Both Tantric spiritual practice and Sexological Bodywork teach that sensation and pleasure can be a route to healing and, ultimately, freedom and enlightenment. So how does that work in practice?
We have negative associations with pleasure
Often when we think of pleasure, we think of sex and intense experiences like orgasm. And then come the associated thoughts and feelings. That this pleasure is shameful. We’re not supposed to have pleasure: we don’t deserve it; it’s bad; it’s just egoistic pursuit of short-term gratification without regard for consequences; it’s driven by desires we supposedly can’t control. These associations can be strong or subtle, and they’re linked to events from the past or messages from our family or culture. Probably, everyone has some negative associations and blocks around pleasure.
When people have suffered emotional and sexual trauma, their relationship to their bodies, sensation and pleasure is even more complex. They’ve been used by others, their wants and limits ignored and overridden. Survivors can feel like their needs and their bodies are not their own. Connection to their body can be a reminder of their past and can trigger natural protective responses, such as freeze/numbing or fight/flight and emotions like fear and anxiety. It’s no wonder survivors often have sophisticated systems of vigilance and protection to avoid those triggers and perceived threats.
Perhaps we should do away with these complex bodies and this nasty pleasure thing and meditate in a cave on higher things? Or bury all of it somewhere deep inside ourselves and make sure we never look there. Personally, I tried that second option and it took a lot of energy and was a miserable experience. So perhaps there’s a better way…
Pleasure is a natural experience
First, let’s re-examine what pleasure is. Imagine for a moment you are sitting in a beautiful natural setting on a summer’s evening with the sun setting. There’s nowhere else to be, nothing else to do. You can just sit and enjoy. The golden light warms the scenery. Reds and oranges effortlessly tint a subtle artwork on the clouds. As you relax in this idyllic moment of beauty, the warm breeze gently caresses your skin. Gentle tingles run through your body from the exquisite touch of the air. This is pleasure as it should be – your body’s natural enjoyment of simply being alive.
Let’s start with that premise: that just being alive in the moment can be pleasurable. We can notice simple pleasures happening right now. And when we try that, we then notice things that block us: stop us from noticing and savouring that pleasure. And, goodness, there are a lot of things that get in the way.
One of my clients couldn’t even to relate to the word pleasure, so we just started noticing any sensations in her body and she decided whether she liked them or didn’t like them. And that was enough to get started. Pleasure simply as a sensation in your body that you like. By creating and noticing simple pleasures, and then gently noticing and removing the obstacles, we create a path of profound learning and healing.
Finding a direct route to pleasure
Modern Sexological Bodywork draws on the amazing work of Dr Betty Martin and her Wheel of Consent. One of her key exercises is “waking up the hands” and involves touching an ordinary object and noticing the sensation in your hands. Betty talks about people using an “indirect route to pleasure”, which is doing something to someone else so you get pleasure in return. Your pleasure comes from how they react, or because they do something back for you.
In “waking up the hands” you learn the “direct route to pleasure”. At some point, sometimes quickly and sometimes after a lot of practice, something clicks and you find it is pleasurable simply to touch. It doesn’t need anyone else, it doesn’t need any special setup, it doesn’t need your genitals. It’s just pleasurable for your hands to touch something. And sometimes it is absolutely, unbelievably, exquisitely pleasurable.
The obstacle is the way
In that moment of pleasure, a bunch of “meaning” comes up and people often feel guilt, shame or deep sadness. The guilt and shame comes from feeling the pleasure isn’t allowed. Perhaps pleasure is allowed only under special conditions, like if it happens by accident, or someone else gives it, or they get it because they’re giving to someone else. But “waking up the hands” is simply “you took a simple action and you experienced pleasure for yourself”, and all the things that stop you from enjoying that pleasure become far clearer. The sadness, for some people, comes from a realisation that this sensation, and freedom, is what they’ve wanted their whole lives. And it’s so simple.
From this simple exploration, the path becomes one of expanding those sensations and pleasure. Can we feel more pleasure? Can we feel it in more of our body? And as we try to expand, more limitations appear and clarify and we can work to remove them. And repeat, and repeat…
For people who’ve suffered emotional or sexual trauma, the obstacles to sensation and pleasure can be huge. Their bodies can associate sensations with intense, deeply unpleasant experiences. Their bodies and attention are highly tuned to avoid repeating those sensations and experiences. However, pleasure is still a route to healing. The body knows that the simple enjoyment of sensation is its natural state. We can repeatedly take the gentlest, tiniest steps towards sensation and pleasure. We can hold the emotions, history and resistance that comes up with the utmost care and kindness. And, when we do, even the biggest, worst of blocks will gently erode away.
Unlocking our deeper wisdom and guidance
At a deeper level, behind the blocks, there is a wisdom in our bodies. The blocks were there for a reason: to protect us. The removal of a block often allows that wisdom to flow in a far more productive way. We now know what we really want and ask for it or move towards it. We know what we don’t want and confidently assert that. And when those wants grow to include our work, our relationships, our relation to ourselves and to the world, then we’ve transformed our lives.
The path of healing through sensation and pleasure is a path of training the body back to its natural state. It’s a path of constant, clear revelations of what limits us in life. It’s the realisation that these blocks aren’t serving us, but the wisdom behind them can be unlocked to protect and guide us. Travelled with determination, courage and love, pleasure is a path of healing that transforms not just our relationship to pleasure but our relationship to all of life.