Healthy Desire: A Buddhist’s View of Mindfulness & Sex

Buddhist practitioner Ray Buckner shares how bringing mindfulness into sex helps us develop a healthier relationship with both ourselves and our partner, and deepens our connection between mind and body.

Ray Buckner
18 May 2017

Eyes wide, out of breath, I remember my exact words. Spoken slowly and softly, I said, “Wow. That was literally the most amazing experience I have ever had in my entire life.” And I meant it.

My body completely still, struck by the awe of the moment, I looked at her. My eyes met her eyes. My smile met her smile. Our love and care met right there in that moment. It was one of my most present experiences. My mind was nowhere else but in my body with me, and in the room with her. It was, simply, a moment of mindfulness.

We don’t often ponder “mindfulness” and have “sex” arise as the next natural association. And yet, the two go hand in hand.

How so?

Let’s assume we all know what sex is (although it is often differently defined by hetero/cisgender men and women, queers, and trans-folks) and instead move on to some basic aspects of mindfulness.

Mindfulness is about bringing a certain quiet attention to your lived experience. It’s about being right there with what you are experiencing, touching your experience as intimately as possible, without judgment or blame.

In a moment of mindfulness, your mind is connected with your body. Your thoughts are not elsewhere but are right there in the present moment. Effectively, mind and body are one.

In many ways, it is only natural for sex and mindfulness to, well, come together. When we are engaging in sex our body is, essentially, awakening to a multitude of arising sensations.

Mindfulness during sex does not always mean experiencing euphoria. Sometimes, it means getting in touch with painful sensations like fear, self-hatred, and confusion.

“Awakening” here does not always refer to sensations. Sometimes, aliveness is in the dullness, the numbness, the lack of feeling arising in one’s body. For example, when my body is touched, it may experience joy and excitement, or a sense of tightness. It may be at ease and wanting more, or it may be numbing, closing down and developing a sense that something is wrong or off. Finally, my mind may be in the present moment, or it may be pulling away to traumatic memories.

So, mindfulness during sex does not always mean experiencing euphoria (as is the case with my experience described above). Sometimes, it means getting in touch with painful sensations like fear, self-hatred, and confusion. This can be difficult, but is important in fostering a healthy relationship with oneself and crucial communication with another.

Why is this so important? Why do we need to pay attention to these inner voices of suffering and joy? The answer lies, in part, in understanding the jewels of impermanence and non-self.

  • Impermanence shows us that no two moments are the same; the sensations, emotions, ideas, and relationships that arise and play out are always already in flux. None of these are pre-determined, set, or stable; all are moving and impermanent.
  • Non-self teaches us that because all realms and sensations are changing, there is nothing inherent or stable to our very being.

When our “self” makes contact with another’s, this contact will have an impact—on us and the people we’re with. The two forms of contact are intrinsically connected. Contact between our own mind and body are connected as well: the body cannot function without the mind and the mind cannot function without the body. The two inter-are, actively affecting and changing one another. My body tenses during sex, and so does my mind. My mind feels fear during sex, and so does my body. Such is dependent arising: “this is because that is.” To try to separate the sensations of the mind and body leads to suffering and ultimately disconnection from the knowing wisdom of this interconnected self.

And yet, during sex—a time when you really want to be in touch with what arising in the mind and body—an unfortunate and dangerous disconnection can take place. The mind tries to disconnect from the body and the body loses its crucial connection with the mind.

This disconnection may be partly, if not largely, due to societal norms about sex and gender. Society has taught us (particularly women and queers) that we need to act and perform in particular ways during sex. While the pleasure of one partner may be deemed important, the pleasure of another may be silenced or ignored. In my own life, when feelings of fear or confusion have arisen, people have sometimes used these moments to ridicule or shame me. My reservations were “difficult,” “a pain,” or the workings of someone too young to know what they wanted or needed. We learn to silence negative sensations in order to avoid shame and physical and sexual violence toward our bodies and minds. In addition, we fear that to speak could mean touching the reality that our bodily and spiritual desires will be ignored, demeaned, or used against us in the face of our expressed yearning.

We need to find a way to return to our body and mind, to softly touch our experience and allow communication to blossom again.

While sex should be a space of impermanence that allows (and encourages!) the infinite arising of sensations, we instead are forced to function in a limited space in which our bodies and our minds perform happily and simply without sadness, or fear, or confusion. Though a sense of permanence during sex is limiting, it can take hold and imprison our mind and body.

We need to find a way to return to our body and mind, to softly touch our experience and allow communication to blossom again.

The key is to listen closely to whatever arises, and meet these sensations with kindness. If we can take the time to listen, openness and clarity will soon arise, leading to greater joy and happiness.

I have practiced this myself. A previous partner and I were having sex. We were both very turned on and I said something seductive. She said something back to the effect of, “Stop speaking.”

Immediately something shifted. I went from aroused to turned off, scared, and upset. I felt like I did something wrong, that my voice was ugly, that I ruined the moment, and that I was unwanted. But applying mindfulness helped me recognize the anxiety in my chest, the deep sensation that something was wrong, and that I was distraught.

Bringing mindfulness to sex is a brilliant way to deepen the connections between mind and body, self and other.

I also could quickly recognize where these sensations hailed from. I’d once had an abusive partner who shushed me or scolded me, or ordered me not to speak, if I made sounds during sex. No wonder, then, that sensations of fear and shame arose with my more recent partner.

Seeing clearly the origins of my troubled feelings, I was now able to stop and articulate my experience of panic to my partner in the moment. She apologized and clarified what she meant by her words — simply, that my voice turned her on and she playfully could not handle any more of that! We were back to feeling excited, present, and in touch with one another.

Bringing mindfulness to sex is a brilliant way to deepen the connections between mind and body, self and other, and to transform moments of pain and trauma into experiences of understanding, kindness, and connection.

photo of Ray Buckner

Ray Buckner

Ray Buckner is a PhD Student in Religious Studies at Northwestern University. His research examines sexual violence in American Buddhism and transgender experiences with Buddhism in the United States. Ray’s article, “Buddhist Teachers’ Responses to Sexual Violence: Epistemological Violence in American Buddhism” (2020), was published in The Journal of Global Buddhism. Ray’s article, “Zen in Distress: Theorizing Gender Dysphoria and Traumatic Remembrance within Sōtō Zen Meditation” (2020), was published in Religions.