Wednesday, December 31, 2014

"Grounding" or "Energy Management" Techniques

Happy holidays, everyone!

As we end the year, I want to talk about a topic that frequently comes up if you study with, or read books by, tantric gurus who have been affected by Chinese/Taoist approaches to tantra.  

Here's one version of the question asked on a Q&A site:

What do tantric/sexual grounding or "energy management" techniques involve, and what is their purpose?  Are grounding techniques and energy management commonly practice by people who practice tantric sex? Why?
I ask because when I read about tantra, including people's personal experiences, people tend to promote the idea of being careful with things like sexual and kundalini energy.
It makes sense to me that it is important to be careful with any practice, especially when getting started. This is true for almost anything we do with the physical body.
E.g. In reference to energy, the body has an electrical system, and it stands to reason that we could overwhelm it, just like we can injure a muscle if we don't  take care when exercising.  And I know from personal experience that I experience strong energetic sensations when practicing solo tantra.
So, getting back to my questions: what do tantric or sexual grounding or "energy management" techniques involve, and what is their purpose?
I could read lots about this, but I'd have to wade through lots of stuff I don't really resonate with.  I'd like if someone could just boil it down to simple explanations that are practical and applicable to many people. I'm fine with spiritual terms and concepts, I just prefer them to be clear, practical, and consistent, rather than obscure and arcane.

And my answer:

I've been meditating, doing yoga, and studying and practicing tantric sex for more than 20 years.  I've read and listened to far too much in the way of "spiritual" theorizing about the right and wrong ways to do things.  It is true that a lot of people do practice various kinds of magical or ritual behavior according to various theories about psychic, spiritual, or even electrical "energy" in the body, but it is also true that no one has demonstrated any basis for those beliefs, or theories, or practices, or any harm from ignoring them.

Mind you, I'm not questioning the benefits of meditation or tantric sex, or the reality of the sensations they can produce, which - as you have already discovered - can be profound. It's the elaborate pre-scientific explanations that people have come up with that are clearly bogus.

The classic example is Kundalini yoga.  In its original form, according to believers, it involved awakening the "Shakti energy" coiled around the base of the spine and moving it up along the "nadis" or channels through a series of "chakras" or waypoints.  Once the energy reaches the topmost chakra, this is supposed to represent enlightenment or empowerment, granting the successful yogi the ability to perform a wide variety of magical powers, including levitation, healing, and gaining immortality.

Taoist (aka Daoist) magical traditions include a very similar practice, but with the caveat that this "energy" is dangerous if allowed to remain loose and uncontrolled, so you must "complete the circuit," bringing the energy back down to the bottom.  If not, according to Taoist teachings, you will supposedly fry your brain, drive yourself insane, or give yourself a variety of unpleasant diseases.

This, of course, provided a wonderful way to explain away anything bad that happened to a student or master of this art:  if he got sick or died, it must be because he got arrogant and careless and mishandled the energy, failing to complete the circuit or ground himself properly at the end!

This created a seamless, self-validating, and undisprovable mental structure that perfectly explained both health and disease.  There's only one problem:  it didn't explain all those classic Kundalini practitioners who don't practice any kind of energy return or grounding ritual, and still seem to be sane and healthy.

This hasn't kept the Taoists from insisting emphatically that handling psychic energy without grounding it or closing the loop is extremely dangerous, but it does rather undermine their credibility.  However, the gurusphere in the U.S. is dominated by whatever appeals to the most gullible, so the Taoists are winning, at least over here.

If this "energy" were actually electrical energy, it would be easy to measure its movement in response to meditation.  No such thing has ever been found, particularly not at levels that could actually harm your body or your nervous system.  So you can feel completely safe: you are not going to electrocute yourself by doing yoga or having tantric sex, even if you don't "ground" yourself.

I've done enough yoga, meditation, and tantric sex over the last two decades to satisfy myself that what practitioners refer to as "energy" moving around in the body actually consists of changes in the somatic and sensory areas of the brain, the parts of the brain that keep track of our bodies and interpret sensations.  

