[Editor’s Note: This interview contains topics and language which is NSFW and is probably most appropriate to men & women 14+.]
One of the things I love about intimate relationships is how they hold up a mirror and shows us even more clearly the ways in which we are all neurotic.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with Anna Marti, a tantra teacher and relationship counselor who works with single men and couples in the context of intimate relationships and sex. Our wide-ranging discussion covered how to connect in a sexless relationship, past trauma or wounding, but most of all, how to stay present and connected even despite difficult or awkward moments in relationships.
For those of you not familiar, tantra is a Buddhist teaching considered higher and more esoteric than the Hinayana or Mahayana paths. It is often considered “secret” or arcane, and has naturally been the object of much curiosity and co-option by Western consumerism to sell everything from soap to lotion to restaurants.
In the interview, Anna sets us straight on what exactly tantra is, as well as giving practical tips for how to connect with a lover.
One of my favorite things about this blog is that I get to interview people who challenge my thinking. I can’t say I agree with everything Anna had to say (or even understand all of it). In point of fact, she said some things that make me downright uncomfortable. (“We don’t cause other people suffering” being just one example).
But I can say I deeply enjoyed it, and also found a lot to reflect on. I think you may find the same.
Audio of our interview below, plus a full transcript.
Men think they need to DO all these things that makes them a good lover. No! It’s really boring, actually. It’s quite boring.Anna
FG: What is your definition of tantra?
AM: It depends which orientation you want to hold. In Western culture, tantra has come to be synonymous with having more consciousness around erotic expression, whether it’s physically having more pleasure, or emotionally connecting with a partner, or culturally connecting with people who are marginalized or disenfranchised — if I’m sexual I feel more connected with a cultural hold, and spiritual! There are some people — very few of them — for whom erotic is actually a portal for transcendence. Not for very many people.
And these are all good things. More consciousness around erotic expression is great. Traditional tantra — and I have a background in both streams, I have a tantric teacher that I’m getting ready to do some work with on the other side of the country right now — both traditional and Neo-tantra. And traditional tantra is a technology. It’s not a religion. It was an oral tradition for a long time, and it’s really a technology about waking up. Who am I? Who am I really?
Traditional tantra is a technology. It’s not a religion..it’s really a technology about waking up. Anna
My perception is how the word go co-opted is — in traditional tantra there’s no morality. Which is a big thing for Western people to hear. There’s no “good thing” or “bad thing”. There’s no “If you’re a good person, good things will happen, if you’re a bad person, bad things will happen.” It’s experiential.
So the example I like to use is: eating six donuts. There are people who would tell you, particularly in California, that you’re a bad person if you eat six donuts. There’s a morality attached to it. But you have an experience of how you feel! Generally if you eat six donuts your energy is diminished. And so as a tantric student and tantric practitioner, everything I do, everything in reality, how I eat, how I sleep, how I relate to other people, is oriented towards, am I conserving energy, or am I depleting energy?
So for me, eating six donuts would be really depleting! We can apply that to every aspect of our life expression! We’ve all had different kinds of sex! And we’ve all had sex that has been depleting! It might have been fun, but at the other end of that it’s like, “Wow, I feel really depleted, physically and emotionally.” So that’s my short answer – which is actually not very short.
There’s actually three streams of traditional tantra that are done simultaneously with a teacher – the first is direct conduct: how do I live my life. Again, really basic. How do I eat, how do I sleep. What kind of exercise do I do for me, at my age, in Portland, Oregon, in August. Which is gonna be different than you. If everybody just did that much, like, paid attention to how they eat, how they sleep, how they relate, their exercise, the whole world would be much smoother. It would be much easier to get along, don’t you think?
FG: I totally agree.
AM: The second stream is energy practices, so that would be more meditation and energy practices, and the third stream is working directly with a teacher, which is very emblematic of tantra. Of course there’s a lot of confusion and misperception about how to work with a teacher in the West. So those three streams are done simultaneously.
