Soma and Tantra
Like other dimensions of Tantric yoga, the Churning of the Milky Ocean is a powerful myth that allows us to examine these critical questions, to consider the ways in which yoga allows us to lead a richer, happier, and more meaningful life. This myth is also a wonderful metaphor for the ways in which plant medicine allows us to answer these same questions, for in my view, sacred medicine such as Ayahuasca or Soma is a practice that is in complete alignment with Tantric yoga, including nondual contemplative paths from both Buddhism (Dzogchen, Mahamudra) as well as “Hinduism” (Kashmir Shaivism, Sri Vidya). My particular preference is for working with The Soma, which I’ll refer to going forward, though in my view this is equally applicable to Ayahuasca.
The essence of Tantric sadhana, or yogic practice, is refinement of the body-mind.
In the most well articulated text on Tantric sadhana in the nondual Shaiva Shakta tradition, The Tantraloka, Abhnivagupta elaborates in great detail the ways in which sadhana serves to make the body-mind increasingly more refined. By moving from coarseness to subtlety, our practices allow consciousness to traverse into increasingly more subtle layers, inviting us into a deep form of absorption that collapses the space between the perceiver and the object of perception, revealing the nondual nature of the mind. The approach to refining the body-mind is the same in Buddhist Tantra, though the nondual contemplative paths from those traditions allow us to recognize the nondual nature of the mind through a kind of zooming out, rather than zooming in, of attention. Yet the basic approach to yoga, to refining the body-mind, is the same.
A great analogy for Tantric sadhana, or the Soma, lies in the craftsmanship in Japanese rice wine, sake. In order to produce sake, these artisans polish a grain of rice.. Through great vigilance, wise discernment and close attention, these producers peel back layer by layer, revealing a smoother, more refined essence that was always and already present within the depths of that grain of rice. Such refinement ultimately invites us into the experience of savoring more subtle and exquisite layers of the oblation, the Soma, which can serve in one sense as a metaphor for the true nature of the mind.
This process of refinement, of uncovering what is always and already present, is analogous to a classic teaching in Vajrayana, which compares the true nature of the mind to a diamond covered with dust. The nature of the diamond remains the same whether it’s covered with dust or not. The purpose of practice is to polish the diamond, to remove the dust covering our true nature, so that consciousness can clearly recognize itself, in its true form: luminous, empty, full, free.
This is what we’re doing in Tantric sadhana, or yogic practice: we’re moving from gross to subtle. In this way, sadhana, an intelligently arranged sequence of practices, from asana (physical movement) to pranayama (breathing practices) to mantra (the power of vibration), brings us into the innermost depths of our being. In order to do so, we must unearth and ultimately release negative samskaras, our psychological conditioning including trauma stored in the body.
In my experience, this more holistic, embodied approach to meditation is essential for a contemplative path, for the body is not separate from the mind. Leaving aside discussions of whether consciousness predates and survives the termination of the body, while we’re alive, the experience of consciousness is an embodied one. That’s why nondual contemplative paths such as Dzogchen and Mahamudra and Kashmir Shaivism emphasize a larger set of practices, including physical ones that emphasize movement of the body and breath, in order to recognize the true nature of the mind and to deepen and stabilize this recognition over time.
As I’ve touched on in other posts, the Soma works on the body-mind in a similar way that is in complete alignment with Tantric Sadhana.
The beta carbolines present in peganum harmala serve to clear the energy channels in the body, through unlocking the karmic knots stored in these channels. Ultimately, it allows us to release these karmic knots so that they can transform into clear light. Drawing on language from Dzogchen, this is the trekcho, or cutting through, aspects of the path.
It is not essential to accept the validity of this map as an objectively true statement the way we think about truth in science, for consciousness is fundamentally a subjective experience. The maps are here to allow us to skillfully explore and awaken to a more clear, complete and direct realization of the nature of consciousness, which is ultimately beyond concepts.
This is the essence of working with nondual contemplative paths such as Dzogchen, Mahamudra and Kashmir Shaivism. This is also the essence of plant medicine such as Soma and Ayahuasca. I offer this view not as a challenge or refutation to other ways of relating to these plant medicines, but rather as an invitation to experience these medicines through a different lens. These concepts can serve as a raft to cross the river. Once you reach the other side of the shore, you can let go of them. There’s no need to cling to concepts, even the most exquisitely beautiful ones, for concepts about the nature of the mind are not the same as the true nature of the mind.
What would it be like to stop living your life through the prism of concepts?
Human intelligence is a remarkable expression of the intelligence of the universe expressing itself through us, for we are not separate from That. However, interfacing with life solely through the cognitive mind, through the prism of concepts, lies at the root of so much of our problems. Rather than recognizing this is a choice, we’re convinced this is the only mode of perception.
The subjective sense of self, what we refer to as the ego, is by default an experience of separation. The conceptual mind, through language, is what reinforces this sense of separation, as if “I” am a separate self, trapped inside “this body,” experiencing the world “out there.” Awakening in any nondual or mystical contemplative path is in essence about awakening from the trance of this misperception, this faulty sense of separation, which keeps us feeling cut off, not enough, perpetually dissatisfied.
If this sounds confusing, that’s completely normal. If it’s something you find confusing but intriguing, then consider this an invitation to investigate the nature of these claims for yourself.
In the end, this is all that matters, for what transforms us is a direct recognition of the truth towards which these concepts point. Seeking refuge in more concepts, or the right story, is not a reliable path for finding freedom and peace and equanimity of mind. Reflect on your own experience to consider if this is true: have your philosophies and beliefs offered you a pathway to freedom, peace and happiness? If so, have they also allowed you to keep the mind open and receptive to new ways of being, so that you can evolve? Seeking refuge in certainty of beliefs, in dogmas, is not what leads us out of ignorance. Rather, certainty is the one thing more dangerous than ignorance. Yoga, meditation, plant medicine–all serve to keep the mind more open and receptive when we learn to navigate these practices more skillfully, though like anything else they have a shadow side that can also entail dogma and closed mindedness.
The Churning of The Milky Ocean is one of the classic myths of Indian religion and one that beautifully illustrates how Tantric sadhana, and how the Soma, serves to refine the body-mind. Ultimately, it’s helping us to answer the larger question of how we live a happy and fulfilling life. We have to develop not only a theoretical understanding but also a set of practices that allow us to transform our suffering into grace. How do we transform poison into nectar?
To be born a human is to receive an incredibly precious gift: to have the opportunity to evolve, to love, to serve. At the same time, to be born human is also to receive the burden of being aware of one’s mortality, the physical and psychological challenges of aging, disease and death, and all of the various ways in which the ego struggles against the sense of separation and lack through attempts to endlessly acquire more status, security, money, power, possessions. This brings us to one of the core problems of yoga, which is essentially a kind of inner alchemy: how do we transform poison into nectar?
This question lies at the heart of the myth of the Churning of the Milky Ocean. This tale is an excellent illustration of how both Tantric sadhana, including the contemplative paths of Dzogchen, Mahamudra and Kashmir Shaivism, and plant medicine such as The Soma works to both regenerate and refine the body-mind as well as to point us towards the wide open freedom, love and equanimity that is inherently part of our true nature.