Masculinity, mindfulness and male mental health

Masculinity, mindfulness and male mental health

Strong, driven and tough.  These are the words that come to mind when we think about masculinity (not that women can’t be these things too, of course).  And it’s not just a matter of social conditioning.  One of the most prominent authors on the subject of masculinity, David Deida, reinforces this common view.  David asserts that as men, we naturally align ourselves with a ‘mission;’ we’re driven in a quest for independence and freedom. Yet, today, it seems like a huge contradiction.  12.5% of men in the UK suffer from a mental health disorder, account for 3 of every 4 suicides, are nearly 3 times more likely to become alcohol dependent and consistently report lower life satisfaction than women.  Not quite the freedom we “naturally” strive for.  It seems we men, and many of us, have lost our sense of mission and it’s making us unhappy. 

What happened to our mission and how can we live a happier life?

We enjoy blaming the media.  From the sugar epidemic and our rise in obesity to the over sexualisation of youth.  It’s all the media’s fault.  OK… that might be a gross exaggeration of the truth (after all, we have to accept some responsibility for our choices), but it appears the media is at least partially responsible for the breakdown of men’s mental health too.  Authors on socio-economics, such as Naomi Klein and Joel Balkan, suggest that within our current environment we’re experiencing a state of increased competition and consumption driven by advertising.  As a result, we’re working too much.  There’s been a 15% increase in people working over 48 hours per week.  It seems that the natural male drive and mission for freedom has been hijacked and has become a time absorbing, highly pressurised, materialistic and, ultimately, unfulfilling direction, which leads to misery.  When we feel pressure, we think about the future and live there in our minds.  This often creates anxiety. Similarly, when we give up and quit our mission, we begin to ruminate about the past, leading to depression. The solution is a simple one.  Be present.

The art of living in the now

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The practice of being present is by no means a new idea.  It’s been translated from ancient Buddhist philosophy for a western audience by the Dalia Lama and Buddhist scholars such as Thich Nhat Han.  Canadian author Eckhart Tolle’s book, ‘The power of now’, also attracted an enormous amount of attention in the west and popularised the idea of 'living in the now’.  Tolle teaches us about the benefits of being present for mental health.  Presence and meditation are also themes in the yogic tradition where the term 'dhyana' describes the process of meditation as a state of uninterrupted flow and ideal consciousness.  More recently, American professor of medicine, Jon Kabbat-Zinn, popularised the term 'mindfulness' in the west after studying Buddhist and yogic philosophy.  Put simply, mindfulness is the ability to live in the present through meditative practices. 

How do we cultivate a meditative practice?

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You don’t have to be a monk to meditate.  As with most things in life, it can be as simple or as complex as we choose to make the experience.  Thankfully, in place of robes, socks and sandals, there are so many apps for guided meditation that we can adapt to our modern lives.  There are walking and moving meditations such as the practice of yoga asanas (poses) and chanting meditations (that are ideal for use on public transport and at the office!).  There are many still practices too.  It could be as simple as a popular method described by the Dalai Lama in 'Beyond Religion', where you breathe in while counting to 7 and out while counting to 7.  For a more active meditation Steve Maxwell describes Russian ladders breathing.  It involves slowly increasing the number of steps you take while walking for every breath i.e. 4 steps inhaling, then 4 steps exhaling eventually becomes 5 steps inhaling and 5 steps exhaling, then 6, 7 and onward.

Meditation helps with anxiety, depression and disassociation – all without having to talk about your feelings.

These practices help to bring us back to the present moment.  It might feel difficult or even boring to begin with, but if you can learn to observe your distracting thoughts without judgement and let them go and keep practicing (even just for 5 minutes a day), the benefits are life changing.  Meditation keeps us in tune with our drive, strength and current mission. It brings us back to our natural sense of masculinity.  It supports all areas of health too.  The immune system becomes stronger and the prefrontal cortex becomes enlarged which makes us feel more connected, calm and considered.  The practice of diaphragmatic breath used in meditation also pulls lymph through the bloodstream, which detoxifies our bodies at fifteen times the rate of a non-diaphragmatic breath (perfect excuse for an extra beer at the end of the week… maybe not!). 

Practicing mindfulness has been clinically proven to radically reduce negative mental health symptoms in men (women too).  It helps with anxiety, depression and disassociation – all without having to talk about your feelings (something we men are notoriously bad at).  It’s a guaranteed constant support system too.  As Eckhart Tolle suggests, the present moment is always available to us, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year by simply observing our breath. We just have to reconnect with it. 

'We know that in each of us there is the seed of mindfulness' -Thich Nhat Hahn 

Be present, Ben. 

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Ben Harrison is a London based yoga teacher. He teaches in some of London’s most famed yoga studios including Gymbox, Onestudioldn, Battersea Yoga and Yogahaven.  Ben Harrison's approach to yoga asana focuses on physical alignment and how we can change our mental state by creating change on the physical level.  With a background as a fighter and ultra marathon runner, his approach to yoga is refreshing.  You can find more information about his services here.

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