What is “authentic tantra?”
What does it really mean to say that something is (or isn’t) “authentic tantra?” Or “authentic spirituality” more generally?
Before we can call a path or practice “authentic,” we should look at its source and its goal.
This isn’t to say that everything old is good and everything new is bad. After all, the most venerable ancient lineages were new once upon a time!
The same wisdom that spoke through Krishna, Buddha and Christ is alive and speaking now, for those who have ears to hear. Many great enlightened beings have lived and taught in the last hundred years, adding their voices and offering practices that fit the tendencies of their times. Yoga continues to grow and evolve.
Still, it is somewhat safer to trust in a path that has been tried and tested over the centuries. When someone comes forward with their own inventions—and teachers like this are a dime a dozen these days—maybe what they’re offering is great and really works, and maybe it doesn’t. And unless you’re already at a pretty high level of practice, it can be difficult to discern from the start.
Though a few rules of thumb for evaluating a modern path might be:
- Does it align with traditional teachings? (Not necessarily in external form but in the spirit and core message.)
- Does it go beyond itself, pointing towards non-conceptuality, or only going into more stories and beliefs?
- Does it create in you a deeper resonance or echo of sacredness?
At the same time, more important than the source of the teachings is that they aim at the highest truth.
This sometimes is not so obvious. Even in tantric yoga, a science of liberation refined over centuries, so many secondary benefits and side adventures are possible that it’s easy to mistake them for the goal. But if you have the fire of aspiration burning inside, and you allow yourself to listen to it, then you will be able to feel intuitively when you have found something real.
Authenticity to yourself: the cornerstone of the spiritual path
Real spiritual work always begins with a radical self-honesty.
We all have to start where we are. It won’t help you or anyone else to pretend to be what you’re not. You can’t make progress like this, if you don’t acknowledge your own limitations, and you can end up with a kind of split personality or “spiritual ego” where on the outside everything seems so enlightened and beautiful, while on the inside… not so much.
Anywhere there is darkness within you, eventually the light will have to go, and if you don’t go there willingly then sooner or later those currents of unconsciousness will make their presence known.
In the realm of personality, there is always work to do. Tendencies to be purified and harmonized, contractions to be released, attitudes to be cultivated…
Imperfection is a fact. We have to be able to look at it. And at the same time, the perfection is there. The form is absolutely perfect at all times, a manifestation of that essence which is beyond good or bad, beyond time and beyond any need to improve itself.
Here we have to be careful not to take this idea into a spiritual bypass. So many times I’ve heard people use snappy phrases like “I’m just being true to myself” or “Everything is already perfect” as an excuse to continue in behavior that is harmful to others.
This is what happens when you try to take a reality beyond understanding and reduce into something the mind can grasp. In this, we lose the sacred paradox, the dance of samsara and nirvana, suffering and bliss, brokenness and wholeness, that when woven together form the fabric of reality itself.
Be true to yourself, yes. But which self: the limited body-mind-ego self that reacts only according to its conditioning and subconscious patterns? Or your real Self, that space of infinite freedom and awareness?
Following the guidance of this true Self might cause you to act against the impulses of your limited “self.” You’ll have to go beyond patterns and tendencies that have shaped your behavior for your entire life, and this can be challenging, to put it mildly. But it is the way to live in authenticity, in integrity with your own heart.
Authenticity in relationships
You have to be honest and true to ourselves before we can relate authentically with another person. But once that baseline is established, intimate relationships (whether with friends, partners or family) are incredibly valuable along the path.
We all know that we can’t hide anything from people we’re really close with—but we still try! So many relationships drag on in a kind of shared illusion, with both partners putting on a mask of what they think the other one will like, in silent agreement not to look at whatever doesn’t fit into the stories they hold about each other, until eventually both sides get tired of the game or something comes up so dramatically that the façade cracks.
A tantric relationship is the opposite of this. It is a space in which both partners mirror and support each other in peeling off the masks and layers, until all that remains is the bare truth—which can only be love.
Of course, this is not always easy or comfortable, and it doesn’t happen overnight. It is the journey of a lifetime, going always deeper and refining more until we can meet the world in total simplicity.