This is Your Brain On Science, or
Ecstasy Meets Terror In The Lab
If a doctor had suggested I voluntarily insert my severely claustrophobic self into an fMRI machine I simply would have said no. “It isn’t worth it,” I would’ve insisted. “Not for anything short of an operable brain tumor.” That may sound dramatic but it’s true. I am so severely claustrophobic I will change airline reservations rather than risk a middle or window seat.
So what was I doing in this medical facility, staring at a huge white machine with a terrifyingly tiny opening, about to undergo a brain scan for no good life-threatening reason? That’s just what I asked myself as I lay on the cool laboratory floor in Newark, New Jersey. I was taking deep breaths, hoping my heart would soon stop racing. The mere sight of the fMRI machine had triggered an attack of supraventricular tachycardia, sending my heart into a fight or flight reaction at nearly 200 beats per minutes. Why had I even considered saying yes to this scan?
I was here because it wasn’t a medical professional who asked me to do this brain scan. It was an orgasm researcher, an orgasm researcher and a documentary filmmaker. Together, this unlikely duo had made me an offer I simply couldn’t refuse: the opportunity to find a scientific explanation for an erotic experience I could not otherwise explain.
It all began a month earlier when I received a call from an associate producer for a production company making a new series for the Discovery Channel. They wanted to do a short documentary on someone who could have an orgasm by “thinking off.” At first I was not sure what they meant. I had been having orgasms without genital stimulation for years, but my technique was not entirely mental. More important than the visualization that went on in my head, was the conscious rhythmic breathing that carried me into my prolonged orgasmic states. Did they mean they were looking for people who could have an orgasm just by fantasizing? I certainly knew such people existed, but I was not one of them. No, the associate producer said, she was looking for people who could simply have an orgasm without any form of genital stimulation. I had been suggested to her by my friend and colleague, orgasm researcher Nan Wise. A Ph.D. candidate in Rutgers University’s neuroscience department, she was working with Dr. Barry Komisaruk, one of the only people of science doing research on what happens in the brain during orgasm.
I had known that Nan had been assisting Barry in his research into brain function during genitally produced orgasms. They scanned the brains of women as they pleasured themselves into orgasms in the lab. I certainly was not the only person I knew who could have a breath and energy orgasm, but I was certainly one of the people most passionately interested in them. I was fascinated by this study and longed to participate, but I had never volunteered because of my claustrophobia.
I first learned how to have a breath and energy orgasm in the late 1980s during the AIDS crisis. I was working in the Broadway theatre as a general manager. During those terrible times I had gone to the New York Healing Circle looking for emotional and spiritual support. By the late 1980s we were approaching the darkest of times. The theatre industry, with its disproportionately high percentage of gay men, was one of the communities particularly devastated by the epidemic. Some weeks I lost up to four friends, family members, or colleagues to AIDS. I arrived at the New York Healing Circle with an urgent need for help in dealing with the unrelenting and overwhelming grief I felt. In those days it was not uncommon to be in the hospital with one dying friend, only to learn that another had just passed away across town. People were dying so fast we could not mourn them properly. I wanted answers to those big questions we ask in times of tragedy. Questions like, “Is there a God?” and “If there is a God how could they let this happen to us?”
The Healing Circle’s big group meeting was in a high school auditorium on West 17th Street. Within my first hour I knew I had come to the right place. The circle was founded on the principles of self-love and positive thinking popularized by Louise Hay. Louise’s weekly group in Los Angeles, the Hayride, was providing similar support to hundreds in the AIDS community on the West Coast. The love, comfort, encouragement, friendship, and relief in these groups was so authentic and uplifting that you left meetings feeling like you could walk on water. Within the first couple of meetings, the urgent needs that had brought me there were being met extremely well. I discovered a more compelling need—the need to help others.
Gay men had been at the forefront of the sexual revolution. They had taken the exploration and expression of sex to unparalleled heights and depths. And now all that was over. The sexual freedom that we had celebrated with such enthusiasm and abandonment in the ’70s was now proclaimed to be the weapon of our destruction. We’d begun to practice the safest sex we possibly could—those of us who were having sex at all, that is. Some people in our community were so sick or so terrified that they stopped having sex. The rest of us wrapped ourselves in latex and hoped for the best. It was a precarious situation. I knew that people could not be scared into abstinence and safer sex forever. We had to find ways to have sex that would be spiritually nourishing, emotionally healing, and physically safe—and as ecstatic as it had been in the drug-enhanced, all night mega-parties of the pre-AIDS era. At the Healing Circle I met two erotic pioneers, Joseph Kramer and Annie Sprinkle. They, too, were searching for this new way to be sexual. We became dearest friends, colleagues, and family. We enthusiastically joined forces.
