Focus and sexual health
Pleasure, a fundamental requirement for sexual health, can be increased by focusing on the sensations. What does this mean exactly? We often talk about our ability to focus on a specific sensation, either within our body or through our senses. What is this ability exactly and how does it help us?
Imagine you’re walking through a forest and slightly scratch your knee on a branch. You actually don’t notice the feeling because you may be too busy thinking about other things at the time. You’re very focused on the path ahead of you and maybe thinking about problems you need to solve in your daily life. Your mind is elsewhere. You then stop to take a break and notice a bruise on your knee. Suddenly you start to feel the pain in your knee and realise it actually hurts. You realise that as you concentrate on the sensation of pain, the more you feel it.
Our brains are linked to our nervous system in an extremely complex way, but we are capable of blocking out certain information we receive from our bodies. If we keep our minds busy, then we can learn to feel less or even no sensations in our bodies at all. We numb ourselves. This is a very clever survival mechanism that keeps us safe and avoids further pain. We often avoid thinking about a sensation if it’s painful or reminds us of a painful experience or emotion. When this happens, we often call these forgotten memories and emotions “trapped in the body”. They are outside of our conscious thought and daily life.
When we practise ignoring the possible painful sensations in a certain area, then we’re however also practising to ignore the pleasurable sensations. This phenomenon is actually very common in our culture where cerebral logical thought and focus on something outside of the body is held in high regard. We reward smart people and revere those who are creative or analytical. We however rarely notice how these thoughts are mechanism keeping us away from the pain and pleasure held in our bodies. Many people who struggle to feel pleasure work very hard and vice versa. We are constantly trying to ignore our own painful emotions and in so doing we also cut ourselves off from our pleasure.
What is shame?
Shame is the result from sudden disruption of pleasure and often seen as anathema to sexual health. The body learns that certain pleasure leads to an eventual bad experience, like a parent yelling berating a child if they catch them masturbating. The shame of certain sensation is subconscious avoidance of experiencing and expressing pleasure.
We then shame the concept of pleasure itself in the attempt to avoid the painful scenario. The body however doesn’t forget as easily as the mind does. The body doesn’t ignore the memory, it remembers and reacts in ways to keep us safe.
Feeling into the body
Feeling into our bodies can often be an uncomfortable experience. It opens up doorways to emotions we’ve spent our lives trying to avoid. We try to fix the stress and discomfort with pain killers, exercise, habits, distractions, work, exercise and entertainment. Our whole world is filled with constant distraction. Most of us cannot bear the thought of doing nothing or feeling strong emotions. Even the times we allocate to relaxation, like holidays, are filled with distractions. We lost our ability to feel into our bodies.
Our brains and nervous system are however very adaptable and we can easily learn to bring back our attention to our bodies. It won’t be a comfortable journey, but can be extremely liberating. Actually, this process is the exact definition of liberation—the moment where we feel into ourselves without fear and face our most painful emotions. If we enter this process with kindness and acceptance of ourselves, we can then start to heal the emotional wounds we’ve been hiding for so long. Better yet, better sex, sexual wellbeing and more pleasure awaits!
An excellent way to feel into the forgotten parts of our bodies is through touch and pleasure. Feeling pleasure is not only a confirmation that we enjoy being alive, but also a method to expand our awareness into previously ignored parts of ourselves. Our brains use pleasure and focus to activate parts of our nervous system that have been left unused for a long time.
Experiencing pleasure requires three things:
Stimulus of our nervous can be done in many ways, but most often done through touch. I think most people would agree that the touch of another person is fundamental to our overall sexual health. Children need a lot of loving touch to be raised healthy and adults need touch to live healthy balanced emotional lives. Without stimulus, there is no pleasure.
The context of touch is also vital and there are conscious and unconscious parts of our brains that are constantly scanning our environment for clues. We need to firstly know that we are safe in order to feel our pleasure, else our bodies interpret the stimulus as unwanted and create shame. We might also even think that we are safe, but if somebody touches us without consent or by surprise, then we immediately shut down our nervous system’s ability to feel pleasure. It especially helps if we are in agency to choose the stimulus we receive. The context is extremely important to feel pleasure.
The third point is the theme of this article: focus. If we are not focusing on our pleasure, meaning our minds are elsewhere, then we are not experiencing the pleasure. Our focus is however not a binary act, but can be enhanced with practise. Our minds actually have a seemingly infinite ability to experience more pleasure if we learn to focus on the sensations. Interesting isn’t it. Pleasure is not just something we do; we enjoy it more if we’re fully focused and present.
Focusing and sexual health
Focus may seem easy, but it actually takes a lot of practise and repetition. Concentrating on a certain idea is difficult and we struggle to do so for long periods of time. The same is true for pleasure. Our mind wanders. It’s not that we mean to think about shopping during sex, we’re just not good at focusing on pleasure. We need to practise.
How do we then learn to focus on our pleasure? How do we practise?
First, we need stimulus, most likely touch performed in a context where we feel safe, consensual and in agency. While we receive the stimulus, most likely from another person, we then practise to focus on the pleasure. It helps to notice all other sensations that arise.
Our focus is often enhanced when the stimulus is on a specific area and repeated in the same way. Trying different ways of touch can teach us a lot. This is again best done by being touched on a part of our body in a way of our choosing. It also helps to put a time constraint on the touch. The mind focuses on a sensation with a lot more rigour when it knows there’s not much time left. If we had all the time we wanted, then we wouldn’t care about focusing. Describing the sensation enhances the brain’s ability to interpret the information. Moving and breathing slowly accesses parts of our nervous systems that allow us to focus on sensations. Allowing some time afterwards to reflect on the experience helps the brain to reaffirm the pathways to the pleasure experienced – called integration.
