Tom is not meeting my eyes as he sits in my office. He quickly blurts out that he has been looking at porn online, pretty often, and is worried that he has changed his desires and that now he will never be satisfied with the sex he and his wife have.
Sarah says she is frustrated with sex with her partner and practically whispers, “Could my using a vibrator have made it so I can’t orgasm without it anymore?”
Both these people are asking a similar question, “Has something I have done changed my sexual responses permanently? Am I still normal?” And of course, the really unspoken question, “Is sex dangerous? Can I ruin myself in some way?” The thing is we have been led to believe that sex is dangerous, that there are bad behaviors, that we are all just one misstep from being a damaged sexual being. But the truth is, we, as humans, are a lot more adaptable than that. And now we are finding brain science to back that up.
There are two brain concepts that are helpful here. One is the principle of learned disuse. This is not a complicated thing to understand and we are all familiar with it. If you stop trying to do something, you will more quickly lose the ability to do that thing. Pretty simple. This is true for all kinds of behaviors or skills. But what we know from the frankly amazing extents of human recovery, and now from brain scans, if people work at regaining a skill, even if that skill has atrophied and it is now very hard to do, people can rewire their brain to recover that ability. It may not be easy, it may in fact be quite frustrating especially if you have developed an easier way to meet a similar need, but it can be done. Which bring us to the concept of neural plasticity. Science-y sounding words, yes, but again fairly easy to understand. Our brains our fundamentally flexible, they are ready to learn patterns. In the brain’s readiness to learn patterns we train our brain; it is efficient and designed to respond quickly. So if we do a behavior a certain way several times we are programming our brain to that behavior. That pattern will become the default program for us. Neuroscience researcher, Norman Doidge MD, explains this beautifully with a snow analogy. Think if walking through fresh snow, the first pass through you set down a trail of slightly packed snow. When you walk that way again, it will be easiest to step into the track that is already laid down. Each pass makes that track more efficient for you and in fact, it will be difficult to walk to either side of it; your feet will be pulled into the track already laid down. But you can choose to walk outside that track. It will take more effort but you can eventually lay down a new path in the snow. The same is true for our mind and our behaviors.
So this is true of our sexual behaviors too. Sarah and Tom may have laid down some patterns for themselves that now are holding them back from experiencing other sexual elements that they want. But they can retrain themselves to have new patterns. It may be frustrating at first. It may involve avoiding the easy path that has been working for them in other ways, doing things differently. But the flexibility is there. So, no you are not ruined. You are a creature of habit in ways that go deeper than we imagined, but also a creature of continuous change and growth. If you are willing to be frustrated for awhile, you can make changes, to your sex life and to other aspects of yourself.
I remember, back in the day, when Martha Stewart was really reaching the peak of popularity. I started hearing people saying, “Damn that Martha Stewart, now we are expected to –fill in the domestic artistry of your choice-“. I was confused by this, since I was pretty happy that Ms Stewart had opened the options up and I liked being invited to be creative. But that is the key, right? How quickly we can turn an invitation into an expectation. And, in so doing, ruin most of the fun and make something into a burden.
So speaking of ruining our fun, how was your Valentine’s Day? Did you somehow find yourself turning what could be a perfectly fine night for a date into something fraught with emotional baggage? If you did, you are not alone. Romance struck down again by the great expectations of needing to live up to every possibility presented out there in the world. And I think it is getting worse for us, now not only do we compare ourselves to magazine articles and romantic movies and Hallmark cards, but now we get to compare ourselves to “normal people”, our friends and family on social media everyday. And the expectations grow.
And we can get to the point where we are not enjoying because we are wondering how this experience we are having holds up to other people’s experiences. We do this with date nights, we do this with sex. Until for some of us, a perfectly satisfying sexual experience becomes turned into something like this, “Oh that was nice...But was it exciting enough? Are we too boring, should we be having more oral sex? I never wear lingerie, is that bad? I didn’t fantasize about anything, is that OK? That only took 20 minutes, should there be more? What are we doing wrong?”
The benefit of living in a world with readily available information is that – if you want new ideas, they are there for you. There is a vast source of creative, diverse and sometimes helpful options at all times. Your life is yours to shape. The problems come when we forget that it is our life to shape and not a to-do list of how to live the best life/have the best relationship/keep sex hot. The relentless call to self improvement can grab us and pull us away from the life we have now, a life that probably has some pretty sweet moments – even if they don’t warrant a single LIKE. We are never absented from deciding what we want for ourselves so enjoy what is fun/romantic/sexually satisfying/inspiring/etc for you. Enjoy it fully and don’t turn the all the invitations out there into expectations.
So here is a Valentine’s Day Re-Do Challenge for you – Consider that no one else will ever know what you chose to do together. Take a day that is yours alone, a secret day with no witnesses or input from others, and decide how you want to spend it. What makes you feel close to each other? What is fun for you? Then enjoy it deeply with no distractions.
What would it mean to really claim your own body? To experience it as truly yours?
Our bodies are our public representation, the first vehicle we have for people to see us. Body image pulls on deep concerns about being seen and accepted in the world. Because of the huge amount of images and commentary about bodies in our culture, (we all know at any given time which actress has gained weight, which actor is buffing up for an action film, and whose vacation was marred by cellulite whether we actively seek out this information or not) it makes sense that we all feel our own bodies are open to criticism and constant evaluation. Fear of criticism, questions about how our body shape relates to our personal value, plague many of us and can cause us to feel like our bodies are not really our own. Judging our body or constantly focusing on trying to change it can cause us to stop feeling our body is a friend. Claiming our body can take the form of deeply feeling into and enjoying our body now – not waiting to engage with our fantasy version of our body that may or may not ever arrive. It means being embodied, using our senses, strength, breath, movement, mass, to interact with the world and other people without shame.
Take a week to experience your body as a guide. Rather than focusing on what it looks like and how clothing looks draped on it, feel with your body from the inside out. Notice what it is telling you about the world around you, the world within you. Be aware that each emotion you feel is coming through your body, through the language of sensation, tension, heat, energy. We only get to engage with the world through our bodies. There is no time to wait for your body to be different, life is going on now. Claim your body, claim your life.
The body’s life is the life of sensations and emotions. The body feels real hunger, real thirst, real joy in the sun or snow, real pleasure in the smell of roses or the look of a lilac bush, real anger, real sorrow, real tenderness, real warmth, real passion, real hate, real grief. All the emotions belong to the body and are only recognized by the mind – DH Lawrence
Stay tuned for information on a upcoming group for women - Your Body is a Sacred Playground
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?