Wednesday, November 20, 2013

My Sources: The Tantric Couples

I first began to think that Tantra was being mismarketed when I realized that almost all of the experienced Tantrics I met were partners in long-term, loving relationships. I met blissfully happy young couples. Boring old married couples. Funky, odd, edgy couples. Stodgy, unglamorous, salt of the earth, incredibly normal couples. Childless couples, parents, and grandparents; PTA members, bikers, opera lovers, marathoners; churchgoers, mystics, and atheists; young, middle-aged, and retired couples. But in nearly every case these were people who came in pairs and were deeply attached to each other.

In some ways, they are a very diverse group. They included a cop, a mechanic, office workers, a welder, contractors, managers, business owners, salespeople, artists, accountants, nurses, teachers, an architect, a doctor, a lawyer, engineers, executives, and professors. At the time of the interviews, they ranged in age from 28 to 70; in income from lower middle class to the top 5%; in education from high school grads to PhDs; and in politics and philosophy from libertarians to middle-of-the-road independents to radical socialists. As couples they had been together anywhere from 5 to 41 years.

In spite of that diversity, the unmistakable similarity, the thing that would just jump out at you if you met them all, was the strength of the bonds between the partners. None of them acted like stereotypical newlyweds, unable to keep their hands and eyes off each other, yet they all had an orientation toward their partners that was quite palpable.

In group settings, it was always clear that they were together. Most of them stood or sat a few inches closer together than normal for most long-term couples. Their shoulders bumped and their gazes and gestures synchronized more often. They team-told favorite stories with relish, and supported each other in both subtle and obvious ways.  I never once saw any of them grimace, sigh, or roll their eyes in a way that undercut what their partner was saying, behaviors that are all too common among most long-term couples I know.

What was clear, from these things and a thousand other subliminal signals, as well as what they said and the stories they told, was that these are all couples who are still deeply attracted to and devoted to each other.

In my work, I meet a lot of high-powered executives, scientists, and politicians and their spouses. I volunteer as a mentor to an organization whose members are mostly women between 25 and 35, and I listen when they talk about their lovers and spouses. I go to faculty events with my partner and meet his colleagues and their partners. And I’m moderately active in my neighborhood civic group, so I meet a lot of my neighbors. Across the board, I see a lot of dysfunctional couples, a lot of couples who are struggling, and a lot of couples who seem to get along okay, but who can barely remember why they got together in the first place.

So when I meet a largish number of couples, as couples, and none of them show the obvious signs of stress, or dysfunction, or even indifference that I see in so many others couples, it really stands out.

Bias in The Selection Process

One question is whether the way I met them selected for people in happy long-term relationships. This is possible, even though I didn’t consciously do anything to make it happen. I met most of the people I interviewed by asking people I knew who were interested in Tantra if they knew any experienced and successful Tantric practitioners I should interview.

I didn’t specify happy couples, or even couples. In fact, after awhile I made a point of asking to meet people who were single, but the only singles I actually met in this way were people who were interested in learning Tantra, but had not done so; people who had tried unsuccessfully to learn Tantra, often because they had a partner at the time who wasn’t interested or willing to make the commitment; and men who were self-proclaimed Tantric lovers, but were clearly just using things they had read about for a pickup routine.

Since I’m talking about the referral process, I hope I’ve made it clear that I’m not claiming in any way that the group of people I talked to were a random sample, or that they are necessarily representative of all Tantrics.

For example, I deliberately excluded anyone who had a financial interest in promoting Tantric ideas and practices. I didn’t want a sales pitch, a tirade on why everyone else is doing it wrong, or the exaggeration of benefits and the minimization of the time and effort required to learn Tantra that seem to be so common in the guru biz. I just wanted to hear from people who had learned Tantra and had incorporated it into their everyday lives.

Also, while I didn’t deliberately exclude people who believe strongly in religious or spiritual versions of Tantra, it’s likely that the way I met people, by referrals from other people I had interviewed, tended to select against a heavily spiritual orientation.

I grew up with a passion for science, I was trained as a scientist, I'm a pretty fact-oriented person, and I clearly have a bias toward science and away from mystical explanations for things. I tried to be a good listener, without letting my own feelings show, but unless you’re willing to lie, it’s very hard to spend many hours interviewing people about a subject without them being able to guess fairly accurately whether you wholeheartedly share their basic approach to the subject.

Some people who guessed that I didn’t share their perspective grilled me about my own views.  If asked directly, I answered honestly that I didn't think that anything about Tantric sex involved or depended on supernatural phenomena, and quite a few people who took an intensely spiritual approach to Tantra declined to be interviewed as a result. Clearly, those I did interview may also have been less likely to introduce me to such people.

Couples and Tantra

The same kind of process could certainly have influenced the kinds of couples I was referred to, at least to some extent. If you assume that happy couples tend to be friends with other happy couples, and are more likely to introduce them to other people who share that experience, you can make a good case for some selective effect.

But if you consider that most people I talked to knew only a few other Tantra practitioners, it’s unlikely that there were enough choices available to make the selection effect very potent. As the logicians would say, the set of all the Tantrics that people knew would always have to have been a subset of the set of all the happy couples they knew.

Given that both sets are usually fairly small, that would seem to be improbable unless there was some kind of causal connection involved. Otherwise, I should have been introduced to quite a few people who practiced Tantra but didn’t have a partner or who didn’t get along very well with the partner they did have. And that just didn’t happen, which suggests that experienced Tantrics who aren’t in good relationships are pretty rare.

Assuming I’m right about the correlation, there’s still the question of causality and which way it runs. It’s theoretically possible, if somewhat unlikely, that learning and practicing Tantra turns even unhappy couples into happy couples. It’s also theoretically possible that only happy couples with really strong bonds learn Tantra.

But I suspect that the answer is somewhere in the middle. It seems quite likely that having a pretty good relationship greatly increases the chance of learning Tantra, and that successfully learning Tantra improves that relationship even further. Causality goes both ways and creates a “virtuous circle” or self-reinforcing feedback loop.

In fact, all of my interviewees describe themselves as being in one of two categories: couples who were deeply bonded before they learned Tantra and feel that it has improved their sex lives and helped them maintain that bond, and couples who described their initial relationship as pretty good or better, and who feel that Tantra has helped them make it much stronger.

And this makes sense if you look at what learning Tantra is like and what effects it has on people who practice it regularly. Learning Tantra involves some physical techniques that anyone can learn, but it also involves some activities that are almost impossible to learn properly if you aren’t with someone you love and trust. And, as we’ve seen in earlier posts, everything about Tantra is designed to strongly reinforce those same emotions.

Still, the degree to which it works seems remarkable. To understand it, we need to dive a little deeper into some puzzling elements about human sexual behavior. But before we do that, I think it would be a good idea to introduce you to some of the couples and hear their stories. So for the next few weeks, I’m going to be mining my notes and presenting the accounts given to me by several couples who exemplify, in different ways, the range and diversity of this group, as well as its core similarities.

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