Tantra (which means “woven together”) is a term loosely applied to a system of Hindu yoga in which the union of male and female principles is worshipped. In practice, this has led to a form of sexual ritual in which slow, non-orgasmic intercourse is seen as a path to an experience of the divine. A modified version of Hindu Tantra can also be found in Tibetan Buddhism.
The term tantra is also — for the sake of convenience — applied to other (primarily Western) religious or spiritual practices in which slow, non-orgasmic sexual union or masturbation forms a path to the experience of spiritual ecstasy. Some of these Western practices arose during the 19th century, apparently by spontaneous discovery — although one popularizer of Western tantra (Alice Bunker Stockham) is known to have travelled to India to study Hindu tantra. Each “discoverer” gave his or her system a unique name — Male Continence, The Better Way, Karezza, The Anseiratic Mysteries, Zugassent’s Discovery, Magnetation, etc.
In my personal opinion the reason that tantra persists as a religion despite the persecution of sexuality in most modern civilizations, the reason it arises spontaneously in different eras and places, and the reason that it crosses socio-cultural lines is that it is based upon some neurological hard-wiring of the human body; something which, when practiced correctly, allows the participants to experience what seems to be — what IS, for all intents and purposes — the presence of deity in the person of the sex partner.
This essay began as private e-mail to a man who said he wanted some straight instructions on tantra. He was not religious and was not interested in Hinduism, so he worried that tantra might require him to convert to some religion or other. He also wanted to know if studying tantra meant that he would have to “suppress” his orgasms, which he said did not sound like fun. He said that he had been trying to “suppress” his orgasms and wasn’t having much success.
The following comprises the basic anatomical and technical (non-religious) advice on tantric techniques I was given and can pass along. I am not a teacher of the subject. For what it’s worth, here is my story:
I am a 48 year old woman who first read about tantric sex in 1962. It was not until 1975 that I met someone who wanted to try it. He had read about it, too; neither of us had a teacher. It worked for us! That’s all I can say. It worked! It didn’t make us life-partners and it didn’t turn either of us into swinging singles, either. We did not join a religious cult. It did take us to spiritual vistas of sexual beauty and unity.
In 1977 a long-time friend of mine told me he wanted to try it with me. We had never made love before, so we discussed the subject for about half an hour and then we did it. Again, a spiritual experience was found to grow from this humblest of biological acts. Although this man and I have rarely seen each other since and I have not (yet) found another man who would try it with me, that experience changed my life, for I knew then that all of the religious mumbo-jumbo I had read about tantra was just a bunch of socio-cultural veneer laid over a basic biological-spiritual truth.
What that truth is has been obliquely approached by research John C. Lilly did on monkeys in the 1950s (before he got into dolphin brain research). As documented in his book, “The Center of the Cyclone,” he found that there are four points in the brain, arranged in a row, that control the sexual response of (male) monkeys. He used males because their sexual responses (tumescence, ejaculation, etc.) were easier to see and thus to quantify than the responses of female monkeys — but the mechanism is the same in both sexes.
The first neural point in the series regulated arousal (erection, ). The second point regulated muscular contraction (ejaculation). The third point regulated the orgasm itself (sensation of sexual culmination). The fourth point he called the “master switch,” for when it was stimulated, it entrained the three previously-mentioned centers, causing the monkey to experience erection, ejaculation, and orgasm in the usual predictable order.
The discovery of these four points in the brain indicates that through conscious and learned control, one can separate the entrainment center from the process and thus experience erection (circulatory system), ejaculation (muscular system), or orgasm (neural system) independent of each other.
We all have experienced this disassociation of the entrainment center at one time or another (not always under our conscious volition) as when, for instance, we achieve tumescence but not orgasm, or have an ‘involuntary” ejaculation, or have an “unsatisfying” orgasm in which the contractions do not bring the normal degree of sensory pleasure. What tantra teaches is how to control these things so that one can experience orgasm without contraction, thus prolonging it beyond the biologically-regulated constraint imposed by the amount of time it takes to complete the 8-25 contractions you would normally have.