FG: When people are going out in the world and exploring tantra, how can they avoid the commercialized, commodified “tantra lite”? How can they get the real thing?
AM: Well, I think the first step — and I think this is really hard for everybody — is, what do you want? Some people want tantra-lite! They want to have more consciousness in erotic expression and they’d like to have it with a wider view, as opposed to everyday sex therapy or men’s magazine or hookup culture — nothing wrong with that! If you’re really looking for a traditional tantra teacher and path….well, I would say most people aren’t really looking for that.
FG: I’d agree.
The way that you can tell how a teacher is for you is there’s a sense of knowing, in the presence of massive doubt.Anna
AM: As far as working with any spiritual teacher — and as you’re very aware — a week doesn’t go by when some yoga teacher or some politician doesn’t get outed for sexual misconduct or wandering money or whatever it is. Teachers are human, just like you and I, so are politicians by the way — they’re gonna do very human things.
The way that you can tell how a teacher is for YOU personally is there’s a sense of knowing, and there’s a sense of knowing in the presence of massive doubt. Doubt is also seen as emblematic of any spiritual path….Unless you’re like, woah, almost at the end of it.
I’m filled with doubt.
And my teacher says, “A person with doubt can be taught.” Someone that has ALL doubt is not very teachable, and someeone who doesn’t have any doubt isn’t very teachable. They’re like, “Yes, I’ll believe everything you say!” And of course they’ll put you up [on a pedestal] and take you down.
[My teacher] also says belief is actually impediment; you want to find out for yourself.
So when you sit with someone there’s a sense of recognition, in the presence of “I don’t like this, I don’t like her, I don’t like doing this.” All that’s there. It doesn’t go away. And I think people think they’re gonna get with a teacher and somehow their lives are gonna be magically better, and they’re gonna have the love of their life, and lose weight, and talk to God and be enlightened, and none of those things are true.
FG: On a slightly different topic, I’d love to talk about sexual wounding — and particularly men’s sexual trauma and wounding. We hear a fair amount about women’s sexual trauma, the trauma that women bear, and it’s not as acceptable to talk about the wounds men bear. Sort of with the question, how can men help themselves, and help other men to confront sexual hangups, pain, trauma, all that?
AM: It’s a great question. Trauma is an interesting topic. Obviously there’s a lot more shame for men around sexual trauma. We live in a very time-specific cultural environment. Certain behaviors are labeled trauma — and this is not at all to diminish anyone’s experience as violent and traumatic and all those other aspects — for many people there’s an aspect of pleasure in trauma.
But if you grow up in a culture that labels this particular kind of relationship it’s very difficult to not take that on. In fact, I was just present for a conversation with my teacher and a man who I know very well, who’s had a lot of trauma, had sexual abuse through the Catholic church, early childhood sexual trauma, and this was over 60 years ago, so there’s a way — my teacher — tantric teachers can be very fierce — and she said, “You gotta stop keeping that as part of your identification.”
I also remember a woman who went through massive abuse through many partners that her mother had had — and had gone through all the groups and everything, and I remember her saying, “My body is fine now, but I don’t know who I would be without this identification.”
So not to diminish trauma, but therapy — therapy can be good, with the right therapist. Again, just like with a tantra teacher, you need to be very selective about what their interventions are — there are some therapists, because their income depends on you not getting better, will have you talk about this experience that happened when you were 7 for the rest of your life!
How does a man or a woman begin to release the habit-pattern that have developed as a result of whatever occurred? They might be physical, as in how do I withdraw from my partner when we get involved, or it could be emotional habit patterns.
The definition of karma is ‘a bound action that repeats through time’.Anna
The definition of karma is “a bound action that repeats through time”, and it has energy and momentum. And we have all kinds of karmas, we have family karma and gender karma and religious karma and cultural karma, so you and I are this collection of these habit patterns that have force and momentum. You can probably think of some that you have right now.
