Category Archives: General Health and Nutrition

The Science of Stress, Orgasm and Creativity: How the Brain and the Vagina Conspire in Consciousness

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“To understand the vagina properly is to realize that it is not only coextensive with the female brain, but is also, essentially, part of the female soul.”
“The more closely we analyze what we consider ‘sexy,’” philosopher Alain de Botton argued inhis meditation on sex“the more clearly we will understand that eroticism is the feeling of excitement we experience at finding another human being who shares our values and our sense of the meaning of existence.” But in his attempt to counter the reductionism that frames human sexuality as a mere physiological phenomenon driven solely by our evolutionary biology, de Botton overcompensates by reducing in the opposite direction, negating the complex interplay of brain and biology, psychology and physiology, that propels the human sexual experience. That’s precisely what Naomi Wolf, author of the 1991 cultural classic The Beauty Myth, examines in Vagina: A New Biography (public library) — a fascinating exploration of the science behind the vastly misunderstood mind-body connection between brain and genitalia, consciousness and sexuality, the poetic and the scientific. What emerges is a revelation of how profoundly a woman’s bodily experience influences nearly every aspect of life, from stress to creativity, through the intricate machinery that links biology and beingness.
Wolf writes:
Female sexual pleasure, rightly understood, is not just about sexuality, or just about pleasure. It serves, also, as a medium of female self-knowledge and hopefulness; female creativity and courage; female focus and initiative; female bliss and transcendence; and as medium of a sensibility that feels very much like freedom. To understand the vagina properly is to realize that it is not only coextensive with the female brain, but is also, essentially, part of the female soul.
[…]
Once one understands what scientists at the most advanced laboratories and clinics around the world are confirming — that the vagina and the brain are essentially one network, or “one whole system,” as they tend to put it, and that the vagina mediates female confidence, creativity, and sense of transcendence — the answers to many of these seeming mysteries fall into place.

Handcrafted vagina embroidery by artist Kira Scarlet
A pivotal player in this mediation is the female pelvic nerve — a sort of information superhighway that branches out from the base of the spinal cord to the cervix, connecting the latter to the brain and thus controlling much of sexual response. But this information superhighway is really more like a superlabyrinth, the architecture of which differs enormously from one woman to another, and is completely unique for each one. This diversity of wiring in the highly complex female pelvic neural network helps explain why women have wildly different triggers for orgasm. (By contrast, the male pelvic neural network is significantly simpler, consisting of comparatively regular neural pathways arranged neatly in a grid that surrounds the penis in a circle of pleasure.) This biological reality, Wolf points out, clashes jarringly with the dominant culturally constructed fantasy of how sexual intercourse is supposed to proceed:
The pornographic model of intercourse — even our culture’s conventional model of intercourse, which is quick, goal-oriented, linear, and focused on stimulation of perhaps one or two areas of a woman’s body — is just not going to do it for many women, or at least not in a very profound way, because it involves such a superficial part of the potential of women’s neurological sexual response systems.

