“White light opens up to colors that crash into one another, like a galaxy, a big bang, a creation of something new. A destruction of epic proportions… The explosion clears out the old silently, it catches in the back of my throat and I can hear… Love is love is love is love, in a chorus over the backdrop of my moans and screams and spasms of pleasure. Love is love is love is love. It feels like a warm cloak, like a message from my God, like a message I have known before and have now come home to. Love is love is love. It takes from me my armor, from my fears of not being loved or loveable. It takes away my beliefs that love, true love only comes from a man. It shows me all the variations love can be, all the bodies that love embodies. It makes me ready to leave behind old patterns of fighting for love, searching for love, begging for love, withholding love, using and abusing love. It brings me back to the core essence of love, the truest form of love.”
To the uninitiated, the above quote would sound like something straight out of a psychedelic mushroom trip. In fact, it’s actually a description of a deep inner experience during sexological bodywork at a Back to the Body sensual retreat. During these weeklong experiences, participants experience repeated sessions of erotic bodywork, where they are encouraged to let go and receive touch and pleasure by trained and certified practitioners. The opportunity to simply receive sexual and sensual pleasure via one-way touch, with no obligation to do or be any particular way, is quite a new one for many women. And unexpectedly, part of this new experience is often the production of an erotic trance state, where the receiver experiences things much like what would occur via psychedelic drug use.
While having a psychedelic experience that is evoked by sexual interaction might seem pretty far out to some people, it’s actually more commonplace than one might assume. In her book Transcendent Sex: When Lovemaking Opens the Veil, Jenny Wade (2004) writes extensively about ordinary women who experience profound altered states of consciousness during sex, many of them spiritual in nature. A study currently under peer-review finds that women practicing orgasmic meditation, as well as their partners, commonly have mystical experiences during the practice (Siegel & Emmert-Aronson, 2021).
Pamela Madsen, the founder of Back to the Body sensual retreats for women, and her team, guide women to find these psychedelic states. Through helping them gain deeper access to their sexual experiences, bodies, and levels of focus, the process of extended arousal states guides them into places in their own psyches that they may have never experienced without the aid of drugs.
Pamela began speaking about this phenomenon and guiding other women into the experience along with her team, after she began having these fantastical journeys herself. During erotic bodywork sessions of her own, she discovered experiences that reminded her of those that she’d heard about in mystical traditions. There, bodily sensations and perceptual alterations shifted drastically, and she felt she was being taken on a trip to a place of spiritual power, where she understood her life in profound and new ways.
The truth is that women across the globe and throughout time have had experiences of profound mystical union and psychedelic-like states of consciousness during sex. And they are looking for answers and guidance around their experiences.
There are well-known ancient traditions that harness the power of sexuality to drop into deep states of realization and gain access to spiritual experiences (Roche, 2014). Certain branches of tantric yogis developed techniques and practices to harness these altered states and use them for spiritual advancement over millennia, starting in the medieval era (Samuel, 2017; Wallis, 2012). But what exactly might be occurring neurologically to produce these windows into the soul is still much of mystery.
The scientific research on psychoactive substances, on the other hand, is booming. A new wave of research on psychedelics has shown preliminary evidence of their efficacy in treating almost every major psychiatric disorder (Nichols et al., 2017; Vollenweider & Preller, 2020). Scientists and the public are rightly excited, and some have dubbed this cultural and scientific trend The Psychedelic Renaissance.
Psychedelics are well known for producing altered states of consciousness, commonly referred to as “a trip”, and inducing altered sensory experiences, including hallucinations. These trips also quite often take the traveler to mystical dimensions, where spiritual insights occur, boundaries dissolve, and the body and mind are flooded with a sense of unconditional love, safety, sweetness, and peace (Barrett & Griffiths, 2018). Yet, what's less well-known is that long-term meditators often achieve similar states of consciousness without ingesting any substance whatsoever. Meditators have perceptual alterations, somatic experiences, affective states, deep mystical insights, and almost any other hallmark of a psychedelic adventure, during long retreats, or after long periods of practice (Lindahl et al., 2014; Lindahl et al. 2017; Zanesco, 2023).
