Shenpa sex

Written by Emily Nagoski, Ph.D.

I went on the BEST VACATION EVER during spring break, which included a killer ass-whuppin' of a yoga class at the hotel's spa.

The yoga instructor introduced us to the term, "shenpa," a Tibetan term meaning something like, "attached" or "hooked" or "urge" or "an itch and the desire to scratch it." She told us to notice any urges we had, notice our desires and lean into them, really get curious about them and just be with them without doing anything.

Totally. Awesome. And much more than I anticipated from a hotel spa's Saturday morning yoga class, ya betcha.

And then in my pursuit of information about anti-sex-positive feminists, I bumped into Charlie Glickman's reference to Pema Chodron's work.

Well, when a brand new idea is put in front of you two times in as many days, you're a fool not to pay attention. So I investigated.

And it turns out it's a deeper, more complex way of thinking about something I teach my students.

I teach "maladaptive health behaviors to manage negative affect," i.e., the use of substances or risky behaviors around food or sex etc, to cope with stress, depression, anxiety, or loneliness. I teach it as a way to help them understand why they do what they do, why they can't expect a friend to just CHANGE, and why "stress management" isn't self-indulgent nonsense, but vital self-care that keeps them able to carry the weight of their own ambitions.

Personal example: for me it's sugar, right, so when I feel uncomfortable, when I notice a gap inside myself, I fill it with sugar. I eat candy. And the mistake I make is in thinking that the discomfort is caused by a lack of candy. Which sounds ridiculous when I just write it out that way, but really I experience the discomfort and pretty much instantly turn to candy, so my brain can't tell the difference between the discomfort and the drive for sucrose. And therefore I mistake sugar with comfort.

The solution is to increase my sensitivity to my internal experience, so that I learn to notice the drive for candy before I put the Cadbury mini-egg into my mouth...

And then I learn to notice the discomfort before it turns into a drive for candy...

And then (and this is where it gets really hard) I learn to notice the discomfort before it gets intense enough to turn a drive for candy, so that I can be aware of it and stay with it while it's just straightforward discomfort.

I do through through "shenluk," which means something like "turning shenpa upside down." I refrain from the shenpa: I notice the itch and I notice my desire to scratch and I don't scratch.

And this only really works when I can refrain (from sugar) as an act of love for myself, rather than as an act of penance or punishment.

So but I'm a sex educator and this is a sex blog. What does shenpa have to do with sex?

Only everything.

But for now, I'll talk about how it can relate to making orgasms better.

Orgasm. Talk about an itch... and wanting to scratch an itch.

I would get SO MANY FEWER QUESTIONS ABOUT ORGASM if people didn't experience LOTS AND LOTS of shenpa around orgasm. Imagine sex where instead of pushing, driving toward orgasm, you simply experience your arousal, staying still and present with the pleasure, allowing it to carry you toward orgasm without trying to push it forward.

Say, in the process of sexual arousal, you get some kind of low-level (or not-so-low-level) mental discomfort, just the vague background noise of discomfort that is so typical of life in the industrialized west. Now, precisely how this plays out for people varies from individual to individual. Some folks, prone to avoidance of novelty and tending to be risk-averse, will have their sexual arousal (and maybe their desire too) evaporate, the brakes will go on, and they'll feel a desire stop, to give up and show down. Others, prone to novelty-seeking, will have their sexual arousal/arousability augmented, and they'll want to rush to the end, get to the orgasm NOW. Both dynamics constrain your sexual potential. Both are shenpa.

The challenge is to turn the shenpa into shenluk, turn your desire to scratch the itch upside down. Instead of scratching it, just pay lots and lots of attention to it. Sit still, and notice the hell out of it.

What happens next varies from individual to individual. It could be everything from a mind-exploding orgasm to a kind of emotional release that breaks open your soul. It can't do harm, which is not to say that it won't potentially be uncomfortable.

The challenge is that it takes time. And attention. Both of which must be cultivated.

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