How Mindfulness Helps to Liberate Masculinity

A conversation about empowering men through a courageously expansive (and compassionate) vision of what it means to be a man.

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Edward M. Adams and Ed Frauenheim are coauthors of Reinventing Masculinity: The Liberating Power of Compassion and Connection (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2020). Adams is a psychologist, founder of Men Mentoring Men (M3) and former President of Division 51 of the American Psychological Association, the division focused on the treatment of men and boys. Frauenheim is a writer who has focused on organizations, leadership, and society for more than two decades, also cowriting such books as A Great Place to Work for All. Ed also cofounded the Teal Team, which helps organizations evolve into more democratic, purpose-driven, soulful places.

Mindful: To start right at the beginning: Can you explain a little bit about the origins of the term “confined masculinity” and why you chose that word to use in your book, instead of “toxic masculinity”?

Adams: Both Ed and I decided early on we really don’t like that term, because it seems to implicate all men, and shame men for being men. The issue isn’t toxic masculinity. The issue is how our idea of what it means to be a man is so limited. The best word to describe that is “confined.” I remember going to the Philadelphia Zoo and watching a lion just pacing back and forth in this small cage, and how it evoked in me a sense of dread or anger or something. It’s like a poor thing, you know? It can’t go anywhere. And then we began to describe how it’s confined. You know, first of all, what beliefs has the social research literature demonstrated to have typically confined men in the past and in the present? 

Frauenheim: One of the thing that I liked about the term “confined” is that it came out of Ed’s psychology understanding, because we’re borrowing the term from a psychologist named Morita who talked about the “confined self” and how that tends to be an unhealthy self, tends to be self-absorbed. The alternative was an “extended self.” We didn’t like the idea of extended masculinity, which had kind of some kind of x-rated characteristics [laughs], but we landed on this “liberating” term as a way to say, “let’s break out of that confinement.” It’s sort of at the root of what can be toxic behaviors. You could say that when men are in a cage, like Ed talked about, they are in trouble. A lot of unhealthy behaviors or attitudes develop. It also captures this way in which we think we’re so separate from each other in Western culture, especially I think this idea that we have to be a “self-made man,” like an island or a rock.

Mindful: Unlike “toxic masculinity,” it seems that “confined masculinity” avoids blaming individual men for the ways that they’ve been socialized to be successful in society.

Adams: The idea of confined also allows us to appreciate the traditional roles that men have played, like protector and provider. Those roles have enormous value, but they have been too confined, too limiting. Most men perceive “protecting” as something like “I’ll protect my family, I have a 357 Magnum right next to the bed, and god forbid somebody enters this house.” Then, to provide is typically looked at as having an economic fluidness. And there’s enormous value in that. But providing is also providing emotional warmth, providing availability, being present with people you love and taking care of your community and the earth. Protecting has something to do with being able to protect yourself and your immediate family from emotional distress or traumas. So our goal was to take those traditional roles and ask, “why are they being perceived in a way that’s so narrow?”

Mindful: In the book, you talk about not only those traditional male roles, but also some emotional qualities. Like where you talk about compassion, and the idea that there are more “feminine” ways and more “masculine” ways to express compassion, but they’re both compassion.

Adams: Compassion requires enormous guts and courage, because it forces you to actually witness and experience the suffering within yourself and others. I am old enough to have lived through the Vietnam era, and every night on TV, you would see the reporters were on the front lines and you saw Vietnamese as well as American soldiers getting shot or lying there bleeding, and you would hear the bombs and so on. This evoked a great deal of compassion in the American public, who witnessed it, which helped end that war. But if you look at something like the war in Afghanistan or Iraq, what we were showing were images of computer games with a target in focus. And then you’d see a puff and you didn’t see the people who were crying and the people who were bleeding. It created an emotional distance from the suffering. And that was intentional because the government learned from the Vietnam War that if you show what’s actually going on, it’s going to change the complexion of the public’s opinion. Being compassionate is a truly courageous act, because it’s no longer avoiding reality.

Compassion requires enormous guts and courage, because it forces you to actually witness and experience the suffering within yourself and others.

Frauenheim: Compassion is a human trait, it’s a man’s birthright. It’s part of being primates. It’s really wired into us, and we’re calling on men to identify it and proudly talk about it, explicitly. From my perspective of studying the workplace, compassion is needed to be emotionally intelligent, emotionally vulnerable, to create psychological safety, to succeed at work today. And it helps men live a full life, a bigger life, when we can see that compassion is ours as human beings.

Mindful: I’m curious how you see these new, more liberated masculine traits kind of helping to transform workplaces and make them more equitable, more sustainable.

Frauenheim: I think when men are willing to be mindful, when they’re willing to pause and be a bit more about presence as opposed to action, that builds self-awareness—and that self-awareness is vital today to recognize privilege and the ways in which the workplace has not been equitable for all employees. It helps us start realizing, well, maybe we need to take some steps to distribute power more equitably, to make sure people can achieve promotions in fair ways, and to really look at bias. So that’s a piece of it. And so is what we were just talking about, the willingness to be compassionate and vulnerable and emotionally intelligent. Because that’s what we’re realizing workplaces need to be successful, as proven in data from Amy Edmondson’s work at Harvard on emotional and psychological safety.