For some of them, they just kind of dissolve over time if you’re living your life a particular way. Ask any alcoholic that’s had recovery for a long time, it’s not like he never thinks about drinking again, but he walks by a bar and it’s like this thin stream — that force of momentum is gone, and he’s able to engage in more of the immediacy of life.
So you want to move from karma, reacting from those habit patterns, to what’s called kriya, which is this organic responsiveness with reality, right here right now. Which is an interesting take on trauma because if I’m stuck in that habit pattern of momentum and force, you’re gonna remind me of my brother. And every time I see you, you’re my brother — instead of engaging with you in reality. Spiritual practice can do that. Meditation can actually work at unwinding those habit patterns, as well as a good therapist if that’s what’s necessary.
FG: So I read this article recently — maybe you saw this — that said “Tantra is the opposite of porn.”
AM: [Laughs] I love these things. Tantra can be porn! I’m just saying….
FG: I wanted to get your opinion. What’s your take as a tantra practitioner and teacher on the effect of porn on mainstream society? A lot of guys I know have struggled with it, as a bound action — an addiction — it’s something that can take men out of their bodies and go into a very intellectual place and zone out. So what’s your take on that and the culture we have now — the commodification of sex as it relates to our culture?
AM: Porn and beauty are in the eye of the beholder! Federal court determined that a long time ago.
And all of social media is creating this distancing from working with the texture of life. I have colleagues that have written wonderful things about porn and how to use porn or not use porn. I don’t have a problem with porn from a social or political point of view, but porn gives totally unrealistic expectations of the erotic experience. Basically porn says, your cocks are all large, they’re always hard, women are always wet and everybody comes every single time, and I don’t know anyone that has had that as a consistent erotic experience! The images are so fast and so varied and what it does is stimulates the part of the brain, particularly the male brain, that is wired in a particular way.
So 10,000 years ago you’re running across the tundra, and we’re wired to be genetically successful, so you’re running acrorss the tundra and you see someone else, “Oh yeah, she’s running there, she’s got good facial symmetry, no open running sores,” and you’re looking to be genetically successful! So your eyes are taking in all that visual and mental stimulation, and porn just hits that! And hits it and hits it and hits it. And it’s kind of like the Pavlovian experience about that visual and mental stimulation.
I do see sexual function issues related to excessive porn viewing — a partner of even 3 years is not gonna give you the same level of visual stimulation that the four women and the puppy did.
AM: So, then in order to sustain arousal, a man has either to be in a fantasy, which I can feel — or often they begin to have function issues. Either being able to sustain arousal or even if there’s a difficult time sustaining arousal when there is arousal, then rapid ejaculation comes in, like, “Oh man I better come, because I don’t know how long I’m gonna be aroused.” I see those two things. But I approach it not so much from a dysfunction point of view but how can I be in reality? And is that what you want? Do you want to be in reality? Not everybody does!
I’m fascinated to see how we engage sexually in the next two years. Because the technology is just exponentially magnifying. Virtual sex is, I’m sure, gonna take the place of average porn. I mean, I’m not an engineer, but I certainly know enough that it’s going to change.
I mean, I’m sure they said that about television: “It’s gonna fuck the world.” And maybe it did!
FG: Yeah, it’s an open question, it seems. So going back to shame and men and sexuality — how do you think men can get over the shame they hold about sex?
AM: Do they really want to? I have to be really honest with myself. What do I really want? Do I really want to let go of it? Because we keep doing what we do because we take pleasure in it! Even if it’s causing some trouble — the partner’s upset with me, sexual function issues — for many people with shame and trauma, it’s a very safe place to be….we wouldn’t do it if it didn’t cause enjoyment.
One thing that shame and trauma does is that it creates boundaries. And not being [within the boundaries], it has more fear. The old adage, nobody changes unless the discomfort of where I am is greater than the fear of the unknown. I think — a good therapist [can help], I mentioned that before. Do you facilitate men’s groups?
FG: I do facilitate men’s groups in San Francisco.
