"The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change." —Carl Rogers
Sex is much more than a basic evolutionary, biological, and physiological imperative. It's also essential to how we connect with our partner(s) romantically, emotionally, physically, and spiritually. It's also a potent stress-reliever and significant source of pleasure and well-being. Unfortunately, recent global data show people and couples, even the most satisfied with their relationships based on self-report, are having less sex. This begs the question, can mindfulness can help us all not only have more sex, but more connective and pleasurable sex? Definitely. Here's how.
1. Mindfulness can improve your attention during sex, and thus your attunement to your partner(s), the quality of the shared pleasure, as well as your sexual performance.
Does your mind wander during sex? If so, you are not alone. We know too well what it feels like when your partner's mind seems to be elsewhere during a sexual encounter. How do you feel when you kiss them and you notice their eyes are wide open, gazing somewhere else? Often, however, this is unintentional. Our minds are naturally digressive. Three common forms of mind-wandering center around:
A. The way one’s body looks. We're usually more attractive and sexy to our partner(s) than we perceive. Besides, what's more sexy that your partner(s) being comfortable with their bodies? This is something we can thus work on internally in mindfulness practices that focus on acceptance.
B. Pressing personal issues going on, such as your children, exams if you're a student, job stress, etc. that can take you out of the present with your partner(s) all too easily. What's it feel like when you can intuit that all of your partner's attention is on you, savoring the encounter during sex? What's your quality of connection and pleasure when you are entirely concentrated on the encounter, not what happened earlier that day, or what's supposed to happen in the future?
With mindfulness practice, you gradually strengthen your muscle of attention. Attention, more than time, because it can be easily squandered or sidetracked (for example, by endless tasks and mobile notifications), is truly our most precious resource. As you continue to meditate, your mind learns to wander less, and rest its attention on the here-and-now naturally with more ease. This will naturally improve your sex life, simply by bringing more attention to enjoying and being present for the encounter.
C. One’s sexual “performance.” Ironically because of the placebo effect, paradoxes often improve issues with sexual functioning and expectations. An example of a paradox a sex therapist may assign as homework to a distressed couple is aiming to temporarily abstain from penetration to enjoy foreplay and explore each other's' bodies, which can break the typical routinized behaviors partners may get stuck in sexually and open the door to more creativity, pleasure, novelty, and excitement. This is the basis of sensate focus and other traditional sexual enhancement techniques. You can look into Master's and Johnson's research for more information about this.
2. Mindfulness can help you have more realistic expectations about your sexual encounters. Realistic expectations naturally translate to more emotional connectedness and pleasure. While good sex is undoubtedly important, realistic sexual expectations are too. Aiming for "perfect sex" all or most of the time can actually result in less satisfying, emotionally connective, and overall pleasurable sex. Have you ever felt that every sexual experience requires that you:
- Orgasm (especially females, but also males and other genders)?
- Orgasm simultaneously with your partner(s)?
- Always experience a lot of pleasure?
- Always satisfy your partner(s)?
- Must be able to sustain and maintain an erection (cisgender men)? Must be aroused and lubricated (cisgender women)?
- Must approve of your own and your partner(s)’s body?
As you may have imagined, these misconceptions run rampant. We often don't have control of them. Our bodies are not perfect sexual machines, as pornography may lead us to believe. Remember that pornography doesn't show us the work and bonding that go into a passionate sexual encounter. Porn, in fact, is more problematic because of what it doesn't show than what it shows! Also we, not our partners, are ultimately responsible of our own pleasure and sexual satisfaction, and vice versa. Enjoy the process and be playful, even if it doesn't feel perfect at times. Like most things, good sex tends to ebb and flow. Drop the unnecessarily lofty expectations and enjoy the process, intimacy, and mutual exploration.
