I don’t know about you, but life’s recently felt like a fever dream of anxious days and sleepless nights. As terrifying news alerts bombarded my phone, though, only one thing gave me the kind of relief needed during a panic-inducing pandemic: meditation masturbation
Before you write it off as new-agey bullshit, I come bearing evidence of its unexpected effectiveness with biofeedback devices that tracked both my brainwaves and my orgasms during sessions (you know, for science).
Meditation and masturbation might sound like strange bedfellows. But actually on both physiological and psychological levels, the two go together like peanut butter and jelly. At a time when we’re all looking for stress-relieving solo activities to do from the safety of our homes, a relaxing self-love session comes with numerous health benefits too.
Meditation and masturbation might sound like strange bedfellows.
Meditation masturbation goes by many different names, each with a variety of approaches: erotic meditation, orgasmic meditation, tantric masturbation. All fall under the umbrella of mindful sex, an increasingly popular branch of mind-body awareness centered around sexuality, intimacy, and pleasure. The basic concept is simple: Instead of only using your breath as a focal point during mindfulness exercises like meditation and body scanning, you also concentrate on pleasurable sensations that ground you in your body.
“The practice of mindful sex helps you slow down, pause, and be in the present moment,” Janet Britto, a clinical psychologist who offers mindful sex therapy at the Center for Sexual Health and Reproductive Health in Hawaii, wrote in an email. “It helps you adopt a perspective that is open, curious, non-judgmental, so you give yourself permission to be in your body and experience pleasure.”
By training people to approach pleasure with a mindful mindset, researchers have found that these techniques can help improve a number of sexual problems: low libido, body image issues, anxiety, trauma, erectile dysfunction, genital pain (like vestibulodynia), and porn addiction. Other research found that women who practice mindfulness have way better sex in general, with higher arousal, desire, and better orgasms.
Whether you struggle with sex or are just looking to explore new possibilities, discover new sensations, deepen your pleasure, or enhance intimacy with a partner — mindful sex can benefit just about everyone. Before you graduate to partnered mindful sex, though, it’s best to start solo.
Still not convinced? I don’t blame you.
When I first started exploring mindful sex (which you can read about here), I found all its big claims hard to buy. I’d never experienced a single benefit from meditating, despite people insisting it was the answer to my crippling anxiety. Why would this be any different?
Despite my resistance, the results from even the most basic exercises turned me into a true-blue believer. I felt the need to find definitive proof, though, knowing that skeptical, anti-meditation types like myself would want some tangible results to suspend their disbelief long enough to try it themselves.
So while doing several mindful masturbation exercises over the course of a couple weeks, the Muse meditation headband tracked my brainwaves. For good measure, I also tracked one of my orgasms with the Lioness, a biofeedback tracking smart vibrator.
For each of these experiments I did a sort of “control session” using regular meditation as a comparison, trying to account for as many variables as possible. I set my Muse to a rainforest soundscape, which gets stormier as your mind gets more active and then gentler and eventually produces a bird chirp if you reach a prolonged state of calm. You get more bird chirps the longer you stay calm.
The charts below represent the score the app generates based on how much time your mind was active (light purple), neutral (medium purple), or calm (dark purple) during a session, with larger dot sizes indicating more calm and the number of dots representing the length of time in a session. Blue dots indicate bird status. (To clarify, the number of dots doesn’t equal number of birds. Remember, the quantity of dots represent elapsed time.)
But don’t just take my word or these results as proof. Try it, following our tips for beginners of mindful sex here to prove it to yourself.
Experiment 1: Erotic body scanning (or pleasure mapping)
Listen, this was a rough night. While enduring a peak of political hell as the coronavirus pandemic became increasingly real for everyone, I was battling a phone buzzing with incessantly apocalyptic news notifications. Meditating was harder than usual, and it’s never easy for me. With nothing but me and the Muse set to give no guidance or instruction, every stray thought and noise yanked me out of my body and back into the spiral.
Erotic body scanning (or pleasure mapping)
It was exponentially easier to let the spiral go when I had more sensory stimuli to focus on. I used a Lush massage bar on my bare skin, which not only made touching my body feel lovely but filled my nostrils with the smell of calming lavender as I inhaled deeply.
In pleasure mapping or mindful sex body scanning, either you or your partner touches every part of your body to discover what feels good, what doesn’t, what level of pressure you like in a touch, if there’s a type of touch you prefer, etc.
