Aug 23, 2021
Martin Goodson

Men, Masculinity and Mindfulness


Whether it’s toxic masculinity or the infantilisation of men, what masculinity should be remains a contentious issue within the cultural dialogue. Martin Goodson looks at whether the Buddha's teachings can offer any guidance on this issue.

Odysseus, protagonist of the Odyssey


By Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein - Das Homer-Zimmer für den Herzog von Oldenburg. Ein klassizistisches Bildprogramm des "Goethe-Tischbein", ed. Alexandra Sucrow and Peter Reindl (Oldenburg: Landesmuseum, 1994), p. 21. Photographed by H. R. Wacker. Scanned by James Steakley., Public Domain,

In 1990 the American poet Robert Bly published his work ‘Iron John’, a mythopoeic treatise on the maturation process for men as portrayed in legend and mythology from around the world.

In the U.S. it became a sensation; topping the bestseller list for several months and creating enormous interest in an emerging ‘Men’s movement’. There was an explosion of interest with lecture tours, encounter groups and weekend camps in the woods ‘bonding’ with other like-minded males who felt that something had been lost in the process of growing-up from boy to man and was in urgent need for renewal. For many, Bly’s work filled this gap.

The book uses as a foundation the ideas of Carl Jung and his theory of archetypes and how they appear in stories, myths and legends quite spontaneously. Jung also used these stories with his patients not only to contextualise their experiences but as remedies – showing how a way out of problem and difficulty may be sought through them too.

Although the Men’s movement saw itself as a positive response to the feminist critique of the 70’s; the Feminist Movement did not react well to some of the claims of its erstwhile child seeing some of the claims as exaggerated given the ‘man’s world’ we live in.

Notwithstanding this, the notion that ‘men are in crisis’ is a subject that seems to return often in different forms such the concern that boys are falling behind girls at school due to a ‘macho’ culture that sees less value in formal education and more in status amongst peers. In our cities a growing ‘gang’ problem whilst not confined only to the male of the species is seen as primarily arising out of primitive forms of masculinity. Rising levels of depression and other mental health issues, excessive risk-taking and substance abuse have all been seen as symptomatic of this ‘crisis’.

Experts and commentators alike point to various causes such as absent fathers, lack of good role models etc. One comment that keeps coming up for young and old alike is the inability to manage feelings, what is increasingly referred to as ‘emotional intelligence’.

The theory goes that due to an inability and/or reluctance for men to process emotional states such as vulnerability, weakness and fear there is a tendency for these emotions to be expressed aggressively or even violently. The problem is exacerbated because any attempt to provide a remedy is rejected precisely because of this same reluctance.

A recent study by the University of Westminster and the University of East London followed a group of men who are regular practitioners of both mindfulness and meditation to see what effect such practices have on emotional processing/intelligence.

It would be in error to fall into yet another stereotype by typifying all men as ‘primitive’ in their use of aggression as a method of coping with unwanted emotions, or as thinking that being able to articulate emotional problems is ‘unmanly’.

The study points out that men who do adopt healthier coping strategies will cite personal responsibility as a motivating factor – precisely one of the characteristics of ‘traditional’ masculinity.  In other words the self-management of anti-social or dangerous traits within the masculine role is by the employment of better adapted traits linked with the same masculine role.

From a Buddhist perspective this would be a well-known strategy called the teaching of skilful means. 

Another way of understanding this teaching is as Master Rinzai puts it ‘Nothing is to be rejected’.

 It is said that the Buddha converted demons to Buddhism which did not make them any less aggressive rather he put them on the gates of the temples as Dharma guardians. In other words rather than trying to excise aspects of nature that are considered problematical he found a useful place for them; as we may also say ‘a place for everything and everything in its place’.  This attitude arises from a world view that does not see nature as ‘fallen’; all it needs is the occasional ‘helping hand!’

In the Lotus sutra there are a number of parables showing how the Buddha used skilful means to lead people in the required direction, the prodigal son and the magic city being the two best known. He likens his teachings to being a staged process revealing just enough to encourage disciples to reach the next resting place before revealing the next phase of the journey. Thus the development from the Arhat path to the path of the Bodhisattva is born. 

The Buddha was always careful to take into account the capacity of the audience to whom he was talking, their level of understanding and most importantly their motivation for walking the way.

For those who teach meditation and mindfulness it is necessary to keep in mind this point when faced with a varied audience who will no doubt have quite a variety of motivations for being there.

Suffice to say the report found that a regular meditation practice did indeed aid the development of emotional intelligence in this group of men as has been found by a number of studies before.

Perhaps a way forward is not to try to do what some have suggested – to try to eradicate gender differences – something that can be resisted by individual identity; rather to employ more positive (or better adapted) characteristics of the gender role to bring about the necessary change.


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