Part 3: The Dance of Tantric Spirituality
A conversation with Sally Kempton, facilitated by Vera de Chalambert
S. Kempton: Do you mind if I tell a mythic story?
Vera: Please. Please tell us a mythic story.
S. Kempton: In India there are several mythic stories about this. In these stories the Goddess is disrespected, captured and then rescued, and eventually finds no defense in a world that is violently intending to own or suppress the feminine. She finds no defense except to disappear. There are several stories about Goddess leaving the world.
The one that most moves me is the story of Shiva and Sati, who was his first wife. I’ll give you a very brief version of the story. The story goes that the gods persuade the Great Mother, who as always in these stories is hidden. She’s not apparent in the world. They persuade the Great Goddess to take form as a girl and marry Shiva. She agrees to do it on condition that it be understood who she really is, that it be understood that she’s not just a girl, that she’s not just the daughter of a Donald Trump, as it were, that her father is a sort of Donald Trump figure, but she’s the Goddess incarnate.
She says, “If I’m ever disrespected, no matter how much I love my life I will instantly leave my body.” And she does at the end of the story. She’s reborn again. You find this story over and over and over again. In the story of Rama and Sita he continues to insult her and in the end she just asks her mother, the earth, to take her back, and she disappears.
The Goddess, the feminine, found this physical world so inhospitable over the centuries that she didn’t want to have anything to do with it. What this means, I think, is that when Goddess is not worshiped, is not seen, is not invoked in mainstream society, then certain qualities of spirituality are misunderstood in this world. And fundamentally we get the kind of spirituality that has been a part of most of the great traditions – which is that the world of the spirit is where we want to go and the world of the earth is somehow fallen and bad, and sex is bad, women are lesser creatures, et cetera.
I believe that the emergence of feminine spirituality – which is not really an emergence, of course, it’s a reemergence, it’s a coming out of hiding – was only possible when women began to achieve some kind of political power in the world. In other words the political social women’s liberation movement in history, especially in the western world, was perhaps the first sign of the emergence of feminine spirituality, but it certainly has allowed feminine spirituality to become a force in the world and, again, to be marked by respect for the body, by respect for emotions, by an emphasis on relationship.
Also, and I think this is very important and is not what we normally understand about the feminine, because we tend to say the feminine is loving, is nurturing, is all about tending and thriving . . . the feminine is also about destruction, about upheaval, about chaos, and about the dark forces.
What we’re being asked to do is literally integrate the dark forces in a way that only is possible when we understand that masculine stillness and feminine dynamism, to use the tantric terms, are part of a single movement, part of a single wholeness. Stillness may be the source but dynamism is the experience.
I’ll just say one more thing and let you talk. Therefore, the skill of spirituality really does involve learning how to … the word that’s usually used is master, but I like to say to dance with the different currents of Shakti as she moves through light and dark times, upheaval and erotic beauty, relationality, and isolation. To really learn how to move with her, align ourselves with her, and discover active surrender.
Vera: Yeah. So different from the ways of the patriarchy, isn’t it? To dance with what’s arising and how it’s arising. It sounds like what you’re saying, it’s really the zeitgeist, Shakti is the zeitgeist right now collectively for us, and it’s also what’s emerging for so many of us individually in our spiritual lives and guiding this movement of emergence.
S. Kempton: This movement, yeah. Georg Feuerstein, the late scholar of yoga, used to say that there are essentially two forms of spirituality or religion. There’s the vertical, which a lot of the direct path, nondual teachings are about. They’re about, “Let’s get out of here. Let’s rise. Let’s rise up through to the topmost chakra and the heavenly world and leave this messy lower chakra bullshit behind.”
Then there’s horizontal spirituality, which essentially has expressed itself in the popular religions. In other words, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, and popular Buddhism are all about, “How do you live a good life? How can you bring justice into the world? How can you be a good person?” In other words, spirituality is kind of a paradigm for living a good life.
Tantric spirituality really combines them both. It has the capability to bring us into the higher realms, but it also wants to get us to taste that energy of the higher realms, and then come down into the physical world with our full immersion in light energy, and live with that commitment to mingling the two, to integrating the two.
I think that’s what you mean when you say that Shakti is the zeitgeist.
