The following essay is excerpted from Good Sex: Getting Off without Checking Out by Jessica Graham, published by North Atlantic Books.
It started in the backseat of a green Chevrolet Chevelle, with an eighteen-year-old with tattoos and a ponytail. It was a chilly night in May, at a graduation party out in the woods of Eastern Pennsylvania. I was just fourteen, wearing my favorite flannel shirt and cutoffs. I had made a promise to my mom that I wouldn’t drink that night, but not that I wouldn’t get high. I smoked a joint and I set out on a mission. Tonight was the night. I would lose my virginity, come hell or high water.
The guy with the ponytail had been my crush all year and seemed like a good candidate. I noticed that he had his eye on another girl that night. I was relieved when she left early and he turned his gaze to me. He asked me to take a walk with him, and that walk ended in the backseat of his car. Right before he reached up to the glove box to get a condom he asked, “You wanna do this?” Afterward, when retelling the story to my friends, I changed this to, “Are you sure you want to do this? We don’t have to if you aren’t ready.” I wanted him to seem more considerate. Looking back, I do appreciate that he asked for consent. That’s more than I can say for a few other men I’ve been with.
I kept my turquoise All-Star high tops on the whole time. It hurt a lot but didn’t go on for long. Afterward I told him that I’d remember that night for a long time. He lit a cigarette and said that we should head back to the party. I had never even made out with anyone before. I was high and remember that night as if I was far away. I just did it because I thought it had to be done; it didn’t really matter if I was actually present for it. Later that year, I had sex again: this time in a field with a twenty-year-old, also with a ponytail. I was intoxicated again.
This pattern went on for many years, sex without presence or intimacy, though not always with older men with ponytails. Not always with men. What remained the same was my inability to really be conscious for sexual experiences. Even if I wasn’t drunk or high, I was checked out in some way. I didn’t look into my lover’s eyes. I was lost in my own mind, needing a fantasy to climax. I didn’t feel a sense of merging or the sacred. Sex was all about checking out and getting off.
By my late twenties, these patterns had driven me to an all-time low. I had been drinking since I was twelve and still depended on drugs and alcohol to get me through tough times. My patterns in relationships had led me to a partner who was verbally and emotionally abusive, but I was unable to leave. I started thinking about ending my life. I spent a whole day wandering around Hollywood trying to find a crisis center that would take me. That day was a wake-up call. It was time to make a change.
I began by getting sober and committed to a year of celibacy and being relationship-free. I wanted to break the old patterns and create new ones. When you clear out old patterns, you create space for new ways of living. The new pattern that changed my life more than any other was my daily meditation practice.
After I had been sober a little over a year, I started dating a kind and loving man. It was the first truly healthy relationship I had ever been in and it primed me to have a whole new kind of romantic partnership. While I was still shut down sexually in some ways, the sex we had was the most conscious and mindful I had had up to that point. That relationship didn’t work out long-term, but it was an important one for me, and I credit him with inspiring me to get serious about meditation.
Early in our relationship, my new boyfriend started hosting a meditation group at his house. It wasn’t until the teacher, Michael W. Taft, accused me of being “chicken,” that I actually tried it out. At my very first meditation session I saw that I could maintain separation from my thoughts, even when my thoughts were going crazy. I was full of anxiety that day about a job I was hoping to get. During the meditation, I watched those anxious thoughts come and go. I was a witness to them, rather than being stuck inside of my monkey mind. This was a revelation for me.
I dove into my meditation practice, and so began a series of awakenings that rocked my world. My practice showed me that I was not my thoughts or emotions. I’d heard spiritual teachers say “You are not your mind,” and now I knew it to be true. With this insight, I was able to explore the wild mystery of what I really am. I started to realize how interconnected everything is: There was no illusion of separation anymore. It became hard to think of myself as a solid and fixed thing, as I had done before. There was no one me, but instead a constant flow of experience that made up infinite selves. I fell in love with life, each tiny seemingly mundane thing. I laugh now when I tell people how I cradled my water bottle with total love and adoration after a particularly intense experience of absolute love in a meditation.
