Whips, handcuffs, blindfolds, ropes, flogging, spanking. These probably aren’t the kind of activities you associate with meditation and mindfulness, let alone spirituality.

But if you ask those who practice consensual BDSM (meaning bondage/discipline, dominance/submission and sadism/masochism) — along with the researchers who study it and mindful sex — a connection between these seemingly disparate practices actually makes a lot of sense.

Though in its nascent stages, BDSM research is finding similarities between BDSM and mindfulness and other forms of meditation, especially in the context of heightened awareness and relaxing altered states of mind. Evidence is starting to support what many practitioners already innately knew: BDSM can be powerfully meditative, with positive psychological effects that go far beyond just sexual satisfaction.

To the uninitiated, it’s easy to discount BDSM as salacious, or even deranged and dangerous. Thanks to Fifty Shades of Grey, the general public’s perception of BDSM tends to be ill-informed, reductive, and unhealthy — worlds apart from the reality of a community that embeds enthusiastic consent, trust, and safety into practices that often involve intense but controlled pain.

Early psychoanalysts like Sigmund Freud categorized BDSM as nothing short of a mental illness. But modern research reveals again and again that recreational BDSM practitioners are, psychologically speaking, pretty much the same as those who don’t practice it. If anything, one study found them to have comparatively lower levels of disorders (like depression, anxiety, PTSD, psychological sadism, masochism, borderline pathology, paranoia) and another suggested they were less neurotic and sensitive to rejection, more open to new experiences and conscientiousness. They also rated their own overall well-being higher than non-practitioners.

The more we study the connection between BDSM, mindfulness, other types of meditation, and pain, the clearer the benefits of BDSM become, particularly when it comes to stress and anxiety. Potentially, it can even be a transcendental and spiritual experience for some.

While the overall BDSM community isn’t tied to any religious ideology, the practice does share an important commonality with some spiritual meditation traditions that involve pain. Both embrace the idea of accepting pain, or even finding peace and pleasure in surrendering to it.

Don’t yuck someone’s ohmmm

Cara Dunkley, a clinical psychologist from the Sexual Health Laboratory at the University of British Columbia (UBC), is part of a group that has spent decades researching mindfulness-based meditation training as a treatment for various sexual difficulties, from chronic pain with sex to traumatic tiggers and low libido.

“Mindfulness at its core is the ability to focus, sustain, and shift attention. And that is why it has real benefits with improving mood, depression, anxiety, pain, sexual functioning, all of that,” she said.

Mindful sex specifically can help you shift your attention away from negative thoughts, memories, physical sensations, and painful stimuli through accepting it without reacting to it, so you can then refocus on pleasure instead. General mindfulness-based training has become an increasingly accepted treatment for managing various types of chronic pain. But one UBC study found that teaching patients to apply mindfulness to sex helped with their chronic vaginal pain.

Few groups understand how to turn pain into pleasure better than BDSM practitioners. So Dunkley started researching how they do it, positing multiple theories on the most important facts at play. In 2020, she published the first study ever into whether BDSM actually helps foster mindfulness. The results (though limited in sample size) were promising, showing that the group which practiced BDSM did indeed score higher on most traits associated with everyday mindfulness (which means bringing present-moment awareness to ordinary tasks, like eating, rather than during formal seated meditation).

“Mindfulness is comprised of about five skills: observing, describing, acting with awareness, non-judgment, and non-reactivity to your inner experience. Each of those can have useful applications to BDSM,” she said.

In the BDSM community, the term Bottom describes the person fulfilling a submissive role, who’s on the receiving end of commands and masochistic activities. Conversely, Tops are the ones who role play as dominants in a BDSM scene, doling out the painful stimulation and commands.

For both roles, exercising the tenets of mindfulness can be crucial for having a positive and safe experience.

“The mindfulness method of observing refers to the ability to attend to internal and external experiences, like sensations, emotions, thoughts. Bottoms must be very aware of their own internal experiences and emotional states in their moment-to-moment response during a BDSM activity, and to physical sensations, because they need to differentiate between safe pain and pain that could be indicative of real harm,” said Dunkley. “Similarly, Tops must be externally attentive to the emotional and physical responses of the Bottom through very controlled focus, and consciously adjusting their actions accordingly to keep it pleasurable.”

But the link between BDSM, meditation, and pain doesn’t end there. While Dunkley’s research focused on mindfulness as it’s commonly used in western scientific research, others have found evidence that there’s a transcendental or even spiritual appeal to BDSM too, just like there is in other forms of meditation. There are many types of meditation, but only a small sliver, such as mindfulness, have been tested in lab settings (and even then researchers are still calling for more study on various health benefits).

“There are a variety of reasons people do BDSM,” said Brad Sagarin, a professor of social psychology at Northern Illinois University who also leads The Science of BDSM research group. Some go to BDSM for just your standard sexual arousal. But others seek it out for the sheer thrill and excitement, deeper connections to partners, and even stress release. “Some even pursue BDSM primarily for spiritual reasons. In particular, our research team looked into the altered states of consciousness that BDSM activities can facilitate in both Bottoms and Tops.”

Their study found that both roles can experience unique states of mind during BDSM. Bottoms in particular describe entering a headspace that sounds a lot like what many longtime, spirituality-based meditators experience.

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BDSM and meditation are more connected than you’d think by Jess Joho

March 27 2021