By Michelle Langer Certified Wellbeing Instructor
Michelle is an Executive Coach and Certified Wellbeing Instructor who has been teaching wellbeing, meditation and mindfulness for over 13 years, helping leading companies, individuals and renowned talent to address the causes of stress and unlock peak performance. She was trained personally by Dr Deepak Chopra at The Chopra Center for Wellbeing.
“Michelle, can you write 1000 words on mindfulness and sex?” “Only 1000 ? I could fill a book”. Like the act itself, there are multiple approaches to the subject. I’m going to focus on the three which I think are most poignant – 1/ how practising mindfulness in the moment can make sex more enjoyable and longer lasting, 2/ how meditation itself can be an erotic experience and 3/ how one of the key benefits of a regular meditation practice is the reduction of anxiety which can be a major barrier in the bedroom.
Two thoughts to kick off. It’s no coincidence that the term ‘mind blowing’ is used in connection to sex. If you try to remember what you were thinking about during your most enjoyable sexual encounters the answer is probably nothing. Meditation is about going beyond thought, letting go of expectations, surrendering, and being totally immersed in the present moment. Just like good sex. The second interesting connection is in the word for mindfulness itself. As Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, pointed out, the Chinese character for ‘mindfulness’ combines the ideograms for presence and heart. It literally means presence of heart, so when we combine the practice during intimacy there is an opportunity to boost the emotional connection and heighten the experience. So why do we need to connect mindfulness and sex? Well the latest sex survey published in 2018 by Public Health England found that 42% of women complained of a lack of sexual enjoyment. The most recent National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles, published in 2013, found that people in Britain were having less sex than they once did, with low sexual function affecting about 15% of men and 30% of women. Problems with sexual response were common, affecting 42% of men and 51% of women reported one or more problems in the last year. One reported factor inhibiting enjoyment is the distracted mind. An average adult spends 47% of their life not in the present moment, wandering to thoughts of past events or ruminating about the future (Harvard, 2010). The increasing pace of life and the invasion of technology into every aspect of life hasn’t helped. Do any of these sound like familiar scenarios? You are in the heat of the moment and your mind wanders off to your to do list of chores, or the phone rings and you debate whether to answer, or you’re looking at the clock wandering how long this is going to go on for because you’re sleep deprived?
So where does mindfulness fit in? Mindfulness is putting your mind and body in the same place. Whichever method you follow, it’s about finding an anchor for your focus and learning to return to that anchor when you’re distracted. This anchor or focus for awareness could be a mantra, the breath or sensations in the body. Regular practise is like building a muscle so that you become more aware when thoughts or other distractions enter your mind, and you’re better able to let them go and return to your anchor.
Applying this in the bedroom means replacing mind-filled sex with mindful sex, where you’re totally immersed in the physical sensations of your body. It doesn’t mean you’ll never have distracting thoughts. It means that you’re more able to let these distracting thoughts go without getting stuck on them.
Women can experience physical arousal, such as increased blood flow to their vagina, but it barely registers mentally.
“There may be a strong physiological response, [but] there’s no awareness in their mind of that response. We know that healthy sexual response requires the integration of the brain and body, so when the mind is elsewhere – whether it’s distracted or consumed with catastrophic thoughts – all of that serves to interrupt that really important feedback loop.”
Couples therapist Diana Richardson describes mindful sex in terms of “being sex instead of doing sex”, directing our attention inside the body and using it like a sensing organ. She has spent 25 years studying tantra, the union of sex and meditation, and exploring the ways that sex is affected by the mind. She points out that by thinking that orgasm is the reason to have sex, and often the agenda, it makes us climax or goal oriented with for example, getting it right, pleasing partners, timing it right – which can bring stress. She describes nine principals to achieving mindful “sex with awareness” which if followed can make the experience much longer and a more bonding experience –
1, Make a date and put 2-3 hours aside undisturbed.
2. Your intention is to be present and aware as possible.
3. Scan for tensions in the body repeatedly.
4. Breathe deep and slow into the belly and genitals.
5. Enter consciously and slowly with lubrication.
6. Instead of mechanical friction, move with awareness and slow to increase sensitivity.
7. Have eyes wide open and make eye contact.
8. Share in words what you experience.
9. Have a sense of humour.
This guidance is applicable to couples of all orientation. Diana uses a fire metaphor to contrast tantra mindful sex to everyday mind-filled sex. If you add wood to a fire quickly, there are blazing flames but it’s not long before the fire dies down. “If you add the wood piece by piece and keep the flame low, that same fire will last the whole night through”.
Turning now to how mindfulness in itself can be an erotic experience. Sometimes when people enter a deep meditative state, it can stimulate the sacral chakra (energy centre) which is located in our lower abdomen and is the seat of sexual energy. During my group meditation and mindfulness courses I teach the science behind meditation, research into how it works and the benefits, before giving participants their first experience of meditating with a personal mantra. Afterwards they share what happened, both the challenges and the enjoyment. Occasionally I see a flushed face and I know exactly what’s happened that won’t be shared. More often this reaction happens when people meditate on their own and they return to future sessions with appreciative stories from their partners who have also noticed the difference. One client was ecstatic to report that after attending a 45-minute Tranquillo session (her first ever experience of meditation) where we combine guided meditation with live cello, she went straight home to have the best sex of her life.
