“can we want what we already have?” -Esther Perel Mating in Captivity
Mindfulness has many different descriptions, though most of these descriptions are united in the way they see, and practice mindfulness. Most approaches to mindfulness recognise the human minds habitual tendency to wander into distraction, to get caught up in ruminating; often on the past or agitating on future worries, often in a kind of dreamy imagination. This can be experienced in a very mild way, but also can be quite severe and chronic, in terms of a mind that is swept into past trauma or hurtles into a panic about an uncertain future.
We might also be caught up in a fantasy, the likes of which are quite spellbinding. The commonality here is that often we’re not here, right here, in this present moment. This is our wavering and wandering attention, never quite focused on the present; in fact, studies in neuroscience suggest that our attention is actually a fraction of a second behind the present moment; not much, but enough to say that we are very, very rarely “in the now”. 1
The second aspect of mindfulness regards our attitude. We bring attitudes of judgement, we evaluate, conceptualise and attempt to freeze the world into what kind of pre-set notions we have and we would prefer; the judgements we have are also self-judgements, and they can range from mild doubt to self-hatred.
When we put this altogether there is a third aspect of, or if you like a major consequence of, this dis-attention and judgemental attitude; it can result in a need to be up in our heads, to disconnect from out felt sense of what’s happening right now-this probably starts as a safety device, a kind of self-protection, but ends up being a way of living without embodiment, somewhat disconnected from our bodies.
As a practice, mindfulness is seen as a cushion sitting practice or walking and lying down (e.g. bodyscan) or a range of informal practices, such as washing the dishes, eating.
But what place does mindfulness have in our sex lives?
Our sex drive is one of our most powerful instincts, needs and wants. Sexual messages flood into our everyday life, in TV, commercials, film, billboards and we tend to think about sex a lot: am I getting enough, are we doing it right? How do I know I’m good in bed? What other ways are there of doing it? Wow I really want him/her! My body is too fat, my breasts are too big, my penis is not big enough….and so on. We are wanting, desirous human beings who yearn and are fearful of blissful union. All of thinking takes us out of the present moment of being that enables this to happen, and we end up supposing that sex means two skinny folk who orgasm at the same time and who never, never think of Hugh Jackman or Scarlett Johannsen while doing it: no fantasy here!
Yet studies in sexology, notably the work of Michael Bader2 and Nancy Friday3, would strongly suggest this is a myth. Fantasy is a part of, a vital doorway into, our sex lives, furthermore when you get two people having sex they will not only fantasise about other people but when they do it makes for a better sex life. It’s not actually the wandering mind that matters most, it’s the judgement of wandering mind (e.g. oh, I’m thinking of the next door neighbour naked while I’m going down on you, what’s going wrong?)
So how can mindfulness help?
If mindfulness is the faculty we have of bringing our wandering mind and body back to the present moment without judgment then it seems that it would be wholly applicable to our sex lives.
Sex, whether it be making love, shagging, or a bloody good f*&k brings us into the moment, wakes us up, takes us powerfully into our ability to express our erotic nature, our élan vital and during sex we can become powerfully embodied. We can also be deeply compassionate towards the other and ourselves, both asking for what we want, what positions we most wish for, what risks we might take (in the car, outside, in the cloakroom) and how we might want the other to pleasure us (e.g. clitoral rather than vaginal attention, base rather than tip of penis). We can also be more compassionately prepared to open up to what the other desires and experiment more (ditto the list before). This then turns into a sense of mindful and mutual pleasuring.
And it’s also about bringing a sense of time as more attention into sex. So much of our time is spent going from one thing to another that sex can be just another timetabled activity (or random act) that is ticked off but not really savoured. Instead of reacting to the other or being the one who initiates sex (and risks rejection) set up a night, a time, create a setting in the bedroom (candles, massage oil, blindfolds, handcuffs and sex toys if you wish) and make this your sex time. Really take time to be there, engage and adore each other’s bodies, deepening into many moments of skin to skin, play with eye to eye contact, exploring your fantasies with your partner.
Of course, some of your fantasies might be about giving and receiving with more than one partner; polyamorous relationships are becoming popular, and though the weight of guilt and self-criticism can stop us asking our partners if they too would be interested in this, being more compassionate with ourselves and our hidden desires can engage us to be more open, yielding some surprising results.
So, too, with solo sex: the pleasures of masturbation (which does not have to be done solo; masturbating in the presence of our partners can be powerfully connective): once we discharge feelings of societal guilt and shame around this it can be both meaningful and hugely liberating.
Finally, we might enjoy extending our mindful sex lives. Sex is often focussed on breasts and genitals, but letting that sense of focus sweep all over the body, the nape of the neck, the hollow of the hand, or slowly, gently, kissing each other lips, undressing each other with a tender sense of exploration and love can increase feelings of being here, being held, being wanted and desired, being loved and alive.
Mindfulness practices can bring us closer to the present moment, with all of its embodied responses, and mindfulness can also bring us off the cushion and into bedroom, enhancing our sex lives and restoring the erotic into our relationships: sexual fantasy might just be the doorway in.