In this session, I didn’t touch any erogenous zones (which is recommended for mindful sex beginners at first), since the exercise is supposed to show the difference between regular goal-oriented sexual touch versus the exploratory, non-demanding sensual touch of mindful sex. By taking the pressures of getting off out of the equation, you learn to separate sensations of arousal from anxiety-inducing expectations and thoughts, such as (“What if I can’t orgasm?” and “What if I look ugly?”)
With the real-time feedback from Muse, I noticed my mind get stormier whenever I touched my tummy, a major source of my body image issues. But it felt empowering when I heard a bird chirp after touching my neck, which has always been a trigger for me from previous sexual trauma. Mindful sex can be a great way to both help you identify those triggers, then provide the mindset to help conquer those sources of distress. But it takes a lot of practice and patience.
In other erotic body scanning experiments, I used guided recordings from audio erotica platform Dipsea. I usually love their pleasure mapping guided erotic meditation. But it felt as though I’d advanced past needing guidance (leading to only 6 percent calm), instead preferring to take my own path in mindfully exploring my body.
In another session I did an erotic body scan with my partner’s hands exploring me instead, but that showed poorer results too (26 percent calm). This only goes to show that expert advice is right: It’s best to graduate to partnered mindful sex, because another person inherently introduces new insecurities and factors. It’s harder to remember that this is about you, and your relationship to your pleasure alone.
Experiment 2: Tantric masturbation
For this control session, I decided to try to mimic the tantric session as much as possible by choosing a guided breath-focused exercise from the Muse app.
It definitely improved my experience, but breath has always been a tricky focal point for me. I get weirdly obsessive about perfectly aligning with the instructor’s timing, and this exercise exacerbated that anxiety by adding a count of 10 breaths. Whenever I absent-mindedly counted past 10, I’d get upset with myself and my brain would get stormy. Towards the end though, I was much better at just accepting this impulse without reacting negatively.
Honestly I was pretty skeptical that this one would do me any good. I’d tried this guided session from Dipsea (“Breathing Deeply”) before and liked it less than their other mindful sex guides. But this time I found the hyper-focus on localized deep breathing helpful to releasing any insecurities that usually come up while I’m naked (like a big belly from deep breathing, for example).
One of the main differences between tantra and other mindful sex practices is this higher premium on a specific type of breath (also known as orgasmic breathing). It’s supposed to train you to disperse sexual energy throughout the body, helping your muscles relax rather than tense during moments of arousal, and allegedly leading to better climax.
I’ve found other mindful sex practices (like pleasure mapping) instead encourage a bit more active analysis of your own experience, coaxing you to sit with and explore unpleasant sensations as much as the pleasant ones. This is probably counter to how Muse tracks success, since it can lead to thoughts that are less calming but still fruitful for your mindful sex practice.
But tantra aims to reach a liminal headspace that allows you to more fully lose yourself in being a body receiving stimuli with no sense of self. That might be the kind of brainwave activity Muse rewards more.
The success of this tantric exercise led me to want to test another experiment, though…
Experiment 3: Mindful sense-play
Just a regular, guide-less meditation this time. I noted that it was after having a bit of wine and weed, though, so I had aids helping me relax. At the same time, I was also dealing with a bit of annoyance with my partner, which melted away by the end of the session.
Now technically, all these experiments are mindful sense-play in a way. But specifically, I wanted to experiment with the kinkier definition of the word, which describes everything from BDSM spanking, to temperature play (think hot wax and ice cubes), and blindfolding.
There’s interesting preliminary research happening right now into the relationship between mindfulness and BDSM at the University of British Columbia’s Brotto Labs, one of the premier institutes for mindful sex therapy and research. While studying this is still in the early stages, the hypothesis is that pain and BDSM might actually be great tools for advanced mindfulness practitioners.
“Pain really centers your attention on the present moment.”
As Cara Dunkley, the Ph.D. candidate studying this phenomenon at Brotto Labs explained over the phone, “Pain really centers your attention on the present moment. It demands intense focus upon an intense sensation.”
Also, on a neurological level, mindfulness has been found to reduce activity in the part of the brain responsible for our sense of selfhood and mind wandering. Similarly, those who practice role-playing BDSM often describe entering an altered state of mind called “domspace” (for dominants) or “subspace” (for submissives) that seems similar, as Dunkley described it.
