. I wonder if the privilege of being a Tantrika may come in some way from the planet itself, from Gaia, the wisdom goddess. Tantric passion might arise in someone because Gaia gives like for like, matching her pleasure to ours and upping the ante every time.

In Gnostic myth, Sophia fell into planetary form by solitary dreaming, pulled away from her consort and the company of the Pleromic gods. Gaia is certainly a lone Tantrika, a sky-dancing dakini, a planetary nympho, an outrageous harlot who loves to expose herself and does so with total shamelessness, as Gnostics said, calling her the Whore of Wisdom. She is Devi, whose powers of recognition are so acute that she never forgets a face once she has sat on it.

Tantra is dyadic sensorial bliss and the ritual for sustaining such bliss, the most simple and sublime ritual a human being can perform: the rite of surrender. I do not mean surrender in the sense of giving up, giving in, submitting to another person or to a higher power or anything of that sort. Surrender is not submission to anyone or anything. Surrender is remission of the heart from its resident evil, the refusal to open and flower.

Surrender in Tantra is perpetual reopening of love’s seal, the first and last empowerment of tenderness.

Surrender is what shears away from body and soul all that belittles and cheapens you. All that makes you think less of yourself and pretend the opposite. All that feeds defense and undermines acceptance. All that makes you feel less than magnificent. All that distracts you from play, throws pleasure into question, and disguises the clean, hungry look of the human animal. All that curtails and condemns the extravagance of your prodigal desire. All that diminishes your carnal humanity and makes you less than, and other than, the unfettered wholeness of natural innocence that you are, supremely.


Chitragupta Temple: The Tantric Kiss, with the devadasi touching her yoni and gesturing to the crown chakra of her partner, honoring their surrender of all sense of separation and partial, incomplete existence.

Tantra is the art of tenderness applied to your biological self. Self-love raised to the Nth power where it dissolves you into selflessness. The cure for narcissistic hunger and the refuge from solitary masturbation in all its forms, including inner talk. The precious elixir in the alchemical stew of happiness. It may even be the application of Gaian mercy to her wounded progeny. If so, I suspect that its benefits go both ways. It soothes and succors the Cosmic Mother herself. It beautifies the environment. It enchants the home, perfumes the social character, restores good boundaries, engenders fine manners and excellent taste. It makes pleasure transcendent in love, and reconciles love with lust. It repels resentment and heals hatred. It sanctifies desire.

Warriors for love, revere the triple flame!

jll Andalucia 24-29 April 2008. Revised, March 2009.

March 23, 2009