There are studies which back up these anecdotes. One which is often quoted in relation to mindfulness and libido is a study among women at the University of British Columbia, at their Centre for Sexual Medicine. After taking standard tests of sexual function, participants took part in three group mindfulness meditation sessions two weeks apart. Between these sessions, they practiced mindfulness meditation at home and then retook the sexual function tests. The course of meditation was shown to increase the women’s desire, arousal, lubrication and sexual satisfaction. In the post-program feedback, the women rated the mindfulness exercises as the most helpful aspect of the program, which also included advice and guidance from a gynaecologist and sex therapist.
Another study at Brown University found that 44 women who took a 3-month mindfulness meditation course reported feeling much more aroused by looking at racy pictures and much more quickly than non-meditators.
One explanation is that long term meditators experience increased cortical gyrification (folding) of the brain’s insula. This has been shown to allow the brain to process information faster and some studies have found that women with more gyrified insula experience more intense orgasms.
It also comes back to this aspect of mindfulness of uniting mind and body. Psychology Professor Brotto of the University of British Columbia and author of ‘Better Sex Through Mindfulness’, who has spearheaded a lot of the research, explains that “lots of data shows us that women, more so than men, tend to be somewhat disconnected from what’s happening in their bodies”. Her experiments have shown that women can experience physical arousal, such as increased blood flow to their vagina, but it barely registers mentally. “There may be a strong physiological response, [but] there’s no awareness in their mind of that response. We know that healthy sexual response requires the integration of the brain and body, so when the mind is elsewhere – whether it’s distracted or consumed with catastrophic thoughts – all of that serves to interrupt that really important feedback loop.”
It can be the same for some men, she says, but “there tends to be more concordance between the body’s arousal and the mind’s arousal. When men have a physical response, they’re also much more likely to have a mental sexual arousal response.”
Embedding a regular mindfulness practise, or using techniques in the moment, can bridge that gap between mind and body.
Before giving you some bullet points (why does everything sound like an innuendo) on putting this into action, I think it’s worth exploring how mindfulness reduces anxiety and how this connects to sexual satisfaction. Psychosexual and relationship therapist Kate Moyle says that mindfulness is a common part of therapy, even if it’s not always given that title. “When people have sexual problems, a lot of the time it’s anxiety-related and they’re not really in their bodies, or in the moment. Mindfulness brings them back into the moment. When people say they’ve had the best sex and you ask them what they were thinking about, they can’t tell you, because they weren’t thinking about anything, they were just enjoying the moment. That’s mindfulness.”
Regular meditation has also been shown to reduce the amount of cortisol in the brain, the stress hormone. When we are in our fight/flight or stress response, cortisol is produced to direct blood to essential functions like our muscles and away from areas that are not important in that moment, like the genitals. When you’re in fight/flight mode, sex is probably the last thing on your mind, so libido is reduced. By lowering cortisol production in the body through mindfulness, libido and therefore sexual desire is increased.
“It’s no coincidence that the term ‘mind blowing’ is used in connection to sex. If you try to remember what you were thinking about during your most enjoyable sexual encounters the answer is probably nothing.”
At its core, mindfulness can be defined as present moment non-judgemental awareness. As Professor Brotto points out “Each of those three components are critical for healthy sexual function.” By removing self-judgement, space is allowed for more honest communication with your partner and an ability to express what turns you on.
I hope that this can inspire you to take up a regular meditation practise but here are two simple techniques to try out in the meantime –
- Mantra mindfulness – When you find yourself distracted during intercourse, repeat silently to yourself “Be here now”. When your mind tries to drift, escort your focus back to the repeating mantra. You might have to repeat this process multiple times, but each time you return to the mantra you are building your mindful muscle and gaining control over your thoughts. Then move your focus to wherever you’re feeling the most intense physical sensations. Allow your awareness to rest there and notice how the feelings are heightened through your focus. When thoughts try to distract you, follow the same method and escort your focus back to your strongest sensations.
- Deep Breathing Space – This can be practised before or during sex to help bring you into the present moment and boost your focus. It should take just three minutes.
- In the first minute notice what thoughts are dominating your mind. Don’t judge those thoughts or enter into conversation with them but just list them as if you are a witness looking into your mind.
- Then move your focus to where you are feeling strongest sensations in the body. You’re not trying to change anything but just observing.Then move your attention to the breath and where you are feeling it most intensely –nostrils, chest, abdomen or back of your throat. Notice the movement of the body with each breath in an out, the rise and fall which each inhale and exhale. Again you’re not controlling the breath, just watching it.
- In the final minute follow the circulation of the breath through the whole body. Feel the cool breath coming into your nostrils and picture it moving down to your feet. Then on the exhale imagine that breath travelling up your body giving energy and vitality to all organs that it passes and notice sensations on your skin. Visualise the whole body expanding on the inhale and letting go on the exhale.
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For meditation & mindfulness courses, Michelle can be contacted via www.michellelanger.com or follow her guided meditations on Instagram @michellejlanger