Over recent months I’ve encountered some eloquent and inspiring writing on what a healthy, mature masculinity might look like.
But how do we actually embody and live these ideals?
How do we “dismantle the patriarchy” and its relentless fold/spindle/mutilate of the human spirit — and especially, our own spirit?
How do we men become more emotionally available to and nurturing allies of our partners, children, co-workers, friends and community?
How do we raise emotionally and spiritually healthy kids — without simultaneously crippling them for life in the world that they are likely to inherit?
How do we find it in ourselves to act with compassion and integrity in situations that temp us to act otherwise? What does that look like?
HOW do we step up to the plate of a Mature Masculinity that increasing numbers of our partners and friends are — rightly — demanding of us? Knowing what is not enough; simple behavior prescriptions clearly do not work well, if we take the history of conventional religion as an index.
Forget that… How do we men come to feel like men instead of little boys faking-it in men’s bodies? How do we find an authentic abiding inner peace and happiness instead of nearly killing ourselves for a few moments of stress-respite against an innerscape of desolate emptiness or suppressed rage?
It’s a daunting, and for many men, a crushing proposition. We measure ourselves against unattainable, conflicting, and paradoxical expectations of manhood; if our perceived failures to live up to our culture’s prescription for manliness aren’t painful enough, many of us are also feeling wounded and shamed by the male-bashing of some threads of feminism — accusations that there is something irreparably damaged and damaging (“testosterone poisoning”) in being male.
We may actually want to accommodate our partners’ requests, because we do see their pain (or simply fear being abandoned if we don’t make the effort).
Moreover, increasing numbers of us are experiencing a longing that can no longer be ignored for a deeper personal authenticity, irrespective of others’ expectations.
The whole enterprise is fraught.
Into the morass, I will offer some thoughts, and some things which have worked for me. (My apologies in advance for the heteronormative orientation here — I really have no experience or competence in other modes, but I’d love to hear feedback).
There are ways to address these challenges.
Can’t recommend this enough (in spite of caveat below). Everyone on a path of self-inquiry (and I’m assuming that’s you, because you read this far) should spend enough time with a therapist to develop a nuanced understanding of their own psychodynamics and how their historical wounds “run” them in the present, and the attitudes and life-strategies that defend those wounds. So-much-the-better if your therapist runs groups in which you can experiment with new behaviors. Even better if s/he employs a body-centric approach that gets you out of your head and its stories and into the wisdom-of-your-body and its inherent marriage with your intuition.
Some therapists are mostly about “adjustment” and not “wholeness.” Find one who sees life as an adventure of discovery, not a problem to be solved.
- Men’s Groups
I abandoned men’s groups in the 90s because they mostly turned into belch-and-fart clubs. Past a superficial self-disclosure and occasional venting of sand-pounding rage, no one was willing to drill into the really tough armoring in which we were all trapped. But more recently, I believe as younger males are undertaking the work of becoming men, that’s changing and it’s possible to find groups of sincere men and skilled facilitators who hold “safe space” and are willing to be undefended and ask the right questions.
- Spiritual Practice.
Complements the other ways — and offers things they can not.
Hence this article: I’m going to offer a view… I don’t think it will appeal to everyone. But it works, and it has a very long and honorable track record of freeing our human spirit from the shackles of culture and conditioning and of nurturing what’s most noble and magnificent about us.
I submit that “toxic masculinity” and its corollaries is fundamentally a spiritual problem, to be addressed through spiritual practice, and that there are aspects of toxic masculinity that can not be effectively addressed as primarily psychodynamic or a psychosocial problems.
So why do I think this?
A Bit of History
I grew up in a family of engineers, and the texture of my life was, by turns, social isolation and social humiliation. In a classic spiritual bait-and-switch, I followed a young lady to what was at the time termed an “encounter group,” and there found some tools and keys through which I began addressing my wounding and developing the emotional and relational intelligence that was missing in my upbringing.
By my late twenties, I’d been meditating and doing yoga postures for a handful of years as an adjunct to the focus on Gestalt Therapy and bodywork that had provided escape velocity from my neurotic misery and had become my “path.”
I had investigated a handful of yoga, Buddhist, and occult groups and found a home of sorts in “universal Sufism,” and had received an initiation and instruction in the basic practices. I was sitting in my meditation space one morning with my prayer beads in one hand and cup of Morning Thunder in the other, ticking-off the repetitions of a mantra given me by my sufi mentor…
The best way I can describe what happened is that I became the mantra — not the sounds, or some concept or image attached to it, but its essential abiding beingness, in a boundless realm wholly outside space and time. “My consciousness” — my mind and my very identity — just stopped, and was completely absorbed into this timeless/spaceless abiding. My body was “there” but irrelevant; had it fallen-over dead in that moment, “I” would have continued to exist throughout all eternity as the infinite beingness to which the practice was a portal. My personal identity, my “stories” and history about it, and all my wounding and striving simply did not exist.
When my accustomed sense of “myself” — whatever that was — returned a few moments later, I retained the clear knowledge that our habitual reality of things, lives, and events is a concretization of, and is continually, profoundly acted-upon and created by a realm of energy, consciousness, and Being that is far more ontologically fundamental than our thoughts and emotions and even our molecules and atoms. (And, I might add, the temporary loss of “myself” into something that could not be “steered” or even understood was afterward as profoundly frightening as it was, in the moment inside of it, profoundly exalting.)
