Sex is an important aspect of our life. It surprises me in this era of openness that people can still find talking about it uncomfortable. A friend of mine had an amazing idea for a blog post about teaching people about Mindfulness through talking about masturbation, and thus hoping to decrease some of this discomfort. It is my pleasure to have her as a guest blogger. Please let me introduce Dayna and a very interesting read.......
Dayna (Haig) Conway is currently completing the final chapter of her Master’s in Counselling Psychology (MACP) while navigating the joys and challenges of being a new mom. She works hard to find balance and calm in her new life and loves the opportunity to use her experiences to help others. She began her working life as an outdoor educator, physical education, and social studies teacher. Through teaching she discovered her true passion is to help support the mental wellness, realizing this is a major contributor to overall health, of others on an individual and small group scale. She began her journey to become a counsellor through youth and family support work before moving into her current role as a school counsellor. Dayna has combined her passions for the outdoors and supporting whole body wellness by helping design programs like the Girls Adventure Series in Fernie, BC. Additionally she has introduced therapeutic outdoor adventure programs into the schools to help children with anxiety and behavioural challenges. When she is not working or studying she can be found out on the trails hiking, biking or skiing with her friends and/or the whole family in tow.
Mindfulness, Masturbation, and Stress Reduction
I recently gave birth to my first child and the entire process from the moment I found out I was pregnant to months after giving birth has been a wild ride of thoughts and emotions. My spectrum of feelings has gone from extreme joy to extreme stress. I have felt both proud and stable in my new mama life and body some days, and others days felt as if I have been transplanted into someone else’s body that I do not recognize. It has become a time of reflection and exploration to help me navigate this new rollercoaster life I find myself on. My new life led me to increase my understanding of Mindfulness, a practice I have been drawn to since beginning my education in the mental health field. Many have heard of Mindfulness, an increasingly popular practice to help reduce stress and anxieties. The purpose of Mindfulness is to build moment-to-moment awareness of our thoughts and feelings through a non-judgmental lens. Jon Kabat-Zin, a renowned Mindfulness expert, defines it as paying attention on purpose to something in the present, non-judgmentally. This can be a surprisingly difficult skill to learn which is why a variety of methods and activities have been developed to practice one’s ability to be present. My first introduction to Mindfulness was breathing exercises. I found the experience rather challenging because breathing was not stimulating enough to keep me in the present for much more than three breaths, something I have heard is a common experience for many others. In lamenting to girlfriends one evening about my inability to practice focusing on my breath we began discussing more stimulating sensations. Possibly as a result of a couple glasses of wine the conversation turned to sexual stimulation. The only problem we deemed is that it involves a partner which often stops us from focusing solely on our own in the moment experience. This led to the topic of masturbation, an often awkward topic to discuss because many of us still feel some uncertainty about whether or not it is okay to do. We discussed why society still seems to be so uncomfortable with masturbation when many sexual health experts tout it as a safe and healthy sexual act. The main reason I could find is that North American society was predominantly built on religious values that viewed masturbation as a sin, and this perception of personal pleasure still lingers even though large percentages of the population masturbate and scoff at that deviant view of masturbation as outdated (Scowen, 2014). In his article, We need to talk about masturbation, the last great sexual taboo, Scowen (2014) explains that by ignoring the normalcy of masturbation we continue to connect it with fear and shame, which is both dangerous and harmful. He references the case of a young boy caught and secretly filmed masturbating in the school bathroom by his peers. The video went viral and he was bullied and shamed to such an extent that he wound up taking his own life. This is an extreme example of why we need move beyond the stigma that still surrounds personal pleasure, but it is relevant to this discussion. So, in our evening of embarrassingly discussing sexual pleasure, we laughed in the face of ‘socially acceptable dinner conversation’ and discussed the potential of masturbation being used as a modality on one’s journey to mindful living. The more we discussed it, the more the idea made sense. Is there anything better than pleasurable touch to keep your mind present on the moment?
Why do I want to practice Mindfulness when I am stressed?
