BDSM and meditation are more connected than you’d think

An article by Jess Joho

March Mindfulness is Mashable’s series that examines the intersection of meditation practice and technology. Because even in the time of coronavirus, March doesn’t have to be madness.

Whips, handcuffs, blindfolds, ropes, flogging, spanking. These probably aren’t the kind of activities you associate with meditation and mindfulness, let alone spirituality. 

But if you ask those who practice consensual BDSM (meaning bondage/discipline, dominance/submission and sadism/masochism) — along with the researchers who study it and mindful sex — a connection between these seemingly disparate practices actually makes a lot of sense.

Though in its nascent stages, BDSM research is finding similarities between BDSM and mindfulness and other forms of meditation, especially in the context of heightened awareness and relaxing altered states of mind. Evidence is starting to support what many practitioners already innately knew: BDSM can be powerfully meditative, with positive psychological effects that go far beyond just sexual satisfaction. 

To the uninitiated, it’s easy to discount BDSM as salacious, or even deranged and dangerous. Thanks to Fifty Shades of Grey, the general public’s perception of BDSM tends to be ill-informed, reductive, and unhealthy — worlds apart from the reality of a community that embeds enthusiastic consent, trust, and safety into practices that often involve intense but controlled pain. 

Early psychoanalysts like Sigmund Freud categorized BDSM as nothing short of a mental illness. But modern research reveals again and again that recreational BDSM practitioners are, psychologically speaking, pretty much the same as those who don’t practice it. If anything, one study found them to have comparatively lower levels of disorders (like depression, anxiety, PTSD, psychological sadism, masochism, borderline pathology, paranoia) and another suggested they were less neurotic and sensitive to rejection, more open to new experiences and conscientiousness. They also rated their own overall well-being higher than non-practitioners.

The more we study the connection between BDSM, mindfulness, other types of meditation, and pain, the clearer the benefits of BDSM become, particularly when it comes to stress and anxiety. Potentially, it can even be a transcendental and spiritual experience for some. 

While the overall BDSM community isn’t tied to any religious ideology, the practice does share an important commonality with some spiritual meditation traditions that involve pain. Both embrace the idea of accepting pain, or even finding peace and pleasure in surrendering to it. 

Don’t yuck someone’s ohmmm

Cara Dunkley, a clinical psychologist from the Sexual Health Laboratory at the University of British Columbia (UBC), is part of a group that has spent decades researching mindfulness-based meditation training as a treatment for various sexual difficulties, from chronic pain with sex to traumatic tiggers and low libido. 

“Mindfulness at its core is the ability to focus, sustain, and shift attention. And that is why it has real benefits with improving mood, depression, anxiety, pain, sexual functioning, all of that,” she said.

Mindful sex specifically can help you shift your attention away from negative thoughts, memories, physical sensations, and painful stimuli through accepting it without reacting to it, so you can then refocus on pleasure instead. General mindfulness-based training has become an increasingly accepted treatment for managing various types of chronic pain. But one UBC study found that teaching patients to apply mindfulness to sex helped with their chronic vaginal pain.

Few groups understand how to turn pain into pleasure better than BDSM practitioners. So Dunkley started researching how they do it, positing multiple theories on the most important facts at play. In 2020, she published the first study ever into whether BDSM actually helps foster mindfulness. The results (though limited in sample size) were promising, showing that the group which practiced BDSM did indeed score higher on most traits associated with everyday mindfulness (which means bringing present-moment awareness to ordinary tasks, like eating, rather than during formal seated meditation).

“Mindfulness is comprised of about five skills: observing, describing, acting with awareness, non-judgment, and non-reactivity to your inner experience. Each of those can have useful applications to BDSM,” she said. 

In the BDSM community, the term Bottom describes the person fulfilling a submissive role, who’s on the receiving end of commands and masochistic activities. Conversely, Tops are the ones who role play as dominants in a BDSM scene, doling out the painful stimulation and commands. 

For both roles, exercising the tenets of mindfulness can be crucial for having a positive and safe experience.

“The mindfulness method of observing refers to the ability to attend to internal and external experiences, like sensations, emotions, thoughts. Bottoms must be very aware of their own internal experiences and emotional states in their moment-to-moment response during a BDSM activity, and to physical sensations, because they need to differentiate between safe pain and pain that could be indicative of real harm,” said Dunkley. “Similarly, Tops must be externally attentive to the emotional and physical responses of the Bottom through very controlled focus, and consciously adjusting their actions accordingly to keep it pleasurable.”

