Every day in my practice I speak to patients about the significant role that stress plays in our lives. We discuss the tendency toward an overactive ‘fight or flight’ response within the nervous system and its downstream effect on nearly every other part of the body. We are constantly “fighting the bear” (usually many bears) throughout our waking day, and too often that evolves into broken and aggravated sleep at night. Most people, both men and women, can acknowledge this trend in their lives, but it is quite another thing to figure out what can be done about it. At least partially due to cultural gender roles it can be more difficult to access these issues for men, who often do not have the emotional support, training, or community with which to consciously navigate this field.
Of course, it is obvious that there are many shades of the individual man, not all of whom have difficulty accessing their mental/emotional state of being. Still, there is little discussion around these issues for most men, especially those of the baby boomer generation. Understanding that, let’s ride the stereotype here, in hope that each person may be able see at least a small piece of themselves within it, and from there be able to grow. Much has been written on what it means to be a man in modern America. For more in depth discussion, I recommend Susan Faludi’s Stiffed and Robert Bly’s Iron John
Why Bother with Mindfulness?
As chronic stress has been shown to have negative effects on so many body systems, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that any method that can reduce stress will improve many parameters of health. At this point there is a vast amount of medical research in the field of mind-body medicine, showing beneficial effects of numerous mindfulness techniques for the treatment of medical issues ranging from high blood pressure to anxiety/depression, and back pain to sexual dysfunction. Actually, there are very few disease states that have not seen at least some degree of improvement with mindfulness interventions. It literally changes how your brain works. Numerous studies point to improved productivity at work, by way of measurably enhanced cognitive function and increased overall efficiency. And the effects even go beyond your own body. A 2015 study showed that among single people, “women were more attracted to men higher in dispositional mindfulness, beyond the effects of physical attractiveness.” With all this evidence, the question shouldn’t be if, but how.
What Does It Mean to be Mindful?
If we look to Miriam Webster, mindfulness can be defined as “the practice of maintaining a nonjudgmental state of heightened or complete awareness of one’s thoughts, emotions, or experiences on a moment-to-moment basis.” Seems easy enough, right? After all, we’re always thinking about something. Actually, it’s more likely to be a handful of things all at once. So an oversimplification might be something like, “feeling how you feel.” It’s paying attention to what’s on your mind in the present moment
Is Mindfulness Compatible with Manliness?
For many men, mindfulness invokes a certain image that makes them a bit uncomfortable – yoga poses, chanting circles, and a general sense of woo-woo spirituality. A few decades back, the folk singer Utah Phillips poked fun at the growing new age men’s movement, describing them as “caterwauling in the wilderness…flailing away at drums…and dragging their scrotums through the underbrush.” To some degree, the stereotype still sticks, though you only have to look at the medical literature, as well as popular culture, to see that mindfulness for both genders has certainly hit the mainstream. Indeed, even Veterans Affairs is on board. There are numerous mindfulness therapies being used at VA hospitals across the country, the most fascinating of which are bringing significant life-saving relief to patients suffering from the crushing effects of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Being a Mindful Man
Given the stereotypical male “aversion to feelings,” I believe that there is a tendency to emotionally dumb down the mindfulness discussion, or dismiss it outright. Instead, it’s important to meet men where they are. Consider this idea of “awareness.” If we look to evolution, the awareness that is vital to being a man is a focus on the external. Looking out for enemies or predators, and ensuring the safety of the tribe were among the “male duties.” Mindfulness is an internalization of that attention, toward the battles that are being fought within our own minds.
The notion of “fierce compassion” fits well into what it means to be a mindful male. There is no sacrifice of strength – quite the opposite. Think of the comradery within an army platoon. Or the many individuals who stood with Martin Luther King in resistance against race inequality. The heart of this work is in being aware of anger and fear, and eventually reframing them into a more beneficial and productive purpose.
In the office we explore individual roadblocks and apprehensions, both external and self-induced. The first step is the simple act of creating some space for mindfulness in your life. Take a few quiet moments to ask yourself how you are feeling. In that moment. In your life in general. As men, our general tendency is to try to solve problems. In this case, worry less about the solution, and just allow the feelings to be present.
There are so many avenues and techniques within mindfulness practice. There is no right answer, only the openness to explore. For further information, check out the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn, professor of medicine and creator of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at University of Massachusetts. It can also be as easy as starting with a mindfulness app on your cell phone.