We began our search in the East. Joseph had already been studying the principles of Taoist sexuality and had begun to combine them with massage and rebirthing. He was developing an erotic massage technique that was well on its way to becoming one of the paths to spiritually enlightening, healing, and hot sex. Annie, a well-known porn star, was turning her focus toward feminist erotic art and sexual healing. Annie and I began to study Tantra. In these Eastern spiritual practices, sex is seen not so much as an action one performs, but rather as an energy one allows. And nothing demonstrated moving energy into ecstasy like breath and energy orgasms.
A woman named Jwala facilitated the small workshop in which I had my first breath and energy orgasm. Jwala, whose name means Love Fire, would soon become my first Tantric teacher. I met her the way I met a lot of my teachers in that period—she had come to the Healing Circle as a guest speaker. Jwala was the ultimate hippie. She had no permanent home. She spent a great deal of time studying with her gurus in India. She was not like any spiritual seeker I had ever met. She was as sexual as she was mystical. Although in her that combination seemed natural and easy, I was initially skeptical. Something deep in my ex-Catholic background and career-driven New York personality bristled at her intense dedication to freedom, sexuality and spirituality. I was envious of how happy she seemed. But Jwala was generously willing to teach me everything she knew, and the first was how to have a breath and energy orgasm.
We all sat in a circle on the floor as Jwala explained how the technique worked. “With each breath,“ she said “imagine filling up each of your chakras—the seven major energy centers of the body—with energy.” To demonstrate, Jwala lay on her back in the center of the circle and began to breathe. We watched her use her breath and imagination to pull energy from the earth into her body. She began with the first chakra (perineum), and moved up, chakra by chakra. Within a few minutes she was laughing and vibrating and writhing around on the floor. It was one of the juiciest and most joyous orgasms I had ever seen. And then it was our turn.
Jwala offered instructions in the form of a guided meditation. It wasn’t sexual at all and at first I didn’t feel anything. But I heard Jwala say, “Don’t worry, just keep breathing,” so I did. I imagined pulling energy up, chakra by chakra. By the time the energy reached my heart, I felt a tingling in my arms that started to spread into my chest and down my legs. I began to giggle. I felt like I’d like been picked up by a huge wave that got taller and stronger with each breath. I discovered that all I had to do to stay on the wave was keep breathing. Jwala was still guiding us up the chakras but I was in freestyle. I laughed hysterically. I cried in big gulping sobs. I tingled all over. It felt like lightning bolts were shooting out my fingers. I felt like I was being animated by the gods. And it went on and on and on.
How could I not have known this existed? Why didn’t everyone know how to do this? This ecstasy is what I imagined that sex could be—but seldom, if ever, was. And, oddly enough, this breath and energy orgasm had happened in every nook and cranny of my body except my genitals.
This ecstatic experience went far beyond pleasure. It was a profoundly transformative event that took me through all my emotions (including a few I hadn’t met before). It was like body surfing in a whirlpool at the convergence of rivers named Emotion, Intuition, Mysticism, and Sex.
I was hooked. Breath and energy orgasms became the foundation of my personal erotic practice and the cornerstone on which I later built a career as a workshop facilitator and author.
And now here I was at a medical lab in Newark. After twenty years and countless breath and energy orgasms, I was about to find the answer to the questions I asked myself and had been asked by hundreds of workshop participants: is this really an orgasm? Had I been fooling myself all these years? Was I simply hyperventilating? Or perhaps just throwing myself into breath-induced seizures? Did the brain know the difference between genital orgasms and these ecstatic, visionary, transcendental, experiences that felt like full body orgasms?
I arrived at the office of Dr. Barry Komisaruk at 9:30 a.m., accompanied by my friend Sarah Sloane. Sarah had answered my desperate plea for a piercer when I was told that the jewelry in all eighteen of my body piercings would have to be removed for this scan. Some of the jewelry in these piercings had not been removed for twenty years and six pieces were impossible to remove or replace without professional help. But Sarah’s presence this morning was about more than her piercing skills. I had not been asked to remove the jewelry, I had been ordered to. I do not respond well to orders. In addition to my apprehension about my claustrophobia, I now felt bullied, angry and vulnerable about my piercings. I had done previous rituals with Sarah and she had always made me feel safe. She could be nurturing and supportive; she could also be fierce and protective. I would need all of her skills to get through today.
I’d learned that fMRI stands for functional magnetic resonance imaging. An fMRI machine is a big, expensive piece of medical equipment that generates high magnetic fields (hence the removal of metal jewelry) for the purpose of tracking brain activity. To be scanned in an fMRI machine, you lie on a horizontal stretcherlike platform that slides into the narrow cylindrical tunnel of the machine. When you’re fully inserted into the machine, you are completely encircled to just below your waist.