So — in strictly biological terms — the practice of tantra becomes somewhat akin to the practice of biofeedback training. It is sort of like learning to wiggle your ears — it’s something you have to work at, because the volitional control of the musculature involved is not part of our usual training in life.
Where does the experience of spirituality come from? That, I have come to believe, is part of our neurological hard-wiring. Human beings seem to be naturally equipped to experience the metaphysical world. Many ages-old techniques for perceiving the realm of spirit make use of repetition (of hymns, prayers, chants, dances) while engaging in single-minded attentiveness to cosmic forces. Tantra provides both repetition and attentiveness. It is not the only way to achieve spiritual bliss, as its religious practitioners assert, but it is one way, and that is good enough for me.
Okay; first thing, you have to notice what your orgasm reflex is. Just observe it a few times (ten or more times) and pay attention to how it works. (You might want to do this while masturbating, as it could prove distracting to a partner.) Especially, notice that there is a brief moment at the onset of orgasm when you are consciously aware that it is about to occur but it has not yet become inevitable. That’s where you will later spend your time.
In the typical orgasm (both male and female) there are 8 to 25 muscular contractions (women may have more than men; how many you have will vary at times). Get to know how many contractions you experience. (For instance, my usual number is 18-20; it’s never fewer, but sometimes more, and that has not changed in 30 years).
Now, rather than “suppressing” an orgasm, try to let one or two contractions happen and then relax. If you can learn to let one or two waves of orgasmic contractions occur and then relax by breathing slowly, and being attentive, and relaxing your abdominal muscles (NOT by trying to think of something else to “distract” yourself), then you can learn to repeat this over and over again. Imagine yourself at the edge of a breaking wave of pleasure, not plunging over the edge.
You can practice this with a partner or while masturbating. It’s easier with a partner, because he or she can hold you at the wave-edge, gently changing position and thus slowing you from going into the stage of involuntary pelvic thrusts you have been trying to “suppress.”
While you are learning to ride the wave-edge, take turns with your partner. As one of you rides the wave of bliss, the other acts as a “lookout,” keeping the wave-rider from falling into the undertow of orgasm-when the wave-rider reaches saturation and relaxes, you trade roles. During the course of one sexual encounter, you may trade roles often. You may also rest (in a semi-detumescent state), and begin again later if you like. When you and your partner become attuned to one another, you will no longer think about who is riding the edge and who is guiding; the roles will blend and mesh and you will both simply “be” there. That is basically the “secret teaching” of tantra.
Sometimes, while learning these techniques, the lookout partner becomes suffused with a feeling of personal power, knowing that he or she can cause the wave-riding partner to have an orgasm, simply by making a slight gesture at the point when the wave-rider is letting go and relaxing. This experience of power should not be devalued. It is profoundly moving to realize that someone has given his or her sexuality into your control and it is a pleasure of high magnitude to watch the process of your partner’s orgasm unfold — but once you understand your power in the situation, don’t force your partner over the edge, for mistrust may develop, and the partner who is continually forced into orgasm may lose the fine proprioceptive senses he or she should be developing. Occasionally, when one partner is sexually needy (for instance, a woman during the ovulation portion of her menstrual cycle), the gift of release into orgasm may be offered and accepted, but be prepared for the offer to be refused, too. Remember, at all times your goal should be to share equally in the experience, not to second-guess what you think your partner wants.
One recommended minimum length of time to spend exchanging off-and-on waves between partners is twenty minutes. It is believed by many who have practiced and studied this, including myself, that although less than forty minutes will be pleasant, it will not produce the sought-after spiritual experience. Remember, this time is shared between the two of you; typically, that does not even mean exactly ten minutes each at the edge-point, for it may take you a few seconds or a minute to get back to that place of wave-riding after you have had your turn being the lookout for your partner. As your experience increases, you may find that you can switch from lookout to wave-rider in less than a handful of seconds; when that happens, you have only to be careful that you do not become over-confident and “forget” to relax when your training tells you it is time to relax.