3. Mindfulness increases acceptance, which can revamp the quality of sex itself. As with everything else in life, a mindful first-step to addressing sexual difficulties is to non-judgmentally accept what is often present in many relationships: a difference in libido or sexual preferences, or our bodies not responding as we'd hope. Because sexual topics often feel replete with secrecy and shame, cultivating acceptance, especially of our bodies and our partner(s)' bodies, can be surprisingly more difficult than it sounds. Implicit to acceptance is gentleness and realistic expectation noted above. The wisdom is in the serenity prayer, namely accepting what we can't readily change, and working to change what we can.
4. Mindfulness can help increase self- and other-compassion, and thus transform the quality of sex altogether. Aside from increasing acceptance, mindful sex invites compassion for each person’s unique struggles around sex. Heterosexual couples often struggle to understand their partners’ difficulties due to the differences in physiology and expected gender roles. Some same-sex couples may as well, despite having a better understanding of their partner(s)' inner experiences and bodies. Slowing down, prioritizing listening, reducing the emotional charge of these conversations, and identifying the pertinent issues can help build compassion for the many of forms of suffering related to sex, sexual identity, and gender roles.
5. Mindfulness practice can help you cultivate more trust and emotional safety with sex. Compassion increases safety and trust. For many, thoughtfully discussing sexual preferences, concerns, and desires with compassion and openness is challenging. Vital conversations to have about sex include the implications of partners' communication, safety and trust level, emotional connection, performance anxiety, handling distractions such as children, work, smartphones, or other stressors preventing partners from putting energy into their relationship, social norms, possible health or medical issues, such as the influence of medications, especially SSRIs, other anti-depressants or psychotropic medications that affect sexual desire, arousal, and overall sexual functioning.
6. Mindfulness practices in a relationship context can increase your emotional connection, and thus can (but not always) improve the quality of sex indirectly. Hugging or holding each other mindfully with compassion and acceptance for several minutes allows both to feel physically and emotionally safe and physically relaxed, increase our level of the bonding hormone, oxytocin, and the pleasure neurotransmitter, dopamine. For all genders, and women especially, this can give the genitals time to engorge and for her body to awaken sexually. For men, this can relieve the pressure of performance anxiety, and help him stay present with his body to prevent premature ejaculation, for example.
7. Individual mindfulness practices can increase your emotional and physical connection to yourself, thus transferring it to your partner(s) indirectly. In mindfulness practice, you learn to rest mindful attention on any of the five senses—touch, taste, smell, sound, or sight. This allows the mind to become fully absorbed in the present moment with the sensation, and this can then be transferred to sexual encounters, mainly by the quality of your attention. Only when you notice your inner experience, can you do something about it. Your ability to notice your own experience also helps you tune into your partner(s)'. Attuned sex—when people are attuned to their own and their partners' bodies—makes for good sex.
8. Relational mindfulness practices can increase a couple's emotional and physical connection. Similar to sensate focus exercises, partners can spend time touching each other, either with their hands or with tactile objects such as a feather or silk scarf. Depending on the nature of their concerns, couples can do this with their clothes on in a nonsexual environment or without clothes as a form of foreplay.
9. Mindfulness during sex can help you focus on the process and enjoy foreplay, instead of rushing to intercourse. Last but not least, this one is important to emphasize. Many partners, unfortunately, get into the habit of routinizing sex by going straight to penetration. Often, but not always, it's vital to slow down and savor. What's the rush?
These nine tips are likely to lead to mindful sex to enhance the experience of pleasure and emotional connection during sex. Mindfulness and sex share a surprising parallel: although both on the surface appear to focus on immediate inner experiences and physical sensations, that is not what truly matters for either. For mindfulness, the true focus is compassionately attending to and accepting of one’s experience; in sex, the key is the shared connectedness, vulnerability, and pleasure.
* The (s) at the end of "partner(s)" is meant to be inclusive of relationship diversity, such as polyamorous couples. That said, because of the lack of research involving trans and nonbinary folks, binary gender assumptions were presented in this post. The author recognizes the limitations of this post as it pertains to gender inclusivity. This post is educational, and not meant to substitute for psychotherapy with a qualified provider.
Copyright Jason Linder LMFT, all rights reserved.
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