Embracing the Radical Equality of Life

Poet Arundhathi Subramaniam speaks to Lata Mani on her film on tantra

First published in May 2016 on www.lifepostive.com here.

There is something about Lata Mani. It is not just her fine-tuned alignment of idea and articulation. Or the clarity of her speech. It is not just her capacity for deep thinking. Or her ability to wed intellectual rigour with spiritual quest. It is her presence – a presence of quiet luminous integrity.

And it is that presence that is abundantly in evidence in her recent film, The Earth on its Axis, We in Our Skin: The Tantra of Embodiment. While Mani is already known as a contemplative writer, it is this film, to my mind, that allows us a fuller glimpse of her unique presence. Nicolas Grandi, as filmmaker, and Kabir Bavikatte, as probing interlocutor, help sensitively bring the authenticity of that presence to the fore.

What also comes to the fore is Mani’s remarkable story – a head-injury that turned turtle the ‘head-oriented’ approach of her life as a scholar and compelled her, as she says, to ‘rethink everything from the ground up.’

It proved to be an event of far-reaching implications. And although Mani describes herself with characteristic understatement as a ‘student’ of life, we see her in this film in a role for which she seems remarkably suited – that of thinker, speaker and inspirational voyager. A woman in whom the ‘ground up’ reclamation of self has produced an exceptional integration of the cerebral and the deeply human, the spiritual and the political, the reflective and the experiential, all of which is rooted in a manner of unhurried calm and humility.

Excerpts from the interview:

How did the film happen? Was this film conceived as a window, an invitation, to your book, The Tantra Chronicles?

It was Kabir, my interlocutor in the film, who proposed the idea. He was interested in making core ideas in The Tantra Chronicles accessible to more people, including those who may never read the book.  I am, as you know, not the author of those teachings but one of two recipient-transcribers. It took him some time to persuade me since I was unsure I wanted to take on the role of an interpreter in that public way.

I had two concerns: first, the way interpreters of received teachings are customarily considered “teachers” (I see myself as a student). My second concern was pedagogical: how might one convey key ideas in a way that retained complexity and nuance?

Once I accepted the challenge, two parallel conversations were set in motion. One was with Kabir about how our dialogue would be structured. We began an extended email exchange and decided to focus on three concepts: isness, tantra and dharma. I wanted to begin with a relatively unknown idea – isness; move to something that people erroneously believe they know, tantra;  and thence to a term that is widely used and abused, namely, dharma.

Simultaneously, the director Nicolas Grandi and I were in extensive discussions about the form of the film, how it should be shot and why, how to offer an experience for the viewer that was, sensorially, simultaneously jnana and bhakti, knowledge and devotion.

How did you arrive at the term, ‘isness’, which lies at the heart of this conversation? Can you unpack the term a little more?

‘Isness’ names that quality of aliveness that is specific and unique to each thing that exists. Every entity is characterised by something particular; no two people, leaves, rocks, animals are identical. Our language and concepts rarely speak to this. Yet it is that which makes each thing unmistakably what it is. It is a dimension to which we respond even though we may not know isness as a term. I consciously experienced it in the persistence of something steady that was indisputably there and definitely “me” at a time when a brain injury had effectively called into question existing descriptions of self. I noticed it but learned what it was in context of receiving the teachings that are The Tantra Chronicles.

Your isness is something you discover through sadhana or practice. But your isness does not stand alone. Distinctive though each isness may be, it is always already connected to countless other isnesses. Isness is a relational concept.

What is tantra yoga, in your understanding?

Tantra yoga honours the integrity of embodiment, matter, sensation. To honour them is not to cling to them but to embrace all three as intrinsically meaningful, not merely something to be tolerated, feared or transcended. Once you accept embodiment, matter and sensation as a fundament of existence, spiritual practice is about learning what they can teach us; tantra yoga is about how to live artfully in relation to all three.

You speak of honouring our ‘isness’, affirming particularity, seeing embodiment as sacred, embracing it rather than transcending it. Is this then the fundamental roadblock on many spiritual journeys – the hurry to transcend rather than embrace and acknowledge?

We often approach the fact of embodiment with suspicion. This makes no sense since the stated objective of spiritual practice is to help us to live more fully, more wisely, in the here and the now. If this is true, then surely our embodiment should be the ground of our practice, not that from which we flee. If we try to take shelter from the very stuff of existence we will naturally not know how to make our way, thus the roadblock to which you refer. There is a long and dispiriting tendency to distrust incarnation which is a consequence of having marginalised the tantric core in most spiritual traditions.

In a world of increasingly rigid ideological and religious stances, does tantra yoga with its acknowledgement of plurality become a means to counter the ‘terror of diversity’ that underlies various forms of fundamentalism?

