I’m part of a men’s group. Some people see the value of this, and some don’t.
One guy I know, when I told him about the group, responded “I don’t need anyone to teach me how to be a man.” Others have more detailed preconceived notions about “men’s work” — one woman reacted by saying “so what do you do, cry and get naked in the woods together?”
I found these two reactions particularly interesting, because I think they reflect deep-seated, and misguided, assumptions about men that are worth talking about. The first is that a real man doesn’t ask for support, and faces his problems alone. The second is that it’s weak for a man to tell others how he feels.
Vulnerability Takes Courage
One thing I find ironic about these ideas is that, in my experience, it actually takes a lot more courage to ask for support, and say how I feel, than to keep my concerns to myself.
After all, if I admit I’m facing a challenge in my life, I open myself up to being criticized or ridiculed. Maybe the person I confide in will say “dude, you’re messed up,” or pelt me with advice when I just want to be heard, or something like that, and I’ll feel hurt. If I keep a stiff upper lip, I don’t have to take that risk.
True, “sharing our feelings” may sound airy-fairy and New-Agey on the surface. But in my experience, it’s much harder to reveal my emotions than to pretend they don’t exist. It’s far easier to act like nothing bothers me, I’m super-professional, and I’ve got it all together.
What’s more, expressing emotions is about much more than “crying naked in the woods,” although I don’t want to dismiss that practice if it’s what you think you need. :) It can also mean unleashing our more fiery parts — our anger and competitive drive, for instance.
The Practical Benefits
When I say something along the lines of what I just said, some people respond: Taking risks by being emotionally vulnerable is all well and good, but what does that get you in the real world?
First off, the assumption behind this question is, basically, that nothing is worth doing unless it gets us more money, power or sex. But I happen to think connection, by itself, is valuable — the relief and aliveness I feel when I drop the pretenses with someone and tell them what’s really going on for me.
If you feel cynical or skeptical when I say this, at least consider the possibility that there’s a dimension of being with another person that you aren’t experiencing, and that it may be interesting for you to explore.
What’s more, I think the risks men take in the kind of group I’m part of do translate into “practical benefits” in the traditional sense.
For example, some men learned, at an early age, that releasing the fiery kind of energy I talked about wasn’t okay. They were sternly taught that a good boy obeys his parents without complaint. As adults, these men find it hard to set firm boundaries with others and ask for what they want.
A men’s group can offer a man in this situation a safe container to cut loose and rage, reconnect with the warrior part he was taught to push down, and take that part with him into the “real world.” This can have a powerful impact in his work, relationships and elsewhere.
Have you been part of a men’s or women’s group? What has your experience of it been like?
As I’m sure you know, some people doubt that personal growth work has practical benefits. Some scoff at the idea of working with our thoughts and emotions, seeing it as just a tree-hugging hippie way of escaping the harsh reality of survival and conflict. Others only see value in personal development work that teaches nonstop action, and don’t see much reason to spend time sitting alone with yourself.
Despite all the “inner work” I’ve done, sometimes even I become a skeptic. I’ve had moments in meditation when my mind has griped “what am I doing? I should be writing an article.” In the middle of a few weekend retreats, I’ve found myself wishing I could go home and explore different ways to expand my business.
Some “Down-To-Earth” Benefits of Spiritual Practice
What I forget in these moments is that I wouldn’t be able to do my “outer work” without the time I spend in my spiritual practices. I don’t just mean that meditation, yoga, taking workshops and so on help me feel peaceful and grounded, although they do. What I mean is that I actually have many of the ideas at the core of my writing in the midst of my inner work.
I had the idea to write my recent book, for instance, in the middle of a meditation. I’d written a book before called Path of the Demonslayer — a somewhat misguided attempt to combine the fantasy and self-help genres that I don’t plan to release. For a while afterward, I was wondering whether a decent book idea would ever come to me, until it suddenly appeared to me in a state of deep relaxation and mental quiet.
Another important point I want to make about inner work is that you can do it in real time – while you’re working, talking to your partner or doing other “real world” activities. You don’t have to sit in a lotus position, burn incense or go to a monastery to do it — as much as I enjoy doing those things.
One great example is the way that my spiritual practice helps me stay centered when I’m speaking to an audience. I used to get nervous and distractible in front of groups, until I got into the habit of focusing my attention on my body as I spoke, noticing the pressure of my feet against the ground. I borrowed this exercise from a meditation I do that has me slowly scan my attention over each part of my body, and it helped me to feel solid and focused as I gave my talks.
Defusing the Doubting Mind
What I’ve learned from these experiences is that “my inner world creates my outer world” isn’t just some New Age slogan — there’s clear evidence that it’s true in my life. Keeping these stories in mind is a great way to calm my cynical part whenever it pipes up during one of my practices.
