Powerful Practices for Increasing Pleasure, Connection and Consciousness
BY DR. RICHARD CHAMBERS AND MARGIE ULBRICK
mindful sex practices guide us back into the present moment and the feeling sensations in our bodies, which leads to more pleasure, more connection and ultimately raises consciousness as well. photo: bhumika bahtia
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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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.
5. Tune in to the sense of love and care flowing from you to them and them to you. Take a few moments to really enjoy this feeling. Can you notice the feeling of oxytocin being released? This is what it feels like to be run by our tend-and-befriend circuits.
Practicing this exercise regularly when you are calm and relaxed will strengthen the tend-and-befriend circuits. This will then make it easier to activate them when you need them, such as during lovemaking when a button gets pushed and you start to feel vulnerable and reactive. Of course, you can always practice this during mindful sex also—perhaps you and your partner can treat it like a lovemaking meditation. Doing this regularly results in us becoming more relaxed during sex. We become increasingly able to remain connected with our own emotions—and therefore our partner’s—and this increases the depth of intimacy during mindful sex.
Making mindful love in this way also ensures the insula remains activated. The insula is the part of the brain most directly involved in functions such as self-awareness, knowing what is happening interpersonally, and controlling our movement. As such, it is an extremely useful part of the brain for intimacy and lovemaking. Thanks to neuroplasticity, keeping it active by maintaining intimacy with ourselves and others results in stronger connections between the neurons there. Research shows that mindfulness meditation also strengthens the insula, so in a very real sense ‘meditators make better lovers’.
Making mindful sex in intimate, connected ways—activating the insula and other tend-and-befriend circuitry—literally rewires the brain for deeper intimacy. We become less critical of our (or our partner’s) performance, more aware of our breath and body sensations, and more responsive to our partner’s body. This then becomes a feedback loop as we then become even more connected with ourselves and our partner. Slowing things down with mindfulness amplifies these benefits. In fact, this is one of the main recommendations that we give anyone who comes to see us in our therapy practices for mindful sexual issues. You can think about it as meditating in missionary, instead of lotus, position!
Exercise: Slowing Down And Connecting During Lovemaking
1. Next time you are having mindful sex, focus on foreplay. And here we are not referring to giving amazing head, like some kind of porn star! Instead, we are suggesting you take time to sense your way into your body, getting in touch with your physical and emotional state. You might even like to spend some time meditating (perhaps with your partner) beforehand.
2. Maintain awareness of your breath. Feel your body against your partner’s, really savouring the warmth and softness of the contact. Notice the effect this has on your own body, and see if you can sense the activation of your tend-and-befriend circuits and the release of oxytocin as you experience each other in mindful sex.
3. If you notice any tension or fight/flight reactivity, focus on breathing and relaxing into the mindful sex. You might lose touch with your partner for a moment while you do this but simply reconnect again when you start to feel more relaxed. Keep coming back, over and over, as you would with any mindfulness practice.
4. If you want to take this way of making mindful love to the next level you can even experiment with looking into your partner’s eyes during mindful lovemaking. At first this can be confronting and in some cases even lead to dissociation (where you suddenly feel numb or ‘out of your body’). If this happens, you can close your eyes or avert your gaze.
But keep coming back to this and develop the ability to maintain eye contact while in close proximity. When you master this you will open up the possibility of extremely intimate—and explosive—mindful sex.
Any time during mindful sex you notice that you are reacting, closing down or tuning out, slow down (or even stop) and bring your attention back to your body. Tune in to your physical sensations, let go of any tension and notice your breath. Then, when you are ready, tune back in to your partner once again—feeling their body touching yours, looking at them (as well as into their eyes) as well as smelling, tasting and hearing them. In this way, lovemaking itself becomes a mindfulness practice.
This piece on mindful sex is excerpted with permission from Mindful Relationships by Dr. Richard Chambers and Margie Ulbrick.
About The Authors
Dr Richard Chambers is a clinical psychologist in private practice, specializing in mindfulness-based therapies, and an internationally recognized expert in mindfulness. Dr Chambers is pioneering a university-wide mindfulness approach at Melbourne’s Monash University and consults to a growing number of educational institutions, businesses, sporting clubs and community organizations. He is a developer of the Smiling Mind app and co-author of Mindful Learning, also by Exisle. You can find more about him at drrichardchambers.com
Margie Ulbrick is a collaborative family lawyer, relationship counsellor, psychotherapist and writer. Trained in Family Therapy, Somatic Therapy, Law and Collaborative Practice, she has many years’ experience working to help people create sustaining and nurturing relationships and work towards maximizing optimum health in families. As a relationship counsellor, Margie works with couples, individuals and families, and teaches the skills of mindfulness to assist in promoting healthy relationships. You can find more about her at margieulbrickcounselling.com.