Tantra and Sex: Beyond the Medical Model

By Mitch Tepper

Many of us were taught before we became disabled or in adolescence that sex entails excitement that grows more and more intense until it results in a climax. The goal was usually seen as orgasm and the release of pent-up sexual tension.

We learned about sex in a culture that treats it as sinful and unspeakable, yet uses a medical model to describe it. According to the medical model of sex and orgasm, a buildup of muscular tension leads to a peak, followed by a release–ejaculation for men and contractions of the muscles surrounding the vagina for women. Since what science can measure is primarily physical in nature, orgasm is basically seen as an autonomic reflex, a mere spasm of genital contractions.

The medical model doesn’t work for all of us. When our disabilities are accompanied by loss of genital sensation, limited movement or inability to ejaculate or have genital contractions, we may feel like giving up on sex. The sexual pleasure we learned about, or once knew, has become inaccessible.

Tantric sex–based on the esoteric teachings of several eastern religions–provides an alternative way to experience sexual pleasure and bring new meaning to a loving relationship.

Tantric orgasm is counterintuitive to the medical model. In tantra, excitement is just the beginning rather than the means to the end. Instead of rushing toward a climax, a tantric practitioner slows down, remaining in the moment, and travels toward deep relaxation. In the medical model, sexual energy builds, then is lost. In tantra, energy is not lost but gained. Instead of using a partner for one’s own gratification, tantric partners provide vital energy to each other.

Sex Transformed
Ray Stubbs, sexuality educator, author, massage therapist and a fairly recent quadriplegic, has spontaneous orgasms while meditating–both before and after his injury–and describes ecstatic experiences I can only hope to someday achieve. He has written several books, the latest being The Essential Tantra: A Modern Guide to Sacred Sexuality.

Stubbs’ extraordinary experiences do not occur in a vacuum. They follow many years of conscious seeking and study with tantric teachers and Native American shamans. He has practiced and taught contemporary meditation in the form of massage that embraces sexual energy.

Gary Karp, a paraplegic and the author of Life On Wheels, also has an interest in tantric sex. He says that after his injury, a book on tantra prompted him to consider that “normal” orgasm might not all it’s cracked up to be. He particularly liked the tantric teaching that two “energetically appropriate” lovers have complimentary polarities. “Making love,” says Karp, “is an act of fulfillment and bonding for each person on a deep, evolutionary and innate spiritual level.”

Stubbs’ connection is with the divine; Karp’s is with the other. Both approaches are spiritual. In fact, tantra is not about sex at all. It is about transcendence. Although the outcome of tantric sex may be prolonged sexual pleasure, that is not the goal. Sex is a vehicle. Sex is transformed into love, love into meditation, to light, to knowledge of the divine, to ecstasy, to bliss.

According to Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh’s Tantra, Spirituality and Sex–my first exposure to tantra many years ago–once you know that bliss, you are grounded in reality. The reality is that in deep sexual orgasm, it is not sex that gives you bliss. Once again, sex is only the vehicle. Something else is generating the euphoria, the ecstasy. That something else, according to Rajneesh, can be divided into three elements–timelessness, egolessness and being natural. These are the components that produce ecstasy and bliss.

I know all of this might sound strange or simply corny, but bear with me. Even tantric teachers say that practice and experience must precede belief. Transcendence comes through experience, not through ideology. My challenge to you is to begin to think of sexual pleasure and orgasm in a different way.

In the Moment
For a tantric orgasm to occur, there is no need for a buildup of sexual tension, for friction, for ejaculation or for muscular contractions. In fact, there is no need for sex at all once you have discovered that orgasm can be a deeply relaxing meditation, a state combining Rajneesh’s three components of timelessness, egolessness and being natural.

When you are timeless you are in the moment, not comparing to past experience or focusing on future expectations. When you are egoless, you become one with your partner or the universe, not an individual limited by physical disability or negative thoughts. When you are in your natural state, in the words of Rajneesh, “The unreal is lost; the facade, the face, is lost; the society, the culture, the civilization is lost. You are part of nature–as trees are, animals are, stars are. You are in a greater something–the cosmos.”

