We live in a sex-saturated society where messages about pleasing your partner and navigating casual hook-ups are abundant. On television, we see couples having unrestrained sex in elevators, without having to worry about using condoms, putting the kids to bed or brushing their teeth. Desire is depicted like a hunger—a craving that builds and builds until we can finally satisfy it. And if we aren’t feeling that hunger often and spontaneously, society tell us, there must be something wrong with us.
However, in reality, low sexual desire is surprisingly common and as many as 40% of women will find themselves losing motivation or interest in sex at one point in their lives. It’s often difficult to determine the exact cause of the problem, but factors such as mood, anxiety, stress and low-confidence in body image have all been proven to play a role. In particular, feeling self-judgmental, distracted or worried during sex can seriously diminish enjoyment and desire. Our own thoughts and emotions, it turns out, can be our biggest challenge when it comes to sex.
But can we teach ourselves to turn that around? In my own research, my team and I teach women to practice present moment, non-judgmental awareness as a means of cultivating desire. Mindfulness meditation trains the brain to stay in the here and now, fending off the distractions and negative self-judgement that so often get in the way of sexual pleasure. By enabling the mind to connect more completely with the body, these techniques allow women to more fully experience all of the exquisite sensations of sex. The effects of mindfulness are powerful—so powerful, in fact, that I believe satisfying sex is simply not possible without it.
There are many different exercises one can practice to become more mindful, but a simple mindfulness of breath practice is often a good place to start. Here is what it looks like:
● Close your eyes and get into a comfortable position, taking notice of your posture and the points of contact between your body and your surroundings.
● Gently guide your attention toward the breath at your nostrils. Notice the sensations of the inbreath and outbreath there.
● Now guide your focus down to your chest. Can you feel the movements of your chest as you inhale and exhale? What sensations in your body do you feel? Where are they?
● Gently guide your focus downwards to your belly. Can you feel your abdomen moving out as you inhale and in as you exhale?
● For a few minutes, keep your attention focused on all the sensations associated with breathing. As your mind wanders or gets distracted, be kind to yourself and escort your mind back to noticing the breath. It is normal and expected for the mind to wander. Just refocus on the here and now.
Mindfulness is not only about paying attention, it is also about how we pay attention—non-judgmentally and compassionately. By practicing an exercise like this one, for at least 10 minutes per day (and up to 45 minutes per day), everyday, we can develop the muscle needed to be fully present. And we can incorporate that practice into our sex lives, by noticing when we feel in the mood, by paying attention to arousal when it starts to unfold and by paying attention to all the body’s sensations during sex.
We can also be compassionate to ourselves when things don’t go well or we have judgmental thoughts. Mindfulness is such a simple practice—and yet, for so many women, it can be truly transformational.
Dr. Lori A. Brotto is a clinical psychologist, sex researcher and author of Better Sex Through Mindfulness, a groundbreaking approach to improving desire, arousal and sexual satisfaction.