How a raisin can save your sex life (and other lessons in mindfulness meditation)

We live in a distracted world. We eat our lunch while staring at a computer screen and flipping through news updates on Twitter or Facebook. We respond to e-mails from our boss while ordering groceries online from the sidelines at our kids’ soccer game.

For many of us, this type of multitasking and obsession with devices is a well-polished art. Although we may pat ourselves on the back as we successfully cross things off our perpetually growing to-do lists, scientific studies have shown the damage done to the brain if this pattern becomes a habit.

We are not actually multitasking when we engage in many tasks at once, but instead are rapidly switching between tasks, which, if repeated over time, can impair our problem-solving abilities. Research shows that chronic multitasking adds up to the same effect as losing a full night’s sleep, and has about twice the effect of marijuana on thinking skills.

This “mindlessness” can also negatively affect that very basic human drive: sex. Have I got your attention now?

Sexual dysfunction is very common in women, affecting up to a quarter of women across age groups. Age, health setbacks and menopause only add to the problem. So does being in a long-term union – there is an inverse relationship between sexual desire and relationship duration. In other words, the longer you are with a partner, the less sexual desire you feel, likely because of boredom, loss of novelty and making less time and effort, leading to less arousing sexual activities. In men, low libido is even more common than erection problems, though over all the prevalence of low desire in men is lower than in women.

Although hormones have a part to play in problems with sexual desire, orgasm, erections in men and vaginal lubrication in women, emotional and relationship factors play an even greater role. Stress, in particular, is a major culprit behind sex-starved relationships, dwindling desire and unsatisfying orgasms.

By stress I mean the daily, mundane events and hassles that erode our quality of life. Research finds that such chronic stress can build up and negatively affect both our physical and emotional well-being.

A common scene in the offices of most sex therapists is one in which a woman has trouble focusing on her partner’s touch and does not notice signs of her body responding with sexual arousal. She is preoccupied with thoughts about her “flawed” body, is worried about disappointing her partner by not squealing with glee in the way she believes her partner wants her to and is distracted by the incessant chatter and to-do list in her mind.

Although a medication (currently not approved by Health Canada) may boost her vaginal arousal, her mind may remain bored, irritated or close to falling asleep.

Mindfulness meditation, a practice born out of Buddhist tradition, has been welcomed in Western medicine and society over the past 40 years. In the past decade, mindfulness has also made its way into the bedrooms of sexually dissatisfied men and women.

In my role as a psychologist and researcher specializing in the treatment of sexual problems, I have been especially interested in the benefits of mindfulness.

Enter a raisin. In our mindfulness-based group treatment, participants are guided to fully take in all aspects of a raisin in a slow, deliberate, fully present and accepting manner.

They are instructed to notice its shape, size, colour, contour, weight, shine and dullness. As they smell the raisin, they pay attention to the qualities of its scent. When memories of eating home-baked raisin bread as a child fill their mind, they’re guided to notice this as a memory – as a sensation in their mind – then are redirected back to the present qualities of the raisin.

When the raisin is placed in their mouth, they inevitably begin to salivate, and are told to notice how the body responds in anticipation of chewing. They are instructed to slowly bite into the raisin. Even after they have swallowed it, participants are still paying close attention to the lingering aroma, the remaining saliva, the sounds of digestion.

In this potent experience involving a single raisin, participants are provided with the building blocks for cultivating a lost sexual response. Over the next eight weeks, they practise similar guided meditations daily at home and meet weekly with a group of others led by a trained sex therapist and mindfulness practitioner.

As members acquire the skills to notice when their mind has taken off like a curious puppy, they become adept at redirecting themselves back to the present moment, with a hefty dose of kindness – not judging themselves for struggling or finding this challenging. They then gradually adapt this skill to progressively more sexual scenarios, starting with practising mindfulness while in the shower, using a hand-held mirror to explore their own body, and, eventually, while sharing an intimate encounter with a partner.

Research has found that as a result of this type of mindfulness practice, sexual desire, arousal, satisfaction and pleasure increase, and sex-related distress and symptoms of depression lessen.

I am the lead investigator for two large trials funded by the Canadian government comparing mindfulness with other treatment for women with sexual dysfunction and those with a chronic vaginal pain condition called vulvodynia.

If you find yourself struggling with an unsatisfying sexual experience and wanting to escape in your mind, consider reaching for a raisin and see if you can train your mind to remain right here.


Special to The Globe and Mail

Published Thursday, Feb. 12, 2015 1:59PM EST


Health Advisor contributors share their knowledge in fields ranging from fitness to psychology, pediatrics to aging.

Lori Brotto is an associate professor of gynecology at the University of British Columbia and a registered psychologist. You can find her at and follow her on Twitter @DrLoriBrotto.



Can Meditation help keep you from getting sick? This study says yes

GREG WELLS - Health Advisor

Special to The Globe and Mail

Published Sunday, Nov. 23, 2014 12:00PM EST

If you’re at all like me, you dread getting sick. I’m just not very good at lying around for days feeling as if I’ve been run over by a truck. So I’m all about trying not to get sick in the first place.

As a researcher at SickKids Hospital in Toronto, I have to get a flu shot. But since the flu shot is not 100-per-cent effective, I am working on other ways to avoid getting sick or, if I do, to get better as fast as I can.

In my hunt through the research on influenza, I came across a very interesting finding. In a paper published in the Annals of Family Medicine, Dr. Bruce Barrett and colleagues from the University of Wisconsin-Madison looked into the benefits of meditation and exercise for prevention of the flu.

