Off Road Tantra


An exploration of the gossamer realms of tantric gazing, and a tender portrait of departed love.


“What makes a man, well known (though not always kindly) for his self-determined and stubborn will, what makes him turn belly up to off-brand voices in the sky?”

In a chapter from New Age Blues, the late Michael Rossman is writing here of Uri Gellar’s science “Svengali,” Andrija Puharich. In case you’re not up on your early 1960’s pop culture, Uri Gellar bent spoons with his mind and he and Puharich both succumbed to the machinations of beings from outer space known as the “Hoovans” or the “Nine.” And Rossman and I? Here’s a little tantric tale. So once upon a time... 

Actually, it was that exact quote that drew me towards Rossman, then one of Berkeley’s enduring and probably most maddeningly endearing Free Speech veterans. I’d been having my own encounter with “off brand” experiences lately, which is part of what had brought me to tantra, and Rossman was interested in reconnecting with his own on again, off again exploration of transcendent energy. In this same essay, "Staring Over Uri’s Shoulder," he’d written “like many more sober investigators I have come to take seriously the notion that there are discrete [sic] intelligences at hand other than those housed in fleshy bodies, and that they interact with us in quite complex ways.”  

Rossman had good reason for taking this notion seriously. As a young man, Michael was startled and transformed by incandescent “spirits of liberty” that he claims possessed the Free Speech Movement for many weeks. Speaking at the 40th anniversary of the Free Speech movement, he described the moment the protestors surrounded the police car on the Berkeley campus:

“I had never been in a public dialogue in my whole life. I was twenty-four, pushing twenty-five, and until that moment, until that strange suspended moment, a bolt of something came down through us. Okay? These spirits of liberty and democracy possessed us. We were open conduits for their energy. We glowed! We glowed! But you couldn’t see it with your eyes, so how the hell could you say anything about it? Okay? It was a case of spiritual possession.”

Now, if you’re reading this far and you’re wondering, “where is the tantra in all this? Where’s the romance?” Be patient. This is a remembrance column. Michael died of a rare form of leukemia, May 12, 2008. This week I am mourning the death of this good friend and lover. 

So, Michael Rossman - writer, activist, social historian, political poster archivalist, mathematician, science teacher and musician - spent portions of the rest of his life seeking situations where “certain kinds of energy were conjured,” a state “in which we are united and one and yet we do not lose our separate selves. Our selves are deepened and yet the mystery is we’re one. We’re alone and we’re together, okay? This mystery!” Based on our conversations and his writing, I understood his search to include psychedelic drugs as well as inquiries into spiritual movements and traditions. I also have good reason to believe he hungered for traces of this mystery in his numerous sexual encounters. 

I entered the scene late in his life, and though I had a firm idea of the kind of tantric script I wanted to write with a stand-in for the Divine Masculine, Michael promptly demolished it. No “firebreath orgasms,” no “you Shakti, me Shiva” repartee, and he wasn’t having any of this worshipful “lotus yoni” and “diamond vajra” stuff either. He wasn’t into glittering handwoven fabrics or Tibetan bowls. He endured two small tantra workshops I taught, playing his role well but neglecting to shower fond and doting looks at me as a tantric goddess incarnate. Perhaps our biggest surge of public tantric joy occurred during a very dismal “trance dance” which he enlivened with a spontaneous poem spoofing the entire occasion - as we goofily enacted a sort of Bhangra vaudeville all over the room which got so out of hand we accidently knocked over a portrait of Babaji at the altar. (So sorry!) It was kind of like waltzing with a Cyrano de Bergerac, but without the sword. Instead approaching tantra like most folks, we quickly went “off road” (his term), finding ourselves in uncharted gossamer terrain. It’s a delicate thing to write about a former lover, and a dead one at that, and so let me switch to third person italics for a moment, so that you can catch the flavor from a different angle:

The woman lets herself into the flat, climbing stairs which are partially obstructed by papers, rocks, plants, and other natural history specimens. She looks nice. She’s dressed in anticipation of meeting her lover, but her clothes don’t seem to matter much to him. She can hear the click of his keyboard as she reaches the top of the stairs. A huge piece of printing equipment partially blocks the way to his room, along with stacks of magazines, books, and slippery plastic bags on the floor. She puts her purse on the unmade bed, which is also stacked with books, magazines, newspapers, and mail. Rubber bands lurk in the bedding. The man in the room is lit by the computer monitor, still typing on his keyboard. His long grey ponytail hangs down his back. He does not turn around, he does not acknowledge her entrance to the room. She will have to wait, as always, for him to make the transition from one activity to another...

Eventually the man turns to the woman with a greeting, spends a few more min- utes at the keyboard, then gets up from his chair and beckons her into the kitchen with a crisp command. She follows. She expects tea first and then some conversation as he sorts a month’s worth of vitamins and supplements into various compartmentalized lidded boxes. Or perhaps tonight he’ll be scraping grease from his stovetop with a razor, or delicately removing the last bits of dried flesh from a rat skeleton (many small skeletons and natural history specimens gather dust in his flat). Manual activity seems to accompany his shift into

This article was originally published at . Reprinted with permission from the author.