Over the three days of the Mindfulness Association’s 10th Anniversary Members Conference, I was inspired by presentations, meditations and chats in break out groups. Yeah, there is something very special about being with people who share the worth of the MA teachings, practices and values.
I found the Conference’s first practice on intention and motivation really helpful. These inform my personal practice, the type of work I do and the issues I give time and effort. Over the last couple of years this has brought me to integrate my MA mindfulness/compassion training with learning, working and researching with men and masculinity.
I was delighted to be part of the Mindfulness for Men and Women Session with Fay Adams. I’d like to share some of my reflections on the session, but also what brought me to be interested in masculinity and men’s meditation groups. Maybe it will help you to reflect on your own blocks to being present with kindness and be one of ‘love’s practitioners’. If not, I hope it might give some understanding of the blocks some of us experience and how we are working with them.
The questions posed at the Conference resonated deeply: “how can we come together to make our world a better place, not just for us but for everyone and for generations to come?” I read this and thought about the identification of the subtle blocks to being present, such as the attitudes that lurk in the shadow of the undercurrent that get in the way to being without judgement with myself and others.
Recently, I have been focused on the blocks between men that prevent a better world from coming into being. bell hooks (2001) asserts that “Men theorize about love, but women are more often love’s practitioners”. It begs the questions, how many men, women and children have not felt the love that their hearts have needed to flourish? And what are the consequences of this for future generations?
bell hooks attest’s that evidence suggests that nature has not determined who should be ‘loves practitioners’ rather these differences are learned in a society. So, I am curious. What if men were to consciously learn to be ‘love’s practitioners’, not just for women and children, but for men and all sentient beings? If men found that they were supported, respected, nourished, cared for and held without judgement by men would this create the conditions for a better world for future generations? This is my active hope – teaching mindfulness and compassion to men so that they, and I, might become ‘love’s practitioners’ for future generations.
I’m a strong believer that everything comes from personal practice. For example, whilst my Compassion Training really helped me to turn towards by self-critic with compassion, it was the Insight Training that opened me to feel into the more subtle attitudes informing the critic; anger, envy, pride and ignorance.
In many ways I felt these limiting qualities were related specifically to my experience of trying to live the identity of man. As an academic I had taught feminist perspectives on issues from the local to the global, so I understood that my identity as a man was given to me by the society I grew up in. I had not chosen the qualities that I would value – I was told this is what a man is. This is what he values. This is how he acts. This is how he expresses love …
A pivotal moment for identifying the limiting attitudes that lurk in the shadow of male conditioning involved a chance visit to the Mankind Projects tent at Buddhafield Festival 2018. At an all-male morning ‘check in’ I was both humbled and moved to hear unique stories, every form of emotion and feeling being owned and voiced by 40 diverse men. In my many years of meditations, this was my first all-male circle. This inspired me to sign up for the Warrior Weekend (initiation into masculinity) in the November 2018 with over 100 other men. Here I really felt men as brothers and not competitors, critics or opponents. It has set me on a course.
However, I also really felt that sometimes the men’s sharing at MKP seemed to reify or make solid unhelpful identities. It did not seem to have the same tools and attitudes for letting go of learned qualities/identities that limit potential for kindness to the self and all other beings. In short it was missing the mindfulness, compassion and insight training that I’d felt opens the closed and contracted self, so that it might witness the ephemeral nature of limiting qualities and identities if they are accepted with kindness. And this opening provides an opportunity to see/feel that all sentient beings are interconnected as they do not want to suffer, be excluded or disliked.
I’d shared this with a friend and research colleague specialising in gender studies. Having completed the MBLC and CBLC she understood what I was saying. In light of debates around ‘toxic masculinity’, we agreed that it would be a great research project to ask men with similar training if this had impact on their sense of being a ‘man’. We completed the 10 interviews last year and are now writing this up into a research paper.
Since then I have been part of a number of men’s meditation groups – most have experience of the MA training. We have met twice at Samye Ling. The men’s mindful groups I have been party to bring the openness, non-judgement, trust, warmth, support and love to be open and honest. The collective sharing has enabled me to understand some of the issues that get in the way of letting go and acknowledging diversity and respect for all sentient beings (inter-being). Many of the men participating have also talked about feeling this.
Given my own experience, I was very curious about what would emerge from the Men and Women’s session. It turned out to be was really insightful. I witnessed polarised views and eloquent explanations, both I found helpful.
For some, mindfulness practice had no relevance to being either a man or a woman. What unites us all is that we are beings with awareness, and a focus on difference reinforces and reifies separation and division. For others awareness/luminosity is neutral but the body that experiences all things is not. Here there was an acknowledgement that the body has been disciplined to only feel what social norms have dictated. Thus, gendering the body can be a block to being open to what is going on as it is going on without judgement or preference. There is strong preference to experience because of social conditioning.
In the men’s group – there was discussion of the type of male internal critic as a reflection of men experiencing men as critical and aggressive. There was acknowledgement of having less emotional awareness, an emotional vocabulary or emotional literacy. For some, practicing mindfulness with women had enabled them to explore and to learn an emotional language to articulate what they were experiencing. This was possible in a female dominated environment because men were not threatened by men critical of emotional sensitivity.
However, there was also the acknowledgement that a female dominated group confined men to women’s issues and experiences. This new language and vulnerability also made it hard for men to openly communicate and share with men outside of the meditation group. So, for some men there was a sense of isolation from other men and open expression and communication was limited to female dominated meditation groups. Other men spoke of being intimidated by meditating and sharing with other men – a great insight into the blocks to be open and present with others.
To return to the question “how can we come together to make our world a better place, not just for us but for everyone and for generations to come?” One area I think worthy of attention is creating safe spaces for men to share experiences of meditation and be supported, respected, nourished, cared for and held without judgement by men. They can be a vehicle towards identifying and accepting the fictions of unhelpful attitudes and identities that prevent compassion to all sentient beings. If, and only if, they don’t reify stories and identities of separation.
For me even just discussing the issue of ‘love’s practitioners’ is a form of active hope as it creates the potential for better relationships amongst men, better relations in the community and a glimmer of hope for the generations to come. Perhaps another world is possible.