I don’t mean to say that the only benefit of inner work is the “results” it gets you in the outside world. In fact, approaching meditation, yoga or a similar practice with the goal of getting richer, more attractive, or something like that would probably lead to suffering. But I have no doubt that spiritual practice, if we stick with it, has positive effects in our day-to-day lives.
Do you have stories about how your inner work has affected your outer world? I’m curious to hear them.
David Cain has a subtle — almost subversive — way of relaying spiritual wisdom through anecdotes about his life and social commentary. His blog is a great read.
Recently, a friend told me she’d like to feel more optimistic. She would like to believe that the world is a fundamentally good place, and that, no matter how difficult her life may seem right now, things will work out all right in the end. But when she looks at the world, all she seems to see are unkind, angry and neglectful people, and financial, relationship and health-related crises waiting to happen. “How can I be an optimist in this world?” she asked me. “What do you think about all the time that makes you so positive?”
From the wording of her question, I could see why she was having trouble. She saw optimism as something one attains by thinking the right thoughts. Many people who hold this view use techniques like repeating “I am optimistic” to themselves to convince their unconscious minds that they are positive thinkers. I don’t see optimism that way—I view it as a physical state one enters by using one’s body. The positive thoughts my friend wanted naturally result from being in that physical state.
The state I’m talking about is one of awe and wonderment at the beauty and complexity of you, as a human being, and the world around you. Even something as seemingly unremarkable as a leaf is a webwork of elegant and dazzlingly intricate biological structures. In a state of awe at the world’s splendor, it’s impossible to see the world as a hostile, hurtful place. If you take the time to drink it in and fully appreciate it, the world really can’t be anything but benevolent and welcoming.
How do you use your body to get into this state? Observe yourself, and the outside world, attentively. Notice not only the extraordinary beauty and functionality of your body’s design on the outside, but the symphony of sensations you feel on the inside. In the outside world, look for details you may not have seen before. For instance, when I started trying to be more perceptive about my surroundings, I realized I’d never before noticed that I have a lovely view of some mountain peaks from where I live. There are almost certainly some features of the landscape around you that have escaped your awareness because your mind was on something else.
When I’m in this perceptive state, and I can’t help but wonder at the world’s intricate beauty, it’s impossible for me to think negative thoughts. When I think of something that usually annoys me, I find myself marveling at the fact that I exist and can experience emotions rather than stewing in my irritation. I can remain conscious of the fact that there are obstacles facing me in my life, but I focus on ways to overcome those obstacles instead of dwelling on how imposing or frustrating they seem.
By contrast, I get into a pessimistic state, and the world starts to look painful and uninviting, when I lose my sense of wonderment. This happens when I start taking the world for granted, as though I’ve seen it all and there’s nothing new to experience. “Oh, that’s just another leaf,” I think when I see a leaf. “I’ve got places to be and people to see. I don’t have time to gaze lovingly at dirt and shrubbery.”
Soon enough, I start mentally putting everything I perceive into a bland, lifeless category. “Oh, that’s just another sunset; just another project; just another evening with the same old friend.” Eventually, the whole world looks like the same old thing, and I feel chronically bored with every aspect of my life. And then I start wondering where all my optimism went!
Of course, when I suggested to my friend that she cultivate optimism by attentively observing the world, she said she couldn’t fit that into her schedule. She’s a busy, high-powered attorney, she told me, and she doesn’t have time for new-agey hippie pursuits. I pointed out, however, that she doesn’t need to spend a month living in a tent to have the experiences I’m talking about. She could simply go through her regular routine in a more perceptive state—for instance, while driving her car, she could notice more details of the landscape as it rolls by.
When my friend tried becoming more aware of her surroundings, she said she felt a little frightened at first. The complexity of the world seemed dizzying, and too much to take in. But eventually, her heightened awareness started to feel comfortable and empowering. And when she was in that state, she was unable to see the world as hostile and uninviting. Instead of feeling despair when she looked around, she felt curious and interested, and even her daily routine took on a new richness and aliveness. This didn’t happen because I logically convinced her, or because she convinced herself, that she should be optimistic—she entered that state naturally by being in awe of the world.
If, like my friend, you’d like to feel more optimistic but think you don’t know how, start by recognizing that you won’t get there by thinking. Coming up with reasons why you ought to be more positive won’t change your emotional state. Instead, try taking a closer look at yourself and the world, noticing the delightful details you hadn’t picked up on before. If you develop a genuine appreciation for the world’s beauty, optimism will follow close behind.
(This article appeared in the Happiness Carnival, located at http://posts.blogcarnival.com/page.php?p=142835.)