What is Tantra? An Interview with Anna Marti

Anna Marti is a “sex and spirit” counselor and intimacy coach in Portland, Oregon. Her approach to sexuality is influenced by her knowledge of Eastern spiritual sexuality practices (often collectively referred to as “Tantra”). Although her counseling work is non-denominational, this interview (conducted in her Portland office on 12/26/97) begins with an inquiry into some of her work’s spiritual underpinnings.

SHS: What is Tantra?

In this country, “Tantra” is actually a catchall word used to describe a number of different spiritual practices that have an erotic component; these practices first showed up in the Taoist tradition, in Tibet, in Nepal, and in India. The word Tantra comes from a Sanskrit word meaning “to expand, to weave together.” In the cultures that they manifested in these erotic practices were seen as cults: “You’re doing what!?!” It’s the same thing any culture says about people who are outside of what they consider the norm.

If you’re asking about traditional Tantra then we’re probably going to have to go another direction, because my understanding from looking at the material for the last 14 years with the help of teachers is that there are probably only two people in the Western hemisphere who know traditional Tantra, and I know I’m not one of them. Most people, myself included, simply draw upon the erotic component of what is a huge body of spiritual material.

As far as I can understand, all spiritual systems have their inception with an individual having an altered state experience: the ego boundaries dissolve and there’s a connection, there’s an acknowledgement, there’s a deep knowing of relationship with all things. As I understand Tantra, philosophically it’s not unlike quantum physics. I wouldn’t purport to be knowledgeable about quantum physics, but my very minimal understanding is that they’ve broken down matter to a particle which seems to be the same particle. What that translates to is that there’s one of us in this room, there’s one of us in this floor, there’s one of us in this city.

Tantra essentially says there is one energy which pervades the universe, and the pain that I experience in my life comes from my identification with my sense of separateness. I can separate myself in so many ways from the moment I wake up: I’m a woman, I’m older, I’m younger, I have more money, I have less money, I have that kind of car, I’m first in line, I’m last in line, I’m too thin, I’m too short. From a Tantric perspective that identification with the separation is where my pain is. There’s a huge body of material with meditation and practices to purify the mind, the body, and the emotions so that I can condition my organism to not be in that state of separateness.

There seems to be a part in us which recognizes when somebody else is not in that state of separation, and can recognize when someone is in an expanded state instead. There have been individuals who have found that if you hang out in high states of arousal for long periods of time, as well as doing all these other practices to purify the mind and the body and the emotions, that you can enter a room of expanded consciousness – this room of boundaries dissolving.

In this country we think we’ve got the copyright on dysfunctional sexuality, but in almost every spiritual system there’s a huge schism between body and spirit. What has happened in this country is that because we’re a capitalistic society we’ve taken that dysfunction and turned it into business. We have so much pain about our ability to connect with another, and so we’ve got a bazillion books and workshops and audiotapes and videotapes speaking to that part of us which says: “This is supposed to be better!” We’ve grown up on fairy tales, movies, and romance novels. It would seem that sex has the potential for this union; the ecstatic sense of going into someone else’s body and everything about it implies a real sense of merging and connection, but for most people it’s about as far from that as it can get.

I don’t think there’s a quick fix for us as human beings in connecting with each other; I think it takes a tremendous amount of intention and integrity and commitment and work. But, our culture is not built on things taking time, it’s built on “I want something right now, I want to fix this right now.” So it’s a perfect market for books and videos and workshops.

I think in some ways we do the public a disservice when we promise they’re going to change their love life and deepen their eroticism with their partner in only a few days.

SHS: Is enhanced enjoyment of sex related to enhanced enjoyment of life in general?

