“What is the measure of a man?” This is a question that men have contemplated since long before Shakespeare penned it. It is a question that still inspires curiosity and debate today. The American image of masculinity has been defined by a long lineage of icons who have been elevated by history to legendary status. They represent the pinnacle of maleness, from George Washington to John Wayne.
According to this cultural tradition, a man is expected to be strong, authoritative, stable and reliable. His domain is common sense and practicality, unfettered by the corrupting forces of sentimentality and emotional thinking. A man’s world is one of pragmatism – black and white. This is, at least, what our fathers and grandfathers were taught: that this country was founded on hard work and determination, with no room for weakness or failure. This is the collective burden that American men carry to this day. But we now find ourselves at a time of change when the appropriateness, practicality and benefit of this traditional male paradigm have come into question.
A new force in American culture arose in the 1960s as America’s free thinkers began challenging and questioning authority in reaction to the institutionalized homogeneity of the previous decade. Today, though still present, this force seems to have mellowed and matured into a general underlying dissatisfaction with the old social and cultural constraints. The explosive popularity of yoga and other Eastern spiritual practices as well as America’s growing fascination with spiritual thinkers and personalities such as Ram Dass, the Dalai Lama, Stephen Levine, James Redfield, Surya Das and Deepak Chopra just to name a few, whose points of view are derived from outside our traditional Judeo-Christian lineage, demonstrate how a significant portion of American society is looking in new places for answers to old questions.
One of the most daunting of these is the question of masculinity. How can men reconcile the masculine identity that has been handed down to them with the conflicting desire for a new and more fulfilling spiritual identity? The answer to this question is not a simple one and strikes at the heart of a dilemma faced by a growing number of American men.
The very idea of spirituality is troublesome when viewed through the lens of traditional American masculinity. On the one hand, this country has an incredibly strong tradition of religious observance and devotion that has included both sexes. On the other hand, that devotion has, for many, been motivated by a sense of duty, fear or habit which does not necessarily resonate with an individual’s true spiritual nature. It is one thing for a man to kneel and pray. It is another thing for him to truly feel and demonstrate a spiritual connection openly.
There is a sense of mistrust of that which is spiritual or religious among many men who feel that it has been used to control or manipulate through dogma and hypocrisy. In many cases, the lines between politics and spirituality have blurred, making devotion to spirituality an uncertain endeavor. In addition, there are those who were forced to subscribe to religious beliefs as children without ever gaining an organic understanding of what it was they were subscribing to.
The result is a kind of habitual participation that has little connection to feelings or spiritual intuition. There is a feeling of a spiritual void that hinders men from exploring anything that is not clearly tangible. Often it is the perceptions and experiences in childhood that lay the strongest foundations for a man’s openness to embracing a spiritual practice as an adult.
“Boys don’t cry.” Much more than just an Oscar-winning vehicle for Hilary Swank, this statement is, for most people of both sexes, the first introduction we have to the delineation between the sexes. From our earliest social interactions we have been taught that it is unacceptable, even shameful, for boys to show sensitivity, pain, weakness, fear or vulnerability of any kind. Yet it is acceptable for girls to do so. Therefore, any boy who demonstrates any of those qualities is immediately stripped of his masculine identity in the eyes of the adults whom he relies on for guidance, as well as his peers, who emulate those adults.
An unfortunate byproduct of this ideology is the belief that to be feminine is to be less than, or inferior. This lays an early foundation for internalized sexism. To be considered a sissy is perhaps one of the most dreaded and painful labels a boy can endure during childhood, because it immediately identifies him as “less than” in the eyes of his peers. Hence, a boy is likely to subvert almost any emotional impulse or spiritual curiosity in order to avoid that label, and to demonstrate his masculinity to the community around him.
This unhealthy need to demonstrate masculine strength and aggression can easily grow and be compounded by influences like homophobia, sexism and racism, leading to violent thoughts and behavior, and a sense of detachment from any feelings of nurturing or tenderness. The developmental effects of these ideas, having been ingrained at such a young age, are extremely difficult to reverse. This is why so many men struggle as they work to embrace new ideologies to live by. As Ram Dass wrote in his now legendary book, Be Here Now:
“In our Western Culture there has been such an investment in the models of man associated with the second and third chakra (sex and power) that we have developed strong and deeply held habits of perceiving the inner and outer universe in these terms. Though we may realize intellectually that the spiritual journey requires the transformation of energy from these preoccupations to higher centers, we find it difficult to override these strong habits which seem to be reinforced by the vibration of the culture in which we live.”
