Friday, December 28, 2012

Mindfulness: You Don't Have to be a Hippy to Use it to Improve Sex and Relationships

Mindfulness is the act of being aware, and it's a skill that can dramatically improve your sex life and interpersonal relationships. Specifically, it's the act of being aware of the the present sensations you're experiencing, how you perceive them, and an awareness of your thoughts, feelings, physiological state, and emotional state. 

In other words, it's the art of not being distracted.
Humans have a fairly unique ability to think about thinking, or meta-cognition. Even if we manage to silence the buzz of our environment, we're still distracted by our own thoughts. We fret about our past. We worry about the future. We can't stop obsessing about the grocery list, how our spouse insists on putting the toilet paper roll on backwards, the kids' homework, or that run-in with that bitchy neighbor. 

Mindfulness is also the art of overcoming habituation. When we're presented with a particular physical sensation, we notice it... for awhile. Eventually we "get used to it", though. This is why freshmen boys and elderly ladies apply fifteen applications of cologne or perfume. It's why you no longer feel the chair under your ass or the feeling of your underwear (for you prudes that insist on wearing them.) :-) Mindfullness will allow us to continually re-focus on a particular stimuli so we can perceive it longer

So how does it improve sex or even relationships? In short, it makes us aware of what's happening around us and inside us. It allows us to take a step back and assess ourselves with a detached curiosity, which leads to a greater understanding of ourselves. Once we begin to understand ourselves, we can take steps to influence ourselves.

In the realm of sex, it allows us to "turn off" our inner monologue that distracts us. We might worry about how our body looks. We might worry about our performance. We might be thinking about something unrelated to sex. All greatly diminish our ability to really savor the physical and emotional experiences of the sexual experience. 

In the realm of relationships, it allows us to assess our thoughts and emotions relative to our partner. If we experience a negative emotion like anger, resentment, insecurity, disappointment, clinginess, jealousy, ... whatever, mindfulness allows us to mentally take a step back and assess why we feel the way we feel. It allows us to uncritically assess the emotional state without being blinded by the emotion.

Most of us have probably heard of mindfulness in the context of meditation, which congers images of barefooted hippies sitting in circles in the lotus position repeating a particular mantra. Indeed, many Eastern traditions (like Buddhism) use mediation as a means of achieving mindfulness, and they're exceptionally effective. The problem? Not everyone wants to adopt everything that comes with this style of achieving mindfulness.

It's understandable. When I first started teaching people about barefoot running, the first step usually involved dispelling the stereotype associated with barefoot runners. The new barefoot runners didn't have to look like they were transplants from 1967. They didn't have to be semi-homeless. They could normally wear a three-piece suit. They could be doctors. And lawyers. And teachers. And carpenters.

I had to teach that barefoot running was a tool that could be used by anyone; it did not require a wholesale lifestyle change.

Mindfulness falls in the same category. You don't have to adopt a completely different lifestyle to take advantage of the power of mindfulness. A few simple activities will do the trick. As it turns out, practicing mindfulness increases the size (and presumably the function) of a part of the brain called the insula. We don't understand exactly how and why it works, but we do know it is involved in communication within the brain, especially when processing emotions. 

Mindfulness exercises seem to increase our ability to focus and process physical sensations (handy during sex.) It also moves emotional processing from the lower brain areas to higher brain areas. This develops our ability to process and analyze emotions instead of simply reacting to them. This makes us more peaceful, calmer, and more empathic... all great qualities to bring to a relationship.

The Raw Materials for Mindfulness

Curiosity: We have to have a desire to understand our inner and outer world to fully benefit from mindfulness. Shelly and I were having a conversation about mindfulness and realized we've used mindfulness in one form or another beginning in childhood. Both of us had a deep curiosity about the world, both externally and internally. We were surrounded by people that didn't really answer questions we had, so we searched for the answers ourselves. This curiosity led to the tendency to analyze stuff objectively, which is at the very heart of mindfulness. Our problem, however, was attribution. Both of us had a problem objectively experiencing stuff due to emotional baggage. For both of us, therapy was required to understand that baggage. Once we understood it, we could set it aside and simply observe.

