What is the Erotic?

“‘O Divine Ones, why does sex exist?’ Brahma, the god of creation, replies, ‘We need the erotic because without it the world is dusty — it lacks gloss.’” —Rig Veda

To believe that the erotic is just about sex is to minimize one of the most powerful energies we can experience in our human form. To reject sex, sexual arousal, and desire altogether as a distraction is equally as harmful. This primal urge to be overcome by sexual desire, as well as to be disgusted by it, is one of the most deeply human conflicts to experience.

Many people have a damaged relationship with sex. The most common forms it takes are:

  • Sex as an act of entitlement over another person (e.g., sexual assault)
  • Sex as something dangerous, even a vice, to be avoided 
  • Sex as a mindless entertaining activity
  • Sex as a way to prove oneself to others, or meet expectations of a partner, societal gender roles, family (i.e., having children)

Erotic energy is much more powerful than any of these things. It is deeply attractive, arousing. and pulls you in to be transformed. Being sexual is not solely about putting the body on display, meeting cultural expectations of beauty, or inviting romantic attention, though these things can be infused with erotic energy when done with the right intention.

Sexual activity can sometimes exist only in the body. This is when sex is only engaged with in the lowest three chakras, as a way to “scratch an itch” with the rubbing together of body parts. This is enjoyable for many people, but it is not the totality of what sex is.

Shakti, or the energy of Creation, when directed towards inner transformation, is called Kundalini, “the coiled serpent.” The goddess takes the form of transformative energy, which lies dormant within most people, waiting to be awakened. This energy yearns to be free, and arise to meet Shiva, her beloved, in final, obliterative sexual union. Therefore, the energy of spiritual and psychological transformation is intrinsically erotic. And yet, only a very small part of Tantric practices, rarely partaken of by the average seeker, involve sexual intercourse. This is because physical intercourse is not necessary for this erotic energy to be accessed. Erotic energy is an invitation to transformation. You can access it with or without a partner, having had sex before or never having had sex.

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The Dark Mother: Sending Trust into the Void

The Dark Mother has emerged in the global consciousness in various forms: as Kali, the Black Madonna, Our Lady of Guadalupe, Innana/Ishtar, Lilith, and others. She is the “pregnant void,” (Bhattacharya Saxena, 2015) the emptiness which births and heals. Her darkness is like a river at night, mirroring ourselves back to us, in all our beauty and grotesqueness. 

Freud would come to reveal how even our deepest desires are repulsive to us, and repressed into the darkness of the unconscious mind. When we truly admit the intensity of our rage to ourselves, we might find that in those moments, we want to kill or maim those who we love. On the other hand, when we admit to the intensity of our desires, we may want to have sex in ways and with people our civil sensibilities may find appalling. Similarly, the Dark Mother is usually associated both with sexuality and destruction. We can finally breathe a sigh of relief when we reclaim these disavowed parts of ourselves. Ironically, we can start to touch our divinity when we admit that we are human, and therefore, animal. This is further explored in the relationship between pati, lord, pashu, animal, and pasha, bondage, across Tantric literature.

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Rasa Vidya: Inner Alchemy and Art

Rasa vidya is alchemy, also known as rasa siddhi or rasa siddha. Rasa vidya was a highly coveted area of knowledge in ancient times, comprised of a science and of esoteric spiritual practices. However, even if you have no desire to find out what amazing things you can do with liquid mercury, alchemy was often used in Tantric philosophy as a metaphor for inner transformation. The fierce goddess Chandi is related to the pernicious practices of physical alchemy, while Lakshmi is connected to spiritual alchemy and healing. Those familiar with the classical South Asian arts will be familiar with another definition of rasa: aesthetic experience, as well as flavor. Lakshmi is also associated with this rasa, as the divine embodiment of beauty and the arts.

Lakshmi, also referred to as Śrī, is perhaps one of the most misunderstood goddesses. Most believe her to be the goddess you pray to so that you can get more money. Lakshmi will give you whatever your deepest heart desires. If that is material wealth, she will have Kubera, the actual yaksha who is in charge of physical wealth (i.e., gems — he is actually much like the dwarves of Germanic folklore) arrange to have some materialize for you. But she can give you much more than that, and this is not the type of abundance that she is most interested in connecting you with. 

Lakshmi is herself golden (hīranyavarnām), and is the goddess of healing and of inner alchemy — that is, she can turn anything into “gold.” Those blessed by Lakshmi can transform even the most poison-filled and stone-like hearts into a soft, golden lotus. The link between Lakshmi and alchemy is also found in her many comparisons to the moon (chandrām prabhāśām yaśasā jvalantīm), known as chandra or soma, which is strongly linked to the processes of alchemy. For example, certain substances could only be worked with during certain phases of the moon, otherwise they could be deadly to touch or ingest.

