(This is an article I wrote for my tanta teacher, Hilly Spenceley Of Shakti Tantra. She pioneered Women only tantra, branching out into mixed work and, more recently, work with Couples. She is the most influential of all my teachers. Although I tend not to use the word Tantra to describe my own work, partly because the term has been so misused, I really believe it to be a great path of liberation from the fragmentation that is characteristic of modern life. You can find out more about her work at www.shaktitantra.co.uk)
Frequently with couples, the sex between them has stopped, or has become radically unsatisfactory, and neither partner really knows why. The problem is twofold. Firstly, the couple tend to have a clear idea of what sex should be like. You could call it The Hollywood Model. In this model of sex, each is urgently passionate for the other, so much so that they tear each other’s clothes off, with scant regard for fabric longevity, have some very perfunctory foreplay, then get down to business, and in no time at all simultaneously and noisily orgasm. Whilst having sex, they are very engaged with each other.
That’s the first problem: there’s an ideal of what sex should be like, and you’re naturally disappointed and frustrated if it isn’t like that for you. The second is the focus on orgasm. Couples tend to speak about this in terms of what “works”. If it promotes orgasm, it’s good, if it doesn’t, not so much. But over time, the sex gradually narrows, like a play where the characters, one by one, disappear, until you get to the point where it’s just perfunctory. And then it vanishes entirely.So, it isn’t just a restrictive view about what sexuality is like. It’s an increasingly restrictive view about what THEIR sexuality is like.
How can we think of sex in a different way? Donald Mosher, an American researcher, came up with the idea that we have three different sexual modes. What I’ve called The Hollywood Model is his second mode, Partner Engagement, but there’s two others: Trance and Play. Trance is where you’re very caught up in your own experience. Your partner might be doing something delicious to you, and you are having an exquisite time, but it’s very internal. It’s as if you are having a delicious meal. You don’t want to tell the waiter every five minutes what a great time you’re having, as that detracts from the experience. Except, because The Hollywood Model is what we think sex is, we often feel guilty and selfish when we’re in this mode, and feel that we’re taking up too much time. And we feel we have to reassure our partner, even although that takes away from our experience. The other state is Play. BDSM – particularly power games – are the classic exemplars, but it really includes all behaviour where the couple are acting a part. For instance, where they pretend to be strangers, picking each other up in a bar. Or one of them is a Naughty Doctor. For example.
In remedial work with couples in a non-tantra setting, it’s helpful to focus on these two other states – and primarily on Trance to begin with – so that the couple can broaden out an idea of sex which was largely restricted to Partner Engagement in the first place, and fatally constricted further by the singleminded focus on the boa constrictor of orgasm.
How does this all relate to tantra? It relates very much, because all three of these aspects come together in co-created, ceremonial space which is, essentially, what tantra is.
In tantra, we see ourselves and our partner as aspects of the Divine. In a sense, that’s clearly in the Play mode, but let’s be clear: it is the capacity to play which quintessentially makes us human. It isn’t something trivial, it is our essence. Play, like Love, completes and vivifies us. And that’s what ceremony understands. In my other identity as a zen teacher, I misunderstood ceremony for 25 years. I thought it was symbolic activity. It took me that long to understand that I was mistaken, that ceremony is the direct entranceway to the crucible of the Present.
Because we are with our partner, we are also in the Partner Engagement mode, but in a different, broader, more profound sense. We are with our partner as an aspect of divine creation made flesh, not with an overfamiliar body with an ill functioning orgasm switch. That’s a crucial distinction. And because we are in moment to moment contact with what we feel, in a world entirely different from the dysfunctional sexual capitalism that is our usual home, we are also in the Trance state, but reconfigured not as something ‘internal’ or ‘subjective’, but as an aspect of total human experience, channeled through this body.
In this way, the couple can learn a way of being together which is much broader, which has much more feeling, and which has much more connection to everything. Rather than a Puritan focus on performance, we are opened up to our creative and expressive capacities as instruments of the divine. And that changes everything.