Updated: Feb 22, 2022
In the age of our fast-paced, multitasking, social media-driven society, it can feel harder and harder to enjoy moments of slowness. Slowing down is exactly what we need in order to more fully access our pleasure. I’ve felt the ways that this compulsive productivity can dampen my arousal, eclipse my sense of patience, and make it harder to savor moments of slowness.
If you resonate with this, you’re not alone. The stressors we experience - whether large or subtle - have a huge impact on our desire as well as our ability to feel pleasure on a deep level. Fortunately, mindfulness techniques can be incredibly helpful when reconnecting with our feeling body. When it comes to sexual pleasure, Sensate Focus is a particularly powerful tool.
Sensate Focus was developed by William Masters and Virginia Johnson as a way to respond to the stress underlying sexual challenges (note: not wanting to have sex or not having a high desire for sex is not necessarily a challenge. It only becomes a challenge if you want to feel more desirous but can’t access it.)
Sensate Focus is a series of touching exercises that help you stay grounded in the present moment. The practice can help with spectatoring:
...Master and Johnson postulated that anxiety was at the root of most sexual dysfunctions. They coined the term ‘spectatoring,’ in which a person watches themself vigilantly during sex and judges their own as well as their partner’s performance instead of immersing themselves in the encounter. Spectatoring is associated with anxiety, negative judgment, and worries about a partner’s thoughts and behaviors.
- Lori A. Brotto, Better Sex Through Mindfulness
We spend a lot of the day enmeshed in the same types of thoughts. Some of these thoughts might have to do with comparing ourselves to others, worrying about what we said or didn’t say, feeling less than confident about our bodies, etc. It’s easy for these thoughts to follow us into our more intimate, sexual moments.
Consistently engaging in mindfulness practices can pacify the mind chatter and help us more seamlessly transition from fight or flight to a more relaxed and soothing state.
Sensate Focus can also help us release a goal-oriented mindset. Strongly focusing on achieving orgasm or arousal can actually keep us from getting there. Releasing pressure around performance expands our definition of pleasure and, therefore, we can experience more of it.
Let’s try a simple sensate focus practice to access your sense of pleasure and delight.
Something important to remember is that your pleasure is not something that needs to be fixed or changed. Your body is not something that needs to be fixed or changed. This is about releasing any disempowering narratives around what pleasure should look and feel like. This is about creating a loving and supportive context - again and again - that allows our genuine pleasure to rise up more readily. This work helps us get out of our heads and into our bodies where we can feel more deeply and embrace the beauty of what makes us feel good.
Get comfortable. You can lay down, find a seat, or even stand for this exercise. Begin to trace your fingers along your skin, noticing temperature, texture and pressure. You can play with types of touch, from grazing lightly with fingertips to massaging your skin, or anything in between.
Each time your mind wanders outside of this moment, take a breath to invite it back. Come back to the feeling. Notice subtle differences across your body. What does the skin on your forearm feel like compared to the skin on the palm of your hand? Make this a curious, open-ended exploration.
The mind will wander again at some point. That’s ok. There is no right or wrong answer for how many times you’ll need to invite the mind to focus on sensation again. It’s all part of the process.
Coupled with masturbation:
You can stick with this practice, simply exploring your own skin and body parts. You can also take this practice with you into mindful masturbation, focusing the mind on sensations around your genitals as well as your breath.
Coupled with partnered sex:
You can take this practice with you into partnered sex, whether you are receiving or giving pleasure. If you start spectatoring, practice sensate focus. Notice what your body is feeling and experiencing. Pay attention to the breath flowing in and out. Do the same as you are touching your partner’s body.
It takes time for our pleasure to unfold; to unravel from the stress and possible shame it has been bound up in. But with enough practice and tenderness, we can give our pleasure a safe space from which to emerge. We can reconnect with what allows us to inhabit our body with reverence and joy.
About the Author
Sarah Diedrick is a writer, yoga teacher and sex educator. Her work centers around embodiment and pleasure positivity. Sarah is also the creator of Sex Ed Book Club, a free monthly meetup to discuss all things sex and sexuality.