9 October 2022, Bali
It was a pleasant Saturday afternoon in Bali when I found myself doing standing hip thrusts while yelling "FUCK YOU! FUCK YOU!" as angrily as I could at a man I had just met. He was doing the same to me. It's not as weird as it sounds—although it's still pretty damn weird. I was at a workshop on Hindu Tantra and another thirty or so men and women were doing the same all around us.
As it happens, it's quite difficult to feel the full force of rage while doing standing hip thrusts and yelling "fuck you" at someone you've just met. We both gave it our best, but found ourselves laughing our way through it, I think as a way to apologise and acknowledge the weirdness of the whole affair.
That laughter, though. It says a lot. Why would we be laughing?
The exercise we were engaged in was to embody our 'shadow masculine', the parts of the masculine energy that feel dangerous, dominating and perhaps even violent. The kinds of feelings that we civilised gentlemen—and ladies, who were doing the same exercise—couldn't possibly have within us. The feelings that we deem unacceptable or intolerable, shove behind us and then pretend aren't there. Feelings like shame, anger, disgust and grief.
I’ve learned that shadow feelings are often those that felt unsafe or shameful to express fully in childhood. Perhaps our emotional state triggered feelings in our caregivers that they found hard to be with, causing them to withdraw, yell, or just distract us from our feelings that made them feel bad. Regardless of the method or the intent, the lesson was the same: some feelings are bad and not allowed.
As a child, I sometimes found myself in circumstances where I wanted to scream and shout in frustration but, knowing it was unwise, I clamped down on it. I have an image in my mind of a young boy frozen in the eternal moment of unbearable tension just before a scream that never comes.
Given a lifetime of resistance to feeling these specific things, they can be hard to be with when they do arise. And since we’re not taught how to summon and explore them safely, we lack the skills, so it’s no surprise that in our workshop we wanted to retreat to the familiar safety of laughter.
There are a lot of feelings that are hard to embrace and feel in all their raw, unfettered intensity. When these hard-to-be-with feelings arise, it's tempting to distract from them or drown them out. This is the realm of addiction, even when the addictions hurt us, because some kinds of pain are easier to be with than others. I don’t know about you, but I seem to prefer the pain of procrastination over the pain of shame.
This is where Tantra enters the picture. Tantra invites us to turn and face these intense feelings, to welcome and embrace them. It teaches that our experience of the world is not just the bits we like, the bits we pick and choose. Life is all of it, and when we turn down the bad, we also turn down the good. This is also the context for why you may associate the word tantra with sex, where there are many intense feelings you can learn to amplify and just be with, neither grasping at nor denying. But that’s not the focus here.
From my limited experience of tantric practice so far, the perspectives and skills I am stepping into are already proving transformational. I’m seeing that all those things in my shadow, all those aspects I once decided were bad and weren't really me, are actually deeply okay. Yes, all of them. In fact, the things I keep assiduously hidden in my shadow are more likely to cause problems if I don't bring them into the light and integrate them with the rest of me. As Carl Jung said:
“Until you make the unconscious conscious it will direct your life and you will call it fate.”
I've had many experiences now where a hard-to-be-with feeling shows up, I notice my habit to push it away, and choose instead to stay with it. Rather than falling into addictive patterns (hello, Twitter), I'm more and more able to surf on those feelings. There's a way of being whereby I can gently coax them out even further and just let them be, while also not getting involved with them, to allow them to be there without trying to figure out how to fix them.
This may sound like a passive process, but no. So far I have screamed with all my might while a guide played drums, I have pummelled cushions, yelled obscenities and thrown tantrums on the floor. If you haven’t done it, I encourage you to try to scream as loud as you can. It’s surprisingly difficult—even into a pillow with no one around—about as difficult as repeatedly yelling “fuck you” at a stranger while doing hip thrusts.
After a while of being with these feelings, they transform, perhaps dissipating completely with a sigh of relief or transmuting into something else, like a new hard-to-be-with feeling, or joy. Maybe there are tears. There are usually tears beneath screaming. But, consistently, the shift feels good, even if the feelings remain intense, as a stuck process moves another step towards completion. An unobstructed flow of difficult feelings seems to be more enjoyable than a fixity of difficult feelings.
Although I'm learning that feeling the ‘bad’ feelings often makes me feel good afterwards, that doesn't make it easy. Not least because these feelings were probably suppressed with good reason: it wasn't safe. Often these feelings need activation, coaxing, encouragement, and repeated reassurance of safety.
This is where my daily Tantra practice comes in, via the body, through sound, breath and movement. Shaking, screaming into pillows, beating up a cushion and saying things that feel unsafe to say—in a safe environment—activates them. Meditation and breath provide the space to observe them and the energy for them to flow.
I don't know where this practice will lead, but I know one thing. I have but one life, and I want to be someone with the capacity for great depth of feeling, to be here for all of it. If that means turning around, looking those parts that I've rejected in the eye and welcoming them home with love, then that's what I'll do, no matter how uncomfortable it may be at times.
A note of caution: I'm no psychologist, and I don't play one on the Internet, but I suspect this approach is probably not desirable or safe for everyone. Sometimes powerful memories and traumas can come up and I imagine that some feelings really are too much to be with safely without professional support. So if you're someone for whom this may be true, and you're curious about all this, I encourage you to seek out whatever support you need before trying any of this.
I publish a newsletter called Thinking Out Loud, which chronicles my journey as an online maker of things, but it's also is where I talk about whatever I'm interested in at the time. There are about 1t00 of us now, come play!