Unclogging

The method of tantra is:

Unclogging energy by uniting spaciousness and passion.

Energy is blocked by fixed meanings: when narrowed perception insists that things must only go one way.

There is high-energy stuckness and low-energy stuckness:

  • Conflict can produce a high-energy stalemate. Opposing sides pour energy into a situation, each trying to force it to go a particular way. Each imposes a fixed meaning. Because neither can see alternative possibilities, the energy has nowhere to go, and just spins in turbulent vortices.
  • In low-energy stuckness, the possibility of change is missed, and those involved continually drain or dissipate energy from the situation. This happens when they fail to recognize any meaning, or deny it. This stuckness is depressed, stagnant, flaccid.

Energy is both “internal”—the energy of emotions, bodily processes, and sensations—and “external”—the energy of groups, situations, and non-human processes.

Tantra insists that there is no real boundary between “inside” and “outside,” so these are actually the same. Causality flows constantly, unobstructed, across the inside/outside “boundary.” Our perception of situations strongly affects our “internal” energy; our activity strongly affects “external” energy.

However, since dividing inside and outside is habitual, it may be easiest to treat them separately. It may also be useful to concentrate on clarifying one’s internal energies before applying tantra to external situations. On the other hand, an outward orientation, toward practical action, is one of tantra’s most distinctive and valuable qualities.

Unclogging internal energies

Internal energies, such as emotions, have no inherent meaning. Biologically, though, they evolved to prompt particular patterns of action. Anger primes you for violence, for example. Often these evolved responses are unhelpful in our current environments, and so we (rightly) seek to prevent them. To do that, we often go to what seems the root of the problem—the energies themselves—rather than the unwanted behaviors, which are only a symptom.

Unfortunately, it is not possible to turn off—or even turn down—individual energies. It would be handy if we had a row of volume knobs and could adjust anger and lust up or down as needed. But our bodies don’t work that way. (From the tantric point of view, this is fortunate in the long run.)

So one strategy is to oppose a problem energy with another. For example, to stop yourself from strangling your pointy-haired boss, you might focus on your intense desire for a promotion. That cuts off the channel through which the anger might flow.

These deliberate blockages can lead to high-energy internal stalemates. Those are felt as frustration, internal division, and emotional turbulence. Generally they eventually erupt, when the opposing energies fail to balance.

Another strategy is to turn down the master volume knob on your whole being. If a particular problem energy is too strong to deal with, you can’t turn it down, but you can drain energy out the whole system.

This produces low-energy stuckness. It can appear as depression, niceness, cluelessness, and general uselessness. Many people misuse Buddhism this way, as a tool for lobotomizing themselves, because they haven’t got a better way of handling intense emotions.

Both strategies rob you of potential. Much of your energy may go into suppressing yourself. By the time you reach adulthood, that has long since become habitual, and may seem normal.

These strategies are also highly self-referential. They are about me and how I control myself and fight my wrong energies. Those seem simultaneously internal and alien, like some sort of horrifying brain parasites from planet Zarquon. You sneak around scheming against yourself, keeping secrets from yourself, and building ever more complicated and devious diversions for your own energies.

The tantric alternative is to unify spaciousness with passion. Spaciousness loosens the causal links between perception and emotion, and between emotion and action. Spaciousness reveals the absence of inherent meaning in all three. Your boss’s selfishness, arrogance, and idiocy do not force you to feel anger; feeling anger does not require either expression or suppression.

Since emotions have no inherent meaning, and there is nothing actually wrong with any of them, there are no reasons to reject any. Spaciousness dissolves the fixations of passion in the high-energy strategy. It undoes the denial of passion in the low-energy strategy.

Tantra releases the energy that was bound up in fighting other energy, or that was dissipated into depression. It removes the dams and dikes and sluices you have built to divert energy from its courses. Freed from conceptual constraints, each energy manifests vividly, and they dance together as the full-spectrum rainbow of human biological potential.

