What follows is the first of several excerpts from one of this month’s Speakeasy book review selections, Tantric Jesus, wherein Episcopal Priest and tantric initiate James Reho makes a provocative proposal: Original Christian spirituality, as practiced in the early church and by Jesus himself, was tantric in nature. In the West, Tantra often evokes images of arcane rituals or acrobatic sexuality, while in reality Tantra is a holistic transformative path of life, love, and being—grounded in practice.
I’d also like to add something: My heart in offering these guest-voices – of Jesus as wisdom teacher, shaman, and now tantric master – is not to diminish Jesus as Lord, Prophet, Priest, Healer, etc… I share these perspectives because (as sentimental as this might sound to my more secular or agnostic friends) I really love Jesus, and I want to highlight his rather inexhaustible compelling features, which I believe these guest-voices do with grace and skill. So if you come from a more ‘orthodox’ or traditional Christian background – like I do – please know that you don’t have to relinquish in any way the Christ of the creeds, or the Jesus of your experience. I encourage you to give James here an open-hearted hearing. And whatever resounds with truth, honor, insight, purity, and love, savor those things. (See Philippians 4:8) Feel free to let go of whatever doesn’t resonate.
[Jesus said,] The Kingdom of the Father is spread out upon the earth, and [people] do not see it.
– The Gospel of Thomas (Logion 113)
If you do not see God in everything, you will not see God in anything.
– Yogi Bhajan, 20th-century tantric master
As human persons, we negotiate reality through multiple fields of experience. We engage the three-dimensional, physical world through our senses, and we engage the inner realms of imagination, emotion, and logic through other organs of active perception. We can experience time as linear or as cyclical, and we sometimes have intimations of timelessness as well. We can perceive the activity and monologues of our own minds, and from time to time can drop into a fertile stillness that words cannot describe. We can experience a sense of isolation, and we can experience a sense of connectedness and oneness with all of creation. We can reflect upon our lives and find a single, sacred narrative thread, and we can reflect again another day and find scattered, isolated events that seem empty and confusing.
As we gather and reflect upon these various fields of perception and experience in our lives—the mundane and the sublime, the joyful and the heart-wrenching—we begin to wonder what in all of this is real, and what if anything is within our power to change. Is the elimination of suffering possible, and if so, how? Are the moments of ecstasy and joy in our lives what are truly real, or is tragedy the true nature of existence? How much of our own peace and happiness is up to us? Is the world “out there” something to flee or something to embrace? Is our inner world more real, or the outer? Do they both exist, and if so, are they even different worlds? Often such questions are precipitated by pivotal events in our lives: births, deaths, and other major life changes.
I have seen in my own life that the answers we hold to such seemingly theoretical questions actually bear very practical results. Shortly after my twentieth birthday, my mother died after a three-year battle with cancer. As her only surviving child, I had always been extremely close to her and we enjoyed a deep, healthy, and life-giving relationship until her death. While I had done plenty of grieving during her illness, when she died I did not allow myself to mourn. According to my beliefs at the time, what was most real about the human being was something that could and did exist apart from the body: an eternal soul or divine spark or atman. Death was largely inconsequential, or at least ultimately an illusion. Death was merely a shift, a liberation, in fact, of the core of individual reality from the darkening and limiting husk of the physical body to something far finer.
Armed with this philosophy, I was determined to prove my spiritual maturity through responding to my mother’s death with stoic aplomb. I did not cry at her funeral; in fact, I served as the pianist for her funeral Mass and kept my composure throughout the day, being the gracious host to the many who had come to honor her memory. I worked hard to replace the difficult images of her last days and hours with pictures of her transfigured and at peace, making this substitution in my mind less than an hour after her death. I refused to engage her dead body, telling myself and others that the body was of no consequence: it was no longer her. This way of negotiating my mother’s death proved to be an excellent short-term insulator against difficult and painful emotions. As a further benefit, I was able to soothe my lonely and sad self with reflections on how spiritually advanced I must be; after all, I had not even cried at her funeral.
Shortly after her death I experienced a year-long series of dreams. In these dreams I would see my mother here and there slipping through a large crowd but could never seem to connect with her or get her attention. In some dreams I would see her walking past me but became frustrated because I had lost the ability to speak or move and couldn’t call to her. Sometimes in these dreams I would call her on the phone and there would be no answer, or I would get an old-fashioned busy signal over and over again. These dreams caused me great agitation, and upon waking I would find myself breathing hard and soaked with sweat. I would try to push down the deep sadness that would visit me after these dreams with affirmations of my spiritual philosophy: death was an illusion, all that finally mattered was the eternal soul, and I had no reason to be sad.
Finally, over a year after her death, I had a dream which closed this series. In this dream, I was in my parents’ house and something funny had happened. I picked up the phone to call my mother and tell her about this funny event. As the phone rang multiple times, I thought within the dream, “Oh, that’s right. They don’t have any phones there,” and hung up the phone. As the phone receiver clicked onto its carriage, I woke up with a sense of calm. This time I let the sadness remain with me. I had, in my dream life at least, finally admitted that she was gone, that her death was real.
My father died fifteen years later. On the last night of his life my wife and I returned to the nursing home late in the evening, after having gone out for dinner with family, to say goodnight to the dying man, silent and still for two days already. We arrived only moments after he died, as his body was still quite warm. We did not immediately call the nurse. Instead, we spent time alone with him in the quiet room, now only dimly lit as night had fallen. I took a few unhurried moments to stroke his hair, touch his cheek, and offer his body the veneration of my touch and tears.
By this time in my life I was no longer an intellectual but nervous twenty-year-old. Older now, I had grown tired of using the life of the mind to absent myself from a reality that kept me scared and inwardly running. I wanted to fully inhabit my life, the laughter and the ecstasy of it as well as the equally holy times of sorrow and anxiety and frustration. Having put aside spiritualist metanarratives and exotic cosmologies, I was now more interested in tasting the vitality of the actual life I was living—an embodied life full of laughter and pain and particularity and sacredness and uncertainty—rather than keeping myself safe from finitude and sadness by holding all experiences at arm’s length.
Whether or not my father’s eternal soul or divine spark or atman might now be present to another dimension of reality, my father’s death was real. Engaging his face, trying my best to remember this sacred moment, I did not turn away from his body or from his death. My sense of spiritual reality was no longer a salvific explanation that would save me from an acute emotional difficulty; rather, it was a sense of deep and abiding presence in and through the matter of my life, a sense of the holy soaked into the sorrow, sanctifying it but not removing it. I cried at my father’s funeral, and did not play the piano. My only role that day was to be a mourning adult child of a man who had died.
After my father’s death, there was no series of dreams. While my father did from time to time appear in a dream or in deep meditation, these encounters were not marked by anxiety. I welcomed them and found joy in them, even though in life our relationship was often very strained. I believe the wide difference in how I experienced the deaths of my parents was partly due to the wide difference in the ideas I held concerning the meaning and value of the body, the meaning and value of matter and of the world, and the meaning and value of human particularity and its relationship to the sacred.
The Reverend James Hughes Reho, Ph.D., is an ordained Episcopal priest with a Ph.D. in Chemistry from Princeton University. He has served on the staff of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Miami, as the Chaplain and Director of Spiritual Formation at the General Theological Seminary in New York City, and currently pastors a Lutheran-Episcopal church in Fort Myers, Florida. A spiritual director and certified yoga instructor, he leads retreats and workshops on yoga, meditation, and tantric practice in both religious and secular settings. He lives in southwest Florida with his wife. You can find him online at JamesReho.org.