Darkly Delicious: the Tantric Use of Shadow States

Paper presented at the second annual African Conference for Sexuality and Consciousness Practitioners, Kalk Bay, 3 – 5 December 2011.

I, Shakti

I, Shakti, come into this work of Tantra having first immersed myself in academia, and then having been drawn, by existence, into the deep wisdom of the earth. By the age of 30, I had a Ph.D. in Social Anthropology, a discipline that taught me to listen. To understand that what people say, is influenced by their perception of what this moment requries. And thus to listen to the silences between words. To that which is not said. To the way an arm is draped over a body. To the side look. To the way that space is organized. To paradoxical identities co-existing: tonight’s gangster becoming tomorrow morning’s elder in the church. I spent many years working in the townships of South Africa. Those I listened to, have been some of my first teachers in life.

Then one day I got drawn into the rustling earth of the Little Karoo, an arid, wild area inland in South Africa. The farm where I came to is called n!au ‘ma – a San name meaning Source of Life or Water. My hair stood on end as I felt the energy of the earth rise up from thre. The earth was alive! From there started a series of discoveries – visceral, sensory realizations – that life is more than what meets the ordinary eye. The gateway to this healing madness had been years of meditation, yoga and tai chi that preceded this moment.

At age 33, the age that Jesus died, my life got thrown into turmoil after swimming with dolphins in Mozambique. Contact with these beings had changed the frequency of my structure internally, and I no longer fit into the outer structure of my life. I went to see a sangoma, or African shaman, who threw the divination bones for me. The bones said that I have the calling – to become a shaman – but that my way would not be the traditional African way. I had to go find out what my real purpose was, that is what my ancestors said – and for that, I had to go spend a month in the wilderness, praying for vision and guidance.

Meeting the Kundalini snake

So I did, under the wise guidance of a man called Lance. This was the beginning of being visited by snakes. Snakes in the pool where I swam, snakes under the fig tree. Snakes in my visions. I remembered, earlier in the year, having brought a friend to this place, a friend who had the signs of having the calling too. One day, her body went into such intense convulsions that it took four of us to hold down her tiny frame. Later I heard that she had been taken by the snake spirit, the one called the Mondao. The Mondao is the snake of abundance and vitality that comes up through the waters. When I told the shaman about my visitations by snakes, and about the message I had received during the time in the wilderness that my real name was Shakti (Tantric name for female sexual energy), and my work the path of Tantra, he said: Yes, this is your path. The same spirit, but coming through other traditions. The African snake spirit is the same one as the Kundalini, the same spirit who traveled all the way down the Nile from Egypt, taking here in Africa the form of the Mondao.

As my path into Tantra deepened, the Kundalini, that snake spirit of life force that resides at the base of the spine, started uncoiling in me, and rising up. As she rose up through my body, she would take me into a spontaneous, orgasmic dance – flinging my arms out wide above my head as the energy pulsed through my heart, making my head move around in circles as the throat chacra opened up. I remembered then an image of a Mondao initiation ceremony I had been priveleged to witness earlier: The women initiates sitting bare-breasted half-body in the water, and as the Mondao moved through their bodies, that same rippling, ecstatic dance throwing their bodies wide open.

Ego death

So you could say that I entered the age of madness. The dismemberment of my previous identity as an academic with a sound, logical mind and a respectable profession. This was the beginning of my years in the wilderness. My death years. I learnt to honor and appreciate the signs: A sudden, inexplicable sense of things falling apart around me and within me. Nothing to hold on to. Panic. Until the witness would preside and remind me: Hush, my child. This ego will die too. And you will remain alive. Every time the old skin drops off, something in me would become more present, more expanded, more innocent. My skin would touch the world as for the first time. Time and time again.

Advaita, the path of non-duality

Throughout this time, and intensified by my meetings with teachers Leslie Temple Thurston, Rahasya and Isaak Shapiro, my love affair with Advaita grew. Advaita is an ancient tradition that recognizes the ego’s dance with polarities. We get attracted to certain states that we identify with, and repulsed by their opposites. The dance of polarities remains mainly unconscious in us, and it forms of the structure of our egos, or our limited sense of self. The method of Advaita is focused on the integration of polarities, and living in a non-dual state.