The practice of Mindfulness can help us cope with life stressors and anxieties by bringing attention into the present moment and away from the what-if’s and other worries that past and future thoughts can bring. I have always tried to be present in what I am doing but have found it difficult with an increasing list of to-do’s that adulthood seems to entail. Research has shown that, without realizing it our minds naturally wander away from what we are doing and focus on other things (Campbell, 2017). I am always shocked when I am being walked through a meditation on being present in yoga class and I still wander off. I often realize I have spent the last 20 minutes of the practice thinking about how I am going to find time to walk the dog, get my assignment done, play with my child, pay bills, go to the grocery store and make time for friends – all of which speeds up my heart rate and causes me to sweat in the calmest of environments. According to Kabat-Zinn, throughout the history of humans this was an effective skill as it allowed us to scan for threats or think about future or potential problems and work them out in our heads. The issue with this ability is that when we begin thinking about and imagining potential challenges (time-stress, rejection, failure, loss, money problems, etc.), we may respond to those events as if they are happening right now, resulting in feelings of stress and anxiety (Campbell, 2017). By practicing Mindfulness we learn to recognize when our minds have begun to take part in a stress inducing wander and pull them back to the present moment. This may sound like a simple task but in reality practice can be very challenging. I am reminded of this every time I arrive at a new social situation with a stomach full of butterflies. The situation can range from a dreaded work event to social event around a sport I love, my butterflies join either way. They used to be my first signal that I was nervous; reminding me I unintentionally spent the entire car ride thinking about everything that could go wrong in the new situation. By practicing Mindfulness I have gradually become more aware of my mind wandering before the butterflies arrive, but it continues to take a lot of work. This is why finding alternative methods to practice may be more effective at helping some increase the amount of time they can focus on the present moment. This may include exercises that are more physically stimulating than focusing on breath, movement or grounding.
How does someone practice Mindfulness?
Kabot-Zinn explains that Mindfulness can be practiced in a variety of different ways; the purpose is the state of mind and not the modality of getting there. After reading this explanation post-wine-night, I thought maybe there is some merit to the masturbation conversation; could this be an example of an alternative modality? To answer this question, I explored different ways of practicing Mindfulness and connected with Concentration Meditations. Concentration Meditations are used to practice Mindfulness by focusing attention on one thing for a given period of time. The goal is to build capacity and notice when our attention begins to wander and observe the experience non-judgmentally. If you have ever tried to practice this, you may agree that it can be very difficult to focus on a given thought for an extended period of time, even when you are being guided the way I had been in my yoga class. This is why this form of Mindfulness often includes a physical sensation to focus on such as our breath or a touch. Ah, the wine night discussion has found its connection; masturbation is just another example of touch. Interestingly, Concentration Meditation is often recommended as a first step in building core skills for other forms of Mindfulness. Maybe I find practicing Mindfulness so difficult because I have not spent enough time practicing this step. Realistically, my lack of practice has to do with feelings of time scarcity that so many in our society suffer with. I believe I am not alone in feeling that I am already ‘expected’ to accomplish so many tasks in a day, which makes setting aside time to meditate feel like another item I do not have space for on my never ending to-do list. I only want to spend my small amounts of free time on activities that are enjoyable and do not feel like another task I have to check off. Focusing on breath or the sensation of grounding one’s feet into the floor are two popular physical sensations used to practice but may not be stimulating enough for some to begin their Mindful journey. Another likely more pleasurable option that is unlikely to be found on anyone’s to-do list is personal stimulation in the form of masturbation.
How does masturbation connect to Mindfulness?
