Take a moment to sit down and let your day and the to-do list fall away. Let yourself be aware of your body, all parts of it, from your head down to your hard working feet. As you allow you attention to settle briefly on each part of your body, notice how you feel when you notice each part. Now take a moment to place your attention on your genitals. Without censoring too much or trying too hard, let 3 words come to mind to describe your genitals. Write these words down and look at them for a moment How do you feel about the words you chose? What do they say about your relationship to your genitals? to your sexual body in general? Are there judgments in the words you chose? Do you want to change them?
Take a few more minutes with the words you chose themselves. Do they have other meanings or associations for you? What else would you describe using those words? What do they remind you of? You may even want to take some time to draw images to go with those words.
Now shift you attention to your genitals again. Let that part of you body receive your full attention for a moment. I know this will seem wacky, but go with me here...Write a letter from your genitals to yourself. What would this incredible part of your body want to say to you? What would your genitals say about how you have taken care of them? What would they ask from you in taking care of them in the future? What do they want you to know about your self and your sexuality?
This can be a surprising and enlightening exercise, and it can bring up painful feelings and thoughts about our natural bodies. Remember that we can change, we can unfold new elements of our selves. Seek support if this feels overwhelming or daunting. It is never to late to have a different relationship with your body.
Recently there was a tiny article in the news about a middle school principal banning girls from wearing strapless dresses to the school dance because they “distract boys”. Parents at the school are protesting and I think they should, for several reasons. I also think this story says a lot about the ways we as a society go wrong in addressing adolescent sexuality.
First question of course is – what are the boys supposed to be focusing on at a school dance? I mean truly, what are they distracted from that is so important? Should they be finely honing their dance moves? Memorizing song lyrics? Part of what is maddening about this story, is that the principal seems to have missed the point of a school dance in the first place. We are supposed to be distracted by our fellow students, we are supposed to learn to dance and flirt and get flustered by mutual and not so mutual attractions. This is not about troublesome distractions, this is about pretending that adolescents are not going to actually be interested in each other’s bodies or sex.
The next piece of this that disturbs me is this: if boys are not supposed to be distracted in this way, how will they ever learn to handle the sexual distractions that are around them all the time? I believe that one of the important tasks we (all of us, boy and girls) are to learn in adolescence is how to handle our own sexual energy and desires, while respecting others boundaries and appropriate social settings. Even if adults could manage to create an environment in which teenage boys were not distracted by people they were attracted to, who would this serve? Certainly not their future partners. Not the boys themselves. We need to learn that our sexual energy and desire is not an overwhelming force over which we have no control. We have to learn to be distracted and still function. And we have to learn to not blame our distraction on the externals, other people, cute girls, etc, but to own that we have choices in the way we behave and to some extent in where we focus our mind and thoughts.
And then there is the piece that many parents at this school complained about, which is the implication that girls, by the way they dress, behave, look, should mediate the boys’ sexuality. This is a dangerous implication that has shown its ugly head in rape cases and sexual harassment cases for years. If only women can carry the burden of repressing our sexual natures, then we would be safe from the consequences, and perhaps the freedoms, of sexuality. This outdated sexist model has got to go. Now.
We are all responsible for our own sexual behaviors. It can be a challenge sometimes, no doubt. We are surrounded by a big juicy, sexy world with lots of distractions. Learning how to navigate in that world is valuable and we need to support kids, and adults, in how to do that with grace, respect, and also excitement and passion. Invite sexual distraction – without it the world would be a much less alive place.
I got to go and see Natalie Goldberg speak recently. She is a teacher and artist who has linked creative writing into a Zen practice. Her guidance has been a gift to writers around the world who need to be reminded to just sit down and write, to release editing and judgment, and to actually observe the world around you and write what is present and real to you.
She said something about the concept of having a “practice” that really struck a bell inside of me. She said the Zen concept of having a practice is not about improving. You actually don’t sit down to practice to get better. It is not about striving to be at the next level. You practice because you committed to practice. She said – and this really shook me – you practice to just feel and be where you are NOW because you believe what you are doing is valuable in itself. I started thinking about all the things I had been encouraged to practice throughout my life and how it always seemed that the reason I was doing it was so that I would get better. And I thought about the pressure of that kind of practice and how it so often stopped me from really appreciating and settling in to what I was doing at the moment.
It is the American way to strive. We are a self-improvement minded (some could say obsessed) nation. We are rarely encouraged to do something just for fun anymore; things almost always have to include a reason why something is good for us. We are a country of people who deeply believe we can and should do better.
What does this have to do with sex? Well, I was thinking about this constant focus on doing better, doing more, reaching the next level and I realized this is something people do to their sexuality as well. If the expectation is that our sex lives – with one partner, multiple partners or ourselves - will get progressively hotter, more intense, with better performances each time, we are setting ourselves up for disappointment and frustration. Even worse though, if we are focusing on taking it to some new level, we are often missing what is actually happening in the moment. “Practicing” so we can perform better can take us away from pleasure. Sometimes it could be helpful to just have the sex we are actually having in an awake and accepting frame of mind.
We are not taught to think in terms of “good enough” in America. And some of you are probably feeling a bit betrayed for me to even suggest that we not strive for better sex all of the time. To be clear, I think people’s sex lives can get more and more satisfying as we grow and I think we can try new things, learn new skills, and have more fun and more orgasms. I wouldn’t be in the field unless I believed in those things. However, I also believe that a lot of people are dismissing good sexual experiences because they think they should be having some other kind of sexual experience. And a lot of couples feel like they are failing because they haven’t tried something new lately. So how about this as an experiment – What if you approached sex and/or masturbation like a zen-practice just one time? Make a commitment to be present for it, to let go of trying to increase the velocity or intensity, to really try and be aware of where you are at that time. What if you engaged in sex this one time because you believe it is important and valuable, even if it never reaches some new level? What if you believed that the sexual experience, just as you are having it, had something valuable to show you?