What's Sex Got To Do With It?
What our partners are really craving is connection, attention—and better use of our tongues.
By Jeremy Adam Smith
Illustrations by Julia Rothman
If mindfulness can make us happier, healthier, and more compassionate (that is, if the raft of current scientific research is to be believed), what can that same moment-to-moment awareness do for our sex lives? Imagine the possibilities.
On the face of it, having enjoyable, loving sex seems like the last thing we might be inclined to tune out. But we all know the kind of mind-wandering that can strike even in the midst of great pleasures. From a mental replay of the staff meeting earlier in the day to obsessing about the final luscious peak of the sex you’re having in that very moment, in lovemaking, as in life, tuning out is a part of being human that’s very difficult to turn off.
That’s where mindfulness comes in.
But before we go there, let’s admit: sex is tricky to talk about. It’s either too much information or not enough. And it’s probably the most subjective thing you’re likely to have an opinion on. (Substitute one little word in “I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like,” and you’ve got it just about right.)
It’s challenging because our sexuality is such an essential part of who we are. It’s energy that flows through us whether we’re in a softly lit bedroom or not. And it’s energy we continually need to respond to and guide. (If we didn’t, chances are making chitchat with, say, your dry cleaner could develop into something pretty awkward and inappropriate.)
But get two people sharing some intimate space and toss in a little attraction, and “guide” doesn’t exactly cover it. The energy is palpable, positive, pleasurable. The very best sex happens when we tap into and are at play with that nearly untamable energy: yours, mine, ours. We don’t own it or possess it (or the other person, for that matter), but we get to dance with something more powerful than us for a little while. It’s the difference between chess and tango.
And being mindfully aware in situations like that can work wonders. Or so researchers at Brown University found. Their study was designed to measure the effect of mindfulness on sexual arousal. They found that compared to the control group, who did not practice mindfulness, the 44 women who took a three-month mindfulness meditation course (and who spent some time looking at racy pictures) reported feeling much more aroused, much more quickly.
Increased awareness was the key, according to Gina Silverstein, the study’s lead author. Mindful sex involves being able to observe and describe what’s happening inside your body and mind without sorting experiences into “bad” and “good” or trying to change your feelings. When we are able to do that, Silverstein says, we can “turn off the autopilot.”
Studies have also shown that long-term meditators experience increased cortical gyrification (folding) of the brain’s insula. Doesn’t sound terribly erotic, does it? Until you read another study from Dartmouth that found women with more gyrified insula experience more intense orgasms.
If you’re curious, then, the first, best, and simplest step you can take toward more mindful, and hence more enjoyable, sex is engaging in a daily mindfulness practice. It gradually trains your mind to pay attention (in all areas of life) and cuts down stress. And stress is a famous turnoff, a true killer of pleasure.
Over the past two decades, many researchers have documented the benefits of mindfulness. It turns out they’ve also gained some helpful insights that can be applied specifically to sexual experience. Read on and love better.
Let your heart be present…and your mind, too
“When you hear the word mindfulness, you have to understand that it is presence of heart.” That’s what Jon Kabat-Zinn, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction founder, told a recent seminar for the Greater Good Science Center in Berkeley. As he pointed out, the Chinese character for “mindfulness” combines the ideograms for presence and heart.
That’s a good definition to keep in mind when it’s time to romp and roll—because surely that’s when we most want our hearts to be present.
This is a good place to talk about orgasms. Sometimes we get so busy pursuing them as a goal that we forget to notice what’s happening right now. The heart can’t be present because there are other organs driving the encounter. “Orgasm is a good thing, but there’s more to it than genital friction,” says Marsha Lucas, a neuropsychologist and author of the new book Rewire Your Brain for Love. “Orgasm can obscure everything else that is along the path. Mindfulness helps you see what else is there.”
For many people, mindfulness during sex comes naturally. But, alas, it’s also natural for our minds to wander or for anxiety to eat away at the edges of our awareness (and enjoyment). From playing pornographic films in our brains, evaluating our own sexual performance, worrying about the kids, or wondering what our butt looks like, there is ample opportunity to zone out.
And sometimes, the distractions come from outside—this is especially true for parents of young children. My wife and I both fret that our son will wake up in the night and try to find mommy and daddy while we’re having special mommy and daddy time. That kind of conditioning is partially why new parents can fall into the dreaded no-sex pattern.
Or we can start to associate sex with premature ejaculation or breaking condoms or not being happy about our bodies. When it becomes a source of anxiety, sex easily becomes more trouble than it’s worth, with the inevitable consequences that brings to our relationship.
