Good ideas couched in woo and bullshit


Hello lovelies, Shiv here again, this time for some catharsis.

This is another more personal post–not much in the way of references or data. It is also information that is peripheral to my nasty break-up and I’ve hit the point where I need to… I don’t know. Vent, I guess.

So, I’m a skeptic atheist. I can generally be described by terms like “empiricist,” or “rationalist” at times. I tend to prefer that something go through an experiment where variables have been adequately controlled before I call the result actual bonafide knowledge, and not just an educated guess. Sometimes they’re just regular guesses, not so educated. Either way, the line that clearly demarcates the two states–knowledge and various degrees of guessing–is whether or not we have good data to back it up. Someone could be guessing and still be correct, but we have no way of verifying the accuracy of that guess without data.

Against my better judgement, I dated a hippie. My ex checks off enough points on a long list of hippie stereotypes that at some point I probably should have decided she had a poor way of structuring her own knowledge.

She wasn’t my first front row seat to woo. Admittedly I hadn’t dated someone who actively perpetuated woo, as an instructor of woo things, but I knew all the scripts almost as well as she did. The reason I didn’t mind (other than the part where she was attractive) was that my experience of woo often had a good idea at the root, but just embellished it in layers of bullshit. I could still learn the material and just dismiss the spiritual stuff as a metaphor for what was really going on, much in the same way an atheist can dismiss the Bible’s premise whilst still admitting there is merit to a handful of the fairytales present in that book.

Tantric massage is probably my favourite example of this. When I first learned of tantra, the techniques used in that massage class were absolutely phenomenal. They were erotic, electrically charged, tools that made intimacy different from anything I tried prior. More importantly, it was a style of intimacy that I really, really enjoyed. I like making my partners feel reverent, like they’re worthy of worship–my worship specifically–because in a lot of ways, being the giver of tantric massages means perceiving the receiving partner as perfect, exactly as they are. That can be a very affirming experience, and has been for me on the occasion I’ve been lucky enough to receive a tantric massage. In my head it had nothing to do with “divine energies.” My partners were gods/goddesses–metaphorically, not literally. It’s called roleplay. We indulge in a little fantasy to help contextualize our reality. And the fantasy felt fucking good.

But I chalked the amazing experience up to more testable explanations: 1) Sex education in North America is generally awful, a lot of people don’t know that there are ways to play during sex that make the experience radically different from penis-in-vagina thrust-until-he’s-done; 2) Most people who are massage therapists and not sex workers perform relaxation massages from a distance–tantra feels different because it means practically gluing yourself to your partner; 3) the style of touching is very intimate, and a lot of people, even the ones in relationships, don’t take time to practice touching their partners specifically for the purpose of bonding. Usually the touch is goal-oriented: “I want to cum.”

The experience is arousing because the receiving partner knows they have permission to be aroused. It’s about riding that wave, giving yourself permission to melt into the giving partner’s touch. It’s about the journey and not the destination, to use a tired old metaphor. Tantra as it was taught to me (by white people who weren’t raised in a majority Hinduist culture) wasn’t about fixating on performance. The number of orgasms were no longer a heuristic for how well one performed–I could finger someone for 90 minutes during a “tantra” session and they might not orgasm once–and that’s okay. As long as they’re relaxed, feeling sexy because of the ways I complimented them with my touch, then I have achieved my mission as a provider of white-person-who-isn’t-a-former-Hinduist “tantra.”

But my ex? My ex would go on about kundalini this and chakra that. How we had to “spread the sexual energy” once kundalini started to stir. She’d really get into the spiritual stuff, and that made me super uncomfortable. She learned her “tantra” from white people too, so I kind of had to wonder at what point this chain of mentor-and-apprentice switched over from learning about a hedonistic religious rebellion originating in India to learning about excuses to charge extra for a sexy massage.

As an empiricist none of this business about chakras or kundalini could reasonably be tested, so I chose to learn the material I actually enjoyed–how to touch someone and make them feel good in doing so–by treating all the spiritual nonsense as a metaphor. There wasn’t any reason to believe a ghost snake lay coiled at the base of our spines, but it could feel like that if you were experiencing full body arousal. How your breathing changes to oxygenate your blood, how you can feel every inch of your skin, maybe that feels like a snake crawling up your spine to some people. I wanted to learn these sexy techniques and just call them for what they were–a style of intimacy that really works for me.

I don’t consider myself a tantrica, not only because I don’t believe in the spiritual stuff peripheral to the teachings, but because it feels a little too close to cultural appropriation to do so. I have a style of erotic massage that is tantra inspired, I suppose, but if I had it my way, I wouldn’t call it tantra at all. (Sadly, the customers that pay for these types of massages tend to want exoticism as part of the experience–oooh, look at this pretty white waif, she trained in India, she’s so spiritual, now it’s totally not just another body rub but a journey blah blah blah. These same customers are not coincidentally often the types throwing bricks through Mosques in the middle of the night.)

There’s a lot of that in woo. Good idea at the core (“how do you touch someone and make them feel good” or “how do you stop thinking about things so you can focus”) wrapped up in a fatty layer of cultural appropriation and white commercialization. It’s always India, China, Japan, Taiwan–very rarely do entrepreneurial hippies seem to appropriate from elsewhere. Daoism, Buddhism, Hinduism, all mere fruit to be plucked at one’s convenience, a label to slap on to your practice to make it more marketable to a gullible audience of white people who think being worldly means learning about the world from other white people.

So I’m reasonably confident I can turn a consenting partner/client into goo with my hands, but I’m not a fucking tantrica, and I despise having to use that label simply because my market won’t respond to me if I put myself out as “tantra inspired.” I sipped the kool-aid, and I don’t like the flavour.



  1. brucegee1962 says

    Interesting post. I’d go so far as to say that this type of thing is exactly why all forms of religion are so frigging dangerous.

    I tend to think that most religions aren’t really started by con men (with Scientology being a notable exception). They’re started by people who have really good ideas, who tend to communicate them using metaphors. Of course, metaphors aren’t the only way of communicating philosophical concepts, but they’re the most effective way for most people, because most people are crappy at understanding anything that’s even the slightest bit abstract (our brains just aren’t very good at abstractions), but extremely good at latching on to metaphors. Face it, the concept of “good” as “acting in the best interests of the wider culture of which you are a member” is a really tough sell, whereas “act in a way that will please this invisible sky father” is easy enough for anyone to grasp.

    But as soon as you’ve created a metaphor, it tends to take on a life of its own. People latch onto the imagistic language, rather than the idea that the language was attempting to convey. And then, of course, after the original Smart Person is gone, the genuine con men always do show up, trying to figure out how to twist the message into a way to make a buck.

    Metaphors may be the single greatest invention in the entire history of human cognition. But they’re so amazingly dangerous, every one ought to come with a government warning: THIS IS NOT REAL.

  2. says

    As an empiricist none of this business about chakras or kundalini could reasonably be tested

    Of course it can. Energy is going to be somewhere on the EM spectrum or it’s not there at all. And if it’s energy that can’t be detected or measured: it doesn’t exist.

    Spiritual energy woo is so tiiiiiiiresome. Either it’s measurable, or there’s no way to know it exists (measurement implies existence, non-measurement implies non-existence) it’s that simple. There are no new magical forms of energy. And if there were, the ancient bullshit artists who made up the woo had no way of knowing they existed, anyway.

    Why not talk about adrenaline and oxytocin?