In the East, one of the nicknames for a guru is “The Fire”. The meaning of this is that the guru burns away your assumptions, your attachments, your worldly and subtle possessions – everything that comprises your ego-mind. He burns away all that is non-essential – everything that is not your true essence.
Being burned in this way is scary and most seekers want the assurance that the fire is being applied by someone responsible and trustworthy. This is why gurus that want to teach the masses advertise themselves as “Fully Enlightened” and are careful not to make things too suddenly hot for their following.
Such teachers work with the “frog in a pot” principle. They create a separation between “worldly” and “spiritual” pursuits, applying the heat in the controlled, spiritual zone and encourage disassociation from the worldly. They confront the ego bit by bit, gently raising the heat as their students gain awareness. Seekers are included in “spiritual community”. They are given stories that comfort their minds, practices (chanting, permitted drugs, sacred movement, ecstatic dance, soothing meditations etc) which get them high. They encourage dependence on these things as a way of keeping the frog in the pot while they gradually turn the heat up.
Tantra, though, has no patience with this approach. The T-shirt is: “Enlightenment this lifetime or bust.” Tantrikas have no patience with “emperor’s new clothes” and do not want a safe-feeling and gradual warming. They do not appreciate putting their intelligence on hold or having it numbed. They want the truth – experiential, not intellectual – as soon as possible and with no sugar coating. For them, instant gratification is just not fast enough.
Tantrikas therefore involve their whole lives in the pursuit of awareness. They do not limit their acceptance of burning to Sundays, nor do they retreat into a spiritual community. They accept (and ideally welcome) the burning of their egos no matter the source of the heat. They seek fiery gurus who encourage them to accept the burning which comes from what they do to make a living, the judgement (and even intolerance) of their families, their conflicts with their enemies and the primal energies of their sexual relationships.
Tantra, Marriage, partnership and polyamory – the path of the householder.
For most people, a committed sexual relationship is a bubble of safety, a safe place of shared illusion in which they can recover from the harshness of the world, rebuilding and strengthening their egos. The commitment is a commitment to maintaining the illusion. They are supported in this by the culture in which, for example, genetic studies revealing the frequency of misattributed paternity (which can be as high as 30%) go unpublished.
Tantrikas use committed relationship as a crucible – as a container which enhances the heat. Breaking of the rules of relationship typically leads them to honest confession and the resultant ego-burning rather than the usual striving for plausible deniability and ego-protection. Keeping to the rules, especially when one is out of the beloved’s sight, is directly destructive (burning) of ego. Some discard the rules – experiencing their relating without the artificial and illusory safety net, willing to be challenged to their authenticity.
An additional intensity of ego-burning happens when a tantrika takes an attitude of devotion to the beloved. Devotion is the submission of one’s ego-desires to the will of the other, including their unreasonableness, fear-induced anger, abusiveness … or even their outright insanity. This can destroy ego every bit as effectively as the tantric path of bhakti – deep or absolute devotion to a guru.
Polyamory may seem to be an escape from constraint, but is really just a more sophisticated rule-set, extending the concept of ownership to include lend-lease agreements. The more complex rule set and restraint structure can evoke further areas of understanding and awareness.
Householding, which Zorba called “The full catastrophe” – marriage, children pets and property, presents excellent opportunities for awareness. As Betty White said: “Love is blind, but marriage is a real eye-opener.” The cyclical characteristic of the marriage archetype means that one is repeatedly challenged to face feelings and issues of the mind that one has avoided on previous occasions.
Child rearing makes repeated visitations of your own childhood available. When you extend a freedom to a child – a freedom that you were denied – you are released from whatever hard feelings you have about that particular parental intervention in your life.
Non-monogamy – the path of the celibate.
Once the lessons available through committed relating have been learned, some tantrikas choose non-monogamy as their preferred approach to love and sex. Celibacy in this context is non-marriage, non-ownership, It does not imply chastity.
This approach to the burning of the ego and its attachments has the advantage of unavoidable personal responsibility. It becomes very difficult to blame one’s relationship patterns and difficulties on your lovers if there is no agreement of monogamy in the pure or lend-lease formats. In this style of relating, you are more rapidly brought to the realization that the common factor in all your dysfunctional relationships is … you.
The downside, spiritually speaking, of non-monogamy is that it can be used to keep your relating shallow. It can become a device for avoiding the depths of emotional vulnerability.
The fires of relationship
There is no such thing as an ideal or best relationship format for tantrikas. Even the celibate approach of Opus Dei (a revival of hardcore old-school Catholicism) can be useful.
Every relationship type involves restraint. Restraint, though, does not of itself reduce opportunities for awareness. Restraint does not imply or automatically lead to repression.
The relevance of your relationships to tantra is that they burn you. The challenges to ego in relationship, especially sexual relationship are huge. Monogamy does not necessarily present less of a challenge, less of an opportunity for ego-burning than poly, the BDSM lifestyle or celibacy. Whatever the structure of your relationship(s), strong gains in awareness can be had.
The key to unlocking the spiritual lessons of relationship is an attitude of totality. The ego-burning possibilities of, for example, polyamory, are not intrinsically greater than those of monogamy, non-monogamy or even of chastity. What matters is not so much the style of your relationship as the intensity and willingness you bring to your living of it.
Probably the best way to pick your style of relating is to let your choice be guided by your eroticism – by what feels hottest to you. In this way, the ego-burning fires of relationship can be aligned with your eroticism, and the sexual healing which conscious erotic exploration evokes.
For more from me on relationships and tantra, see Chapter 3 of The Rocky Horror Tantra Book.
First published in Mindchaotica, 2013
First published in Mindchaotica, 2013