Often we're advised to embrace moderation. Don't be extreme. Stick to the safe middle ground. Edges are dangerous; cliffs await.
Most religions, forms of spirituality, mystic practices -- they like boxiness.
Commandments keep devotees' actions within certain bounds. Rituals are well-defined and repetititve. Prayers, meditative practices, worship... stay in control, sit in your seats, listen and don't talk back. For God's sake, don't yell, scream, object, or in any other way do your own unfettered thing.
Here's some countervailing thoughts about going to extremes. Two personal stories, one link to a Tantra-related blog post.
I'd almost forgotten about the Groupon massage deal that I'd bought months ago. Just before it was going to expire I made an appointment. It'd been quite a few years since I'd had a massage. Felt that I deserved one.
My masseuse turned out to be female, young, blonde, tattooed, and attractive. Nice.
Equally nice was her response when, in the conversational course of the massage, our talk turned to what I do for exercise and keeping fit. "Well, in addition to what I usually do, I've just gotten a longboard skateboard. Some people think that's crazy for a 63 year old guy to do. Including me at times."
"No, that's great," she said. "I recently got a longboard myself. My daughter rides her bike at the park, and I go along with her on my longboard."
As our conversing meandered on, my masseuse spoke about how different she is from some siblings, both of whom are averse to taking risks. They analyze a lot before making decisions. "I'm not like them," she told me.
"I'm much more immediately intuitive. So I make more mistakes than they do because I make more decisions."
Wow. I really liked that line. I make more mistakes because I make more decisions.
Beautiful. No pain, no gain. No mistakes, no correctness.
A stone sitting motionless is mistake free. Also, dead to life. I told her that I was a lot like that myself. But probably more of a blend of analytical and intuitive. I educated myself about longboards before I bought mine, pondered the pros and cons, evaluated the risks.
Then my mind simply said, Do it. And I did. I'm still happily alive. No broken bones. Not even a bruise.
Yes, it's crazy for a senior citizen to take up skateboarding on a longboard. However, like my wise-beyond-her years masseuse said, if we don't decide to do what we feel like doing, we'll limit our living. "Crazy" isn't an objective law of nature; it's a subjective human judgment.
A few days ago I learned another lesson from another attractive twenty-something girl. (Must be in a good karma zone.) My wife and I have embraced West Coast Swing as our new dancing thing. I love the music, the feel-good style, the creative expressiveness.
We've had some private lessons, a four-week beginning class, one session of an intermediate class. I know some basics, but in no way feel like I'm much more than a mildly advanced beginner.
Last Friday night we went to a half hour lesson, followed by several hours of West Coast Swing open dancing. A young people who I hadn't seen before at our dance studio caught my eye. They could dance. Freely, smoothly, in and out of hold, spontaneously.
I thought, "Maybe... someday... it'd be so great to be half, heck, a quarter that good."
My wife and I were sitting out a song when the Great Dancer Girl walked over and stood in front of me. She held out her hand. "Come on," she said, looking me in the eyes. My first reaction: panic. "You're kidding," I told her.
"No, come on." Must obey. My almost instant second reaction: do it. Excellent choice. Not that it really was a choice.
The girl's unexpected invitation to dance thrust me into an expanded psychological state perhaps somewhat akin to the spaciousness of Tantric teachings alluded to below. One moment I was thinking "That girl and her partner are great dancers." A few moments later I was her partner, dancing West Coast Swing, having fun, feeling like a better dancer because the girl was so skillful and followed my sometimes clumsy leads so well.
Her "Come on" propelled me out of my comfort zone into an extremity. Instantly I realized that I could either retreat into my previous view, I'm not good enough to dance with someone like her, or flow with her invitation into the unknown, experiencing what would happen.
Why not? was my unspoken intuitive feeling.
I don't want to live my life within excessively constrained boundaries, especially those of my own making. What rule, what commandment, what law prevented me from taking an accomplished dancer's hand when she wants to lead me onto the dance floor?
Near the end of the song, I had to ask her. "How long have you been dancing? You're really good." "A year," she told me. "I dance every weekend. And I dance with as many different people as possible. That's how I learn."
Great advice. For dancing. For life as a whole. Expand your horizons. Explore new territory. Take risks. Relax into the joy of trying something new.
Over on David Chapman's always-interesting blog there's a new post: "Our Buddhism goes to eleven."
I've learned quite a bit about Tantra from reading Chapman's writings. I still don't really understand Tantric Buddhism, but at least I've gotten away from the idea that it's just about kinky sex (though it could be, I guess).
Here's how the post starts out. But for the full taste, read the whole thing.
Nigel Tufnel, guitarist in the decreasingly-fictional heavy metal band Spinal Tap, explained that they could play louder than anyone else because their amplifiers went to eleven.
Tantra has a similar approach. It is not the polite Middle Way between extremes. It is the way of glorious, ridiculous excess.
Most tantric practices crank it.
Intensification is not a goal for its own sake. Deliberately creating intensity is not natural, and extremes have no particular value.
Instead, this is a method: an exercise, an aspect of the path. It prepares you for the culmination of tantra—fluid, effective action—by developing spaciousness.
Sutra (mainstream Buddhism) develops spaciousness in almost exactly the opposite way: through self-restraint. This is also a valuable method, and also not particularly natural; there’s nothing particularly enlightened about self-restraint itself.
It’s funny that sutra and tantra take opposite approaches to developing spaciousness—and they both work! You can use both methods—although not at the same time. With practice, you learn which is the best approach for you in particular situations.
Tantra is extreme because reality is extreme. One way or another, you are going to have to deal with sex, love, loss, conflict, failure, and our good friends “old age, sickness, and death.”
Sutra recommends that you minimize your exposure to such emotionally provocative situations. It recommends that you develop equanimity to meet them without passion when you cannot avoid them.
Tantra recommends that you gradually increase your ability to act effectively in extreme situations, by developing spaciousness and passion together. You can do that relatively safely by deliberately creating intensity, in a controlled situation. There you practice meeting strong feelings with accommodating space.
Nice line: Tantra is extreme because reality is extreme. Can't disagree with that. Otherwise, as noted above I can't claim to grasp what Tantra is all about. I just like its embrace of extreme-ness.