I’ve been thinking a lot about mindfulness recently. Specifically, how the concept intersects with this emerging, new-age redefinition of what it means to be a man.
Of course, my ponderings are not blazing any new trails, here. In 2019, such topics are like Hansel from Zoolander.
So hot right now.
Indeed, amidst all the toxicity and polarization consuming the world, a feverish momentum has materialized, thrusting mindfulness and “manliness” into a mainstream discussion. I know, I know. Such things have been clickbaited, hashtagged, and trended to death. Bear with me.
We hear these terms floated all the time…but what does it mean to be both mindful, and masculine?
You’ll get a different answer depending on who you ask. No doubt, these are some amorphous concepts.
To get where we need to go, reader, allow me to coin a new term, and then overlay it with some history, discoveries from my travels, and peer perspectives. At the end of it all, we’ll hopefully arrive at the crossroads of mindfulness and manliness, subject to the latest and greatest in Wayward Duck wordsmithing hereby known as…
First, where do we dig to uncover the roots of mindfulness?
In a scientific setting, the study and practice of mindfulness is relatively young. Therapeutic applications didn’t emerge until the 1970’s, when clinical studies revealed both physical and mental health benefits from mindfulness-based treatment. To really peel back the layers of mindfulness, we have to turn back the clock, and head to the east.
At its very core, mindfulness is derived from sati, a key pillar of Buddhist traditions, and in its Sanskrit counterpart, smrti.
According to Bryan Levman, writing in the Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, the word sati incorporates the meaning of “memory” and “remembrance” in much of its usage and commentary. Without the memory component, the notion of mindfulness cannot be properly understood or applied, as mindfulness requires memory for its effectiveness.
Decorated Professor of Buddhist studies, Rupert Gethin, writes:
“Sati should be understood as what allows awareness of the full range and extent of dhammas; sati is an awareness of things in relation to things, and hence an awareness of their relative value. […] Sati is what causes the practitioner of yoga to “remember” that any feeling he may experience exists in relation to a whole variety or world of feelings that may be skillful or unskillful, with faults or faultless, relatively inferior or refined, dark or pure.”
While textually magnificent, practically, this is a whole bunch of words requiring more context to actually understand.
Mindfulness is deeply rooted in the Buddhist Culture. In Thailand, it didn’t take a particularly watchful eye for me to see that mindfulness plays an important role in the lives of Thai people. Over 93% are practicing Buddhists, and many begin their study at a very young age.
I learned that novice monks can serve for as short as a single rainy season, or for two to three years, depending on their circumstances. The Buddhist community welcomes young men into the fold, feeding them, clothing them, housing them, teaching them how to read and write, and how to carry out the lessons of Buddha. Such an opportunity provides poor or neglected children with a place to live and learn in peace. Many return to traditional society as educated, peaceful, productive, mindful citizens who continue to spread the teachings of the Buddha, even in their post-priestly lives. Some remain monks for the rest of their lives.
As young men contend with all the plights of entering manhood, in Buddhist tradition, this is coupled with all-encompassing mindfulness training. This happens largely through meditation, which we’ll explore in a bit.
So why does Buddhism feature mindfulness as such a core part of its teachings?
The five faculties, the five powers, the seven awakening-factors, the noble eightfold path, the attainment of insight, the Wheel of Dharma – these concepts are all centered around bringing one’s attention to experiences occurring in the present moment. Forgetting how, when, where, and why, and simply remembering to just be. This, in essence, is what mindfulness is all about.
It’s a bit difficult to reconcile. The idea that mindfulness is a vehicle running on both memory and the removal of it, is all a bit paradoxical. So, let’s check out another example on the other side of the globe.
How has mindfulness shaped our world?
While Buddhism surely fathered mindfulness, it cannot claim complete dominion over the practice.
Indeed, one need only other consult other major religions to find echoes of mindfulness transposed over their respective texts.
When I go to Honduras, I share time and space with extraordinary people living in some of the world’s poorest, most underserved communities.
As I spend time with them, I can’t help but be in awe of how much these people have without maintaining what society traditionally deems as valuable. Yes, this is clichéd to death in the world of benevolent voluntourism, but I really can’t describe it any other way.
