Tantra is a spiritual path that seems to be all the rage these days. Gone (or quickly going) are the days of Yoga. Tantra is the new Yoga. It’s the thing to “do” if one is engaged in Eastern spirituality. Or at least that’s how it feels in certain circles.
And yet, Tantra is the most misunderstood of the paths, particularly in the modern society where it is equated with licentiousness and a loose “do as you wish” kind of attitude associated with it. Nothing could be further from the truth, of course, but that’s not what this post is about. It is about the stance of a tantrika, or the lens through which a tantrika views the world and herself/himself, and the perspective that motives a tantrika to act in the world.
Firstly, we must clarify what a tantrika is. “Tantrika” is a word that means pertaining to the Tantras, which are a genre of scripture upon which the tradition is built. Traditional Tantra (referring to the paths pertaining to these texts) consists of an unbroken lineage where the teachings are passed on from teacher to student. The fundamental aspects of traditional Tantra are: the teacher-student relationship which forms the basis for transmission of knowledge is transmitted, a particular set of practices that must be employed by the practitioner, and the attitude with which such a path is traversed. Tantrika also refers to a practitioner of Tantra.
Shaiva, Shakta and Vaishnava Tantra are the three most commonly known Hindu Tantra streams with several other lesser-known ones as well. Some Tantric streams are dualistic while others are non-dual. The ones that are most dear to me (and hence most familiar) are the non-dual Shakta and Shaiva paths. Non-duality in both of these paths refers to Shiva-Shakti being the fundamental basis of creation and not separate from creation. In the non-dual Shakta path, Shakti is everything that exists, and all that doesn’t exist. Shiva is similarly the fabric and substance of all of creation in the non-dual Shaiva Tantra path.
Tantra is the path that results in a realignment of our vision, where we come to a direct knowing of ourselves and the world being one with the divine Shiva-Shakti. We begin on the journey with a fissured experience of “me here” and “the world there” that eventually collapses into, “I am That, you are That, all is That,” where That is Shiva-Shakti. This isn’t a mere intellectual understanding but a moment-to-moment unfolding that is filled with wonder, beauty, and sweetness. The fissuring of the ordinary human experience is healed through a realignment of our limited vision with the holistic divine one.
Sowing and Reaping the Vasana-Seeds
From the standpoint of Eastern traditions such as Tantra, vasanas (or samskaras) are one of the primary reasons for our fissured way of being and the actions that arise from it. A vasana is the energetic-emotional signature of an experience that colors all subsequent experiences. For instance, if I have a vasana of having had an uncomfortable encounter with someone, my subsequent encounters with that person are colored by that original impression. Even when I have no conscious or verbal reason for such a coloring, it continues to influence me. Take for example the instant dislike we may have for someone. Most of the time, such a reaction is the merely the signature of a past experience that colors our current experience.
Everything we like or dislike, all our attractions and aversions, and all our idiosyncrasies are just our vasanas playing out in our daily lives. In other words, ordinarily, our current way of being is merely the sprouting of our vasana-seeds. These seeds are planted not just by our own life experiences but also through our social, cultural and moral conditioning. Not only do these vasana-seeds determine our day-to-day activity, but they also form the basis of our identity. In this way, Shiva-Shakti – our true Self – becomes obscured. Additionally, vasana-seeds create the fissuring of ordinary experience where the “me” arising from my vasana-seeds feels different and separate from “the other,” which seems to arise from other vasana-seeds.
Several of the mechanisms through which the “me” is formed also contribute to the vasana-seeds. Take, for example, two common defense mechanisms – suppression and repression. (**Please know that I’m not a psychologist, and the purpose of discussing these mechanisms is purely from the standpoint of spiritual progress.)
Suppression occurs when we consciously make an effort to get rid of a bothersome thought, memory or feeling. Suppression can work to eventually stop bothering us, but only sometimes. Mostly, what we try very hard to suppress just keeps coming up again and again – with a vengeance – until we become willing to see the pattern, reconcile with it, and integrate the lessons of the reconciliation.
Repression on the other hand, is an unconscious process. If we are subjected to great trauma, particularly at a young age, one way for us to cope with it is to hide away the incident along with the pain and discomfort associated with it. The mind deals with such a thing by hiding the incident from itself. We become dissociated from it, where there is no conscious memory of it. However, not having the memory of the incident doesn’t mean it doesn’t influence our way of being. We can have fears, anxieties, and phobias that drive our lives without understanding where they are coming from.
Suppression and repression are called defense mechanisms because they protect our sense of self. They allow us to function in the world by sealing off the pain. They are very powerful vasana-seeds. They drive our actions and become the lens through which we view ourselves and the world.
Cultivating a Soft Belly
Our vasana-seeds not only drive our personalities and our identities but also determine how we relate to life. If our past experience has been one of hurt and/or betrayal, our suppressed and repressed memories make sure that we are protected against further hurt and betrayal. Since they are threats to our sense of self, they are left unexamined either because they aren’t in our awareness or they are pushed away through our will. The purpose of these processes is conservation of the sense of self, which can feel fragile and threatened by challenging and painful memories. In this process of conservation, our stance becomes one of resistance.