The fact that the same thing can occur via drugs that can occur without them is true regarding something much more common, sadly, than deep mystical experiences: depression. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), commonly referred to as antidepressants, are often seen as the first line of defense against depression by physicians and the public alike. However, exercise has been shown to be as effective in treating depression as medication in some studies examining the effects of both on non-severe depression (Recchia et al., 2022).
How might this be possible? How might states of consciousness that we achieve by taking drugs (whether prescribed by a doctor, or given to us by a friend) be achievable without the aid of any substance whatsoever? How could women be achieving a psychedelic state without the psychedelics?
The reason is simple. Psychedelics and psychiatric medicines work in our brain because the brain has receptor sites which the molecules in the drug bind to, triggering neurological activity of various varieties. These receptor sites are there in the first place because our brain produces its own neurochemicals that bind to these same sites. The difference is in endogenous production or release, where our own body and brain produce the neurochemical, and exogenous, whereby we ingest or otherwise take in the molecule that binds to the receptor.
Pamela has had a hunch about this phenomenon for years, explaining to participants that they can access altered states through erotic touch, deep relaxation, and connection. She calls endogenous neurotransmitter release “calling on your inner pharmacy”, which, let’s face it, is a more fun way of talking about this stuff.
While there’s not much research on how people might achieve these states via sexual experience, we do know more about meditators that have them with no drugs. Research shows that in meditators who have mystical experiences without substances, and people on psychedelics, there is neurological activation and deactivation in similar areas (Millière et al., 2018). Regardless of whether we took a drug or simply meditated our way there, when the boundaries of our normal self begin to fall away and we lose a sense of ourselves as we knew it, gaining a new one, our brain does similar stuff. Neurological areas of the brain responsible for understanding self, time, and space seem to decrease in activity, and we’re left in a timeless realm where we perceive ourselves to be unified with spirit, with those we love, or with love writ large. As researcher Robert Milliere laments, “Few attempts have been made at bridging these two domains of inquiry, despite intriguing evidence of overlap between the phenomenology and neurophysiology of meditation practice and psychedelic states.” (2018) While even less efforts have been put forth to reconcile sexual ecstasy with these profound experiences, it is undeniable that the love produced by lovemaking leads to a similar dissolution of self into other, this one more permanent and lasting (Aron et al., 1991; Aron, A., & Fraley, B., 1999). This deep bond and fusion, whereby we take other into self and self into other, not only physically but emotionally, results, in the best cases, in what we call family.
What can we say then, about the mystical experience people have in sex? There is certainly more than enough evidence to posit that touch, sexuality, and connection produce huge amounts of neurotransmitters endogenously, and that combined with states of high concentration, these could easily mimic some of the best drugs on earth.
We know that activities like shopping, gambling, and getting on Instagram can elicit dopamine response endogenously in the brain. But there is also evidence of meditators being able to self-stimulate the production of dopamine in reward centers in the brain (Hagerty et al., 2013). This molecule is the same one responsible for the rush of cocaine and the highly addictive nature of adderall, alcohol, and many of the most pleasurable and addictive drugs on the planet. It’s probably no accident, then, that some practitioners who practice this specific type of meditation, called jhana meditation, become somewhat addicted to the practice, and are dubbed “jhana-junkies” by teachers of this style of practice.
Researchers have recently found specialized touch neurons that stimulate rewards and elicit readiness for sex in mice. These neurons have been found to be required for sexual receptivity and their stimulation is sufficient to induce dopamine release in the brain (Elias et al., 2023). Combining extended touch with the heightened level of attention and focus characteristic of meditation is therefore likely to produce endogenous dopamine release by multiple routes. This kind of extended touching and heightened attentional focus is an element of the sexological bodywork done at Back to the Body retreats, and is likely to be a factor in producing the vastly different states of consciousness made possible by this healing modality (Crane et al., 2023).
Desire, whether for sexual touch or connection, is modulated by the dopaminergic systems of the brain (Georgiadis et al., 2012). Enjoying desire and prolonging the experience of it is another shared element in erotic bodywork sessions, tantric practice, and deep, intimate lovemaking. The endogenous release of this dopamine over prolonged periods of time would certainly produce mind-altering qualities of a particular variety, and is likely responsible, in part, for the high produced during these types of encounters.