Happiness, love, duty, inclusion, and, of course, mindfulness. You won’t find many iPhones in the communities I visit, but you will find an abundance of these things.
What you won’t find is practicing Buddhists.
A devout Christian, Angel is one of the Honduran men who will always welcome me into his home, without exception, sharing in his and his family’s abundance. I break bread with him (or in this case, tortillas!), help out on his farm, and am always eager to revel in his dreams and aspirations for a brighter future, for his family and community.
Before meals, or while discussing dreams, he will usually take a moment to pray.
I do this with him, too.
“Si Dios quiere”
Angel often leans on this, a phrase you hear uttered across Latin America. Translated as “if God wills it”, at its core, these words are a resignation of control to a higher power within the present moment. While not a perfect parallel, in many ways, it embodies exactly what the Buddhists are after – a reminder of one’s position within a greater collective, amidst a whole mess of forces we can’t begin to understand.
As a man and a human, part of a community and of a greater whole, prayer (like meditation) provides Angel the means to channel his presence into the moment, while remembering that which preserves his sense of self.
While more objective in Buddhist settings, traces of mindfulness can be found across religions and cultures the world over.
But heck, Jack. I can’t get myself to go to church on Sundays, much less spirit myself away to the east and convert to Buddhism, so…
What does mindfulness mean for me?
The hard truth is that no one can really answer this surefire. True mindfulness is borne not from scientific study, religious text, or blog posts (heh). It’s not so easily rendered into tangibility. No, instead, it is something more abstract, borne out of ongoing, conscious, sustained effort that only you can realize.
(Yes, I’m mindful of my abundance of clichés, hopefully you don’t mind that this post is full of banalities…I’ll stop.)
As I looked to answer this question for myself, I sought out the soul that I most trust with all things mindfulness-related.
Colin, or Sat Randhir Singh, is one of my very best friends. A massage therapist and Kundalini yoga instructor by trade, he is my go-to outlet for all things spiritual, speculative, and existential.
From lazing away our youthful summer days, playing wallball and loitering about our local pool, to ascending into manhood, as much as our journeys have been shared, they are equally distinct.
Colin contended with an array of challenges as a young man. A traumatic surgery, struggles with anxiety, temptation, and vice, his journey led him on a path of self discovery – largely around that of the body/mind connection. In 2017, after a life-affirming meditative experience while training to become a yoga instructor (documented in his blog post, here), he was given the name Sat Randhir Singh, which translates to Warrior of Truth.
One of the many truths that Colin promotes is the power of mindfulness:
“Mindfulness is a choice that begins when we realize we have the power to profoundly shape and influence our reality, when we start to consciously reflect on our identity by seeking to understand where ‘we’ begin, and where external influence ends”
This truth is one that Colin helped me to discover for myself.
I was always skeptical of yoga, meditation, and all that wonky, hippy-dippy stuff. It felt beneath me, I think, or maybe far above me. Hard to tell. Either way, I had contained myself in a preconceived worldview that prevented me from seeking out mindfulness, or even considering that I needed to be more mindful.
More than anything, a perceived inaccessibility of yoga/meditation culture kept me at bay. That all changed one evening in my basement after a particularly stressful day, when Colin floated the idea of leading us through some basic Kundalini yoga practice.
I responded to his suggestion with a smirk and a shrug. Meditation? Chanting? Deep breathwork? Sitting in silence? It all seemed silly.
Boy, was I wrong. After just fifteen minutes of some simple exercises, my worldview had flipped entirely. I felt completely centered, devoid of outside distraction, wholly contained within myself. More than anything, I felt aware. I remembered my existence within a much larger apparatus, of my place, of my power and control over my feelings.
The Buddhists had it right all along. Go figure.
A methodic blend of deep stretching, breathwork, and meditation, Russell Brand calls Kundalini the “crack cocaine of yoga” for good reason. As Colin more eloquently puts it:
“Meditation is best performed after clearing and energizing the body with yoga, as it was originally intended. The mind cannot be fought with the mind but must be bypassed with the breath and by tapping into the intelligence that dwells in every cell of our bodies. Somatic awareness and corporeal intuition achieved through yoga compares to the comprehensive ability of the mind as the ocean compares to a bucket of water.”
