Saturday, November 2, 2013

Tantric Couples: Intoxicated by Love

In yesterday’s post, I said that none of my couples thought better orgasms outranked the importance of emotional bonding.  However, that doesn’t mean that better, longer, stronger orgasms are just a frill that is irrelevant to the bonding process. We’ve discussed oxytocin and its twin, vasopressin, but we need to go back and revisit two important classes of brain chemicals. Remember this? 
  • Phenethylamine, endorphins, and endocannabinoids block pain and increase pleasure; they’re literally intoxicating – when they flood the brain, we get high.
Phenethylamine (also called “PEA”) is a neurotransmitter that reduces stress and helps regulate mood. It is released by a variety of things that feel rewarding, but especially by prolonged intimacy with a loved one. Low levels contribute to depression. High levels make us feel happy and giddy.

Endorphins are opioids, natural painkillers and pleasure creators. Endorphins are generated in the brain by prolonged sexual arousal and orgasms, and by prolonged physical activity. When you’ve been running or doing some other sustained cardio exercise, you can tell when your endorphins kick in: the pain and fatigue go away, you get your “second wind,” and you get an unmistakable rush of pleasure. Do it enough, and it can get addictive. In fact, the reason opium and heroin are so addictive is that they slip through the blood/brain barrier and latch onto the endorphin receptors that we already have in the pleasure centers of our brains.

Endocannabinoids are natural euphoriants that are triggered by prolonged sensuality and sexual arousal.  In particular, they slow down the time sense, reduce production of adrenaline and other stress chemicals, and increase the blissful sensations from sensual pleasure.  The endocannabinoid receptors in the pleasure centers of our brains exist to receive and respond to these neurotransmitters.  Those same receptors are also responsive to cannabinoids (natural compounds in cannabis), which is why marijuana gets us stoned.

The thing about all of these chemicals is that they are powerful rewards and motivators, but they take a while to kick in. If you run only twenty minutes a day, you’ll never discover the runner’s high. And if you always have sex for twenty minutes or less, you’ll never discover the “Tantric high,” particularly if you just have one ordinary 10-20 second orgasm in that period.

Tantra, however, creates a whole different situation. After two or three hours of extended intimacy and intense sensuality, usually including at least two – and often more – really intense orgasmic experiences, you will be awash in oxytocin and the pleasure centers in your brain will be flooded with PEA, endorphins, and endocannabinoids. It feels so wonderful that it’s no wonder some Tantrics talk about being “wiped out by love” or “getting stoned on tantra”!


Dopamine also plays a role in this. Whenever something happens that produces a big burst of activity in the pain or pleasure centers of the brain, we are strongly motivated to figure out what happened and what led up to it, so we can avoid it or make it happen again. And the parts of the brain that focus on learning and motivation tend to be especially interested in what happened just before you got hurt/happy.

Dopamine is the chemical that the brain releases whenever something unusual or interesting happens, both good and bad. It’s the “Heads up! Pay attention!” signal. And the interesting thing about it is that it is triggered even more by the precursors of interesting events than by the events themselves.

If Z happens without warning, and it’s important, dopamine is released. If Z happens again, regularly and predictably, then gradually less and less dopamine is released each time it happens.

But if Y happens randomly, and it is always followed by Z, then the dopamine transmitters will go nuts whenever Y happens, even if Y isn’t terribly interesting all by itself. The dopamine is saying, “Heads up! Z is coming!”

And if X always happens before Y does, the dopamine response to Y will die down and switch over to X.

This is what was happening with Pavlov’s dogs. At irregular intervals, Pavlov rang a bell and then fed the dogs. He did this over and over again for weeks, and pretty soon he observed that just ringing the bell would make the dogs salivate in anticipation of being fed. If he had followed the bell with a shock, pretty soon the dogs would have given a fear response to the bell instead. This is dopamine at work.