AM: The Mankind Project does great work, with men who are really interested in waking up in support. They provide initiation for men. Men can be called out by other men in a safe environment. Everybody who I’ve referred to them has been very positive. It’s men calling each other out in a way that is strong and loving, and it can create a level of trust in men, and I’ve found that men in the United States have a difficult time trusting and being with one another in authentic ways. Y’know, they get together to drink, or watch sports, but they don’t really engage.
And that’s not true in the rest of the world. In developing countries, men are not friends with their wives. They’re friends with male friends — you’ll see them walking arm in arm, they’ll kiss each other, they spend much more time with their brothers than they do with their wives, and women spend time together. I think there’s value in that.
So I think a group setting can be really useful to building what I call those internal muscles.
FG: Beautiful, thank you. This is a pretty important question: for men that are married or in long-term relationship — when there is a disagreement about sex in a relationship — you know, the most common one being high sex drive vs. low sex drive — how should a man handle that situation?
AM: Are you making an assumption that the man is the one with the high sex drive?
FG: It could be either way!
AM: There’s a lot of shame for women if for whatever reason a man begins to withdraw from sex. Trauma can be one of [those reasons].
I think I’m gonna be careful with speaking into heteronormative gender expressions: disparate desire can present issues that all sex therapists face.
How should a man deal with disparate desire? I guess it depends on whether he’s the high desire or low desire partner, but working with a good therapist can be really helpful — so that those individuals actually have a greater capacity to deal with discomfort.
If we’ve been together for a long time, we are just masterful at shutting each other up.Anna
A touchstone of how I work with people is helping them cultivate this internal capacity, like an internal workout, to help them speak, listen and experience what is often awkward, uncomfortable and sometimes just absolutely frightening while sustaining a climate of open-hearted connection.
If I want more sex than you, first of all, if we’ve been together for a long time, we’re just masterful at shutting each other up. I can do it with an eyebrow, a tone of voice. I’ve learned how to strategize — and manipulate is not the right word because mostly it’s done unconsciously — that if you bring up a subject that I’m uncomfortable about, I know how to shut you up. Sometimes we do it emotionally with anger or stonewalling, or silence — or changing the subject.
So when I work with people, I actually work very physically with them, and position their bodies, and how they’re breathing, so that they can actually have a more authentic and connected way of being able to have these more difficult conversations with partners.
For example, let’s say I’m the one with the high sex drive. And you’ve withdrawn from sex. And so in the past perhaps I’ve initiated sex and you’ve withdrawn. And so I’m feeling really insecure and afraid and I don’t want to be rejected. Rejection is a big one for men.
In fact I should turn it around because your audience is mostly male — if you’ve been rejected quite a bit, you’re going to have a difficult time with that, you don’t want to bring it up, you don’t want to experience it. But — you’ve been working with me for a while, and I’ve been coaching you to stay connected to your body so you notice when you go to talk, you’re breathing fast. Or you’re barely breathing. There’s tension in your shoulders.
If you came in and said, “I’m really nervous about talking about this,” if it’s something I don’t want to tlak about the first thing I’m gonna say is “What do you have to be nervous about?” So it becomes about that. You didn’t even get to what you want to say.
Now if you come to me and you hold my hand, you notice that you’re breathing is kinda hard, you go “Anna, my heart’s beating really fast. So I can tell something’s really up for me.” First of all, that creates empathy, and you’re holding my hand. So there’s contact. And I’m interested, because you’re sharing. There’s a level of vulnerability there.
So then you might share something to the effect of, “I love you. And we’ve been together a long time and I remember when we were first together and I felt so connected physically with you, and that’s diminished, and I’d really like to find a way to have that connection again. Are you interested?”
First question: Are you interested? If I start with just the sexual behavior or “I’m not having enough sex” we’re gonna have the same conversation that we’ve had for the last five years. So of course you’re holding my hand and my anxiety might be rising at this point, y’know maybe I’m kinda pulling away, and I might say, “I really can’t talk about this right now.”