There are many approaches to Advaita work. The approach that we take in the Advait Tantraschool, which is based on ancient Tantric methods, is that polarities get integrated through the full exploration of each opposite. An example of polarity is the ‘light’ and ‘shadow’ aspecting of our experience. The light side of our reality is that which we are ready to present to the world and acknowledge to ourselves. Most of us are happy to tell the world that our eroticism is guided by deep and undying love for one other, as this approach to sexuality is seen as light and good by our culture. The shadow side of our experience is that which is shunned, suppressed and most often not even fully conscious in us – such as our erotic fantasies that contain elements of taboo.

Shadow work

I have noticed in my work as a Tantrika over the last year that much of my work consists in helping people access shadow states. I guide people to develop a witness to the suppressed, shunned, denied aspects of their experience. I also guide them to touch the real of this experience, fully enough that whatever energy this polarity holds for them, can be integrated back into the whole.

When entering into the dark side of dualities, I find the following kinds of states surfacing in people’s experience:

  • shame
  • anger
  • emptiness
  • contraction
  • desire that is taboo
  • suppressed power

Often, people have spent a lifetime doing everything they can to avoid feeling these deep body sensations or emotional states that have lived with them for most of their lives. Paradoxically, the resolution and integration of these states may involve acknowledging the contradictory experiences that are coupled with these shadow states. So for instance, it is possible that desire can be coupled with shame or anger. It is possible that contraction can be a gateway to release. It is possible that taboo desire can have strong associations with feeling deeply loved. Liberation requires the willingness to feel it all.

Doing shadow work requires a willingness to experience the shadow archetypes or disavowed aspects of self. Shadow archetypes are those archetypal persona’s that our society judges and suppresses. Examples of these archetypes are:

  • predator
  • whore
  • mad woman/man
  • trickster

As facilitator, I often bring consciousness to these archetypes by embodying them myself, but also by facilitating enactment of them for the client.

What it takes of the practitioner to do shadow work

I have stated that as dakini, much of my intervention with clients involves shadow work. I want to emphasize here that the practitioner’s readiness to facilitate such work for another, is dependent on the depth of work that has happened in you.

When I was working in the academic world, I distinguished anthropological research from quantitative, statistical survey based research in the following way. The success of statistical research is dependent on the efficiency of the research tools used – the questionnaires and data analysis methods. In anthropological research, the researcher herself is the main tool. As all qualitative research is filtered through personal, subjective experience, the value of the research comes from the researcher’s ability to be a witness to their own experience as well as that of the field. The same applies in depth Tantra work. To be able to track the shadow of others, you need to be adept at doing so yourself.

Here are some aspects of the work that I regularly practice myself:

  • Deep committed ongoing journey of embracing my own shadow states and experiences
  • Feeling emotions, entering deeply into them
  • Heart and death meditation (for details on these, see tantraschool.co.za
  • Polarity processing; examples can be found on Corelight.org and thework.org
  • Exploring own eroticism

Teaching another to do this work, requires apprenticeship over many years. It is not something that can be taught or acquired on a once-off course.

Darkly delicious: Faces of shadow work

The following are aspects of shadow work that I encounter and explore in my work as a dakini.

Bringing sexual energy down

Our culture has a habit of transposing Western religious dogma on to New Age spirituality. Thus I find that many clients who have become very devoted in their spiritual practice, get stuck in deep inner dualities. The one is the division between heart and sex. In my travels across the Western world, I have found the tendency to spiritualize sex, especially in Tantric circles. Much emphasis is placed on transmuting all sexual energy into heart energy. While the raising of sexual energy to the heart is certainly an important practice in Tantra, there is no duality involved here. As powerfully as sexual energy is to be felt in the heart, so powerfully is it to be embraced in the base chakra or sexual region. In fact, if there is no full willingness for the raw unrefined sexual energy that gets generated at the base of the body, there will not be enough energy and vitality to raise. It can be dangerous to deny or suppress sexual energy in the lower chakras.

I will give a case study here to elucidate how I work with bringing sexual energy down. There was a beautiful young man on a workshop who had spent his life raising his sexual energy to his heart. As he presented as all heart and no sex, women (not surprizingly) found it disconcerting if he started to express sexual energy. In the workshop, I asked him to feel into his darkest sexual desire. In his case, it was to take a woman against her will.

This is where I use my discernment and fine reading of energy to make a judgment call. I drew a woman into the circle, and without asking her permission, got this young man to start chasing her around, in an animal predator sexual way. As the enactment got more sexual, something fascinating happened with the woman: She started to glow. Afterward, she confessed that this experience was one she had waited for her whole life long, and that it made her feel invigorated like nothing she had experienced before. Understandably, the young man was astounded and a bit baffled. In his case, it was going to take a few more experiences like this for him to start valuing, and deeply living into, the power of base chakra sexual energy.

