One of the most important topics that I address with clients is the subject of mindfulness. To understand the importance of mindfulness, particularly when it comes to sexuality, let’s first take a look at what it is and what it isn’t. Many people confuse mindfulness with some sort of meditation practice, such as Zen or Vipassana. While it is true that meditation builds and fosters mindfulness, one can practice mindfulness without engaging in any of the meditative traditions. So what is mindfulness? It is defined as “the intentional, accepting and non-judgmental focus of one’s attention on the emotions, thoughts and sensations occurring in the present moment.” This can occur within a meditative practice, or just throughout the day, as one observes oneself while at work, sitting on the train, eating, or engaging in interactions with others. The most important aspect of this kind of self-observation is acceptance and non-judgmentalness. I’ll say this once more, because it bears repeating. Acceptance. Non-judgmentalness.
What does this have to do with sexuality? Everything. Often when we find ourselves struggling with some aspect of our sexuality, what is actually going on is that we are fighting ourselves. What I mean is that sexual performance, sexual desire, sexual arousal, and so on, come naturally. We don’t have to think about it. It just happens. But when we are experiencing sexual difficulties, we may be pressing too hard, putting undue pressure and stress on results, tensing our pelvis and surrounding muscles, or just fighting off the natural emotions that arise. In other words, we are going against the current, and not allowing ourselves the experience of riding the wave of our experience. For a more psychological perspective on this, check out my article entitled Ecstasy Through Surrender.
Let’s take a look at a variety of sexual situations and see how mindfulness would assist in enhancing the experience.
Sexual Dysfunction (ED, rapid ejaculation, delayed ejaculation, vaginismus, dyspareunia, etc): These conditions are hallmarked by anxiety and physical tension. When we are extremely anxious, our body betrays us and doesn’t perform at all, while body tension makes it impossible to enjoy pleasure. Sexual anxiety is often a very specific type of anxiety known as performance anxiety. This is not too dissimilar from the kind of anxiety people experience during public speaking or other social encounters. For more on this, take a look at my article on Social Anxiety and Sexual Dysfunction. Tension is often a byproduct of anxiety, so for the sake of brevity, I will lump them together in this article. One of the chief causes of social anxiety is worrying about the judgment of others. Folks who struggle with this often find themselves thinking about the end result, the humiliation they will experience, the shame, the judgment, and so on, and often find it impossible to stay in the moment due to all of the rumination. Willfully practicing staying in the present and focusing on one’s moment to moment experience trains us to get out of our heads, out of the cycle of rumination, and refocus on our sensations. I often give my clients specific exercises to help them practice this kind of mindfulness.
Sexual Compulsivity: It is well known in the sex addiction community that shame fuels the compulsivity. As I’ve mentioned in previous articles, such as this one entitled Thoughts, Feelings, and Fantasies, I believe that it’s not just core shame from some developmental trauma that fuels it, but also shame that is specific to one’s desire. In other words, feeling ashamed of one’s sexual desires, interests, fetishes, and so on, only makes one feels more obsessive and compulsive about them, rather than the opposite. Said another way, it is impossible to bury one’s sexual interests and desires. Mindfulness practice helps my clients to observe their reactions to themselves in accepting and non-judgmental ways (see above). Also, they learn to catch and become aware of the negative thoughts and emotions that arise that make them feel compelled to act out. As Lance Dodes states in his wonderful book The Sober Truth, addicts often act out when they feel a sense of helplessness (often due being overwhelmed with negative feelings) and then the actual acting out is part of the rage they enact to reestablish a sense of control. Mindfulness practice allows an individual to slow things down, so that their usual way of doing things is no longer automatic, and then they can choose more appropriate and healthy behaviors when they can recognize that they have a choice.
Couples work: Most conflict with couples often boils down to built-up resentment (anger) and the use of ineffective ways of expressing individual needs that folks have learned from a young age. Again, these harmful behaviors are often so automatic that people don’t even notice them or realize that there other ways of interacting. Mindfulness practice allows couples to also slow things down (see above), recognize the negative emotions that create disturbances in their relationship, and make the choice to communicate with each other in ways that build bridges, not tear them down. I often give couples specific homework that helps them to recognize their emotions during times of conflict, and then communicate those emotions in non-destructive ways.
In summation, mindfulness is a very important aspect of mental health that can be learned through steady and committed practice. It allows people to combat anxiety, stay present, access a variety of emotions, tolerate even the most painful emotions, and communicate one’s needs in a productive manner. In my mind, mindfulness practice is like the cliche of eating an apple a day. It is the key to mental health. And great sex.