Embroidery from the series ‘Lessons from My Mother’ by artist Andrea Dezsö
Another key component of sexual experience is the autonomic nervous system (ANS) — the puppeteer of arousal, controlling all smooth muscle contractions and affecting the body’s response beyond conscious control. It encompasses both the sympathetic and parasympathetic divisions, and ensures they work in unison. Because arousal precedes orgasm, the ANS first needs to do its own work before the complex pelvic neural network can work its own magic.
Wolf writes:
For women, sexual response involves entering an altered state of consciousness. … In women, the biology of arousal is more delicate than most of us understand, and it depends significantly on this sensitive, magical, slowly calmed, and easily inhibited system.
To be sure, Wolf reminds us that it’s not at all uncommon for women to have a physiological response during rape, despite the enormous psychological pain and stress of the assault, but this response is not the same as the transcendent, dimensional orgasm that takes place when brain and body work in harmonious bliss. This also holds true in sexual situations that aren’t as violent as rape but still assault the ANS in one way or another:
If a woman’s ANS response is ignored, she can have intercourse and even climax; but she won’t necessarily feel released, transported, fulfilled, or in love, because only a superficial part of her capacity to respond has been made love to, or engaged.
In fact, the most fascinating aspect of the ANS, absolutely critical yet poorly understood, is that it is profoundly impacted by the mental landscape, steering the immutable interdependence between brain and vagina. The ANS, which serves as the translator between the psychological and the physiological, is thus particularly vulnerable to what psychologists call “bad stress.” (By contrast, the “good stress” many women experience in exciting or mock-dangerous sexual scenarios which they still control can be compelling and pleasurable.) “Bad stress” stems from the perceived lack of safety, and the presence of safety is absolutely essential to catapulting the female brain into the kind of “high” orgasm that is only possible in this disinhibited trance state.
Wolf explains:
This biological, evolutionary connection for women of possible ecstasy to emotional security has implications that cannot be overstressed. Relaxing allows for female arousal.
Just as being valued and relaxed can heighten female sexual response, “bad stress” can dramatically interfere with all of women’s sexual processes.
[…]
“Bad stress,” researchers have now abundantly confirmed, has exactly the same kind of negative effect on female arousal and on the vagina itself. When a woman feels threatened or unsafe, the sympathetic nervous system — the parasympathetic nervous system’s partner in the ANS — kicks in. This system regulates the “fight or flight” response: as adrenaline and catecholamines are released in the brain, nonessential systems such as digestion and, yes, sexual response, close down; circulation constricts, because the heart needs all the blood available to help the body run or fight; and the message to the body is “get me out of here.” Based on [research insights], we now know that threatening environment — which can include even vague verbal threats centered on the vagina or dismissive language about the vagina — can close down female sexual response.
This notion that biology conditions consciousness and vice versa, of course, isn’t new. But the research Wolf cites presents compelling evidence that “bad stress,” especially rape and early sexual trauma, can have profound biological effects:
There is growing, if still preliminary, evidence that rape and early sexual trauma can indeed “stay in the body” — even stay in the vagina — and change the body on the most intimate, systemic level. Recovery is possible, but treatment should be specialized. Rape and early sex abuse can indeed permanently change the working of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) — so crucial for female arousal; and, if she is not supported by the right treatment, it can permanently alter the way a woman breathes, the rate of her heart, her blood pressure, and her startle reaction, in a manner that is not under any conscious control.
Even more strikingly, some studies have found that elevated SNS activation is linked to a variety of health hazards seemingly unrelated to sexual trauma, including vertigo, motor control and balance issues, visual processing problems, and elevated startle response. In other words, sexual abuse alters the brain in a way that sabotages multiple body systems and damages healthy stress response. Wolf recapitulates the implications poignantly:
Understood in this way, and with this significant evidence, rape and sexual assault, with their attendant trauma, should be understood not just as a form of forced sex; they should also be understood as a form of injury to the brain and body, and even as a variant of castration.
Demonstrating just how strong the connection between mind and body is, Korean researchers discovered that stress and sexual trauma actually affect, on a biological level, the very functioning of the vagina. Studying female rats, they found that “chronic physical stress modifies [sexual behavior] through a mechanism believed to involve complex changes in sex hormones, endocrine factors, and neurotransmitters.” What’s more, they were able to identify the precise biological mechanism responsible for this deep-seated interplay:
Evidently nitric oxide (NO) and nitric oxide synthase (NOS) play important roles in vaginal and clitoral engorgement — helping the smooth muscle of the vagina relax and the vaginal tissues swell in preparation for arousal and orgasm — and these chemicals and their actions are inhibited when females are negatively stressed.