Absolutely. Diversity is a key principle of nature. Tantra acknowledges it and proposes a method of living in a calm and disciplined relationship to it. Fundamentalism rejects this principle. It is suspicious of nature, of humans, and so its modus operandi is proscription and prescription. Fundamentalism is on a relentless and self-defeating drive to tame matter, to control bodies, how they are inhabited, what is done with, to and by them. It is premised on an untruth and has no credible basis. This is why one finds it repeatedly resorting to threats and violence.

You talk of the universe as ‘a complex, non-hierarchical form of polyexistence’. Do you speak from direct insight? Was this insight the consequence of the ‘head injury’ you mention that dropped you into ‘a new neighbourhood’, compelling you to inhabit your body in a way you never had before?

I first sensed the connectedness of everything in context of a brain injury that I sustained when a desperate young man sought to end his life by ploughing into my car. We both survived! I had encountered the notion of a unifying substratum before, but as an idea. Experiencing it was an altogether different matter. One found oneself needing to rethink everything from the ground up. Many presumptions dissolved. The secular idea of equality which had anchored my thinking suddenly seemed tame; insufficient to the radical fact that it was not just humans who were equal to one another, but all of Creation. Even the ranking of activity into productive and reproductive was revealed as false. These learnings were gradual. There was no single moment of illumination. And it was all learned in the crucible of post-injury pain and suffering, with my body leading the way.

To give one example, for several years my life seemingly consisted of little other than breathing in and out. I had to learn to set aside judgement and shame about the “value” or “purpose” of my life. Had I not done that, I could not have grasped the idea of polyexistence or the equality of all life activity. And in the process even the idea of acceptance had to be rethought.

You say that embracing ‘the radical equality of all life forms’ is what enchants our world. What is the role of wonder in our lives? How do we reclaim it?

Wonder is at the heart of life. Children are a great example, especially prior to their being socialised out of it. They are inherently curious, exploratory in their sensibility, spontaneous and not easily dissuaded. Observe toddlers learning to walk. If they judged themselves each time they fell, they would never learn. They just pick themselves up and try again. Adults by contrast need to work at what comes naturally to children. In part it is a consequence of adopting a hierarchical schema for evaluating self, others, activity, entities, outcomes and phenomena. This schema is applied even more assiduously to oneself; the result is that the openness, curiosity and flexibility essential to experiencing wonder give way to fear, judgement, rigidity. Please bear in mind that this is a very initial broad-strokes response to a complex question. And this is true for all my answers!

You also say that ‘we can never fully know the meaning, value and purpose of our lives’, that all we are given are tools to open ourselves to the mystery of life in a joyful way. And yet, you acknowledge that to be human means to wonder, to ask questions. Are there answers? Or is the answer to simply shut up and ‘enjoy the process’ remembering that ‘the Divine is in charge’? Is there a point to this tryst with material embodiment? Or is the point to be found in the journey itself?

There will likely always be more questions than answers partly because it is humanly impossible to grasp anything more than a fraction of what one might call ‘the whole’ of anything one sets out to explore. But, the clues to meaning and significance will be found in attention to the process. Contrary to what we generally deem to be the case, meaning and significance are not conferred by outcome and goal. And the journey is characterised by garrulousness as well as silence. If we shut up entirely we would not be allowing ourselves to explore, discover, make mistakes, reconsider, in short, experience a process!

You speak at one point of ‘passionate detachment’ – an interesting phrase. Do you think the word ‘detachment’ has been mangled to mean ‘indifference’?

Yes and no. As in other domains both the subtle and crude versions of an idea can be found circulating with the latter often representing a more common understanding. Detachment is non-attachment. Non-attachment is not indifference, a term that summons an absence of feeling or care. One cultivates non-attachment as a means to cultivate unconditioned observation and comprehension. One does this in order to better know how to respond, not because one does not care. But in context of the suspicion of matter, of incarnation, the subtle conception easily cedes ground to a crude view of detachment as indifference. The seeming paradox of a term like “passionate detachment” alerts us to this fact even as it serves to restore complexity to the idea of detachment. Passionate signals not merely the presence of feeling but within a tantric perspective, the importance of feeling and sensation, the importance of the affective as a form of knowing and a kind of vitality.

You speak of spiritual discipline not as self-flagellating penance, but as remembrance – something sadhakas across the board often need to periodically remind themselves of. Could you say more?

Your question takes us to the heart of a prevailing misconception about the nature of spiritual knowledge, the secular presumption that it is grounded in unprovable belief. This is not the case. In its most refined expressions, spiritual knowing is an invitation to contemplate a set of propositions about the nature of reality, about the nature of mind, about what it means to be human. If we are cultivating a form of knowing, then discipline is about remembering to practise its method and being open to what it may teach us, how it may transform us. Self-flagellation is entirely beside the point. It only makes sense within a perspective that fears incarnation, materiality and impermanence; in short, a perspective that is troubled by all that makes us human.

About the author: Arundhathi Subramaniam is a poet and seeker, also author of the bestselling biograpgy, Sadhguru: More than A Life and Eating God: A Book of Bhakti Poetry.