The mindfulness meditation movement continues to gain popularity, reinforced by scientific studies that point to positive physiological changes. As consensus grows that practicing turning one’s attention to whatever is happening in the moment and holding it in nonjudgmental awareness is good for one’s overall wellness, two things are certain—there will be skeptics who downplay the notion of “doing nothing,” and most of them will be men.
The tendency for the male species to avoid what is healthy, wise and practical was summed up by Dr. Randolph Nesse, M.D., professor of psychiatry and psychology at the University of Michigan, when he wrote, “being male is now the single largest demographic factor for early death.” As a mental health professional with more than 30 years of experience in the field, I not only second that thought, but I would add to it that being male is also the primary obstacle to getting the necessary help to change that fact.
As a psychotherapist and carrier of the Y chromosome myself, I empathize with my brothers and I have seen firsthand how manliness often gets in the way of wellness. It’s well-documented that we are our own worst enemies when it comes to health. We live in a culture of manhood that supports a “don’t ask, don’t tell” mentality when it comes to our struggles. Our added stubbornness results in the misconception that men don’t ask for help.
That’s not true, we ask for it all the time—you just know it as complaining, anger and acting out behaviors.
It should come as no surprise that, given the locker room mentality of “never let them know you’re hurt,” many men turn a blind eye to the benefits of mindfulness meditation. Despite the growing body of research pointing to the multiple health benefits of these techniques, many men prefer to argue for their right to be ill.
Some of the reasons why men don’t meditate include:
- It feels “woo-woo,” and that’s just one step up from cooties.
- Sitting still only takes place while fishing and watching sports.
- Being alone with one’s thoughts can feel like being alone with a crazy person.
- Fear of getting it wrong or, God forbid, having to ask for directions on how to do it overpowers any desire to try.
The obvious way to entice men toward a meditative practice would be to give these approaches a harder edge. However, this only perpetuates the problem. While it would be easy to market Extreme Meditation, we fall back into the man-pit and inflame an already swollen ego. (This, by the way, was the downfall of the “getting in touch with your inner warrior” movement.) We also know from past experiences that moving to the other end of the continuum, where “softer is better” and “real men eat quiche,” is an overcorrection without staying power.
What is called for is the middle path that runs through the origins of meditative practices. Men cannot be scared into developing a heart-centered approach to the present moment, nor will they be enticed by promises that they will discover their true selves. What will pique their interest are the studies showing meditation builds bigger brains and stronger immune systems, increases energy, improves memory and increases libido (and yes, that means better sex).
Since many men avoid wellness activities when they become trendy and/or seem geared toward the female of the species, I suggest we develop the concept of manfulness. This is the practice of being fully aware of the obstacles that being a man presents, and the willingness to see these obstacles as the very path to liberation from the constraints of manhood. More simply put, let’s drop the need to figure out what it means to be a man, and instead make being a man more meaningful.
In addition to formalized meditative moments—spending time intentionally focusing on one’s internal experience—practicing the art of manfulness includes:
- Working to be the fathers we always wished our dads would have been
- Stop pretending the phrase “boys will be boys” should apply to grown men
- No longer confusing excitement for happiness
- Realizing anger is not a normal response to pain
- Understanding that choosing between intellect and emotion is a false choice
Whether or not the current shift toward a more mindful approach to life has staying power will rely heavily on the willingness of men, of all stripes, to make it a priority. In order to prevent the meditative lifestyle from retreating into the blacklit, incense-infused rooms of our past, men need to come out of the shadows and share in the awakening of a new consciousness. Ironically, this new state of mind is as old as time itself and was pointed to by wise men throughout the ages. This means it is our turn to man up and honor our sage forefathers, not by following in their footsteps, but by seeking what they sought.
A Manful Meditative Moment
Any activity can be turned into a meditative moment by following 3 simple steps:
- While focusing on external happenings, save some of your conscious attention for what is happening within yourself.
- When something pulls you from the experience of the present moment, whether thoughts, physical sensations or feelings, notice the distraction and then return to the sensation of your breathing to bring you back to the present experience.
- Any time stress, worry or anxiety shows up, practice tactical breathing (also known by the even manlier moniker, sniper’s breath). Breathe in to the count of four, hold your breath to the count of four and release to the count of four.