This may be experienced as turning up the brightness knob on perception, turning up the volume knob on emotions, and kicking action into high gear.

Of course, unblocking energy does not necessarily solve the problem of unwanted actions. Liberating anger without finding spacious freedom from pointless violence would be a mistake.

This means either tantra needs to be gradual—unkinking pathways carefully over many years, only as you gain sufficient spaciousness—or it needs to be practiced in a bomb-proof container. Both approaches are available.

Unclogging the energy of situations

You can unclog the energy of external situations, just like internal ones, by loosening causal links that appear fixed. Here, as a tantrika, you work with other people’s perception of meaning, their emotional responses to meanings, and their emotionally-driven actions.

The process begins with “spacious activity”: undirected exploration of a situation. The tantrika has no agenda; no hope of accomplishing anything in particular. He or she is just curious.

Then the tantrika begins to poke at things playfully, to see what happens. From observation and little nudges, he or she gets a feel for the pattern, for the ways the energetic flows balance. Over here there is an obstacle to one potential flow; over there, an energy is forced to take a circuitous route through a series of kinks in the channel.

High-energy stuck situations

In a high-energy stuck situation, people have fixed ideas about what things mean. There are intense passions in conflict, and a spaciousness deficit. Here the tantrika feels for alternative possibilities that have been overlooked by the participants; for other meanings that can be found in the situation. Because the tantrika has no preconceived ideas about what should happen, his or her attitude is free of arrogance.

Then, he or she jumps into the gap. Ideally, the tantrika finds a place to stand where applying a slight force at precisely the right time and angle causes the whole structure to settle into a new, more productive arrangement, using its own energy. If you have ever played Angry Birds, you have the image of a little tap, in just the right place, setting off a chain of large rearrangements. Imagine that with flexible high-pressure hoses and nozzles and valves added. (Hey, maybe that would make a cool game…)

Alternatively, the tantrika may just shake things up, in order to bring spaciousness to rigid patterns. If a situation is completely useless, randomly blowing it up might be better than nothing. (But this works only if you can apply more force than the other participants.)

Either way, the intervention is at the level of meaning. The tantrika inserts a new interpretation—whether subtly or bluntly.

The tantrika becomes the space in which reconfiguration occurs. The tantrika’s mind expands to encompass the situation and all the energies in it, and the other actors play out their dramas inside the space he or she provides. The tantrika brings freshness, humor, and grace to the situation. If the other participants lack spaciousness, the tantrika’s activity may be incomprehensible. It might even seem a little like magic.

(I hope this doesn’t sound mystical; there’s nothing supernatural about it. It’s not exactly metaphorical, either, though, because there actually isn’t an objective boundary around individuals.)

Low-energy stuck situations

In low-energy stuck situations, there is a passion deficit. Whatever energy flows into the situation is immediately dissipated, because potential meanings have been denied. Everything is flat and dull.

Here the tantrika can liberate the situation by supplying passion and meaningfulness. Again, this requires a detailed feel for the workings of the situation, and skill in intervention. The force of despair driving the dissipation of energy may be far stronger than you. Opposing it directly would fail. The tantrika reaches into spaciousness to locate a specific passion, latent in the situation, that can overcome the force of dissipation. The tantrika becomes the passion that is needed, and the situation reconfigures itself around that passion.

The tantrika’s tools here are inspiration, art, ritual, creativity, and leadership. These are ways of demonstrating passion in order to bring it out in others.

Creativity is central in tantric Buddhism. However, the goal is not “self-expression.” (Selves are not particularly interesting.) Nor is it to make something new just because it’s new. Nor is it about connecting with the Absolute Infinite.

Creativity means allowing the spaciousness of specifics to express themselves. It means being the space in which latent meanings coalesce into visible forms.

In both high- and low-energy situations, the tantrika unclogs energy by increasing passion or spaciousness (or both), and by unifying the two. Energy flows freely when no passion is denied, and when no meaning is fixed.

