What is Tantra?

In her introductory piece, Leora Lightwoman reveals the secret to transcending the physical...

The word Tantra comes from the Sanskrit roots “tanoti” meaning “to expand” and “trayati” meaning “liberation”. Through the expansion of consciousness, liberation is attained.

There is no one fundamental Tantric text or scripture- there are many. Sutras may take the form of a conversation between Divine lovers, Shiva and Shakti, the archetypal male and female principles, or the form of a song, sang in ecstasy. For example, the Song of Saraha is a spontaneous and direct communication of ultimate reality, communicated via metaphor, which has the capacity to transport the listener into a deeper dimension.

Saraha was a ninth century Tantric Buddhist, who introduced the practice of mahamudra, meaning the “great symbol”. The Tantraloka, compiled by Abhinavagupta and written in the 11th century, is a summary of many of the previous Tantras. It includes the contents of the three branches of Kashmiri Shaivism, including the Shiva sutras, originating directly from Shiva himself.

One of the oldest known Tantras, the Vijnanbhairava Tantra, which is over 5000 year old, does both. It is a dialogue between Divine lovers, the male and female principle. I shall include several excerpts from this, and I invite you to let go of striving to understand them mentally, and instead allow the poetry, the qualities expressed beyond words, to touch you.

Tantra is about fully embracing the physical world. Nothing is separate from the Divine. Tantra invites us to enter deeply into the experience of each of our five senses, with awareness and presence. In so doing it is possible to meet the essence, Unity.

"Imagine the five coloured circles of a peacock feather to be your fives senses disseminated in unlimited space and reside in the spatiality of your own heart."
Vijnanabhairava Tantra.

Instead of renouncing the body, Tantra advocates the inner marriage of energy and consciousness – becoming acutely and intimately aware of the subtle energy processes within and beyond the physical body, and through so doing, transcending the physical.

"If you meditate in your heart, in the upper centre of between your eyes, the spark, which will dissolve discursive thought will ignite, like when brushing eyelids with fingers. You will then melt into supreme consciousness."
Vijnanabhairava Tantra

In Tantra the male principle, or Shiva, is a representation of pure consciousness and containment. The female principle, Shakti, is pure energy. The marriage of pure energy with consciousness is Tantra, union.

"When you realise that you are in every thing, the attachment to body dissolves, and joy and bliss arise."
Vijnanabhairava Tantra

One of the main principles in Tantra is that the senses are gateways to the Divine.

"At the time of euphoria and expansion caused by delicate foods and drinks, be total in this delight and, through it, taste supreme bliss."
Vijnanabhairava Tantra

We eat and drink every day. It is possible to open up completely to the sensations of eating and drinking, and to taste what lies beyond the physical. This can occur when the practitioner is fully present in the moment. Allowing oneself to become totally absorbed in sensuality is, in itself a meditation practice, which develops presence.

"By being totally present in song, in music, enter spatiality with each sound that rises and dissolves into it."
Vijnanabhairava Tantra

Also:

"In summer, when your gaze dissolves in the endlessly clear sky, penetrate this light that is the essence of your own mind."
Vijnanabhairava Tantra

Leora Lightwoman read psychology at Oxford University, then trained as a yoga teacher and bodyworker. She has been a Tantra practitioner since 1993. In 2001 she formed her own school, Diamond Light Tantra. This is a pragmatic and eclectic approach to sexual, emotional and spiritual healing.
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Harmful gender stereotypes in ads have real impact – so we're challenging them

The ASA must make sure future generations don't recoil at our commercials.

July’s been quite the month for gender in the news. From Jodie Whittaker’s casting in Doctor Who, to trains “so simple even women can drive them”, to how much the Beeb pays its female talent, gender issues have dominated. 

You might think it was an appropriate time for the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to launch our own contribution to the debate, Depictions, Perceptions and Harm: a report on gender stereotypes in advertising, the result of more than a year’s careful scrutiny of the evidence base.

