Advantages and Pitfalls of Neo-Tantra (falsely called Tantra or Tantrism)

Neo-Tantra is a child of the New Age. The “anti-establishment” counterculture movement of the 1960s birthed it. Some categorise “New Age” as a reaction of the people (populism) against religious institutions that had established themselves as authorities on everything spiritual. People rightly rebelled against outdated religious institutions, but it is questionable whether those institutions have been replaced with something better.

That said, every cloud has a bit of silver in its lining. So, let’s begin with the gifts of Neo-Tantra.

Advantages of Neo-Tantra / New Age

  1. Accessibility: Neo-Tantra, being more widely available, can provide a more accessible entry for those seeking to explore aspects of spirituality and well-being.
  2. Exploration of Sexuality: For some, it can offer an opportunity to explore and accept their sexuality in a more open and uninhibited context.
  3. Heightened Self-Awareness: Workshops and practices may encourage individuals to become more aware of their body and sensations.
  4. Introduction to Meditation: Some Neo-Tantric practices incorporate meditation techniques, introducing beginners to this beneficial practice.
  5. Promoting Communication in Relationships: Couples can find tools to improve communication and mutual understanding.
  6. Awakening Interest in Spirituality: For some, Neo-Tantra can serve as a gateway to deeper exploration of spirituality and ancient traditions.
  7. Development of Empathy and Compassion: Guided practices can encourage the development of empathy and compassion towards oneself and others.
  8. Cultural Openness: Despite potential distortions, Neo-Tantra can contribute to cultural openness and curiosity about Eastern philosophies.
  9. Heightened Creativity: Some may find in Neo-Tantric practices a source of inspiration and creativity in their daily lives.
  10. Community: Workshops and meetings can create a sense of community and connection among participants, although this connection may be superficial.

So much for silver linings. Neo-Tantra also presents some very “cloudy” concerns and risks.

