By Jeff Wilson
Mindfulness seems to be everywhere in North American society today. One of the more interesting developments of this phenomenon is the emergence of mindful sex—the ability to let go of mental strain and intrusive thoughts so one can fully tap into sexual intercourse.
But how do we truly let go of various pervading thoughts and completely immerse ourselves in the sexual moment? Mindful sex is practiced in a variety of medical, religious, and spiritual ways.
In my research I’ve noticed three broad streams for the mindful sex movement. The first category is the scientific discussion of using mindfulness to treat sexually-related problems in a patient or client population. In the past six years more than a dozen clinical studies of the effectiveness of mindfulness in treating sexual problems have been published in respected peer-reviewed medical and psychological journals.
A leader in this field is Dr. Lori Brotto. She created a program for women who experienced lowered levels of sexual arousal following treatment for gynecologic cancers, and mindfulness meditation was a primary element. As Brotto explains, “After a foundation of mindfulness skills was established, we introduced more sensually-focused mindfulness exercises in which women were encouraged to notice sensations in the body while engaged in a progressive series of activities, for instance while having a bath, while examining her genitals in a mirror, while applying light touch to her genitals… Finally, they were introduced to erotic tools such as visual erotica, fantasy, and vibrators as reliable methods of boosting the sexual arousal response followed by a mindfulness of body sensations immediately afterward while they took note of any triggered arousal sensations in the body.” Initial results were encouraging, and subsequent studies seemed to support the assertion that mindfulness practice can help mitigate some problems for women experiencing significant sex-related conditions, especially decreased interest in sexual activity due to psychological or medical trauma.
Studies such as Brotto’s are designed for the consumption of elite audiences with sophisticated training in the study and treatment of serious human maladies. They use Buddhist practices for clinical purposes, hoping to move their patients away from the effects of disease and biomedical treatment, defined in these studies as greater ability to engage in sexual activity and reduction of sex-related pain.
The second category of works on mindful sex—those belonging to the self-help genre—take these impulses further. These books and articles are often written by medical doctors, therapists, and other specialists, but their target audience is mainstream North Americans without any particular credentials or connection to the health industries. As such, they reach a vastly larger audience than the medicalized mindfulness studies. Books in this category are no strangers to the bestseller lists, and these mindful sex promoters tout their expertise on impressive websites and through popular TED talks.
A good example of this category is A Tired Woman’s Guide to Passionate Sex, by Dr. Laurie Mintz. As she states, “If you are among the astonishingly large group of women whose chief complaint is that chronic fatigue and stress from balancing multiple demands has led to a disinterest in sex, this book is designed to help you. The goal of this book is to get you feeling sexual again.” How does one achieve this goal? You guessed it: mindful sex. As Mintz explains, “Mindful sex is sex in which you are totally and completely immersed in the physical sensations of your body.”
The goal here is taken beyond dealing with serious medical illness, as in the scientific studies, and reoriented now toward providing what Mintz calls “awesome sex.” Using Buddhist practices in pop cultural applications, these promoters try to move their audience closer to a state of well-being, defined as getting past the regular difficulties of mainstream North American life and achieving more and better orgasms, along with increased emotional intimacy with one’s partner.
The third category is spiritual applications of Buddhist mindfulness to sex. These are typically promoted by people without formal medical or psychological credentials who operate outside of overtly Buddhist institutions. They offer mindful sex as part of a package of techniques and perspectives for personal enhancement.
An example is Orgasmic Yoga. As co-founder Bruce Gether explains in his manifesto, Nine Golden Keys to Mindful Masturbation:
“Mindful masturbation is a simple, yet powerful practice. It requires dedication, and becomes its own reward. Just pay full attention while you masturbate. Don’t let yourself get distracted by imagination. Keep your primary focus on yourself, your own body, your penis and your own sensations. This path of self-pleasure can take you into realms of ecstasy you have never before experienced.”
Mindful sex is framed in religious language here, rather than medical or psychological ones. As Gether says, “your penis is sacred… Your penis is an organ designed to provide you with the awareness that you are one with all things.” These spiritual applications of mindful sex go even further than the self-help ones, using Buddhist practices to help initiates achieve self-growth and transcendental bliss.
What are the points that I want to make with all of this? First, North Americans use Buddhist practices to enhance their desires, rather than retreat from or conquer them. Mindfulness of the body used to be an ascetic monastic practice designed to eliminate sexual feelings and break down the erroneous sense of an enduring personal self. Mindful sex is a pleasure-enhancing practice designed for laypeople to rekindle their sexual fires, promote self-esteem, and variously lead the practitioner to mind-blowing orgasm, greater bonding, or perhaps metaphysical oneness with all.
This transformation may be seen as ironic, but it is not without precedent, as Buddhism has been used for achieving this-worldly benefits more or less since its creation, be they faith-healing, safe childbirth, protection from harm, and so on. This sort of flexibility is what allows complex religious traditions such as Buddhism to cross cultural borders and find niches in new societies. By appearing in scientific, self-help, and spiritual modes, mindfulness is able to influence a far larger percentage of North Americans than the relatively small number of formal Buddhist adherents.
Jeff Wilson is Associate Professor of Religious Studies and East Asian Studies at Renison University College (University of Waterloo). He is the author of Mourning the Unborn Dead: A Buddhist Ritual Comes to America, Dixie Dharma: Inside a Buddhist Temple in the American South, and Mindful America: The Mutual Transformation of Buddhist Meditation and American Culture.