An fMRI magnetically scans the patient from all sides. FMRI’s reveal the brain’s structure and its activity. It works like this: Active neurons in the brain consume more blood than inactive neurons. Therefore, more blood flows to particular areas of the brain when they are active. The hemoglobin in red blood cells is an “oxygen storage molecule,” which is capable of absorbing and releasing oxygen multiple times. The hemoglobin is oxygenated with air from the lungs and deoxygenated when it delivers the oxygen to the cells. Oxygenated and deoxygenated hemoglobin have different magnetic properties. Oxygenated hemoglobin is diamagnetic, which means that it slightly repels a magnetic field. Deoxygenated hemoglobin is paramagnetic, meaning that the application of an external magnetic field causes it to become slightly magnetic. The fMRI machine picks up the slightly magnetic quality of the deoxygenated hemoglobin in the active neural areas and delivers those results in a manner that allows researchers to study brain activity.
For an accurate scan the patient must lie very still. But how, I thought, could I have an orgasm without moving? I had practiced at home for a week, keeping my head braced between two stacks of pillows while I breathed myself to orgasm. I was reasonably convinced that I could do it without moving too much. But to get the scan, not moving very much was not enough. My head could not move at all. Dr. Barry explained that he was going to create a kind of plastic mesh helmet that could be placed around my head to hold it perfectly still. Hannibal Lecter came to mind. This was getting too freaky—even for me. I took slow deep breaths. Dr. Barry asked if I was comfortable. Sarah looked like she’d punch someone if I said no. I found this reassuring.
Helmet completed, we now had to go to a nearby facility that actually had an fMRI machine. FMRI machines are expensive. You can’t just ring up your local big box store and order one because you need it for your science experiment that day. We had a precious couple of hours reserved in which to do this experiment. The clock had already started ticking when I took my first look at the terrifyingly tiny opening into which they intended to slide my helmeted body. I went into supraventricular tachycardia.
I tried to force myself to relax, which was, predictably, futile. I prayed, meditated, and pleaded for inner guidance to tell me if I should leave the lab immediately or hang in there until the tachycardia broke. All the while, Sarah alternated between trying to calm me in one room and the equally nervous television producers and orgasm researchers in the other.
Finally, the lead producer came into the room where I was lying on the floor. There was no more time left to decide. He told me that I did not have to do the scan if I felt I couldn’t. They had worked out an alternative way to do the segment. I listened. I considered his offer. But the alternative would, of course, lack the definitive proof about my breath and energy orgasms. By this time, although the attack was not entirely over, I knew my heart was not going to explode. I could finally feel my intuition speak louder than my fear: “You can do this. The breath and energy orgasm is the way out of the panic you’re feeling.”
The television producers had been utterly respectful. They had not filmed a minute of my panic. I asked them to leave the cameras off for another minute while I got into the fMRI machine. With barely concealed relief and apprehension, they agreed. Dr. Barry and Nan put the plastic mesh helmet on my head and clamped it into a round steel frame attached to the platform bed of the fMRI machine. I felt like some helpless victim in mid-1970s British horror film. Dr. Barry asked if I was ready.
“One more thing,” I said. “Could you please put this blindfold over my eyes?” Dr. Barry looked surprised but agreeable as he taped the blindfold over the steel frame and the helmet.
Ahh. Better. Blindfolded, I could pretend that this was just an extremely kinky sex scene instead of medical torture. The most important reason for the blindfold was that my eyes often flutter open during a breath and energy orgasm. I knew that if my eyes opened and I could see that I was in this tiny tunnel, I would absolutely lose it. I had visions of bursting though the steel walls of the fMRI machine with my superhuman strength.
Then, one final thing—earplugs. I had only been concerned about the tiny enclosed space, but everyone I talked to about fMRIs warned me about the noise. Everyone was right. The clank, bang, slam, rumble is deafening. Good thing I am a longtime fan of loud, strange music. The earplugs reduced the cacophony enough so I could let it play in the background like an experimental score for some science fiction movie.
At last they slid me into the fMRI machine. At first it was quiet. Before they could do the actual scan, they had to take still pictures of my brain. These still images would act as the canvas across which the brain activity would be shown. So I lay still in that tightly confining space as they fussed, adjusted, and calibrated. Luckily, I knew a way to cope. As a small child, I had learned to simply leave my body when conditions in my house were too claustrophobic and scary. So I drifted over to a corner of the lab, up near the ceiling, and waited for Nan, Dr. Barry, and the technician to finish. When they were ready for me to “think off” I slipped back into my body. I focused on my breath. I imagined erotic energy flowing in through the top of my head and the soles of my feet. I dropped an imaginary root down from my genitals all the way into the center of the earth. I imagined hot red erotic energy flowing in from below and bright hot sun pouring in from above.