There may seem to be a paradox here: passion naturally seeks changes; spaciousness means allowing things to be as they are. The resolution is that the tantrika works with the energies that are already present in a situation, and frees them to be as they naturally are. The aim of tantra is not to fix the world. The world is unfixable. The aim of tantra is to liberate it from imposed meanings.

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Author: David Chapman

Author of the book Meaningness and several Buddhist sites.

18 thoughts on “Unclogging”

  1. Hi David,
    Thanks for another great article, I’ve read and enjoyed several pieces you’ve written in different places now, (including the Aro online meditation course, I’m now an apprentice in Europe).
    I think we may almost have met in Finland on an apprentice retreat in May, but not quite. (I remember seeing at one stage, your name on a list of those probably attending.) I’ve met Rin’dzin a few times and made assumptions when I saw your names listed side by side. My name’s Geoff, hello!
    I was drawn to write by the last line of the last paragraph of your ‘Unclogging internal energies’ chapter.
    You say “Both approaches are available”, when talking about a bombproof container to practice in. I think that’s a great line. I wonder how literally to take it though; I can imagine the advantages of practicing in remote mountainous caves, but are you describing something else?
    Thanks for reading this, I like to think we may meet one day, and look forward to it incase we do.
    Best Wishes, Geoff.

  2. Hi Geoff,

    Thank you very much for the friendly comment!

    Yes, at the last minute I was not able to make it to the May retreat in Finland—and won’t be at the July one either. Too bad! I’m sure we will meet at some point, however.

    With “bombproof container” I was speaking metaphorically: about wrathful practice under the close supervision of the lama, yidam, and khandro, chained by samaya and policed by srungma.

    I’m not sure that samaya and srungma are as effective as they once were, however…. So practicing in a remote retreat is probably also helpful… But this isn’t something I have any personal experience with.

    Best wishes,

    David

  3. Interesting post!

    I have found out that every emotion and the energy it rises from is preceded by a physical sensation. Applying the “let go, let be”-method to it allows it to liberate itself before it develops into an emotion. What does tantric teachings say about that, if anything?

    On a side note, do you think that the recent level 5 sigma findings about Higgs particle and especially the apparent overabundance of D-mesons in decaying B-mesons would jeopardize the current Standard Model, or does it open doors to a better version of it, possibly by tweaking the M-string model?

    Are you aware of any related Tantric or Dzogchen teachings, that go a bit more deeper than the usual “emptiness is form, form is emptiness”-jargon? Do you think recent findings shed more light into five element system and teachings on kayas? I sense a cognitive dissonance in trying to make buddhist and scientific models together… But sure beats being bored!

    Thanks for a delightfully illuminating article.

  4. Hi Mouchoir,

    Glad you enjoyed this!

    Applying the “let go, let be”-method to it allows it to liberate itself before it develops into an emotion.

    Hmm… sounds more like trèk-chöd (in Dzogchen) than tantra.

    Unfortunately the Standard Model is far beyond where I went with physics, so I can’t say anything about that. Generally, though, I am skeptical of claims about connections between physics and Buddhism (or other religious/spiritual systems). They seem to be to be unrelated subject matters, and any apparently similarities are probably coincidental.

    David

  5. I hear you David.

    I do still find it intriguing enough to find similarities between concepts of quantum field and emptiness, Double slit experiment, Heisenberg principle,the fact that all sense objects are created in the mind parallel to Dzogchen teachings which contradict madhyamaka and chittamatra view, teachings on interdependent arising and impermanence are in parallel with modern science, but curiously enough are contradicted by Dzogchen view… Ahh the tension.. I guess I try to just entertain myself by looking for energy, essence and nature within scientific framework. Enough of blabber. Thanks for answering.

  6. Oh, and who could forget the Net of Indra! Ah well, science and Tantra have a better shot of matrimony, but Great Perfection view is a tougher nut to crack!

