Tantra is a method of learning how to express oneself more creatively. The principles or practical aspects of tantra evolve from this concept. The first principle is understanding the manifest nature, beginning with the individual and extending outwards into a cosmic understanding. The second principle is sadhana, the effort to improve and transform the limiting qualities and conditions of life. These two principles define the entire process of tantra. Jnana represents knowledge, understanding or wisdom; sadhana represents a sequence which we adopt in order to experience our transcendental nature. Both bring about an acceptance of life’s situations. Acceptance is the third principle of tantra.
First we need to understand the nature of the body because the body in itself is a microcosmos, a complete unit combining the essence of consciousness and the essence of energy, which moves and acts in the manifest world. The body goes through stages of disharmony, which are experienced as physical pain and suffering. Whether it is a gastric problem, an immune system deficiency or joint pain, all these different illnesses and diseases of the modern world indicate an absence of knowledge of our own bodies and disharmony in the interaction of consciousness and energy.
The second understanding we need comes through developing knowledge of how the mind functions. Modern psychology has given us some superficial and incomplete ideas of how our mind functions. Yoga has said that the subtle body comprises an intellect, mind, ego and the ability to observe; and it is through observation that we gain wisdom.
With this mind, externally we can experience emotions and desires, and express our feelings and thoughts. There are also some deeper internal experiences and events which guide our life process called samskaras, karmas and instincts. Deeper understanding of the mind has to include samskaras, karmas and instincts as well as desires and thoughts. When there is imbalance due to our lack of perception and knowledge of these various states, we encounter suffering and inner disharmony, leading to nervous breakdown, emotional disturbances and psychic imbalances. So here we have to apply the first principle of tantra – jnana, understanding how the mind functions and how we can harmonize it.
The practices defined to harmonize the functions of the physical or gross body and mind, known as the subtle body, are yogas. The word yoga means unity. Some people have defined it philosophically as the merging of individual consciousness with higher consciousness. Others look at it from a practical viewpoint, saying evolution is the result of harmonious interaction between the five elements which make up the gross body and the five pranas which are responsible for maintaining the subtle body.
The yogas branch off in many different aspects in order to fulfil the needs of individual personalities. They cater to: (i) maintaining health and developing harmony in the physical body through hatha yoga, (ii) improving the external social interactions through karma yoga, (iii) harmonizing the emotional expressions through bhakti yoga, (iv) balancing our rationality and intellectual abilities through jnana yoga, (v) awakening the dormant faculties and pranic powers through kriya yoga, and (vi) making an effort to combine the essence of consciousness and energy through kundalini yoga, etc. Therefore, we can say that yoga is the sadhana aspect of the tantras. Tantra and yoga combined makes a very efficient system to experience life in its full glory. When we apply the principles of tantra and yoga in normal life, the lifestyle is transformed.
How can we combine the practices of tantra and yoga to enrich our own understanding and perception? Practical tantra is observation of life – of how we think, act, react and respond to different situations. This process of observation creates an awareness which is moment to moment, continuous and ongoing.
Some people find it difficult to develop awareness because generally we simply react to different situations without thinking rationally. Our reactions and responses are governed by past impressions in the form of memories. We know that fire burns, and whenever we see a form of fire, whether it is a matchstick, a candle or a roaring blaze, that memory or impression makes us unconsciously aware of danger. Children do not have this memory; they are attracted by the flames and have to be restrained. We have to create the impression in their mind that fire is dangerous because it can burn. To educate them, we create or revive this memory.
Similarly, if we observe our lives carefully, we will realize that what we is actually being expressed is a memory of the past. This memory may have been gained over thousands of years, from our past existences and ancestors, whether as a human being or as an animal or as a vegetable. Consciousness evolves through different dimensions. Yoga says we have gone through many different lives and existences in the dimension of consciousness where we have experienced the consciousness manifest in a rock, in plant life, in animal or instinctive life and also as human beings, rational life forms.
These memories are retained in the consciousness in the form of impressions. All our responses, reactions and thoughts connect with the past and through that connection they decide the future mode of behaviour, attitude and emotional expression. Sometimes we revive these impressions naturally, sometimes we consciously bring them to the surface through the process of meditation, and sometimes we need to re-educate ourselves to create a further impression. But throughout our life we are responding to different memory inputs which already exist within us, and these impressions may not be perfect. These impressions are pre-evolution impressions.
