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Can BDSM Teach Mindfulness?

| 12/16/2021

abstract profile of a human head split in half showing a small person's body drifting inside Illustration by Sophi Gullbrants

What do a monk and a professional dominatrix have in common? Turns out, a lot more than you might think. Anecdotal evidence and new research suggest the theory that BDSM can facilitate mindfulness. But how might you draw the connection?

For starters, mindfulness boils down to non-judgemental awareness of the present moment. BDSM is an acronym for bondage and discipline, domination and submission, and sadism and masochism. Ready for a meditation warning label? Mindfulness and BDSM can cause awareness, decreased stress, interconnectedness, focus, peace, and even a trance-like state.

Attention to the present moment might best encapsulate the link between BDSM and mindfulness. Mindfulness is imperative for the safety of BDSM practitioners (everyone must pay attention to their internal experience), and it’s a bi-product many note they encounter.

Research is relatively new on the benefits of BDSM, a formerly pathologized and misunderstood practice. But recent studies are catching on to the zen-like qualities and altered states of consciousness BDSM can offer. 

How do you measure mindfulness in BDSM? 

Dr. Cara Dunkley of West Coast Centre for Sex Therapy conducted a small-scale preliminary study published in The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality measuring dispositional mindfulness, or attention to the present moment, amongst undergraduate students compared to BDSM practitioners and found promising results: BDSM practitioners reported higher levels of overall dispositional mindfulness. 

Natasha Strange, Pro Domme (professional dominant) and co-owner of fetish space Sub Rosa describes her ability to tell how a client is being mindful through attentive observation:

“Breathing changes. Their face softens as it relaxes. Shoulders soften. Reactions become much more in tune with the play and less forced or exaggerated.”

Your brain on BDSM

Aside from observing that someone is in a state of mindfulness, what can the brain tell us about BDSM’s effects? Dunkley has a few theories about the correlation between BDSM, mindfulness, and the brain. 

Dunkley suggests one of the ways that altered states of consciousness might occur during BDSM is from a hypothesis called transient hypofrontality, a mechanism where pain can cause altered consciousness similar to drugs, meditation, or high-endurance exercise. 

“BDSM scenes involving pain may increase the need for additional blood flow in certain areas of the brain. And that would result in blood flow potentially being directed away from other areas of the brain that are in less demand, like the prefrontal cortex,” Dunkley explains.

What happens when the thinking part of the brain goes offline temporarily? According to the transient hypofrontality hypothesis: altered states of consciousness. 

Heightened focus on an intense sensation can lead to increased awareness.

BDSM practitioners have long noted the hallucinatory effects produced from play, but what might an altered state of consciousness include? According to Dunkley, the redirection of blood flow may result in “disinhibition from social constraints, time distortions, and most significantly, changes in focused attention. Focused attention is, of course, a key aspect of mindfulness, which can be thought of as a state of mind, that’s intently focused on the present moment in a non-judgmental, non-evaluative kind of way.”

Top, bottom, Dom, sub, switch: do all roles reap mindfulness benefits equally?

Are the altered states of consciousness facilitated by BDSM role-specific? Research says, maybe. 

A study published in the Psychology of Consciousness: Theory, Research, and Practice randomly assigned 14 experienced BDSM practitioners to the role of top or bottom. Through a Stroop test (a color and word test that measures reaction time) and survey before and after the scene (BDSM activity), the study found individuals assigned the bottom roles displayed lower levels of executive functioning like decision-making (which the prefrontal cortex governs), and tops reported higher levels of flow. 

Flow is a mental state where you are fully immersed and focused on an activity.

To give an example, an attentive football player on the night of their competition, only concentrating on the task at hand despite bright lights and a distracting crowd, could be described as experiencing flow. 

The altered state of consciousness tops and bottoms might experience is similar, but different. Tops might reach flow through dedicated mental focus, whereas bottoms reap benefits more so through pain or a rhythmic sensation, like a Dom’s whip on the skin, which circles back to the transient hypofrontality hypothesis. 

In the BDSM community, flow is typically recognized as subspace for subs (the one receiving stimulation, command, etc.) and domspace or topspace for tops (the one doing the thing). Practitioners describe subspace as trancelike, peaceful, or dreamy. 

Bondage can restrain the body and free the mind.

Lifestyle dominant Lady Supernova explains, “topspace feels electric. I feel like I’m floating, almost high. I know that my eyes glaze over. It honestly feels like the only time my brain turns off, the time I am most able to mindfully participate in an activity.”

Both topspace and subspace include similar qualities to those produced by meditation

Even if the mindfulness qualities might vary for tops and bottoms, Strange notes, “anyone can benefit from mindfulness no matter what role they play.”

Flogging, commanding, restraining, spanking: forms of play that lead to mindfulness

Dunkley speculates that any form of sensory deprivation, whether that’s through a blindfold or noise-canceling headphones, might lead to mindfulness. “We know that when some senses are reduced or blocked that other senses increase in intensity,” Dunkley says. 

Strange attributes impact play as a catalyst for mindfulness: “Pain and intense sensation, in general, can bring people into their body. It’s hard to think about the days’ obligations when you are over the knee of a stern Mistress or feeling the repetitive impact of the flogger. It’s not even about inflicting a lot of pain. It’s about playing with sensation.”

In the body, out of the head

Sex therapist from Melanin Sex Therapy Aydrelle Collins says, “when engaging in BDSM, one has to be fully aware and present in the moment, so that is how they are connected. How we achieve being present is being in our bodies.”

Dunkley points out that mindfulness is one of the most useful psychological treatments for any form of sexual difficulty. But being present during sex isn’t always easy for some. Here’s how a practitioner notes that kink and BDSM help:

A submissive named Sierra (whose name has been changed for privacy) reports heightened awareness during and after BDSM scenes.

“I used to think something was wrong with me in the past— in any vanilla [conventional, non-BDSM] encounter, I often felt disconnected from the sex and my body. My Dom is so attentive to me, and every touch or command is a call to pay attention to any given sensation and the moment. Without BDSM, I’m less in my body and more in my head.”

BDSM might free one from the burden of selfhood, as Roy Baumeister postulated in a text published in The Journal of Sex Research in the 1980s. The effects produced from being free of “self” could be liberating, Strange explains. 

“Bondage can restrain the body and free the mind. The repetitiveness of impact play can help certain people step out of their mind”, says Strange. 

Whether you practice staying present in your body while suspended in the air by rope as a top flogs you or on a meditation cushion, mindfulness benefits are sexual, spiritual, psychological, and physical, in the temple or in the dungeon. 

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