The Rig Veda contains many ancient references to soma, including a repeated directive to “press the rasa (juices) of soma (the moon) for amritam (nectar of immortality).” One interpretation of this metaphor relates to inner alchemy and the arts. The moon rules over the emotions; thus, rasa (aesthetic experience) is pressed from the emotions, producing spiritual transformation-via-pleasure (amritam).

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Dakshina Kali, Thanatos, Eros

Dakshina Kali can mean two things, as dakshina means “south” or “gift.” She is the South-Facing Kali because the southern direction is associated with the deity of death, Yama. His job is to pull the soul out of the body and bring it along further on its journey. So, she faces South to indicate her looking fearlessly towards death. (Bengalis may recognize this as a popular form of Kali, as this form is worshipped at Dakshineswar temple in Kolkata.)

Dakshina Kali also portrays another aspect of reality, which Freud and Jung both explored in their writings. Thanatos, or the death instinct, is a part of us all, usually pushed into the unconscious. The death instinct is that part of us that wants to die, to see our lives dissolve before us, as you might feel in a deep depression or when overcome by substance addiction.

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When it rains (Fiction)

Hi everyone! I’ve decided to share some of my fiction writing on this blog from time to time. I hope you enjoy this short story. It feels like it ties together quite well (pun intended) with the essay I posted last.

The train slithered toward her, a gigantic iron snake meandering through its underground cavern with the letter R emblazoned in its unblinking, yellow eye. On this summer night, being underground felt more suffocating than usual. She stood in the heavy air of this tiled cavern, echoes of the screeching subway trains punctuated occasionally by a monotonous, tired voice over the intercom: Your train is still very, very far away. It has stopped running earlier than you expected. It was never running at all. She reached for her water bottle; she forgot that it was already empty.

There, in the thick air of the subway station, Sakshi leaned against a column and thought about her lunch today, the people she didn’t want to return the calls of, her secret frustrations — and then she thought about him. She thought of his black, wavy hair, with streaks of grey around his temples. She thought about his shirts, with only his right sleeve carefully folded up his forearm. When he saw her, he would unconsciously smooth his hand down the row of buttons, and feel whether the front of his shirt was properly tucked into his pants. She wondered what this meant, but had trouble listening to the part of herself that seemed to know. 

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Loneliness & The Thread

When I was around twenty-two years old, I made friends with a sadhu, or Hindu monk, at the temple that my family went to. He was young, in his thirties, and as was ascetic tradition, he had given up all relations and ties. Despite all of this, he had a wicked sense of humor. I found myself getting along with him quite well. I had nothing else to do that summer, and was feeling like a bit of a hermit myself. I had just been dumped by my boyfriend of three years, who claimed that he wasn’t sure if he had ever loved me. So, our friendship formed around a certain un-relatedness we both had found ourselves in: He had given up everything, I had been given up on.

The sadhu was kind enough to let me help him with his Vedic astrology readings. I offered my translation services, as he could only speak Hindi. Most of the people who went to this temple spoke Tamil or English. He would take a look at someone’s astrological chart solemnly, then tell me in Hindi, “It looks like there shouldn’t be any problems with their son getting married in the next few years – but why don’t you tell them he won’t get married until he is forty-five just to see what they do,” he’d say, breaking into a giant grin.

One slow summer day, he offered to read my astrological birth chart. He perused the peculiar geometry in front of him, nodding vigorously, telling me that I must make sure I was involved in education and writing. Brihaspati, or Jupiter, was apparently very favorably placed in my chart. He guaranteed that I would come to have extremely high expertise in my career. He explained that I would come to deeply understand others’ secrets, and be involved in helping suffering people to heal. As he went on, his voice began to soften a bit. He told me, “Don’t worry too much about relationships. Just focus on your education and your career. That is where you will see most of your success.” I felt my heart tightening, and I asked him if something bad was going to happen to me, like even more horrible betrayals.

“No, not like that,” he explained. “In other peoples’ astrological charts, it is very clear to me when there are karmic debts, unfinished business, or sure signs that a relationship with a particular person will happen based on past ties. You have no such debts. All of your debts are clear in relationships. If your heart desires it, deep down, you can have whatever relationships you want, exactly as you imagine them. Or if you want, you can have no relationships. You can have children, or no children, anything. In your education, your fate is certain, there are things you are meant to do. But in your relationships, it is all up to you.”

There should be nothing better than the news that one has free will, the power to create one’s destiny. Yet, at that moment, I felt remarkably lonely. Fate, for better or worse, provided an inevitable connection. I didn’t believe that I would never find somebody to love, but it left me feeling unmoored. It was like I was holding onto a rope, only to find that there was no one holding onto the other end. I would have to trust that if I wanted somebody else, they would eventually find that rope, and choose to pull themselves to me, toward the unknown.

