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Tantra & Healing
Physical or sexual abuse leave a strong imprint in the body and the energy system of the victim as well as leaving their often devastating effects on their mind, their self image and self esteem.
Abuse can leave its mark in the body in one of two ways. Either the victim closes off their body and energy systems; they tense, harden and contract muscles; the body is screaming “Go away, keep out, leave me alone”! Building physical muscular defences is one way of trying to repel a physical, perhaps sexual, attack on the body. The other way of surviving abuse is more radical. It is to hide far inside the body or to leave the body altogether, and become split off and energetically and emotionally absent. “I’m not really here anymore, I’m up on the ceiling watching this, I’m away in a safe place where you can’t get me.” “You can come in but I’m not at home”.
These are natural, creative survival strategies but, if the threat goes on often enough or long enough the victims get stuck in these ways of being. The trauma is then anchored in their bodies and in their energy systems. When it is all over, perhaps they have escaped and are now safe but there is the problem of how to again soften, open, trust, or how to return to the body as home. The problem with a survival strategy that has become a way of life is that at some level we know that there is more to life than just survival. Who wants on their gravestone “She survived (until she, just like all of us, didn’t any more!)?
Much else is damaged through continuing abuse. Self-esteem and our sense of what we can justly expect from life is destroyed. “This must be all I am worth”. “This is happening because you caused it” or “You deserve it” are common words often actually spoken by the abuser
Jane told me “tantra has helped empower me and give me the courage and the confidence to stand up for myself. My husband was alcoholic and mentally ill and abused me for years. Everything in tantra has given me the courage to reclaim my own power and be honest and clear about what I like and don’t like and express myself. The Cobra Breath (a tantric kriya yoga practice) daily practice has been life changing.”
One of the most important things that is damaged in abuse is our faith in human relationships. If relationships have brought this abuse, and often there is a repeating pattern of such relationships, then relationships are the source of such abuse and are best avoided. Victims then only often relate to other victims, getting the support and recognition of their experience but not any path out of that state. The support of those in the same position becomes a refuge. This is often a very necessary stage but it not a very satisfying life position. Or victims give up on real adult relationships, and put all their energy into their relationship with their children if they have them, or with God or with their dog of cat. But children do not need parents who are just living for or through them; and human beings seem to be built around a life-long need for real, nurturing human relationship. We were conceived through some sort of relationship, born into a relationship, grew up in a network of relationship; even though these may have been grossly distorted and inadequate. And we have been wounded and abused through relationship.
We have started this article with this outline of the affects of abuse so that in writing about tantra and the experiences of others through tantra we can show how tantra connects with the wounds of abuse and the healing it offers.
The word “tantra” comes from ancient India words which mean “weaving” and “expansion” – weaving together of energy and consciousness and a expansion and refinement of both. It is a vast and ancient spiritual path which uses the energy of sexuality to propel you into higher consciousness. Historically yoga is a part of tantra. Unlike virtually all other spiritual paths which separate the world of the spirit from the body, emotions, energy and sexuality; tantra uses these and the power of desire as a vehicle for the spirit. As a necessary part of this process tantra heals wounds and splits in us; integrating us and brining us to experience our true nature. Tantra is not a form of therapy but its effects include a profound healing. It does this simply because tantra touches exactly the same issues as a damaged in abuse. For example, as mentioned above one of the responses to physical and sexual abuse is to contract the body and tantra means expansion so that there are many ways that the body, the energy and the spirit is encouraged to expand to return to your true, expansive nature. Another response to abuse is to split off and leave the body. This is a very natural and for some life-saving response; however we are embodied human beings not disembodied spirits.
Many spiritual teachings, whether conventional Christian, Eastern and some New Age spirituality seem to subtly (or sometime not so subtly) put down, desire, sex, emotion, and, by association, women. They see sex and relationships as a distraction and the body as something to be tamed, or overcome, moving in to a “higher” spiritual plane. In a general way this is part of the familiar, pervasive patriarchal attitudes which have dominated society. In any sort of traditional spiritual practice we have to recall that the teachings have usually be passed down in books, kept and translated by monks and monastic scholars. Our religions have been shaped by celibate, ascetic men! No wonder women, sex and the realities of family life seem so distant from much spirituality.
One of the meanings of tantra is “practice”. It is not so much a set of beliefs as of practices – just as yoga doesn’t require belief; only that you regularly practice the postures and the breathing and experience the results. Tantra is the yoga of relationships and the yoga of desire and the yoga of sex. As embodied, incarnate human beings we are built for relationships. We came from relationship, have been shaped by relationship and for people who have been abused; wounded in relationship. Human beings are built around relationship; and women are often more sensitive to this than men who can hold on to the illusion of separation, autonomy and complete independence in a “John Wane” fashion.
