Two fascinating articles in the Fall 2002 newsletter of the Society for the Study of Men and Masculinity (Division 51 of the American Psychological Association).
The first, “Mindfulness as a Useful Adjunct in Therapeutic Work with Men,” by C. Peter Bankart, concerns using Buddhist mindfulness training not only to reduce stress but also to help men become more empathetic, less defensive and less reactive. Bankart’s description of why many men need mindfulness training focuses on our social construction of a stereotyped masculinity beginning in childhood:
Psychologists who spend significant time concerned with the
emotional well-being of men will recognize that escape and
avoidance lie at the heart of much human suffering. Gratuitous
violence, substance abuse, impulsive behavior, extreme risk
taking, compulsive sexuality, relational clinging, and unreflective
narcissism are all culturally sanctioned mechanisms by which
men often learn to evade the flood of sensations, feelings, and
memories that are the raw stuff of human experience.
The developmental origins of this avoidance system lie at least
in part in masculine preoccupation with a one-dimensional
masculinity that has its roots in the comprehensive set of self-imposed rules, proscriptions, and strict social conventions that are vigorously enforced by men on each other, especially during the transition from boyhood to manhood. In various guises this masculine code has been recognized in the literature of social science for more than 50 years. One of its earliest chroniclers was the writer Virginia Satir who summed up its essence in three edicts: Don’t cry, Don’t feel, and Don’t talk about it. American young men are taught from preschool to externalize their feelings, to not dwell on their emotions, and to look down on other men or boys who are too self-expressive or self-aware.
Bankart describes how exhausting it can be to vigilantly maintain this facade, even as it seems completely natural. Mindfulness training focuses on slow and rhythmic breathing to become more fully and calmly aware of oneself and the world in the moment, without judgment.
At the January Adventure conference on St. Simons Island this year, guest speaker Father Richard Rohr described a school that teaches just type of mindfulness training to children. Small children may sit and breathe for just a minute or two, developing an understanding of the practice. Older children may grow into a daily practice of 10-15 minutes of mindful breathing. Can you imagine a world where we taught all our children this practice? Could we start today?