In my early practice I had many of these “peak experiences.” Some of them were deep states of blissful concentration, and some were full on sixties-style acid trips. While some of these peak states were coupled with deep insights, others were due more to the intensity of my practice and my personal history (and are in no way necessary for everyone). Some of these states were exhilarating, and some were terrifying. As I began to process years of pent up emotion, my subconscious had some frightening displays for me. But I got the good stuff too. The flashy experiences helped motivate me to keep meditating, but eventually they slowed down. As my practice took on a calmer and more grounded tone, I began to see the results of my hard work. My relationships began to change with my family, my friends, and my partner. Most importantly, I started to see a clear choice in front of me: Did I want to suffer, or take another path?
About a year into my meditation practice, my father became very ill. He was an alcoholic, and when he got hit with cancer he couldn’t stop drinking or smoking. He wasted away. He and I had a profoundly deep but also complex and challenging relationship. We were often called “Twin Flames” because we looked and acted so much alike. He was one of my very best friends, which was wonderful, but also meant that he became my drinking buddy when I was only fourteen. We took trips together, stared up at the night sky together, got drunk together, and sat in the car listening to The Rolling Stones, The Eagles, and Led Zeppelin together.
As I got older, I tried to become more responsible: I tried to drink less and spend more time working and less time playing. This caused me to grow apart from my dad. I no longer wanted to be around him when he was drunk. I found his alcoholism embarrassing and depressing. But our special connection never faded. I remember one night after I had been living in Los Angeles for a number of years, I was watching some obscure film that I had rented. Just as the credits started to roll, my dad called me from Philadelphia to tell me about this film he thought I should see. It was the same one I had just finished. That kind of synchronicity was commonplace for us.
At a certain point in his illness, it became clear that he wasn’t going to get better. At first, I was scared to buy a one-way ticket and be with him until he died. But eventually I knew I had to go. Armed with my practice, I sat by his side for the last month of his life with love, compassion, and acceptance for him and for myself. I administered his medications, and at the end, I even changed his diapers. I didn’t judge him for his alcoholism anymore. Hell, I put beer in his feeding tube when he asked me to. The day before he died, he was so underweight that I could pick him up in my arms like a baby. That last day and evening I washed his body, whispered to him everything I hadn’t yet said, meditated on his face, and listened to his heartbeat until it became faint. Along with my mom, my sisters, a cat, and dog, I stood beside his bed as he took his last breath. I held his socked feet as his frail and broken body finally let go.
Without my meditation practice, that experience would have been much different. I would have been so full of anger, resentment, and grief that I wouldn’t have been able to offer the care that I did. That one year of meditation healed and prepared me for my father’s death in a way that nothing else could have.
Not long after my dad died, one of my meditation teachers suggested that I start teaching meditation. Soon I was sharing my experience with groups and individuals. In the beginning I primarily taught mindfulness, focusing on learning to witness thoughts and emotions. That type of technique had changed my life and I wanted to spread the good word. I had found a new calling, but I still had a lot to learn when it came to integrating my spiritual life with my sex life.
Although my spiritual growth had taken off, I had yet to take a hard look at my sex life. I was still cut off from my body during sex. I still failed to fully connect with my partners. I did enjoy sex, but I was only scraping the surface. I had no idea what good sex was. Good sex invites you to be fully present for every single sweet drop of pleasure.
I was only partially present for my partners because I was only partially present for myself. I tended to attract people who matched my own emotional and spiritual evolution. Very few of my partners ever called me out on disappearing during sex, because they did as well. My meditation practice, however, alerted me to my disappearance. Observing my thoughts and emotions every day in formal meditation was revealing the parts of me that were hidden away
There was a woman inside of me waking up. She wanted a new kind of sex, passion, and pleasure. She wanted to explore the far reaches of her sexuality and beyond. She wanted to feel a lover truly become one with her. The awakening I was having in other areas couldn’t help but spill over into my sex life. I wanted more. My authentic sexuality was bursting forth.
Around this time, I read Passionate Marriage, by David Schnarch, PhD. I was struck by his writing about looking into your partner’s eyes while you climax.1 At first I thought, No way. Never going to happen. The idea of seeing and being seen at that vulnerable moment made my skin crawl. But I was committed to allowing my sexuality to shine and slowly began to take a peek at my partners during sex. There wasn’t any eye contact yet, but it was progress for me.