Our evolution begins from where we are right now, from this moment onwards, because our evolution is moment to moment and it starts at the present. It is something new to look forward to. What was in the past is also evolution in the broad sense, but what we have gone through is stored within in the form of impressions. Knowledge of the known is the past. We do not know what is going to come; movement into the unknown is evolution.
To develop this awareness, which eventually should become living awareness, not imposed awareness, we need to practise meditation. Imposed awareness means saying to ourselves for a period of time, ten or fifteen minutes, “I will be aware and tune my faculties to that state of awareness.” At that time, the mind becomes the observer, not the actor. Later the mind again becomes the actor, and we begin to respond instinctively again, using memories and impressions, and conscious awareness is lost. Meditation teaches us how we can develop continuous and permanent awareness, which can be lived moment to moment with wisdom, understanding, compassion and clarity of mind. This is the purpose of meditation – to make one aware.
There are different meditative techniques which lead us through the process of becoming aware in stages. One technique is observation and recognition of the physical states. We should know if the body is experiencing stiffness or tension, or if it is feeling relaxed or in pain, and that recognition should not be momentary but moment to moment, continuous recognition. Recognition of the physical states can happen through the practice of kaya sthairyam, experiencing the stillness of the body, a basic foundation of meditation. Then we begin to slowly develop awareness, moving from the body into the mind through pratyahara, into the level of dharana and gradually opening the doors of our nature.
In yoga we gradually open all the doors of our personality. Therefore, jnana, understanding and awareness, is the first principle, and sadhana, systematic practice, is the second principle or practical aspect of tantra. But we are not confined to a meditative process in which we sit and internalize and begin to observe the body, mind, emotions, nature etc. Tantra is also living meditation – it affects how we live moment to moment. The instincts that manifest within and control our actions and behaviour, instincts of love, desire, security, fear and sexual satisfaction, are all to be observed and known.
There are many misconceptions about tantra. Tantra is generally seen as indulgence, as a way of life which allows total freedom. But the practical yogic components with which we work in tantra in relation to our daily life are awareness and meditation. Tantra and yoga are complementary. In tantra you will find a very broad system which allows you to understand and accept your life as it is without imposing change. Rather you allow transformation to gradually happen as you become intensely aware of your experiences and expressions.
There has to be a recognition that each individual is governed by the three gunas or qualities: sattwa, rajas and tamas. Every interaction with the senses, every behaviour, every thought, every emotion, is actually being channelled and altered by the force of the three gunas. For example, we are attracted towards sexual life for three reasons. One is for pleasure, which is tamasic in the broad sense. The second is for progeny, which is a rajasic desire to create life and to direct the life we create. The third is for enlightenment through sublimation, which is sattwic. In this way tantra recognizes the three aspects of every action.
When we are seeking pleasure, whether sensorial, mental or emotional, we are intensifying the tamasic aspect of our nature. Pleasure definitely focuses all the energies into that one experience. Pleasure fulfils the needs of the body, mind and emotions. When we feel happy and content, it is usually a self-oriented, tamasic awareness, in which we are trying to boost or work with our personalities, desires and aspirations. This can be converted into sattwa very easily.
If it is a sexual act, make it an experience which can lead the consciousness on from being bound to the material plane into the dimension of wisdom, understanding and spirituality. When you are managing fear, rather than being caught by the wave of insecurity, find out where the imbalance is that is causing the fear to manifest. Observe yourself and the past impressions moulding your behaviour and attitude. Discover the causes through meditation and convert the tamasic quality of fear into a sattwic quality. Begin a process of discovering and later on harmonizing the inner imbalances which manifested externally as insecurities and fears.
A knife can be used in different ways. If you use it to kill somebody, that is tamasic. If you use it to chop up food to nourish yourself, that is rajasic. If you use it to save a life as a doctor might, that is sattwic. It is the application of the knife which brings out the nature of the individual. Similarly, our senses, our mind, our motivation and our emotions are only instruments. How to apply them has to be learned. When the application happens in the right manner, we develop awareness.
