Good sex is essentially subjective. Some like it tender, some like it rough. Some like it freaky, some more vanilla. And sometimes, it just depends on the day.
In my experience, the common thread, the thing that makes sex good no matter its form, is whether I am present for it. Am I going through the motions because that is just what I do? Am I mentally checked out or thinking about an email I have to send later? Where is my desire?
Without the fire of desire, sex is dull at best, horrible at worst. How does sex get separated from desire? The same way everything in life gets separated from its essence. We intellectualize it. We are distracted from it. We absorb society’s messages about it, rather than our body’s messages. We grow alienated. And before we know it, we are having disappointing sex without knowing why or how to change it. We have to come back to ourselves, to the heat of our own desire, in order to be able to ignite the flame with others.
I was suspicious of desire for a long time. I felt the pain of all the things I wanted and didn’t have – a boyfriend, lots of money, perfect looks. Wanting without getting what I wanted was achingly painful. I started studying mindfulness partially because I thought it was going to be a path to transcending my desires and living in a place beyond wants and needs.
I was pretty sure Judaism agreed with me. After all, the commandment in the Torah says that we wear tzitzit, or fringes, on the corners of our garments so that, when we look at them, we remember God and do not “search after [the desire] of your hearts.”
So I almost fell out of my chair when flipping through a translation of the prayer Ma Tovu that read: “And as for me, my prayer is for you, dear God, may it be for you a time of desire.” The word for desire is ratzon, which is more traditionally defined as “favor.” But desire is just as accurate. What could this prayer actually mean? How could we wish desire, this painful feeling, on God?
There is a beautiful and enigmatic Jewish story by Rabbi Isaac of Akko that begins to answer this question. The story is about a princess who emerges from a bath in a village one day and a man catches a glimpse of her and is immediately overcome with desire. He asks how he can sleep with her and she responds: “It can happen in the graveyard.” She meant that it would happen when they are both dead, but the man misunderstands and goes to the graveyard to wait for her.
He stays there for days, contemplating her beauty and telling himself that she will show up the following day. Days and days pass like this. And as he obsesses, the man begins to disengage his mind from the object of his desire and allows the desire itself to be his object. In doing so, Rabbi Isaac tells us, the man communes with the divine and becomes a holy man to whom many go for blessings.
Between learning this story and reading the translation of Ma Tovu, I slowly started to see how I was confusing clinging to the object of my desires (boyfriends, good looks, money) with the actual, raw feeling of desire. I was confusing the princess with the desire for her. Desire itself wasn’t so bad. In fact, it was kind of pleasant in a way.
Like the tzitit commandment indicates, relentless pursuit of the satisfaction of every desire is misery-making. Desire is too large, too scary, too powerful, so we try and shove it away or satisfy it. Breathing into the desire — fanning its flames without immediately satisfying or repressing it — is an entirely different practice, one that yields greater wisdom, and much better sex.
So how can we fan the flames of desire? It is not easy. Especially if, like me (and many women), you were taught that desire is icky, or overwhelming, or unattractive. Meditation can help. In meditation, we take a break from reacting to stimulus of any kind – pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. We train ourselves to pay attention to the rising and falling of all sensations, emotions, and feelings, without repressing them or getting lost in stories about them. Desire becomes just another object of focus when it arises, and we can become very curious about it. We can notice where we feel it. We can notice its texture and temperature, and whether it is moving or still. As the mind tries to take us into stories, we can repeatedly bring our attention back to the body, to the feeling and sensation of desire itself. Slowly, with practice, our attention aligns with our body, and we can sit in the heat and the power of our desire without running from it or repressing it.
Eventually, when we are talking about sex, we most likely will eventually want to consummate. Unlike the man in the graveyard, hopefully most of us will have the opportunity to do so with the object of our desire. But consummation from a place of presence, when our whole self is there to join the party — that is what gives sex life. Have you ever eaten food after pausing to feel your hunger, and then eaten slowly and intentionally to relish each bite? If you haven’t, try it today. The food tastes immeasurably better than when scarfed down in front of the TV. This is what sex is like when you take even a few minutes to fully arrive in your body, and to keep bringing yourself back when you find yourself drifting away.
One of the most enduring lessons I ever learned in over a decade of regular meditation practice and dozens of long silent retreats is what happens when you don’t scratch an itch. Spoiler: the itch morphs and takes different forms, rises and falls in other parts of the body, disappears and reappears. Desire is like that itch. Surrendering to the powerful waves of these sensations cannot help but bring us back to close connection with ourselves, with God, and with our partners. And then the scratch, when and if we choose to scratch it, is ever so much more pleasurable.