In this stance, we build a fortress of invulnerability around ourselves, which shows up in various ways some of which are: emotional distancing, developing a cool logic or reasoning that ensures that none of our soft spots are touched, emotional reactivity that ensures the placing of the fault “there,” not taking responsibility for our own actions (and not knowing how to), self-blame and self-loathing, looking for escape through distractions such as relationships, substances or even spiritual teachings. Essentially, in all of these approaches, the fortress remains sturdy and the fissured view of reality that keeps us from realizing the wholeness of existence remains intact.
One of the famous aphorisms of Tantra is that the path through which we fall is the path through which we rise. In other words, our very hurts and challenges become the stepping stones for that shift in vision. Unlike other traditions where we may be taught to redirect our thoughts or feelings or sensations or replace them with the teachings of the path, nondual Tantra teaches us to shift our stance. Instead of pushing away an uncomfortable feeling or experience in favor of one that is easier to handle, we are asked to soften and allow the feeling to take shape, to touch us, and to move us to where we fully experience it.
This seems pretty counterintuitive, isn’t it? Why in the world would we want to experience something that is painful?
It turns out that we fear what we don’t understand. And this includes the power of our own vasana-seeds that sprout in unpredictable ways. The greater the “unknown” factor, the greater is the fear. Fear of the unknown, including the unknown parts of ourselves, turns the vasana-seed into a poison. It sprouts in ways that are not wholesome, and not conducive to the realignment of vision that is the goal of Tantra.
The purpose of cultivating a soft belly is to flip the unknown and unfamiliar into the known and the familiar. In this flipping, the poison turns to nectar. The very vasana-seed that resulted in so much pain for ourselves and others becomes the nidus for beauty and clarity.
What Does it Even Mean to Cultivate a Soft Belly?
More often than not, spirituality is a heady endeavor, where we study with teachers, practice meditation and other techniques, and learn to deal with our lives in particular ways – through techniques of the mind and intellect. Even after prolonged practice, we can continue to live with the fortress around us. In fact, the techniques learned through prolonged practice can make the fortress stronger and more impenetrable. The behaviors that keep the sense of self alive continue to drive us, creating discord within and without. Our bellies become hard in resistance as we continue to keep the world out of our spiritual endeavor, the teachings, and the practices. The spiritual practice itself becomes an identity that fortifies the sense of me vs. the others (the less spiritual, the ignorant, the violent, and so on).
Heady spiritual practices suppress our ability to see that the belly is clenched. In simple words, we abhor being vulnerable to pain, to suffering, and to sweetness. We can’t stand to have our hearts broken. The defense mechanisms silently scream out, “Oh no! I’ve been there, done that. Not again!”
Having a soft belly is to become totally pliable and vulnerable, to let the hurt in and to be okay with having our hearts broken – again and again. As we become increasingly familiar with our poisons in this radical openness, they turn to nectar, where the stance of openness burns up the vasana-seeds. They stop sprouting in the ways they previously did. In the place of the burned-up vasana-seed, we discover spaciousness, sweetness, joy, and importantly, freedom to act in new ways that are not compelled by conditioning. Our actions start to be driven by the new-found spaciousness, lightness, joy and sweetness.
As the vasana-seeds burn up, our identity begins to shift – from the limited body-mind to that of the divine Shiva-Shakti. In the spaciousness arising from the loss of conditioning, we are amazed to find no boundary between “me” and “the other.” Our senses give way to a new way of experiencing the world – through lack of separation. Just as there is no separation between me and my hand, we come to find that there is no separation between me and the world I behold. The demons that were compressed into my vasana-seeds vanish in the light of such seeing.
When we remain radically open and maintain a soft belly, our repressed issues arise into our awareness. As we continue to welcome them with open arms, they stop being so threatening, and eventually burn away. This doesn’t mean that the memory of the past incident isn’t there – it just means that it has become uncolored, and has become impotent to drive our current way of being. In this process of uncoloring through softness and vulnerability, we realize that the demons that we were so afraid of were powerful only because of our fear – they had been feasting on it! The more familiar we become with them and the more we live through the soft belly, the lesser is their ability to run our lives. What a paradox!
While cultivating a soft belly is to have the fortress wash away like a sand castle in the sea, it most certainly isn’t the following: becoming a doormat, allowing others to take advantage of us (physically, emotionally, mentally, psychologically or sexually), and not using common sense.
A soft belly stance is cultivated along with discernment, and by learning to pay attention to our own internal landscape. It is developed through constant vigilance, curiosity, and openness to see how our conscious and unconscious patterns run our lives, and being open to learning from what our well-meaning family, friends, and spiritual community may point out. It requires emotional and spiritual maturity. Like everything else, a soft belly takes a long time to cultivate but is well-worth the effort.