the lazy kinky tantrika?

Warning: this post might end up sounding a little woo-woo. I’m not really the woo-woo type, but I go there occasionally. Bear with me, okay? I’m also including a book review and two workshop reviews to balance woo-woo with geekery.

So, tonight I enjoyed the second of two workshops given by Barbara Carrellas, author of the recently published book Urban Tantra: Sacred Sex for the Twenty-First Century. Last night’s was entitled “Urban Tantra” and tonight’s was “Tantric BDSM.”

For those who’ve been reading since last summer, you may remember that in August I read and reviewed the book Radical Ecstasy by Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy. In that post, I noted that I was very much interested in pursuing a better understanding of Tantric practices and other sorts of practices that aim to consciously move sexual energy around the body. Not long after that, I came across a book about Tantra for women which seemed really queer-friendly, judging by its subtitle, but its unfortunate effect was to turn me off the idea of Tantra pretty hard-core. I’ll quote from that post to give you the idea:

I did, however, come upon a book that has single-handedly convinced me that I am not meant to be a tantrika after all. Sorry, folks; I’m still just as interested in learning more about chakras and such, and honing my energy play skills, but I just cannot stomach this tantra stuff. The book in question looked so promising, too… it’s entitled Tantric Sex for Women: A Guide for Lesbian, Bi, Hetero and Solo Lovers, by Christa Schulte. I know – how beautifully non-heterocentric! I was thrilled. But please read the following excerpt for an understanding of my instant turn-off.

“Now the rose begins to rub sesame or olive oil on the orchid. If you’re the orchid, you can be seated in the rose’s lap or between her legs, leaning back, or you can assume the yab-yum position to have your back anointed. It is important for the orchid to give in more and more to the hands of the rose, while, at the same time, maintaining your own wave motions.”

I have to be a fucking rose or an orchid in order to have tantric sex with a chick (or a trans boy, assuming the point of the manual is to show non-penis-endowed people how to do this together)? What the fuck? Didn’t we leave the flower descriptions behind with Georgia O’Keefe paintings and awful 1970s lesbian erotic poetry? I can’t stand it. Just can’t do it. No no no. I’m all for the energy play and the intensity and the focus of tantra, but not if I have to cloak my desire for a good raw fuck in appallingly treacly horticultural terms. I’m interested in cocks and cunts and sweat and skin, not petals and pistules and perfume. Crikey.

Now, Barbara’s book has managed to convince me that maybe I am interested in Tantra after all, despite the massive turn-off of last summer. I only bought it in the first place because I read the back cover and saw that it was endorsed by Kate Bornstein. I figured hey, if a confirmed gender outlaw and sex-positive kinky veteran can write a laudatory comment about this book, it must have something going for it, and at the very least it must not rely on headache-inducing gender essentialism to make its points about energy flow. When I read the introduction, I noted that Barbara says Kate is her partner – which, far from making me think Kate’s endorsement is biased, made me believe it all the more. A very good start indeed.

Well, I read the book, and it really is pretty excellent. It provides a lovely combination of clearly described Tantric exercises that are illustrated with nekkid bodies in a pleasant range of genders and races (no fat or disabled folks, but still much better than average), explanations about the essence of Tantra (which Barbara more or less defines as the art of living consciously), and reflections on the ways in which Tantra and BDSM have a lot more in common than most people might think. In a lot of ways, it takes Radical Ecstasy – which I found enjoyable but a little too overview-level – and deepens it several notches, with a ton of concrete how-to stuff as a welcome bonus. Urban Tantra is definitely a welcome addition to my bookshelf, and so far it’s the only book I’ve picked up on the topic that I’ve managed to get through. Other books usually piss me off somewhere between the cover and page five.

Barbara’s workshop last night was great. I felt like it was a bit 101 for my taste, but at the same time I recognize that you have to start somewhere, and when presenting a two-hour Tantra workshop in a new city to a crowd of strangers, you’re not going to leap in at the advanced level. Fair enough. I brought Boi M with me, and we listened during the basic talk portion of the evening, and then got right down to business in the practical exercise portion. Moving sexual energy, for us, comes so easily and so powerfully that the exercises themselves almost felt unnecessary, but it certainly added some wonderful intensity to go through the specific steps we were assigned and take things at a different pace than we’re used to. New techniques are never a bad thing.

