When I first met Vishvanath (the guy who I affectionately refer to as my “guru” – knowing full well he squirms when I do this), we started a conversation about tantra (and everything else) which went on for a year or so. A conversation shaped through walks through local woodland and parks, in and out of pubs and each other’s rooms, criss-crossing the city night and day. It was the beginning of friendship; a forging of affinities. I don’t really recall what this conversation was about, but what’s stuck with me is that it’s important that we had it. Occasionally, he’d give me “homework” – and even more occasionally, I’d do it, because at that stage of my life I was exploding in all directions. There was no internet to distract, and not even much in the way of books around either, apart from the occasional Arthur Avalon reprint. It probably helped that we had time, lived fairly close to each other, and moved in overlapping social circles.
These formative experiences have very much shaped my approach to engaging with other people about tantra these days. Its an ongoing conversation – its rooted in dialogue. There’s a lovely definition of dialogue by the late Sonja Servomaa:
Dialogue is sympathetic communication of persons with each other, speaking of equal human beings to each other with mutual, sincere and genuine respect. Dialogue starts between parties with presentations of thoughts, ideas, proposals, hopes, wishes, feelings … Dialogue also listens and adds to knowledge and understanding, it creases new insights in the minds of both parties, it enhances new solutions, new ideas, new openings. Dialogue searches for deep truths in things, for beauty in expression, for joy in interactive reception.
This is an ideal, an ethic for communication rooted in a mutuality of respect and sympathy. It reminds me again of a conversation – well, the aftermath of an argument really – at a tantra retreat where Vishvanath made the twin gestures of dispelling fears and granting boons and said something along the lines about two things we can offer each other when we converse – dispelling each others fears and granting each other boons. Again, that stuck in my mind as being appropriate, because the kind of dialogue that Servomaa is talking about requires both gentleness and trust from and to each other.
Dialogue is a skill – it needs to be cultivated and it needs time to develop – it requires a mutual commitment. Bakhtin says, of dialogic relationships: The truth is not born and does not reside in the head of an isolated individual, it is born between people, in their communal search. I’ll be coming back to Bakhtin again in due course, as I think that a lot of what he says about dialogue can be fruitfully applied to tantra – particularly in regard to pedagogical considerations.
For me, the very ability to begin this process requires at least some sense of mutuality – of care towards and from another person.