Tantra and flow

According to Western psychology, “flow” is a mental state that occurs when you are totally immersed in an activity that consumes your full attention and skill. It’s described by athletes as being “in the zone,” and by musicians as being “in the groove.” It’s highly enjoyable; often the best thing in life.

Psychological flow is closely related to Buddhist Tantra, which is also about free-flowing energy. But there are important differences. Here I want to use those similarities and differences to begin to explain the “path” aspect, or methods, of tantra.

Let me jump ahead to my punchline. Flow depends on highly-controlled conditions, so it is frustratingly elusive. Tantra has no conditions, and so can be practiced under any circumstances, including complete chaos. Flow lacks both spaciousness and passion, which are the keys to tantra.

On my previous page, I tried to make tantra sound disappointingly ordinary. Here, understanding how tantra relates to flow might get you excited about it again—on a more realistic basis.

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Nothing special

Over the last several pages, I’ve summarized an attitude, “spacious passion,” which I claimed is the key to Buddhist tantra. Here are some likely objections:

  1. An attitude? Disappointing. Is that all there is to tantra? Big deal.
  2. This is just common sense. I already have that attitude.
  3. It’s unrealistic. Sounds nice, but can anyone live that way?
  4. What about suffering? Isn’t Buddhism supposed to be the solution to that? How does your attitude help?
  5. Tantra is about gods and demons and miraculous flying lamas. That’s what makes it different from regular Buddhism, and you’ve left all that out.

I’ll address these points gradually over the next several pages.

This page is about disappointment.

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Free-flowing energy

I mean “energy” in an everyday, non-spiritual sense. I mean “energy” in the way you speak of:

  • Having a low-energy day because you’re tired or bored
  • The electric energy of a club on Saturday night
  • The tense energy in your office just before job cuts are announced
  • The chaotic energy of waves in a storm

“Spiritual” people often use “energy” to mean something supernatural and special, and make strange claims about it. That could cause confusion; but I haven’t found a good alternative word.

“Energy” is the immediate potential for change. It powers passion, action, and connections.

The union of passion and spaciousness releases energy; and energy unbound intensifies passion and widens spaciousness. Tantra increases all three, and they reinforce each other.

This can be uncomfortable. You may feel that your emotions are already too strong, and that the world is already too complex and confusing. More of both might be the last thing you want.

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Spacious freedom

“Spaciousness” is freedom from fixed meanings. Spaciousness liberates you from automatic interpretations, and from habitual responses.

Lacking spaciousness, here is the pattern of life:

  1. Something happens
  2. You perceive the event
  3. You immediately interpret it, based on some familiar framework of meaning-making
  4. An emotion arises in response to the meaning you have given
  5. The energy of the emotion demands action
  6. You do something that seems mandatory based on the emotional interpretation

This is unnecessarily limited at steps 3 and 6:

  • There many be other ways to interpret the event. And it may not be helpful to interpret it at all.
  • There may be other ways to react to the emotional energy. And it may not be helpful to react at all.

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Passionate connections

Human beings naturally care passionately about the specifics of our situations.

The tantric attitude is that there are no wrong emotions. A whole person has a full 360-degree spectrum of passions, rejecting none. All feelings are fine as they are.

Furthermore, there is nothing fundamentally wrong with the world. Abandoning it for some “spiritual realm” is not an option. So caring about it is only right.

Passions take you out of yourself; they are about other people, situations, and things. That “aboutness” prompts you to connect with the world. We want to change things; there is nothing fundamentally wrong with the universe, but specific circumstances can be improved. It is active connections that makes the world “workable.”

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