A growing number of men are acknowledging that there is a gap between their cultural habits and the cultural ideal that they would like to cultivate. This has led them to seek out and embrace new spiritual paths, where they are finding tools to overcome the daunting effects of their inherited ideologies. Therapists all over the country are bombarded by men who complain that they feel unfulfilled, empty or unfocused. This is often the result of trying to live up to expectations that are out of line with who they are.
They know that they don’t fit the mold of what they were taught a man is supposed to be. Yet they also don’t know what other options they have. This is why the influence of new spiritual philosophies like yoga have become so important. In his book, Yoga of Heart, Mark Whitwell points out that, “Typically men are only permitted to be male, penetrating, active, analytical and forceful...We in fact have the full range of female/male, yin/yang qualities in us and yearn to express them both. A man wants to be feeling and receptive as well as penetrating.” The very introduction of yoga into the developing collective consciousness of our society has begun to shift our preconceptions about the way things are “supposed to be.”
Men often come to a practice like yoga seeking an alternative fitness option. The challenging nature of asana practice can be appealing to men because of its regimented nature. But many of these men are getting more than they bargained for. Because the core concept of yoga is union, men who are exploring yoga are finding a new template from which to develop a novel mold of masculinity, that not only embraces but treasures both the masculine and the feminine qualities of each individual. They are finding themselves in an environment where they are encouraged to explore their thoughts and feelings.
On the most basic level, they can express their aggressive and competitive side through the challenging strength poses in their practice, and then express their softer nurturing side with the supported restorative poses. From this, however, the potential exists to develop much further, incorporating a vast body of philosophy and teachings that would otherwise remain hidden behind the cultural barrier of East versus West. From Sufism to Kabbalah, Taoism to Zen and yoga, these teachings represent an unparalleled collection of human wisdom which is not tainted by an effort to exert dogmatic control, but rather, to act as commentaries guideposts and observations on the universal human condition.
Hence, in an environment like that of yoga it is safe not only for men to express qualities like vulnerability and contemplativeness, but they can further explore the deeper core of their beings, expressing previously unimagined qualities like grace, ecstasy and transcendence. The transformative essence of a practice like yoga lies in its ability to free men from the imbalance and expectations of traditional masculinity. Separating the masculine and feminine qualities of any human being could be characterized as nothing more than a sorting game that satisfies our desire for order and definition. But in reality, it is a betrayal of the intrinsic humanity in each of us. It denies the whole that every person comprises.
Mark Whitwell goes on to point out the importance of being “a whole person with all our male and female aspects merged and functioning. Life is strong and clear, penetrating and receptive. There is only one energy in the body, the force of life itself.” By suppressing the natural human characteristics that have been characterized by our culture as feminine, men are placing themselves in a permanent state of imbalance that can only hinder the pursuit of union, and result in a feeling of incompleteness and dissatisfaction.
Male sexuality has been another casualty of our culture’s definition of masculinity. From an early age, men are taught that sex and the feelings associated with it are something to be repressed, not talked about. Sexual exploration and experimentation are strongly frowned upon by many of the religious influences that are present in our culture. The result is that sexual needs and desires become a source of discomfort and confusion for many men. As adults, intimacy is sacrificed in order to satisfy sexual desire in whatever manner requires the least amount of emotional engagement, and thus the least challenge to a man’s sense of masculinity.
Here again, spiritual teachings like yoga take a more balanced approach to the topic. Tantric teachings positively address the exploration of natural sexual energies, with these energies viewed as a means to deeper spiritual exploration. Thus, sexual energies, which are some of the strongest impulses we as may experience, can be a sort of spiritual springboard into a place of transcendence. Of course, Tantric philosophy encompasses a huge body of thought, of which its sexual aspects are but a small portion. Our culture has magnified the importance of the Tantric sexual practices out of proportion with the rest of Tantra’s teachings because we are most fascinated by that which is considered taboo or off limits to us.