The researchers found that the stressed-out female rats were less receptive and more hostile to their male partners, displaying measurable aggression and irritability, and ultimately refusing to copulate. Stress, it turns out, diminished the female rats’ ability to reach arousal by greatly impairing their genital blood flow. The scientists concluded:
In animal model studies, mental or physical stress increases the level of serum catecholamines, thereby causing vascular contraction, which in turn reduces blood flow and leads to sexual dysfunction. . . . Since stress is concomitant with an increased output of catecholamines in blood . . . it is reasonable to assume that blood flow to the genital organs reduces during periods of stress. . . . [W]e measured norepinephrine as an indirect index of catecholamine level and found that it increased in the stress group and decreased in the recovery group. This result indirectly supports the suggestion that stress affects female genital blood flow.
Most ominous of all was the projection that if such stress levels were sustained over time, the physiological changes they cause would eventually affect the vaginal tissue itself. Indeed, researchers tested those tissues after the female rats were dead and found “biologically measurable changes.”
Women, of course, are not rats, but this only means that the effects of such stress are even more profound. Wolf argues that besides impairing women’s ability to reach orgasm, “bad stress” also affects the overall capacity for joy, hopefulness, and creativity. Unlike rats, humans are also susceptible to forms of abuse beyond the physical — Wolf cites the tragically prevalent cultural tendency to deride the vagina and its owner, embedded even in the slang we have for female genitalia.
She writes:
The role of manipulating female stress in targeting the vagina should not be ignored. This behavior—ridiculing the vagina—makes perfect instinctive sense. These acts are often impersonal and tactical—strategies for directing a kind of pressure at women that is not consciously understood but may be widely intuited, and even survive in folk memory, as eliciting a wider neuropsychological “bad stress” response that actually debilitates women.
She cites one particularly unsettling example:
In 2010, male Yale students gathered at a “Take Back the Night” event, where their female classmates were marching in a group, protesting against sexual assault. The young men chanted at the protesters, “No means yes and yes means anal.” Some of the young women brought a lawsuit against the university, arguing that tolerating such behavior created an unequal educational environment. Ethically they are in the right, and neurobiologically they are right as well. Almost all young women who face a group of their male peers chanting such slogans are likely to feel instinctively slightly panicked. On some level they are getting the message that they may be in the presence of would-be rapists — making it impossible to shrug off immature comments, as women are often asked to do. They sense there is a wider risk to them that is being threatened, and indeed there is, but it is not just the risk of sexual assault. If they are stressed regularly in this way, they will indeed depress the whole subtle and delicate network of neurobiological triggers and reactions that make them feel good, happy, competent, and as if they know themselves.
One study termed the complex and lasting effects of such stress, an increasingly recognizable medical pattern, “multisystem dysfunction” — and it can effect such a wide array of physical health issues as higher risk of diabetes and heart disease, hormonal imbalances, and fertility problems. But the most damaging consequences of these physical changes, Wolf argues, are cognitive and psychoemotional:
The female body reacts in the same way to “bad stress” whether the context is the birthing room or the university or the workplace. If the female brain senses that an environment is not safe, its stress response inhibits all the same organs and systems, regardless of setting. Many of the signals that either stoke or diminish female desire have to do with the female brain’s question: Is it safe for her?
So if a woman goes to work or to study in a sexually dangerous or threatening atmosphere day after day, she risks — because of the cumulative, long-term effect of that “bad stress” — having the letting-go, creative “relaxation response” inhibited even outside her work or school environment.
[…]
If you sexually stress a woman enough, over time, other parts of her life are likely to go awry; she will have difficulty relaxing in bed eventually, as well as in the classroom or in the office. This in turn will inhibit the dopamine boost she might otherwise receive, which would in turn prevent the release of the chemicals in her brain that otherwise would make her confident, creative, hopeful, focused — and effective, especially relevant if she is competing academically or professionally with you. With this dynamic in mind, the phrase “fuck her up” takes on new meaning.
[…]
The vagina responds to the sense of female safety, in that circulation expands, including to the vagina, when a woman feels she is safe; but the blood vessels to the vagina constrict when she feels threatened. This may happen before the woman consciously interprets her setting as threatening. So if you continually verbally threaten or demean the vagina in the university or in the workplace, you continually signal to the woman’s brain and body that she is not safe. “Bad” stress is daily raising her heart rate, pumping adrenaline through her system, circulating catecholamines, and so on. This verbal abuse actually makes it more difficult for her to attend to the professional or academic tasks before her.

