When people come across tantra and hear that it is to do with sex (which it is!) and that there are two principals Shiva and Shakti and they are connected to consciousness and energy, and that they can also be characterised as masculine and feminine; many are delighted. It is the answer to their deepest hopes; how to have a good relationship and great sex and be spiritual all wrapped in to one new package. They then make one massive mistake if they only takes Western neo-tantra as their guide. They project on to tantra a sort of symmetry and mutuality. It becomes about Mrs Shakti and Mr Shiva and how they can have this equal, mutual, satisfying partnership. It becomes couple therapy externally, or for their inner estranged couple. They may link it to the yin/yang symbol with its black and white fish eternally chasing each other in a circle. Perfectly complementary and equal. If they are women; and get that tantra deeply honours the feminine as the creator of life itself (which it does!) then it can add a bonus, that after all their suffering under the last few thousand years of patriarchal oppression they will be freed and compensated. If they go to tantra workshops and breathe, move, dance their socks off and get high on; the energy, the cosmic orgasms and the freedom then they are sold! They can both be honoured and worshipped and have everything and a beautiful equal relationship within and, hopefully also, without.
There is one little problem with this. It simply doesn’t accord with the thousands of years of tantric practices and knowledge which exists as texts and as methods within the deep and sometimes complex world of tantra as it has evolved in many cultures and places. It is not just from India, but there it stayed in the culture so that texts were written and temples built. By about the 11th century it had reached a high point before the Mughal invasion. In England, Stonehenge had long been a ruin and we were busy with 1066 and all that.
The problem is the symmetry bit. Energy and consciousness are not like Mr and Mrs! Even though in the body the two channels, ida and pingala have a symmetry in their winding journey from the coccyx to the brain, the two qualities are simply not in that sort of relationship. We certainly can’t get entranced by the energy and phenomena side, and hope that consciousness will follow in time. That simply is addiction. It attracts the child, like sweets in a sweet shop. And tantra workshops can turn in to giant sweetshops and most of the participants become exited children. Great fun and for many a necessary relief. Hence lots of tantra festivals now. But it hooks what the Jungians called the puer and puella eternus, the eternal child, and the tantra world is full of such figures taking refuge from the challenges of being a grownup in a very difficult world. The idea of a regular practice seems ridiculous. As if I need to practice eating chocolate cake!
I think it is usually the women who notice first. The men, often supported by the odd belief that polyamory is central to tantra, are simply not quite there! Presence and awareness are notoriously hard to teach compared to energy practices with breath, sound and movement as their simple and effective guidelines. Women can also become so busy “skydancing” that they never quite get around to landing and having their feet firmly on the cool damp Earth of reality.
The fact is that at one of the highest and most sublime times when tantra was flourishing in 11th Kashmir; Abhinavagupta a great practitioner and scholar (for there was no separation then) wrote The first Shiva sutra, Chaitanyamatma, which can be translated as ‘The nature of reality is consciousness’, or, ‘Everything is consciousness’. It may not be immediately obvious that everything is Consciousness. Our culture is based on its opposite; everything is atoms and stuff. Kashmir Shaivism says that Consciousness underlies all creation. It was there in the beginning, it is there in the middle and it will be there in the end. It is the fundamental stuff of the universe. In Hindu tantra there is the wonderful image of Kali dancing on the prone
body of Shiva. Far from being the patriarchs’ nightmare of being killed and trampled underfoot, it shows that Shiva, as consciousness (he isn’t dead but in deep meditation), is the platform on which everything can be danced into existence. Consciousness, and its cousin, awareness; is the basis of tantra.
There is no easy symmetry between Shiva and Shakti. There has to be the deepest respect for consciousness first. So Indian tantra says that everyone is Shiva. Without that foundation, we are lost in maya; in illusion. At the Solstice, as we mark the return of the light; the return of the sun, it is good to worship the light of consciousness for it is from the light of consciousness that things arise; just as it is the return of the sun that will allow the seeds to grow and abundance to flower.