Health and the Body: A Tantric View

by Rudolph Ballentine, M.D.

In his new book, Kali Rising, Rudolph Ballentine M.D. presents a holographic view of our current world crises through a modern Tantric perspective. His focus is on the dynamism between two basic aspects of the universe—the masculine and feminine principles, at times personified as divine beings named Shiva and Shakti respectively. In Tantra, their dynamic interplay is nothing less than the foundational “hum” of all that exists. In our human lives, awareness of the Shiva and Shakti dynamism can not only be a way to connect with this cosmic dance, but can provide a context within which we explore personal issues of well-being. In this excerpt, Dr. Ballentine describes how the core dynamic between Shiva and Shakti, the archetypal masculine and feminine forces in nature, play out at the level of health in our modern times and lives.

For many years I practiced holistic medicine, struggling to integrate the approaches of natural medicine within the framework provided by Tantra. (1) So allow me to begin this discussion with a case:

David said he was burnt out. He worked eighty hours a week.  Though he worked as a healer, he looked not unlike the average 50-year-old man—red-faced, potbellied—angry enough to stay just this side of depression. A psychic had told him that if he continued the way he was going, in a few years he would have “the opportunity to pass over.” That got his attention, and he decided that he’d rather make some sort of adjustments so he could stay on the planet. He still had work he wanted to do.

As I worked with him, homeopathic remedies emerged as good bets and patterns of relating took shape. He had left his wife because she was, he said, crazy. But from our tantric perspective he was clearly identified with an inner Masculine that was not merely sometimes in gentle disagreement with its Feminine counterpart, but who was at war with Her. She was, he seemed to feel, unreliable, not nurturing, and liable to irrational fits of pique. He wanted no part of Her.

From a tantric view, embodiment is the sphere of the feminine. She revels in the carnal connection with life on earth, and happily preoccupies herself with its minutiae. In fact, it is often convenient to think of our bodies as our own personal, standard issue piece of Gaia. It is our own little portable experiment in being living matter. But being in a body can be “inconvenient.” It’s a messy business: smelly fluids and constant neediness—food, water, rest, and most humiliating of all, touch from others. She (the Feminine in each of us, be we male, female, or some other variant of gender) demands all this incessantly, and seems resistant to reason. She refuses to be put off (at least not for long), and is openly scornful of His (our Masculine’s) logic and businesslike agenda.

David wrote Her off. She was impossible. “She is—” he confided, “seriously—insane!” Though this was said in reference to his ex-wife, it soon became clear that it applied to most women he knew. And it was, I surmised, how he saw his own Feminine—which he didn’t own, but projected on whichever female came near him.

Though David’s mother had, according to his account, been unusually distant and his birth especially difficult, he is, as far as I can tell, only a slight exaggeration of what can be seen in many of us—women as well as men. Inside each of us the relationship between inner Masculine and Feminine may be tense and troubled. The counterparts may be cognizant of certain distortions of the masculine and feminine archetypes, and may be working to shed those, while our society as a whole offers twisted and tortured versions of Masculine and Feminine that are far worse.

That is not to say that such acculturation is surprising. In order to accommodate the institutions and pressures of the world we live in, most of us, women and men, identify predominantly with the sort of workaholic Masculine that ruled David. And, like David, this leads us to neglect our bodies. We treat them as irrational pests that are best ignored. What follows, of course is a multiplicity of diseases, the details of which we obsess over—while we don’t notice the underlying dynamic responsible: our fundamental estrangement from embodiment.

Medicine, meanwhile, stays busy chasing its tail: contriving endless treatments (many of them toxic and destructive) to block the deterioration of the body, without addressing the root causes. Our attitude toward our bodies and that of the medical establishment which provides a context for our struggle, add up to a potent “catch 22.” The only viable way out of the dilemma is to become aware of what we are doing and to address the inner dynamic ourselves. Yet the alertness and insight necessary to do so is blurred and obfuscated by the compromise of our bodily functions—most notably the nervous system. Being befuddled and baffled, we are like the proverbial chicken which can’t find its way around a wall (the wall being our compromised health).

Though Tantra is a path of radical experimentation and liberating knowledge of the self, it is an embodied path. The instrument of our journey along this path is the body. If it is not clear, vital, and incisive, we will falter as tantrikas—hence the critical role of working with health. Without that any spiritual path, especially Tantra, will be to a great extent blocked.

