Tantric Maps of Awakening

We need a clear view of the path of awakening. Nondual traditions from both Buddhism (Dzogchen, Mahamudra), as well as Hinduism (Kashmir Shaivism, Sri Vidya) place a strong emphasis on understanding the view, the true nature of the mind. as a way to orient our practice. Ultimately, what transforms us is a direct recognition of this view, and stabilization of it in our moment to moment experience, but we need the maps and concepts to help orient us in the right direction. 

What do we most deeply desire?

We desire both freedom and connection; we want autonomy and intimacy. My teacher Douglas Brooks, and the Tantric tradition he represents, Rajanaka, describes these as the masculine (liberation) and feminine (intimacy) ideals of the spiritual path. 

These desires are in tension with one another. This tension is not a problem to solve; it’s a paradox to manage. Most contemplative paths attempt to simply solve this problem in a particular way: by renouncing worldly life and desires. This represents the first option of the yogic traditions: nivritti, to turn away from. The second path is pravritti yoga, to turn towards.

Historically, these paths and the institutions designed to perpetuate them are male dominated traditions that place a strong emphasis on the value of liberation. While one could say that they still value intimacy in the form of a spiritual community, these practitioners gave up sexuality and romantic relationships. Moreover, these communities were traditionally exclusively male, or they created a system in which women were subservient to men.

Men should renounce their sexuality, and also be separated from celibate female monastics, because they could not control their sexual desires. This points to the archetypal fear of man that we see depicted in myths across cultures: that woman has the power to make man vulnerable and this above all is what he hates most, the feeling of being out of control. So then there results the attempt to regulate men’s sexuality and to control women.

The emphasis on celibacy creates a huge shadow centered on sexuality. The way to cut through desire is ultimately by turning towards it. Renunciation is a very skillful means and phase of the path, but it’s not appropriate for householders. Nor is it ultimately appropriate in the long run for many monastics, based on the numbers of ostensibly celibate men who act out their repressed desires. We see this from the Catholic Church to Dharma communities. 

These male dominated paths focused on how to master desire. I use the word master because if you look at yogic traditions traditionally they represent the typical male orientation within all of us, which is the impulse to obtain the objects of our desire through conquest and control: coercive and subtle, conscious and unconscious. We see these orientations to spirituality across time and place which suggest they are archetypal. We find that male dominated ascetic communities attempted to control their desires through mastery of the body. The goal was union with the divine, but based on a rejection of the body and an attempt to transcend its limitations.

Typically, spiritual paths focus on the masculine ideals of liberation and transcendence. There is something very deep in the human psyche that yearns for transcendence. However, we’re also social primates by design; we’re wired for connection. Also, consciousness is fundamentally an embodied phenomenon. Without a body, there is no consciousness, not to mention the natural world (mother nature) from which this body-mind emerged.

Tantra represents the rise of The Divine Feminine not only in that women assumed more prominent roles within institutions and the teachings, but also that archetypal feminine values began to balance archetypal masculine ones: embodiment in addition to transcendence, intimacy along with freedom, devotion as well as 

The maps of consciousness that we’ll explore on Hacking The Self are deeply esoteric. They are drawn from both nondual “Hindu” and Buddhist Tantra: specifically, the Nondual Shaiva Shakta Traditions (NSST) of both Kashmir and South India (Sri Vidya), as well as the Dzogchen and Mahamudra traditions of Vajrayana (Tibetan Buddhism). Though these two paths have significant differences on the surface, they are in practice fundamentally similar orientations to awakening.

These maps are not meant to be literal assertions about the objective nature of reality, though they do intersect at points with scientific truths. Tantra offers a particular approach to awakening that’s distinct from the contemplative paths to awakening that emerged before it. Critically, the body is viewed as a sacred vehicle for awakening, not an unfortunate obstacle to it. In contrast to the nivritti yogic emphasis on renunciation as a way to transcend desire, Tantra is a form of pravritti yoga that invites us to turn towards our desires and emotions. Our desires and emotions become doorways to freedom and to greater connection with ourselves, others and the natural world. All of this helps us to cultivate awe and wonder; it’s a means by which we construct and connect with a sense of the sacred.

These pravritii yogic pathways, including Tantra, are by design more compatible with householder pathways to awakening. This is not to say that modern practitioners can not and do not adapt paths originally designed for renunciates to modern householder life. A prominent example of this happening today is within Theravada Buddhism communities in The West, as well as yoga schools that focus on the teachings of Patanjali. 

However, in my experience, it is a more natural transition in many ways to follow a pathway designed for householders if you are in fact intent on living life as a householder, “in the world,” and not as a monk or a wandering yogi who has renounced all of his or her possessions and worldy desires. For more detail on my thoughts on this subject you can read my posts on “Carving Out the Householder Path,” “Renunciate vs Householder Paths” and “Theravada, Thailand and Householder Paths: Enlightenment or Bust.”

Reflect on what it means to practice yoga and meditation as a householder. Excellent questions to contemplate and on which to journal include:

  • In what ways is my spiritual practice bringing me into deeper engagement with life?
  • In what ways is my spiritual practice pulling me away from responsibilities and commitments? 

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