Still seem farfetched? Well consider this. Drs. Beverly Whipple, Gina Ogden and Barry Komisaruk have shown in laboratory studies at Rutgers University that woman can have orgasms through fantasy alone, without any physical stimulation. Some of the women’s orgasms were not associated with genital contractions. Still skeptical? Think this only applies to nondisabled women? My recent research with men and women with spinal cord injuries documents experiences that were identified as orgasm by the participants but could hardly be described as medical-model orgasms. While some participants still experienced traditional orgasms, others–of both sexes–said their orgasms happened “by surprise.” There was not the usual buildup of muscular tension, yet ecstatic feelings occurred in their heads or entire bodies, even for those with no sensation below their level of injury. Are you seeing new possibilities?

Getting Started
Stubbs writes in his book The Essential Tantra that tantra is a teaching of acceptance and nonattachment. When we grasp for something, we are attached. There’s no freedom. When we avoid something, we are attached. There’s no freedom. It is through the acceptance of all as it is that we become free.

What does that mean for us? It means accepting ourselves as we are and letting go of preconceived notions of sex and orgasm. It means becoming aware of the feelings and sensations that we do have, subtle as they may seem at first. In total acceptance, in nonattachment, there is transformation.

Stubbs warns us not to get caught up in the mainstream media’s sensationalization of tantra that has packaged it as a royal road to sexual pleasure. The essence of tantra is not having sex in a particular position or prolonging intercourse. The real thing, says Rajneesh, is the ability to relax, to let go, to transform the physical into a meditative experience. It is attention to sensations, mindfulness, being in the present.

For me, a casual student, tantra is a way of tapping into my subtle energy body that I had been aware of but unable to express. It has provided another way for my wife, Cheryl, and I to stay sexually and spiritually connected in those times between what many would refer to as ordinary sex.

Mastering tantra takes many years of study and practice. All of us, however, can begin to reap benefits of this sacred perspective by practicing a few simple exercises that can be incorporated into our everyday lives.

  • Raise your awareness that you are a conscious being. If you are accustomed to wearing a watch on your left wrist, wear it on your right. Every time you go to check the time on your left wrist instead of the right, say “I am a conscious being.”
  • Focus on your breathing. Most of us are shallow breathers. Deep relaxation begins with deeper breathing. Whenever you pass through a door, check your breathing. Take a good deep breath if you can, hold it and exhale fully. At a later time you can learn to harmonize these three stages of breathing.
  • To get a better sense of your energy body, focus on the palm of your right hand. Notice the sensations. Then focus on the palm of your left hand. Switch the focus back and forth. Then slowly move your hands together until they almost touch. Pay close attention to the changes and what you feel between your palms. If you don’t have sensation in your hands then focus on one ear, then the other. Then move or have someone else move your palm within an inch or so of your ear. You will see that your energy body extends beyond your physical body.
  • To enhance your awareness of expanding sensations, slow down when you’re eating. Truly taste the food and drink. Notice the texture and temperature. Keep track of the sensations as the food travels down your esophagus. I do this with orange juice first thing in the morning. Practice is essential as we relearn ways to experience the full energy of our bodies.

According to Stubbs, sensuality, sexuality and spirituality begin with ourselves. They are all within us. Barriers to these experiences during sex include concentrating too much on performance and not enough on sensations, judging others, making comparisons with the past to invalidate the present, and focusing on expectations instead of the richness available in the moment. To overcome these barriers, let go of expectations. If you are the receiver, let go of attachments to outcomes. If you are the giver, let go of performance expectations. Allowing, rather than striving, is the key to acknowledging that we are not bound by the medical model of orgasm.

Resources
Ecstasy through Tantra, by J. Mumford, Llewellyn Publications, St. Paul, 1987.
The Essential Tantra, by Kenneth Ray Stubbs, Penguin Putnam, New York, 2000. 800/526-0275; www.penguinputnam.com

Tantra, Spirituality and Sex, by B.S. Rajneesh, Rajneesh Foundation, Rajneeshpuram, 1983.
Tantra: The Yoga of Sex, by O.V. Garrison, Julian Press, New York, 1964.

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