I attended tonight’s workshop with my lover J. This one was all talking, no practical stuff – well, no couples-based practical stuff. There were breathing exercises. Again, J and I also have such an easy time moving sexual energy that even on our first date we were doing some wacky orgasmic energy stuff before we even took our clothes off. So although we didn’t get to play with each other directly in the workshop, it was kinda fun to lightly touch during the breathing exercises just to see if we could make them a little more interesting. We managed, barely, to avoid soaking the chairs. Fun times.

I definitely appreciated that Barbara was able to suss out the experience level of the people in the room, most of whom identified as being experienced in BDSM and familiar with Tantra, and speak to that level rather than watering things down. She gave some great ideas about using Tantric breathing to help clarify the intention of a scene during negotiations, to hold the focus of a scene while it’s happening, and to ground the energy once it’s finished.

I asked a question about the difference between intent and scripting. One of the things that bugs me a lot about the way people practice most religions, and a lot of the ways in which people seem to like negotiating and practicing BDSM play, is when we kid ourselves into thinking that we can script and control the energy of what we’re doing because we’ve used our minds to decide what needs to happen. In my mind, this is a perversion – and not the yummy kind – of energy. The universe knows what needs to happen, and when we script that sort of thing, whether through focused forms of prayer or ritual (“Please, Higher Power of my choice, make this exact series of things happen because it would be to my advantage”) or through highly scripted BDSM scene negotiation (“First I want you to use this toy, then this one, then this one, and call me these names, and that will take me to this place, and then I’ll have this many orgasms, and then I need 30 minutes of aftercare including water, chocolate and fruit”) it’s as though we’re presuming to direct the energy of the universe rather than letting it direct us. Whether you conceive of that energy as God, Goddess, higher power, interpersonal energy, fate, karma, whatever… the name is not really the point. The point is that such an approach feels arrogant to me, or hopelessly false, or at the very least, completely devoid of the kind of connection I generally want to feel to the universe and the people I play with.

Anyway, Barbara noted that when she speaks about intention – as in, focusing your intention through Tantric connection while negotiating or playing – she’s not talking about scripting at all. She is, in fact, talking about the exact process I prefer: using these techniques as a way of listening closely to what the energy between two people wants to be doing, and forming an intention for a scene with that in mind. The specifics are then up for negotiation as usual. I was very pleased at the way she made that distinction and explained how Tantric technique can work into it.

Barbara made an offhand comment that impressed me, noting that she feels it’s a form of cultural appropriation to approach Tantra as though we were going to be doing it just like people in India 700 years ago. How lovely to hear a white Western woman point out that exact problem with the wholesale Western adoption of Eastern spiritual practice. She also noted that techniques for moving sexual energy have come up in numerous cultures over the last five millennia, and Tantra as we know it today is only the most recent example of that.

This actually relates pretty directly to the one question I left the workshop with. I chose not to ask it in person because I felt like that might have turned the Q&A portion of things into an individual conversation, and unfortunately there was already one person in the group who hijacked part of the session for exactly that – I didn’t want to be a second. It just ain’t classy. Perhaps I’ll e-mail Barbara and see what she thinks.

My question is this: if my lovers and I are already adept at intentionally working with sexual energy but we don’t have a formal practice of any kind and don’t really invest a lot of time in learning one, are we being a) lazy or arrogant in thinking we can do this sort of thing without the benefit of centuries of accumulated knowledge, or b) perfectly legitimate precisely because many different traditions have sprung up over the centuries to explain and codify an energy that people can feel without formal practice in the first place?

Another way of asking the question would be, are we being irresponsible in playing with some really powerful forces that flow within us and within the universe without the benefit of anything beyond our own instincts and good judgment?

My tendency is to think we’re doing just fine; I feel no major warning bells going off, and if I did, I’d probably reconsider. And yet at the same time I feel like I benefited very much just from reading one other person’s words describing in great detail the sort of energy I already touch and move. If Barbara writes a level-two book on this subject, I’ll be the first in line to buy it.

But do I want to invest in a pursuit of detailed Tantric practice? Nope. I got the good stuff already. It’s wonderful to have extra language with which to talk about it, but I have no interest in putting hours of time into this – I want to enjoy it in all its brilliance and depth when it comes up, and live my fast-paced urban life too. I have no inclination to spend my weekends in an ashram or read endless tomes on energy technique as translated from the Sanskrit. I don’t want to be a flower, I don’t want to bother setting up ritual spaces with flowing cloths and incense (I’d rather be starkers, and that shit makes me cough), and I don’t want to put months of effort into mastering a bunch of tightly defined techniques when I can play with energy already. And while breathing techniques are great, I do want to fuck in deep, raw, juicy ways, and not have to cloak the darkness and brilliant joy of my sexuality in schmaltzy or cutesy pseudo-religious New Age terminology.