Lewis was a case in point. He had no time for pampering his body. He ate whatever was at hand and sat most of the time at this desk, where books and papers were piled precariously all around. Though he was an advanced and dedicated student of tantric Buddhism, his progress was limited by the breakdowns in his body. While his Lama exemplified radiant health, Lewis tried to emulate him through rigid schedules and long hours of poring over his books. Instead of radiant health, the result was tachycardia, atrial fibrillation, asthma, hypertension, sleep apnea, esophageal reflux, Hashimoto’s disease, and a score of allergies. He was on an even dozen strong pharmaceutical medications, not to mention lists of herbs and supplements. Most of his symptoms were worse on the left side of his body. “Why does my left side suffer?” he asked. When I explained that the left side is the Feminine, and that he was neglecting Her, he smiled. When that began to make sense to him, I encouraged him to take time, relax, be with his body and ask it—ask Her—what She wanted, then give Her, his feminine, in this case Her physical, corporeal aspect, what she needed. It was important to work with his body, with Her. It—She—needed to feel his concern and attentiveness. “She’s going to be hard to convince, She’s been put off so much in the past,” I warned him.

“And note: you’ve still expected Her to be there to pump your blood, feed your brain, and draw your breath. You may not have had time for Her, but She had better be on the job, keeping the house, when you decided to show up.”

At our next session, Lewis was beginning to see how his relationship to his body was like that of an absent, workaholic husband. “The unnoticed Feminine is really pissed,” he remarked. To tell the truth, She was in a rage, he realized, having reached the point of beginning to “wreck the house!” Suddenly his physical collapse was making sense to him.

Of course, Lewis is not unique. Nor is this problem limited to men. Women suffer similarly, if not as severely generally speaking. Their Masculine reflects the same planetary pattern. (2) And this disconnect from the body reverberates holographically throughout life on the planet—showing up, for example, in distorted masculine political and economic forces of competition and exploitation that similarly ignore, neglect and abuse the body of Gaia.

But in this holographic complex, issues with the body and physical health hold a unique place. We are talking about the survival of the individual when we begin to consider the diseases that can supervene and threaten life itself. This is the rich and fetid territory of the Root Chakra—where the fear of annihilation dwells. It has always intrigued me that the cultures of the East, by and large, take more common sense care of their bodies, and despite what often amounts to food shortages and inadequate public hygiene, remain surprisingly healthy—and this in the context of a cosmology that views the body as a mere temporary vehicle, to be cast off when worn out.

Meanwhile, in the West, the body is overstuffed, over drugged, and over stressed, despite the fact that many in this part of the world view their bodies as the sum total of their existence, and believe that when it expires, they will cease to be, their consciousness extinguished with their physiological processes. Is this some macabre dance with annihilation? Is it a desperate attempt to assert autonomy by taking charge of ones own destruction? (3)

While the answers to those questions remain a mystery, it seems clear there is a great struggle going on in the territory of the Root Chakra—an overwhelming preoccupation with a pervasive sense of “the futility of life,” and a lack of any felt nurturance from the Cosmic Feminine. He in his arrogant exploitation of Her, projects his own contempt and indifference and thus assumes She feels that for him. He fears She will turn on him. When She does—in the guise of Kali—“burn down the house,” and set him free from his stalemate, he only sees retribution and viciousness, rather than the liberation She brings.

Preoccupation with fear—actually terror is a more accurate term—and the desperately denied conviction that he is ultimately to be annihilated (4) prevent him from being open to Her playful spontaneous creations, and the limitless love and nurturance She offers.

After this tantric analysis of our relationship to our bodies, let us look at a tantric solution to the disastrous situation with our health that has resulted from it. The basic challenge is to uncover our own pure Her—the essential, unsullied version of our Feminine—She who nurtures us, and who guides our actions, decisions and way of living. Or, at least, potentially guides us. To find that deeper, inherently powerful and loving aspect of ourselves, of the Universe as present within us, we must also uncover our own pure Masculine.

That will usually be necessary since most of us are firmly positioned in the Masculine as we relate to our bodies. We have identified with Him and relate to Her through Him. And we have assumed all His violent, abusive attitudes, and his fear and rejection of Her. To be able to even acknowledge that She is there, that we are in part Her, we need to uncover a less distorted Masculine from which to look for Her. In other words, we must find Shiva as well as Shakti within. Tantra includes principles we can employ to accomplish this.

One such principle is that everything is an experiment. Therefore approach interactions with our bodies, our dietary choices and our herbal teas or exercise sessions, as experiments. We try what we feel inclined to try, or what captures our curiosity, and then we observe carefully, gathering data. She will never be averse to that, since She loves attention. By following this principle, we become attentive.

