"And is there anything you would withhold? Some day, all that you have shall be given. The trees give that they may live, for to withhold is to perish."
Barbara Carrellas of Urban Tantra (Celestial Arts, 2007) writes about expanding our capacity for rapture beyond our mental constraints: “I’ll bet that this moment happened when you were doing nothing but receiving. You were not trying to give back to the person who was giving to you. You were not planning what you were going to do later to please your lover. You were totally and completing receiving every drop of pleasure you were being offered.”
The conundrum we face, however, is multifold. In our achievement-focused culture, we often struggle with the need to perform, and so what should be our nature — to float gently in the pleasure of each caress, each nibble, each tactile sensation that reminds us of our somatic natures and desirability — instead feels foreign, or even forbidden. One could say that the energies of the boardroom have contaminated the enchantment of the bedroom.
Then there is the simple fact that mindfulness requires we give our attention to one thing at a time. “In the totality of your receiving, you may give your partner a lot of pleasure. In the process of giving, you may get a lot of pleasure. But sex is a lot more satisfying when your intention — either to give or to receive — is clear,” Carrellas writes.
What’s more, we feel guilty if we accept too much joyfulness. Most of us create, subconsciously and through life experience, a narrative that says we are allotted only so much bliss. This extends into the pleasure zones of love as well. “It feels to good to be true,” we think to ourselves; or something even more jarring — “I don’t deserve this” — prevents us from relaxing into ecstasy. When this happens, we actually sabotage our pleasure potential.
Sometimes we do so in obvious, harmful ways, like manufacture conflict in our intimate relationships, or say ‘No’ when we really want to say ‘Yes’. (For more insights, read the classic, How Much Joy Can You Stand by Suzanne Falters).
Less obviously, guilt can sometimes cause us to (can you predict what I’m going to write next?) – turn the tables and give instead. It’s a common response, aided and abetted by good intentions gone silly. “Most people find it much easier to give than to receive,” Carrallas explains. “Most of us seem to carry some sort of automatic guilt alarm that goes off when we are receiving pleasure.”
“The irony of this is that the vast majority of people love giving to a receptive, willing partner who’s truly enjoying her or himself. So in trying to give back while someone is trying to give to us, we are actually depriving out partner of the pleasure of being able to go totally into the experience of giving.” For this reason, she advises: When you are receiving, receive it all, and when you are giving, give freely and everything.
That is because, in the pursuit of sexual release, there are those times when we build up that ‘solitary’ tension. That pre-orgasmic state takes us away from being present with our lover. It is wonderful, glorious, meaningful and clarifying — and when we climax, we know our primordial, secret sensual selves. Still, it’s a private place, no matter how many people are in bed with you.
If orgasm comes less readily, we find ourselves focused on coming as a means to an end. Performance anxiety sets in. We try to hard to cross the finish line, and miss the beautiful surroundings that beckon us to slow down, gazing into our lover’s face, and feeling the presence of something greater that reveals itself to us when bodies merge.
Given the commotion of modern living — too heavy on guilt and too light on delight - is it any wonder that couples are drawn to slower or non-orgasmic sexuality as a way to build and sustain their bond?
Marnia Robinson has written extensively on bonding. The author of Cupid’s Poison Arrow and a regular contributor to PsychologyToday.com, Robinson believes that when you engage in sex that is orgasm-focused, you initiate certain chemical reactions in your brain that diminish your sense of connection and affection in your primary relationship.
Instead, she encourages a specific form of non-orgasmic sex called Karezza (first introduced at the turn of the century, and the focus of a future article). Practitioners remark how much slow sex emphasizes bonding behaviors enhance intimacy. The reason goes back to how our brains respond to them. “These generous behaviors are the way we humans fall in love,” Robinson explains, and include, “affectionate touch, grooming, soothing sounds, eye contact, and so forth.”
“In rare pair-bonding mammals like us, bonding cues serve a secondary function as well (known as an exaptation). They’re part of the reason we stay in love (on average) for long enough for both parents to attach to any kids. Honeymoon neurochemistry also plays a role, but it’s somewhat like a booster shot that wears off. In contrast, bonding behaviors can sustain bonds indefinitely,” she has written on an article about lazy lovemaking.
Why do these gestures support and nurture relationships? “Bonding behaviors, or attachment cues, are subconscious signals that can make emotional ties surprisingly effortless,” Robinson explains, because they activate ancient neural circuitry in the brain, specifically the amygdala, a region that serves as an emotional relay center. Nurturing touch, caring that is genuinely selfless, or holding one another in stillness after a long day, seem to calm the brain down and cascade the brain with the neurochemicals (like oxytocin) that help lovers feel relaxed and loving, she explains.