Mindfulness is one tool today’s man can use to develop the emotional resilience to successfully surf the ups and downs that are unique to his generation.
Ever-evolving gender roles
When my parents married nearly 70 years ago, a man’s role was clear: support your family. My parents were refugees from war-torn Europe and as such, when they arrived in Australia, my mother had no choice but to share in the family’s income generation until she had children. At this point, my father decided that the mother of his children should not work – in his generation, manhood was defined by a man’s ability to support his family. And so my mother became a stay-at-home mum, a decision about which she was ambivalent but which she accepted, as this was a ‘man’s world’.
When I married about 30 years ago, male-female roles had begun to blur. Most women chose to work outside of the home, but few men were prepared to share in the domestic and child-rearing duties. This was tough on both men and women. Women had more to juggle, which caused them a lot of physical and emotional stress, and men who chose to help at home and take on more of the traditionally female roles were often socially stigmatised as soft or ‘hen-pecked’.
The two-edged sword of shared responsibilities
Today, gender roles are far less defined and this is a two-edged sword: in this generation, it’s easier than ever before for a man to choose to take a greater role in domestic and child-rearing duties, which is excellent for those inclined to do so. But society now expects this of them. This means that just as career-driven women of the previous generation were compelled to juggle both careers and ‘home-duties’, now men share this burden.
Although more equitable, this expectation means that the emotional stress of being male in today’s world is different to that of previous generations. Men are now expected to be tough, driven, and successful in the workplace but emotionally present and compassionate at home.
Not only has the balance of work-home priorities shifted, the changing face of work means that men are also often subjected to the expectation by their employer that they will take work home each night. This expectation is supported by the ease of 24/7 access to work provided by modern information technology.
The benefits provided by this accessibility means that it’s now possible to leave work early and be physically present at home, to help make dinner, and put kids to bed. However, the flip-side is that once that’s done, it’s back to the virtual office. This means there’s little or no downtime available to recharge the nervous system.
Finding balance with mindfulness
How can today’s man balance his competing responsibilities and still be emotionally true to himself, his work, and his family? In particular, how can today’s man develop the emotional resilience to successfully surf the ups and downs that are unique to his generation?
Studies have shown that practising mindfulness and present moment awareness can improve emotional resilience by changing particular neural networks in the brain. But is this a useful practice for today’s man? Are the practices compatible with busy, fast-paced living?
There’s been a lot of talk about the value of mindfulness and present moment awareness, but not a lot of understanding of what they actually are. Mindfulness means being focused on your present-moment experience, and the best way to describe what this means is to watch a toddler. Small children don’t know how to ruminate on the past or worry about the future. They’re completely centred in the present-moment experience of their body; whether that means hunger, sleepiness, joy, excitement, anger, or frustration, the toddler is completely in the moment. Their focus is entirely body-centric.
Adults, on the other hand are mostly cerebral. As we mature, our developing brains can remember the past and imagine the future. This uniquely human quality is a survival mechanism that allows us to learn from past mistakes, consolidate past success, and consider future consequences to specific action or inaction. But it can also engage us in some unpleasant emotions such as anxiety, worry, and regret.
Physical sensations and our emotions
Every thought creates sensations in the body, and these sensations are subjectively interpreted as emotions. For example, the sensation of a churning tummy may be interpreted as fear whether there is an actual threat or only a perceived one. These emotions are triggered by the activity of the mind. So, recalling a difficult conversation with a colleague two days ago or anticipating a challenging presentation next week may produce the same stress response as if the threat were real and present.
Men often have a harder time than women at identifying subtle physical sensations (interoception). One of the benefits of mindfulness training is that it enhances connections in the part of the brain responsible for interoception (the insula). This means that the more a person practises mindfulness, the better he gets at sensing his body’s response to thoughts. And the better he is at sensing his body’s reactions, the more control he has over his response to these sensations.
For example, anger may be felt in the abdomen, chest, hands, jaw, neck, etc. Worry, fear, anxiety, or overwhelm will all feel differently in the body, and may be located in other places. Mindfulness training allows us to view these reactions with non-judgmental curiosity, rather than getting caught up in the thoughts that caused them in the first place. This allows the thought to settle, and as the thoughts settle, so do the sensations/emotions.
When we learn to return our attention to the present moment, feelings of stress are reduced. We learn to shift the attention from our thoughts (which are always in the past or future) to the present moment experience (which is located in the body).
Shifting to the present moment: an exercise
Next time you feel like you’re being pulled in too many directions, try this focus exercise:
- Sit comfortably with both feet on the floor and hands resting on the lap.
- Either close your eyes or defocus them on a spot a few meters ahead of you.
- Take in the sounds around you and notice how your brain identifies and gives a label to every sound you hear. Remember that these labels are just thoughts and are determined by language and culture. The sound is real but the label isn’t.
- See if you can notice the sounds without labelling them. The sounds are neither good nor bad, they’re just sounds. If you feel irritated or soothed by sounds, it’s not the sounds that are irritating or soothing, but your thoughts about them. So let the thoughts go and take in the raw quality of the sounds.
- Notice thoughts that arise in the mind, perhaps about the sounds, perhaps about other things.
- Every time you notice these thoughts, see if you can return your attention to your sense of hearing, feeling the quality of each sound in your ear, noticing judgments that arise in the mind and letting them go. No amount of judging will change the sounds that are there.
- Repeat this process for five minutes, noticing every time the mind wanders to thoughts and gently returning your attention to the sounds.
How do you feel? More relaxed? All you’ve been doing is getting out of your head and into your body, specifically into your sense of hearing.
This takes practice, so don’t be disheartened if you find it difficult the first few times. You may remember the difficulty of riding a bike or playing a musical instrument the first time you tried. Practice made it easier.
Returning the body to the present moment
Mindfulness is the training of getting back into any of the five senses in your body: seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, or tasting. And this practice of returning your focus to your body shifts the mind from thoughts that contribute to unpleasant emotions to the safety of the present moment. The body can only be in the present, not the past nor the future.
Studies show that engaging in such focus exercises enhances blood flow to the pre-frontal cortex (PFC), an area of the brain concerned with concentration, decision making, and impulse control. Increased blood flow equates to greater use of that region of the brain, and we know that when we increase use of any part of the brain it builds more neural networks.
Interestingly, this effect is found to be greater in the left PFC than the right. The left PFC is known to be associated with an increase in positive emotions. So mindfulness exercises change the structure of the brain in a way that can enhance the quality of your life and your happiness, reducing stress and gaining clarity of mind.
As a 21st century man who finds himself juggling a dozen priorities at the same time, would a happier, more focused brain enhance your life?
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