Think about the best sex you have ever had. Go on—let yourself really relive the experience! Take a moment to remember what it felt like in your body, what emotions were evoked and what was happening in your mind. Chances are you were really there while you were having it—fully in your body. You were most likely mentally and emotionally connected to your partner, in addition to the physical connection.
Now recall some average or lacklustre sex you have had. Again, take some time to recall the physical, emotional and mental aspects of the experience. What was different? What is the difference between sex and great sex?
Having A Mindful Sex Life
At its best, mindful sex is joyful and free. When we are able to stay in our bodies during sex, rather than closing down and tuning out, we are able to stay connected to the physical experience of lovemaking.
During mindful sex, we develop what is called interoceptive awareness, which refers to awareness of our physiological and emotional state. Research shows that increased interoceptive awareness improves sexual experiences by literally getting us out of our heads, reducing anxiety, low mood and self-judgement.
As we become aware of our own emotional state and express this physically through lovemaking, we become more attuned to the emotional and physical changes in our partner. We start responding to their moans, changes in breathing, subtle physical changes or a momentary glance. Mindful sex becomes a communication from the deepest parts of us and we can literally connect with the deepest parts of our partner. Some people even describe peak experiences of momentarily losing any sense of where they end and their partner begins. They experience a sense of being one organism. The Kama Sutra, as well as Buddhist and Taoist sexual manuals, all point toward this as being the highest form of lovemaking—indeed, the very point of mindful sex. In fact, most experiential religious traditions counsel us toward using sex as a vehicle for transformation and connection. And all emphasize presence and embodiment as the fundamental starting point.
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Everything we have just said might seem obvious but you have most likely discovered that it is not always easy to actually achieve during your mindful sex practice. It is common during sex to tune out, dissociate a little and even wander off into thoughts. These thoughts might be about our sexual performance, thinking about work or playing out pornographic scenes in our heads. A number of causes can underlie this tendency, including stress, relationship difficulties and watching too much pornography—all of which make it more likely we will get into our head rather than staying in our bodies.
We are especially likely to disconnect when the emotional connection with our partner deepens and we start to feel vulnerable. We tend to unconsciously choose partners who reflect unresolved relational issues from prior relationships (all the way back to birth) and our past interpersonal relationships significantly impact the way we show up in current relationships, and therefore affect our mindful sexuality. The anxiety that can arise from the experience of having all of this truly seen by someone we care about and don’t want to lose can activate the fight/flight/freeze response.
Better Sex With Mindfulness
To counteract this tendency towards anxiety and fight/flight reactivity we must activate the mammalian tend-and-befriend circuits. These circuits allow us to maintain an emotional connection with others, even when under stress. By simply remaining present during mindful sex we minimize the activation of the fight/flight response. And by focusing on connection and nurturing when stakes are high, we release oxytocin, which helps us to calm down, focus and maintain emotional connection rather than withdrawing or reacting. This response is seen more often in women than men, but can be cultivated with practice by either sex.
Exercise: Activating Our Tend-and-befriend Circuits
1. Take a moment to pause and sense your way into your body. Notice what sensations are around. Notice any thoughts and simply allow them to come and go. Imagine yourself going through this practice during mindful sex. Tune in a little deeper and become aware of your emotional state, simply noting any emotions that are around without judgement or thinking about them. If you can, name the emotional state you are experiencing.
2. Next, give yourself permission to have the emotion. Recognize that all emotions are normal parts of the human experience and serve a purpose, even in the midst of mindful sexuality. Pleasant emotions like love, joy and so forth show us that we like what we are experiencing and motivate us to seek experiences like this. On the other hand strong, unpleasant emotions like anger and sadness give us very useful information about needs that are not being met and boundaries that might be being violated.
3. Say to yourself silently, “This is [name whatever emotion you are experiencing] and is a completely normal human emotion. It is totally okay that I am experiencing this right now.” Cultivate an attitude of loving acceptance to whatever you are experiencing. During mindful love, bring this same unconditionally friendly attitude toward any physical sensations and thoughts you are experiencing too.