Do you ever wish you could be experiencing something – anything – other than what you’re experiencing? Sure you have. We all have. We’d like to feel joyful when we feel sad. Or we’d like to feel close to someone when what we feel is distant, or angry. We often spend a lot of energy trying to shift our internal state. And that’s fine for a while, but what if we could stop doing that for a moment? What might happen? This is the basis of mindfulness.
There’s a lot of talk these days about the importance of mindfulness. And for good reason. It’s been proven to help with a whole host of issues. But what is it? And why might it be especially important for men?
On the surface mindfulness can sound simple: it’s just non-judgmental awareness. But let’s break that down, and find out why this simple practice is like the tagline to the board game Othello: “A minute to learn, a lifetime to master.”
Let’s dig in to the second part first: awareness. This means paying close attention to what is happening for you, in this very moment. If there is a pain in your knee, you notice that. If your mind is thinking about how your friend stood you up yesterday, you notice that. If you’re feeling angry, you notice that. Whatever is in your field of awareness, just pay attention to it. Think of it as taking a spotlight and shining it around your interior.
For some people that’s absolutely terrifying! What might you find? Many of us carry around some fear that we are fundamentally flawed. And that if we shine that light in some dark corner we will truly see the twisted golem of our being. If that’s the case can you bring awareness and notice even that thought? The next part of mindfulness – non-judgment – attempts to bring some balance to those negative thoughts you might experience.
The concept of being non-judgmental is a doozy. From a very early age we learn to judge. This thing – be it milk, a smile, or a toy – brings me pleasure and I want more of it. It is good. This other thing – maybe a stomachache, a frown, or a scary dog – brings me pain and I want less of it. It is bad.
And so we live our lives, constantly seeking to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. Judging the world around us, the people around us, on whether we can get pleasure and avoid pain. This is happening all the time, usually outside of our conscious awareness. But when we are mindful we try to just be aware and not label an experience/feeling/thought/memory as good or bad.
As we practice mindfulness we are more able to just be with our experience. We are more aware of what is happening, and more able to accept it just as it is. Which, in turn, allows more awareness to develop! You see, the psyche is a clever beast. It will keep things that we have labeled as extremely bad buried out of our awareness – they are too painful to deal with in the moment. Which is fine, for a while. It’s a good way to get through a difficult situation, especially if you don’t have other tools. But now that you’re older, you do have other tools – perhaps friends, exercise, nature. And the more we are able to just be with our everyday experience, the more those things we have labeled extremely bad are able to come into our awareness.
But if the psyche can keep something buried why excavate it? Wouldn’t it make more sense to just leave it buried, like some nuclear waste? Unfortunately, whatever is repressed leaks out over time, and in unexpected ways. We may feel anger, hurt, sadness, dissatisfaction, contempt and not even know why. But it is rooted in those long ago experiences we think of extremely bad. As we bring non-judgmental awareness to these feelings, they reveal their origins, and we can start to process them and let them move through us, instead of staying stuck somewhere inside.
Additionally, mindfulness allows us more space to choose our response. We inject more and more awareness in the space between stimulus (“that asshole cut me off!”) and response (“I’m going to speed up, cut him off and give him the finger!”). We have more choices about how we want to react.
For men who are quick to anger, this is crucial. For men who are quick to blame themselves, it is helpful too. We can examine our thought patterns, the habits of our minds – whether they be shame, guilt, anger, or blame. Instead of our experiences dictating who we are in the world, we get to choose how we want to react. It is a more skillful way of moving through the world, and in the end, it is way more likely to get your needs met, whatever they may be.
Many men are cut off from their emotional experience. They have zero idea what is going on inside them. This is not because nothing is there – often it’s the opposite. It’s because they are so sensitive, that they had to shield themselves from so much stimulus. Additionally, they received many explicit and subtle messages that said to be a man was to not feel, not show emotion, and not show weakness. Mindfulness allows us men to slowly wake up to the reality of our experience. It allows us to experience whatever is happening and allow it instead of resisting it. It is the friendly thing to do for yourself.
Certainly, we may find sadness, anger, or fear. But by experiencing the reality of these emotions we also find their inverse: joy, contentment and love. We are allowed the full breadth and depth of our experience.
As you may have figured out, as you become mindful stuff may come up – scary, weird, confusing stuff. This is normal. Talk about it with someone you trust. It can also be helpful to talk with a professional during this time – a therapist or spiritual guide.
Think of mindfulness as like a diver, or a small submarine, going all over the large ship which is your psyche. Mindfulness is just checking out all the areas – noticing barnacles, places where the hull might be stressed. Once we have that awareness, a self-repairing function often kicks in. People sometimes say “now what” once they have awareness, like they have to do something with what they’ve found. Just be with it. The way forward will organically emerge. Trust that unfolding. Rest in it.
XY Counseling specializes in working with men, couples and teens. Alexander Warnow, Licensed MFT # 92437, started XY Counseling because he saw a need for men to be supported by other men.