Sexual desire is not all about pleasure, it’s like an itch which has an element of restlessness built into it. Its satisfaction leads to pleasure in the beginning and elimination of the restlessness in the end. According to Sigmund Freud, a famous psychiatrist and father of psychoanalysis, the object of every impulse or drive including that of sexual drive is elimination of itself.
One feels incomplete when the desire remains unfulfilled and one also feels incomplete without the desire when it vanishes, although temporarily, soon after its gratification. This state of feeling incomplete leads to creation of new desires. It is like a bottomless pit that can never be filled.
Mindfulness can be described as enhancing the awareness of our thoughts, feelings, impulses, mental images, volition etc without reacting emotionally to them. It therefore has two components to it – enhanced awareness and non-reaction. One’s instant “reactions” that may be outside of one’s control get replaced by “actions” that are free from the constraints of one’s past conditionings. Every thought and every emotion dies its natural death if not fuelled by the judgements and emotional reactions of the individual experiencing them. The typical reactions that arise are those of craving for, or aversion to, things. Detached observation, with suspended evaluations and mental reactions, does not encourage the suppression or expression of emotions but sees with impartiality, making it possible for the individuals to deal with these emotional reactions appropriately.
It may seem an almost impossible task to eradicate all cravings and aversions (and one might question the desirability of such an endeavour when one sets out on this path) but what one can hope for initially is freedom from one’s fears and addictions to one’s desires, which can be a hindrance to the real goals of life. Mindfulness meditation enables clients to transform their reactions (which are conditioned) into actions that are based on free choice. The central aim of mindfulness is to free individuals from the restricting influences of strong emotions, both positive and negative.
Mindfulness meditation originated in India and it has been practised in the Eastern world for more than 25 centuries but only recently has it become popular in the West. In the last decade or so the scientific community has become more open to the spiritual aspects of mental health. This relates to the realisation that the holistic understanding of consciousness is possible only when we study the subjective experiences of the individual as a legitimate area of scientific enquiry.
Mindfulness meditation is based on the assumption that our minds have a natural ability to undo stress. These mechanisms are activated during meditation as individuals get connected with their inner consciousness by way of becoming aware of their inner body sensations. For instance, they can become aware of sexual urges before these urges manifest in the form of thoughts and behaviours. Mindfulness, therefore, acts at a precognitive level. It also helps clients deal with their strong emotions (cravings and aversions) by using certain cognitive strategies i.e. understanding every experience in terms of their transitoriness and not identifying with them. This allows clients to become detached from the activity of the mind.
Mindfulness has been used successfully with clients suffering from low sexual desire and arousal difficulties (Kocsis, 2005) but in my opinion it can also be used in treating sexual addictions, since traditionally it has been used successfully in treating cravings of all sorts (www.dhamma.org,2006).
This chapter discusses the role of Vipassana which is a form of mindfulness meditation in treating sexual addictions.
The experiences of pleasure and pain occur within the realms of our thoughts, emotions and inner body sensations; but there is also a dimension to our Being that exists beyond these domains, and our connection to this aspect of our being is vital for our existence. One of the attributes of this dimension is the experience of inner peace and bliss. This dimension has been described differently in different schools of thought. Some call it our spirit or soul, whereas others, who don’t believe in the existence of a finite personal soul, call it pure consciousness or one’s divine/higher self.
This pure inner consciousness has the attribute of witnessing everything without making any judgments or reacting emotionally to things – both intrapsychic as well as external. It can also be described as witnessing consciousness. The emotional reactions could be in the form of cravings and aversions. This witnessing consciousness also has the ability to neutralise the cravings and aversions if one is able to bring it into contact with these emotions in a certain way. The witnessing consciousness is like the pure air that neutralises bad odours, the clean water that washes away grease and dirt from our dirty laundry, the sunlight that melts away mountain ice or the soil that disintegrates our rubbish. It is the connection between our personal and the transpersonal consciousness.
Understanding the Mind:
One can visualise the mind in terms of its two main parts, the first one can be described as the thinking-judging-feeling and reacting part of the mind, and as opposed to this first part, the second part can be described as emotionally neutral witnessing consciousness. This second part of the mind is beyond mere thinking or feeling, it doesn’t make any judgements such as good or bad, or right or wrong and it’s emotionally neutral i.e. it doesn’t have any emotions that one experiences on a daily basis and it does not react in a positive or negative way. It is the medium that carries all the messages in the form of thoughts, emotions, judgments etc. One experiences equanimity, inner peace and bliss for the duration one remains connected with it.