But the link between BDSM, meditation, and pain doesn’t end there. While Dunkley’s research focused on mindfulness as it’s commonly used in western scientific research, others have found evidence that there’s a transcendental or even spiritual appeal to BDSM too, just like there is in other forms of meditation. There are many types of meditation, but only a small sliver, such as mindfulness, have been tested in lab settings (and even then researchers are still calling for more study on various health benefits). 

“There are a variety of reasons people do BDSM,” said Brad Sagarin, a professor of social psychology at Northern Illinois University who also leads The Science of BDSM research group. Some go to BDSM for just your standard sexual arousal. But others seek it out for the sheer thrill and excitement, deeper connections to partners, and even stress release. “Some even pursue BDSM primarily for spiritual reasons. In particular, our research team looked into the altered states of consciousness that BDSM activities can facilitate in both Bottoms and Tops.”

Their study found that both roles can experience unique states of mind during BDSM. Bottoms in particular describe entering a headspace that sounds a lot like what many longtime, spirituality-based meditators experience.

“Colloquially known as subspace, this altered state that Bottoms can achieve during BDSM scenes is described as a pleasurable kind of flying, floating feeling, where they lose the distinction between the self and other people, between the self and the universe, this general sense of peace and oneness,” said Sagarin. Meanwhile, those in topspace (or domspace) can enter what’s known as “flow,” or “a state of deep absorption or extreme focus when performing an activity optimally.” It’s basically the scientific label for what high-level athletes and creatives call being “in the zone.”

For those who’ve never experienced the euphoric peace of subspace or deep connection that can occur between BDSM partners, this might all still sound like a stretch. But throughout much of history and across many cultures, spiritual rituals involving extreme pain (some of which are identical to common BDSM activities) have been used for the express purpose of oneness with a higher power or universal force.

Flagellation (or floggings and beatings, self-inflicted or otherwise) was an accepted practice among medieval Christians for purification, punishment, and redemption. A paper on “sacred pain” describes a ritual called Kutharatheeb, practiced in certain coastal regions of India, where participants are pierced with nails, knives, and sharpened rods to become “heightened into mystical ecstasy… becoming unconscious of their body fully concentrated on making of their soul attached with God.” Sagarin himself observed similarities between sadomasochistic relationships to pain in the psychological and physiological effects of extreme rituals like fire walking and body piercing.

Certain religious practices and philosophies grounded in meditation also intentionally confront pain and suffering. Famously, Buddhist monks who meditate in freezing wintry Tibetan mountains while wearing ice-soaked wrappings were able to raise their own body temperatures.

The meditative brain on BDSM

“What pain can do is focus people on the here and now, put somebody essentially in the present moment, so they’re not necessarily thinking about a deadline that’s coming up next week or any other responsibilities. So it may be that, in a paradoxical way, a normally negative experience of pain can actually in a context of trust and positivity turn into something pleasurable or beneficial,” said Sagarin.

It’s not unlike how meditation lets you escape from the onslaught of day-to-day stresses by enabling you to let go of who you are, what you need to do, and instead just exist as a body in the present moment. While BDSM adds pain to the picture to achieve present moment awareness, it is welcome and intentional pain. That’s a notable difference from the mindfulness-based therapies used for managing chronic pain, since those patients aren’t electing or in control of when or how they experience that pain. Still, both involve developing the skill of noticing, accepting, then letting go of the negative emotions we typically associate with pain.

More research is needed before we can definitively say how Bottoms achieve the floaty, peaceful feeling of subspace. But, “a few different areas of the brain indicate a tie between it and mindfulness,” said Dunkley. 

The most substantiated theory points to what happens in the brain during a runner’s high, the use of hallucinogenic drugs, and deep meditation. The hypothesis is basically that, when you’re doing a cognitively demanding activity (like pushing through the pain of long-distance running), other parts of the brain that are less important to it shut down. 

“So BDSM scenes involving pain might increase the need for additional blood flow to more critical areas of the brain. That results in blood being directed away from areas of the brain in less high demand, like the part that’s basically in charge of selfhood. So it can suspend self-related thoughts and emotions, potentially producing these alterations in consciousness,” said Dunkley. 

If the part of the brain that’s responsible for the executive functioning we need to complete everyday tasks shuts down during BDSM, then it makes sense that Bottoms describe subspace as a pleasurable loss of time, reality, inhibition. It also aligns with another theory believed to explain all the cognitive benefits people get from submissive BDSM roleplay: Simply put, it gives you a break from the burdens of being a person for a little while.

“BDSM can give Bottoms a temporary relief from the stresses of selfhood. Descriptions of it sound like just a wonderful escape from, you know, the kind of higher-level processing that we do all the time as people,” said Sagarin. “The fact that somebody is a top executive or a mother, all the different roles that weigh a person with a lot of responsibilities… These temporary reliefs can actually potentially lead to better functioning at other times.”