Exploring eroticism

Eroticism is a gateway to the unconscious. The fantasies, erotic dreams and patterns people find themselves in in their choice of partners all present clues that can lead to the re-integration of aspects of self that have been denied or repressed. The reason why we bother with this re-integration is that it is a potent pathway to self-realization, the meeting yourself as who you truly are: all that is.

Erotic work is about embracing the desire that is there. Sexual desire becomes loaded when it touches taboo, or that which is deemed as not permissible or evil. Our patterning as to what is taboo is influenced by the collective, but tends to also be very personal and influenced by our individual journeys.

So arrives in my consulting room one day a young woman who attract the following pattern in her erotic life. She meets a man with whom she feels a strong attraction. As soon as the relationship gets underway, he acknowledges a desire to see her as a girl sexually. She finds herself responding to that every time with like and equal desire. Thus begins another relationship where their erotic life evolves around her enacting the girl child. At some point, she realizes what she is doing and becomes so disgusted with herself and with men, that she ends the relationship and enters another long period of celibacy. All this suppression was starting to drain her life force, and by the time she got to me, she was desperate.

The enactment we arranged was as follows. I brought in my colleague Stephen, who played the male part. We took the woman back to a happy scene of connecting with men in her childhood, namely playing in the bath with her brother. We turned the futon into an imaginary bath and had the two of them throwing each other with plastic toys, having great fun. Then she said: “What next?” I guided them into a scenario where she was now a bit older and the boys too. Immediately, her body started to contract and she said: “I want to go home!” I asked: “Would you like your daddy to hold you?” She whimpered a “Yes”. Stephen became the father and held her with great love, saying to her :”It is beautiful to see you growing into a young woman.” This opened the floodgates for her.

From this enactment, the following revealed: When this young woman reached the age of puberty, her father noticed that she was developing breasts. When the father became aware of her developing sexuality, he started avoiding her, especially when she was not fully dressed. From his perspective, he was being prudent and respecting her development. From her perspective, a clear association formed: Her sexual development was the reason why her father withdrew his signs of affection towards her. This was so traumatic in her childhood psyche that it became the driving force of her eroticism.

As can be seen from this case study, our eroticism draws us back to unfinished business – especially that business that we have judgments about. Revisiting the original scenario, which one often stumbles upon in conscious erotic enactment, can create an opportunity to undo the associations that were formed then. There are three keys to this practice:

a) Entering the experience. It is not enough to just theorize or understand. Something is to be felt in the body. Feeling can be evoked through the slightest gesture or symbol, and even through conscious fantasizing, but often some experience is needed to help bring eroticism out of the frozen zone where it repeats and repeats without any insight.

b) Totality. Totality means following the clues of eroticism all the way to their resolution. When I act as a dominatrix, I use my power to psychologically probe and interrogate until the polarities that hold up the ego structure, fuse. Often these polarities have been held so separately that the fusion can feel like a fuzing of the brain. An example is when shame has been associated with pleasure or love. When the client is guided to reclaim the pleasure that was felt in a shameful situation, the impact can be enormous on the ego structure. Sudden ego death happens, and a vastly expanded self appears.

c) Witnessing. At all times, the practitioner remains a witness and does not get lost in her personal experience. She also cultivates witnessing of experience for the client. Witnessing is different from dissociation. Witnessing is an embodied state that occurs in the midst of felt, owned experience.

Victim-rescuer-predator enactment

The victim-rescuer-predator triangle is a central malaise of our culture – understandably, as humanity has managed to enact incomprehensible violence in the last couple of centuries in the name of loyalty, morality and honor. But as long as our psyches stay identified with one position in this triangle, our ego structures will stay rigid and awareness will not penetrate. I write more fully about this topic elsewhere in this blog.

One of the most effective ways I have found to facilitate breakthrough from this stuck position, is conscious enactment of the triangle – particularly of the predator dimension.

Sometimes I encourage the client to find their inner predator – this is the most disavowed aspect of self. A case study illustrates. I worked with a large body builder who confessed a deep attraction to violence in erotic enactment. I sensed that this desire covered a great fear of violence. In our session, I started provoking him – pushing him, mocking him, antagonizing him. He stood firm and froze on the spot, unable to react with any violence in return. I continued (this is where totality comes in) until he was so infuriated that he picked me up and started flinging me around.