It is the second part of our mind i.e. witnessing consciousness that has the ability to neutralise our thoughts and emotions. If one is not connected with it they may not be able to neutralise or eliminate their thoughts and feelings, both positive and negative. This is something that we see happening in sexual addictions and in a lot of other psychological disorders where the person feels helpless in the face of their thoughts, emotions and impulses. They get trapped inside certain ways of thinking and feeling and can’t get out of them. It is therefore very important that one identifies with or remains connected from time to time with this witnessing consciousness which has got the ability to heal and undo certain emotions and thoughts.
With mindfulness meditation one learns to shift ones identification from the thoughts and feelings to with this witnessing consciousness, whereas with CBT one learns to replace the existing thoughts with feelings a different set of thoughts and feelings, that allow the sexually compulsive urges to fade away.
Now let us examine how our witnessing consciousness neutralises the thoughts and emotions that our intellect has generated. A mere contact of the witnessing consciousness with our thoughts and emotions neutralises them, just as a mere contact of sunlight with the mountain ice melts it away. When our choiceless, effortless, non-judging consciousness is directed towards inner body sensations that represent sexual impulses, these impulse gets neutralised. The witnessing consciousness has the ability to neutralise not just the cravings or sexually compulsive thoughts of a sex addict but a whole range of emotions such as guilt, shame, anxiety, depression, fear of death that they suffer from.
This switching of identification is not difficult, as it requires only an awareness that at any given point in time one is identifying with one’s intellect at the expense of their identification with their inner consciousness. For example when watching a sad film we sometimes find ourselves getting sentimental, but when we say to ourselves – “hold on why am I getting emotional here, it’s just a film”, we can pull ourselves out of it. In a similar fashion if one can recognise that one is suffering because one is identifying with a particular thought or experience one can pull oneself out of it.
The nature of addictions:
All forms of addictions are like guests who we had allowed entry into our house (mind) at some point in time in the past but subsequently they took charge of the house and made us their slaves. These addictions are collective experiences from our past that remain stored in the unconscious mind. We are free to say “yes” or “no” to the thoughts that knock on the doors of our consciousness. Perhaps these thoughts are weak to begin with. Once we say yes to them they gain entry into our conscious as well as the unconscious mind and many of them start proliferating and gather strength if there are many similar experiences already there in our unconscious mind. We are again free, later on at the point of taking an action, but the force of a “no” from the conscious mind should match the force of the sexual impulse and the stimulus from outside. In the tradition of mindfulness meditation there is no belief in any fixed personality traits that are operative at all times throughout one’s life time. Instead, all habits and behavioural tendencies are viewed as the outcome of one’s collective past experiences that can be worked on, and as a result one’s personality can also change in a gradual manner.
Secondly, many of us at some point in our lives do fantasise about over indulging in sex but the fact that majority of us don’t go on to become sex addicts suggests that having such thoughts does not automatically lead to sexual addiction; there is something else in us that stops us from becoming a sex addict. Perhaps for many sex addicts it may not even be the force of these urges that leads to addiction but how they understand and responds to them. It’s about one’s identification with these urges and also about one’s ego strength (used here in its psychoanalytic sense). If these urges are strong but one’s ego strength that can resist it is also stronger one will not become an addict; contrary to this if the urges are weak but the ego strength is weaker than these urges, one’s potential to become a sex addict would be high.
Thirdly, sex addicts are generally aware that their sexually compulsive impulses appear uncontrollable at one point in time but they can control them after a while. How does this happen? The unconscious impulse remains almost the same, it doesn’t change dramatically during the course of hours or days but it’s overpowering at one point and under control later on. The difference is that – when under the spell of the impulse they were identifying with the first part of the mind that was creating new thoughts and emotional reactions; whereas later on when they align themselves with the inner consciousness they get out of the experience of being compelled. Or if I were to put it simply, though may not be very accurate, in the first instance they were inside the emotion and later on during the day they got out of it. When they are outside the emotion they feel less helpless, and can cope with it better; but when they are inside the emotion they feel trapped and see no way out.
