In some ways, sex is a perfect arena to practice mindfulness. And in some ways, it’s really, really not. Not that it’s impossible or antithetical or anything. Just that it’s sometimes challenging, and counterintuitive, and complicated.
I’ll start with the ways that I’ve found this to be pretty straightforward. The basic idea behind mindfulness is to be as fully present in the moment as you can be: to consciously focus your awareness on a particular object or activity or experience, to notice when your awareness has wandered, to observe this wandering without judgment, and to gently draw your awareness back to the here and now and to the object/ activity/ experience you’re focusing on. And sex is an obvious, and obviously wonderful, arena for that.
In fact, there’s an established technique used by many sex therapists called “sensate focus”: a way of alleviating anxiety and self-consciousness during sex, in which people focus on and fully experience their immediate sensations rather than being goal-oriented about orgasm (their own, or their partner’s). Letting go of distractions, of judgments, of goals, of anxieties about those goals, and bringing your focus to the immediate sensation of a hand on your thigh, of fingers in your hair, of your own fingers on the curve of their hip… yeah. Hell, yeah. No argument from me. It’s a technique that’s often used for people with performance anxiety, for men with erectile dysfunction or women with problems reaching orgasm — but honestly, this can be a good time for pretty much anyone. And it can be used in masturbation just as well as in partner sex.
Seems pretty simple. Difficult or challenging to practice, perhaps, but the basic idea is pretty straightforward. So how could any of it be complicated, or counterintuitive?
Here’s the thing. For me, anyway. Sex is — how shall I put this? — a multi-media experience. It commonly involves all the senses. Or at least more than one or two. And it involves more than the senses: it involves emotions, memories, images, ideas, associations, psychological connections.
So if I’m working to be fully present with my immediate sexual experience, it begs the question: Which experience? The sensation of my fingers twining in her hair? The sensation of her fingers on my belly? Her scent? The taste of her skin? The sound of her breath? How her curves look in the dim light? The memory of the last time, when we did that other really filthy thing? The warm, spicy glow of deep love blended with skanky lechery? The tightening of my clit? The brightness in her eye as my eye catches hers? When all of this is going on at once — what do I stay present with?
Of course, this is true for other experiences as well. Eating is the example that most obviously leaps to mind. Eating isn’t just about flavor: it’s about scent, sensation, sight, even sound. And it’s also about memories, associations, emotions, as well as sensations. And yet mindful eating — eating slowly, finishing each bite before starting the next, staying in the present moment and fully experiencing your food — is a classic mindfulness exercise. It’s almost a chestnut. (Mmmmm — chestnuts!)
Plus, in sex — sex with another person, anyway — I’m not just working to stay present with my own sensations and experiences. I’m working to stay present with my partner’s. (“Working” is maybe the wrong word, that makes it sound like a chore and it’s not in the slightest, but it’s the best I’ve come up with for now.) I’m working to be as richly aware of what’s happening with my own body as I can — and I’m also working to be richly aware of what’s happening with hers. How do I do both of these at once, while still staying focused on one thing at a time?
And how does fantasy play into all this? For many people, accepting and enjoying fantasies is a hugely important part of fully enjoying sex. But isn’t “fantasizing” the exact opposite of being in the present moment? If you’re having sex or masturbating, and you’re imagining that you’re getting spanked by a nun, that you’re having sex in Central Park, that you’re getting a blowjob from George Clooney — isn’t that the exact opposite of fully experiencing whatever sex you’re having right now? Even if the sex you’re having right now is with yourself? But I would never in a zillion years suggest, even to myself, that sexual fantasies are bad for sex, and that in order to more richly and fully experience sex, I should step away from having them. Fuck that noise. I mean, if I were indulging in fantasy at the expense of ever enjoying my body in the here and now, I might see a problem — but I’m not, so I don’t. So how does fantasy fit into all this? How does “enjoying sexual images that drift into one’s head, and deliberately entertaining them and getting off on them” fit in with “staying in the present moment during sex”?
Here’s how I’m working this out for myself. For now, anyway. In MBSR meditation, there’s one technique in which, rather than deliberately focusing your awareness on one object or activity or experience, you let your focus wander. As your awareness drifts from your breath, to your sore back, to the sound of the heater switching on, to your plans for tomorrow, to some fantasy or anxiety about tomorrow, to a grumbling in your belly, to your anxiety about your body shape, to your breath, to some philosophical train of thought about your breath and meditation, to the awareness of your tongue in your mouth… you let it drift. You follow it. And you stay present with all of it, as much as you can. The intent isn’t to keep your awareness focused on one thing. It’s to stay conscious, to stay present, with whatever your awareness wanders into.
When I’m working to be mindful during sex, I do a version of that. I let my focus wander: from sensation to sensation, from image to image, from one part of my body to another (whether I’m having partner sex or masturbating), from my own body to my partner’s (if I’m having partner sex and not masturbating), from the sting of a hand on my ass to assorted mental images I’m having about spankings, and back around again. And with each of these moments and experiences, I work to stay conscious of it, and to stay present with it, and to experience all of it, as fully as I can.
Now, if my awareness drifts into something that isn’t sex — if it starts to drift into anxieties about work, plans to redecorate the house, ideas for the new book I’m working on, some argument I’m having on the Internet — that’s when it’s time to notice that my awareness has wandered, and observe that without judgment, and gently bring my focus back to the present moment. Some piece of the present moment.
Any piece of the present moment will do.
Especially the really skanky ones.
Thoughts? If you’re doing a secular mindfulness practice, how do you incorporate sexuality into it — or incorporate it into sexuality?