Sitting on my mat, dumbfounded, with a buzzing sense of inner peace, I remember thinking to myself “good grief, a lot of people need this type of healing…especially men.”
What makes a mindful man?
Colin and I love to wisecrack about Jason Wilson, an author and teacher of young men, who takes a particularly animated approach to his preachings of mindfulness.
Wilson’s unfiltered displays of emotion helped him go viral on Instagram, which he leveraged into his first book: Cry Like a Man: Fighting for Freedom from Emotional Incarceration.
The title of the book perhaps tells you what you need to know about him. While Colin and I find fleeting humor in his raw, sometimes dogmatic approach to mindfulness and manliness, it is rooted in a shared respect for the battle he’s fighting.
We need not recount the history of toxic masculinity that has consumed our world since, well, forever. What sometimes gets lost in the discussion is that, while women bear the full force of the patriarchy, men are victims, too.
From a young age, our culture teaches us to be strong, confident, steady-handed, and guarded. We are expected to deliver, and to do so without confronting emotions that would otherwise make us un-manly. These societal pressures are sticky. Much like young women are expected to look a certain way, to act passively, to serve, and to be the emotional breadwinners, sons are taught by fathers to supplement this framework in kind, continuing in a generational cycle.
The good news is that the tides are shifting – we are breaking free from the mold. The most important part of this shift is women claiming their power. As men, we must rethink our’s.
Another one of my best friends, Brendan, is by most definitions an everyman’s guy.
Cool, confident, charming. The winning smile, the backwards hat, the tat’s, the killer crossover on the basketball court. Whatever it is, he’s got it.
Behind the man, there was a struggle that many other men will identify with. His journey was riddled with anxiety, stress, and the like, before he turned to meditation. He graciously, candidly elaborates:
“Transcendental Meditation has touched every part of my life – socially, at work, and everything in between. For the longest time I thought I had to coast on and suffer through, but now in many ways I feel as though I have my life back. Honestly, the benefits were instantaneous, and moved me to tears because of how profound my experience was.”
As men, we have such incredible capacity to feel. For too long this capacity has been filled with toxicity, a word so ingrained in the concept of masculinity that it’s hard to imagine the latter without the former.
It’s time we take ownership of what it means to be masculine, and our unique mindfulness therein.
It’s time to embrace Men-fulness.
Yes, we need to remain confident, strong, and aggressive. Confident in expressing our emotions. Strong in our pursuit of a just world. Aggressive in the betterment of ourselves and of our fellow man. As Brendan puts it:
“Manliness is recognizing your flaws and bettering yourself thereafter. Meditation has helped me break down those barriers that, before, hampered me from growing and ultimately leading my best life as a man.”
A sentiment echoed by Colin:
“Part of the reason men are so unhappy today is because they are addicted to the analytical, logical, and left-brained mind. A coldly calculated life is not a joyful one to live. The natural proclivity men have towards the logical must be tempered with the warmth of emotional intelligence and intuition that all men have within, which most men suppress because they deem it feminine or weak. Meditation and mindfulness empower a man to master himself first by fully knowing and accepting all the facets of what makes him who he is.”
I’m not here to preach – there’s no singular silver bullet. Prayer, yoga, meditation, sitting by yourself silently for an extended period, there are many roads, but just a single destination. Consider adopting a practice to get yourself there – to get to true mindfulness.
And for my fellow men, consider how your mindfulness might coexist with your masculinity.
I’ll leave you with a prayer that Colin shared with me from 3HO Men’s Camp (a male-only retreat that features five days of yoga, meditation, workshops, and expanding consciousness. Men-full AF).
You are the Men of God. May you recognize it.
You are the Men of the Universe. May you deal with it in the light of God.
You are Men to be Men. May you feel the pride of it and be in grace.
You are the Men of success. May you accomplish it.
You are the Men of self, light, and respect. May you understand it.
You are the Men of merits. May your virtues be known.
You are the Men of knowledge. May your compassion be known.
You are the Men of absolute determination. May your kindness be known.
May you be Men whom the world, the Earth, the Universe, may be proud of.