The important point here is that in Tantra as in other spiritual teachings, sexual feelings and impulses are seen as natural and beneficial, rather than dirty or impure. The focus is on how to direct those energies in productive, broadening ways. Gandhi himself is said to have practiced a version of the Tantric yoga ritual of Mahamaituna, which for him was a non-intercourse sexual meditation and energizing practice.
The idea of transforming the raw energies of our beings and directing them in productive ways is a foundation for many spiritual teachings. In the case of the so-called masculine energies, the channeling of aggression, competitiveness, and relentlessness can all be transformed into productive forces that benefit the individual and society. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali which contain much of yoga’s body of wisdom teach that, “When nonviolence in speech, thought and action is established, one’s aggressive nature is relinquished, and others abandon hostility in one’s presence.”
The yamas and niyamas, which comprise the ethical precepts of yoga, begin with the precept of ahimsa, which means nonviolence, or non-harm in thought, word and deed. Many men live lives that are contrary to this precept, but it is not because they are bad people. On the contrary, they are simply doing their best, living as they have been taught to live, in accordance with our culture’s masculine image of aggression and competition.
Men who have opened themselves to an alternative road, however, are finding that they can devote the same energy toward living peacefully and compassionately with much more productive results. By acting in this way, a man’s self-esteem thrives because he is staunch in his commitment to upholding the principle of ahimsa. When his actions are based on competition and aggression, his self-esteem is in constant jeopardy based on whether he perceives that he has won or lost. When a man is not on the defensive to protect his self-esteem and his sense of masculinity, he is then able to deal more openly and effectively in all the relationships in his life.
One of the greatest hindrances to a fulfilled spiritual life for many men is the fear and discomfort associated with being vulnerable in front of other men. There is a great deal of pressure on American men to hide what they perceive to be weaknesses, and to appear as though their lives and endeavors are successful. This act of keeping up appearances often renders them incapable of supporting and relating to each other.
Culturally speaking, men are expected to give comfort to women, but not seek it for themselves. To seek comfort or to admit pain or weakness is to compromise one’s masculinity. In addition, male hang-ups about sexual orientation and fear of being perceived as homosexual prevent many men from engaging in any type of emotional or physical intimacy with other men. This leaves men with few options to receive nurture and support when they need them. This is one likely reason that men are four times more likely than women to commit suicide, more likely to be involved in traffic collisions, to drive dangerously and to be involved in violent crimes.
Many American Indian tribes had a much more balanced sense of male interaction than what we experience in our culture. They engaged in a great variety of rituals that were centered on male bonding and communication between men. The tradition of the sweat lodge, where men endured cleansing heat together is just one of many example of an activity that was reserved specifically for men. They could communicate on an intimate level in a space that was specifically reserved for that purpose. They entered altered states together, and accompanied each other on profound spiritual journeys.
As a result of the religious and cultural ideals of the European tradition that superceded the American Indian cultures in this country, much of that propensity for male closeness was lost to us. However, the resurgence in interest in not only American Indian traditions but a whole host of other spiritual traditions is helping many men learn how to be intimate with other men in a way that is not threatening to their masculine identity, nor to their self-esteem. At the same time, it is slowly broadening and relaxing the constraints that men face as they work to define themselves in a culture where the time-honored rules are fading away.
It appears that American men are finally arriving at a point where they can feel their way through their spiritual awakening, rather than thinking their way through it. While it is by no means the norm yet, men do have safe places where they can feel, explore and be vulnerable if they so desire.
Men can now embrace a peaceful approach to life without living on the fringes of society. It is possible to live in mainstream culture without subscribing to a homogeneous idea of right and wrong, male and female, good and bad. The opportunity to engage in spiritual pursuits of many varieties is readily available, and they are not mutually exclusive. Opportunities for men to pursue a balance of that which makes them human, rather than the defense of unrealistic, unhealthy notions of masculine identity are abundant. We are all part of a larger whole, not just a higher power, but a part of humanity and all that is. Thus, we are all connected and responsible in part for each other whether male or female, masculine or feminine. In the end manhood is irrelevant. It is humanity that counts.