Playing with Yourself: How to touch yourself mindfully to grow your capacity for pleasure and connection

Have a think for a moment about the last time you masturbated. Yep, I’m serious. What do you recall about the experience? Was it slow and pleasurable – or quick and functional? Was it different from the last time, or does it usually involve the same routine?

For many of us, masturbation isn’t particularly pleasure-focused so much as goal-focused. For many of us too, it can carry shame or at the very least, sheepishness. It’s no wonder it’s common to keep it quick and predictable.

Here’s another thought: If you were sexual with others the way you’re sexual with yourself, do you think you could be considered a good lover? Or would a far less flattering moniker apply?

From masturbation to self-pleasure

I’m going to stop using the term ‘masturbation’ at this point, because the origin of the word is widely thought to be ‘manstuprare’, which roughly translates as ‘self-defilement with the hand’.

From here on, I choose the term ‘self-pleasure’ because that’s simply what it is – or what it can be. Research from Kinsey and his team in the 1940s and 50s through to the large-scale British National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles since the 1990s has shown that self-pleasure is natural and that most people do it. In addition, there’s also evidence that it is good for us.

In fact, it can be really good for us. Self-pleasure doesn’t have to be that swift private matter that we feel some embarrassment about. Taking a more mindful approach to it can be a tangible way to love and care for ourselves, nurture our erotic nature, and can even contribute to our becoming better lovers.

Why bother to self-pleasure mindfully?

Approaching self-pleasure as a practice, like meditation, can transform it in to a source of deep joy, relaxation, and learning. However we like to self-pleasure, by doing it mindfully we can:

  • Really notice that we have a body!

It sounds simple, but so many of us spend our adult lives in our heads, largely disconnected from the body and its needs.

  • Notice how our bodies like to be touched.

If we receive touch from other people, we may accept it, even if it’s not what we really like. Self-pleasure is an opportunity to explore the sensations of different touch with curiosity, and to notice what we respond to and how.

  • Give our attention to the feeling states we experience during sexual arousal.

‘Feeling state’ is the name for the combination of feelings and behaviours. Can we notice what feelings we want to experience – or avoid – and the behaviours we engage in to produce that outcome? (e.g. What happens in self-pleasure if the only goal is the intensity of orgasm? Or, what happens to our sexual expression when it’s heavily influenced by a need to avoid feelings of shame?) Through mindful self-pleasure we can increase awareness of our feeling states, and this can support us to let go of old habits that don’t serve us.

  • Experiment with raising arousal more slowly.

If we take the time to slow things down, we can learn to experience more pleasure on the arousal journey. Orgasms will often be more satisfying too, if arrived at through a slower build of arousal.

  • Notice skin sensation, over time, to the minutest detail.

If you experience numbness, taking time to consciously notice the detail of skin sensations on small areas of the body can be very effective in re-building sensitivity.

All of these elements are somatic (‘of the body’) skills that we can cultivate in self-pleasure and then share with our lovers: Self-pleasure enables us to notice what our bodies like so that we can better ask for what we want. It also improves the skilfulness of our touch.

In giving ourselves the gift of exquisite attention, we grow our capacity to give exquisite attention to others.

Practical keys to self-pleasure mindfully

To quote Joseph Kramer, the creator of sexological bodywork, mindful self-pleasure “involves a deep attention to sustained sexual arousal in the body in the present moment.” Essentially, it’s a sexual meditation, and it is also an extraordinary opportunity for not just ‘be-ing’ with sexual arousal but also actively learning about our own unique desires, preferences and responses. As a route to getting in touch with our own bodies, mindful self-pleasure – however we do it – is foundational.

Here are the four practical keys to mindful self-pleasure:

1.     Intention

Taking a moment beforehand to set an intention helps to frame our self-pleasure as distinct from ‘a wank’. It’s best to settle on one per practise, rather than several. Here are some examples:

“My intention is to not rush.”

“My intention is to stay present.”