Thus the predator (me) became the victim. And the victim (him) became the predator. I stayed totally in the witness during the enactment, and at no time felt myself unconsciously slipping into victim mode. I did however feel that my back was getting tight from being manhandled. So I told him to stretch me backwards over his body, presenting this as yet another torture I was demanding of him to enact on me. In reality, I was putting him in the role of the rescuer/healer – the one who stretches my body to realign me after this vigorous piece of work.

At some point, the tears came. He shared with me that he had been challenged to a fight by a boy when he was still very young. When he arrived at the appointed place on time, he found the whole school waiting for him to witness this event. He froze up, unable to respond to the challenge at all. This event had been so traumatic in his childhood psyche that it formed a strong association between manliness/virility and violence in his being. Through the enactment, he came to experience those frozen aspects of self. The anti-climax of the enactment was the discovery that he in truth was not attracted to violence at all. He was a sensitive, intelligent man who had grown from the boy who was intuitively repulsed by the idea of mob support for violence.

Polarity enactment

As is evident from what I have said before, the polarized states of our ego structure are keys to what keeps us stuck. One of the techniques I use to help people move through polarities is the following enactment. Identify two imaginary circles. When standing in one circle, enter fully into the body gestures of this side of the polarity. If it is shame, let your body become contracted into the shame. Then enter into the other circle, representing the opposite state. If it is pride, let your body express what pride feels like for you. Start the process of slowly and gradually speed it up, moving from one circle to the next. In time, you will notice something else happening: An integration between the two states, a third position arising.

Once, in such an enactment, I saw a woman enter fully into the inherited shame of being a woman. She curled up into a little whimpering ball. When stepping into the opposite, she became the one who judges this shameful one. Great aggressive power started pulsing through her blood. She was astounded at how familiar this position felt that she had never consciously occupied before. It was an internalized state that had dominated her consciousness, but which she had never fully owned like this before. In moving between the two polarities, she found a third spontaneously arising: A wild, powerful, free woman whose dance was expansive, yet exquisitely sensitive. At the end of the enactment, she was glowing, and felt totally transformed.

Being the lover

As dakini, I sometimes embody the lover, as this intimate act can be a powerful gateway to touching what has been held. Once in exploring with a client who was overly intellectual and rigid what his deepest fantasies were, the one that came up strongest was being with his first childhood sweetheart – the one whom he didn’t have the courage to approach in any sexual way. So I became the sweetheart, walking coyly up to him, standing there in all my naked (though clothed) vulnerability, and slowly, shyly, entering into touch and the most innocent of kisses. This experience broke him down completely. Tears of joy were flowing, and the creative, spontaneous aspect of his being revealed – at last.

Releasing sexual trauma

A potent aspect of my work involves releasing sexual trauma. I recommend that you read the section I wrote on this theme elsewhere in this blog.

Sexual trauma can be anything from rape to inherited beliefs that have lodged in the body. In summary, the process I use to work with sexual trauma is allowing the protective contraction that the body has when trauma is touched, and even encouraging it. Then when the body spontaneously, of her own accord, flows into release, encourage this process too. Thus the suppressed cycles of sympathetic-parasympathetic flow in the nervous system can be completed, and all traces of trauma released on a cellular level.

In essence, I am making space for the client’s experience – that experience which was felt in a moment of trauma, and has been suppressed and held in the body for all those years. Doing this work means being willing to hold, and stay witness, to the client’s experience – even if the experience in the body looks extreme. Large emotional expressions can occur, as well as body stupor and vigorous shaking.

As with all the other work I have described here, this way of working with sexual trauma requires great skill from the facilitator. This skill is developed through deep and ongoing inner work.

The return to darkly delicious

In this paper, I have explored the ways in which I work with shadow states to facilitate the reintegration of suppressed and denied aspects of self. This means entering into the dark side of people’s experiences – that which they themselves have denied, and that which society shuns or frowns upon. It requires of the practitioner to live in a state of non-duality, and to look however she is going to look to the client and to the outside world. This may be one of the reasons why dakini’s have traditionally practiced high up in the mountains, far out of reach of the mass of society. While we live more accessibly now, the tests of awareness are still in place, and only those who are ready, get to work with us.

The gift for the client of being willing to enter into the dark side of their psyche is a precious reclaiming of lost aspects of self. The expansion of the sense of self that arises, and the breaking through duality that occurs, starts one of the most delicious love affairs this world has to offer: the love affair with the self, as such, beyond association and conditioning.