Another principle is to use tapas. Tapas involves exerting some degree of inner discipline. Use tapas around what are observed to be damaging habits if they are “ripe for plucking,”—in other words, if we are ready to let them go.  There will generally be one, even if it’s a small habit that is ready to be worked with.  Allow tapas to release energy tied up in the targeted habit that can power your body to make new choices, actions, creations, and observe and appreciate what it’s doing.

Harness the outward moving aspect of the masculine—the phallic—by cultivating and going with your curiosity, your desire to understand, to penetrate into the mystery of why and how your body functions. (5)

Study your outer relationships with a partner, a boss, or a friend to pinpoint the dynamics you might find in your relationship to your body, and then see if that is what is going on—check it out.

Notice how bringing more of the light of consciousness down into the inner workings of your physical body automatically changes the way it functions. When you actually locate your liver, and you can feel the congestion or discomfort after you have that third cup of coffee, does it begin to respond differently to what you put in your stomach? Or does feeling its uneasiness shift the way its dysfunction leads into anger?

How is your body the battleground for your inner gender war? Notice the connections between what is going on between your Masculine and Feminine on the one hand, and the tensions, spasms, blocks, and complaints of your body on the other.

Finally, look for the pleasure. Where and when does it register? Remember that She is a pleasure generator. She is designed to experience pleasure. But she needs Him to create the container, to bring the light of awareness for it to reach the level of delight and joy that is possible. Learn what you can do that gives your body pleasure. Don’t be stingy with it. Then work with your body so its capacity to experience pleasure is expanded, extended. By attentive tending of it, you cultivate its sensitivity, rather than blunting it, as is done when you’re inattentive, impatient, indifferent to it.

This is what my teacher, Swami Rama, used to call “making obstacles into means.”  The very impediment to our progress along the tantric path becomes the opportunity to learn Tantra and to develop an embodied appreciation of the verity of its principles. In Tantra, the body is a microcosm of the larger world. Working with it hones the skills we will need in the other domains of life as we use the same principles and meet analogous challenges.

So we see that working with the body is a complete tantric practice in itself! Tantra is an embodied spirituality in which the body must be capable of holding the energy implied by that for new explorations and discoveries. Using such an approach to our bodies brings us into curiosity, insight, patient containment, and care relatively free of the usual distortions. That purer Masculine, that Shiva within us, will be able to see and honor Her—Shakti. Their loving interactions then open us to higher more insightful and delightful ways of being.

Endnotes

(1)  See Radical Healing by the author which details many of the practices and approaches to natural medicine that are in keeping with the philosophy of Tantra as presented in this work.

(2)  Note that when we move to speaking of women, we talk about “their Masculine,” relating to their Feminine, whereas Lewis spoke of himself relating to Her. Herein lies an advantage that women have currently. Generally, they more easily step back from their Masculine and can observe it. Men identify with it tenaciously. Ultimately Lewis’s path to health will necessitate that he come to observe not just Her, but Her and Him.

(3)  Classics of our literature, such as Poe’s, Red Masque, and Dostoyevsky’s, The Brothers Karamazov hint that this may be true.

(4)  Of course, he is ultimately to be annihilated—at least that current ego, constructed as it is around the denial that he has a Feminine and that She is his power. His recovery involves: first admitting and owning his fear; then entering it and discovering its link with the undesirable ego; and last, joyfully liberating himself from the chains of that now obsolete version of ego.

(5)  An inward surrounding, containing aspect of the masculine is also observable. Please see Kali Rising, by the author for further explication.

References

Ballentine, Rudolph, M.D. Kali Rising: Foundational Principles of Tantra for a Transforming Planet. Ballentine, S.C.: Tantrikster Press, 2010.

Ballentine, Rudolph, M.D. Radical Healing: Integrating the World’s Great Therapeutic Traditions to Create a New Transformative Medicine. (2nd. ed.) Honesdale, PA: Himalayan Institute, 2011.

All artwork by Genevieve Schmitt © 2012

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3 Responses to Health and the Body: A Tantric View

  1. Donna Brooks says:

    Thanks for sharing this useful and beautiful guide to the healing of human and divine male / female polarity. It’s a great reminder that the dances of the most significance in the universe are found practically and powerfully in each of our bodies and minds.

  2. kd says:

    This is so well written, so clear and readable. Thank you. Over the last year I’ve been meeting weekly with an authentic movement partner; this is exactly what we are working on. It is just happening as we continue our committment to the practice.

  3. Liza Braude-Glidden says:

    Such gorgeous Clarity! A truly spectacular example of how we struggle when we allow major and glaring attributes of the human condition (our bodies and their feminine voice) to molder in shadow. Loved Rudi’s Book Kali Rising and this essay also!

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