SB/JE: When it comes to academic research spiritual theories are often underrated as not-trustworthy/non-rational sources. In your latest essay, you refer to Tantric models on the concept of love. In what way do you consider spiritual theories as complementary to academic research?
SM: Years ago, I read an academic book by the woman who became my spiritual teacher for many years. It was called Avatar Bodies. In it, she brings together Tantric philosophy with the ideas of Deleuze, among others. There, one sees many similarities in the modes of thinking, even unacknowledged appropriation of concepts. A number of Tantric teachers were in Paris while Deleuze, Foucault, and Lacan were writing, for instance. It’s likely they were aware of this fact, though to my knowledge none addressed these contacts.
»Differences, including, importantly, the feeling of being separate, arise and are in many ways experienced as real, but they are not really differences either, because they emerge/differentiate from the same stuff, the same matter, energy, whatever you like.«
To answer the question more directly, deconstruction’s notion of the simultaneity of absence and presence resonates with many key ideas in spiritual traditions like Tantra (not to mention physics). Things are there, and they aren’t, and they are both and neither there at the same time. In monist philosophies, from Spinoza to Deleuze and others, everything is made of the same stuff. Differences, including, importantly, the feeling of being separate arise and are in many ways experienced as real, but they are not really differences either, because they emerge/differentiate from the same stuff, the same matter, energy, whatever you like. One can also think about vitalist theories – everything is alive because everything that is is, so to speak. Finally, though this isn’t really an ending to this discussion, in conversations with academics one might find that they are deeply engaged in some spiritual practice like meditation, or they regularly consult psychics, or they pray, but for a variety of reasons, they do not write about or publicly address these practices, or their motivations for engaging them.
SB/JE: What is the meaning of love in the Tantric tradition? Is it comparable to a political concept of love?
SM: I don’t think the meaning of love in Tantra is a political concept, though it can perhaps have political implications. For example, Tantric philosophies decentered Brahmin hegemony over spiritual practice. It was casteless, and men and women could practice without leaving the ordinary world to become ascetics. And it’s a hard question to answer because although I have studied Tantric philosophy for eight years, I have barely begun to scratch the surface. That is the work of a lifetime, or many lifetimes! But here’s my best attempt for now: love is Reality delighting in itself, in its own experience of differentiation, in the dance of life, in a cosmic game of hide and seek in which Reality, which is also each and everyone one of us and each and every perceivable and imperceptible thing, forgets itself, forgets its own divinity or liveness – in rediscovering that there is love. In many Tantric perspectives, this cosmic dance is imagined as the play of lovers. Unlike many other Eastern and Western traditions, which see romantic love as delusional or dangerous, Tantra views things like romantic love favorably or at least neutrally – the scholar-practitioner Daniel Odier gestures toward this idea that mature love is non-neurotic. I think that what he means by this is that in the efforts spiritual practitioners undertake to directly encounter Reality, certain forms of attachment can reproduce or intensify rather than relax our fixations, our patterned ways of relating to the world, and especially the sense that we are separate. I certainly have not learned this lesson yet!
»I love storytelling. […] It is a way of connecting to readers in an intimate way, to gather their interest and curiosity. I want people who read my work to be moved by it.«
SB/JE: Very often you choose a specific character as a starting point of your research, comparable to the structure of Paris is Burning, the famous voguing documentary you also cite in your work. What is special about this kind of approach and how would you define the notion of intimacy in it?
SM: I am a nerd who has loved reading since I was a child. I’m an anthropologist too. So, I like to begin with characters and scenes in order to tell a story. I love storytelling. For me this is a way to engage readers, to draw them into a particular world. It is a way of connecting to them in an intimate way, to gather their interest and curiosity.