Our report makes the case that, while most ads (and the businesses behind them) are getting it right when it comes to avoiding damaging gender stereotypes, the evidence suggests that some could do with reigning it in a little. Specifically, it argues that some ads can contribute to real world harms in the way they portray gender roles and characteristics.

We’re not talking here about ads that show a woman doing the cleaning or a man the DIY. It would be most odd if advertisers couldn’t depict a woman doing the family shop or a man mowing the lawn. Ads cannot be divorced from reality.

What we’re talking about is ads that go significantly further by, for example, suggesting through their content and context that it’s a mum’s sole duty to tidy up after her family, who’ve just trashed the house. Or that an activity or career is inappropriate for a girl because it’s the preserve of men. Or that boys are not “proper” boys if they’re not strong and stoical. Or that men are hopeless at simple parental or household tasks because they’re, well...men.

Advertising is only a small contributor to gender stereotyping, but a contributor it is. And there’s ever greater recognition of the harms that can result from gender stereotyping. Put simply, gender stereotypes can lead us to have a narrower sense of ourselves – how we can behave, who we can be, the opportunities we can take, the decisions we can make. And they can lead other people to have a narrower sense of us too. 

That can affect individuals, whatever their gender. It can affect the economy: we have a shortage of engineers in this country, in part, says the UK’s National Academy of Engineering, because many women don’t see it as a career for them. And it can affect our society as a whole.

Many businesses get this already. A few weeks ago, UN Women and Unilever announced the global launch of Unstereotype Alliance, with some of the world’s biggest companies, including Proctor & Gamble, Mars, Diageo, Facebook and Google signing up. Advertising agencies like JWT and UM have very recently published their own research, further shining the spotlight on gender stereotyping in advertising. 

At the ASA, we see our UK work as a complement to an increasingly global response to the issue. And we’re doing it with broad support from the UK advertising industry: the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) – the industry bodies which author the UK Advertising Codes that we administer – have been very closely involved in our work and will now flesh out the standards we need to help advertisers stay on the right side of the line.

Needless to say, our report has attracted a fair amount of comment. And commentators have made some interesting and important arguments. Take my “ads cannot be divorced from reality” point above. Clearly we – the UK advertising regulator - must take into account the way things are, but what should we do if, for example, an ad is reflecting a part of society as it is now, but that part is not fair and equal? 

The ad might simply be mirroring the way things are, but at a time when many people in our society, including through public policy and equality laws, are trying to mould it into something different. If we reign in the more extreme examples, are we being social engineers? Or are we simply taking a small step in redressing the imbalance in a society where the drip, drip, drip of gender stereotyping over many years has, itself, been social engineering. And social engineering which, ironically, has left us with too few engineers.

Read more: Why new rules on gender stereotyping in ads benefit men, too

The report gave news outlets a chance to run plenty of well-known ads from yesteryear. Fairy Liquid, Shake 'n' Vac and some real “even a woman can open it”-type horrors from decades ago. For some, that was an opportunity to make the point that ads really were sexist back then, but everything’s fine on the gender stereotyping front today. That argument shows a real lack of imagination. 

History has not stopped. If we’re looking back at ads of 50 years ago and marvelling at how we thought they were OK back then, despite knowing they were products of their time, won’t our children and grandchildren be doing exactly the same thing in 50 years’ time? What “norms” now will seem antiquated and unpleasant in the future? We think the evidence points to some portrayals of gender roles and characteristics being precisely such norms, excused by some today on the basis that that’s just the way it is.

Our report signals that change is coming. CAP will now work on the standards so we can pin down the rules and official guidance. We don’t want to catch advertisers out, so we and CAP will work hard to provide as much advice and training as we can, so they can get their ads right in the first place. And from next year, we at the ASA will make sure those standards are followed, taking care that our regulation is balanced and wholly respectful of the public’s desire to continue to see creative ads that are relevant, entertaining and informative. 

You won’t see a sea-change in the ads that appear, but we hope to smooth some of the rougher edges. This is a small but important step in making sure modern society is better represented in ads.

Guy Parker is CEO of the ASA