“Without the ability to be present we are missing much of what the adventure has to offer.” Allan Lokos, Patience: The Art of Peaceful Living
My life changed irrevocably when I took an eight-week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (“MBSR”) meditation class in September of 2013. I was about six years into my sexual healing process and had been attending workshops on love, intimacy and sexuality through the Human Awareness Institute. In those six years, I had healed in so many areas and was appreciating how normal my sexuality really was. And yet, it wasn’t until I took the MBSR class that my healing came full circle.[i]
Mindfulness in the MBSR context, according to founder Jon Kabat-Zinn, is: 1)Paying attention; 2)In the present moment; 3)On purpose; 4)Without judgment. At its core, MBSR asks participants to sit quietly in an upright posture and to focus on present-moment sensation by paying attention to one’s breathing. If thoughts interrupt (and boy, they sure do!) the meditator simply returns his/her/their attention back to the breath.
After a few weeks into my MBSR training I wondered: what would it be like to apply mindfulness to sex? Thus, when my husband and I were intimate the next time, I paid attention and … OMG, it was as if I were feeling sexual touch and sensuality for the first time ever! Sensation exploded. Richly layered, textured, energetic pulses coursed through my body as my husband touched me. My orgasm was off the charts. I realized that being mindful during sex shattered literally years of dissociation. As a sex abuse survivor, I had mastered the art of disappearing during sex, of tolerating touch as opposed to actually feeling it, of having disembodied orgasms. But mindful sex? This was something wonderful! This was pure pleasure and sensation I could feel, wallow in, absorb and delight in.
And my life changed in ways I never anticipated. I decided at that moment that I’d dedicate the rest of my life helping other people to find their way back to embodied, empowered sexuality, because the depth of connectivity I felt with my husband, the richness of pleasure I felt in my body showed me what I had missed being so closed off to sex and sensation. It also deepened our intimacy, a huge and unexpected bonus.
Imagine my surprise when I discovered the work of Dr. Lori Brotto, a psychologist whose research emphasizes using MBSR to help women to reconnect to sexual sensation—embodied sexuality! It seems that my personal experience is well-replicated in the laboratory. According to Dr. Brotto, one significant issue that separates women from their desire is being too busy. She believes that “multitasking is the death knell of desire.”[ii]
“Women, perhaps mothers in particular, are lauded for their split attention: Cooking dinner while balancing the checkbook. Folding laundry while taking a conference call. Pumping breast milk while grinding through the morning commute. It’s doubtful this I don’t know how she does it-defying capacity actually serves women. Indeed, the evidence suggests that it contributes to our outsized share of stress, anxiety, and depression, plus the generalized feelings of depletion and never being enough. Brotto believes this trait really works against women when it comes to sex. Our self-congratulatory multitasking, she says, is ruinous to our erotic health. Rather than tuning into our bodily sensations, we become ensnarled in webs of self-censoring, list-making, and incessant problem-solving. We’re caught up in our heads and can’t drop into our skin—so much so that a stroke on the genitals might as well be a tap on the elbow.”[iii]
While my disconnect from my sexuality was largely the result of childhood sex abuse[iv], being acculturated to be chronically busy is just as much of a set-up for low desire. As Dr. Brotto has discovered, being in the present moment is key to desire: “Women in the throes of eroticism are not marching through their to dos, or reviewing the day’s trials and triumphs. They are both physically and psychologically connected to the immediate; they are, in short, participants in their own sexuality.”[v]
Though in-person MBSR classes will be limited during the COVID-19 outbreak, a great local resource is Lisa Freinkel-Tishman, who is the only certified MBSR Instructor in Lane County. Having taken Lisa’s MBSR class, I can recommend it—and her instruction—very highly. Human, compassionate, smart, committed and generous in spirit, you won't find a better MBSR teacher.
Mindfulness allows us to feel, to tune in to sensation, to recognize our arousal and our pleasure. It is indeed a powerful tool on the path to sexual embodiment and empowerment.
[i] I really don’t consider that my healing is “complete” as my sexuality--so long held in abeyance, is a place where growth and change feeds my vitality. I’ve continued to take a range of HAI and other sexuality workshops while also reading voraciously cutting edge books and research studies on topics related to sexuality. [ii] The Pleasure Gap: American Women and the Unfinished Sexual Revolution,” by Katherine Rowland, p. 117. [iii] Id., p. 117-18. [iv] Catholicism, a conservative mid-western upbringing, and a tendency to form around other’s desires also heavily contributed to my disconnect. [v] The Pleasure Gap: American Women and the Unfinished Sexual Revolution,” by Katherine Rowland., p. 118.