The problem is we’re wired to look out for threats—like, say, a lover making a sarcastic comment or a toddler bursting into the room. This is a trait psychologists call “negativity bias,” which means that bad things make a bigger impression on our brains than good things.
“That can happen with sexual experience,” says Lucas. Negativity bias can arise from experiences with sexual violence, and researchers are finding mindfulness to be an effective treatment for abuse survivors.
Mindfulness training helps, says Lucas, because “you’re more empowered when you know what’s happening in your body and mind. If you notice when you’re distracted, then you can keep coming back; you can tell the difference and be more present.”
Think like a zebra
If you’re a zebra and a lion attacks, stress makes sense. When we feel threatened, our bodies secrete adrenaline and other hormones to deal with short-term physical crises. Evolution bequeathed us this stress response so we could escape lions, and it’s great for that.
It’s not so great for erections, though. Because when we’re running from lions, erections are kind of silly. That’s just not the time for pleasurable reproductive activities. And no woman is foolish enough to get preoccupied with her clitoris during a time of crisis. This much we know.
Trouble is, that same stress response kicks in when we’re faced with everyday worries, from traffic jams to utility bills to tomorrow’s PowerPoint presentation. And we stink at turning off those worries when we enter the bedroom.
The zebra doesn’t have that problem. When he’s not running from the lion, he’s pretty carefree. There’s no such thing as performance anxiety when you’re a zebra. That’s why the zebra may have a better sex life than we do. While we’re sitting around worrying about job evaluations, there are zebras out there having special mommy and daddy time.
We need to get a grip. Daily stress is a sex killer. In 21st-century America, it’s also pervasive, possibly inevitable. So how can we deal with the pressure and think more like zebras?
Reducing stress with the help of daily doses of mindfulness meditation can help. Christine Carter, author of Raising Happiness, suggests a few techniques:
- Make a list of all the things that make you stressed so you can deal with them.
- Change your routine and make plans that take the stress out of your day.
- Prioritize your own health and happiness.
Many studies suggest that cultivating compassion and forgiveness also reduces stress. This especially applies to our intimate relationships, where we can stress ourselves out over the wrong word or a sidelong glance or rolling eyes.
“When we trust somebody intimately, we’re opening ourselves up to pain because we are unprotected and they’re seeing us naked, physically and emotionally,” says Fred Luskin, who writes and teaches about forgiveness. Lots of men, especially, can’t deal with that—being vulnerable—and the result is boner-killing stress.
Luskin’s advice? Instead of stressing about how the ruling inamorata in your life may or may not have done you wrong, devote a bit more time to looking for her awesome qualities and work on accepting the things that make her as screwed-up as you are.
Use your tongue (and ears)
Are you for it or against it?
I know the answer should be obvious, but I ask because some guys are against it. I know I am. Oh sure, I have a few high-minded rhetorical points to make about the value of communication. (After all, I do it for a living). But sometimes my ideals and professional experience don’t translate into actions—or rather, words—at home. Just ask my wife.
Women often struggle with communication as well. Particularly, says Lucas, when they subsume their needs to others’ or are afraid to speak up about what they want.
In the Brown University study, Silverstein and her colleagues found that mindfulness was especially helpful to women because it helps in getting self-judgment out of the way, which leaves all kinds of room for arousal to be triggered by things they might have previously judged dirty. “Nonjudgment helps in communication with your partner,” she says, “in part because it enables you to say what turns you on.”
Of course, there’s more to sexual communication than sex. We have to also be mindful of the emotions we take with us into bed.
“I met recently with a man whose marriage is being smothered by the weight of everything unsaid,” writes neuroscientist Rick Hanson (who I’m pretty sure was not thinking of me). “But not talking is what’s actually blowing up their relationship—and, in fact, when people do communicate in a heartfelt way, it usually evokes support and open-heartedness from others.”
Hanson provides some mindful tips for breaking the silence barrier, such as first grounding yourself in good intentions and then allowing yourself to experience whatever is arising: feelings, body sensations, wants, memories, images. Try applying those principles when you bring up the death of oral sex in your relationship. Or a secret desire to dress up as an astronaut or a ballerina. Or whatever.
When you’ve been with someone for a long time, it’s normal to fall into a rut. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. But you’re not going to stir things up if you clam up. Speak, my friend. You might find that your girlfriend wants to be the astronaut and you want to be the ballerina. Why not? Try it.
And don’t forget: communication involves asking questions, too. So use your ears as well as your tongue, and perhaps strive to understand before you try to be understood. Above all, practice: Communicate early and often—and don’t forget to breathe. Maybe even pant.
Jeremy Adam Smith is editor of the Greater Good Science Center’s website and author of the book The Daddy Shift.