We apply jnana practically by being aware of how we interact and express ourselves through the instruments of our emotions, feelings, desires, ambitions, inhibitions, through the aspects of compassion, love, hatred and jealousy and find out whether they are restrictive by nature or not. If they are restrictive, we need to work to make them more open and creative and thus change the quality of our perceptions and our mental and emotional expressions. So in meditation the first component is awareness of the gunas.
Why do we meditate? To discover what is inside, but also to change the attitudes. We may discover what is within us, but if we are not able to change our outlook, we are back in the same space. Realizations happen to us every day in the form of “I should not have done this. I could have behaved better.” But are we able to actually change ourselves when the same situation happens the next time?
There is a whole spectrum of meditations described in the yogas, from the simplest, kaya sthairyam, steadiness of the body, to the final stage of dharana, vyoma panchaka dharana, where we are in tune with consciousness in the form of all-pervasive space. From kaya sthairyam you may move on to yoga nidra, ajapa japa, antar mouna, antar darshan, hamsa dhyana and go through the whole sequence till you come to dharana. In dharana you may practise trataka, chidakasha dharana, hridayakasha dharana, daharakasha dharana etc. until you come to the final stage of vyoma panchaka dharana. Then dhyana begins.
In the whole sequence of practices, impressions, ideas, pleasures and instincts are released from inside. They are not only released, but a change in our attitude also has to take place. In other words believing and living should not be two separate things. We have to live what we believe in and then changes takes place inside. The aim of meditation is attitudinal change and then expressing that change in external life.
The third principle of tantra is acceptance. Acceptance means different things to different people. One definition of acceptance is that we are simply a non-participant in whatever is happening and just allow things to happen. Acceptance can also mean that we accept what is happening and relate it to our creativity, allowing it to unfold in a positive direction. Acceptance can also mean recognizing the nature of conditions without struggling. If a person is negative, fine, that is his nature. If you say I am a dog, fine, but I don’t become a dog – I know who I am. If you say I am a god, fine, but your saying so does not make me a god. Here acceptance represents the ability to discriminate and recognize your place in the spectrum of evolution. Once we learn this, many of the head-trips, complexes and fears we undergo can be avoided, and there is always a direction for our creativity once we have learned to accept our own nature through discrimination.
Tantra’s first principle is awareness and understanding, the second is sadhana and the effort of meditation, and the third is acceptance. These are the three practical concepts that tantra works with. Tantra also says to combine these three components in normal life. Whether you have relationships with other people does not matter; do not be worldly-minded, have spiritual consciousness. Whether you are working in an office or a factory does not matter; you do not have to be a recluse to have spiritual consciousness. Experience what you are doing right now. Adjust your mind to what is happening now. Express yourself in the present situation, keep yourself relaxed and be patient. This combines the aspects of awareness, meditation and acceptance.
In order to help this process we practise yoga. Yoga begins with the body and ends with realization of our inner nature, the spiritual dimension. For a sincere yoga practitioner there is no loss, only attainment. What do we lose when we practise yoga? We do not lose control of the body, rather we are more in tune with our body. We do not lose control of our senses; they are being directed to express themselves in a better way. We do not lose control of our mind; our mental faculties are being refined day by day.
So where does the concept of losing come in? We think we lose when we are not able to relate to an experience at a higher level and so we bring it down to a lower level. But that is not our fault, that is lack of education. We do not have an understanding of the procedures or sequence. Therefore, some people feel unable to live what they believe in. There is a split between their basic philosophy and actions and it creates mental problems and head-trips.
Yoga has been very clear in stating that there are many things inside our minds of which we are unaware. As you sensitize yourself to experience the subtle aspects of your nature you will discover many things. Negativity and uncertainty will certainly come up; there will not always be clarity. Therefore, something has to be maintained so that you can continue on the path. Here yoga speaks of sankalpa, positive affirmation, to guide our behaviour.
Whether we practise asanas for the body or other techniques such as karma yoga, we are practising to be an efficient contributor to human society or to the community. We practise bhakti yoga to channel our emotions and feelings in the right direction where they can be expressed without social conditionings. We practise jnana yoga for the purpose of experiencing knowledge practically, not to cram our heads with alien concepts and ideas. We practise kriya yoga to deepen our perception of our inner being, so that there is harmony at all levels, physical, subtle, causal and transcendental.