I spent a few years peripherally involved in the UK ‘Neo-Tantra’ scene, but left because I felt there was a lot about it that wasn’t quite right. This ranged from questions about cultural appropriation and inauthenticity, to fears about abusive behaviour by facilitators, to a sense that chronically ill people in the scene were being encouraged to take part in powerful practices that might be unsafe for them, with no one willing to pick up the pieces afterwards. It’s a non-disabled luxury to be able to attend a weekend workshop that brings up intense emotions or traumas and then go back to work as normal the following week.
I reached a point of such irritation with the whole thing that I decided to try to find out wtf if any of this stuff they were teaching was real. No one ever made reference to actual tantric texts in any of the events I attended, and I was deeply confused. This is when I came across Tantra Illuminated: The Philosophy, History and Practice of a Timeless Tradition while searching online.
What’s it about?
Christopher Wallis (also known as Hareesh) is a scholar-practitioner with thirty years of experience (having been initiated into the practice of yogic meditation at sixteen) and fifteen years of formal education. He reads Sanskrit, has degrees from Oxford, Rochester and Berkeley in his area of study, and currently teaches meditation, yoga darśana (practical philosophy), Tantrik philosophy, Sanskrit, mantra-science, and offers spiritual counselling. Tantra Illuminated aims specifically to clear away some of the myths and confusions around ‘Tantra’ and offer a clear overview of its philosophical and historical context for the Westerner, as well as introducing some of its key practices.
What did reviewers say about Tantra Illuminated?
I’ve seen some critical reviews of this book, usually from a highly academic/specialist perspective. I guess there will always be disagreements among both scholars and practitioners about such a complex tradition, and it’s important to remember that no book on it is going to be definitive.
The Amazon reviews are overwhelmingly good, however, and many echo my own experience of finally starting to find a way through, as one reviewer puts it, ‘New Age fluff’.
What did I think?
The book is not easy for a brain foggy person – my partner, who isn’t chronically ill, gave up after a few chapters. But I can sometimes manage to read a difficult book if it’s fascinating to me, and this absolutely was. I found it deeply comforting, yet exciting, to read and will probably read it again soon.
I should start by saying that it doesn’t talk about Neo-Tantra very much. This is because, as I suspected, there’s not *that* much connection between the practices popularly described as ‘Tantra’ in the West and classical Tantra. But the topic was covered enough to clarify my understanding of where Neo-Tantra comes from, and equip me to make more informed choices in the future about engaging with such workshops and teachings.
I started reading Tantra Illuminated out of irritation and confusion, but I finished with an unexpected new hopefulness about life. My experience of New Age-y people in the UK has been that their philosophising tends to be woolly and contradictory, and I’ve never found it helpful to me in managing the difficulties of life. This book showed me something else: a philosophy that is beautifully consistent, intellectually rigorous, and rich – something I can really hang onto. And in showing me this, it even put into context some of the hippy spiritual cliches that I’ve run into on the scene, making them slightly less rage-inducing.
I have since gone on to read The Recognition Sutras, Wallis’s other book (which I’m not going to review for Spooniehacker because wow it’s hard work and my brain is too foggy); attended a weekend of workshops with him in London when he visited; and would have attended some of his retreats if they weren’t too expensive for a spoonie on a low income. Some of the practices in the book have become daily practices for me and it’s not an exaggeration to say my entire worldview has shifted in a sustained and positive way since reading it.
One of the biggest surprises for me was the discovery that Western postural yoga is far closer to traditional Tantric practice than Neo-Tantra is. I’ve been practicing yoga on and off for a decade, as much as my health has allowed, and I had never truly understood its background or purpose before. So the book has given me a fresh enthusiasm for and perspective on asana practice.
Would I recommend Tantra Illuminated to other spoonies?
I think if you are white and heavily involved in yoga or Neo-Tantra (and especially if you teach or facilitate), it’s your responsibility to read this book (or undertake similar learning and enquiry), because it seems dodgy to me to benefit from these practices without knowing much about where they came from. Reading this book (if you don’t already know the information in it) is also likely to give a new effectiveness to your practice.
That aside, it’s not an easy book to read, but I believe the potential rewards are huge. It did come to me at exactly the right time, so you may not be converted in quite the way I have been. But I do think that if you’re a spoonie who is struggling to make sense of their grief and loss and find some meaning in it all, this might point you in a useful direction.
You can also join Christopher Wallis’s growing Tantrik practice group on Facebook, which is full of free resources for learning about and following this path.