The COVID pandemic has proven it dramatically more powerfully with everyone realize that it’s OK not to be OK! We’re all kind of wrestling with the emotional well-being when we’re stuck in our houses for a month, for a year, practically. I credit Ed’s wife Marilee Adams who helped us use this phrase, “Soft skills are success skills today.” And these soft skills are really what this new liberating masculinity is incorporating into the male ethos. Things like compassion, connectivity, vulnerability, mindfulness, really letting yourself become more mindful, aware of what you’re feeling and who you are in the world.

Mindful: It seems to me that men in particular may be having certain kinds of struggles with staying at home and the sense of losing control that we’ve all had to face and process.

Adams: The impact of COVID and all of its implications have been relatively gender free. Both sides are suffering, you know? Both are making compromises. Both are improvising in ways that we haven’t had to improvise before. We’re parenting or being in relationship with each other in ways that we haven’t had to before.

Frauenheim: To make one little caveat: Something I’ve seen from the workplace is that there have been more burdens put on women as caregivers during this time. There’s a lot more women who have left the workplace than men, for example.

Adams: One of the things that I noticed clinically is that with people being in such close proximity to each other for such extended periods of time, it’s putting a strain on emotional skills. So those who are reasonably well equipped to have good, deep conversations once in a while, or to face life issues or to talk about what they need or want—they’re faring better than those who are with each other and either afraid to talk about those things, or get angry when they talk about those things or feel blamed or feel uncomfortable in that territory. Generally speaking, women have had more tolerance for emotional talk and emotional interaction. It’s not that men are incapable of that. It’s just that they haven’t learned it before. In the book we talk a lot about Men Mentoring Men (or M3), which clearly demonstrates that men are hungry and eager for and quite capable of going very deep and emotional, being very vulnerable with each other. But they have to learn it. Men typically haven’t had that experience within their families.

The poet Robert Bly said, “When a group of men get together, can some form of violence be far behind?” Not just the potential for physical violence, but for shaming or being put down and so on. But when men find themselves in a safe environment and become convinced that it’s safe, boy, they can really let it rip! They want to go there. They’re capable of that. It’s not like there’s some kind of brain matter that’s missing. It’s just the opportunities have been missing.

Mindful: In terms of growing more comfortable with emotions and vulnerability, what kinds of mindful mindfulness practices or teachers have you found are most helpful in the context of liberating masculinity?

Frauenheim: For me, yoga has been a major one for me that has included a mindfulness and a spirituality element, as well as a meditation practice I learned from a psychiatrist I saw for a time about anxiety issues, and that’s been very helpful to me. I would say that the workplace is becoming a more mindful place, especially here in this pandemic, where we’re now leaders and organizations and everyday employees are realizing we need to do things like check-ins and see how we’re doing, being mindful of each other and using things like breathing exercises and mini meditations to start meetings. I’m hopeful that we are all realizing the power of mindfulness to really build better workplaces, better personal satisfaction, and ultimately a better world.

Adams: I deeply appreciate the work of Ellen Langer. Most people associate mindfulness with meditation, and that’s not untrue, but her way of looking at things mindfulness is paying attention to things that are different or unique, or paying attention to be other-than-mindless! She talks a lot about mindlessness and going through life that way.
Paying attention has practical application in everyday life, not just in meditation. I gave blood about two weeks ago. I was watching the way they were interacting with me and the other people donating. The woman stabbed me twice, couldn’t get into a vein, and then she put something in her computer and said to me, “You’re done.” I said, “I’m waiting to give blood.” She said, “I put the wrong code in the computer,” and that was the only explanation I got. So I was a little ticked off. It made me think about the need to validate people who are acting compassionately, to recognize that what they’re doing is making a contribution.

Frauenheim: What I love about these examples is the connection between mindfulness and awareness of how your behavior affects others, how you’re showing up in the world. We really are calling for men to develop a much grander global consciousness that, I think, is about our role here. We’re not the most important person in the room, which we often think we are. And I think mindfulness can help us get to that situational self-awareness.

Adams: One of my art mentors, his name is Alok Hsu Kwang-han, he’s a Zen Buddhist artist. I took from him these four things that I preach, in one way or another, with the people I treat: to be present, to be available, to be playful, and to be not-knowing. I just love those four things. In times of stress, times of COVID, how can we become more present, more available, more playful? Not-knowing means more of an open mind—not prejudging, being mindful rather than mindless.

Mindful: I really liked where you talked about the five C’s: curiosity, courage, compassion, connection, and commitment. We’ve touched on compassion a little bit. What do the other C’s have to do with reinventing masculinity?