Absolutely. My understanding of sexual energy is that it’s a neutral force, like the electricity coming into this room. The electricity doesn’t care whether I turn on the lights or the stereo or the heat. And, sexual energy is creative in nature; you can create another human being with it. That’s about as creative as you can get on the physical plane. Any time we’re in a state of arousal our body is organizing itself to create another human being; that’s pretty intense energy. The truth is, for most of us when we’re in arousal that’s not our intention: I don’t want to create another human being, thank you very much! So what are we doing with that energy, that potentiality, that creativity? Well, for most people there’s no consciousness of it at all. From a Tantric perspective, my intention is to remember who I am, to move away from that sense of identification with the individual, and to drop into that state of dissolving into you, of not judging myself for judging you. On a good day it’s really cool!

Osho, from my limited understanding, was probably one of the foremost Tantra teachers of our generation. There’s red Tantra and white Tantra; red Tantra is the left-handed path which includes the erotic practices, and white Tantra, which is by far the largest body of material, is essentially an ascetic path. In red Tantra people experience all of life as a window of inquiry into consciousness; there are no rules in red Tantra, which is why Osho got into so much trouble (though it wasn’t really him, it was the people who were hanging around him). In this system there are no rules about what you drink, what you eat, whom you fuck, whom you do it with. But if your intention is an inquiry into consciousness, then you’d better be awake; you’re not doing it any more to satisfy the ego.

My understanding from people who have studied with real Tantric masters is that they had to study for years and years and years before they were allowed to engage in the sexual practices, because you’d better have your ego out of the way in order to come into that union while being clean and pure from an energy point of view. Tantra is being presented as relationship enhancement, erotic techniques, and enhanced orgasms. All those things can occur but that’s not the point: the point is an inquiry into consciousness, and to drop into that state where I can dissolve into you, into the cat, into the trees, and leave behind that pain of separation.

SHS: I hear you saying that part of the motivation for spiritual practice is to be able to lose one’s sense of separation. Is this because life is more enjoyable from our personal perspectives if we can do that, is it because that is how life would be if it weren’t for dysfunction, or is it because we can more easily achieve good things as a species if on a base level that’s how we experience our existence?

I’m going to have to get personal for that one. For me, I’ve always had a relationship with the divine in some way. In some ways I attribute it to my grandmother who got out of the camps after the war. What I witnessed for a lot of German Jews was a real separation from any kind of spirituality or religion. My father felt that way for a long time after having lost his sister, and my mother lost brothers and sisters; ours was a very small family as a result of all this. My grandmother got out after being in two concentration camps; even though I was very young she was to me an intensely devout person with a very personal relationship with spirit.

Even though I didn’t understand conceptually, I witnessed this person who had probably experienced extreme atrocities and was in her 70’s when we got her out, but who was like a well of peace. I felt like what I described in the beginning of this interview: when you experience someone in that place it’s like, “How do you do that?” I believe that’s what spiritual search is about: that we recognize when someone else is in a place where most people are not. In this culture we’re very outer- directed. I had the great fortune to be in Morocco a year ago, it was the first time I had traveled to a third-world country. Their spirituality is very rich, and their human connection is very rich. In a country where there’s no money time doesn’t equal money, so if someone comes to visit your house everyone stops what they’re doing because that’s what’s of value: the humanity is of value. My brief understanding of religion and spirituality is that we’re drawn to those people who seem to be living in those expanded states, who have this deep level of peace and deep sense of compassion.

For some people, the reason they’re coming to see me is that they heard they’ll have better orgasms. But they have to listen to my rap anyway, because I have a personal responsibility to the integrity of the material. Yeah, I can help you have better orgasms, but trust me: it’s not going to make you happy. As David Ramsdale, author of Sexual Energy Ecstasy, says, “After a while, even the best orgasm in the world becomes boring.”

The way I approach things as far as spiritual practice is that any practice is only as good as its application in my day-to-day life. If I go and have this experience in some monastery or retreat and it doesn’t have its application in my being able to look you in the eyes or be patient with my kids or with the people I work with or when I’m stuck in traffic during the holidays then it’s not worth anything.

