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A conversation with Swami Ravi Rudra Bharati about Tantra and Altered States, by Agnes Dei

Rudy Ballentine, a holistic physician and past president of the Himalayan Institute (Yoga) authored or co-authored books on nutrition, meditation, breathwork, yoga and psychotherapy and later Radical Healing, Integrating the World’s Great Therapeutic Traditions to Create a New Transformative Medicine. He studied for 20 years with a Tantric master, and led workshops on Tantric sexuality for men with men both independently and through the Body Electric School.

AD is a bodyworker, musician, and radical faerie, living simply in Pittsburgh with his lover Jimmi. Together they cook, garden, sing silly songs and enjoy bringing touch to the lives of their brothers, lovers and friends. Agnes’ mundane name is Timothy Kocher-Hillmer.

AD: What attracted you to this topic of altered states?

RB: I’d have to say that my ulterior motive is to talk about Tantra. The philosophy, the approach, of Tantra is the idea that it’s a doorway to other worlds. So I’ll have to step back and say a little about my feelings about the term “altered states.” And my feelings have changed over the years. There was a time when I felt comfortable with that phrase, and used it uncritically. More recently, I have come to feel like it’s a little parochial. I mean, what is the “normal” state that’s being altered? Why are these variations of consciousness called “altered”? It’s sort of like the term alternative medicine: which is the alternative, conventional or holistic medicine? In view of the fact that over 100,000 people a year die from taking conventional medications, properly prescribed and taken in proper dose, in the hospital, wouldn’t it make sense to start by using safer options -- like herbal remedies or homeopathy-- and if that didn’t work, then resort to an “alternative” like antibiotics?

So, there’s a certain implication in using this term “altered states” that implies that the everyday consciousness that we’re usually immersed in is the “real” one. In the Yoga and Tantric tradition there’s a prayer you say before you teach, which is: “Lead us from darkness to light. Lead us from unreality to reality.” At our retreat center, people would be returning to New York saying “We have to get back to the real world.” My teacher would say, “You call that the real world?” So, I just want to say up front that I’m not comfortable using the term “altered states.”

AD: Well, what other term is used in the tradition of Tantra? How else might this be spoken of?

RB: I’m not sure this is specific to Tantric philosophy. It is certainly part of Indian thought in general: One of the Upanishads -- the Mandukya -- talks about the movement from everyday waking consciousness into what we might think of as similar to dreaming; where we become aware of images and archetypes and mythical figures. It’s the state we enter in sleep where there is rapid eye movement (REM). It’s also a consciousness that is accessible when we’re not asleep, that we might enter in certain ritual settings or listening to a story being told, or in meditation. The Mandukyo Upanishad talks about moving from everyday waking consciousness into that consciousness, then from that consciousness into the sort of consciousness that is even less acknowledged, one that is more about swirls of subtle energy and connection with the flow of nature. One that doesn’t involve imagery at all. That is where we go when we’re in dreamless sleep. It is also a place where people who are trained as shamans might go (or others adept in similar traditions), or in healing, or in the deeper experiences of ritual space, or in sexual ecstasy. In this state there’s this feel of energy flowing and a kind of immersion in the intensity of sensation: an opening into the power of that world.

So, those will tend to be called “altered” states. But what’s interesting, and the reason I brought it up, is that when the Upanishad was written (probably over two thousand years ago) it became the subject of a number of commentaries. Now it’s often published with layers of commentaries, each coming 500 to 1000 years later. Over time, you begin to see these commentaries talking about everyday waking consciousness as reality. But the original writing talked about reality as being the deeper awareness. The everyday waking consciousness was considered an experience of distraction, even delusion. So, they’ve gotten reversed and here we are in a period where we consider everyday waking consciousness as what is “normal”-- as what is the real world.

Part of the Tantric work, I believe, is to harness the power latent in those “other” realities. Though it is a power that can act through sexuality, not all versions of Tantric work access that power through explicit sex. But when it is tantric sex the goal is to enter the world of that power, harness the latent energy, and begin to stand at a place where that wouldn’t seem like an altered state.