Frauenheim: It’s interesting, we did those five C’s and I’ve started doing some workshops about reinventing masculinity, at work in particular, and I’ve already added a sixth C, which is contemplation. That’s explicitly about mindfulness. We talked about, especially under Commitment, that this is part of how you’re going to make progress and stick with it: This journey toward liberating masculinity is through a contemplative practice. And I feel really strongly, and I think Ed does, too, that this is a really important part of how men are going to advance, to make space. That might be through journaling, meditation, yoga, other kinds of spiritual practices or prayer. For men, we’ve been so much about doing and achieving, but just being and paying attention to the journey is something that we have not acknowledged enough. I think calling that out, whether it’s the commitment ‘C’ or adding one, is really important. And we’re seeing more and more men embrace these things, which I’m really hopeful about.

Adams: The curiosity ‘C’ has something to do with the not-knowing I was talking about before. It’s like wondering. “I wonder what you’re thinking right now. And I wonder what Ed’s thinking right now. I wonder I wonder what my wife may need from me a little bit later.” To wonder is a state of mind that keeps you emotionally intelligent. It’s the theory of mind idea that you stay curious about who’s showing up right now. Like, what man is needed right now? The tender me, the forceful me, the playful me—who’s needed? And that requires the curiosity part.

To act on this takes the courage, often to step out of one’s more mindless role of just rote behavior, and to have the courage to deliver what’s needed, from the man who is needed in that moment.  I dream of the day when qualities of compassion are seen as manly. With the notion of connection, what we’re trying to do is expand from compassion. Maybe the better term is interconnected: how vitally reliant we are upon each other. Then, the last one being commitment to change—to use these awarenesses, this mindfulness, to make a commitment to act with curiosity, courage, compassion, and connection, in a variety of different ways, wherever we find ourselves.

Frauenheim: I love what you said about the interconnectedness, Ed, and that just sparked for me how we talk in the book about seeing ourselves as connected to the earth. For thousands of years, we’ve really seen ourselves as masters of the earth or controllers of the earth. I think there’s a real opportunity for mindfulness practices that include natural settings or reflecting on nature, like how forest bathing is taking off during the pandemic. This idea of really paying attention to the plants living around us, the trees. My son wants to study redwood trees. There is a real opportunity, I think, in our growing appreciation of our connection to nature, not just our separateness from it, but our interdependence, interconnection, and the need to expand our consciousness by reflecting that we’re part of this system. We’re not the boss of it, or about trying to wrestle it to the ground. We’re connected to the ground.

Mindful: We’ve talked a little bit about men’s role in the workplace already. What are some ways that men can welcome change into their lives with their families?

Adams: You know, I had a session this morning with a man who was a military officer and he has five children, one of whom is severely disabled, and he had that child very early in his life, so he stepped right from being a son to being a responsible father of a disabled child. And so he found a way to cope with that by being pretty linear—We’ve got to do this, we’ve got to do this, we’ve got to do this—and kept his kids and his wife sort of in a regiment. He came to therapy having read the book and he said, “what I’m doing isn’t working for me.” He’s really having the courage to make dramatic changes.

For example, he would have a discussion with his wife about something important, but he’d do it in his office where he was behind his desk and she was in front of his desk, more like a business meeting. Once he and I had talked, this man and his wife needed to deal with some issue. And he said, I invited my wife. When I sat in front of my desk, I put a chair so that I could face her. And he took her hand, and he assured her that what we’re about to talk about is in no way about his unwavering love for her. He was using that language. She was blown away, and so they had this conversation. Then she said, “what’s that thing on your wrist?” He said, “I put this here, and I’m never going to take it off, because every time you look at it, I want you to know how much I love you. And every time I look at it, I want to remember how much I love you and owe to you.” To this day when we have sessions, I keep looking to make sure he has it on, and he always does. And with his children, he said to me this morning, “I sat my two daughters down and I told them that I’m no longer going to be tracking their progress as if it’s like a flight, but I’m going to pay a lot of attention to what you guys need and want and what you’re experiencing.” So he’s shifting from being the director to being an affectionate, warm, human being. He’s thrilled with himself, because it’s paying off enormously. One thing he said is that “I think it’s changing from, ‘oh, God, Dad’s home’ to ‘oh, good, Dad’s home.’”

Frauenheim: I just experienced this in my parenting the other day—I was picking my daughter up from her soccer tryouts and it was unclear exactly where they were trying out, I had I never parked the soccer field before, so I wandered out of the soccer field trying to see my daughter Skyla. And she was livid at me, because I was like the embarrassing dad who didn’t know where to pick her up. She’s 16. And she’s like, “I hate you so much for doing this. Why can’t you be like the other dads?” And so I was triggered by that, you know? I’m like, how can you get mad at me?! I’m here picking you up to safely guide you home! But this is part of my practice of recognizing that anger rising in me, and taking a breath and kind of stepping away. The two of us walked kind of separately, the equivalent of several blocks back to our car, and I think I was able to make space for her feelings and be more empathetic. I’m not sure I would have done that a couple of years ago, before we wrote this book, to really be aware and use those practices of reflection and pausing, noticing emotional reactions, and then making space for a more productive response. And not just productive, but caring and loving.

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