Who says mindfulness and sex can't rock?
"Tell me and I'll forget, show me and I may remember; involve me and I'll understand."
If mindfulness can make us happier, healthier, and more compassionate (that is, if the raft of current scientific research is to be believed), what can that same moment-to-moment awareness do for our sex lives? Imagine the possibilities.
On the face of it, having enjoyable, loving sex seems like the last thing we might be inclined to tune out. But we all know the kind of mind-wandering that can strike even in the midst of great pleasures. From a mental replay of the staff meeting earlier in the day to obsessing about the final luscious peak of the sex you’re having in that very moment, in lovemaking, as in life, tuning out is a part of being human that’s very difficult to turn off.
That’s where mindfulness comes in.
But before we go there, let’s admit: sex is tricky to talk about. It’s either too much information or not enough. And it’s probably the most subjective thing you’re likely to have an opinion on. (Substitute one little word in “I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like,” and you’ve got it just about right.) It’s challenging because our sexuality is such an essential part of who we are. It’s an energy that flows through us whether we’re in a softly lit bedroom or not. And it’s the energy we continually need to respond to and guide. Two people sharing some intimate space and toss in a little attraction, and “guide” doesn’t exactly cover it. The energy is palpable, positive, pleasurable. The very best sex happens when we tap into and are at play with that nearly untamable energy: yours, mine, ours. We don’t own it or possess it (or the other person, for that matter), but we get to dance with something more powerful than us for a little while. It’s the difference between chess and tango.
And being mindfully aware in situations like that can work wonders. Or so researchers at Brown University found. Their study was designed to measure the effect of mindfulness on sexual arousal. They found that compared to the control group, who did not practice mindfulness, the 44 women who took a three-month mindfulness meditation course (and who spent some time looking at "sexy" imagery-wink) reported feeling much more aroused, much more quickly. Increased awareness was the key, Mindful sex involves being able to observe and describe what’s happening inside your body and mind without sorting experiences into “bad” and “good” or trying to change your feelings. When we are able to do that, we can “turn off the autopilot.” Studies have also shown that long-term meditators experience increased cortical gyrification (folding) of the brain’s insula. Doesn’t sound terribly erotic, does it? Until you read another study from Dartmouth that found women with more gyrified insula experience more intense orgasms. If you’re curious, then, the first, best, and simplest step you can take toward more mindful, and hence more enjoyable, sex is engaging in daily mindfulness practice. It gradually trains your mind to pay attention (in all areas of life) and cuts down stress. And stress is a famous turnoff, a true killer of pleasure. Over the past two decades, many researchers have documented the benefits of mindfulness. It turns out they’ve also gained some helpful insights that can be applied specifically to the sexual experience. Let your heart be present…and your mind, too When you hear the word mindfulness, you have to understand that it is the presence of the heart. That’s a good definition to keep in mind when it’s time to get it on—because surely that’s when we most want our hearts to be present. This is a good place to talk about orgasms. Sometimes we get so busy pursuing them as a goal that we forget to notice what’s happening right now. The heart can’t be present because there are other organs driving the encounter. Orgasm is a good thing, but there’s more to it than genital friction, an orgasm can obscure everything else that is along the path. Mindfulness helps you see what else is there. For many people, mindfulness during sex comes naturally. But, alas, it’s also natural for our minds to wander or for anxiety to eat away at the edges of our awareness (and enjoyment). From playing pornographic films in our brains, evaluating our own sexual performance, worrying about the kids, or wondering what our butt looks like, there is ample opportunity to zone out. And sometimes, the distractions come from outside—this is especially true for parents of young children. Both parents will worry that their child will wake up and try to find mommy and daddy while they'rere having special mommy and daddy time. That kind of conditioning is partially why new parents can fall into the dreaded no-sex pattern, or we can start to associate sex with premature ejaculation or breaking condoms, or not being happy about our bodies. When it becomes a source of anxiety, sex easily becomes more trouble than it’s worth, with the inevitable consequences that will impact our relationship. The problem is we’re wired to look out for threats—like, say, a lover making a sarcastic comment or a toddler bursting into the room. This is a trait psychologists call “negativity bias,” which means that bad things make a bigger impression on our brains than good things. That can happen with sexual experience. Negativity bias can arise from experiences with sexual violence, and researchers are finding mindfulness to be an effective treatment for abuse survivors. Mindfulness training helps because you’re more empowered when you know what’s happening in your body and mind. If you notice when you’re distracted, then you can keep coming back; you can tell the difference and be more present.