I guess my question is, just how far away can we get from the forms of Tantra and still retain its essence? And if I’m concerned with getting high returns for low investment, is that a bad thing, or a fully legitimate one?

I don’t expect any one person to have answers for all this, and I didn’t get answers tonight. But I must say that, answers or no, it was pretty wonderful to be in a room full of people asking questions.

10 Responses

  1. Good to know there’s some stuff out there like that. I also get turned off by flowery language, or stuff that’s too far removed from actual human experience. I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with practicing this stuff without learning a formal system. If some people have been creating and honing systems for millenia, there have also always been people who relied on instinct. I think each approach is valid for different people.

    One of the reasons that formalised procedures such as prayers exist is to give people confidence and a sense of control in a world of unpredictability. In many societies, this is a question of survival. If your people rely on fish for a living but fishing in the sea is inherently dangerous, practicing a ritual before a fishing trip to ensure success will arm the fishers with the confidence that they need to deal with potential misfortune. Without that confidence, there is panic and that never bodes well for survival, either short or long term.

    If some people feel the need for procedure and protocol when it comes to things like sexual practices or BDSM, this may reflect a need for that sense of comfort and confidence as well even though these practices are not directly related to survival in the way that fishing is. There is still the factor of unpredictability and, in some cases, safety issues to deal with that may lead some people to want that security blanket that comes with formal procedures.

    On the other hand, there are those (and I count myself in this group for the most part, with some exceptions) who thrive on the very unpredictability that leads others to want security. My process and procedure in most situations is sponteneity and instinct-following. If you are of a worldview that allows for direct knowledge of “the forces” (as you understand these forces: spirits, deities, flowers, whatever) then your own inner vision feels like enough guidance to lead you through uncharted waters. If that is enough for you and your partners to feel comfortable and safe in what your doing, then why impose upon yourselves protocol and formality that is based on wisdom and knowledge gained by others? While you can gain some insight from it, as we always can from other forms of knowledge and as we always should seek to do anyway since there is no ONE ultimate truth, it can add to your own insights rather than replace or subvert them.

  2. This sounds like an interesting book and I will certainly check it out, even though I generally feel like I might break out in hives every time I hear the expressions ‘Tantra’ and ‘Tantric (anything)’. Same thing with flower analogies ;-)

    However, I used to feel the same way about the place of spirituality within BDSM and I am now starting to think that I might already be engaging in some form of this and maybe even (gasp!) be willing to explore this further in my own kinky practice. It’s a change of mindset for me, to be sure.

    I am also intrigued and interested by the notion that BDSM scenes need not be entirely scripted in advance, especially as I start exploring submission again.

  3. you know, I’m a rather spiritual person (I’m interested in Reiki but even more in Shamanic Healing), but I do so understand that this turned you off in a minute:

    Now the rose begins to rub sesame or olive oil on the orchid. If you’re the orchid, you can be seated in the rose’s lap or between her legs

    I got that far and that’s it. My eyes started rolling and I was about to click the “x” in the right hand corner until I remembered that you’re simply quoting something ;)
    I’m not able to finish your post right now, but I will come back to read it all :D

  4. Jacky – Thanks, as always, for the interesting anthro-informed comment. :)

    I want to focus on one bit of what you said, about protocol and procedure. I think protocols and procedures are actually quite different from scripting, for all that they may sound similar on the surface. I’ll take piercing play for an example. There is definitely a set of established protocols out there for dealing with needles, and it’s very much about safety, and with minor adjustments for people who are fluid-bonded with one another, there’s not much that can really be changed in that set of protocols without introducing undue risk to the scene. However, just because I know the protocols and follow them closely doesn’t mean I’m scripting every needle play scene I do. Like most of my play, I don’t script it at all – I come in with an intention, a general idea, and follow the energy. Of course it’s essential to be playing with people who are comfortable with negotiating the basics and letting the specifics fall where they may. But at every moment, I’m following safety protocols in how I deal with the needles themselves.