Pitfalls of Neo-Tantra / New Age

  1. Distortion of the Traditional Message: Neo-Tantra can distort the traditional teachings of the Tantras by isolating certain aspects while ignoring their overall global context. The precious meaning of the original message may be lost.
  2. Overvaluation of Pleasure: The excessive focus on sensual pleasure in Neo-Tantra is not part of the ancient Tantras and can divert attention from true spiritual growth, thus moving practitioners away from an authentic spiritual quest. Appreciation is advised but not overindulgence and overvaluation of the sensual.
  3. Illusion of Rapid Transformation: The promise of rapid spiritual transformation (after an “experience” or “massage”) can generate placebo effects (making oneself believe one has really reached The Ultimate) or create unrealistic expectations, preventing practitioners from understanding the need for consistent discipline and persevering practice.
  4. Cherry-picking Practices: Neo-Tantra can choose certain Tantric practices (“cherry picking” or taking solely what one likes) while ignoring essential and possibly less appealing elements of the traditional system. This creates a distorted understanding of the Tantric path. Missing concepts can lead to dangerous or simply ineffective practices.
  5. Over-commercialisation: The over-commercialisation of Neo-Tantra can distort authentic intentions and turn spirituality into a consumer product. The word “tantra” has become a buzzword that sells. In fact, it now helps to sell even non-tantric products (like couches!) and teachings.
  6. Disregarding Cultural Context: When removed from their original cultural and philosophical context, practices can lose their profound meaning and effectiveness.
  7. Reducing Spirituality: When focused only on couples or sensations, Neo-Tantra may minimise the scope of the ancient Tantras and their aim of overall spiritual elevation and integration of being.
  8. Illusion of Instant Fullness: The idea that sexual pleasure can instantly provide fullness and advanced spiritual experience may encourage pursuit of fleeting experiences rather than lasting growth. Orgasm is not bliss. As Georg Feuerstein says, “orgasm is not part of the Tantric repertoire”. (See his article here: https://www.santosha.com/moksha/tantrism1.html)
  9. Disregard of Orgasm-Elimination: In many of the ancient Tantras, orgasm is more or less approached but not reached. It is in that pre-orgasmic state that practices are performed. Then the vitality gained is channelled through pranayama exercises. This is the principle of Urdhvareta: energy must be brought back inward and upward, not outward and downward. But it’s not so much a matter of energy. It’s more a matter of maintaining desire, which is just as strong in men as in women. The practice of non-orgasm helps to reverse our enslavement to desire, but may also sustain desire by discouraging sexual satiety. Nath Tantric Yogis call reversal practices (such as inverting our drive to be bound to desire) Ulta Sadhanas (inversion practices).
  10. Inflating Ego: By pursuing personal pleasure intently, one may mistakenly conclude that one is already divine or capable of Awakening easily. In this way, Neo-Tantra may reinforce the ego rather than helping one to transcend the limited sense of self.
  11. Disregard of Ethical Principles: Some schools of Neo-Tantra neglect the importance of ethical principles such as consent, compassion, non-violence and respect for the spiritual quest. Cases of sexual harassment and even sexual abuse and rape have plagued some Tantric schools.
  12. Over-Simplification: By simplifying practices and teachings, Neo-Tantra can lose the depth and richness of the traditional teachings of Tantra. Such damage could cause the ancient Tantras to fall into oblivion.
  13. Confounding Freedom with Indulgence: Neo-tantrism can misinterpret the notion of freedom as total indulgence of desires, rather than as liberation from slavery to the need for satisfaction and satiety.
  14. Risk of Addiction: Practices focused on intense pleasure can lead to addiction to sensations. This may divert attention from the true spiritual quest, which is to free oneself from addictions and attachments.
  15. Superficial Connections: By aiming for sensations, postures, and quick experiences, Neo-Tantra can sometimes neglect the depth of authentic human relationships in favour of using partners for “spiritual” purposes.
  16. The Trap of Populism: Populism (one of the reasons for the appearance of the New Age movement) often comes with the belief that the people (hence the word populism) can know everything without any effort. It’s possible to over-value an omniscient “feeling”, which is within everyone’s reach, and presume to know the truth about all subjects. Remember that the terrorist with the bomb also believes that his feeling dictates the truth to him…. Intuition is important, yes, but far from infallible or sufficient for complex subjects. Doctors don’t do heart surgery with intuition alone.
  17. Self-proclaimed Experts and Self-Glorification: From this populist movement comes (and still exists everywhere today), pseudo-expertise. Such teachers have studied very little and believe they know everything with their “intuition”, sometimes declaring themselves to be great guru experts. This can lead to overestimation of knowledge, depression (when one realises that it is not true), delusion, inflated ego, and an over-supply of teachers. It’s party time for the Dunning Kruger effect. The New Age approach is often described as narcissistic because it promotes delusions of grandeur. New Agers may believe they are already Awake.
  18. Speaking in absolutes: Making grand declarations about the truth is a common denominator in New Age formulations. It might be wise to hedge when speaking about intangible matters. Even if we were sure of what happens after death, it would be better to state it in terms of possibilities.
  19. Anti-Elitism: As in any populist movement, New Agers sometimes condemn sources of the Tantras (the ancient schools of wisdom masters) as coming from an elite. The word “elite” is now branded as negative and sometimes even useless. This is problematic as New Agers may reject content from experts and spiritual masters in a field of study.
  20. Bad Publicity for Spirituality: Some pseudo-experts change their names to an esoteric identities, talk about their great powers on Facebook, and begin to make absolute, grand declarations on all subjects. As a consequence of the New Age movement, we now have 30 million religions, courtesy of every individual who professes to be “connected to the Source”. It’s easy to see why people uninterested in spirituality are increasingly afraid of the term “New Age”, and of people claiming to be interested in New Age subjects.

New Age Beliefs

It might be well to share a few more observations about “New Age”. Hanegraaff expressed the view that most New Agers were “surprisingly ignorant about the actual historical roots of their beliefs”. — Hanegraaff, Wouter (1996). New Age Religion and Western Culture: Esotericism in the Mirror of Secular Thought. Leiden: Brill. ISBN 978-9004106956, p. 323.

Hammer concluded that “source amnesia” was a “building block of a New Age worldview”. New Agers typically adopt ideas with no awareness of where those ideas originated. — Hammer, Olav (2001). Claiming Knowledge: Strategies of Epistemology from Theosophy to the New Age. Leiden and Boston: Brill. ISBN 978-9004136380. , p. 180

Even when a New Age school realizes that its beliefs arise from ancient teachings, it generally does not admit (and may not even realise) that it has distorted them. Nor do such schools typically take the trouble to inform themselves about what the earlier teachings really said. This propagates misinformation, and the public becomes mired in the same traps that prevent progress and often inflate the ego.

It is harmful to assume that the Tantras are a matter of opinion or can reliably be intuited. No, the Tantras are physical documents with verifiable and fixed contents. Much of their content does not fluctuate over time or according to public opinion. They may change a little depending on the translation, but their contents are not simply a matter of opinion. You either know what you’re talking about or you don’t. Intuition is insufficient for these very complex books. You have to study them.

Problematic Ideas

The New Age and Neo-Tantric worlds are filled with slogans that can be highly problematic. The following ideas arise in part from ancient wisdom. Yet all have been misappropriated by New Age thinking to justify thoughts and actions that can hinder spiritual advancement rather than enhance it.