“My intention is to stay with bodily sensation, rather than using fantasy* to drive my experience.”

*Fantasy is an important part of many people’s sexual lives. Fantasy can be creative and fun and can be a safe place to explore taboos. However, it can also become a way of disconnecting from our bodies and our lovers, and getting in to a rut of wheeling out the same tired old themes. Learning how to be with sexual arousal both with fantasy and without it expands what’s possible for us.

2.     Take time

Set aside 30 minutes if you can – even schedule it in if that’s what it takes. Taking time will profoundly alter your experience. However, even 10 minutes of mindful self-pleasure regularly will bring benefit.

3.     Breath, sound and movement

One of the hallmarks of a ‘quick wank’ is, well, not much: holding the breath, little or no sound, and a minimum of movement. By using the breath consciously, such as deep slow breaths, or fast breaths to build arousal followed by slow breaths and imagining spreading it around the body, we can hold more arousal in our bodies and learn to ride waves of pleasure, rather than rocket to the exit sign. Sound and movement contribute to the feedback loop that builds arousal.

4.     Savour

Rather than immediately getting up and getting on with something else after self-pleasuring, take a few minutes to breathe and to notice the sensations in your body and the contents of your mind. Give yourself the space to just notice. Savouring is an important part of integrating experience and embedding it, especially when we want to change a habit.

Self-pleasure practises to try

Engage in self-pleasure however feels good to you, using the four keys above, to bring a mindful approach to your solo sexytimes. But if you’d like some fresh inspiration, here are some practises to try:

a. Breath experiment

Play with your breath and how different uses of the breath can slow down or heighten arousal. Try deep, slow breaths in to the belly. Try a stimulating breath such as inhaling through the nose in four consecutive sniffs and exhaling through the mouth in four consecutive ‘hah’ sounds: sniff-sniff-sniff-sniff-hah-hah-hah-hah. Notice the different effects of breathing vs holding your breath as you self-pleasure.

b. Explore the unknown

Is there a part of your body that doesn’t get touched? Incorporate it in to your self-pleasure with curiosity and kindness. If there are hygiene concerns, such as with the anus, take a shower first and make getting clean part of your gift to yourself to then be able to explore with more comfort.

c. Reflection

Self-pleasure while looking in a mirror. A large mirror will enable you to see your whole body. A smaller handheld mirror can allow you to see the changes in your genitals** as you become aroused and can enable you to see your own face, up close, while in pleasure and in orgasm. This practise is simple, but it can be powerful.

**If you have a condition that means you do not experience sensation in your genitals, do this practice with a part of your body most connected with pleasure.

d. Porn pendulum

If porn is a regular feature in your self-pleasure and you’d like to rely on it less, try watching it to become aroused, then pausing it and focusing on body sensations and your self-touch. If arousal drops, return to the porn to raise arousal again, and then go back to focusing on the body. Alternate as much as needed to begin to introduce more awareness of body sensation in the present moment. My teacher, Joseph Kramer, calls this moving of attention from the porn to your body and back, “the pendulum".

e. Erotic massage

Give yourself a full body massage. Stroke all of your body that you can reach with your hands. For what you can’t reach, use other means to elicit skin sensation, such as writhing about on the bed to experience the feeling of sheets against your back.

The five practises listed here are just some ideas to try. Repeat the ones you enjoy. Make up your own. Most importantly, have fun! If self-pleasure incorporates the 4 keys of intention, taking time, breath/sound/movement and savouring, then really, anything counts.

Touch yourself in ways that feel good to you, explore and experiment, and notice the effects over time. Do you feel more connected to your body? Do you feel more comfortable or confident with a lover? Have feelings of shame reduced? Have feelings of joy increased?

Supported learning

I *love* my work. I am honoured to facilitate and teach people to notice that they are here, that they are deeply alive, that they can learn to be in pleasure, cultivate new neural pathways, and explore their bodies' capacity for joy.

For support in developing a self-pleasure practise, or to find out more about sex and embodiment coaching, visit my website.