    In a sense, this is what I do with every form of play I engage in. Read up on it, ask people questions, watch others play, learn how to do it safely, practice on myself, practice on willing others in stunt scenes, and then add it to my back of tricks to draw upon as needed. But from there to scripting the way I want the energy to flow within a scene itself, not so much. It’s happened way too often in my life that a script has not at all matched up with the energy of what’s actually going on, so I don’t bother anymore. In that sense, the script itself can be dangerous – if I’m so focused on the set agenda that I miss the cues that might be telling me it’s not okay after all. Alternately I could miss cues telling me that it could be much more fun to do something else. I prefer to place those cues at the centre of the scene rather than as an inconvenient thing I need to pay attention to.

    Anyway, that’s a tangent to what you said. Just jumping off it for a moment. :)

    Gentlemantop – Very interesting. I know we don’t know each other all that well, but I admit I’m almost surprised that this (spirituality in BDSM, skipping the scripting) is new for you. You strike me as someone who’s already there. Clearly I am wrong about the timing of things, but you are so obviously well-suited to this mindset that it makes perfect sense to me that you’d be beginning to explore it. :) How lovely! I can’t wait to hear how it all goes.

    Langundo – Welcome! I’m so glad you decided not to x me. :) See you later!

  5. I asked a question about the difference between intent and scripting. One of the things that bugs me a lot about the way people practice most religions, and a lot of the ways in which people seem to like negotiating and practicing BDSM play, is when we kid ourselves into thinking that we can script and control the energy of what we’re doing because we’ve used our minds to decide what needs to happen. In my mind, this is a perversion – and not the yummy kind – of energy. The universe knows what needs to happen, and when we script that sort of thing, whether through focused forms of prayer or ritual (“Please, Higher Power of my choice, make this exact series of things happen because it would be to my advantage”) or through highly scripted BDSM scene negotiation (“First I want you to use this toy, then this one, then this one, and call me these names, and that will take me to this place, and then I’ll have this many orgasms, and then I need 30 minutes of aftercare including water, chocolate and fruit”) it’s as though we’re presuming to direct the energy of the universe rather than letting it direct us. Whether you conceive of that energy as God, Goddess, higher power, interpersonal energy, fate, karma, whatever… the name is not really the point. The point is that such an approach feels arrogant to me, or hopelessly false, or at the very least, completely devoid of the kind of connection I generally want to feel to the universe and the people I play with.

    The “funny” thing is that you can negotiate as much as you want; if there is something unexpected coming up in a play all your plans might just fall apart.
    As reassuring it might be to have some sort of plan in your head, I love to go with the flow. One might describe it as following the energy. And if the mood strikes me to do something completely different, I usually find a way of figuring out if it is okay without completely breaking the mood.

    My question is this: if my lovers and I are already adept at intentionally working with sexual energy but we don’t have a formal practice of any kind and don’t really invest a lot of time in learning one, are we being a) lazy or arrogant in thinking we can do this sort of thing without the benefit of centuries of accumulated knowledge, or b) perfectly legitimate precisely because many different traditions have sprung up over the centuries to explain and codify an energy that people can feel without formal practice in the first place?

    I vote for b. Why should it be any less worth just because you haven’t spent weeks of training and loads of money for something that you apparently know how to do on intuition?
    Please don’t get me wrong. I’m all for learning as much as possible, but every person has her/his own way of learning something and some people just have a talent for things that others need to work harder to archive. You know what I mean?

    But do I want to invest in a pursuit of detailed Tantric practice? Nope. I got the good stuff already. It’s wonderful to have extra language with which to talk about it, but I have no interest in putting hours of time into this – I want to enjoy it in all its brilliance and depth when it comes up, and live my fast-paced urban life too. I have no inclination to spend my weekends in an ashram or read endless tomes on energy technique as translated from the Sanskrit. I don’t want to be a flower, I don’t want to bother setting up ritual spaces with flowing cloths and incense (I’d rather be starkers, and that shit makes me cough), and I don’t want to put months of effort into mastering a bunch of tightly defined techniques when I can play with energy already. And while breathing techniques are great, I do want to fuck in deep, raw, juicy ways, and not have to cloak the darkness and brilliant joy of my sexuality in schmaltzy or cutesy pseudo-religious New Age terminology.

    So you’re saying you don’t want to re-decorate your rooms in all the different kind of pastels? Shame on you ;)
    Seriously, I think what some people tend to forget is that we don’t live a thousand years ago, leave alone four thousand. Things have changed, people have changed and the language too. To me it would make sense that things need to be adjusted to the time we live in. The energy we’re talking about here might still be the same, but the things around it have changed.
    For example they tell us in the seminars for shamanic healing that you need a place in nature from where you start your journey. But how many people live in cities and would feel much more comfortable with starting their journey from a place their familiar with?

