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?