But what about the primary neurochemical responsible for psychedelic states? Almost all classic psychedelics work on the serotonin system, by activating a particular serotonin receptor in neurons that have the potential to affect vast terrain in the brain (Safron & Johnson, 2022). Serotonin, along with opioid and endo-cannabinoid release during sexual rewards, are associated with an inhibition of sexual behaviour (Georgiadis et al., 2012). This may initially seem counterintuitive, but inhibition is actually required for excitation to occur, sexually speaking. If we conceive of excitation as being bounded or confined by inhibition, we can consider that the greater inhibition we exert over time, the more excitation would then build as well (Komisaruk & Rodriguez Del Cerro, 2021). In quick sexual encounters where orgasm is encouraged to happen as fast as possible, both the build-up of excitatory neurotransmitters as well as inhibitory would be quite modest. However, in the extended sexual encounters characteristic of long erotic bodywork sessions, there could certainly be a buildup of endogenous serotonin release that could be quite significant. Is this serotonin release responsible for the psychedelic sexual experiences that are reported by so many women? While there is no definitive scientific study to validate this, it’s certainly not outside the realm of possibility.
While highly speculative, it is even possible that the endogenous release of N,N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT) could play a part in these psychedelic sexual experiences. DMT is the psychoactive compound in ayahuasca, a substance around which vast swaths of mystical cultures and practice revolve (Frecska et al., 2016). There is a small body of literature supporting ayahuasca’s possible positive impact on mental health when conducted in a ceremonial context (Ruffell et al., 2021), and its role in the production of mystical experiences is well-known (Savoldi et al., 2023). Recent research shows that endogenous DMT release is possible in rats (Dean et al., 2019). This particular research shows for the first time that the rat brain is capable of synthesizing and releasing DMT at concentrations comparable to commonly known neurotransmitters and raises the possibility that this phenomenon may occur similarly in human brains. The mechanisms that provoke endogenous release of this neurochemical are yet to be discovered. Could endogenous DMT release occur during specific varieties of human sexual experience, like sexological bodywork? This too, is most certainly not outside the realm of possibility.
The best and most evidence-based science on the erotic trance state done thus far is by researcher Adam Safron, who happens to currently work at the Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research. In his article, What is Orgasm? A Model of Sexual Trance and Climax Via Rhythmic Entrainment, he explains how an erotic trance could occur simply as a result of heightened attentional focus and rhythm (2016).
What Safron (2016) explains is the following: When people listen with all of their attention to music, or put all of their attention on eating food, neurons in the sensory cortices responsible for these sensory experiences actually fire more. Our attention functions like a neurological magnifying glass, amplifying neurological activity in the areas we bring our focus to. And when we listen to music, or are touched rhythmically, our brains become entrained to the rhythms of the sensory experience. As we focus in on those sensations and allow the rhythm to widen and broaden subjectively, the same thing is happening neurologically. This symphony of intense, rhythmic activity could spread until the entire brain is oscillating together in a symphony of pulsing neurological activity. And that symphony would feel like a trance. It would feel like a high. It would feel like a different world than the one you know or inhabit. It would shake the foundations of your sense of things and bring you somewhere full of bliss and freedom and release of expectations. In fact, there are neuroscientists who think that the bliss of meditation comes from similar phenomena, whereby we truly let go, on a neurological level, of what we expect to happen, and allow our senses to become flooded with what is actually happening (Sharp, 2014).
It turns out, just truly being able to feel what is happening in this moment, without any preconceived notions, might be the most blissful, psychedelic thing there is. Simply to stop predicting what the world or someone else may be and allow them to appear before you, fresh and in the present moment, might be something that we do so little of, that when we do it, it’s psychedelic.
At Back to the Body, there is a team of highly trained experts guiding participants to learn these kinds of skills. Like a meditation teacher or spiritual guide might assist a student in finding new places within themselves, these specially trained practitioners help women find new experiences of connection within themselves through touch, relaxation, and pleasure. They help women experience touch in new ways, putting their full attention on the experience and dropping expectations and pressure. While this might sound simple, for most people this level of receptivity and relaxation is actually quite rare during partnered sex, where the pressure is high to perform. With the help of experienced professionals, however, the potential to learn about the true potential of one’s erotic experience is vast. And the true potential of the erotic experience is more powerful, more mystical, and far trippier than most of us have ever imagined.
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