Within moments I was traveling on one of the long journeys I’d come to associate with this kind of orgasm. It’s rather like a magic carpet ride. I never know quite where in the cosmos I’ll wind up, but I know it’s someplace I need to go. Today, someone seemed to have organized the cosmos into a series of rooms. The rooms were connected by portals that opened and closed like the iris of an eye. It took a significant amount of breath and energy to get through a portal. Once I was through, it was a slower, more floating ride, giving me time to recognize and meet different tribes of ancestors. I often see dead people in these trance states and today was a red-letter day for the dearly departed. Some were deceased extended family members from this lifetime. Some were winged beings. Other rooms were filled with ancestors from ancient cultures. Each tribe imparted a different flavor of love and support. It felt like half the universe had showed up to say, “Hello, we love you. We remember you, even though you might not remember us. We all understand what you’re doing and we’re all here for you.”
I laughed, I cried, I gasped in awe. But the ride I was on was not only happening inside my head—it was happening all through my body as well. Nan was standing beside the fMRI machine. She had asked me to squeeze her hand when I felt the beginning of an orgasm. I had first squeezed it when I blasted through the first portal. The more I breathed and set my intention to keep going further, the more the orgasm rolled through my body and the more frequently and intensely I squeezed Nan’s hand. Nan was using her other hand to communicate to Dr. Barry the intensity of my orgasm. The more I squeezed her hand, the more fingers she held up. Nan told me she ran out of fingers less than halfway through my journey. I was in such an altered state I don’t remember stopping. Next door, Dr. Barry and the fMRI technician collected their data.
The results were not available for some weeks. And yes, they revealed what I hoped and believed they would reveal. What I had experienced in that fMRI machine was indeed an orgasm. The insula, the hypothalmus, and the amygdala—regions of the brain typically activated during genitally induced orgasm—had all been activated. What I had been experiencing for the past 20 years had indeed been orgasms.
Depending on your perspective, my story of the fMRI scan could be a horror story, a kinky erotic scene, or a mystical experience. I experienced it as ecstasy. How did this extraordinary challenge turn into a transformational adventure? How under all these incredibly unsexy and often terrifying conditions, was I able to have a scientifically verified orgasm that also qualified as a true ecstatic experience?
Looking back at the entire fMRI experience I was able to deconstruct it and examine the elements that led to the ecstatic conclusion.
I got through that frightening time by following my erotic intuition—the very intuition I’d been shaping, honing, and polishing for over twenty years. Over those years I had learned how to trust my body and my spirit when pursuing the ecstatic. Without the ability to surrender to my intuition at each successive step in the process, I would never have found and sustained the courage to get through the scan, much less reach orgasm.
I also surrendered to my need for ecstatic experiences. Ecstatic experiences are necessary for my well-being. They are not happy accidents. I look for the opportunity to fly into the ecstatic part of any available experience. In this process, it took a constant and conscious recommitment to surrender—by this time it was surrender to the mystical process itself—to keep me flying through the ecstasy and to keep the ecstasy flying through me.
Surrender is not something one leaps into effortlessly or blindly. Surrender takes preparation. In the case of my fMRI experiment, it took months of soul-searching, planning, negotiating, setting boundaries, and building up my courage. Many people think this kind of preparation decreases spontaneity and therefore diminishes pleasure and ecstasy. I beg to differ. In my experience it’s all the conscious preparation that makes possible true spontaneity and expanded ecstatic experience.
I was thrilled when I finally saw the edited documentary. It seems other people were, too. When the show aired on The Learning Channel I received hundreds of e-mails from people from all walks of life who wanted to know how they, too, could have breath and energy orgasms. I also received a few from people who’d been having breath and energy orgasms for years and were thrilled to finally have a name for the experience. Many of those who wrote to me had run in to some form of roadblock on their erotic journey. Some had spinal cord injuries, gunshot wounds, clitorectomies, erectile dysfunction, or other physical conditions that prevented them from having genital orgasms. Others were experiencing loss of desire, boredom, incompatibility with a partner, post-traumatic stress disorder, celibacy by choice, and celibacy by circumstance. Whatever the cause or form of erotic roadblock, every one asked if this new discovery that orgasms could happen without genital sex meant that there was hope for them. Yes, I answered, there was. There was hope for more than just an enhanced physical experience of sex. There was also new hope for expanded ecstatic experiences of everything our sexual expression gives us, such as freedom, intimacy, connection, release of tension, physical well-being, and spiritual connection.
So that’s what this book is about—sex but also much more than sex. It’s about the infinite possibilities of ecstatic expression with which sex can provide us. It’s also about how we can create ecstatic experiences when sex is not possible, available or appropriate. Take a big, full, deep breath. Let’s get started.