Cartoon by Emily Flake from ‘The Big Feminist BUT: Comics about Women, Men and the Ifs, Ands & Buts of Feminism.’ Click image for more.
Yet despite the compelling scientific evidence, the most moving and encompassing point Wolf makes is an anthropological one:
The way in which any given culture treats the vagina — whether with respect or disrespect, caringly or disparagingly — is a metaphor for how women in general in that place and time are treated.

Vagina: A New Biography is absolutely fascinating in its entirety. For a less scientific but no less pause-giving take, complement it with The Big Feminist BUT: Comics about Women, Men and the Ifs, Ands & Buts of Feminism, then revisitSusan Sontag on sex.

Found @ http://www.brainpickings.org/2013/09/23/naomi-wolf-vagina/

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Tantric Meditation: Practicing Sensory Awareness

Tantric Meditation: Practicing Sensory Awareness

“In just fifteen minutes every woman can become orgasmic,” the PDF promised. It was part of a press kit for a new book about sex called Slow Sex: The Art and Craft of the Female Orgasm by Nicole Daedone. That the PDF told me all kinds of other things about the book, its philosophy and practice and its author, didn’t matter, all I could do was groan.

I’ve become weary over the years of advice writers, self-help gurus, and authors who capitalize on sex by perpetuating messages that further hinder the enjoyment of our bodies instead of helping us. You’ve seen me rail against the lie-detector techniques perpetuated by AskMen.comGQ‘s sex-for-chores barter system and even this new craze with the 40 beads. I worry because these suggestions focus on sex in a way that makes it about everything but sex.

They make it a goal-oriented exercise. Or they make it a bargaining tool. Or they make it an obligation. None of them address the real issue many of us face: that we are dissatisfied with our sex lives. None of them equip us with tools or even ideas as to how to begin making sex more satisfactory.

The last thing I needed was someone else promising women they could become orgasmic in 15 minutes, so we can feel like we’re broken if, after said time, We find no orgasm is forthcoming. But, with the exclusion of the bead thing, I am not one to jump to conclusions without giving anything some serious thought, so I scheduled an interview for the next day, downloaded Daedone’s book and sat down to read.

 

 

This is slightly unusual in a person, but I really like being wrong. Unlike the press materials I’d skimmed, Slow Sex refused to let me skim. Any sex educator who can stand up to a publisher and get them to approve — in what is essentially a sex manual — a first chapter that talks about cooking with grandma is a force to be reckoned with.

When she was a teenager, Daedone’s grandmother taught her how to cook. It didn’t come easy — in fact, it all started with Daedone’s grandmother flat out rejecting a dish Daedone had cooked for her during home ec. Her reason? That young Daedone had killed the meal with the recipe. Thus her grandmother undertook the task of teaching her granddaughter how to cook, really cook, not by following instructions, but by going with instinct. Cooking as an art. This, Daedone says, is what sex should be about.

“When I went to the publisher,” Daedone would recall later when we were speaking on the phone. “One of my tasks was to make sure this was one that’d understand that I didn’t want to write a recipe book: I wanted to teach people how to actually cook good sex. There are so many recipe books out there for sex, with all these weird positions and necessary ingredients, and that’s fine to enjoy, but no one tells people the basics, and they need to know the basics before they get to the variations. There are all kinds of things you can include in sex, but all these elements are really high-level and we need to handle the fundamental thing first, which is ‘do I really know how to feel?'”

