A psychologist argues science can take a lesson from ritual about how to heal.
BY DAVID DESTENO
Humans have always strived to develop technologies that give us some control, or at least the feelings of control, over the challenges that life throws at us. Psychologists like me devote our professional lives to figuring out why people think and feel what they do, and, in cases where those thoughts or actions are undesirable, to helping people change. We conduct experiments to see whether a certain type of drug or therapy alleviates anxiety or pain. We test “nudges,” such as policies that require people to opt in or opt out of a program, to help them save for retirement or become an organ donor. We design and evaluate social and dating algorithms and platforms to help connect people who might otherwise feel isolated. We aim to satisfy people’s urgent desires for science-backed life hacks that will make them smarter, healthier, and happier.
This is all great. We’re lucky to be living at a time when the rate of discovery and the flow of information has never been quicker. But for thousands of years, humans have gone about developing tools outside of the strict scientific method. Much of what psychologists and neuroscientists have learned about how to change people’s beliefs, feelings, and behaviors—how to support them when they grieve, how to help them find connection and happiness—echo ideas and techniques that religions have been using for thousands of years.
You can think of tantric sex as a “connection hack,” because that’s exactly how it operates.
I firmly believe the scientific method is a wonder. It’s a framework that offers one of the best ways to test ideas about how the world works. But when it comes to thinking about how to help people through life’s travails, we scientists shouldn’t be starting from scratch. If we remove the theology—views about the nature of God, the creation of the universe, and the like—from the day-to-day practice of religious faith, most of the debates that stoke animosity between science and religion evaporate. What we’re left with is a series of rituals, customs, and sentiments that are themselves the results of experiments of sorts. Over thousands of years, these experiments, carried out in the messy thick of life as opposed to sterile labs, have led to the design of what we might call spiritual technologies—tools and processes meant to sooth, move, convince, or otherwise tweak the mind. To ignore that body of knowledge is to slow the progress of science itself and limit its potential benefit to humanity.
Let’s look at one of those spiritual technologies, one that satisfies some of the deepest yearnings humans experience. Yearnings for union and meaning. For many people, the word “tantra” brings to mind techniques for enhancing sexual pleasure. And if you google “tantra,” you’ll find lots of links to Cosmopolitan, Goop, and other wellness sites that present it mostly in this context. They might give a quick nod to its spiritual potential, but most of the discussion will focus on physical ecstasy.
In its original incarnation, though, tantra wasn’t about pleasure. It was a set of beliefs and techniques meant to break people out of their normal patterns of thought and ways of seeing the world. The goal was to foster a direct experience with the divine. While some tantric techniques involved taboo practices (e.g., eating meat or drinking alcohol if your religion usually forbade it, sitting on a corpse to meditate on death), others relied on direct manipulations of the body to achieve altered states. All of them were meant to help people feel a sense of communion with something greater than themselves.
When it comes to tantric techniques, the ones that leverage the body’s wiring—and an easy way to do that is via sex—use a deep feeling of connection with another person as a jumping-off point to that greater transcendent experience. And either or both these types of connection can banish the loneliness that life sometimes brings, especially as people strike out on their own.
Because they use the body to manipulate the mind, most tantric sexual techniques focus on physical elements. They share an emphasis on deep breathing and breath control, touch and massage, affirming mutual eye gazes, and synchronous movement. The goal isn’t to rush to climax; it’s to bond and connect as those taking part lose themselves in each other…