My Introduction to Tantra: Sacred Identity Work Through the Healing of the Wounds of Intimacy
A little over a week ago I was catching up with a friend over coffee, and she casually asked whether I’d practiced tantra. We’re both meditators and explorers of the depths of reality and The Self, so it was a very ordinary question, almost like asking whether I’d eaten at a particular restaurant. I told her that in fact I hadn’t practiced tantra. Neither had she, she said, but she’d signed up to do it in Koh Phangan.
Fast forward a few days: I hear of a 2-day tantra workshop in my own Shanghai neighborhood, and it’s happening this weekend. These types of synchronicities deserve to be honored, so of course I obliged this natural flow of events and attended the weekend workshop.
What is Tantra Really?
Now there’s a common stigma when the word tantra gets flung around: the term is often chained, in people’s minds, to the word sex. And we all share an interest in sex. Whatever your relationship to the act itself, it’s where each of us comes from – literally – and if sex were a place, we might even call it home. For some it would be a mobile home, even a broken home, or perhaps a home sweet home… but always a home.
But sex is not a place – sex is an act. Sex is a personal act, like home is a personal place. And the word ‘sex’ has inherited those very personal (and often muddled) relationships we have with that act. We hear (or read) about a tantra practice that works with sacred sexual energy and it’s almost instinctual to attach all those complex personal relationships we have with sex to tantra. For a lot of people, the sacred energy part gets lost, goes unnoticed – because they haven’t built strong enough relationships with those words, as they have with the word sex.
Sex is an act of creation. And this act manifests through a creative energy. You can call it sexual energy, sacred energy, tantric energy… it’s creative, and exists in and flows through us all. Sex is a single expression of this energy, as well as a wonderful way of cultivating it. There’s a reason we say we make love.
The practice of tantra (as I presently understand it) is about discovering that energy within, connecting with it, reaching deeper levels of self-awareness through that connection, harnessing the energy through that deeper awareness, and then expanding that awareness outside of yourself and into the divine connection you have with the rest of the universe.
And the universe begins with your very human intimate relationships.
Day 1 of My Introduction to Tantra
I step into the room and instantly feel at home… It’s not big like a gymnasium, but rather cozy like a living room. Scented candles glow, soft hymns play, vibrant rugs hang from walls, and the floor even emits heats beneath my feet.
Jin Zhao, the certified tantra teacher, beams a smile and welcomes me. Her name means ‘Golden Light’. She offers warm water and bitesize snacks. (Nothing too heavy or potent, since we’re working with a sensitive energy that can be influenced by even the most subtle of dietary imbalances.) She’s arranging flowers around the yoga mats. Others gradually arrive and we introduce ourselves.
The workshop begins. We sit cross-legged in a semi-circle and, one by one, say a few words about what lead us to the workshop. I keep it brief, as does everyone else – no life stories necessary. Not yet. Just so long as we’re all vaguely familiar with each other, all is in good order.
We meditate for a few minutes, which Jin Zhao partially guides. This is a critical step. Meditation is an effective means of de-cluttering the mind in preparation for receptivity, learning, and energetic shifts. Even with just a few minutes of meditation, we’re closer to that part of ourselves we’re here to access: our true Essence.
We gather around to learn a model we’ll be applying as a kind of map on our inner explorations over the next two days. Below is my own reconstruction of the model displayed by Jin Zhao:
This model is very much like a model that I’ve developed and used with my clients, so it immediately captured my interest. The model illustrates how a person’s Essence is the true self – and I’m spinning and adding to the teacher’s words now – but I believe it was meant that the Essence was the pure energetic self within the person. Some might call it the spirit. Of course, spirit is another one of those words that people have complex personal relationships with. Essence tends to avoid that baggage, yet it still works.
Essence is pre-persona. Essence is a sort of personalized Before-the-Fall state of being. We’re authentically ourselves, because we’re fearless.
So when and why does the Great Fall occur? How are we shaken from this gravity center of purity? According to this model, it’s at the fear of abandonment, which strikes when we’re young infants. It hits us that we depend on our primary caregiver for survival, and we begin to feel insecure at any potential threat of losing that caregiver. We fear death by abandonment.