What happens, for example, if the recipe calls for toys and sexy movies and lingerie, to be mixed to taste until they result in two orgasms, but only one is had?

What happens, she says, is that sex starts looking like a problem.

“Because we’re human and we exist in a paradigm of wrong, we are trigger-happy when it comes to identifying problems,” Daedone writes in Slow Sex. “We are always on the lookout for someone or something to blame. We think there is something wrong with us, or with our relationship, or with our partner. The artsy-ness of sex, its frustrating refusal to abide by the laws of mechanics, puts us into the difficult position of wondering why things aren’t going the way they’re ‘supposed’ to be going.”

Men often go at like they’re fixing something, she says. Women, on the other hand, tend to become concerned with making their sexual encounters look the way they think they’re supposed to look, as dictated by Hollywood, or Porn Valley, or vampire fiction novels, or the stories shared by their girlfriends. Much of the time, when we think this way, we get stuck on the destination instead of enjoying the journey.

“There is no solving the problem of sex,” Daedone recounts telling a class. “If there’s no solving the problem of sex, they must wonder, why on earth are they here? They want solutions. They were promised a technique. They want to know how any woman can be orgasmic in 15 minutes — did I not read my own marketing materials?”

Her answer to their questioning glances: Sex is not a problem.

Sensory Awareness

Slow Sex does provide exercises and guidelines but it also manages to stay true to its message that it is not a recipe book for perfect sex (or any kind of sex), by focusing its exercises and guidelines on something else completely: sensory awareness, what Daedone calls “orgasmic meditation.”

“It started with standard meditation,” Daedone told me when we spoke. “I had a siting meditation practice and yoga practice, but I’d never seen these concepts applied in the domain of sexuality. Then I met someone who introduced me to the concept of sex as a meditation practice. I had such a profound experience. That’s what orgasmic meditation is, the basic principles of meditation applied to orgasm. I have made some modifications to what I have learned to tailor it to a woman’s body, because it’s important to have the practice made for a woman’s body, rather than have the woman’s body try to accommodate the definitions for the practice.”

Like meditation, the sensory exercise that Deadone has developed is about simplicity. By learning to focus and reconnect with our sensory data and our bodies, we enable ourselves to find the place where orgasm is possible.

But those who practice orgasmic meditation are not chasing after orgasm. This is an exercise looking to experience the whole spectrum of sensation.

So what is it? In short, orgasmic meditation is a lights-on 15 minute session between a woman and her partner that involves the woman reclining with her legs spread and her partner stimulating her clitoris. After the time is up, both partners share a brief description of a memorable moment of sensation during their session.

It may not seem like much. Or, it may seem terrifying to recline with our legs wide open and the light on, and our partner focused completely on the continued stroking of our clits. But it inculcates three core elements that are fundamental to fulfilling sex.

Stripping Expectations

This, as I’ve said, isn’t about climax. It’s about sensation. It’s about becoming aware of our bodies. To do this, the most important thing to do is let go of our expectations. There is no goal. No climax, no fireworks, no great transcendental union between you and your partner.

“Most people find it baffling that I want to remove the goal of orgasm, especially when so many women are frustrated because they have a hard time achieving it,” Daedone said. “The problem with a goal is that working exclusively towards it takes a woman outside of herself, so instead of the experience being about her sensations, the goal of orgasm becomes more important. Of course she’s going to lose touch with what she’s feeling!”

By extension — and because orgasmic meditation requires a single position to be maintained — there is no need to cater to any image we have about what sex is supposed to look like.

“Our poor little orgasms can’t stand under the weight of all these expectations and things we put on top of it!” Daedone told me laughing. She’s so right.

Starting with Sensation

“The main event is sensation,” Daedone reiterated during our talk, a message she expresses in the book again and again. This is journey sex, not destination sex. While it may or may not include a climax, it is so closely tied to sensation that it becomes a more pronounced sexual experience than the race many of us have come to know as sex.