Particularly with red Tantra which says that all of experience becomes my inquiry into consciousness, that means when I’m stuck in traffic, when I’m in line at the bank, when things aren’t going the way that I want them to, then where is my practice? It’s in allowing myself to come back to present time, because essentially that’s what all spiritual practice is. The potential of using the body to be in present time is really what all these practices are about. Every action throughout my day becomes my opportunity to be more fully engaged in the present.

SHS: I’m sure that a lot of people do start studying Tantra because they’d like to have better orgasms; in your experience, are these people receptive to hearing about the bigger picture?

I try to speak to people at the level they come in; it’s certainly not my intention to change anyone’s belief system. I do have a certain investment in people feeling more integrated. We talked about Tantra meaning “to weave together.” I have an interest in at least educating people to know that although they can have better orgasms, unless they look at other aspects of their life it’s not going to make them happy.

SHS: Should couples work to resolve communication difficulties before they start Tantric practice, or does the practice itself tend to resolve these difficulties?

It can go either way. Somebody who I think is a fabulous teacher – I’ve studied with him very briefly – is David Schnarch, who wrote Passionate Marriage. He’s brilliant. He has an amazing background in Tantra and sex and spirit. He does a very funny bit about how “couples don’t have problems in communication – they know exactly what their partner’s going to say; it’s not that they they’re not communicating, it’s that they don’t want to hear the message.”

SHS: In your opinion, what is the single most valuable insight a person can have that will improve their experience of relationships and sex?

People are not going to be very excited about this, but I think the commitment to your own personal growing up is what is going to give you a better relationship and sex life. That requires a spiritual life; I don’t care how you do it, but you need a belief in something that’s bigger than your individual ego. Clearing up your emotional garbage, whether that’s through individual therapy or group therapy, is also helpful; we’ve all got it, and I don’t know too many people who don’t need a little bit of work getting through it so that when I come into relationship I’m not bringing my mom and my dad and every lover I’ve ever had to you. It’s just a commitment to be honest with myself and in integrity with myself.

There are a bazillion books and videos about sexual techniques, and if they worked people would be having a lot more fun than they seem to be having. It really has to do with how I feel about myself, and whether I can be absolutely present in a relationship and in integrity with myself and brave enough to stay with something that’s pushing my buttons, to really be in that energy of love and commitment.

Ultimately, what is really healing is sex with meaning; that’s a big piece which I try to integrate into my work now. Because you’re having functional sex doesn’t mean you’re having good sex; functional sex from a clinical standpoint just means you can have an orgasm. I’m shifting my focus away from clinical function. Men, for example, can have an incredibly erotic sexual connection and the best orgasm of their life and never have an erection.

SHS: Do you find there to be differences among various sex-positive communities in terms of their level of interest in spiritual forms of sexuality?

I would say the SM community is the most receptive; the SM community really does seem to be directly interested in altered states of consciousness. My limited experience of swingers is that they tend to be more gender-identified, and Tantra really is about moving beyond gender into an energy experience.

SHS: In the SM community right now there’s a lot of interest in using ritualized SM to achieve altered states of consciousness, spiritual insights, etc. Do you have any tips for people who are using SM for these purposes, and do you feel that knowledge of Tantra might be valuable to them?

My experience with people who have a high level of consciousness in the SM community is that they’re essentially working from this perspective, but I think Tantric material could still be very helpful. When I did workshops in Seattle there were a lot of people from the alternative sex community coming to them, and I thought, “That’s interesting, I wonder how I could tap that community here?” So I went to an RCDC meeting, which happened to feature a guy doing a demonstration on caning. He asked for volunteers, and I volunteered. During the demonstration I just did what I’ve practiced to do, which is to be in present time. Through this experience I realized this was the same room, just entered through a different door.

SHS: For the benefit of people living in or near Portland, Oregon, could you describe your counseling practice and the credentials you bring to it?

