How social is your mindfulness? Towards a mindful sex and relationship therapy.

Barker, Meg (2014). How social is your mindfulness? Towards a mindful sex and relationship therapy. In: Bazzano, Manu ed. After Mindfulness: New Perspectives on Psychology and Meditation. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 81–100.



The proliferation and popularity of mindfulness therapies in recent years has enabled many people to access Buddhist theories and practices which are helpful in reducing suffering. However, most of the therapies which have been developed so far adopt the dualistic western way of understanding experience rather than taking seriously the non-dualistic approach in which Buddhist understandings are embedded. In this paper I argue that a biopsychosocial perspective is more in keeping with the theoretical foundations of mindfulness, whilst also being in line with more recent western theory. Such a perspective requires giving serious attention to the social context in which we struggle, because this has been largely neglected by the internal focus of most psychotherapy. Specifically we need to engage with the self-monitoring culture of acquisition and avoidance which currently pervades western society.

This paper illustrates these points with the example of sex and relationship therapy. So far, the focus of mindfulness in this area has been on applying techniques to complement conventional therapies which, broadly speaking, aim at enabling couples to have conventional sex and to stay together. If sex and relationship therapies are to be fully mindful then they need to go further than this: addressing the cultural understandings of sex and relationship that people draw upon. In particular, the need to address the approach/avoidance patterns which are encouraged, for example, by mainstream media and many psychiatric, psychological and psychotherapeutic understandings of sex and relationships. We need to ask what kinds of sex and relationships people are trying to have and why, rather than accepting these as taken-for-granted. Long-term, a better aim for mindful sex and relationship therapy (in terms of both individual suffering and the wider world) would be helping people to 'swim against the stream' of problematic social norms and cultural assumptions rather than continuing to work towards enabling them to fit these.

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