Men, Psychology & Spirituality in a Shame-Based Society

December 1, 2001

John Welwood’s article[i] offers a thoughtful discussion concerning the conflicts inherent in an attempt to integrate Western psychology with Eastern spirituality, as well as the common pitfalls awaiting those on a spiritual path. He also details the ways in which spirituality and psychology can work hand-in-hand in an individual’s spiritual development. My professional area of interest concerns the psychological and spiritual issues confronting men in our society. I began to wonder how Welwood’s perspectives illuminate the struggles that men have as a whole and the specific challenges facing men on their journeys of psychological individuation and spiritual development. I will review some of Welwood’s key points on these issues as I discuss my personal views on the challenges facing men as they attempt to transcend the obstacles of our shame-based society to make connections within themselves, with other men, and with their spirituality.

Dr. Stephen Johnson, an elder in the men’s community and a mentor, has recognized, in his over 30 years as an educator, therapist and spiritual teacher, the need men have for connectedness. As he states: “There’s a longing within men, a desire to go inside as well as to reach out to one another. They may not fully comprehend the need but they quickly discover that when they come together in the presence of other men, it feels good. When they leave, they walk away with something that they’ve been able to touch that perhaps they didn’t even realize existed before.”[ii]

Welwood’s description of the mystical forms of spiritual practice aptly describe my experiences with other men on the spiritual path. He says: “Spiritual practice, especially of the mystical bent, looks beyond our conditioned structures, identifications, and ordinary human concerns toward the trans-human—the direct realization of the ultimate. It sees what is timeless, unconditioned, and absolutely true, beyond all form, revealing the vast open-endedness, or emptiness, at all root and core of human existence.”[iii]

This sort of “vast open-endedness” can be experienced, at least to some degree, through ritual, ceremony and various forms of practices. These rituals, ceremonies and practices, which are conducted by a limited number of small groups of men around the country, have their roots in many cultures including, Eastern, African and Native American. The men who participate recognize the essential quality of these practices and the connection these ways have with the spiritual. Welwood points out that “Asian societies have maintained the sacred at the center of social life. A culture that provides individuals with shared myths, meanings, religious values and rituals provides a source of support and guidance that helps people make sense of their lives.”[iv]

One important ritual that helps boys make sense of their lives is an initiation into manhood, a road map to their inner masculinity.“The word ‘initiation’ means to ‘enter’ or ‘start,’ so initiation is the starting point, not the end point, for the adventure of living. The goal of initiation is spiritual awakening. If a young man finally feels competent around other men and in himself about his manhood, he has been initiated into the cultural ideal of masculinity.”[v]

In our country, during the industrial revolution of the late 1800’s to early 1900’s, a seismic shift occurred economically, socially and culturally. For men and their sons, and consequently for society as a whole, this shift proved catastrophic. “Men left their homes to seek work many miles from the common thread that historically united grandfathers, fathers and sons. This was a tribal thread that had once woven the males into the fabric of lineage of men that had come before them. Older men had always initiated the younger boys into the ways of men, guiding them to find a balance point deep within their masculine souls.”[vi] Today, ceremonial rites of passage are all but extinct in our society. As a result, most boys are not spiritually awakened. They do not grow up to feel competent around other men and with their own manhood. They then have sons of their own and the cycle continues. Welwood adds that,“children today who grow up in front of television sets that continually transmit images of a spiritually lost, fragmented, and narcissistic world, lack a meaningful cultural context in which to situate their own lives.”[vii]

What affects our children is obviously affecting our men. The way to change our society for our children is through our adults. And if we are to find new ways to initiate our boys and share with them their spiritual and masculine legacies, it will only come after we as a society do a great deal of psychological healing. The connection Welwood makes between the spiritual and psychological holds great significance for this masculine healing. He believes that “psychological work can lead to spiritual insight and depth, while spiritual work, in its movement towards embodiment, transformation, and service, calls on us to come to grips with the conditioned personality patterns that block integration.”[viii]

For men, these “conditioned personality patterns” can be understood on a societal or cultural level if viewed through the experience of the mythopoetic men’s movement of the 1980’s and early 1990’s. Just as men were beginning to come out from hiding, just as they were allowing themselves to join with other men to explore that repressed part of themselves, they were ridiculed and sent back into hiding. Johnson states: “The media picked up on it and began to parody what we were doing, dubbing it ‘neotribalism.’ So men who might have been attracted to it may have remained separate from it for fear of being laughed at. I think the thought of men coming together as men and howling and dancing around a fire was too threatening to them. Yet that wasn’t the essence of what we were trying to accomplish. The men need to bare their souls with dignity in a safe environment.”[ix] “Men carry a tremendous amount of sadness, despair, and grief inside. It’s not that men don’t feel, but they’ve gotten the message that it’s not okay to publicly emote their feelings.”[x]

