If you’re trying to figure out what mindful masturbation means, start by thinking about the exact opposite of the opening scene of American Beauty. First thing in the morning, the main character, Lester Burnham, miserably jerks off in the shower, without a smidge of romance, just pure utility. Then he utters what may be the saddest sentence in cinematic boner history: “This will be the high point of my day. It’s all downhill from here.”
The scene’s general lack of zen may help explain why some meditation circles border on no-fap communities. But proponents of tantric sex suggest that masturbation can be a type of meditation in and of itself. Similarly, there are countless studies that have found that masturbation can reduce stress, decrease insomnia and relieve physical pain. And yet, you can find almost as many claims on the internet that masturbation can lead to everything from blurred vision to hair loss. From a liability perspective, it makes sense why doctors don’t prescribe vibrators for hysteria anymore, but it’s still unclear if masturbation can be a helpful mental-health exercise.
Sex therapist Alexandria Saunders, who teaches and practices tantric sex and yoga, believes masturbation can absolutely be a mindfulness practice, but it depends on how you do it. If you’re masturbating with the goal of connecting with yourself and experiencing pleasure, then mindful masturbation is right for you. If the goal is to just have an orgasm, like old Lester, then you’re putting pressure on a future experience that may or may not happen, which is the opposite of being present, or practicing mindfulness.
In other words, if you’re trying to cum while jerking off, you’re doing it wrong.
“Orgasm and ejaculation are two separate experiences,” Saunders tells me. The goal of tantric teachers like her is to detangle these experiences. In the context of tantric sex with another person, we tend to think of what Saunders describes as “edging,” but when you’re flying solo, she likes to think of it as “masterbation” or “medibation,” because you’re not only mastering masturbation, but you’re almost meditating as well.
Although women generally have more experience with sex sans orgasm and ejaculation, men who are more advanced at tantric sex can learn to fully orgasm without ejaculation, too, a technique referred to as semen retention, or having a “dry orgasm.” But for beginners who just want to masturbate in a more mindful way, Saunders recommends “becoming less goal oriented” about masturbation without focusing on an outcome.
There is a scientific basis for the mental health benefits of learning how to orgasm without cumming, psychiatrist Loren Olson explains. When men reach the point of “ejaculatory inevitability,” he tells me, they’re reaching the “point of no return, even if your mother or the Pope walks into the room as it’s happening.” Dopamine, a neurotransmitter necessary for feeling pleasure, is at its peak right before this, because the anticipation is so high that “it becomes almost a transcendental experience.” On the other hand, when ejaculation occurs, there’s typically “a sudden drop in dopamine, and thus, pleasure,” Olson says. This is also why some people can become sad after sex.
Of course, not every guy wants to start doing kegels or studying tantric sex in order to masturbate in a more mindful way (but here are plenty of resources for how to do just that). For everyone else, both Saunders and Olson agree that the key to mindful masturbation is not trying so hard, and treating yourself the way you would ideally treat a sex partner — by making it more about the journey then the destination.
And hey, if the destination is that (understandably) important to you, there are plenty of other ways to practice mindfulness that don’t involve masturbation, too.