This fear hurls us out of our Essence and into Vulnerability. In this state of consciousness (the first stage of survival consciousness), the amygdala is triggered and we await any signals of abandonment. Such narrow focus causes us to generalize our fear of death by abandonment to simply a fear of abandonment. We learn to generalize this fear beyond our caregivers, so that we fear abandonment by anyone. We learn that threats are everywhere, all of the time, and we’re never entirely safe… insecurity overwhelms us.
Not only are we threatened by abandonment – but little abandonments actually happen to us. Our mothers step out of the room. Our fathers yell. We lose the attention we once enjoyed. These miniature abandonments don’t kill us – but they do wound us.
The wounds, as we interpret them, materialize as anything that resembles even a whisper of abandonment – rejection, disapproval, criticism – from anyone. We feel we’re being attacked on all cylinders.
So we begin building armor. Armor protects us from emotional wounds. Armor keeps the amygdala at bay. The armor consists of masks to hide our authentic identities, roles to play to keep anyone from questioning the masks, compensations to make to perpetuate the façade, and strategies to implement to control our environment.
They help keep us out of the vulnerability zone, but now we’ve spun way out into the stratosphere away from our Essence. We’ve lost ourselves.
Masks and Roles
I’ve spoken plenty about masks and roles before. And in fact, one exercise I’ve done with a number of clients involves literally trying on masks and playing roles. The point here is not that masks are in themselves bad – actually, they are beautiful creations. The real value of that exercise is in removing the masks, becoming conscious that they are your own creations – not yourself, not your Essence.
Many identity conflicts arise when we become so attached to our masks that we forget we’re even wearing masks. We’re so caught up in the drama, so identified with the creation, that we’ve forgotten that we’re creators.
Tantra practice helps us to remember. Tantra is a way of dissolving the mask and re-discovering Essence. Deep love and connection is at the heart of this practice.
The Five Strategies
According to this model, when suited up in your armor, there are five main strategies you may implement when you do not receive the security of love from the people you most desire it from. We typically use these strategies when we conflict with someone we have an intimate relationship with, and our objective is to preserve our own security through the conflict. Intimate relationships include our relationships with our parents, our lovers, our children, and sometimes our siblings.
The five strategies are as follows:
1. The Hammer: We react in anger, demanding what we desire from the other.
2. The Hook: We manipulate the other – a strategy that can be so subtle we may not even realize when we’re implementing it. People can become so skilled with hooks that they hook themselves without realizing it.
3. The Knife: We withhold love from the other – a sort of eye-for-an-eye or heart-for-a-heart.
4. Begging: Our desperation pours out from us and we plead for what we desire.
5. Resignation: Not to be confused with a surrendering to reality, this is a strategy defined by assuming victimhood. If the others are weapons to wound others, this is a weapon for self-infliction.
Jin Zhao clarified that there are also circumstances in which we might apply these strategies lovingly, with the intention of serving those we love, but that for the purposes of the workshop we were learning about how we use them to serve and preserve our own ego (like armor maintenance techniques).
The most tragic aspect in all of this is that these strategies become so unconscious in most people that that’s how they define themselves. It becomes a giant part of their persona. People become the hammer, become the hook, become the knife…
At least, they think they do.
After a short break, music plays and we walk around the room feeling free to make eye contact (or free not to make eye contact), with anyone else. We eventually pick a partner with our eyes, and we slide right into a deep eye-gazing exercise with that person.
We repeat this a couple of times, and the final person we’re with is our partner for the first exercise. Jin Zhao demonstrates the exercise, and then we begin in pairs, switching roles halfway through. This method of pairing and demonstrating and switching is used for each exercise throughout the rest of the two days.
Exercise #1: Armor Identification
This is all about identifying the strategies we use when we’re in our armor. The first step in all of my own identity work is self-awareness. I’ve said many times: “How can you love yourself if you don’t know who your ‘self‘ is?” This particular exercise is about identifying aspects of the egoic self (the following exercise identifies the Essence).
Person A chooses a particular confrontation with someone they have an intimate relationship with (a parent, a partner, a child, or a sibling). They imagine Person B as that individual, and that the confrontation (whether it’s already happened or not) is now. Person A is doing the confronting.
Person B responds to everything in the negative, refusing to be moved by whatever strategy is implemented by Person A – nothing more is said.
