Tantra is a term you may have heard before, though you may be unsure precisely what it means. You may have heard it referred to by New Age spiritual types - gurus, workshop junkies, "yogis" in California and Bali - as a type of "sacred sexuality", involving deep eye gazing, slow movements, breathwork and, yes, avoiding ejaculation. This approach is sometimes referred to as "neo-tantra".
Tantra can also refer to a branch of non-dual philosophy and practice from the Indian subcontinent which dates back over 1000 years. This "classical tantra" can involve yoga, meditations, subtle awareness practices and indeed sexual practices. It influenced the development of branches of Buddhist and Hindu religion, and can still be found today in Tibetan (Vajrayana) Buddhism and Kashmiri Shaivisim.
When we think about tantra, we find it helpful to relate it to another concept, "sutra", (note that these should not be understood in strict opposition to one another). In English, sutra can be translated roughly as "renunciation", tantra as "transformation".
A sutric path, or one of renunciation, is familiar to us both from our religious traditions and our everyday morality. When a person practices sutra, he recognises desires and feelings that could be dangerous, destructive or otherwise troublesome, and does his best to restrain them and not act them out - to renounce them.
A clear example is when we decide to commit to a monogamous relationship with a partner. Despite our commitment, we cannot at times help feeling sexual attraction to other people outside of our relationship. Nonetheless, we refrain from acting on this attraction. We recognize that while this might feel good at the time, it may very likely hurt us, will almost definitely hurt our partner, and will stir up complex feelings of secrecy, shame, jealousy, and a desire for vengeance that could destroy our relationship (and our self esteem) for years to come.
A tantric path, or one of transformation, works with perceived dangerous, destructive and troublesome desires and feelings without pushing them away, leading the practitioner into an expanded (and often very challenging) human experience. This entails an “embracing of the dragon of chaos”, which at times can lead to positive transformation. Here we see the element of non-dual philosophy - a person embraces and accepts all aspects of their experience, "positive" and "negative".
Where the boundaries go in this practice is up to the individual practitioner. A person on a tantric path may take many lovers simultaneously, recognising that no one person will satisfy all of his sexual desires and curiosity. He may explore fetishes, practices and relationships that seem unconventional and even dangerous or shameful by the standards of common morality. He may also have a primary partner with whom he shares many of the experiences of a monogamous relationship - love, living together, raising children etc. If and when difficult feelings like jealousy and rivalry arise, they explore and work with these too.
Note that while our examples here have described sex and relationships, the same attitudes can also be adopted to other "difficult" objects and aspects of life, such as alcohol and drug use. Most of us already have a somewhat tantric approach to alcohol. We do not avoid it entirely (renunciation), we drink on occasions and enjoy the effects of drunkenness, sometimes even getting totally wasted and waking up without a recollection of where we are or when we went to bed (as happened to me at a party after the 2020 European Men's Gathering), but we do this as a conscious decision to embrace chaos.
As mentioned above, while sutra and tantra, or renunciation and transformation, may seem worlds apart, it is important not to understand them as separate, distinct or contradictory to one another. Teachers and experience recommend that a path of transformation is underpinned by a strong foundation of renunciation. This is clear to us in the alcohol example - on specific occasions, we may decide to get drunk, but most days we stay sober, sensible and responsible.
In the case of tantric sexuality, it is recommended that a person does not attempt to "go it alone", and instead practices in a safe community of others also exploring a tantric path, with experienced teachers and mentors who can guide students progressively through difficult practices and emotional experiences. Responsible teachers and communities will simply not accept students who appear to lack the maturity and psychological stability to work on a path of transformation.
It is worth noting that a tantric path is not and will never be for everybody. Most people are content with non-tantric sexuality, and have neither the time, emotional energy or desire to explore it. It is challenging and potentially dangerous. There is no reason to feel you must walk this path, or that by avoiding it you are missing out on some enlightened spiritual bliss experience. In fact, according to tantric philosophy, the search for an enlightened "bliss" experience is itself something to be renounced, in favour of simply accepting the ups and downs, shit and disappointment of ordinary life in the world. Most men within Maniphesto do not practice tantra; some have done for a time and have subsequently stopped. But for those interested in learning more, there are experienced teachers and practitioners of tantra within our network.
Finally, it should be mentioned that not ejaculating is perhaps the foundational tantric practice. It teaches fundamental elements of sutra and tantra, renunciation and transformation in a fully embodied and personal way. You renounce your orgasm, the 5-10 seconds of contraction and intense pleasure, and transform the increased levels of sexual arousal into creativity, purposeful action in the world, and yes, better sex.
This post is a part of the Maniphesto 40 Day Challenge, supporting men towards sexual mastery. You can read more and sign up on www.maniphesto.com/40daychallenge