It took time to go from the desire for good sex to actually having good sex. I had to work through years of old habits. And there was another hold up: I didn’t have partners who wanted to practice mindful sex. Why would I? Up until then, the idea of mindful sex frightened me. So I had to be patient. It was frustrating to be ready for a new kind of sex but not have the tools or the willing partner with whom to take the next step. Luckily, my meditation practice helped me hang out in the gray area without suffering too much.
I began seeing a sex therapist, and he invited me to find ways to sexually heal and blossom without a partner. This was such a valuable piece of advice for me. I could start practicing mindful sex on my own. I began to read more about sex: instructional manuals, erotic fiction, and personal essays. I meditated on the feelings of rejection and disappointment I felt when partners didn’t want to try a new way of lovemaking. I bought sexy underwear and red lipstick and spent time seducing myself. I brought mindfulness into masturbation, exploring and finding new kinds of pleasure. I worked a lot on sexual trauma and negative sexual beliefs. I also dove into my creative life: writing, drawing, dancing, and acting. I found that sexual energy and creative energy were the same thing and could enhance and inspire the other. In short, I made my sexual awakening a priority.
I’ve come to learn, based on my own experience and that of my friends and students, that when you focus your attention on an area of your life, it will change. My sexuality was no exception. It sounds cliché, but during the first wave of my own sexual revolution, I took on a glow. My friends asked what was going on, my classes grew, and I became more playful and light. I had access to more energy than ever before.
The first time I looked into a lover’s eyes while we made love was frightening, exhilarating. It was, in essence, a new first time. Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” comes to mind when I remember it. There was a sincerity and openness that I had never felt. It was also obvious that, of course, this is the way it should be. I began to have profound spiritual experiences during sex. I was actually “becoming one” with my partner. We were connected in a way that I had never been with anyone before. And it was fun! Sex became both spiritual and an adult playground. I started to have more flexibility in what aroused me. I discovered new pleasures and fantasies. It was a meditation in action that I had never known. As a result, my creative life began to expand too. I found that I had more energy to write, act, draw, and play.
My relationships benefitted as well. I was no longer hiding from my partners. I was present, vulnerable, and open. My body became incredibly sensitive. I could feel things that I hadn’t even known existed. With this greater connection to my own body, I connected with my partners on a much deeper level.
What is possible to share with another person continues to shock and delight me. Now that I’m not cut off from such an important aspect of myself, I have so much more to offer my partner. I also have more to offer as a teacher. Being a teacher means modeling the willingness to keep growing. If I left my sexuality unexplored and stayed checked out, I’d be limiting my ability to be of service as a teacher.
I’ve been teaching since 2009. I started by facilitating a small group in Los Angeles once a week that has since grown into a flourishing community called The Eastside Mindfulness Collective. Several teachers lead weekly classes, both online and in person, as well as hold workshops and events. I teach everyday awakening through mindfulness and inquiry techniques. I give raw, down-to-earth talks on being human. In addition to my classes and workshops, I offer private sessions to individuals, couples, and families. I also teach for other organizations and special events in the Los Angeles area and beyond. In recent years, I have expanded my teaching to include my work with mindful sex. I’m deeply in love with this area of my work. It’s such a joyful experience to see someone awaken sexually.
Sex is such a big part of being human, yet it is often ignored in discussions of spiritual practice and awakening. This is why I have focused my efforts on using my experience to help others. To wake up fully, we need to invite awakening into all parts of our lives—including our sex lives.
I had another therapist who said: “As you get older, sex gets weird.” He was a longtime meditation practitioner and a very awake person. I took what he said to mean that when you continue to bring mindfulness to sex, you access deeper and deeper mysterious layers. Over the years, my sexuality has changed and changed and changed again. Sometimes it does get weird, in a delightful way. When I greet sex with openness and acceptance, the possibilities are endless.
A couple of weeks back my partner and I had a few hours free, and decided to use the time for a sexual adventure. We spoke openly and with joyful laughter about what we might explore. There was a sense of fun, excitement, and total trust as we stopped talking and started undressing each other. Before long I was all tied up and not going anywhere.
I won’t get into the rest of the intimate details, but I will share the most important detail: I was present for every moment of our sexcapade. I felt it all, and so did my partner.