The idea is for Person A to attempt to gain control over the situation and over the other person in their natural way – saying or doing whatever they imagine themselves saying or doing – and inevitably fail, but the point is not in the succeeding or in the failing…
The point, if you’re Person A, is in the identification of the strategy you have a tendency to use, which comes when you center yourself at the end of the few minutes. By centering yourself either through meditation, breathwork, mantras, or other means, at the end of your monologue, and reconnecting with your Essence, you’re better able to pinpoint your go-to strategies. And this helps you recognize when you’re going to them next time.
This exercise is like creating an indicator for when you’re steering away from your Essence.
Exercise #2: Essence Identification
This is similar to the last exercise, but instead of shining the spotlight on your strategies, it’s on your Essence. Person A connects with Person B through direct eye-contact and physical touch, and speaks, as much as possible, for the Essence.
Person A communicates to Person B what their Essence truly needs. Person B listens with a full and receptive heart.
This is a practice that can indeed cultivate your awareness of your deeper self, particularly through deliberate and consistent practice. The Essence may be difficult to connect to at first, and in fact the trap is that you engage in this practice from an intellectual center rather than an intuitive, feeling center. You may need a lot of guidance at first. But the more you correctly practice it, the more connected you become to your Essence.
Day 2 Begins
We start the day in sitting meditation. The mellow music of Om Mani Padme Hum hums along, and eventually we’re encouraged to rock, gently, side to side. Each of us sways, balanced, pendulum-like, keeping our own tick-tock tempo, before the instruction comes to swing in circular motions. We adjust, smoothly and rhythmically, either clockwise or counter-clockwise, knowing neither right nor wrong, whirling and expanding further and further with the drumming, and the chanting, feeling at our cores a central pivot point upon which we gyrate and ripple outward to the edges of our bodies, the outer rims of our being, until we make the next transition.
Begin to explore the space around you, we’re instructed, and I’m reminded of an exercise I’d set up in a creativity workshop I held a year ago, where everyone began curled up in the shape of an egg and unfolded their bodies into new and creative structures, like the hatching and evolution of a new species.
The music picks up, its beats becoming louder, faster, reaching new levels of excitation… We each circumnavigate the floor around us, wave our arms in giant brushstrokes through the air surrounding our bodies, and then we begin crawling. Still swaying, still exploring, lead by the chords, lost in them, we tread forward, on all fours, feeling, just feeling.
Each body now delving into its own special relationship with the space, the sounds, the spirit of the situation, we’re encouraged to make gentle contact with those around us. It comes slow, steady, as we grow as one group into the space, form giving way to movement, movement transcending form, movement transcending movement, becoming its own form, in motion, like the swirling dance of the stars of a galaxy.
The music heightens yet again, and together we rise, upright on two legs, standing as the primates we are, transforming. We combine, we construct, we co-create with our physical bodies, our distinct energies merging in a kaleidoscopic symbiosis of sacred rhythm and ritual. Hearts beating in harmony with the surging pulse of the chorus, like the paradox of meaninglessness, and marching bands, we move, move towards the singularity, lubricating the senses, glimpsing the unglimpsable, palpitations peaking, promising enlightenment, the crescendo coming, racing like raindrops in storms, dancing on our heels, on our toes, lifting up, up, away, and yes – yes! – we’re there… there in the eye of the whirlpool of dancing bodies where we’ve been absolved from ourselves and released into that glorious vacuum of the infinite. Sweet, complete release. Still dancing, still flowing, still meditating, sounds seamlessly streaming through our souls and stretching out into wild space, without impasse, without restraint, we synchronize our pulses and we are each of us at once an individual and the collective. This is the anti-gravity of life itself, where emptiness meets embrace, and there’s a deep sensation that through our movements we’re somehow orchestrating the building of the pyramids, translating holy scriptures, and fulfilling our destinies.
The music fades to silence, and our bodies, soaked in sweat, settle. A new day of tantra is born.
Exercise #3: Exchanging and Exploring Physical Tantric Energy
I sit across from a girl I’ve never met. We’ve been given a demonstration on exploring the power of physical touch in various positions. We’re about to connect with the tantric energy within ourselves by connecting with one another. Through the explorations of our bodies, it’s possible to activate the loving energies within ourselves that we may have neglected – and ultimately, to connect with Essence.
We lock eyes – this is important. And we begin with a gentle caressing of the hands and arms. It’s supposed to be just me doing the touching, but soon enough it comes naturally for both of us to move. There’s a tenderness about it, a familiarity, and after a couple of minutes the girl I’d never met is someone I’m sharing secrets with, physically, like the meeting and intertwining of a pair of DNA strands.