You’re gonna stay with me. And you’re gonna say something like, “I understand; when would be a good time?”
I know this is one thing that you work with men on your platform: how do men develop this quality of Presence that’s not going to be blown off? It’s not aggression, it’s not force, but probably the most significant piece that men can bring to a relationship is, “I’m right here. I’m just right here. And I’m here not in my mind, but in my heart, and in my belly.”
And that changes the air in the room, Drew.
So that’s just a little taste of how I would work with people. There’s not a magic bullet. There are people who have disparate desire, and they could be people who really love each other, really a lot. And that’s a very hard thing. But once that conversation can be had in an open way, how do we work with that? There’s a lot of different ways to work with that. They may not be the ways people want.
FG: I hear you saying, if you can create a communication bridge, if you can establish contact, and connection, then many more things become possible.
AM: Absolutely. And, it’s physical. So this is where the traditional tantra comes in. Because if you’re talking to me but you’re back here (withdrawn) I can feel that, and it changes our communication. I’m gonna be a scientist in my body. I’m gonna really be able to feel my breath and my belly, because that’s informing me.
And again, that’s a little challenging for men because [they’re taught from birth] “Be a big boy, that doesn’t hurt,” and then [when men get in relationships] it’s like, “You’re not talking to me about your feelings!” And it’s like a romantic lightbulb is supposed to come on when you’re in college! And in the corporate world, you can’t! You’ll be penalized for talking about feelings [in the corporate world]! It’s not encouraged.
FG: Can you recommend some physical practices that men can do to get into their bodies, to become better at this, to become better lovers?
AM: I would say…first of all, the best lovers have very deep relationships with their bodies, with their own sensations. And as many flavors as men as their are there are ways to do this. So, getting a regular massage, getting regular physical exercise, is always good for sexual function, but also can be a tantric practice which could be — when I’m running, am I feeling my feet, am I sensing the colors around me, or am I thinking about a problem to solve at work. What are different kinds of activities that I can do to become more embodied?
Yoga is great. Yoga is the physical aspect, asana is a part of traditional tantra. Yoga is great because it’s slow enough that you can sense your body! You’re also working cardiovascularly with pranayama and breath work. So sense yourself.
But the other piece is, when you are with a partner, are you sensing yourself when you’re with a partner? Are you feeling your hand on her shoulder? Can you feel your breath, can you hear your breath? Are you sensing yourself? I like to ask my men clients, if they’ve had a number of lovers, [imagine] here’s one woman: she’s having a good time [in bed], it doesn’t matter what you do. She’d probably be having a good time if you weren’t there!
Then there’s another woman and maybe she’s very skilled at doing things to you, but you can tell there’s no energy running in her. It’s kind of all just a stage. Who’s more fun?
The woman that’s wired into her own eroticism is bringing herself to the party. And oftentimes when I describe that to men they get it. Men think they need to do all these things that makes them a good lover. No! It’s really boring, actually. It’s quite boring. And it distances them from really perceiving what’s really happening in real time.
Men often come with this, “Well, this is what I’ve done with every woman Iv’e been with since I was 17 years old,” but they’re not really feeling the texture and the reality of the woman with you. So, to be a great lover is to be fresh and new in each moment, even if it’s with someone you’ve been with for 30 years. The truth is no one in the same in every moment! We’re always changing.
FG: That’s beautiful, and that’s not what I anticipated you were going to say.
AM: What did you expect me to say?
FG: I guess I was expecting — and this is just a great commentary on life, who cares what we expect — I was expecting you to talk about breathing and diaphragmatic breathing — this is what I always tell men. “First, diaphragmatic breathing.”But I love what you said.
AM: I did mention breathing. You want to be careful when you’re working with men that you’re not asking them to just bring their mind to another thing that distances them from the texture of reality.
FG: In my experience it’s very easy for men to cause suffering through their expression of sexuality. Either they find themselves chasing after women, as a compulsion, or this escape into fantasy and disconnection with pornographic realm, or some guys go to the opposite extreme and become very restrictive with their sexuality and place all these conditions on sexuality, and it becomes very instrumental. I’m gonna please this woman, and that’s how I’m gonna get my validation as a man.