AD: A couple of things strike me. First about the way history and human thought have done that reversal. How we’ve considered what is real or altered. Then, what is also interesting: as you first started describing this, the word you used was movement from everyday consciousness into a dream consciousness and then into a further physical understanding of the swirls and movement of energy. What strikes me is that you used the word “movement” in two ways.

RB: Yeah. I’m subject to the same problems. I don’t even know that “movement” is the right word. I don’t even know whether you need to move. That’s a kind of spatial concept. We have these time and space concepts that are really part of this third dimensional everyday waking consciousness world. And then we tend to impose them on other worlds. That’s how, I think, we distort them and make them less accessible. Because we’re trying to make them more like what we are familiar with. I see how much of that I do myself and I’m trying to find how to step around that. (And even as I say that, I’m making it spatial!) What’s present in those “other” worlds is really here all the time, ready to be plugged into. It’s not like you have to go somewhere, but that’s how we think of it and I’m no exception.

AD: It seems to me we need to be re-learning this whole process and its terminology.

RB: Definitely, definitely!

AD: Would you be willing to share your first experience of entering that world of energy in terms of sexual Tantra? How did you find yourself in that place?

RB: That’s a good question. It’s sort of interesting because I didn’t know that I was being taught Tantra. I just knew that my teacher was giving me instructions about all kinds of things: Foods, my body. How to sit for meditation. How to have sex. It was just one more thing on the list. The concepts of not ejaculating and then directing that energy, well, all these things were about managing energy in my life. At that time my partner was a woman. So, I just brought that to our sexual connection. I began to discover, by contacting the energy and moving it with the breath, that it expanded something in my head. The point when I really became aware of this we were on vacation and were in bed. I began to realize that if we kept doing what we were doing, it felt to me as if my head were going to blow off. I thought, oh my god! I don’t know whether this is a good idea or not. But I was certainly aware of the power (and not in a theoretical way) in a very experiential, personal and immediate way. I felt like, “I’m playing with something immensely bigger than me. And I better pay attention.”

I think that’s the experience I remember most vividly. After that relationship ended and I began to explore connecting intimately with men, I brought that training along with me. I didn’t really know where I could make such connections. So, I looked for listings that advertised erotic massage. I decided to go. And I’d say “I want erotic massage, but I don’t want to ejaculate,” and they’d look at me like I was from some other planet. I’d be very embarrassed and would just want to leave, you know? Until I happened upon this guy who, when I said that to him (and waited for the usual reaction), he told me, “Oh, sure, that’s what I do.” I was astounded. “Who taught you this?” I asked. And he told me about the Body Electric School, which was the beginning of my connection with them.

AD: That brings up a question. This experience is just the opposite of what we’ve been taught. I want to share this with a brother, lover or friend, without feeling embarrassed or apologetic. How can I share this with another man without “breaking the mood” by having to explain what I’m talking about? Any comments?

RB: I was just talking with Don Shewey about the big gay men’s health summit in Boulder, where I led a workshop two years ago. I was very frustrated. It seemed nobody would talk about this. They’re all talking about grants for money for AIDS centers and medications. And I’m ready to scream because I feel like the real issue for health in gay men is to get in touch with their mission. What did you come into this world to do? Not that it’s the same for everybody, but what is your role here? What is your agenda for this lifetime. Gay men and women most often come with some sort of special offering that grows out of the fact that they’re not identified in the same way as the population at large. That gives one a different kind of perspective, or fluidity, or distance, or ability to see. As the Native Americans referred to them as “those who walk between worlds.” This is an incredibly privileged place and it’s also a difficult place in which to live. How do you bridge that gap -- offer a different way of using the power of sexuality without becoming a lecturer? But we can’t give up the opportunity to offer something that’s really extraordinary, which is often what the world needs. Especially right now, gay people, transsexual people, lesbians, bisexuals…all of us who are not “normal” are the ones who bring something fresh. This can be tremendously important and I think it’s a contribution to the spiritual development of the planet.

