A couple of people have asked me recently to describe the model of gender/sexuality/etc. which I was exposed to through my 1990s spiritual practice as a Hindu tantric. It is as follows.
- The human can be divided (for this purpose) into four layers: absolute consciousness, core spiritual identity, position within a lifetime, and physical body. The upper two levels aren’t worth trying to describe in detail, but together they encompass the full range of human experience – old/young, male/female, good/wicked and so on are all within those identities, and they lie buried and inaccessible within every human being (we believe.) Think of those levels together as the great repository of every possible form of humanity. (!)
- Physical body is simple: it’s the meat. It also refers to the base consciousness of the body – the thing that gets hungry, the thing that jerks you leg when somebody taps it with a hammer – the thing that you share with a dog. At least on layer of sexuality (and it can be as many as four) resides here.
- Position in a lifetime is mutable. Today you are young, in 40 years you will be older. Today you are a computer programmer. In 40 years you will paint houses and look after your grandchildren. Today you are alive, in 40 years you may be dead. As you pass through time, the physical body takes a relativively predictable trajectory for most people. It ages. Sometimes it gets injured or, rarely, modified. The position in a lifetime level is vastly more mutable – everything you can become is potential within it. As you change in directions which are unusual, you start to see life in new ways, and tantric practice pushes pepole into very unusual perspecives indeed on a number of axes as a way of forcing people further and further towards the cosmic and universal levels which are hidden within them. “Being what you are not” is a huge part of the practice: trying to experience death, trying to experience what its like to be of another gender, changing social status, gaining and losing power, and many other polarities are experienced and explored.
- Western culture has many deeply graven problems around sex. Therefore westerners tend to attach to the 20% or so of tantra which involves sexual identies. Weirdly, however, they never seem to want to deal with the tantric spirituality around work, child-rearing, family responsibilities and everything else that goes with sex in the traditional cultures which tantra evolved in!
- One core practice cycle is to build a clear understanding of how you would look at life and experience life if you had been born in the other gender. In highly gender-role-segragated societies, this practice was extremely radical and mind expanding. The more equivalent genders are in a society, the less there is to learn from this work. But tantra is very old, and the roles used to be very socially constrained, hence these practices worked well for inducing personal flexibility. One optional extra (highly recommended) is to then unify with the other-gendered aspect of your own potential: done correctly this largely cancels some of the more obsessional qualities of the romantic quest and in most cases it results in a much broader and more flexible range of responses to life – men who can more easily nurture, and women who can more easily fight is a common understanding. Note that this practice does not typically alter expressed preference in sexual partners, although it might for some people in some circumstances. It also does not change performed social role in public (tantra is secret) although it may change performed role in ritual. If this all seems a bit alien, some core tantric concepts are maybe 8000 years old.
- This model differs heavily from western models of gender and sexuality. The idea of what a human is which underlies tantric practice is so alien to common western conceptions of identity that the, er, “gender bending” practices of tantra are extremely hard to map. Tantra existed within cultures in which arranged marriage was a fundamental social norm, where not finding your kid a spouse was as bad as not educating them or feeding them! No birth control, no STD treatment: this was a different world. Although it’s tempting to map personal fluidity around gender from one lived experience to another, in this case, it’s not at all clear that without the fundamental spiritual model of the self underlying, there’s any clear mapping to be made. In particular, the maintainence of a performed social role while voluntarily changing the lived experience is a feature which does not appear to map at all well to the western debates about gender, sexuality and identity. It’s a different game.
That said, dialogue might be productive – the new world is new, and people are pushing hard on boundaries which the tantrics of old had no approach to. But it’s not a simple or direct mapping, and I can’t see direct points of congruence or transfer past certain superficial similarities. Perhaps time will change that.