Vera: Yes, so that it’s finally coming into the fullness of reality. We’re able to see the local movement and the downward movement into this body, into this moment, into the muck and messiness and imperfection of the human life, rather than the masculine purification movement, which we are used to in so many traditions. There is this capacity to accept and work with the energies that otherwise we send into exile, that we reject, or purify. They’re either purified or we’re not interested in them, we’ll discard them. There’s a way in which there’s an integration that’s happening in this day and age.
When you talk about tantra and its way of uniting and integrating these movements, I’m curious – What’s the connection between the physical and the subtle realms?
S. Kempton: Ah. Another great question. Well, my experience, and this is what a lot of the traditions say, and it’s a conversation that I hear at the SAND conference a lot, is that the physical is a condensation of the subtle. In other words, the physical realm is not just connected to the subtle. The word that’s used in tantra is that the infinitely subtle contracts through different levels and eventually becomes the physical world, and yet is alive inside the physical world. So there’s no part of the physical reality that doesn’t contain the subtle. The tantric view is that the full, expanded consciousness bliss is not just in some heaven realm, it’s in every atom of the physical realm, and when we awaken the world awakens.
I can tell you this from my experience, that the more deeply I practice in the tantric meditative traditions, the more I begin to be able to see not only the natural world, but every aspect of the physical world, not just as dense, but literally exploding with the kind of beauty that Blake talked about in his famous line, “When the doors of perception are cleansed you see the world as infinite.”
The subtle is in the gross, but one of the things that tantra offers us is a paradigm, a kind of a map for recognizing how there are so many subtle forces in the universe. The world literally teems with particular beings who, just as we have physical bodies, have subtle bodies, light bodies, and our relationships with these subtle beings can have an enormous effect on our emotional lives, our mental lives, our lives in the world.
Tantra, like shamanism, is filled with techniques for tuning into subtle assistance, to the beings who really want to help us, and also recognizes that there are beings in these subtle realms who are not so friendly towards us. Just as there are in the world.
Vera: That’s so juicy. Tell us how. How do we align ourselves with these energies and these powers? Cynthia Bourgeault, who was with us last week, spoke about the conscious circle of humanity and the Bodhisattva bridge – that there’s a band of reality, a band of consciousness, a band of consciousness and assistance where beings, both incarnate and excarnate, of a certain awaken-ness, exist and assist.
S. Kempton: Yeah.
Vera: How do we connect with that quality of assistance?
S. Kempton: Great question. One of the way you do it is through mantra. These mantras that we just recited, the purpose of them is to connect you to these very, very powerful, deeply benign forces. If you chant this mantra ten, twelve, twenty times, you’re going to start feeling an energy in your body, and some of you may have already. That energy is literally going to inspire you, give you energy, give you Shakti for what you have to do, and will – how can I say this? – it’ll open you to a kind of big-picture perspective.
Just recognizing that there’s so much loving energy that’s around us if we open to it. Having the intention to open to it, to ask for help, is the beginning of it. It’s why petitionary prayer has been such a major part of every spiritual and religious tradition. Because it works. It’s something that a lot of very smart people have come to understand.
What we modern day tantrikas want to do is recognize the spiritual technologies that exist for connecting us with the subtle realms, without superstition. In other words, without believing that we’re at the mercy of these unseen forces, that we have to somehow please in order to have good lives.
I remember Joseph Campbell saying something really beautiful about this. He said that we have to understand that these forces are real. They’re in the psyche, they’re also in the world, but we’re not their slaves. They’re not like Jehovah in the Book of Job. They’re not random deities who will just upset your life for no good reason.
There is already a connection and as we start to explore that connection we actually start to realize that we exist not only on this physical plane, we exist on all these planes, and all these planes have a home in us. You actually learn to find the energy of, say Kali, within you. Or you learn to find the energy of Christ within you, you learn to find the energy of Buddha within you.
One of the ways you find it is by invoking those energies on the outside, so to speak, and then bringing them inside and utilizing them inside. There is a dance that goes on between the subtle and the physical in which the subtle empowers the physical and the physical nurtures the subtle. All the spiritual practices of the tantric traditions, of the direct past traditions that connect humans to the divine, they’re all about making those connections.
Om, Aim, Hreem, Shreem, Kleem, Chamundaye Vichche Swaha.