Modern man today does not have the opportunity to come home from hunting and then sit and stare at a fire. The hundred thousand demands of work are followed by the hundred thousand demands of home. His nervous system has not rewired itself quickly enough to catch up with the dramatic change of lifestyle. He still needs space and withdrawal in order to detach from the demands of the day. In solitude, in stillness, he finds his center again.
The primary habit that makes it difficult for contemporary man to take the space that he needs, to return back to himself, is the sense of being overwhelmed by a never-ending torrent of small details that require urgent attention. Of course, dramatic advances in technology just in the last couple of decades have made this feeling immensely stronger. Hardly a few minutes go by without a text, or an email, or a call, or the equally alluring distraction of TV, radio, tweets and Facebook updates and… it never seems to end. Living in a hyperactive world like this can cause us, as men, to feel that there is always another fire to put out. Even when there is nothing immediate to do in front of you, it can still leave you with the continuous feeling of something mildly important that got forgotten. This makes it difficult to take space. The sense of distraction, of small details to attend to, becomes addictive. When was the last time you sat at the gate waiting to board a plane or even sat at a bus stop or in a doctor’s waiting room? These are all opportunities to be still, to feel the environment around you, and to practice pure waiting-being aware. But today, we rarely allow ourselves to do that. Perhaps just like us, small gaps in your day easily get filled by pulling out the smart phone or lifting the lid on the laptop and filling in the few moments of “nothing to do” with finding “something to do.” It’s keeping busy.
It can be very uncomfortable when you finally decide to sit still. Many men say the practice of stillness is very difficult, because when you do sit still and even close your eyes, the rapid movement of attention from one thing to another keeps going, even in the absence of any external stimulus. The key here, when you do make a conscious decision to withdraw from the world and take space, is not to try and make the mind quiet and still, but simply to notice with curiosity and sometimes even with amazement, how wildly the machine is spinning out of control. Simply making this amused recognition will not immediately change your state, but it will return attention to something deeper, something that is conscious and aware and present even in the midst of rapid mental activity. That is pure awareness, and that is the deeper dimension of you calling you home.
Much more than in any previous generation, men today aspire to being fully involved in family life. We want to be loving and caring partners. We are not just interested in seduction up to the point of “getting laid.” Instead, the conscious man has had a taste of a loving and harmonious relationship and wants to go deeper into it. We want to be good fathers as we have felt what it is like to be present and involved. We like it. We want to show up. This aspiration to be a good man, not only in our own eyes but also in the eyes of other people too, creates a relational pull: a feeling of obligation to participate. And so, retreating into solitude or “cave time” can easily feel like self-indulgence or like you are denying other people what they rightly deserve from you.
Many men say that this kind of pull comes particularly strongly when they come home at the end of the workday. A man might tell us his honest truth: he wants some time to withdraw. He has had it with the demands of other people and with the swirling, churning confusion of the world. But as he opens the door, he is greeted by his partner and the excited bright-eyed demands of his children. Now he faces a whole new set of obligations. His partner has also been working all day. Now, caring for children, preparing food, and supervising homework, is part of his duty. The thought of taking 20 or 30 minutes to withdraw from everything and find his center again causes him to feel guilty. Some men turn to alcohol or marijuana or even to other substances to dampen down this feeling of wanting to explode.
The good news is that there is a way out. Simply recognizing and consciously acting on the need for space can work miracles. Take a walk or a few minutes alone to breathe and embrace the stillness around you. Breathe gentlemen, breathe.
From Conscious Men by John Gray and Arjuna Ardagh. You can order on Kindle or as a paperback on Amazon here.