In other words, dopamine is all about anticipation and motivation, trying to figure out what causes good stuff, so we can make it happen, and bad stuff, so we can avoid it, and even neutral stuff, so we at least have some idea of what’s coming.

Because the brain produces dopamine when it encounters new things, dopamine is one of the elements in brain chemistry that gets some people addicted to high-risk, novelty-seeking behavior. But dopamine generates aversion as well as attraction. If enough of those high-risk encounters go badly, dopamine will be released when you start to get yourself into that kind of situation, pushing you away from it.

It’s the pain from the rash that makes you want to scream, but it’s the surge of dopamine at the sight of the poison ivy that warns you to stay away. It’s the endorphins that give you the runner’s high that feels so good in mid-run, but it’s the shot of dopamine you get when you happen to glance at your sneakers that motivates you to run.

Similarly, if Tantric love sessions end up with you being totally blissed out on PEA, endorphins, endocannabinoids, and oxytocin, then gradually, over time, you will start getting a dopamine surge when you sit down to meditate with your partner, or when you set up the room, or when you warm up your massage oil, or when you look at your partner and realize that, hey, it’s time for Tantra!

All of these chemicals and more conspire to weave a powerful web of motivations and associations when we engage in something intensely pleasurable and rewarding. Over time – and it does take time – doing Tantra with your partner will bond the two of you together in many ways. You truly become addicted to each other.

Is It Just a Trick?

Knowing that strong feelings are triggered by brain chemistry can sometimes make people feel uncomfortable, as if it were all a trick. Are we cold-bloodedly manipulating ourselves into feeling love for our partners?

Really, this is a problem that crops up whenever we learn more about how our minds and bodies work. For example, researchers often talk about consciousness and self-awareness being “illusions” created by the brain. This upsets a lot of people. But when you dig into what they mean, they are not saying that the way we experience our own existence is false. They’re just saying that consciousness and self-awareness are constructed by the brain from the output from other brain systems that are not conscious and self-aware.

It would be more accurate to say that consciousness is a model of your body and your environment that lets you plan actions and anticipate changes, and that self-awareness is a model of your own mind that is created by your brain to let you think about yourself and think about thinking. That’s an interesting and convoluted way of describing it, but it’s also quite a mouthful, so it’s easier to just call it a construct or an illusion, even if that’s misleading for people outside the field.

In the case of Tantra and oxytocin, the important thing to remember is that oxytocin just amplifies favorable feelings; it doesn’t create them. If you don’t care for someone, cuddling with them won’t make you love them. In fact, there’s some research that shows that oxytocin also amplifies dislike, making people who are exposed to an oxytocin nasal spray more inclined to dislike members of an opposing group.

The other chemicals we just discussed are essential parts of nature's reward system, the way the brain teaches us to recognize a good thing and desire more of it.  Given that the loss of sexual desire is one of the biggest complaints in otherwise happy marriages, finding an effective way to reinforce our desire for one another is a great blessing.

The question is whether it is somehow wrong – or tricky or deceptive – for two people to express their love for each other in a way that reinforces that love. And if you put it that way, the question is absurd, because we do that all the time, whether it’s buying our partners flowers or caring for them when they’re sick!

It’s not like one person is tricking or trapping the other. It would be impossible to spend months learning Tantra with someone who didn’t care for you and actually be deceived about their feelings. Tantric sex is just too intimate and much too revealing. It is quite possible for two strangers to go through the physical steps of the Tantric ritual and have pretty good sex, certainly better than most random sexual encounters, but it won't be anything like what long-term Tantric couples experience routinely. Achieving that level of intensity and passion both requires and reinforces a great deal of love and trust.

Tantric sex is one of the greatest gifts two people can give each other.  I think it is absolutely wonderful that couples like Jason and Peggy, who really do love each other, but have forgotten how to express it, can learn Tantra and discover a way to amplify the emotional intensity that underlies and reinforces that love.

Many people come to Tantra for better sex, but it seems that the lesson we all learn is this: Tantra is for lovers.

No comments:

Post a Comment