A simple recognition that one is trapped inside the emotion and is identifying with it can help one come out of it – because the part of one’s mind that is saying “you are trapped inside the emotion” is not trapped inside it. It stands outside of the emotions and can see the trap.
Now we can look at ways in which one gets connected with the inner consciousness. We all get connected with the inner consciousness during deep sleep – not when we are dreaming – because during dreams our intellect is active and we are identifying with it. We are also connected with the inner consciousness when we are not actively engaged in the activities of the intellect and are not identifying with it.
Mindfulness can be described as enhanced awareness coupled with non-reaction of the mind. A non-reacting attitude leads to enhanced awareness and enhanced awareness facilitates non-reaction. The practice of mindfulness encourages us to adopt a non-judgmental and non-reacting attitude and thereby facilitates our identification with the inner consciousness. The inner consciousness remains outside the hold of our intellect and that of our compulsive thoughts and feelings and, as a result, can set a sex addict free from all their conditioned reactivity linked with the cravings and aversions. Strangely it’s the same technique of mindfulness that works on the pleasurable experiences as well as the unpleasant ones equally.
Review of Literature
The assumption that Mindfulness meditation can help clients with sexual addiction is based on several scientific studies that have been carried out recently, documenting its efficacy in alcohol and drug addictions, binge eating and smoking. Vipassana meditation, a form of mindfulness meditation has been found to help clients with smoking, alcohol problems and other addictions (Chandiramani, 2000).
Studies involving brain imaging following mindfulness practice have revealed lessened activation of the amygdala (part of fear and pleasure circuitry) in response to emotional stimuli. There is also some evidence to support increased ability of the individual to recruit higher order prefrontal activity and brain scans have revealed thickening of prefrontal cortex following mindfulness meditation (McGreevey, S, 2012; Ireland, T, 2014)
Hammersley and Cregan (1986) studied the efficacy of Vipassana meditation at Cyrenian House, a leading drug rehabilitation centre in Western Australia where over 600 addicts have been treated on an in-patient basis and over 400 on an out-patient basis. In addition to Vipassana meditation, the programme included individual counselling, group therapy, attendance at Narcotic Anonymous meetings, participation in arts and craft programmes and promotion of physical and mental well-being through yoga, relaxation, sport and drama. The director of this programme concluded that a Vipassana course was a perfect conclusion to the Cyrenian House programme and Vipassana became an integral part of rehabilitation programme at Cyrenian House.
Gerhard Scholz (2006) carried out a historical review on the use of Vipassana in drug addictions and how sensations play a central role in achieving cure through Vipassana. He has tried this approach successfully with several alcohol and drug addicts in Switzerland.
Kristeller et al (1999) carried out a multi-site (with Duke University) randomised clinical trial comparing a mindfulness meditation-based intervention to a psycho-educational and a waiting list control for binge eating in the obese. There was a significant improvement with mindfulness meditation.
Professor Marlatt (2006), director of addictive behaviours research centre at the University of Washington, presented a paper in July 2006 on Mindfulness meditation in the treatment of addictive behaviour at the 4th biennial international conference on personal meaning in Vancouver. He discussed the relevance of the two main approaches: a ten day Vipassana retreat and a mindfulness-based relapse prevention – a weekly out-patient treatment programme for alcohol and other drug dependency. The second approach was in the form of an extension of traditional cognitive-behavioural treatment. He has reported statistically significant improvement resulting from mindfulness meditation (Marlatt, 2006).
What does Mindfulness do?
The following mechanisms (overlapping to some extent) explain the ways in which mindfulness works:
- Anxiety reduction: Coleman (1990, 1992) supported the notion that sexual addictions are mediated by anxiety reduction, not sexual desire per se, and these disorders were related to obsessive compulsive illness. Mindfulness meditation has been shown to reduce anxiety scores (Kabat-Zinn et al 1992 and 1995; Chandiramani et al 2000)
- Antidepressant effect: Sexual addiction can be described as a way of coping with low moods, anaesthetising painful feelings of loneliness, self-hatred, emptiness and a lack of meaning and purpose in life. Mindfulness has been shown to address these existential issues (Chandiramani, 1991 and 1995). It encourages clients to examine these painful feelings with equanimity and deal with them more effectively. It results in increased tolerance for painful affects.