Here, when we consider what we feel, we part with emotion. Too often, by using the word “feeling” so loosely, we confuse emotions with sensation. This is not about emotion. This is about the sensory experience. Try a little experiment and see how it goes: the next time you have sex, focus on the experience in your genitals.

“Isn’t that what we do when we have sex, we feel our genitals?” Daedone asks in the book. “If you’re like most of us, you’ll discover the surprising truth that you have been spending most of your sex life thinking about everything but the feeling in your genitals.”

This is why orgasmic meditation is central to Daedone’s philosophy. In order to get to a place where we are ready to experience incredible sex, we need to be able to experience. And perhaps this is why “orgasmic meditation” might not be the right term for it. It’s more about allowing yourself to experience the sensory symphony of your own body under someone else’s touch.

Even so, it is very much an exercise in meditation, as it’s not enough to pay attention: sensory awareness requires focus on both the part of the person stroking and the person receiving. This focus is something that must be cultivated, and that requires as much discipline and practice as any other form of meditation.

Open Communication

This is the hardest item on the list: you have to talk to your partner about what you really want.

“I don’t know if it’s some massive conspiracy or what, but somehow over the growing-up process women receive little positive reinforcement for speaking our desires,” Daedone writes. “We’re cautioned every step of the way not to voice our sexual desires, for fear of looking like a ‘bad woman,’ appearing too needy, stumbling down the supposedly slippery slope toward promiscuity, or — this is a big one — permanently damaging the supposedly fragile male ego. Whatever the reason, the result is that we women fall into patterns of pleasing others, especially during sex. By the time we’re adults, and we actually want sexual satisfaction enough to ask for it, we find that a sort of desire paralysis has set in. We’ve kept our desires so well hidden that we don’t even remember where we put them.”

Here, too, the exercise of orgasmic meditation with a partner offers a way for those who practice it to reconnect with their desires: following each session, both partners are to reflect and discuss in descriptive terms what they experienced during those fifteen minutes of meditation. But self-exploration extends beyond that — Daedone suggests keeping a journal and giving yourself eight minutes on a regular basis to concentrate on what your sex wants and writing it down.

“Start off with, ‘what my sex wants right now is…’ and let your desire do the talking from there,” she says. “Try not to censor yourself — if your sex wants to get fucked, if it wants to be naughty, if it wants to do things your conscious mind would never have thought to do, let it have its say. You’re not responsible for anything it says or does; your only job is to give it space to roam — and to take notes. If your desire takes you to a place that doesn’t feel comfortable to you, never fear. You are not agreeing to actually act on this list — all you’re agreeing to do is to write it down.”

You can incorporate your partner on this exercise as well, by having him write in his own journal, then reading out loud what you’ve written and asking him to share one sensation he felt while you read. You can then invite him to read his own entry out loud to you while you pay attention to the sensations the words evoke in your body.

Central to orgasmic meditation is the idea that a couple is exploring themselves in a new way, which makes discussion of what one wants easier, and enabling one’s partner to view it as separate from their usual sexual experience, though the sessions have a tendency to inform the former, even if at first only in a subconscious way.

Of course, orgasmic meditation is not just about a woman receiving caresses from her partner. Daedone does believe in reciprocity and includes an appendix in the book about how to engage in orgasmic meditation with a man. But she also believes that women are at the end of a lot more negative conditioning about sex and they need the energy of this practice to focus on them first, to do away with their inhibitions, fears, shame and guilt.

Starting with the women first also enables men to explore the female body in a way they may never have explored it, allowing them time to become more in tune with it and their partner’s responses. As a result, Daedone often tells a couple to focus orgasmic meditation on the woman for at least six months before switching up the roles between the partners.

Want more? You can watch Nicole Daedone address the audience of TEDx San Francisco about her book and purpose below:

 

What do you think of orgasmic meditation? Would you try it with your partner?

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