Into the Valley: Childbirth & Tantric Orgasm for Women
This piece was originally excerpted as part of Elizabeth Davis and Debra Pascali-Bonaro’s book Orgasmic Birth: Your Guide to a Safe, Satisfying and Pleasurable Birth Experience, published this past summer (2010). I am pleased to share with you the complete version here.
Into the Valley: Childbirth and Tantric Orgasm for Women
“We assume that we need to do whatever we consider necessary to reach our final destination\’the peak. A valley experience is more like an invitation without an expectation or demand of orgasm. Something may or may not happen. And when it happens, it happens by itself. The final outcome is not at issue; rather, the focus is on the joy of the moment\’being here and now in the body\’which allows the journey to unfold without a predetermined direction. Diana Richardson, Tantric Orgasm for Women
I wake up early; it is a sunny morning in Santa Cruz. Light contractions weave themselves into my morning ritual of making of tea and toast, and I feel excited: time to go for it! I am almost 42 weeks, and eager to experience this birth, to meet my baby. I have been studying childbirth and pregnancy since college, reading books, dreaming about being a midwife, finally taking an intro to midwifery class, and even going to a few births as a doula. Now it is my turn.
Technically I know it is normal for first-time moms to have longer early labors, but that information seems to evaporate in my eagerness for something to happen. Outwardly I don’t look like I am forcing anything, but inwardly with each contraction I want to do something with it, to somehow engage with it in a way that speeds things up. The frustration I feel is compounded by the sparring with the critics in my head. These voices are skeptical of my body’s capacity to birth at all, as well as my choice for a homebirth. After a little over two days of this, my labor seems to stop, and the despair in my heart spills out along with my words as I finally confess to my midwife what I’ve been feeling: “I’m scared, I say. “Nothing seems like it’s working, and I’m feeling tired. What are my options? What about the hospital? It feels like a dirty secret to confess this desire to jump ship and head to Labor and Delivery; she gently assures me that if that is what I need, she will stay with me. The caveat is that since it isn’t an emergency they will start me on pitocin, which will likely make the contractions too strong and probably lead to other interventions. This information efficiently pops whatever escape bubble I have been tenuously clinging to\’give me some way out!\’and grounds me in my deeper desires: to have this baby here, in our little cottage, by my own power.
The midwife and I agree that acupuncture is the best way to go, so she finds someone who can make a home visit. After 90 minutes of sitting in my rocking chair, needles peppering my body, my labor indeed gains speed and I surrender the exhausting mind chatter to settle into the deeper waves flowing through me. As the contractions intensify, it is they who are working me, and even through my exhaustion and moments of doubt I am able to trust what is happening. With about six hours of active labor behind me I am finally dilated and begin to push\’this I can engage with\’and as my daughter finally slides out of my body, I cry, “Oh, my baby as a deluge of love hormones flood my body.
Fast-forward four years: Bruno kneels beside me as I lay on the massage table. We are in a cranio-sacral class together, and today is the first day we are allowed to pick our work partner. He chooses me, and I feel magnetic tension fill the room as he walks across the circle to sit with me. This tension contains sexual attraction, but there is something vaster, something more encompassing, a curiosity of the soul. And now he is asking if it is okay to touch me, and if I feel comfortable if he cradles my sacrum with his hand. I feel nerves but not nervous, so I say yes, and we begin. My breath softens as he holds me, and the exquisite attention he is paying me melts all defenses, all facades. While he is holding my head, my spine begins to undulate spontaneously\’I make no conscious choice to do it, it just comes as naturally as my body breathes air in and out. And because I feel so safe, so held by this man, the undulations increase until my whole body is coming up off the table. Then all quiets\’a still point\’and I wonder, is it over? I continue to breathe, to be with myself, with him, not needing anything to happen, and then it starts again. What I am experiencing is known in many Eastern cultures as kundalini rising; kundalini is one’s essential life force and symbolized by the image of the snake. There is no one thing you can do to make it arise, but there are many practices, such as yoga, meditation, and Tantric love-making that can create a space for it to happen.
At this moment, I have been a bodyworker, as well as following a path of exploring my own embodiment and sexuality, for many years. I know what kind of attention I am capable of giving others, yet I have given up hoping that a lover could ever truly meet me, could ever really want to both give as deeply of himself and receive as deeply from me. But here is this man, and he is holding me so strongly, yet so gently, in his hands. His movements are smooth as he follows my undulations; he is paying attention with all of his senses, flowing with the river that is my body. I can sense that he is turned on (as I am), but again it is something more expansive, something that contains the sexual but is ultimately a full-body aliveness, engagement. He asks nothing of me, and yet is totally with me.