Before the annual flu season began, they divided their research volunteers into three groups: one that would practise meditation, another that would exercise regularly and a third control group that just carried on with normal daily life. They then tracked how many people in each group got sick and how severe and long-lasting their symptoms were.

The results were surprising.

As an exercise physiologist, I would have bet that exercise would be more powerful than meditation for preventing the flu. I was wrong.

Both meditation and exercise reduced the number of people who got sick by about 25 per cent.

The severity of the symptoms was lowest in the meditation group, followed by the exercise group and most severe in the group that did neither.

The duration of the illness was reduced equally by meditation and exercise.

Perhaps the most interesting finding was the total number of missed days of work in each group. The meditation group only missed 16 days, compared with 32 in the exercise group and 67 in the observation-only group.

The researchers conclude that exercise and meditation are both effective in reducing the burden of respiratory-tract infections. Moderate exercise is known to be very beneficial for your immune system – the body’s system that fights off infection, illness and disease. This is partly because exercise improves the flow of fluids in your lymphatic system, which means that viruses, bacteria and toxins are filtered from your blood and lymph more effectively. Consistent exercise also increases the number and potency of macrophages, which are white blood cells that travel around your body and attack and destroy invaders. We know that exercise works and how it works.

Although meditation, yoga and relaxation have all been used effectively to help people reduce stress, hypertension, anxiety, insomnia and illness, how meditation works to accomplish this is less clear.

But some new research studies have shed some light on this area.

A group at Massachusetts General Hospital found that when people practised meditation – either experienced practitioners for a single session or novices consistently for eight weeks – there were improvements in the function of mitochondria (the energy factories inside all the cells of the body), better insulin metabolism (which helps your cells absorb blood sugar which they then use for energy) and less inflammation (high inflammation is related to many illnesses and diseases).

In addition, a research study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine found that students who practised meditation increased their levels of immunoglobulin A (which is a substance that identifies invaders such as viruses and bacteria so that they can be destroyed by your immune system) and that the levels kept increasing over the course of the four-week study.

At this time of year, some people are going to get sick. If you don’t want to be one of them, be sure to work out and take time to relax each day. Even better, try meditation. You’ll be doing your body, your mind and your immune system a lot of good.

Dr. Greg Wells is an assistant professor in kinesiology at the University of Toronto and an associate scientist in physiology and experimental medicine at the Hospital for Sick Children. He is a health and high-performance expert who inspires better living through better nutrition and better fitness. You can follow him on Twitter at @drgregwells or visit his website at

How to Manage Your Emails Mindfully

People are often less mindful with email than they are with face to face communication. Computer screens have the tendency of creating a “zoned out” state. Yet, mindfulness in emails can be very important – in fact, it can be even more important than mindfulness in face to face communication.

Why? Because in emails, the receiver is acting on incomplete information. You don’t have all the nonverbal cues telling you what the other person is really trying to communicate. When you’re reading an email, it’s easy to misread a person’s intentions – and see an attack or criticism, where there wasn’t one. Likewise, when sending an email, it’s easy to send an email that’s received harsher than it was meant to be.

Mindful emailing can help prevent both of these situations. Mindful emailing means staying connected to yourself during the email process, as well as staying connected to the fact that you’re communicating with another human being.



Mindfulness can improve email communication


You don’t have to practice mindfulness every time you open an email. However, practicing mindfulness during charged or potentially heated email exchanges can go a long way towards diffusing tensions and preserving relationships.

Developing Mindful Habits for Reading & Sending Emails

When you notice heat, anger or defensiveness arising during an email exchange, pause for a moment. Then go through this meditation process.

Take a Conscious Breath. Take a few moments to just pay attention to your breath. This can help “break” you out of your negative state. If you’re feeling negative emotions strongly, consider pausing for a couple minutes to do two minutes of breathing meditation.

Visualize the Sender / Recipient. Take a moment to visualize the other human being with whom you’re communicating. Become present to the fact that you’re in an exchange with another human. You’re not just typing letters into a screen, but interacting with another being. Spend a couple moments with this idea.

Re-Read the Email. If you’re sending an email, re-read the email. Remember that the receiver doesn’t have the same non-verbal cues as an in-person communication. Remember that they might not necessarily assume positive intentions, unless positive intentions are abundantly clear. Is there any way that your email could be misconstrued? Use your emotional barometer as a guide and rewrite your email if necessary.

If you’re receiving an email, likewise, pause and re-read the email. Notice any emotions or sensations that arise in your body, and simply let them pass without judgment. Realize that you also don’t have the benefit of nonverbal cues, and that you may be reading criticism or attack where there isn’t one. Re-read the email and see if the email could be read more objectively.

Take Three Breathes Before Replying. Before you hit “send” on your reply, take three deep, slow breaths, at least four seconds in and four seconds out. Stay as present as you can to your emotions and to your breath. During these three breaths, feel free to change your mind about sending, or to decide to edit your email before hitting send.

Mindful Emailing

It’s easy to be impulsive with email. A person who never lashes out at others in person can easily send off a criticizing email without being aware that it might hurt the receiver. Taking just a few moments to go through these steps can help avoid a lot of misunderstandings, as well as needless stressful emotions.

To your happiness and success,

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“On The Cushion” – An Insight Meditation Sitting Group (VIPASSANA)

WEEKLY - Tuesday Evenings – DUNDAS – 7:15 – 8:45 p.m.

Contact Donna Paige – 905-317-9768 OR

The purpose of the group is to support ongoing meditation practice for those with experience and to provide opportunity for others to learn to develop a sitting practice.  There is no advance registration needed – it is an open group.  Please contact Donna Paige for details.