  7. Hello David. Great and Thought provoking post. I have some comment and questions.

    “The method of tantra is: Unclogging energy by uniting spaciousness and passion.”

    It would seem that “uniting spaciosness and passion” would be the result of tantra [perhaps even the ground of dzogchen]

    I wonder if the method of tantra is *transformation*. In particular, the transformation of form experiences through the ground of emptiness into enlightened displays (the union of spaciousness and passion).

    “Energy is blocked by fixed meanings: when narrowed perception insists that things must only go one way.”

    I don’t think all narrowed perception fixes meaning – that would be the specific narrowing of the sense field of conceptuality. I think if one were visually blind, one could still enjoy experiences beyond fixed meanings (to stress that it isn’t every narrowed perception that fixes meaning).

    “Of course, unblocking energy does not necessarily solve the problem of unwanted actions.”

    There is no “problem” with “unwanted actions” other than denying that you want them [blocking the energy] or acting them out habitually with the mistaken view of not having a choice. The practice of “ambivalence” [this means, for the quantum physicists out there – “multti-valued” as in quantum superposition of states, Schroedinger’s cat, yada yada] is extremely helpful here, as one could rest between these options with impunity. It might feel like boiling alive, but that feeling is first noticed, dwells and actually passes. If that is allowed to process, one can come to make a spontaneous choice that neither represses the energy nor acts on it habitually. The external manifestation could even appear like the same action, but that action is entirely different if it is the fruit of this ambivalence practice, of the recognition of one’s own awareness and the freedom to choose.

  8. The path and result of [inner] tantra are the same, so yes, uniting spaciousness and passion is both the method and the goal.

    Transformation: yes; your comment anticipates my following post, which appeared two hours later (on an automagic schedule set up a week ago).

    “I don’t think all narrowed perception fixes meaning”; sorry, yes, I wrote unclearly. Also yes to ambivalence.

  9. Hi David,
    I haven’t commented for a while. The parallels between much of what you have written in this post and the shamanic path of personal power is too explicit not to throw a bone into the mix. The principals of unclogging I would describe as energy loss, energy maintenance and energy gain as the game as it is loosely defined in the shamanic way I walk.
    If one is dedicated to an awake relationship with one’s energy then the realization that energy loss is directly related to an improper relationship with one’s immediate environment becomes clear. That provides such a neutral ground from which to define and measure experience. We seek to avoid energy loss which is based on initially establishing appropriate boundaries, later by realizing that through unimpeded engagement with what is taking place there is no energy loss, but energy gain; this leads to ecstatic engagement, often in a highly relaxed form.
    The shamanic path defines this modality of engagement with the world as one based on personal power. To be within your power is to be at cause within a given space. This doesn’t mean to have more or less power than others or to be the only one at cause, but to be so fully embedded in the experience as to become a most integral aspect of unfolding events. There is a full and naked participation. We are free of reactivity and identification and live without expectation and as you mentioned on several occasions, without applying meaning i.e. interpretation.
    Within the world of magick it is based on the principle of conjuring; you see the direction movement is taking (energy and cycles), you align with it as an invitation to engage fully, you use intent and determination to direct the movement based on a recognition of what the situation is calling for.
    Freedom from identification, ego games and arrogance or the need to express an agenda is met through embracing the electric nature of the constant cycle of life, death and rebirth of original expression in the process of now and a commitment to excellence being manifest in leadership. I am very pleased you expressed the importance of leadership in this post. Leadership in part is harnessing the energy of the ‘self’ and its specific and unique manifestations as our chess pieces, so that we begin with ‘self’ leadership; taking command of our own inner energy resources, including the range of emotions of course. This seems to work best when we honour our nature profoundly, but do not take it the least bit seriously.
    The challenge of course is mastering the ability to to enter the fray in all moments, but this a matter perhaps of recognizing the limitations of the human form and allowing the natural cycles of ebbing and flowing of our body and its energy sources to be an invitation to play in a range of expressions. Maybe this is best captured through a profound but unemotional sense of care and appreciation for it all.
    Anyway, sorry if I am preaching to the converted. Really what I found fascinating in reading your post, which was very clear and free of Buddhist linguistic symbology, was reflecting on how this process is innately human. It is not Tantra, or Shamanic, it is human and a natural result of learning to live in the full expression of what we are as humans. Of course a path is required hence the language and practices and symbolic display (to quote your teachers), but in essence we are learning to live correctly.
    Matthew