We explore each other. We learn each other’s our energies and rhythms, and we then change position. It’s called the yab-yum position – a position I’d read about way back when I was a teenager reading Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums, but one I hadn’t experienced.
You sit cross-legged or with legs stretched out, with your partner sitting on your lap, legs wrapped around you, eyes still locked. The female is usually on top, but the roles can be reversed. And the physical and emotional exploration continues, activating the sacred sexual energy, the tantric energy, which connects us with Essence.
I’ve helped people reach their Essence through NLP exercises, visualizations, and creative exercises, and it’s often a healing process – there are often deep emotional wounds that have remained untreated for years. Tantra heals those same wounds – perhaps even different ones. In any case, through the delicate connection of our tantric energies, a healing of a lost source of suffering took place in me. And I’m grateful.
We change positions again – lying down, side by side, first on our backs and then on our sides facing each other, still embracing and connecting. The energy continues its buzzing, not subsiding, the high floating between partners, hovering over bodies, drifting with the dying music around the room.
Through the penetration into Essence, as the model discussed above illustrates, we plunge beneath the armor and all the way through the vulnerabilities. Now, this means that we briefly expose our wounds for our partners to feel, and for ourselves to feel. These are the same emotional wounds that have been inflicted upon us (and often self-inflicted) through some prior intimate interaction.
Maybe they’re the wounds that make you believe you’re not good enough, not strong enough, not smart enough, not funny enough, not beautiful enough, not spiritual enough, not true enough… just not nearly enough. These are the wounds that have made you build your armor.
These are the wounds of intimacy.
There’s an opportunity here, in the brief crossover before you reach Essence (which is pre-vulnerability), to address any wounds. And you do that by simply being with them, accepting them, not trying to fix them or even to actively heal them. They heal when they’re ready to heal, through positive loving intimacy, and through the natural wisdom of your awakening Essence.
In doing this practice, building a peaceful relationship between your Essence and your wounds, and accepting your vulnerabilities – knowing that yes, I could be abandoned, and I could die, and that’s okay, because that’s the dance – you no longer feel the need to build that armor anymore. You can stay connected with your Essence, remain rooted in the heart of your identity.
Exercise #4: Requesting Wisdom on How to Love
In this exercise, you speak for your whole gender. If you’re a man, you speak for mankind; if you’re a woman, you speak for womankind. It’s about communicating, either through your sacred masculine energy or through your sacred feminine energy, how the other may love you better. And it’s the partner’s role to listen and receive that with compassion and understanding.
We begin with a poem by the 14th Century Sufi poet, Hafiz. The final lines of them poem are:
How can I be
More loving to you?
How can I be more
Person A looks straight into the eyes of Person B, and asks those very questions. If the pair is male-female, then these are questions regarding wounds between lovers. Should the pairing be male-male or female-female, then the questions address the wounds of brotherhood or the wounds of sisterhood, as a whole species. Person B listens and receives the wisdom.
It’s rather similar to Exercise #2. But this time, we’re exchanging loving advice – and there’s a different energy in that. It also builds upon Exercise #3, because our divine energies are already connected, and ready to receive the wisdom of the other.
Exercise #5: Permission for Intimacy
The final exercise is about building trust in intimacy. Person A stands on one end of the room, and Person B on the other. Person A uses simple hand gestures to either beckon, halt, or send away Person B. Person B responds accordingly in slow, gradual steps. Should the two meet, they may embrace and thank one another as they wish.
As with any of these tantric exercises, there is no right or wrong. The objective is to connect with Essence through intuition.
Ending and Re-Beginning
We finish the weekend of tantra by joining hands for one last song and forming a spiral – a human cinnamon bun, as one participant called it. Close, we wind in, our bodies bound together, but so boundless we are in our Essence, and in our chanting and hugging and connection to Self as well as to Other, that we can dance in intimacy with all our vulnerabilities and our insecurities and our wounds wide open.
And it’ll be okay. It’ll all be okay.
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If you would like to contact Jin Zhao (‘Golden Light’), the certified tantra teacher mentioned in this article, you can let me know and I’ll put you in contact with her. Or you can join her WeChat Group, Tantra Now, by scanning the QR code below.