What I’m trying to get at is that we come with this to offer. And we somehow get distracted, or because of social pressures our self-concept becomes so damaged and condemned, that we aren’t in touch with our agenda, the purpose we came here for. Then, of course, our health is going to collapse. We come here with a physical body and a consciousness that is designed for our mission. We’re issued this vehicle on the basis of the agenda we accepted for this lifetime. The body/mind is designed to live the life that we’re coming to live. If we don’t live that life, the vehicle begins to rust and doesn’t work, and health collapses.

So…. I was ranting and raving about this health summit, saying I hesitated to speak next time. What was the question? I forgot what you asked.

AD: Well, you’re actually following through with the heart of my question. It’s like we’ve been intentionally given this “altered state” of being queer. I guess maybe my question really was about how we continue to honestly access that state.

RB: And how do we get people to collaborate with us in going there?

AD: Yes! Yes!

RB: I think this is the issue: we’re so distracted by what seems like this huge hurdle of owning who we are. And yet we need to do this -- to own our uniqueness -- and still consciously and deliberately enter into that world that is accessible to us. Even though society says it’s impossible. But, like the Flirtations sing in that wonderful song, “We’re gonna do it anyway!” I think that is the true spirit of those who walk between worlds. That’s the power and dignity of the gay person’s role. In order to really take that on fully, we have to go consciously into the experience of sexuality and the energy of sexuality and the power of that. We need to explore that, and play there, and discover stuff, things that probably nobody ever has. Well, definitely not in the way we’re doing it, because we’re doing something new. We’re bringing our intellectual, critical faculty. On the downside this can certainly distract us, taking us away from entering the worlds of imagery, archetypes, and swirls of energy. Yet, at the same time, if we can bring it with us, it helps clarify. This is a great asset if we don’t let it overwhelm us. This is the incredible possibility we have today. Queer people have this unprecedented opportunity to explore these worlds and meld with them to create a whole new world.

AD: Let me ask this. Before I met you in person, I met you on the pages of “Radical Healing.” Having finished it three months ago, it still feels like I’m in an “altered” state of being. Can an “altered state” (for lack of a better word) be permanent? And how do we do this as queer folk? can we make a permanent shift? Does this make any sense?

RB: Yeah, and that’s when I think we really begin to give up this idea of “altered” states and we begin to regard it as home. It’s not a place we visit, it’s a place we live. Tantric tradition and Indian thought in general is leading modern philosophy and thought in that direction. This idea that there’s something beyond the serial experience. Instead of experiencing these “altered” states sequentially, we can hold the experience of them all transparently; at once, in the present. In the moment I can be in that experience of energy. I can be in that awareness of archetypes and imagery. I can also be in the fullest possession of my critical faculties. They all coexist in this present moment. When this happens (and we’re all moving toward this and glimpsing it at moments) we create an additional or “new” state. This is an integral state, “integral consciousness.” When we do this, we’re not trapped in time, space and causality. These terms are characteristics of “normal” everyday waking consciousness and don’t operate in the sphere of energy consciousness, for example. Here you don’t make something happen, it just happens. You can allow it to happen. So, causality isn’t a part of that. And it’s beyond time. And it’s not a spatial thing.

The implications of this are very large because it means we can do things we have considered not possible. As we do this, the whole way we exist on the planet changes because we’ve shifted. What we’ve thought was important, isn’t. Time ceases to constrain our lives. From the point of view of Tantra, time is something we’ve created. We can be in it or we don’t have to.

Here we see the sort of consciousness considered “normal” is not particularly up to the tasks that we need it to perform. We can learn to set it aside and move into a larger, more encompassing consciousness. It’s a whole way of thinking, as you said, that we’re called to begin to move into. This is what spiritual teachers have been talking about for millennia. We can, by this sharpened intellect, make this state accessible to more people. This is part of the huge shift that is happening on this planet. And queer people, people who walk between worlds, have a huge contribution to make that can help facilitate this shift.

(Adapted from an interview that appeared in the Summer 2002 issue of the White Crane Journal)

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