    What I want to say: be happy with your new words and knowing that what you are doing has actually a name, but do it the way you feel comfortable with.

    I’m not sure if I’m making any sense anymore, it’s getting late here.

  6. Hey VQ :)

    When I mentioned procedures etc, I was mainly referring to the part of your post where you question the need for learning about “formal” approaches to a practice versus going at it intuitively, as you’ve been doing with energy work, for example. I wasn’t so much referring to the script issue. But I can certainly see the parallel between those issues.

    I absolutely agree that certain formalities that ensure safety are necessary when dealing with things that could potentially compromise the health or well-being of one or more parties. And this isn’t so much about adhering to dogma than it is about, well . . .being safe. And I also agree that knowing what those measures are helps doing things in an unscripted way if so desired.

  7. Oh Sexgeek, I love you :) Who would have guessed that this post would be help me come to terms with a personal trauma?! I just killed myself laughing over the excerpt from the old post on Tantric Sex for Women. So here´s the story:

    An ex of mine, from whom I parted under not the most amicable of circumstances (things are somewhat better in the menatime), started doing tantra (does one “do” tantra, or is there a more appropriate verb?) after our break up. Whenever I mentioned this, for me, rather embarrassing fact to friends (“Someone I was involved with now does TANTRA! What does that say about ME?”), I couldn´t help but avoid a rather snarky tone in my voice. Add to this that I was also probably projecting my deep-seated feelings of betrayal into her “conversion” (“How could she? I thought she had other values and beliefs”) and perhaps you get the picture.

    Well anyway, you guessed it – her tantra teacher (instructress? guru? now you see how ignorant I am) is none other than Christa Schulte! So your blog kind of vindicated my smugness and removed any final qualms with regards to my snarkiness. (Although I must say, the Barbara Carrellas workshop sounded great, so may be my tantra-phobia may also yet get cured…)

    And on top of being therapy for my trauma, inspired by your post, boi I (and I´m starting to write like you now ;)) came up with the great idea of BDSM-tantra instructress/tantrika- role play. We´re just still kind of figuring out how to incorporate the orchids and sesame oil into the scene…

  8. Langundo – Thanks for the longer response! Very cool to hear your thoughts. And no, I don’t plan to paint my house in pastels. Icky. Anyway, your point about the changing context of spiritual practice is well taken. Carrellas definitely addresses that in her book – even just the title conveys her approach.

    Jacky V – Gotcha. :) Well said.

    Jacky M – Your response just totally cracked me up! I’m so glad you’ve found… healing? (hee hee)… through a completely random blog post. Wow, that Schulte connection is quite the coincidence indeed. Your scene sounds like it will be a rich one. Orchids… that’s some serious edge play!

  9. With regards to your question… not that I’m an expert per se, but I would say that a or b are close but not quite it. Tantra, Taoist Sexual Alchemy or whatever other discipline you take is on the one hand a system to help make people aware of and able to harness energy in new ways. If it’s already happening for you spontaneously, that’s awesome! Sometimes it can be just as hard for someone who has done training to explain to people who don’t have a belief in these sorts of energy that they probably experience them all the time without putting it in terms or words that these older systems might use.

    That said, the disciplines themselves can be helpful in their own right, whether to teach you techniques to cultivate energy or different ways to apply it. Everything from a general chi kung (the ‘kung’/’gong’ really just means ‘skill’ so in the case of chi-kung/qi-gong it’s just talking about teaching and practicing energy skills via different drills), to specific applications, be it in martial fighting applications, healing and health applications, or sexual activities or harnessing sexual energy for other creative pursuits.

    I don’t think I would discount the potential of training under good instructors (and even in different disciplines) any more than I would discount the fact that you already mention that you have an awareness and an ability to utilize energy in an effective manner with some of your partners. While the latter is remarkable and a blessing to have come easily, one can almost always learn a few new tricks from those who have focused on certain studies and learned through a tradition as well. I don’t think either is the be all end all, though it can be said that all the knowledge in the world about a subject will never give you mastery if you don’t ever experience the subject being discussed. (:

    Anyway, I’m not sure if that’s the sort of answer you were looking for, but it’s what I can offer.

  10. Hello grey,

    Thanks for your thoughts! Sounds like a really balanced perspective – I appreciate your ability to see the value in various sorts of learning. I’ll definitely have to put some thought into what would count as a “good instructor” for someone in my situation, but I would definitely take advantage of such a person’s knowledge if they ever came along. :)

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