Natural Tantra

Twenty odd years ago (when I was twenty odd) I picked up a beautiful little book of ancient poems by a selection of Tantric adepts translated with a commentary by Thomas Cleary called The Ecstasy of Enlightenment: Teachings of Natural Tantra. These highly symbolic verses purport to contain within them deep secrets of Buddhist Tantra, and Cleary teases them out beautifully.

One of these secrets has accompanied me on all my various spiritual and philosophical meanderings since. It is the teaching on three energetic channels in the body (nadis) called the shushumna, ida and pingala. The esoteric energy stuff is not what captured my attention, however. It was the extraordinary simplicity and explanatory power of the “cycle of knowledge” processed through these three channels.

Thomas Cleary translates the old Bengali terms as “purification”, “perception” and “dalliance”. The idea is that by purifying consciousness (through immersion in the central shushumna channel) the bodymind is freed up to receive fresh impressions from the world. The doors of perception are cleansed (as William Blake famously expressed it). Now consciousness shifts to the ida nadi, which represents the “yin” energy of the moon (passive and receptive) located on the left side of the spine.

From here consciousness is passed to the pingala nadi on the right side, which represents the “yang” energy of the sun, active and stimulating, the channel of mental-intellectual energy. This is called “dalliance”. But it doesn’t stop there. Consciousness continues around the cycle, passing back through the “purification” of the central channel to the “perception” of the left channel and back round to the “dalliance” of the right channel, and so on.

Only now, having recently finished reading Iain McGilchrist’s excellent book The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World do I appreciate how brilliant this ancient Tantric knowledge really is: it maps directly onto what we now know about the functioning of the two hemispheres of the brain.

A large percentage of neurons in the corpus callosum which connects the two hemispheres are actually inhibitory. This means that they can stop information passing from one side to the other. It also means that they can inhibit entire neural networks (such as the “default mode network”). Buddhist meditation (especially Zen) has the explicit aim of stopping thought, achieving a state of no-mind (“mu-shin”). This is what the Tantric adepts called “purification”, which they located in the central channel passing through the brain and nervous system.

The right hemisphere (McGilchrist’s “master”) is the hemisphere responsible for immediate somatic, emotional and cognitive Gestalt-like integrated experiences, “intuitions” if you like. It also controls the left hand and the left side of the body, which is where the ida nadi is located. Remember the ida is the receptive “yin” channel.

The left hemisphere (McGilchrist’s “emissary”) is the hemisphere responsible for language (largely) and the manipulation of things into coherent systems. It is basically where our intellectual processing and model building takes place, what we usually call “thinking”. It controls the right hand (the grasping hand) and the right side of the body, where the pingala nadi is located, the active “yang” channel.

For the Tantric adept, the goal is not to disappear into a Nirvanic void of “purification” or to remain in a perfect state of mindful “perception”. Neither is it (obviously) to create endless models of reality through intellectual “dalliance”. Rather, the aim is to flow through all three states in a seamless cycle of ever deepening knowledge and experience. Raw experience must be processed in order for it to become knowledge, but that knowledge must in turn be purified so as not to ossify into ideological dogma.

With each cycle, knowledge is refined and experience is enriched. This is how we mature and grow. From this perspective, “spiritual” progress is the approach to Reality (or “God”) through successive cycles of “purification”, “perception” and “dalliance”. This is exactly the same process McGilchrist describes when he says that the contents of the right hemisphere (the “master”) must be passed over (“delegated”) to the left hemisphere (the “emissary”) but then passed back to the right hemisphere again.

What happens when the flow is interrupted? What happens when the left hemisphere refuses to give up its riches and tries to go it alone? We end up in the self-referential worlds of solipsism, narcissism and schizophrenia that characterise much of the modern West. We end up in a disenchanted and de-sacralised world of exclusively “human” creation. We become progressively more mechanical, stereotypical, puppet-like. We find ourselves trapped in a world of muppets, muggles, divas, demons, addicts and victims.