Our current state of being is important to be able to experience and focus on pleasure. If our nervous system is stressed then it makes it very difficult to feel anything. We often say that we need to relax to experience pleasure. Relaxation is indeed also our body telling us that it feels safe and is ready to receive stimulus. Experiencing too much stress too often makes it more difficult for us to relax and feel pleasure or pain.
Exercises to improve sexual health
It is amazing how much can be achieved through exercising focus over time. Areas of the body that were previously numb start to not only feeling sensation, but become sources for immense pleasure. People have found that their orgasms have been enhanced dramatically.
Stressed people are most likely in that state to avoid feeling into the pain in their bodies. They create stories in their minds in order to distract themselves and keep their nervous systems non-receptive to sensations. This why they’re stressed in the first place. Have you noticed how a massage will reduce stress temporarily, but does not make us less stressed on a day-to-day basis? There are many busy people who are not stressed, simply because they’re in touch with their bodies. Practising feeling into our bodies therefore not only reduces stress, but reduces our need to be stressed. The body won’t create stress if feels it doesn’t need to hide anything or protect itself from shame.
It all sounds quite simple. Let’s go sit somewhere and ask someone to touch me in a safe way and then I should be less stressed. Right? Job done. Well, it’s very easy to do the exercise with limited focus. Practising focus is not a treatment that someone does to you. You need to do it. You need to change your state of being. Being touched and exercising in this way simply makes the process easier, but it requires your full attention, commitment and will. It’s not a quick fix or a “diet”. It’s practising to change your relationship with your body and the way you feel about yourself.
During such an exercise, try to notice your thoughts. Are you waiting for it to finish? Do you think the exercise is silly? Do you notice your mind trying to make excuses to stop? Are you thinking about work? All of these are common ways our minds try to keep us from feeling into our pain. These are the stories we tell ourselves to avoid certain emotions and distract ourselves. Rejoice when this happens because it means you’ve come to a place where you have the opportunity to expand yourself and awaken dormant parts of your nervous system. Try to accept all the thoughts and emotions as they are. They carry a message of truth about ourselves. It is a scary moment, but if accompanied with bravery and integrity, we can turn it into a process of not just accepting ourselves, but also being able to experience more pleasure.
Self-care and intention
Setting an intention and regular practice is vital. While focusing on a certain sensation, then try to ask yourself what you’re trying to learn. What is it about the sensation you wish to feel? How do you wish to be while feeling the sensation? What attitude do you wish to have toward your pleasure? The intention is what changes us. If we have no intention, then the experience is purely entertainment and we’ve set ourselves up to purely be observers of the sensation. You could argue that focus is the act of being with a sensation as opposed to observing it. An observer can view, criticise or ignore sensations, whereas we wish to expand our whole selves to accept the sensation. After attempting the exercise a few times, you’ll notice the difference. Better yet, you’ll be different.
Pain and embodiment
What about pain? We spoke about how we live our lives to ignore and avoid pain, but do we wish to include that in our state of being? It may sound crazy to say this, but yes! If we learn to focus on pain then we can accept it and work towards healing. If we avoid and ignore pain then it will manifest itself in our lives in other uncomfortable ways. We see this often. Many people are quick to anger and others are prone to depression with no understanding of why they are like that.
Next time you hit your knee in the forest or hurt yourself, try to sit still, breathe slowly and focus on the pain. Yes, focus on the pain. Try to analyse the sensation as much as possible. Where is the pain exactly? What kind of pain is it? Burning, throbbing, aching? What do you notice? What emotions are you feeling? What does you body want to do? Be curious. It is one of the best moments to learn about yourself. Most people do whatever they can to avoid the pain. They move, shout, panic, hold down on the bruise and sometime even blank out. If you focus on the pain you might find that the sensation intensifies. That’s right, it hurts more. Just like pleasure. It might even hurt longer than if you try to ignore it. This increase in pain makes it very difficult to keep focusing.
We are however stronger than our pain. We are capable of experiencing an immense amount of pain and being with it. We may have strong emotions arising, but if we remain mindful and aware, we can actually rise above it and not let it hurt us emotionally afterwards. When you focus on the pain with enough attention and acceptance, then something special happens. It remains painful, but it loses its power over you. You don’t have shame. You may find that you can then decide how you wish to react towards the pain. You are in choice. It’s as if the pain remains, but it doesn’t seem so to scare you anymore. You know what it is. The pain becomes another part of all the possible sensations you might experience. You can then choose to feel the emotion that might be the most beneficial to healing. You not only own your pain, but you own the healing process. It all starts with focus, not avoidance.
Can we use pain in a safe consensual way to practise focus? Of course! It is actually very powerful and the core to many uses of pain in BDSM. Focusing on pain in a safe environment can be immensely healing. Our bodies are however not used to receiving pain in a consensual way and our culture teaches us that all pain is bad. Nobody questions whether pain can be used in a good way. As long as we are not causing physical damage, we can use pain in the same way to learn about ourselves. Focusing on pain exercises acceptance of pain. If we can accept pain, we become less fearful and hence have more choice in our lives. What a beautiful thought.
So why do we rather use pleasure to expand our awareness into new parts of our nervous system? Well, it is more fun and a lot easier to create a safe space, but there is also a hormonal difference. During immense pleasure the endorphins released are more aimed at the reward centres of the brain which explains that amazing feeling we get after sex and orgasm. During pain your body releases a set of endorphins that not only act as pain killers within the brain, but also gives you the sensation of being in bliss. Both experiences can also create a strong feeling of connection between partners. Working with pain means that we however need to be more precise with consent and ensure safety.
With an intention for learning and curiosity, I’d suggest we practise with both, but pleasure is just easier… haha!