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Mindful : June 2013
56 mindful June 2013 life I f mindfulness can make us happier, healthier, and more compassionate (that is, if the raft of current sci- entific research is to be believed), what ca n that same moment-to-moment awareness do for our sex lives? Imag ine 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, tun- ing 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. A nd it’s probably the most subjective thing you’re likely to have an opinion on. (Sub- stitute 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 ma king chitchat with, say, your dry clea ner could develop into something pretty awkwa rd a nd inappropriate.) But get two people sharing some inti- mate 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 mat ter), but we get to dance with something more powerful tha n us for a little while. It’s the differ- ence between chess and ta ngo. And being mindfully aware in situa- tions like that can work wonders. Or so researchers at Brown University found. Their study was desig ned 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 obser ve 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 wom- en with more g yrified insula experience more intense orgasms. If you’re curious, then, the first, best, and simplest step you can take toward more mindful, a nd 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 t wo decades, many researchers have documented the ben- efits 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 Berke- ley. As he pointed out, the Chinese char- acter 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 a s a goal that we forget to notice what ’s happening right now. The hea rt can’t be present because there are other orga ns driving the encounter. “Orgasm is a good thing, but there’s more to it than genital friction,” says Marsha Lucas, a neuropsychologist a nd 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 dur- ing sex comes naturally. But, alas, it’s also natural for our minds to wander or Jeremy Adam Smith is editor of the Greater Good Science Center’s website and author of the book The Daddy Shift.