Using masturbation to find one’s own personal sexual pleasure can bring focus onto a present sensation, which like Mindfulness helps provide relaxation. So, back to that main question proposed at wine night; can masturbation be used as a form of Concentration Meditation and help to practice Mindfulness? That depends whether the individual feels that through masturbation you are paying attention on purpose, to something in the present, non-judgmentally. Unfortunately, masturbation has a lot of negative stigma around it, which makes us uncomfortable discussing the topic. In searching for articles on the topic, I found they mostly discussed males and often explained masturbation in a manner that seemed negative or deviant. I personally found myself deleting my browser history after my searches for fear of someone discovering I was reading up on such a strange topic. In order to utilize this method to practice Mindfulness, one cannot feel that they are doing something wrong, weird, strange or gross (examples of statements people have made when I have told them what I have been reading about). So I began to question myself, am I weird for making this connection? Thankfully, my answer came soon after my little one was born. Like many women after childbirth, I needed to discuss re-strengthening my pelvic floor. Many of the most reliable and educated women I know told me that kegals (an exercise where you squeeze and release your pelvic muscles – like holding in your pee) are a great way to rebuild your pelvic floor. I thought it was funny how easily people discussed an exercise that, in my opinion, is so closely related to masturbation, but do not discuss it in anyway related to personal pleasure. I decided to see a medical professional for help, and she explained that external sexual stimulation is one of the best ways to help re-strengthen the pelvic floor and can be done personally or by a partner. There was my answer, there is nothing strange at all about exploring positive self-stimulation, and in fact it is a completely normal behaviour that begins at an early age in human development. So, not only is masturbation not strange or deviant, but it has the potential to be beneficial to both mental and physical health, growth and recovery. On top of all these exciting findings further research led me to discover even more positive reasons to use masturbation to reduce stress and support our mental well-being! In addition to potentially creating an experience to help an individual practice concentrating on a present sensation, masturbation releases both dopamine and oxytocin (Mintz, 2014), additional benefits that are not found with other physical sensation practices. Dopamine and oxytocin are both feel-good neurochemicals associated with increased feelings of satisfaction (Love, 2014) and who does not want a rush of additional feel-good neurochemicals to help fight stress?
How does one masturbate Mindfully?
Some individuals use external stimulus, such as pornography or by focusing their thoughts on sexual encounters or fantasies, in order to take part in self-pleasure, but this is not Mindful. In order to practice Concentration Meditation, the individual must focus on the physical sensations of the act. This may vary from person to person, but an example includes: finding a comfortable relaxing place free of distractions or possible intrusions. This may involve lying down, propped up on pillows, in a comfortable chair, being in a shower, etc. To begin concentrating on touch, one can start by lightly running fingertips over arms and legs, paying attention to that feeling on skin. This can evolve to moving to more sensitive areas of the body and asking oneself; what are the sensations? This will be a very personal journey that involves staying in the moment and letting thoughts pass non-judgmentally through our minds in order to achieve a pleasurable state. The purpose of the exercise is to be fully in the moment, enjoying the presence of oneself.
In summary, this article began as a fun brain storm with friends during a stressful stage in life but resulted in the discovery of another modality to practice Mindfulness in a deeply personal way that may include both mental and physical health benefits. It is not suggesting that masturbation is for everyone, nor does it claim that it is the only enjoyable way to learn how to increase concentration and become increasingly mindful. It is simply providing alternative ideas for focused physical stimulation to practice being present in the moment.
If you have any questions, comments, or want further information I would love to hear from you. Please send me an email at: email@example.com
Campbell, M. (2017). Teaching mindfulness and compassion. Transpersonal Psychology Review, 19(1), 45–50.
Love, T. (2014). Oxytocin, motivation and the role of dopamine. Pharmacology Biochemisty and Behavior, 119,49-60.
Mintz, L. (2014). A touchy Subject: The health benefits of masturbation: A student guest blogger touts masturbation. Psychology Today. Retrieved from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/stress-and-sex/201401/touchy-subject-the-health-benefits-masturbation
Research roundup: Mindfulness-based stress reduction. (2014, October 23). PracticeUpdate.
Scowen, P. (2014, July 18). We need to talk about masturbation, the last great sexual taboo. The Globe and Mail. Retrived from:https://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/parenting/we-need-to-talk-about-masturbation-the-last-great-sexual-taboo/article19678627/
Society for Humanistic Psychology Renowned Mindfulness Expert Jon Zabat-Zinn Brings Message of Mindfulness to the APA. (n.d.). Society for Humanistic Psychology. Renowned Mindfulness Expert Jon Zabat-Zinn Brings Message of Mindfulness to the APA.