Think like a zebra If you’re a zebra and a lion attacks, stress makes sense. When we feel threatened, our bodies secrete adrenaline and other hormones to deal with short-term physical crises. Evolution bequeathed us this stress response so we could escape lions, and it’s great for that. It’s not so great for erections, though. Because when we’re running from lions, erections are kind of silly. That’s just not the time for pleasurable reproductive activities. And no woman is foolish enough to get preoccupied with her clitoris during a time of crisis. This much we know. Trouble is, that same stress response kicks in when we’re faced with everyday worries, from work-related stress, family, to the uncertainty of the state of our world; it becomes a challenge when turning off those worries when we enter the bedroom.
The zebra doesn’t have that problem. When he’s not running from the lion, he’s pretty carefree. There’s no such thing as performance anxiety when you’re a zebra. That’s why the zebra may have a better sex life than we do. While we’re sitting around worrying about job evaluations, there are zebras out there having their special moment.
We need to get a grip. Daily stress is a sex killer. In 21st-century America, it’s also pervasive, possibly inevitable. So how can we deal with the pressure and think more like zebras? Reducing stress with the help of daily doses of mindfulness meditation can help:
Make a list of all the things that make you stressed so you can deal with them.
Change your routine and make plans that take the stress out of your day.
Prioritize your own health and happiness.
Many studies suggest that cultivating compassion and forgiveness also reduces stress. This especially applies to our intimate relationships, where we can stress ourselves out over the wrong word or a sidelong glance or rolling eyes. When we trust somebody intimately, we’re opening ourselves up to pain because we are unprotected and they’re seeing us naked, physically and emotionally, Lots of men, and women, can’t deal with that—being vulnerable—and the result is boner-killing stress. Instead of stressing about how the partner in your life may or may not have done you wrong, devote a bit more time to looking for her/his awesome qualities and work on accepting the things that make him/her as screwed-up as you are. Use your tongue (and ears) Communication. Are you for it or against it? I know the answer should be obvious, but I ask because some are against it. I have made a few high-minded rhetorical points to make about the value of communication. (After all, I do it for a living). But sometimes my ideal and professional experience don’t translate into actions—or rather, words—at home. Women often struggle with communication as well; when they subsume their needs to others or are afraid to speak up about what they want. In the Brown University study, it was found that mindfulness was especially helpful to women because it helps in getting self-judgment out of the way, which leaves all kinds of room for arousal to be triggered by things they might have previously judged dirty. Nonjudgment helps in communication with your partner, in part because it enables you to say what turns you on. Of course, there’s more to sexual communication than sex. We have to also be mindful of the emotions we take with us into bed, in fact, when people do communicate in a heartfelt way, it usually evokes support and open-heartedness from others. There are some mindful tips for breaking the silence barrier, such as first grounding yourself in good intentions and then allowing yourself to experience whatever is arising: feelings, body sensations, wants, memories, images. Try applying those principles when you bring up the death of oral sex in your relationship. Or a secret desire to striptease, the ease in communication should be your guide when practicing mindfulness. When you’ve been with someone for a long time, it’s normal to fall into a rut. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. But you’re not going to stir things up if you clam up. Speak. You might find that your partner wants what you want to; be the freak. Why not? Try it. And don’t forget: communication involves asking questions, too. So use your ears as well as your tongue, and perhaps strive to understand before you try to be understood. Above all, practice: Communicate early and often—and don’t forget to breathe. Maybe even pant.
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