A common question for those new to BDSM and kink activities is about sub-space and top-space, the altered states of consciousness experienced in scenes and play. This post is designed to address the majority of questions I’ve been asked over the years, and shed some light on how and why it occurs.
This is part 1 of a 2-part series of posts. Part one of this topic will provide an overview and description of the experiences. Part two will take a deeper look at the mechanics and neurochemicals involved in these altered states of consciousness.
Subs? Tops? What-Space?
Calling the altered state of consciousness sub space or top space is really a mixed nomenclature. To be consistent we need to make similar comparisons related to the pairing of activities.
Top & Bottom: These are the typical terms used in roles for BDSM activities where the Top performs the activity, and the Bottom receives the activity. Example, the flogger is the top, the flogee is the bottom. This does not necessarily imply power exchange dynamic, such as one could find in a role as a Service Top. One who identifies as a “Switch” means they can enjoy being a Top or a Bottom, depending on their activity preferences, partner, or feeling at the time.
Dominant & submissive: These are actual roles involving power exchange dynamics which may or may not also include BDSM activities. Example, the Dominant decides that flogging will be the chosen activity as part of their scene. Similar to the above, one who identifies as a Switch means they can enjoy being a Dominant with some partners, while submissive with others.
*Disclaimer: These roles are not strictly binary, but can be seen as a dynamic spectrum which is as fluid as an individual feels is appropriate considering the activities and dynamics of the partner(s) involved. In other words, it’s highly up to the choice, discretion, and needs of those involved.
As such, if we are to be consistent in terminology, we would say top- or bottom-space as altered states of consciousness. However this is not the common trend in choice of terms at the moment. Common convention is top-space and sub-space, and sub-space seems to be discussed far more often than top-space.
Differences in Experiences
Everyone experiences top & sub space differently, so no two descriptions will be exactly the same. However, there are commonalities which seem to be shared. Generally speaking, these altered states can be categorized by two families of experiences; the Dissociative and the Associative. Typically, sub-space is a dissociative state where consciousness becomes untethered from the physical confines of reality. Whereas top-space is a highly associative experience of hyper-awareness or focus, sometimes referred to as flow.
As a loose general “rule of thumb” more bottoms and subs will have the dissociative experience in sub-space, whereas more tops or Dominants will have the associative experience of Flow. However this is in no way fixed or absolute. Much of what determines a person’s bias towards subspace or flow depends on an individual’s experiences, neurology, and own processing faculties.
Generally speaking, dissociation is how the brain disconnects awareness from an experience. Much like a mental “flight response”, our consciousness is attempting to escape an experience and induces a “disconnect response” in order to endure it. This state is commonly experienced through severe trauma, shock, and dissociative psychological disorders. BDSM activities aside, dissociative states can be achieved through a variety of means, with perhaps the most common (chemical free) method being hypnosis and transcendental meditation.
The more associative state of Flow is often achieved during moments of artistic creativity, complex problem solving, martial arts and extreme sports, which involves intense concentration and focus. The process of association is how the brain intensifies an experience to the point of exclusivity. This is akin to the predator mode, our consciousness is summoning all its resources to achieve or acquire something, inducing a highly attuned hyper-focused state to achieve maximum effect where all other distractions are shut down.
Whether a person responds with dissociative or associative consciousness depends on how that person processes their world as well as the magnitude of the experience. In some cases these states may be fluid or overlap, such as creative ecstasy where one may be both fully engaged yet detached – sometimes described as “creating as if possessed”.
Labels aside, these phenomena are essentially an altered state of consciousness achieved through a variety of activities or experiences which trigger the body to produce various neurochemicals that impact our state of mind. In many ways they share the elements and experiences found in trauma/shock, transcendental meditation, hypnotic trance, and other altered states obtained through intense focus and concentration.
Dissociative experiences are
Drifting/Floating: a lightness of mind that drifts away from your body
Time Loss: feeling like time does not exist, or that it moves quickly without noticing (time dilation)
Dream-like: reality is hazy, comes and goes, and feels oddly vague or intangible
Emotional/Spiritual Openness: a sense of Oneness, connected to the universe or spiritual domain
Unanchored Mind: everything exists now: past, present, future; everything is one and real
Release: unchained from concerns, responsibility, accountability
Associative experiences are
Solidity: feeling grounded, increased mass/density, strongly present & connected
Time Distortion: feeling like time is passing very slowly, nearly frozen, slow motion
Hyper-Awareness: all senses are heightened, what you focus on seems almost too real
Hyper-Focus: nothing else matters but your selected focus, what you focus on becomes crystal clear
Exclusive Mind: there is only Now; no past or future exists, no reflective thoughts distract the mind
Empowerment: strong sense of personal agency, control, success, self-satisfaction
*Please bear in mind this only provides a rough outline of “typical” experiences. As with all of life, your specific experience may be quite different or even vary from occasion to occasion.
Our western culture focuses very much on goal setting and achievement. While this may be somewhat helpful in achieving a state of Flow in top-space, it can also put pressure on participants in attaining a specific experience. Indeed, I’ve heard many share their frustrations from an apparent inability to reach these altered states of consciousness and wonder if there is something wrong with them, or if they are “doing it wrong”.
It’s important to remember that the connection in BDSM activities or kink play is largely the primary benefit. Actively seeking to get to the destination often increases anxiety, impatience, and engages reflective thinking – all of which is exactly what we’re trying to turn off in our various states of mind. I therefore recommend perhaps a more “Eastern Philosophy” of remaining open to the experience, and allow what happens to unfold. Welcome it should you experience something different and wonderful, but don’t chase it down.
Along with anticipation and anxiety, there are other factors which can limit one’s chance of achieving these states. Such matters are highly individual and depend greatly on your prior experiences, trust in your partner(s), physical or psychological challenges, sensory processing, and more. For example, some challenges to achieving sub- or top-space include, but are not limited to:
- Self-Consciousness: Fearing judgment by other present or uncomfortable exposure
- Sensory Overload: Too many surrounding sights and sounds to let go of your present awareness
- Proximity: Feeling crowded, encroached, or not having enough personal space to feel safe
- Trust: Underlying inhibitions due to inexperience with partner, type of activity, or environment
- Health: Compromised immunity due to allergies, colds, injuries, and chronic condition flare-ups
I have found that, no matter your role or challenge, it’s most important to let go of the expectation or goal of achieving these altered states of consciousness. Instead, focus on the joy in the activities and in the connection with your partner(s), and forgive yourself when circumstances aren’t helping. Many people enjoy these moments without ever achieving sub-space or top-space, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less fulfilling or rewarding.
In the forthcoming Part 2 of this series we will go into further depth by exploring the triggers, mechanics, and risks of the altered states of consciousness found in sub-space and top-space.
Copyright 2017 Limits Unleashed