Have you ever evaluated yourself, or had your mind wander, in the middle of a sexual encounter? Most people have. Psychologists call this mind-wandering “spectatoring,” and it diminishes sexual pleasure and orgasms. The two most common forms of spectatoring are evaluating and worrying about: 1) the way one’s body looks; and 2) one’s sexual “performance” (e.g., worries about “doing it right,” being a good lover, taking too long to orgasm, etc.). It’s almost impossible to have an orgasm if you’re thinking about such concerns. Instead, you need to switch your brain to “off mode.”
Turning your brain to “off-mode” can be accomplished with mindfulness, which is a simple but potent remedy for a lot of psychological problems. Mindfulness increases happiness, decreases depression, diminishes anxiety, and even helps people deal with chronic illness and pain. Most important for our purposes, research shows that it leads to better sex.
What is this powerful thing called mindfulness?
In a nutshell, it’s simply focusing completely on what’s happening in the present moment. When I teach students and clients about mindfulness, I tell them that being mindful is akin to riding a roller coaster, whether you like riding them or not. As you climb upward, you might be thinking, This is fun! or, Why did I get on this thing? I want off! But as the coaster descends, you become too immersed in the sensations to think any thoughts at all. This not-thinking — just feeling what’s happening — is mindfulness. And it’s sex’s best friend.
Another way I’ve heard mindfulness described is that it’s putting your mind and body in the same place. Recall that roller coaster: As you fly downhill, your mind and body are focused on the same sensations. But in daily life, your body may do one thing while your mind is somewhere else.
Your body can be in the midst of being touched by a sexual partner while your mind is thinking about an email you need to respond to.
Or, as a client recently told me, while receiving oral sex, instead of focusing on the sensations, you could be fretting about whether your partner is getting bored.
To help me remember that mindfulness is the opposite of thinking one thing while doing another — it’s fully immersing your mind and your body in the same moment in time — I have a cute cartoon taped to my computer with the title “Mind Full, or Mindful?” It shows a person and a dog in a park. Thought bubbles depict the person pondering all kinds of stuff (except what’s right in front of them) while the dog is thinking about only what is right in front of them: the beautiful trees. Mindfulness means having your mind full of only what’s right in front of you, not other junk.
Being mindful takes practice.
By practice, I don’t mean it has to take a lot of time. Despite what you may have heard, you don’t have to set aside time for long daily meditations to learn mindfulness; you can practice it just by living your life. Even brushing your teeth can be a mindful, present experience — all you need to do is completely immerse yourself in the feel of the toothbrush against your teeth and the toothpaste and water in your mouth. The same goes for washing dishes and eating. When washing dishes, fully immerse in the warm, sudsy water on your hands, and when eating, totally focus on the taste and feel of the food as you chew. A state of total immersion and present focus can be invoked while doing anything: walking, working out, showering, talking with friends, even going to the bathroom. Any moment can be mindful.
What do you do about distracting thoughts during such mindful moments?
Some of my clients develop a saying that reminds them to come back to the present. One of my clients takes a deep breath and tells herself, “Center,” then refocuses on being mindful. Another client developed the saying “Bed not head” to move herself back to the moment whenever she has distracting thoughts during sex. Still, most mindfulness teachers recommend that when a distracting thought occurs, you should simply notice it. Don’t get stuck on it and don’t judge it. And don’t try to force it to go away, either. In mindfulness, distracting thoughts are noticed and observed, and then released without judgment. For me, it’s helpful to imagine whatever particular thought is bothersome being taken away by a gently moving conveyor belt.
Taking a really deep breath is one of the most useful strategies to bring yourself back to the present moment. While taking this breath, it’s important to breathe deep into your gut and focus on feeling the air going in and out of your nose. When bringing yourself back to the moment during sex, combining deep breathing with scent perception helps some people. For example, I have a client who likes to nuzzle her partner’s neck and breathe in his scent as a way to signal herself to get back to the moment.
I hope you can now clearly see how mindfulness can be applied during sex.
Mindful sex is when you’re totally and completely immersed in the physical sensations of your body. It doesn’t mean you’ll never have distracting thoughts. It means that you’re able to let these distracting thoughts go without getting stuck on them. It means you use the strategies described here to lead you fully back to your body’s ecstatic physical reactions.
Here’s something else that’s important: Before applying mindfulness to your sex life, it’s best to get into the groove of it in your daily life. The better you get at achieving an in-the-moment state in general, the easier it will be for you to achieve the same state during sex. Learning to immerse in your sensations while doing daily activities will enable you to better do so during sex.
It’s not a coincidence that the term “mind-blowing” is associated with sex. Mind-blowing sex means that your mind is not working; only your body is reacting. In fact, during an orgasm, some research shows that a part of the conscious mind turns off, and this is exactly what mindfulness helps you do. Having an orgasm requires letting go of control and not thinking at all. That’s why studies have unequivocally shown that teaching people to be mindful leads them to be more sexually responsive and satisfied. Busy brains are not for the bedroom. So start practicing mindfulness today.
This post was excerpted and adapted from my book, Becoming Cliterate: Why Orgasm Equality Matters — And How to Get It. It first appeared in Tabu.zine.