Some thoughts are of course not even useful tools, right? They’re just divisive, or create suffering; but thoughts, at best, are tools, but they are never true. This meaning, even at their best, thoughts are representations of reality that we take to be reality.

Essence nature, the heart, and the fundamentals of who we are

This deconstruction process then leads to an experience in which Shiva symbolizes ,not so much destruction as people think, but beneficial dissolution. Dissolving self-images, dissolving all your ideas about yourself and what a person should do, you know, this is what a good person looks like, this is what a bad person looks like, and replacing those moral and cultural constructs with connection to the innermost heart. The idea being, if you’re connected to what’s called your “essence nature,” meaning what you fundamentally are—if you are fully connected to your true nature and expressing that, you’ll automatically act for the benefit of all beings, even without any moral rules whatsoever, because it is your true nature to do so.

There is a kind of belief that at heart, we are beings of love. That we are what you might say fundamentally good, but where good is not the moral idea of “good versus bad. When we’re in touch with our own heart and abide in our heart—where the heart just stands for your core, your center, your essence of nature. So, when you abide in the heart, then what you express, very naturally, is that vision of unity, love, and connection, because that is what’s ultimately true.

Realization is not enough without integration

And so, the tradition argues this is not a religion. Tantra in its purest form says, this is not religion. We don’t believe certain propositions as dogmas and then try to live in alignment with them. We seek to deconstruct all our mental constructs and simply abide in pure being. And as it happens, luckily our nature is intrinsically loving and seeks connection and harmony. The only reason it doesn’t seem that way is because of this incredible investment in these mental constructs of identity, whether it’s individual identity, group identity, etc. This is the fundamental worldview of tantra. In that sense, it’s not that different from some other spiritual patents, but it is different in very specific practices and tantric yoga, because this process is not so easy.

If you have a lot of unresolved things hanging out in your system where things are unresolved experiences, right? Whether they’re traumatic experiences, or pleasurable experiences that you never fully integrated; all kinds of experiences hang out in our psyche and in our body that are unresolved. So, there’s all this inner work to resolve a lot of what’s unresolved, such that it no longer poses a barrier to realization. The reason it would pose a barrier is because, for example, if growing up you were praised for certain behaviors and judged and condemned for others, then you form self-images because you want approval. So, you form self-images, positive and negative to try to guide your actions, such that you continue to get that approval.

Those self-images are based on these unresolved experiences where you were hurt, but you weren’t able to digest that pain; or, you were praised but you weren’t able to realize that. People praise other people when they’re feeling nourished by that person, when their needs are being met but they cast it in terms of this, you are this kind of person, you’re a good person, you’re a bad person. Or, to children, you’re a good boy, you’re a bad boy. That turns out to be the seeds of all this future suffering, because then we have to live up to our self-image, but we also have these negative self-images. We believe that there are things wrong with us that we judge ourselves for. And, because we believe the negative self-images, we perpetuate the behavior that is connected to those negative self-images.

Life is messy. Earlier, before we started, you were telling me about a teacher who didn’t fully embody what he taught. That’s exactly sort of where the rubber meets the road in this process. You can have a spiritual realization, but if you don’t resolve these unresolved things in your system, it just doesn’t naturally embody the realizations that you’ve had. So that’s why realization by itself is not enough. In tantric yoga, we also seek integration of the realization, and that requires the dissolution of the things that form barriers to that integration process. But it’s the same basic model, the same basic phenomena. Just everyone has their own version of the universal story.

So, it’s profoundly liberating, of course, to wake up out of the idea that your suffering is personal to you. When in fact it’s just another instantiation of the universal story of human suffering and human redemption. Suffering invites spiritual work. And so anyway, this is just the general view of reality and tantra. There’s a lot more to it.

There are all these kinds of specific cultural elements like invoking deities. Deities are considered icons of your own essence. Meaning when you look at a deity, you’re looking at an aspect of your own consciousness that teaches you something about your broader, wider self. So, the reason we have all these deities in tantra is because when you look at all these different deities it requires you to expand your limited sense of self. And the idea is, you keep expanding it until it eventually encompasses everything. The only absolutely true self-understanding is all inclusive, meaning what I am is everything, and everything is an aspect of what I am. So, you keep expanding your sense of self in this process until it encompasses everything and nothing is excluded.