Men have internalized this shame and now find it difficult to ask for or to find the support necessary to heal both psychologically and spiritually. While few men seek out psychological healing because of the shame associated with the perceived failure of “not being able to take it”, or “not being man enough,” those who pursue a spiritual path run the risk of, as Welwood coined, “spiritual bypassing.” Spiritual bypassing occurs “when people use spiritual practice to compensate for low self-esteem, social alienation, or emotional immaturity.”[xi] According to Welwood, “they wind up with neither a healthy spirituality nor a healthy psychology. And their spiritual practice tends to remain in a separate compartment, unintegrated with the rest of their life.”[xii]

For men, this “spiritual bypassing” can take many forms. For fathers it can mean pursuing a higher purpose while neglecting to involve themselves in the lives of their children. For husbands it can mean spending the bulk of their non-breadwinning hours meditating, taking yoga classes, and volunteering in their community while their marriages disintegrate. For others, this “spiritual bypassing” can manifest in a lifestyle that on its face appears transcended, but in fact masks a junk heap of denial. As Welwood point out, “Using spirituality to make up for failures of individuation—psychologically separating from parents, developing self-respect, or trusting one’s own intelligence as a source of guidance—leads to many of the so-called ‘perils of the path’: spiritual materialism, inflation, ‘us vs. them’ mentality, groupthink, blind faith in charismatic teachers, and loss of discrimination.”[xiii]

Robert Bly, a poet and elder in the men’s movement, identified in men “father hunger,” that men had such a need to be around other men, especially older men, because they were starving from lack of father.[xiv] Satisfying that hunger is the key to the psychological healing of men. With that healing will come the opportunity for spiritual growth. However, Welwood advises: “spiritual involvement is particularly tricky for people who are narcissistically injured, because they are using spirituality to shore up a shaky sense of self, while supposedly working on liberation from self.”[xv] Sadly, men in our society suffer from such a narcissistic injury, individually and as a community. In order to eliminate the shame which now acts as a barrier, keeping men from their masculine legacy and spiritual truths, we need, as Welwood puts it,“a new framework of understanding that can help us appreciate how psychological and spiritual work might be mutually supportive allies in the liberation and complete embodiment of the human spirit.”[xvi]

or men, that new framework must include yet another seismic cultural shift. We as a society must once again embrace the importance of men’s need for connection to their sons, to other men and to their spiritual practice. Yet at the same time, we must support men to seek the psychological healing necessary to fully realize their spiritual transcendence.

As Welwood points out: “In Buddhist tradition, differentiated being is often described in terms of ‘the qualities of a buddha’—wisdom, great clarity, compassion, patience, strength, or generosity…Since these deeper capacities are often blocked by unresolved psychological issues, working with these conflicts directly can provide another way, particularly suited to Westerners, to gain access to these differentiated qualities of being and integrate them into our character and functioning.”[xvii]

It is the responsibility of all in our society, men and women alike, to make the changes necessary to allow “the qualities of the buddha” to reach all men in our culture; to help eliminate the internalized shame and encourage men to enthusiastically embrace their need for other men, their desire for psychological healing and their yearning for spiritual development. If this commitment is made as a society, we will eventually see the healing of our men, greater individual happiness for men and their family members, less divorce, healthier children, stronger communities and a greater societal connection to spirituality.

[i] Welwood, J. (2000) Realisation and Embodiment: Psychological Work in the Service of Spiritual Development. In G. Watson, S. Batchelor & G. Claxton (Eds.), The Psychology of Awakening: Buddhism, Science and our Day-to-Day Lives. York Beach, Maine: Samuel Weiser.
[ii] Johnson, S. (1995, August). The Quest for the Masculine. Whole Life Times, 27.
[iii] Welwood, 142.
[iv] Ibid., 146.
[v] Johnson, S. (1999, August). Initiation: Rediscovering Rites of Passage. Whole Life Times
[vi] Johnson, S. (1993, August). The Absent Father. Whole Life Times, 24-25.
[vii] Welwood, 146.
[viii] Ibid., 142.
[ix] Triveri, L. (1992, August). Healing the Masculine Wound: An Interview with Stephen Johnson, Ph.D. Whole Life Times, 22-23.
[x] Ibid., 22-23.
[xi] Welwood, 150.
[xii] Ibid., 150.
[xiii] Ibid., 151.
[xiv] Triveri, 22-23.
[xv] Welwood, 152.
[xvi] Ibid., 166.
[xvii] Ibid., 161.