Two days later, when the class is over, we say goodbye. No promises, no pleas, but we do agree to write letters\’real letters\’and he gives me a book, Tantric Orgasm for Women, by Diana Richardson. Although skeptical about much of the New Age take on Tantra that flourishes here in California, I am curious and open to this text, given to me by someone whose sensibilities I already trust to be refined and sensitive. I begin the book on my plane ride home; the author writes about relaxing into sensation and connection, about opening to pleasure instead of pursuing it with a single-minded obsession. Her words speak to my journey of the last few years, where I had found myself feeling much juicier and happier in my sexual relations, yet unable to have an orgasm.
I had been confused and scared by this missing element of my sexual experience\’what was happening? Did something break, and if so, could it ever be fixed? With time and a lot of breath, I stopped demonizing my symptoms and instead turned to them as allies, for information. What was my body telling me? With more breath and a will to heal I was able to transform my fear into baby steps of courage and to coax the wounded places out. I learned that my inability to orgasm was the canary in the coal mine. That canary was asphyxiating from a difficulty in communicating more precisely what I like and how I wanted to be touched. But even that only belied the core issue, my inability to really let my lover give me unqualified, non-goal oriented attention. Unless I performed, I felt like I was letting someone down, because I didn’t fundamentally believe I deserved to feel that good.
The philosophy of Tantra reflects what I had finally been learning\’ that I derive the greatest pleasure when I open myself to receive everything, instead of gathering all my energy into some focused beam of light. Was I finally able to “have an orgasm again? Yes, I was. More importantly, the obsession around it dissipated, and I have come not just to accept but even love that I can experience vast amounts of pleasure whether or not I climax.
Like yoga, Tantric love-making is a practice, not a goal. Just as within the yogic poses or asanas\’there is nothing to perfect within sex, no gymnastics that mean you have won the spiritual gold\’it is the on-going engagement with life through it that opens up the channels, heals the body and feels amazingly good. I have to be present with what is really going on inside myself and with my partner, in the moment. Not what I was fantasizing about that morning, or am longing to re-create from a previous coupling, but now. This focus on the present is a relief, because I don’t even have to start from a place of sexual excitement. It is the combination of connecting through the physical practices combined with the intention to remain sensitive to sensation (and each other) that act as a key to unlock the juicy Eros.
Two and a half months after we meet, the man who gave me the book becomes my husband. In his attentive arms this ocean continues to expand. My pelvis is alive with pleasure, my tissues alive with consciousness, my heart alive with connection. Instead of thinking about sex while it is happening\’relating to it from my head\’my whole self feels it, as it actually is, in each unique moment. I don’t know where it’s going, and in the moments when I slip back into trying to achieve something, I find myself less connected, less satisfied. I experience orgasm a lot, but how I define and experience that has radically shifted. Sometimes I’m feeling so much pleasure that to “have an orgasm would be a diminishment of the sensation; other times I find myself so full that I do orgasm in something resembling a “peak, but the waves of feeling are no longer restrained or bound. The mechanics of love are simple, but the sensations and emotions take us on journeys inside ourselves and out into the universe: there is no difference between flesh and spirit, pleasure and pain, me and him. Ecstasy is an ocean that rides through us.
Recently I was blessed to be at the birth of my nephew, my sister’s first child. As my sister labored, I sat with her in silent reverence, for she was doing from the beginning what it took many hours for me to surrender to in my own labor. With each contraction she sank deeper into her body, cooperating more and more fully with the intensity building inside her. There was nothing to “do. It was “doing her. This primal life force was working this gentle pair of mother and child, squeezing them both in its cosmic womb, preparing them for their imminent arrival into a new landscape. Was it intense? Of course. But the intensity moved, freed of the resistance so many of us naturally feel when confronted with such unfamiliar power coursing through us.
We are born with the ability to feel pleasure, and we possess the innate capacity to give birth. This capacity is an embodied intelligence, something we don’t have to teach ourselves how to do. Instead, our job is to learn how to work with the tremendous amounts of energy generated by such rites of passage. Especially because sex is intimately tied to childbirth, Tantric love-making is an ideal, and delicious, way to teach ourselves these tools.
We all start where we are. Orgasmic birth is about letting go of knowing what this initiation will be. So we learn to reside in the expansiveness of life, to know how to engage with what is, instead of what we believe should be. Perhaps we will give birth at home or in the hospital, vaginally or by Caesarean, in three hours or forty-eight. Our practice of Tantra will not eradicate the unpredictable, for the life force that flows through us in these experiences of sex, touch and birth is inherently unpredictable. Instead, it is our commitment to meeting life in every moment that becomes constant. Pleasure and love are rivers flowing through us, and practices of embodied mindfulness release the dams that restrain their healing waters.
I haven’t had a second baby yet, but that time is coming soon. I think about what it will be like; I find myself dreaming about the experience that will unfold with my beloved. And then I stop and feel his hand on my brow, softly, almost absent-mindedly, stroking my skin and hair.