I have a background in hypnotherapy, I’ve studied with most of the contemporary American teachers of Tantra, and I received my certification in body work through the Body Electric school. Essentially what I tell people that I do is that I support them in creating new maps for how they experience themselves as sexual and spiritual people. There’s a huge continuum of people who have sexual dysfunction issues, who haven’t done much spiritual work and who could care less about it: it’s like, “Fix this problem.” My work can be applicable and appropriate for these people, although generally what they get is a lot more than they bargained for. On the other end, I get people who have done a tremendous amount of spiritual and personal work, and who are interested in the erotic piece which is not addressed by conventional psychotherapy and certainly not by religion. Most people are somewhere in-between; they have some sexual issues and they’ve also been on a personal road or path.

I do a combination of bodywork and sometimes hypnotherapy. I’m really committed to people getting the help they need, and if I’m not it I’ll do my best to help them find someone more suitable as long as what they’re interested in is safe, sane, and consensual. I use touch as a modality for people to experience expanded states throughout their whole body rather than just focussing on one part of their body; it’s a combination of breath and touch and a vehicle for people to practice communicating about touch. Very few people have practice or are comfortable communicating about touch; how can I tell you what I like if I can’t even talk about it? There’s the idea that one should endure nothing: if you’re touching me and you’re touching me wrong then either I don’t say anything, in which case we could be married for 20 years and not learn that when you touch me in a particular way in a particular place I want to throw up and build a certain level of resentment that erodes the relationship and trust, or if you touch me in a particular way and I go “OUCH!! DON’T DO THAT!!” what happens is your ego is so involved you want to pick up your marbles and go home. Realize that the intention we’re both trying to develop is connection; even if I have poor skills in communicating that I don’t like that touch, you’re involved enough to say, “Thank you, of course I want to touch you in ways that are pleasurable.”

When I work with couples there’s a kind of dance. Generally I work more on the relationship of the individuals with themselves, because that’s where a relationship falls apart – it’s when I don’t stay in integrity with my relationship to myself. That’s what brings breakdown in communication. Generally how it shows up is that what you think of me becomes more important than what I think of me. Schnarch’s work is brilliant around this; he sees sexuality as a window to the bigger picture of how you live your life, as a window into individual maturity.

I witness amazing things with people, and sometimes it surprises me. I’m not a clinical psychologist and I don’t have the kinds of degrees that our culture determines as valid, but I witness individuals and couples experience tremendous shift to where I leave my office scratching my head. This goes back to my belief in the integrity of the individual spirit to move itself.

I had one individual I was working with come to that place. He’d done a tremendous amount of work and had stopped drinking before he started to see me. What he said was, “I feel like I have this window open right now, that I could accomplish a lot.” I did some hypnotherapy with him – very little bodywork – and in a matter of probably four weeks he was having experiences that he’d never had before. He’d never enjoyed sex, he’d never enjoyed oral sex, and sex was a place that was very uncomfortable for him. In four weeks he was having great sex with his girlfriend all night long, he was enjoying oral sex, all these things were happening, to the point where his girlfriend said, “You must be having sex with her, because nobody could have changed this much.” That’s not what I do; I’m not a surrogate. I barely touched this person except to do a little breath work with him. It was an interesting side effect; he actually had to stop seeing me because it was problematic for his relationship.

I see both men and women in my practice, as individuals and as couples regardless of gender or sexual orientation. I have done workshops in the past; I would probably do them again, but I need to really feel in integrity with what I’ve got to say. It’s easy to create this really wonderful feel-goody experience for a weekend, but the truth is that people want more of it in their everyday lives. I see it happen in workshops all the time; we can create this very contrived container of love, I can do this exercise with you and be really warm and open with you, but have no intention of having lunch with you or going out with you. For certain kinds of individuals it even exacerbates their sense of isolation.

I do a lot of teaching; we all seem to have been absent on that day of school when they gave out the handbooks for a successful erotic life. Some people come to me just needing a little information to fill in some blanks; they’ve already done a lot of personal work and they get to see some lights turn on. With sexual dysfunction issues, depending on what they are, it may require a little bit of time. But I see what I do as Carolyn Mace does, as a boat ticket to the other side of the river; I think any therapy should be a boat ticket to the other side of the river.