  • You create your own reality
  • Follow your bliss
  • Negative energy / Energy vampires
  • You create your own reality
  • Finding your soul’s purpose
  • I want to be my best self
  • Love yourself
  • Speak your truth
  • Everything happens for a reason
  • It all works out for the best
  • All opinions are good (read on the paradox of tolerance https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paradox_of_tolerance)
  • All paths lead to the same goal
  • I am my own guru

Each of these elements can be a trap (when misinterpreted), causing stagnation or even regression.

What Are the Tantras and Their Study?

Connection with tradition and lineage offer connection with the wisdom transmitted by ancient masters. Such connection maintains the integrity of the teachings. For Kashmiri Tantrism, the chief traditions are Somananda, Uptaladeva, Abhinavagupta, Kshemaraja, and a few others. Read this for more: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kashmir_Shaivism

These traditions call for a detailed and multi-dimensional approach to “work on oneself”. For example:

  • Work on dissolving the veils of Maya.
  • Work on the kanchukas (or Shuddhashuddha tattvas), allowing clear perception of reality and awakening from the dream of material existence.
  • Work on the liberation of attachments and desires to achieve true inner freedom.
  • Modification of perception towards a global and non-dualistic vision. This is very specific and includes a complete change in relation to desire.
  • Deepening of meditation: The Tantric meditation techniques go far beyond what is currently associated with this word. These are profound philosophies, perspectives and techniques to cultivate a link with the divine within oneself. It is called Pratyabhijna (the Recognition of divinity).
  • Work related to Kundalini: The Tantras are the first texts to mention this force and how to master it. New Age knowledge on the subject is sorely superficial.

The Tantras developed over many centuries and drew their sources from even older texts of the ancient dharmic religions. This list offers only a brief overview.

Still, despite its trove of treasures, the ancient Tantras present some drawbacks of their own for the modern student.

Disadvantages of Ancient Tantra:

  1. Difficult to access, especially in translation
  2. Not easy to grasp. The philosophical aspect is abstract but of paramount importance.
  3. Multiple translations should be read simultaneously, as translators have often interpreted the texts in light of their own ideologies, beliefs and even sexual orientations.
  4. Sanskrit is a polysemic language. That is, it offers multiple meanings at the same time. Yet many translations only offer a literal interpretation of the texts, making it very difficult to understand what the advanced practices actually encompassed. In this respect, the fear that New Agers can  experience towards experts and sacred texts may indeed be well founded.
  5. Practices require modification of numerous perspectives, on almost all aspects of life.
  6. Practices can be difficult for beginners to grasp as they were often taught after years of preparation.
  7. Powerful practices are potentially dangerous if they are not VERY well understood and practiced with care.
  8. Practices require inversion of various modern habits to some of us are very attached, including an inversion of our understanding of desire.
  9. Practices need to be done long-term and require lifelong, daily commitment, sometimes even during dreams.
  10. The ancient Tantras are not the only source of esoteric information needed for a complete picture of human spirituality. In fact, the esoteric texts of other traditions can sometimes illuminate the Tantras. It is therefore essential to study the approaches of other esoteric schools that have addressed similar topics, to get a larger, more complete view of the practices themselves and the reasons behind them. In this regard, consider the Jain concept of Anekantavada or multiple facets to the Truth.

Advice for Neo-Tantrists Who Now See Problems

So, what to do if Neo-Tantra has twisted your impressions of Tantra and you would like to recalibrate your understanding?

  1. Understand that today’s teachings are often
    • Distorted,
    • Invented,
    • Reconstituted,
    • Missing important elements without acknowledgement,
    • Declaring themselves to be authentic and based on traditions when they are not,
    • Not effective but promising results, or
    • Sometimes harmful.
  2. Understand that the New Age was initially an understandable reaction against religions as sources of information. However, this modern movement threw the baby out with the bathwater by rejecting ALL traditions. Instead, the New Age promotes various forms of personal self-glorification (typical of any counter-culture movement), which assure adherents that they are already above everything. Of course it’s fun to feel special. It’s a prime human need.
  3. Understand that, for all the reasons mentioned above, many of today’s teachings often poorly describe potentially very potent, very complex practices. This can lead be risky.
  4. Understand that it is crucial to preserve and transmit undistorted the sources of these powerful and magnificent practices so that people can derive benefits from them without harm.
  5. Study with schools teaching authentic Tantras. Discuss these Tantras with people who know the subject (i.e., who have done actual research in the original texts). Or even study these texts yourself.
  6. Understand also that even the sources of these practices may have been altered by translators and academics. You may require certain keys to discern false interpretations.
  7. Remember that it is not only the Tantras that teach about sacred sexuality but many other traditions. One can only get a complete picture of the whole by piecing together the puzzle pieces. Limit yourself to approaches that specifically advise you not to reach orgasm, and which reverse the general view that desire is always something to satisfy.

Stéphane Richer – Centre Summum (https://centresummum.com)