As I was to find out, this kind of experience is “what happens” when we really connect with a spiritual practice. Over the next few years I had more transits like this one, gradually “installing” a clear and navigable felt-sense of how the apparent structure of our individuated, time-and-space-limited being is continually in-formed and existentiated by the movement of That which is behind the “scrim” of visible, sense-and-mind/emotions-reality.
I also understood why the first experience had frightened me so: that it had revealed just how little actual “control” the ego possesses and, by extension, why an approach based only in psychodynamics or politics does not produce the kind of transformation we hope for.
“Sounds very abstract,” you might say. “I meditate and I don’t get any of that shit.” Stay with me…
What is that we are not just minds and static bodily structures, peaking in our twenties and fighting a losing battle against entropy until we finally receive the “cosmic eviction notice.” We are not our histories, our wounds, or the attitudes and politics that defend those wounds.
We and all of life are continually unfolded into life by the movements of a subtle geometry that is the matrix of all mind and concrete existence, and while this movement can’t be “understood,” we can live in fluid sync with it at a profoundly deep level of our being.
It means that, when we find the right entry-point, we CAN re-create and co-create ourselves in alignment with something fundamentally real, fundamentally whole, fundamentally powerful, and fundamentally joyous and loving that is the “ground” and fabric of our individual and collective existence, something that is not a construct, not an opinion or a premise. Once experienced, it cannot be taken from us by anything because it is the direct knowing of who we really are, of and by the deepest core of our existence, the deepest level of knowing, itself.
It means that when we get still enough and quiet enough inside, we can do something real and substantive in healing ourselves and becoming a healing presence for others. We can authentically live those ideals of a mature masculinity and mature humanity, in alignment with the deepest truth, integrity, and authenticity of ourselves and everyone. The right spiritual practice opens an aperture of awareness that heals the inner disconnects from our inherent joy and empathy — of which toxic masculinity is one expression.
Here’s the Thing
Each of our inner wounds is essentially a place where we are disconnected from the inherent wholeness that is the transparent movement of the inner Boundless into us, through us, and as us. Each of those places is also, potentially, a portal to re-awakening the felt-connection to that wholeness, which is also contiguous with the wholeness of everyone else and of “right action” in life.
Our lives almost completely revolve around those disconnects; we are continually looking outside ourselves — at our jobs, our bodies, our relationships, our belongings, our politics — to provide the sense of meaning, support, and wholeness that can only come from the inner connection/re-connection with our deep substance, and we are simultaneously fleeing from the pain of our disconnects and the havoc they create in life.
More to the point of this piece: If a man doesn’t find himself before he finds his goddess, he’s likely to wound or damage the women he tries to make into her. All the most fucked-up AND all the most amazing things humans do emerge out of that inner relationship to our inherent wholeness or our disconnects from it.
The world’s wisdom-traditions and wisdom-teachers have known and articulated this for thousands of years, and developed methods and techniques that work to reconnect our felt-identity with our inherent wholeness.
Each breakthrough marks the death of a bit of our self-absorption and its corollary, the potential to violate our own and others’ integrity to get our “needs” met.
Each breakthrough logarithmically accumulates capacity to make the next, and because all consciousness and life-force are unitary, each individual breakthrough supports and is supported-by all humans who are seriously working on themselves.
At each inner re-connection, we experience greater felt-wholeness, inner peace, uncaused joy, deeper intimacy, greater power and integrity. We relax about getting our personal needs met from the outside, about being protected from the outside, and being seen in any particular way by others. One lives in a felt-sense that the Universe is an essentially “friendly” place that is navigable and trustworthy. There is a living fabric of felt-connection with others and the “life field” that just precludes acting out-of-integrity. This has a profound effect on our personality and ego-structure. These things are not “attained,” they are just what’s-there when our bullshit goes.
And our bullshit won’t go until there’s something better to replace it, because the things in life that are problems now were once the solutions to other problems.
What makes us unhappy is to want. Yet if we would learn to cut our wants to nothing, the smallest thing we’d get would be a true gift.
My interpretation is that we reduce our grasping for identity, fulfillment, and meaning in the external world — not that we dissociate from the basic longings that make us human.
Some psychotherapy does go deep enough for this to happen, but often does not. Psychological insight is not the same thing as spiritual awakening; a great deal depends on the awareness and spiritual capacity of the therapist, whether-or-not s/he conceives therapy as a “spiritual” search.
I will offer the following distinction: Psychotherapy is primarily for the repair of life situations; spiritual practice is for the repair of the fundamental split between our felt-identity and the boundless Being/Source by which we are both completely sustained and of which we are often unaware.
The method does not matter, as long as you are actually doing what you think you are doing. Every path and technique works for someone — and every path and technique, however-hallowed in tradition and performed with great dedication, does not work for someone.
Each of us needs to find the teacher and body of practice that’s in alignment with our unique being, which speaks to our soul — and then stick with it to get the breakthroughs. But do find the teacher; you can’t do this on your own, and the egoic obstinacy that keeps you from apprenticing yourself to a teacher is also going to block your inner guidance. If you have a teacher but aren’t getting these breakthroughs, it’s time to have a talk with your teacher about it.
The way is known, and while there are no perfect human beings, there are living and highly-developed men and women who can model for us and mentor us in how our inner vision of our own possibilities can be lived in a mature, joyous, and honorable human life. The way is known; become a Knower.