SHS: What other resources do you commonly recommend to people?

In terms of workshops I recommend Human Awareness Institute and the Body Electric School. Charles and Caroline Muir, authors of Tantra: The Art of Conscious Loving, host workshops which are quite valuable for heterosexual-based relational work; I haven’t done anything with them for about five years, but for that particular genre I think they do a good job.

My teacher is Bhodi Avinasha, who co-wrote Jewel in the Lotus: The Sexual Path to Higher Consciousness and who teaches week-long intensives in Mexico through Tantrika International; he has a wonderful level of integrity and closeness to the source of the material. Jewel in the Lotus: The Sexual Path to Higher Consciousness is the most concise written presentation of the material I know of. David Schnarch, who wrote Passionate Marriage and Constructing the Sexual Crucible, also offers 10-day intensives; in my opinion 10 days is just enough time to really go deep with someone.

What I feel I do well is to condense and simplify the material. I always thought that if I were going to write any material – which I probably will – I’ll be doing the Cliff Notes of Tantra. Because essentially a simple approach is what people want.

Annie Sprinkle is a friend of mine. I see Annie as a real Tantrika, in that she has an erotic relationship with the planet. That’s how a see a true Tantrika; there’s this sense of engagement and eroticism that can be expressed in any number of different ways. That’s what I explain to people when they first start working with me: we have such a limited range of expression, and my hope is is to expand that range of expression. Because if I’m using all of my behavior as an inquiry into consciousness, I may be standing at the checkstand and just drop into the melting cosmos with you standing across from me. The old paradigm would be “express it or repress it.” The Tantric perspective would be to just drop into the energy; hopefully I will have developed the consciousness to arrive at what the appropriate choice is for that moment, which is probably just to really be in that energy and pay for my groceries and go to my car, which would be neither having to repress it nor express it in a limited way.

Jack Johnston’s Male Multiple Orgasm Step-by-Step audiotape is also wonderful; I think Jack is doing for men what the feminist movement did for women, as he is redefining male sexuality. The feminist movement has essentially redefined female sexuality, and now says “yeah women have orgasms, yeah women can have lots of them, yeah women can ejaculate.” What Jack is doing, from a Western point of view, is redefining male sexuality so that men need not be limited by one or two ejaculatory orgasms, so that men can access full body orgasms – like women do – which ignite emotional, spiritual, psychological kinds of awareness.

SHS: I agree that Jack’s work is remarkable. It’s interesting to me that in most sexual self-help books very little of the material focuses on how we can enhance our personal experience of sex.

For both men and women, I think most sexual dysfunction is in direct relation to this. If I’m only focussed on what I’m doing to you, I’m not in my body. Men who come in with erection dysfunction or premature ejaculation, especially erection dysfunction, haven’t been in their bodies for a long time; this didn’t start happening suddenly. Particularly when I work with people who are very outer-directed in their sexuality, it’s like pulling teeth to help them realize that they’re only going to get as much out of the experience as they’re willing to place themselves in the experience. The most exciting erotic partner is one who is totally wired into themselves and having a good time; they’re probably having a good time regardless of who is going to be there. That’s an exciting sexual partner! Almost everybody has had a sexual partner who just tries to “do something” to them; it’s usually really boring. You see all these books that are focused on this technique or that technique, but it really is about being fascinated with your experience.

For me the question is how to inhabit my body on a daily basis such that I am totally engaged, because the erotic experience really is about every cell in my body being engaged; the sex cells are not located just in the genitals.

I think Butoh dancing, the Japanese dance form, is incredibly erotic because it’s so present. Forget that a lot of times they do it nude; that’s not the point. They’re so engaged, and that’s very Tantric – that sense of engagement. It requires a presence, which is what exalted eroticism requires.