Meditation, Ego, and Sex Therapy

Every year, I take a break during August from my sex therapy practice to reorient my sex counselling philosophy and skills. Ironically, it is when I am taking a break from sex therapy I find myself hungry for new ideas, resources, and information that might support my sex counselling skills.

This past August my holiday took a rather unexpected turn. I had the pleasure of staying with a friend in Halifax who had a book on their shelf that caught my eye: Love and Rage: The path of liberation through anger by Lama Rod Owens.

Anyone who knows me intimately is aware that I was a big fan of anger and a huge uneducated critic of Buddhism. Mainly, I hated the experience of meditation and the concept of egolessness; my misunderstanding of both read like a practice in complacency with injustice. Love and Rage: The path of liberation through anger by Lama Rod Owens made it clear in language I could understand how meditation and seeing beyond the ego into our shared humanity was not only valuable as part of a spiritual philosophy– it was basically the heart and soul of therapy.

Before I say anything else, I want to be really clear: I am not a Buddhist teacher. I am novice at the practice of meditation and Buddhist philosophy. I am a seeker and a synthesizer. This my preliminary understanding based on reading Love and Rage by Lama Rod Owens, Radical Dharma by Williams, Owens, and Syedullah, Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach, and listening to a smattering of podcast episodes by the Upaya Podcast.

What I now understand meditation to be is a practice in learning how to lovingly sit with yourself so you can feel in both your mind and body the full expression of your emotions and experiences without becoming so entangled in them you cannot see what is happening clearly. This is the essence of what therapy calls emotional regulation. I now understand the ego to mean the part of ourselves that are attached to surviving the world, which includes our stories of who we are and what that means in the context of our social environments. This is the essence of what therapy calls attachment theory and polyvagal theory.

It’s not that emotions are bad or our stories are invalid, rather, that our emotions gives us clues as to whether or not we are reliving a past moment, the present moment, or a projected future. Rather, that we are more than just our survival mode and our fear of losing one another; those parts of ourselves can change given our political climate, geographical context, or personal experiences. Our compassion and ability to connect to one another and witness each other in our humanity is always available if we go looking. Buddhism invites us to look. Therapy invites us to look.

What does all this have to do with sex therapy? Just everything. Absolutely everything.

When we are struggling with sex we are struggling with either our egos, our connection to ourselves or others, or our bodies. We are lost in stories of what should be: who should I be as a sexual being, who should my partner be as a sexual being, what should sex look like, and how should sex make me feel. When we seek a “sex should” and lose sight of the process of playful exploration we will inevitably get stuck. If sex doesn’t feel like play you aren’t having sex you’re trying to heal a wound.

I am not trying to pathologize the healing properties of sex. Sex can absolutely help us to sooth or heal wounds and that is valid and wonderful if everyone is on board for that. Many people engage in kinky sex that is adjacent to traumas they have experienced historically and find it deeply healing to re-enact dynamics or scenes that end in connective care (even if it is with a casual or one-time play partner). It’s both healing and playful and consensual. In essence, it may be an act of changing the story of our autonomy during sex or our worth as a sexual being. And in order to do that we would have needed to be able to sit with ourselves, our stories, our bodies, and our thoughts long enough to recognize who we have come to believe we are and reorient to our human need for pleasure, connection, curiosity, play, and worth. And then we’d need the courage to share this insight with our partners and begin the negotiations if they’re open to it or risk rejection if they are not. It’s a lot of work!

Now consider another scenario of trying to sooth a wound: We become upset when our partners struggle to maintain an erection during sex because the story we tell ourselves is that they should be able to maintain an erection if I am attractive enough or a good enough lover. In actuality, the experience is that when my partner loses their erection I feel my worth/social status as an attractive mate invalidated. Do you see the subtle difference? In the first story, we are saying the problem is within our partner if we believe ourselves to be attractive and a good lover. In the second story, we are owning that this is the message we have internalized about what erections mean. In the second story, by owning that this is our story we make room for the possibility that our partner has a different story– maybe a story about stress, sensory overload, pressure to perform. By naming our interpretation of our partners erection as a story we are admitting that it may or may not be true.

That hit to our ego may be so painful, though, we’d rather put the story on our partner. In this scenario, we have become attached to an outcome outside of our control (i.e., our partners erection) and have put the work of healing our wound onto our partner rather than doing the deeper internal work of asking ourselves what about this experience feels so bad for me? I get the appeal: it would be a lot easier if there was a quick fix to the “erection problem” because then we can bypass really looking at ourselves courageously. But alas, when we become resentful of ourselves or partners for not giving us the sex we want to self-sooth or heal our wounds, sex for the sake of pleasure and joy falls apart pretty fast.

When we can lovingly recognize this is what is happening for ourselves, our worlds can change. If we can look at the scenario and see, “oh! I have internalized an idea about sex that is not necessarily true! I live in a world that says I should be sexually attractive above all else to feel worthy! oh! This might not have anything to do with my partner! oh! Maybe it does! Maybe my partner has internalized what should or should not be attractive and they’re struggling with an internalized idea about attractiveness! oh! None of this is personal but so hard and frustrating! oh! Maybe we can be in this together rather than seeing either of us as the problem! oh! Maybe we can talk about how we can help each other! oh! Maybe we can let go of erections being necessary for good sex because it was never about good sex to begin with!” And maybe we can then really reckon with how the sexual violence of the world has violated our connection to our own and each others humanity.

It will still be really hard and painful at times but it will be made easier the more we practice seeing the stories and owning our wounds while recognizing the wounds in each other. The change will be deeper rooted and enable resilience to future sexual obstacles, as well, while seeing more of yourself in your partner and vice versa. We can relinquish our desire to control, not with complacency, but with courageous acknowledgement of how we effect each other in this tangled web of sexual suffering. The good news is if we can tangle each other up, we can untie the knots, too, and warp each other up on our own terms.