First of all, I have limited time this morning, as I have to head back into the city today. But – I did want to get my thoughts down before I lose them. Please forgive my terrible punctuation and sentence structure.
In my last post, I said I didn’t want to be a dogma shopper, always trading up my beliefs. I wanted to hold them loosely. Yesterday I trekked into the city for a two-day satsang with Paul Mueller Ortega, on Tantric Shaivism. (And no, it’s not about sex.) It’s been interesting because while I love talking about non-dualism and thinking about the differences between the more classical mode and the Tantric approach, I’ve always been more of a Patanjali yogi myself. I’m so drawn to the idea of renunciation.
So I found myself in satsang yesterday being incredibly skeptical about everything Paul was presenting. Mm-hmm. O-kaay… yea right, sure. Then I found myself creating arguments in my mind for why he was misguided in his approach. I’m SO okay with my own skepticism, and I don’t see a problem with that part of the situation. The fact though, that I sat there creating a thesis on why tantric yoga was too far-out there to be effective, helped me realize that I was doing just what I said I hoped I wouldn’t do in my last post on dogma. I’m not giving the new ideas enough time to absorb, and I was letting my mind pit Mr. Ortega as a misguided man (unconsciously) before I’d really considered what he had to say. So, I reminded myself as I sat there (It was a six hour lecture) to fully hold those ideas in my mind, and to see things from a new perspective for today.
Tantric teachers, in my experience have been a little out there. They don’t eschew the Self in the same way that Buddhists or Patanjali yogis would, and I sense a certain feeling of frustration from my tantra friends – as if they’re practicing in this really helpful way and nobody gets it. Perhaps there’s a little arrogance that comes through in the communication because most Tantric practitioners that I know are VERY well educated on their spirituality.
Regardless, I was able to put that aside and really listen. Paul has a lyrical, verbose way of talking, repeating what he’s saying many times over with new language. At first, this drove me nuts because he’s not succinct and I struggled to take notes or absorb it. Thankfully – by the afternoon, I had met his rhythm and was really enjoying him. He has become a really good teacher for me and I’m learning a lot. Paul is a wealth of knowledge and I have never met anybody who knows more about religious history, tantra, and ancient texts. He is a real scholar.
In the afternoon, Paul talked at length about how to approach these teachings. To put hours of Satsang down into a small blog post, I’ll just mention a few of the ideas that hit me as really insightful. He spoke of two approaches: the Renunciate approach (how how I occasionally long to don the orange robes and relinquish everything and head off to an Ashram) and the Householder approach (everybody living in the “real” world). He used a great analogy for these approaches.
When Buddhism spread out from India, Buddhist Pilgrims trekked out to China, making the treacherous journey and losing many along the way. When they reached China, they were viewed as rather crazy and strange and were ostrisized. The Daoists were already off, living in sort of a hippie fashion on the outskirts of society, and they were open to compare notes with the Buddhists. As Buddhism eventually spread all over China, becoming the main religion – it evolved and grew. In isolation like this, the Chinese adapted Buddhism as they added their own creativity and insights, giving it a new approach and flavor. The same thing is happening with yoga as it has come out west, and is embraced even in India as a modern way of practice. It should grow and evolve as we all evolve and grow.
So, the classic yogic struggle. There’s the yoga approach of the ascetic. Giving up attachment to everything, dissolving the Self to become part of the greater whole, and practicing some extreme ascetic ways of living. How does the modern, average person live with this approach? How is it possible to really function in this world without the ego?
Paul holds that the way of the ascetic is not the way for everybody else to practice. Enter the Tantric yoga practitioner. The tantrics see it this way:
There is an ocean of great consciousness, with individual waves along the ocean that rise and fall. The individual waves that rise are still part of the ocean, made up of the big ocean, even if they are individual. An ascetic approach would be to find a way to calm the waves completely, to help them recognize that they are OCEAN, not WAVE and to subside peacefully into the whole of the ocean, stilling the waves. The Tantric approach is to allow the ocean to rise up through the wave, unlimited – until the ocean rises up through the individual wave and meets the crest of it, creating one amazing sea of individuals, swallowed up by the ocean at large. A rising consciousness of shakti, like a rising water level, so to speak. It seems like in Tantra, the ascetic version of the waves subsiding into the larger ocean is seen as repression.
So, while we are mindful of teachings and work to be smart in all things yoga – in Tantra we work through the individual form, not viewing the ego as a bad thing. (although recognizing that it can be harmful) The idea with Tantra, is that the mantra work, the approach, and the practice of yoga – organically unfolds a more intelligent, more spiritual, more beneficial way of life. That through the practices, we crave doing good things and dropping off bad habits. I’ve seen this happen in my life – a literal desire to stop eating meat, a physical shift out of depression, a desire to be more loving. That practicing yoga in itself, naturally creates a shift, and an organic one at that.
Moving on from there, the idea is that by embracing parts of the individual – like our roles in life – I am Yoga Teacher, I am Mother, I am Environmentalist, then Shakti has a way of moving through us, using us as a vehicle and really cruising. Paul very provocatively described the “doldrums”, which is a lack of wind for a sailor. Sailors in years past died when stuck in the middle of the ocean and they hit the doldrums of no wind for weeks, being stuck out in the big ocean. He said that practicing as an ascetic in a non-ascetic world can be dangerous like this. That often, without a vehicle, Shakti hits the doldrums and we see the wind come right out of the sails of our personal spiritual lives. I have experienced this as well.
This is where I get a bit skeptical – mostly because while listening, I’m getting pretty excited about this, I’m really starting to “get” what he’s saying. Here’s my question, “If I practice with an individual approach, will I not see the doldrums there too?”, Because – expansion and contraction seem to be a given in life.
On the other hand, the minute I give Shakti a form – it definitely seems to ride like a wild wave through me. Yoga studio owner – there goes shakti. Mother – there goes shakti. Artist – shakti. Writer – there goes shakti. Buddhist – there goes shakti. He spoke poetically about Natarajasana. How she wants to engage us in the play and dance of life. That when we embrace form, she can move through us and we can engage in the beautiful dance of life. That’s talk I understand. And, I have to admit – I suck at asceticism. I’m not convinced that renunciation isn’t the way to go on a middle-way sort of approach, but I am entertaining new thoughts. And, I am most definitely willing to dance.
I know that’s a huge over-simplification of what Paul is talking about (remember he spoke eloquently, for hours), but I have to wonder, “How do you practice this way without losing your memory of the big ocean. Is this the danger of practicing Tantra? Do any of these things really bring me closer to enlightenment, to seeing more clearly?”
And again, I’m reminded of my life mantra from Thich Nhat Hanh, “Your own life is the instrument with which we experiment with the truth.”