Mindful Men

By Stephen J. Johnson, Ph.D.

This article was published in the July/August 2010 issue of The Los Angeles Psychologist, a publication of the  Los Angeles County Psychological Association. The theme of the issue is:  Psychotherapy and Mindfulness:  Techniques and Theory for Clinical Practice.

I’ve worked as an educator and psychotherapist in private practice for 40 years. In the early days most of my clients were women.  At the time we were in the budding phase of a women’s movement and in the midst of the Vietnam War.  Women were entering therapy by the droves to plumb the depths of their souls and men were either being deployed to the jungles of Vietnam or heading for the hills to avoid the draft.

The combined forces of the war and the women’s movement drove the wedge deeper into an ever-widening generation and gender gap. Estranged from their fathers and distrustful of male authority figures, a generation of men essentially came to the realization that they were unrequited princes in a kingdom without sacred kings. Uninitiated men of any age still felt like boys in men’s bodies.

Unlike the women’s movement the leadership for evolving men did not emerge for another 15-20 years.  But the time finally arrived in the mid-1980s for men to wake up and rise up from the bounds of boyhood and to assume the mantle of manhood. Men’s conferences sprung up around the country, led by elders like Robert Bly, James Hillman, Michael Meade and Robert Moore.  Men were eager to discover what these mentors had to tell and show them about what it takes to become a consciously mature man.
I responded to an inner urging to bring good men together and bring out the best in them.  In 1987 I launched the first Sacred Path Men’s Retreat, and founded the Men’s Center of Los Angeles in 1988.  The Call To Adventure Rites of Passage Retreat for fathers and sons, boys and mentors emerged in 2000.  The retreats over the past 23 years have served as Mindfulness based training camps for aspiring “Spiritual Warriors.”

I had noticed that most of the men tended to shift between states of ordinary consciousness that included lapses into semi-consciousness and deep unconsciousness. I found that men’s minds were full of too much unwanted stuff, and most of them were not able to turn their minds off naturally, freeing themselves from the constant chatter of unnecessary thoughts.

Initially, the men were not cognizant of what was referred to as Mindfulness or super-consciousness.   I define Mindfulness as purposeful attention to what’s so in the present moment with relaxed presence and focused awareness devoid of critical judgment, as in condemnation, but rather utilizing wise judgment, as in discernment. I found that most individuals experience mind-filled-ness rather than Mindfulness.  In fact, many just seem to be mindless rather than mindful these days.

During our states of ordinary consciousness, we often find ourselves overwrought with thought processes and emotions causing reactions, desires, projections and aversions. In this state we are run by our egoic minds and are unaware of simply Being in the present moment.  When we are caught up in a perpetual state of doing, we are possessed by activity that is driven by compulsive and addictive behaviors.

In training men to live in a heightened state of Mindfulness, I have found it helpful to have them engage in certain meditative practices that concretize their experience making it real.  I liken practices as useful tools in a toolbox that they can carry with them.  Having the right tool for the task at hand can be most useful.  Practices are like tools in that they are practical instruments for use in dealing with life’s challenges.

Mindfulness meditation can be performed with open eyes.  It begins with an observation of one’s breath in its fullness, emanating in and out at the tip of the nose. Mindfulness Meditation is not transcendental, but rather allows one to be consciously aware in each waking moment, welcoming, accepting and integrating one’s external world with a relaxed and calm inner world.

At the retreats we teach men how to utilize the Mindful practices of:

1.  Non-Resistance. Men are typically unconscious of their resistance to letting go and just going with the flow. I find that it’s difficult for men to let go or surrender to nothing.  In the early stages of Mindfulness training men need to be able to let go to something else.  So the training begins with how to identify what one is holding onto and why one is resisting letting go of it and surrendering to something better.

I ask men to contemplate some questions, “Are you aware of how you hold on and hold back?  What are you resisting letting go of in your life today so that you could create more space around and within you?  What thoughts fill your mind?  Do you tend to obsess on thoughts that just cause worry, nervousness and anxiety? On the level of your thinking mind do you find a great deal of resistance in the form of harsh judgments, discontent and mental projections?  On the emotional level do you notice an undercurrent of unease, tension, boredom or nervousness?  Both are aspects of the mind in its habitual resistance mode.