- Return from ‘the escape’: While addiction can be a way of running away from life by trying to forget one’s difficulties and challenges, mindfulness is the opposite (Rahula, 1996). It improves one’s ability to cope with life by teaching how to be present with whatever is going on without getting overwhelmed or overly disturbed.
The philosophical approach adopted by Alcoholics Anonymous is that alcoholism is not an escape from the reality but an inability of individuals to handle their cravings. Mindfulness focuses on these cravings for sensations that are linked with erotic sensory stimulation through the five senses. It helps individuals inculcate a sense of detachment from these inner sensations that are at the root of conscious experiences.
- Mindfulness neutralises emotionally charged experiences from the past that are stored in the unconscious mind.
- Achieving an altered state of consciousness makes addictive behaviour unnecessary. Experiences of a higher nature emerge during meditation bringing a new sense of purpose and meaning to life. This new way of being assumes urgency and priority over the desire to indulge in compulsive sexual behaviour.
How does Mindfulness work?
- Taking a precept of moderation in gratification: Sexual addictions are not entirely out of one’s voluntary control although one’s unconscious mind and its compulsive urges play a large part. The starting point would be to make certain rules and live by them, and keep revising them if they appear either very easy or very difficult to follow.
Sexual impulse has two components to it; a biological drive that emanates from the unconscious mind and our psychological response to it which comes from the conscious mind. We create psychological reaction in response to both biological drive as well as the external input through our five senses. Sexual addiction is not about the biological drive alone but how we respond to this biological drive as well.
- Breath awareness: Sigmund Freud understood the mind in terms of its two components: the experiencing self and the observing self. It is the experiencing self that experiences the emotions of pleasure and pain. The observing self remains outside of the binding influences of these emotions and is able to regulate them better. The observing self is strengthened as a result of observing one’s own breath. It has many other advantages as follows
- If we examine carefully we get upset mainly when we are either thinking about the past or future, and we can cut out a lot of stress if we start living in the present. Breath awareness promotes present orientation.
- Secondly, during a breath awareness session the mind keeps wandering in all directions and one keeps bringing it back to the breath and in the process learns to control it.
- Thirdly, since the process of breath awareness does not involve any thoughts or emotions, it helps clients get out of their thoughts and emotions. Every thought and every feeling dies its natural death if not paid attention to. It’s our attention that fuels the fire. Breath awareness therefore helps clients get out of their compulsive sexual urges by shifting one attention away to an activity that does not require thinking.
- Finally, witnessing one’s breath helps the individual develop their witnessing mind (observing self) which can work on the “experiencing self” more effectively.
- Bodyscan: is a term being used in modern times to describe the technique of mindfulness meditation and it involves reflecting one’s consciousness onto itself by way of observing one’s inner body sensations in a choiceless and effortless manner. The underlying assumption here is that these inner body sensations represent one’s unconscious emotions that can be worked on. It is assumed that the mind exists in each and every living cell of our body and therefore to change the mind one has to work at one’s body level. The brain is considered an important organ regulating consciousness but there are many important functions of the mind that happen outside our heads, in a complex network of energy channels and energy hot spots spread all over the body. Many complex tasks are precognitive and pre-linguistic and they tend to bypass our conscious awareness. They are mediated through internal body sensations and symbolic representations connecting our sensations with our thoughts.
We know that there are many experiences for which the corresponding thought forms do not exist, but it is inconceivable to think of an experience that does not involve inner body sensations. These sensations result from contact of our five senses with the outside world but they can also be triggered by the residual or resultant consciousness of past experiences, which remain dormant in the unconscious. Reflecting our consciousness on to our thought alone will take us only to a certain point, but reflecting it on to our inner sensation will enable us to experience things in totality. Such inner sensations are not experienced in the normal waking state (although they may be elicited when listening to music, during heightened sexual arousal or in extreme conditions such as fever, illness or fatigue). But these sensations are available at all times, being linked with the functioning of our unconscious mind, in each and every cell of the body. Due to lack of training we ordinarily fail to perceive them. The practice of mindfulness, more so with Vipassana which is a more intense form of mindfulness, one experiences these sensations, laid down as representations of our past actions or conditionings. Each action, whether by word or thought or deed, leaves behind an active force called sankhara (also known as karma), which accumulates to the credit or debit ‘account’ of the individual, depending upon the nature of the deed. The understanding of the three characteristics of impermanence, suffering and non-identification at the sensation level enables us to rid ourselves of the sankhara, which has accumulated in this account, thereby freeing us of all compulsions.