If, by reason of forgetfulness or over-excitement, either partner is drawn inexorably into orgasm, neither party should be alarmed, angry, or distressed. For one thing, if you have been very close to the edge for a long time and you see your partner slipping over, it’s a simple matter to dive in and join the orgasmic experience. Or, if you prefer, you can watch, content in viewing from the vantage point of calm contemplation. It has been my experience that when one partner “fails” to maintain the wave-riding technique, he or she usually half-apologizes and is forgiven with tender kisses; there is no sense of disappointment or resentment, because both partners know that the supply of pleasure is not meted out stingily and that balance will be restored in due time.
If you get good at these techniques and enjoy them, you may find that you will have achieved the “satisfaction” of an orgasm (that is, your sex drive will be temporarily sated) after twenty or thirty minutes and you will not necessarily want an orgasm, or you may experience orgasmic sensations which are not accompanied by contractions. On the other hand, you may find that the moment you both decide you are sated and that neither of you wants a conventional orgasm, you both do, RIGHT NOW, and you may finish the sex act rather tumultuously.
In non-religious tantra there is no premium placed on avoidance of the fully contractive orgasm — that is, there is no theorizing about a mans kundalini energy shooting up from his testicles into his brain and being sucked back down and “wasted” if he ejaculates — so choosing to have or not have orgasms may depend on your personalities, the time of month (for a woman), how the two of you feel about the benefits of “pure” (non-orgasmic) tantra, and how much each of you enjoy the sheer physical workout of the push toward orgasm.
Now, here’s the interesting part: these techniques are not simply a recipe for great sex. Believe it now or not, you WILL have spiritual feelings while doing this. It is these spiritual feelings that have formed the basis for several sexually-oriented religions and magic cults.
Traditional tantric practices — eating the five sacred foods, raising kundalini energy through your chakras, seeing the blue light, and so forth — are of use to you only insofar as you accept the allegorical, religious, alchemical, or symbolic premises that underlie them.
If you perceive the heart-chakra as nothing more than the location of a muscle-pump, it would be meaningless for you to visualize kundalini energy in your heart. But something will happen in your heart, nonetheless, and you will find a name for it.
If you think that the god Shiva and the goddess Durga are remote and obscure from your daily experience or cultural conditioning, it would be a waste of your time to learn their names or their iconographic and gestural attributes. But nameless or named, sitting lotus-fashion or not, you and your partner will enter a realm of divinity, so be prepared, for tantra will take you there.
A non-religious spiritual form of sexuality is best known in America as karezza was popularized in the 19th century by Dr. Alice Bunker Stockham. To allow spiritual feelings to evolve without embedding them in a religious context, try the karezza technique of looking into your partner’s eyes, thinking about the universality of sexual congress among all species, and then extending your awareness out beyond the pair of you to the world and to the cosmos. You may find yourself in what is called by some “the magnetic ocean,” a sensation that you are partaking of a universal, ongoing sexual experience that is life itself.
If you have no partner, the best way to do these things is to “invoke” a partner. In Thibetan tantric practice this imaginary lover is called a tulpa. Do not imagine that your tulpa is doing whatever it is that you consider “hot” or “sexy;” imagine that your tulpa and you are doing what I described above.
If you are in a committed relationship and become interested in tantra, you should be cautious in bringing the subject up with your partner. Your partner may take your interest as evidence that you are disinterested in “normal” sex or may feel you are disparaging his or her sexuality as not “good enough” for you. Your partner may think it is “unromantic” to discuss biologically-based spirituality or that sexual activity requiring a bit of practice is less “spontaneous” than untutored sexual activity. Be prepared to deal with these concerns patiently.
By Catherine Yronwode
Copyright © 1995 catherine yronwode