Divine Essence, Limitless Nature: The Compassionate Teachings of Tantra

Over the last 36-plus years, I’ve studied many styles and philosophies of yoga. But the teachings of Kashmir Shaiva Tantra rocked my worldview, my approach to life, and my practice of yoga.

Kashmir Shaiva Tantra (KST) philosophy emerged around 400 CE in northern India, and flourished between the ninth and twelfth centuries. It had a strong influence on the evolution and advancement of consciousness post-Patanjali (approximately 150–450 CE) and also post-Shankara and the Advaita Vedanta period (approximately 300–820 CE).

KST is a profoundly esoteric, mystical, and deeply philosophical path of initiatory yogic practices that espouses that the essence of the entire universe exists in seed form in the heart of every human being. It values the human experience as the highest form of consciousness and sees each of us as the crystallization of the Divine’s desire to know itself. Basically, we are all gods and goddesses in flesh. As the Sufi poet Hafiz says, “You are the sun in drag.”

KST is nondual in its approach—everything in this universe is infused with one cosmic energy. The science of quantum physics confirms this view in that everything in reality is composed of energy. The floor looks, feels, and is solid to our senses. But at the subatomic level, it is pulsing in and out of existence.

The word “tantra” means a book, a revealed text, or a weaver’s loom. “Tan” means to expand and “tra” means principle, or technology. Thus, tantra means to contract and expand. It refers to weaving back together all the dispersed parts of yourself into an integrated, meaningful matrix of relationship. Just as a star shines its light outward due to a powerful contractive nuclear fusion in the center of the star, tantra is the practice of moving deeper into life, experiencing it, savoring it, and integrating it, in order to grow and expand your consciousness. This paradox of contraction and expansion—also referred to as pulsation, or spanda—is a concept reiterated throughout the KST teachings.

The main premise of Kashmir Shaivism is the notion of the Absolute, and how the one unified energy of the Absolute became the many, or the Relative. The Absolute is transcendental and beyond attributes and yet paradoxically forms the essence of all that is. The manifest reality is not an illusion (as thought by the Advaita Vedantists), nor inferior to the Absolute (as stated by the classical yogis of Patanjali’s day), but rather is real and exists as the living embodiment of the great Absolute in limited form. Another way of saying this is “earth is sky condensed.” Earth contains all the qualities of the vast, unlimited sky, but in limited form. In the process of the great contraction of the Absolute, no amount of its fullness is lost. The form changes. But the essence remains unaltered. Applied in my own practice, when I embrace diversity, I experience a greater unity.

One unique feature of KST is that it puts a positive spin on our own limitations and the suffering in the world. Suffering or samsara is real. But suffering, while caused by negative karma, is also a result of the play of consciousness itself. The typical definition of samsara is to be bound by the flow, or held back by the flow (sam is “bound,” sara is “essence” or “flow”). But, in the tantric view, samsara means to be held, supported, or nurtured by the flow. This points to the very essence of the revolution of tantra. The point being that life is not a problem to be solved, it is a gift to be savored. Life has your back and wants you to succeed. The only thing standing between you and the Divine is you. You can align yourself with empowering beliefs and views that bring more goodness, growth, respect, kindness, and gratitude into this world.

Out of its own delight, the great light of consciousness Shiva (or Grace) chooses to limit itself in order to experience the revelation of its true nature again. It is Shiva who self-conceals (sva prachodana) for the thrill of self-revelation (sva-prakasha). Shiva causes himself to forget so that he can delight in remembering again. Without the process of forgetting, there can be no remembering. This is the “blessing of forgetfulness.” Without concealment, there can be no revelation of our limitless nature.

For me, the freedom here lies in knowing that even my character flaws, blind spots, and limitations are part of the dance of the Divine. Who you are, exactly as you are, is perfect. This in no way means that you’re done evolving and no longer need to practice. In your essence and with all your unique idiosyncrasies, you are the way the universe has made you to be. You are one of a kind, a masterpiece of the cosmic artist.

The teaching of tantra is that the universe doesn’t make mistakes. Life is not a mistake. Therefore, you are not a mistake. This changed my whole understanding of life. Instead of trying to change myself to fix a flaw, I was now able to embrace my shortcomings, accept them, and have compassion for myself, as I continued to perfect my being. Now I am moving through my life from a state of perfection to a state of more perfection. I realized that I could move forward in my life without criticizing, shaming, or punishing myself. I could improve myself through love. What a radical idea! When this shift took place in my understanding, my whole life began to change. I was more able to accept my limitations and those of others. Many of my perfectionistic tendencies began to drop away. I became a happier person and a more accepting teacher.

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Todd Norian, E-RYT 500, is an internationally acclaimed yoga teacher and author. A student of yoga since 1980, he masterfully offers alignment-based, heart-centered yoga. With warmth and humor, Todd excels at making deep philosophical teachings accessible and relatable.

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