While the connection between BDSM and meditation is clearest with subspace, topspace still engages different aspects of mindfulness and spiritual rituals.

“Tops really need to keep their wits and abilities about them, so that they can make sure what they’re doing is being done with appropriate care and safety,” said Sagarin. 

Yet the flow state that was evident in the ritual body piercers and Tops in topspace observed by Sagarin still require being very present in the moment. Just think of whenever you’re at peak performance while performing an activity you’ve mastered, whether that’s a video game or your job or creative passion. Everything else in the world fades away, so all that’s left is you and the task at hand.

“Evidence suggests this complimentary topspace is a mental state involving challenge and the utilization of skills, intense concentration, altered sense of time, loss of self-consciousness. And it can be achieved by Tops during BDSM scenes requiring intense mental focus or concentration. Bottom’s might experience a bit of it as well, but as a result of, for example, intense rhythmic pain sensations,” said Dunkley.

Both parties are “mastering” pain through these states that exist outside the normal circumstances of everyday life, but they’re doing it in very different ways. One does it by reaching a headspace that allows them to give in completely, and thus experience physical suffering as depersonalized or even pleasurable. The other enters a headspace by being so hyper-focused on helping the other navigate that experience of pain. 

Despite appearances, Tops aren’t actually “conquering” a Bottom, either, since the Bottom is always in charge and can immediately end the activity with a safe word. Instead, Tops are conquering the unique challenge of being the Bottom’s guide through pain as pleasure.

Pain without pleasure

To be clear, there are a myriad of other aspects to BDSM with less correlation to mindfulness and meditation that also likely contribute to reaching these pleasurable states.

“Prior to the experience of pain in BDSM, there’s a pre-existing condition involving emotional and interpersonal relationships, a sense of control and volition, memories of past experiences, likely positive ones with that partner or activity, and a sense of security,” said Dunkley. “The many factors around BDSM that come together — a positive emotional and interpersonal context, a possible change in neuro-chemistry from sexual arousal that releases dopamine and oxytocin, positive anticipation of pain rather than negative anticipation —itmay all be what leads to these altered states of consciousness or mindfulness, which then impacts the extent to which pain is perceived as pleasurable.”

Regardless of how it’s achieved, though, the takeaway here is that people find avenues for achieving transcendence and inner peace in very different ways. Spiritual fulfillment is everywhere, and can take shapes that may seem strange to you personally. So who are we to judge a method like BDSM or ritual body piercing, when BDSM practitioners report many of the same cognitive benefits that meditators get, like stress reduction, improvement in mood, and pain relief.

At the same time, it’s important to exercise caution and really consider what it takes to responsibly participate in pain as a vehicle for stress relief or spiritual ascendence. Both Sagarin and Dunkley agreed that — without the context of consent, strict negotiation of boundaries, and other safety protocols — the activities of BDSM can look like self-harm or even torture. In particular, people who self-harm through cutting describe similar types of psychological relief and escape from negative emotions through pain, though no psychologist would ever recommend doing it.

There are important differences, between self-harm and consensual BDSM, namely the motivations and after-effects of doing them.

“Unlike non-suicidal self-injury, people engage in BDSM when they’re in positive mood states and feel good about themselves after too. So somebody engaging in BDSM as a recreational leisure activity is more akin to, like, blowing off steam at the gym or going for a jog, rather than doing it to regulate severe negative emotional states. Recreational sado-masochism is almost like a deep tissue massage, where it’s kind of painful but still feels good and relaxing,” said Dunkley.

In proper BDSM protocol, there’s a step called “aftercare,” where partners who participated in a scene together check in on one another emotionally, often with cuddling and hugging, talking about how it made them feel, if they’re OK now, whether they liked everything that happened, what they didn’t like — or any other emotions that came up. In contrast, people who seek relief from self-harm often report feeling negative about themselves and what they’ve done.

Still, the stakes are high when you mix stress relief, spirituality, and pleasure with intentional pain. It’s likely no coincidence, then, that these activities — whether in spiritual traditions or BDSM — are often very grounded in strong communities with strict rules.

There are a lot of important questions that remain unanswered when it comes to BDSM’s connection to mindfulness, and meditation’s relationship to pain in general. 

But what’s clear is that you can find mediative peace anywhere: whether sitting cross-legged in the wintry Himalayan mountains, drinking coffee in your office chair between meetings, or hanging from bondage ropes on the ceiling of a BDSM dungeon.

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