In tantra we can experience ourselves as embodied, expanded, and alive with energy. The ways of reaching this can be as simple as movement, dance, breathing, visualisation, meditation, using sound through chanting or exercises to awaken the senses of smell, taste, touch, hearing and sight. Sometimes more specific techniques are needed to unblock tense muscles or bring aliveness back in to dead and disconnected parts of the body.
The English musician Sting said in a recent interview, “tantra…is about reconnecting with the world of the spirit through everyday things. My church happens to be the person I live with. She is my connection to the sacred.” The woman is the goddess and her body the sacred temple. In Tibetan tantra there are many figures of gods and goddesses; they are often dancing or sitting in sexual union with the goddess sitting in the lap of the god facing him in what is called the “yab yum” position. This expresses more than the interdependence of women and men, it symbolises the union of many polarities: active and receptive, sun and moon, spirit and nature, linear and holistic, yang and yin, Shiva and Shakti, awareness and energy, wisdom and method. It is the union from which the whole world arises. Tantra requires that we connect with our divine nature and see that in all around.
The second part of the essential nature of tantra is to use the subtle energy systems of the body to move energy within the body and beyond. There are several maps of such systems – the many nadis, the meridians used in acupuncture, the channels used in yoga which move from the perineum to the head the; ida, pingala and shushumna. These connect the chakras, the energy centres along the mid-line of the body, which locate certain issues and certain forms of energy. The sexual system, located in the second chakra, is the most vulnerable to being shut down by our life traumas. This reduces the life force throughout the entire body and being. There are complex innerconnections between the chakras but the heart chakra, located in the middle of our chest is the gateway between the chakras which are connected with our survival our sexuality and our will below the heart with the chakras connected with our ability to communicate, our vision or spiritual purpose. Trauma in relationships damages our heart chakra and generally our throat chakra which allows us to speak our truth. In abuse you are generally told not to tell anyone; or the shame which often accompanies abuse silences us. Tantra, particular some breathing and visualisation exercises from kriya yoga can open the connections in the channels and allows the chakras to be cleared. Healing the sexual centre, healing the heart and healing the throat are all vital to being really alive.
The central channel, the shushumna opens most easily when there is a balance in the other two channels; the ida and pingala which respectively correspond to the feminine and masculine energies. Our bodies are structured in duality, the masculine and feminine aspects opposite and complementary; dancing with each other acting out the drama of incompleteness seeking completion. This is the Cosmic Play and tantra is the interweaving of the male and female, the active and receptive energies to return to the comic unity vibrating as one. In Hindu mythology the male aspect is Shiva, who dwells in the crown chakra near the top of the head and the female aspect is Shakti, sleeping near the base chakra at the base of the spine, symbolised as a serpent, Kundalini. Shakti has to be awakened, journey up the shushumna (near the spine) and be reunited with Shiva to live in transcendent bliss. This can only happen when the Kundalini is awakened and shushumna opened through a balancing of ida and pingala. Only through woman can a man be enlightened as she is the dynamic principle. In tantra women lead, women initiate. Also only when male and female principles are in balance can this happen.
This balancing can only happen when there is a mutual respect for the male and female principles and this is an internal process for each person as much as it is an external one in relationships. In Tibetan Buddhist tantra, much of it connected to the monastic traditions and performed by monks or nuns it is usual to focus, using visualisations, on the internal balancing of these energies. For those of us not committed to the celibate path; it involves the more difficult task of taking it in to relationships. Of course we have been wounded in relationships which is why the healing aspects of tantra with an affirming model of relationship is so important.
Part of the problem is that we live in a culture which worships achievement, prestige, wealth and male energy. This has led women who are struggling for recognition to act in a masculine way disconnecting from the power of their female energy. The power of the feminine is not acknowledged and unconsciously feared. Our culture is out of balance. Finding a balance between your inner Shiva and your inner Shakti is not only personally healing but what our culture needs. This balance comes from expanding to master both energies so that we can use them appropriately. Generally in situations of abuse the expansion of energies which would allow the victim to find the masculine quality of assertion, setting boundaries are precisely what is not allowed. Fear causes us to either contract or to become emotionally and psychically absent; effectively the same thing as not expanding into our full energy space which would allow the appropriate qualities to be embraced and used.
In Tibetan tantra there are many images and stories of deities. They are drawn on tankas, the cloth wall pictures hung with ribbon, and celebrated in songs and verses. The importance of them is simply that they represent energies which we can embody. In our culture there are not many powerful any dynamic images of women. For example there is Pithesvari more commonly known as the Red Tara in which the female Buddha appears as red, wrathful, with eight arms and four faces, dancing in a ring of flames, ornamented with human bones and with loosely flowing hair. One of her epithets is Glorious Queen of Bliss and Joy. Beneath the ferocious exterior she is blissful, wise and tender. There are visualisation practices and mantras associated with the Red Tara. Such practices can help heal and can empower by reminding the practitioner of the range of female energies beyond the gentle loving image of Mary.