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13th Century Love on a 21st Century Stage

The modern Indian classical artist* is often tasked with expressing romantic themes which seemingly belong to premodern times. The imagery we evoke can seem frozen in a time when there were emperors, courtesans, cowherds, endless mehfils. As artists, we often wonder how clearly we express these ideas to the public. Do they understand, for example, when we portray the lover lighting a diya in anticipation of the arrival of the beloved on a dark night? However, the questions posed in classical Indian texts on aesthetics pose a different question: How well can the artist imbue the particular qualities of an emotional experience, and thus, cause it to arise in the viewer/listener?

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Crafting a Home Retreat

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“Dates with the soul: Without taking breaks, I start to feel like I don’t have a grasp of all the balls in the air and what my priorities are for each day and even my life overall. I feel like I’m behind on stuff, but I don’t know what.”  — Michael Simmons

I was generally forced to go on retreats earlier in life, not really knowing what they could be. A spiritual retreat generally meant a group trip to a temple or ashram, or a religious youth camp. I had good experiences and learned a lot, but things never happened on my terms.

Going on retreat means something much different to me now. I sometimes find that I am overwhelmed by life. I have too much to do. Social media feels like way too much information to take in at once. I lose track of my boundaries and do too much for others, while doing too little for myself. I feel untethered from my goals, and smothered by some vague, ever-present force. I hate myself and feel like a burden on others.

Retreat, to me, is a time where I refocus on my own needs. It’s selfish, and that is great for my mind and soul. I implement practices that are meaningful to me, that are spiritually recharging, but by no means will work for everyone. I make a schedule and stick to it, which helps me keep the time I take as intentional as possible. It can be as short as a day, or as long as a month. I can be on retreat even while going to work, though I usually will block off at least my weekends for myself.

Below, I’ve decided to share some practices that work for me. I’ve provided an explanation of why I’ve chosen to incorporate each part, with some examples interspersed where I saw fit. I highly recommend reading Woman’s Retreat Book by Jennifer Louden for more information. You can also feel free to comment on this post if you have any questions! I think incorporating even one of these practices for a week could produce change.

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Therapy with the Enemy

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One of the most well-known parts of the medical doctors’ Hippocratic Oath includes a commitment to treating disease wherever it exists, and in whomever it exists. On a daily basis, physicians treat medical conditions for people who may have very different values than they might have, such as people who physically abuse their children, or people who may be racist. Thankfully, I am not a physician.

Psychologists have a bit more leeway in who they choose to see. If you have such significant bias against a person that it would compromise the quality of care that they would receive, it is ethical to refer them to another provider. That isn’t to say that you can refer someone out every time you disagree with them over something. You generally have to have a strong ethical case for refusing to treat someone (i.e., seeing them for treatment would cause more harm than good).

When talking about patients which I may have radical value differences with, one of my patients, Tom*, comes to mind. I enjoy working with Tom, for the most part. For someone who has endured severe chronic illness since childhood, he is a positive, upbeat, and compassionate individual. Most people in his situation would probably be severely depressed. On the other hand, Tom frequently shares beliefs with me that, unbeknownst to him, I am completely against. His views are often quite bizarre, and are generally a part of persecutory delusions stemming from trauma earlier in life.

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Pashupati and the Brothers of the Beasts

We never call God by Its name, but rather, by adjectives and epithets. Ishvara, Bhagavan, etc. are all descriptors-as-titles. One such name associated with Shiva is Pashupati, Lord of the Animals. This is also one of his earliest names, dating to prehistoric times.

No human is without animality, no animal without divinity. We are bound in responsibility to animals, nature, humanity. In this work, we become more of ourselves.

Recognizing one’s own animal includes recognizing our innate drives for eating/sleeping/sex. In becoming aware, we can start to reflect and decide how much we use these activities to weigh us down versus to increase our intellect, love, sense of purpose, etc.

“Shiva looked at the suras [deities] and said, ‘It is not a disgrace to recognize your own animal. Only those who practice the rites of the brothers of the animals, the Pashupatas, will be able to overcome their animal nature.’ It was thus that all the suras recognized that they were the Lord’s cattle, and that he is known by the name of Pashupati, the Lord of Animals. Through the animals, forest spirits, satyrs, nymphs, faeries*, and protective spirits of creation, Pashupati is revealed in all aspects of the natural world.

“All those who consider the Lord of Animals as their God become brothers of the beasts. The most sacred Pashupata Yoga, the Yoga of the brothers of the animals, [through which the unity of living beings is realized], explains the structure of the universe and its ephemerality.”

(1st quote – Shiva Purana. 2nd quote – Linga Purana. Both trans. Alain Daniélou in ‘Gods of Love and Ecstasy: The Traditions of Shiva and Dionysus’)

*I don’t have the original sanskrit for names of these different creatures, but I love the mix of European and Indian fantastical imagery, so I’ll leave it like this!