What you are doing when you practice Kundalini yoga is focusing your attention exclusively on one part of your body in a specific way for long enough to alter the responses of your sensory and proprioceptive centers.  Then, as you shift your attention upward, you gradually move or extend the area of altered perception upward.  

Incidentally, the chakras aren't real.  They're just mental checkpoints.  The number wasn't even standardized at seven until a century ago, when an Englishman, John Woodroffe, pen-named "Arthur Avalon," wrote The Serpent Power: The Secrets of Tantric and Shaktic Yoga.  He described seven chakras, but you can use five or eight or ten, whatever number helps you have the greatest control of your meditation as you move gradually upward.

If you can keep your focus intently enough and keep it going long enough, so that you alter your perception of your whole trunk, neck, face, and head, you are basically inducing a strong altered state of awareness that feels extremely peculiar and very, very different from normal activity and sensation.  You are acutely aware of every sensation at once and you feel like you are crackling with energy.  It really does feel like you could fly if you wanted to.

The key point, however, is that this is happening inside your brain, even though it feels like it is happening in your body.  Instead of having your attention hopscotching around, focusing on one little spot at a time and blocking out the rest, you've got all the circuits wide open, attending to a large part of your body, and the resultant sensory cataract feels wild, powerful, and intense.

I don't blame anyone for interpreting this as some sort of physical or spiritual energy moving inside the body, because that's absolutely what it feels like.  But there's no evidence whatsoever that it actually is happening that way, and a great deal of evidence that it is really happening inside the parts of the brain that interpret sensations from the body.

And the problem comes when people start reifying metaphors like "energy" and constructing elaborate theories based on them, as if they were real.  No, it's not real energy.  No, it's not going to kill you or hurt you.

During my research, I interviewed 59 couples who had practiced tantric sex for many years, often decades.  None of these veteran tantric practitioners practice any kind of "energy grounding," and none show any signs of harm from not doing so.  Counting my partner and myself, that's 120 people who can testify that grounding rituals aren't necessary.


  1. Eastern practices of a variety of knds incorporate the notion of energy, meridians, chakras. Acupuncture is a good example. There is little question that it works but Western science can't explain or understand it.

    I'm trying to say it might be wrong to dismiss notions of energy management too easily m

  2. Acupuncture isn't a great example, since the mechanism for it does not appear to require anything supernatural. Studying it has actually taught scientists a fair amount about how the nervous system processes pain and other sensations. But none of the other concepts you mention appear to have a physical basis or a repeatable effect that can be reliably demonstrated to neutral observers in the way that, for example, meditation does.

    This is not as simple as saying that since science has learned SOME useful things from Eastern traditional practices, therefore ALL Eastern traditional practices must be worthy of consideration. They HAVE been given real consideration, often with passionate advocates leading the charge. But only meditation has really held up under rigorous examination, and, once again, it does not depend on a mystical or supernatural principle. Everything we see happening as a result of meditation is readily explicable in terms of human physiology and the human nervous system.

    It's important to keep in mind how much of what *Europeans* thought was true has turned out to be absolutely false. We don't have Asians arguing passionately for junk science that used to be popular in Europe, like phlogiston or the four humours or spontaneous generation, so it's a bit weird that we DO have people in the West arguing for junk science like chi, meridians, and chakras just because those ideas come from Asia.

    In any event, my mind remains very open to any consistent, verifiable evidence that supports the existence of some mysterious energy or circuitry in the body that hasn't been previously identified. BUT, based on all we know to date, I'm quite willing to bet that the simplistic folk reasoning about the supposed danger of doing "ungrounded" meditation or yoga is simply wrong.

    If it were right, we would have seen stark evidence: an epidemic of burned out minds among those who have been doing it the "wrong" way. And we haven't seen any such thing *except* in the fevered imaginations of those who are trying to scare customers away from competing gurus.