Sunday, December 04, 2005

Men Don't Cry, or Do They?

When I was growing up, I was told that boys don't cry. I was told that no matter how tired I was, I should suck it up and keep going. I was told that emotions are for girls. I was told that men are tough. I was told that real men don't give in to pain. I was told that success comes through sacrificing myself for my team/family/job. I believed what I was told.

I think many millions of other boys were told the same or similar things. I think many of us have grown up to be driven by success, estranged from our emotions, and unable to define ourselves outside of what we do. Few of us know how to be.

I firmly believe that many of us who were raised with those ideas suffer from a blunted or distorted emotional developmental line. This major element of what makes us human was stunted in its development or distorted by faulty beliefs we inherited from our families. We suffer from this absence.

I have been working on regaining access to the emotional element of my identity. Without it, I am an incomplete person. My own story is complicated by the loss of my father as a thirteen-year-old, at which point I shut down emotionally in the absence of any support for working through my feelings. But even before his death, I lived by the cowboy, tough guy, superhero ethos: show no pain, show no weakness, and show no feelings.

Working on this issue, for me, has been a process of moving backward through my life, experiencing and integrating all the grief and pain I repressed at its origin. It's like peeling off the layers of an onion. It seems endless. It involves tears. In fact, I seek out opportunities to cry, knowing that each time I do I am releasing a lifetime worth of repressed feelings.

I hate it--every damn minute of it. I'd rather stand naked in front of an audience and give a speech for which I haven't prepared. It sucks that much.

I was recently reading a Pema Chödrön book, Comfortable with Uncertainty, and found in the first pages an answer to my distaste for this process. She briefly mentions how we often talk about spiritual awakening (and the process I am working with is a form of spiritual awakening) as a journey to the top of a mountain. The implication is that we leave our loved ones--and everyone else--behind in our quest. At the top we have escaped pain and suffering. The only problem, she says, is that "their suffering continues, unrelieved by our personal escape."

There is another way.

On the journey of the warrior-bodhisattva, the path goes down, not up, as if the mountain pointed toward the earth instead of the sky. Instead of transcending the suffering of all creatures, we move toward turbulence and doubt whenever we can. We explore the reality and unpredictability of insecurity and pain, and we try not to push it away. If it takes years, if it takes lifetimes, we let it be as it is. At our own pace, without speed or aggression, we move down and down and down. With us move millions of others, our companions in awakening from fear. At the bottom we discover water, the healing water of bodhichitta. Bodhichitta is our heart--our wounded, softened heart. Right down there in the thick of things, we discover the love that will not die. This love is bodhichitta.

How different would our lives be if our fathers and mothers had taught us the way of the warrior-bodhisattva? How different would our lives be if we were taught that the only way out of an emotion is through it? How different would our lives be if we were taught that the true warrior is not the strongest or toughest one, but the one with the soft, open, tender heart?

It's not too late for us to learn this path. We have to be willing to experience all the things we have repressed, buried, and avoided. We have to learn to be comfortable with pain, with fear, with doubt, and most of all, with grief. We have to do more than be comfortable--we must embrace these misplaced parts of our lives if we ever hope to be whole.

It's a slow process. Chödrön mentions that we must do it at our own pace, without aggression. I forget this sometimes. I want to push through it and be "healed." I don't want to be patient and let it unfold at its own pace. During weeks when very little moves, I meditate more, spend more time in my journal, or read more books in an attempt to shake things loose. But the psyche is smarter than we are--it only gives us as much as we can handle. When more comes up than we can handle, defense mechanisms shut us down.

If we can master our emotions, learn to embrace our condition as human beings in a chaotic world--if we no longer shield ourselves from our suffering, then we can become warrior-bodhisattvas.

We train in the bodhichitta practices in order to become so open that we can take the pain of the world in, let it touch our hearts, and turn it into compassion.

What if the true measure of a man was not his strength, or his success, or his toughness? What if the true measure of a man is his compassion, his softness, his tender heart?

What if that is how we raise the next generation of young men? What might the world look like when they are making the decisions and running the government?
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