- Being non-judgemental: Observing the contents of the mind in a choiceless, effortless, non-judgmental manner without reacting emotionally to them silences the cravings and connects the person to their inner consciousness. This sets into motion the inner healing mechanisms.
- The experience of impermanence (Anicca): Understanding every mental experience, including one’s sexual impulses, at the sensation level in terms of their transitoriness helps clients deal with them more appropriately and in a realistic manner. The mind that was reacting in a compulsive manner learns to stop reacting in a blind manner and settles into an equanimous state. This frees the individual to act on his impulses with a free will.
- Non-identification (Anatta):
Is this my real self?
I am the sky, my sexual fantasies are the clouds
I am the water, my compulsive sexual feelings are the impurities
I am the computer, my sexual thoughts are the software
I am the air, my sexual impulses are the storms
I am the owner, my sexual desire is the pet.
One learns not to identify with one’s sexual impulses but to acknowledge their existence as one of the several contents of their mind that come and go, and do not represent one’s true identity. Clients begin to understand their mind in terms of the internet that has all sort of good, bad and ugly things but they don’t belong to one’s computer, and these can’t be removed completely from the internet. However, one can learn to negotiate one’s way in such a way that they are not over powered by the contents of their mind. It is not a denial or disowning parts of oneself but recognition of false identifications and letting go of things that one is holding on to out of one’s own insecurities. This also brings a sense of non-attachment to things that are temporary.
- Realisation of suffering (Dukkha) hidden underneath even the pleasurable experiences such as sexual urges: Clients begin to see at an experiential level how one’s attachment to the pleasurable experiences brings unhappiness eventually, when the pleasurable experience comes to an end. They also realise at an experiential level that starting a journey of repeating the experience brings more unhappiness than happiness.
- Transcendence: Identification with one’s inner consciousness enables clients to connect with the infinite cosmic consciousness and they experience altered (higher) states of consciousness, an experience they were seeking through sex and drugs.
Mindfulness and Sexual Anorexia
Paradoxically, mindfulness has been reported to have beneficial effects on clients suffering from low sexual desire and other similar sexual dysfunctions (Kocsis, 2005). This paradoxical effect can be explained on the basis that mindfulness meditation results in ‘neutralisation of emotionally charged experiences‘ both of positive and negative nature. Sexual anorexia generally results from negative emotions acting as obstacles in the way of normal sexuality. Mindfulness work happens at the body level and can help patients with low sexual desire neutralise their negative emotions and experience the inner aspects of their sexuality that they are normally disconnected with.
Society has placed too much emphasis on seeking pleasure and it all seems justified but there is hardly any talk about inner peace.
A recovery from sexual addiction may appear as a loss to a sex addict, but it is not a loss in reality as one doesn’t stop enjoying sex, unless one chooses to transcend it completely for higher spiritual goals. The addict acquires the ability to manage the instinct better; and if the excesses are lost, they get replaced by a higher order happiness i.e. inner peace which would be worth seeking.
The treatment of sexual addiction through spiritual means is not about denying the reality and joy of human sexuality. It is about learning to humanise sex and to use it in a responsible context. ‘That, after all, is the deepest longing of the human heart’. (Thaddeus Birchard, 2003).
Mindfulness meditation is different from other religious practices in that it is based on scientific principles and individuals learn to take full responsibility for their problems, and to confront their own unconscious minds in ways similar to those of psychotherapies. In recent years we have seen attempts to integrate mindfulness with almost all forms of therapies such as CBT, behavioural therapies, biofeedback therapies, existential therapies etc.
With mindfulness, the change does not come by accident or miracles. Clients learn over a period of time to behave in a way that is consistent with their values and long-term goals. They realise, after a while, that peace coming from within and life changes occurring as a result of letting go of their addictions, are much more enjoyable than the transient excitements that they get from their addictions.
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