    http://buddhatrieste.blogspot.it/2012/06/eightfold-path-right-effort-part1.html

  10. Hi Matthew,

    Thank you very much for that!

    Yes, this is all very much in line with my understanding of Buddhist tantra. My teachers say that, in some sense, everyone practices tantra whether they know it or not, because no one can avoid intimate involvement with energy.

    I will be writing much more about power, mastery, and leadership. These are uncomfortable topics for Consensus Buddhists, who mostly want to pretend they don’t exist, or that they shouldn’t exist, or that only Bad People have them. They are central to the Tantric Buddhist path, though.

    Unfortunately, it will probably be more than a month before I get to write more—I’m busy with other things.

    Cheers,

    David

  11. Hi,
    My pleasure. It’s great to be able to exchange understanding and experience.
    By the way, have you read any of Geoffrey Samuel’s books? His ‘Tantric Revisioing’ is really excellent. He was the first author that I’ve come across to really highlight the shamanic roots of Tibetan Tantra through India rather than the Tibetan semi-shamanic Bon-Po tradition. Considering some of the far out myths attributed to the Indian Mahasiddhas, it’s not surprising that they were much closer to a shamanic reality than a Buddhist one. Ken McLeod made a similar observation in his exploration of the life of Tilopa and Naropa.
    As for leadership, power and mastery, I couldn’t agree more. They are such scary, adult concepts. Best to be avoided by the nicey Buddhist brigade, and yet they seem to be the three core elements that make the difference between Buddhism light, and a full on engagement with the path as lived experience. As you are I’m sure well aware such qualities are more readily discussed and cultivated in martial arts and within warrior cultures. I actually think these qualities within practice are inseparable from how we go about actualising awakened living and they seem to have a great deal to do with exiting from social norms and rules, and identification with roles. They are intimately related to impeccability and presence.
    I shall be curious to see what you have to say on these topics later on.
    Matthew
    http://buddhatrieste.blogspot.it/

  12. Yes—I think I’ve read all Geoffrey Samuel’s books, and they are indeed excellent. (He teaches at Cardiff University and is friendly with the Aro sangha there, btw.)

    And also yes about martial arts. Again, some of the Aro Lamas teach Dzogchen martial arts (an upcoming retreat in California is described here).

    And also also yes about social roles.

    Whether I can say anything coherent about that remains to be seen!

  13. Hi David,

    I just found this post and and REALLY interested in this whole web of concepts. If I wanted to learn more, are there books you can recommend or websites? Feel free to email me. This is really exciting stuff, I feel like I’ve been looking for this particular take on things for a long time…

  14. Hi, Ian,

    Glad this was interesting!

    Unfortunately, I’m finding it hard to think of anything to recommend. This page is an attempt to explain, in plain English, the “completion approach” to tantra. (I wrote in a later post about the relationship of what I said here with tradition.) I can’t recall reading anything else that does that. If you are familiar with the basics of Tibetan tantra, you could read books on the completion practices; those are mainly highly technical and assume a Medieval world view, however.

    In an earlier post, I recommended several overall introductions to tantra. What I said in this page is the same as what they say, in some sense, but the similarity may not be obvious. In any case, they are great books, and worth checking into.

    Good luck,

    David

  15. Thanks David! I just feel like I’m sort of doing that “unclogging” stuff already and was hoping for some pointers. I will check out those posts, much appreciated, as is all your work here.

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