Focus: Mindfulness requires us to be able to shut out noise to fully concentrate on one particular thing (or nothing depending on the application.) This is why most mediation newbies find a quiet place free from distractions. Personally I get to this place when doing physical activity. It's one of the reasons I love long-distance running. It gives me the solitude and time to focus on my thoughts.

Dedication: Developing mindfulness requires some degree of dedication. It can be very difficult to actually practice mindfulness, especially if we're busy. Worse, mindfulness can be difficult if we're experiencing severe negativity in our lives. It's hard to step back from negative emotions, but it does get easier with practice. The key is not to throw in the towel at the first sign of difficulty. It also helps to realize developing mindfulness isn't a destination, it's a journey. Like many life skills, you'll never reach some arbitrary point and declare success. You'll spend a lifetime improving your abilities.

Give Me Some Exercises!

  • Exercise 1: Learn to relax and silence the chatter. Do this exercise for 10 minutes twice per day. Find a nice, quiet place to lie down. Close your eyes. Slow your breathing down by breathing in while slowly counting to three, hold it for two seconds, then slowly breathe out by counting to three. Focus on your breathing. If your thoughts start to wander, just slowly refocus on the breathing. Do this for 10 breaths. Next, we're going to tense up specific muscle groups, hold them for five seconds, then slowly relax. For each muscle group, focus on the feeling of tension when tightened, then notice how relaxing the tightened muscles makes your entire body feel more relaxed. Focus on the feelings of the muscles. If your thoughts begin to wander, slowly bring them back to the muscles. Tense and relax in this order. When finished, take 10 more deep, slow breaths.
    • Feet
    • Lower legs
    • Upper legs
    • Butt
    • Abs and back muscles (core)
    • Chest and upper back
    • Shoulders
    • Upper arms
    • Forearms
    • Hands
    • Neck
    • Face
  • Exercise 2: Pay attention to physical sensations. Set an alarm clock or other timing device for 30 minute intervals. When the timer goes off, spend 30 seconds paying attention to your bodily sensations. Notice the feeling of your clothing, the smells around you, any muscle tightness, your skin temperature, etc. Do this for an entire day. Repeat every other day.
  • Exercise 3: Pay attention to your thoughts. Use the same method as above, except this time you'll notice your thoughts. What are you thinking about when the timer goes off? Don't do anything else except acknowledge the thought.
  • Exercise 4: Pay attention to your emotional state. After one week of doing exercises 1 through 3, try this one. Use the same methods, except this time you're going to notice your emotional state. Are you happy? Content? Sad? Angry? Horny? Again, just acknowledge the state then go on with your day.
  • Exercise 5: Pay attention to other peoples' emotional states. Use the same methodology, except this time you'll pay attention to other people. Observe them. Based on their body language, tome of voice, and other indicators, can you guess their current emotional state? Don't try to analyze why, just observe and move on.
  • Exercise 6: Look for correlations. Repeat each of the five exercises from above. This time, observe other things that are happening at the same time. You're looking for relationships. Don't try to figure out why two things may be related, just look for things that seem to occur at the same time. 
  • Exercise 7: Look for causations. Use the same methodology as the correlation exercise. Once we begin to develop the ability to self-assess and look for relationships, we can begin to see if those relationships are causal. Does a particular thing cause a certain emotion or behavior? This exercise can be especially powerful when applied to your own inner thoughts and emotions because you'll start to see patterns emerge. Specifically, certain situations or people may be responsible for either positive or negative thoughts and feelings. Once we identify that, we can apply Pareto's principle to increase the good and decrease the bad in our lives.
Remember, the goal of these seven exercises is to train yourself to be more mindful. We're actually causing a change in brain function, which requires some time. You'll notice an immediate effect after the first day or two, but really significant changes will occur after only a week or two. 

In the near future, I'll share a few "recreational" uses of mindfulness. Stay tuned! ;-)


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