Expressing our fundamental nature is the essence of love and authenticity

And then you have the direct experience, if you do the actual work, that everything you perceive is a form of what you are. That’s a liberating experience. It’s quite joyful. It’s free of all judgments. It’s just intimacy with the whole of reality where you don’t need to do anything about anything, except allow whatever wants to come through you. Right? And in most religions, that’s a dangerous idea; Just allow whatever comes through. But here we’re saying, look, you do that in relationship to a process of deepening into your fundamental nature. So, when you abide in the heart, the core of your being, allowing whatever wants to come through you, it is always beneficial for all beings.

Of course, it’s not always very simple because sometimes we’re called upon to do something—think of Martin Luther king Jr. and nonviolent protest. Right? So, Martin Luther King Jr. is a great example of somebody who is allowing consciousness, divine consciousness, to express through him. And that did involve resisting non-violently. It happens to be true from Martin Luther king Jr. and the tantric view, you don’t have to see the people you’re resisting as bad or wrong. You don’t have to see them as your enemy. They’re just playing out their conditioning. Something inside of you says, “No, I am not going to move to the back of the bus,” or “I’m not going to use the ‘whites only’ drinking fountain,” but you do not have to demonize anyone to simply do what feels most right. Again, in this deeper sense, not right versus wrong, but just what feels most authentic. You don’t have to tell a story about how someone else is wrong to do what feels most authentic.

You even don’t have to wait until you’re fully centered in your absolute nature. Even along the path we learned to start allowing for natural expression. It’s just a matter of taking a breath, pausing and reflecting, “Is what I’m about to say or do the most authentic truest thing available to me right now?” If you have that guideline, you do not have to wait until you’re fully enlightened. You can allow natural expression starting now; with that pause, breathe, reflect. “Is this the truest most authentic thing I can express in this situation, is this what life wants to do through me?”

Is the mind and the heart one in the same?

What’s really interesting is there’s two different usages of the word heart in Sanskrit, in these traditions. We could translate them in English as heart with a small “h”, and heart with a capital “H.” The heart with a small “h” translates the Sanskrit word Chitta. What’s interesting here is this is a very different idea from the Western popular idea that we’ve got a heart, which is the locus of emotion; and we’ve got a mind, which is the locus of thought, and these are two separate centers, right?

Then in the yogic view the heart and mind are thought to be one in the same thing. This is kind of weird for us because we’re so deeply conditioned to think that we think with our heads. We think that’s just a universal human experience, but it’s not. In ancient India people thought with their hearts, meaning to say, they felt, experienced and believed that thoughts and emotions were both happening [in the heart center].

It’s very different and it’s very important because they didn’t distinguish thoughts and emotions as being two qualitatively different things, but rather they’re just on a spectrum. In other words, some emotions get dressed up in more verbal language, or more philosophical, or intellectual language. But, we believe what we believe for primarily emotional reasons, no matter how intellectual we make it sound. In the same way then, feelings are also on that same spectrum. They are like thoughts except more visceral, more charged, and less verbal. Right? It’s a spectrum instead of two different things. And, thoughts and feelings again, both happening here. So, that’s a kind of universal teaching.

Then there’s this tantric teaching that there’s this deeper sense of the word heart. Where heart means the core of your being or essence nature, beyond all thoughts and feelings, yet provides the context for them. Meaning to say, your true nature is not something transcendental, separate from your thoughts, feelings, inner experiences, and outer experiences. The reason we call it your true nature is because thoughts and feelings come and go, and constantly change their forms. They’re very mobile in that sense, the energy of thoughts and feelings. It’s very changeable. Your essence nature is that which doesn’t change, that which doesn’t come and go. It’s what fundamentally makes you, you.

All these thoughts and feelings arise within a space of awareness, and awareness is fundamental. All thoughts and feelings arise within awareness as an expression of awareness. But, if you really look into your own experience you’ll notice that thoughts and feelings, no matter how violent or intense they can get, do not alter the character of awareness itself. Awareness is this space, we could analogize it to a kind of space within which thoughts and feelings arise and subside.