So many men today are in the camp of “I don’t need that touchy-feely stuff. I have real things to get done” when it comes to meditation, mindfulness and their emotional health. I get it. I spent more than 30 years bunking in that same camp! But, guys, I need to talk to you. We have been led down the wrong path in this case. Self-care, introspection and learning to live in the moment are gifts that men have been turning down for far too long.
ABC News correspondent Dan Harris is the author of a book called 10% Happier. In the book, he discusses having a total lockup style panic attack live on the air. It is on YouTube here. If you have ever had a panic attack/anxiety attack, you know how he feels in that moment. But since then, Harris has embraced the benefits of meditation and mindfulness. He explains that guys have three reasons that they do not dive into the lifestyle. “The first is that guys think it’s bullshit – that you have to wear your wife’s yoga pants or chant. The second is that people assume it’s impossible: ‘My mind is too busy.'” Lastly, Harris says that men feel that it is all about being mellow and are afraid that it will rob them of their edge. These three reasons, gentlemen, are horse shit.
Let’s get real for a minute. It isn’t easy being a man today; it can be downright damn confusing. We are expected to be so many things wrapped up into one meat suit. We need to be strong physically and emotionally on cue, we need to be squishy and empathetic on cue, we need to be a good provider, and we need to be a constant presence in the lives of our loved ones. And most of the time, we are expected to switch between these diametrically opposed roles with only super-top secret facial or body language cues to go by! But what if, instead of spending all of our time stressed out trying to figure out what society or your partner wants you to do or say, the role changes just happened naturally? What if we were only thinking about the moment we were in; we were not only hearing the world around us, but were truly listening to the world and processing it? How much easier would that make every day! That is what we are going to talk about here.
Learning to practice introspection and meditation isn’t religion and it isn’t magic. I equate it to my brain going to the gym. It is damn hard work! And if it doesn’t feel like work, you are cheating! Meditation is training your brain instead of your biceps. It is really difficult and painful at first, but it does get easier as the gains get larger.
People are under the impression that to meditate they need to “clear their mind”, to shut down their brain. No. That is not the way to go about it at all. The point is to change what you are focusing on. It is to train your mind to focus on only one thing. Which works great for me because I can only focus on one thing at a time anyway, the rest of my thoughts are just weird random tangents that fly through to distract me! What, am I alone on that? Didn’t think so.
When we are meditating, the sole focus should be our breathing. All we are paying attention to and focused on is the physical sensation of our breath. Slowly, deep breaths in and even slower breath out. When your mind starts to wonder, and it will, to the beat to that song you can’t remember the name of, or the shape of the woman you held the door open for earlier today (we both know it was just so you could check the caboose), reign it back in. Intentionally bring your focus back to your breathing. And when you break off into another tangent, do it again…and again…and again. That is what meditating is. It is a repeated process of acknowledging when your focus is being shifted by your thoughts and gaining the ability to bring your focus back. It is training your mind to focus on the current moment, the right now. And focusing on the present moment is the meaning of “mindfulness”.
Have you ever been out fishing alone when the sun just starts to slip down; the breeze is warm; the water is calm and still in front of you? That feeling of total relaxation and happiness; when your soul feels as calm as the water? You aren’t even thinking. You are simply enjoying the fact that you exist and are here at this particular moment.. That is what it means to be “mindful”. So truthfully, you probably have already experienced it, you just didn’t realize you could train your brain to hold that feeling and focus.
There are a lot of us men of a certain age…ahem…who grew up being told that emotions make you weak and we should just “man up”. So we developed ways to deal with our stress, anxiety and depression like suppressing it until it blows up and explodes from us as uncontrolled rage; or dulling them with drugs or alcohol; or burying ourselves in our job until who we are and what we do for a living become the same thing; or buying a bunch of expensive man toys that go crazy fast. This is the crap that ends up screwing us guys. We need to stop and realize that, sure, there are times when putting our heads down and powering through a barrier is the way to go; but there are also instances when we could use a whole lot more finesse and actually avoid the barrier all together.
Recognizing the appropriate response, being able to focus and not panic, and knowing yourself well enough to use your strengths and weaknesses to your advantage are the keys. Those are lessons we can train into our brain through introspection and meditation. The United States Marine Corps, pretty much the biggest badasses on earth, have begun to include mindfulness methodology into their training to increase their focus, relieve anxiety, and assist with quick decision making. Yeah. If the Marines are training to do it, is it just for sissies or snowflakes? Hell no.
So, if I do this, my life is just suddenly full of unicorns and rainbows; bad luck picks somebody else; and I never get mad again? Remember, this is not magic. Of course there are going to be days when the universe as a whole just seems to want to kick you square in the cajones. The difference will be seen not in the amount of crap that lands on you, but how you react to it. Your external world isn’t going to change immediately, but how you handle the daily grind your decisions will be improved. Hence the quote above from Jon Kabat-Zinn, “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.” It is all about rising up and rising above. The waves which would have crashed and ground us to pulp on the rocks do not have to be seen as just the way it is. We can rise up and use those same waves as opportunities. To put it a bit less eloquently, there are times when our circumstances are going to suck. Embrace the suck.
AT THE END OF THE DAY
We don’t have to give away our balls to care about carrying a sense of happiness and peace with us through our day. We do not need to listen to Gregorian Chants or John Tesh (and in the name of all that is holy DON’T) or walk around barefoot so we can “become one with mother earth”. But we deserve joy in our limited moments on this plain of existence. Mindfulness and meditation have been proven to lower blood pressure; improve focus; improve quality of sleep; increase activity and gray-matter density in the learning and memory center of our brain (the hippocampus); and decrease activity in the fear and anxiety center of our brain (the amygdala). Just like everything that is worthwhile, it doesn’t just get handed to you. There is no pill. You have to do the work. So, guys, let’s roll up our sleeves; devote 10 minutes per day; and start a routine that will have effects in our lives and in how we view ourselves. Let’s take action!