“People talk about a sense of oneness with the universe, that lessening of selfhood that’s associated with a more spiritual, heady, altered state of consciousness,” she said.
I’ve experienced that subspace in the past through roleplay and pain, so I hoped the Muse could capture this unique mindset that can result from BDSM. But evidently, pain didn’t help my meditation. Whether that’s because it was the wrong time, situation, incompatible with how Muse tracks success, or the theory just doesn’t pan out, I can’t say.
Using body-safe wax with my partner resulted in only 28 percent calm, my brain growing stormier with every tense anticipation of another drop of hot wax on my chest. The lack of success might also be due to us communicating less than usual, since Muse counts that as “active” brainwaves. But communication is key to proper BDSM and reaching subspace (for me, at least).
However, a gentler version of sense play proved much more fruitful. My partner ran a downy feather up and down my body to add a new sensation to partnered pleasure mapping, resulting in 48 percent calm. Still, it wasn’t as good as my initial control session, but I’m not giving up on the potential usefulness of BDSM sense-play as meditative. It could be that in both these instances my calm was thrown off by the factor of a partner being present, which always lowered my score during these mindful sex experiments.
Experiment 4: Orgasmic meditation
Just another regular meditation session. This one gives credence to the idea of “practice makes perfect” when it comes to meditation. It got easier and easier with every day of consistent practice. I was so deep in it this time that I didn’t even realize nearly seven minutes had passed, thinking it’d only been a few.
Orgasmic meditation is one of the trendier mindful sex practices going around, even getting the Goop treatment. It’s the central philosophy of places like The Institute of OM (previously OneTaste), a highly controversial studio that has offered classes for $199 where people rub each others’ clitorises for 15 minutes while meditating.
But I felt down to try the basic premise of orgasmic meditation for the sake of the experiment and you, dear reader. So I got out the big guns in clitoral stimulation sex toys: the Womanizer. It felt like the best toy for the job (despite its misguided name) because the pinpoint suction stimulation induces almost involuntary orgasms in me, and the process is automatic enough to not require much maneuvering or thinking.
It was during this session that I felt the proof was in the pudding: I am indeed most at peace while getting off.
Before I started any sort of mindfulness practice, I used to say sex was the only time my overactive ADHD brain would blissfully shut off. And that experience proved true during my orgasmic meditation. It also goes to show that fantasizing during mindful sex exercises is a totally acceptable aid. I used Dipsea’s audio erotic mediation story called “Sail,” which puts you in the middle of a calming but arousing fantasy on the beach.
But then I set out to gather biofeedback data of my orgasm using the Lioness, a rabbit vibrator that measures the force produced by your vaginal contractions during arousal. While the session felt wonderful and the orgasm was of the highest caliber, the Muse results were less favorable than my control case. I realized that was due to one fatal mistake.
A major principle of mindful sex, in all its forms, is to avoid any sort of goal-oriented expectations — especially like putting pressure on yourself to climax. But because I wanted to have something to show for the experiment, that’s exactly what I did. In my previous session, while I came close, it didn’t matter whether or not I reached orgasm, leading to a more calming experience overall. To be fair to myself, though, the name “orgasmic” meditation itself kind of sets you up for failure in the expectation department.
Regardless, though, my tracked orgasm showed there’s some credence to the claims of how mindful sex can lead to better orgasms. For comparison, here’s a chart of a regular, quick and dirty orgasm (green) where I masturbated to visual porn versus my orgasmic mediation session (red).
As you can see, I started out with vaginal contractions with higher pressure and tension. But while that only mounted more and more until climax in the regular masturbation session, orgasmic meditation gave me the time and permission to relax my body. The results, both anecdotally and from the data, show a better orgasm. My climax from orgasmic meditation was not only longer, but I was physically more at ease, leading to a fuller body climax rather than a localized one that only sends those tingly good feelings to your clitoris. I rarely ever make any audible noise while masturbating, but in this case, I couldn’t hold back a guttural and involuntary, “Oh!”
So is mindful or meditative masturbation perfect? Absolutely not. And the “proof” I managed to get only goes to show how it’s a journey of discovery, figuring out what works best for you. But what I can say definitively is that these results show it’s definitely worth shooting your shot.