AM: Reflected sense of self, right.
FG: How can men relate to his own sexuality in a way that will not cause suffering for himself or others?
AM: Just the question implies that we create suffering for other people. And the truth is, you have an experience, you can say something, or do something, and there’s 15 people in the room, and there will be 15 different responses. That’s your evidence that, in and of itself, we are not the cause of other people’s suffering.
People suffer. People have suffered throughout history. I’m really concerned because in the particular climate that we live in, obviously people learning consent is a huge skill, but we’ve been dealing with these issues throughout humanity, and if we continue to language “Men causing suffering” and, y’know, women create plenty of suffering — we continue to perpetrate this victim-perpetrator consciousness.
And, y’know, obviously we still live an incredibly male centric world and there’s a lot of violence perpetrated against women. It requires one to have some interest in self-reflection and self-inquiry.
And even with very violent crimes — and I teach yoga in prison, I got to prisons regularly — from a tantric view, the reason that we’re creating suffering is because of ignorance. I would say without exception people that have committed incredibly violent crimes, sexual crimes, have had incredible violence inflicted upon them. And so there’s this lineage. There’s no one answer.
It’s so easy to say, “You caused me suffering.” No. I cause myself suffering.Anna
This is a real problem in New Age circles and even in psychotherapy: people not taking responsibility for what they’re bringing in, and being able to be clear about what their boundaries are, and what they want, and what they don’t want.
But it’s so easy to say, “You caused me suffering.” No. I cause myself suffering. Even with people that have had incredible horror in their lives! My parents got my grandmother out of two concentration camps after the war! And she was a well of peace. Not everybody that came out of concentration camps was a well of peace. But obviously her physical, mental, emotional and spiritual organization allowed her to take that experience and deepen herself.
And there’s a great documentary called the Dhamma Brothers bout these Vipassana meditators taking Vipassana into a maximum security prison in Alabama and these are people who have committed incredible violent crimes…and once they have been given skills to be self-reflective, they can unwind those habit patterns that bound them.
The first thing I’m an advocate for is dismantling that language. And working very personally with people who have been unconscious, who have been ignorant around their behavior, and for women and men that have suffered as a result of that ignorance. Maybe just being a certain age and not having the tools to say no! But how long do I hold that suffering?
FG: I’m glad it came up, because I’ve been tinking a lot lately about the violence and racism in our society, and I think you just spoke to that really beautifully….the ignorance at the root of that, and the lineage of violence.
AM: And misogyny. And it is ignorance! The truth is, all the mistakes that I have made — which for me has been a lot — if I could have done it differently I would have! The evidence is: I couldn’t!
FG: Everyone’s always doing their best.
AM: Perhaps I’m reactive, perhaps I’m in an emotional flood! That’s an example I use with men who have difficulty with rapid ejaculation: we’re talking about energy, and anger and violence, when that energy arises, it’s a flood! If we’re lucky we get to divert those people to behavior modification, they learn to breathe differently, but when someone is really angry it feels like there’s this compression of energy in their throat, or their body, and they hit people, and they shoot people, and if we get lucky enough to work with them, we’re basically teaching them how to diffuse energy.
But not all of us get that. And right now children are not being raised in a climate where they’re being taught to manage discomfort, manage not getting what they want! And that’s life! Sometimes I get what I want, sometimes I don’t! How do I deal with that?
FG: So beautiful. So, where can people go to find out more about you and what you do?
AM: My website is my name: AnnaMarti.com and I have an office in Portland, Oregon — I travel, I also do Skype sessions, and I also make referrals. I realize that no one is a perfect fit for everyone and if I don’t feel like the right person, I do my best to find resources to work.
FG: Thank you very much for spending time with us. We appreciate it.
AM: My pleasure, Drew. Thanks for connecting with me.