2. Refraining. I ask men to notice those times when a tiny negative thought enters their minds attracting other frustrations and irritations like a magnet?  Picking up speed, their minds can become a whirlwind of chaos that ascends to a crescendo of fear, fury or depression.  Anxiety and physical complaints can jump on board, causing unhappiness and hopelessness.  The ego begins to play the victim, groveling in misery.

Fortunately, there is a way to stop this emotional churning. The practice of refraining comes into play when a man is either in conflict or in a situation where there could be problems or potential harm in what he is thinking and about to say.  He then learns to take a deep breath, quiet himself, and get in touch with or listen for his deepest intention.

The intention behind one’s words is even more important even than the words that are said.  One allows oneself to suspend what he might have blurted out and holds it up in his mind to discern what your intention is behind the thought and to ask if the expression of it is: a. Good for you b.  Good for the recipient, and c. Will it hurt anyone?

The practice of refraining goes hand-in-hand with the practice of non-resistance or letting go. Knowing when to refrain and when to let go invites the teaching about not grasping and holding on and trying to control people.

3.  Patience.  Most men are in a big hurry today.  They’re over-busy and lack enough time to get their tasks done, let alone to be able to rest, relax and recreate.  They find it difficult to just wait, to allow things to come to them or to unfold in their own time.  I encourage men to ask themselves: What causes me to become impatient with myself or with others? Is it when I’m trying to get to an appointment and am stalled in congested traffic?  Can I wait comfortably for my meal to be served when the restaurant is crowded and my waiter is tending to many other patrons?  How do I express my impatience with my wife when she’s running late?

The antidote for impatience is to stay focused on the now and not worry about the future, because the future, in fact, is just a series of incremental “nows.”  A helpful Mindfulness meditation practice is to sit comfortably and place both hands palms open, facing up, resting on your thighs and just feel the breath as you inhale and exhale.  Take some deep breaths and on your inhale say the mantra, I am patient, and on the exhale, I can wait.  Performing this meditation for a few minutes can have the effect of making the wait seem shorter and less irritating, perhaps even pleasant.

4.  Stillness. Stillness is crucial to mastering the path of Mindfulness because of the fact that only until a man is able to quiet the noise of his ego-thinking-mind will he be prepared to hear the still, quiet voice of his intuitive soul. By letting go into stillness, a man gives himself permission to slow down affording his nervous system a rest.  When he allows himself to surrender to this extraordinary state of calmness, he creates the opportunity to de-stress and return to balance.

One way to approach silence as a spiritual practice is to remain in a listening mode during silent time.  The still, small voice within might not arise in the form of words – it may come in an idea one had never thought of before, or in the image of something or someone.  It may not even come during the period of silence but perhaps afterwards when one doesn’t expect it.

5.  Solitude. What happens when one enters stillness and is silent for a long period of time?  The outer noise goes first, and then the inner noise starts to evaporate.  Soon, quiet reigns everywhere.  Time slows to a crawl.  Natural, external sounds become occasions for deeper listening and lead to a most profound inner calm.

In such moments as these, men sense the presence of something deep and true.  They enter into their own fullness and are summoned to be more authentically alive.  Somehow the worry and burdens of life drop away as they answer the call to spiritual solitude, to be quietly and intimately with oneself.

Sacred, contemplative time fosters an opportunity for expanded awareness.  In this spaciousness of inward reflection, Mindful men pause from recounting their stories over and over and discover the freedom to live fully in the now, in the space of the present moment.

6.  Discernment. It is important to comprehend the distinction between judgment as in condemnation and judgment as in discernment. The key to discernment is the union of the head, the logical part of us, with the heart, the feeling part of us. It’s when we have an opinion about what we’re observing and categorize it in harsh terms that we’ve entered the painful territory of the judgmental mind.

The process of discernment, when performed with an open heart, allows men to understand, and understanding is the bridge to compassion.  For example, it is possible to discern that we have a preference for people who believe as we do without judging those who don’t.  When we release the judgment habit, we don’t discontinue having preferences, we just let go of the tendency to apply negative labels to the things we don’t prefer. When we judge something or someone, we close off our capacity to learn.  When we use wise discernment, we are open to learn and to grow.

We may not be able to control what lesson life has dealt us, but with the right practices at hand, we have an expanded ability to control how we respond to the challenge. The real opportunity for men today is how to find interior peace, compassion and wisdom within the heart of change as they engage with the exterior world while traversing a Mindful path.