Denise and I, the directors of The Sangha House, have been working in the Holistic Health Sector for more than 12 years. There is one common factor that always comes through, loud and clear. If you look at the statistics associated with our customers, you will see that, across the board, three quarters of our customers are women. Why is this?
Well, I believe it is coupled with the complexity of how men feel about their place in society here in the western world and also, rather worryingly, with the level of stress, anxiety and mental health issues with men at the moment.
Interestingly, the majority of the disciplines we teach originate from the east. From India, China and other Asian countries and these disciplines back in their homelands would be predominantly practised by men. So why is it that here, they are seen as female disciplines? Before I dig into this one, I’d just like to take a look at some of the studies and statistics around male mental health and some of the challenges us chaps face here in the west and certainly in the UK.
The Samaritans keep very close track of their statistics in terms of calls to their help lines and also (unfortunately) to levels of suicide in society. A recent report drew some conclusions which are extremely relevant to this article.
The report says –
“Masculinity – the way men are brought up to behave and the roles, attributes and behaviours that society expects of them – contributes to mental health and even suicide in men. Men compare themselves against a masculine ‘gold standard’ which prizes power, control and invincibility. When men believe they are not meeting this standard, they feel a sense of shame and defeat. Having a job and being able to provide for your family is central to ‘being a man’, particularly for working class or middle class men. Masculinity is associated with control, but when men are depressed or in crisis, they can feel out of control. This can propel some men towards suicidal behaviour as a way of regaining control. Men are more likely to use drugs or alcohol in response to distress. “
I believe that Masculinity, and what it means to be a man, has been implanted, grown and developed in the minds of men since their childhood. Men are fed with stereotypes of masculine heroes, who are self-sufficient, strong and capable. Often the role of offering emotional support is not one associated with being manly, and is therefore dismissed.
Television and advertising are a large part of the issue, due to the picture they paint of what a ‘real man’ looks like. Men are bombarded by images and perceptions of masculinity, muscles and bravado, and slowly over time, they are made to believe that being a man entails specific criteria. If they do not tick certain boxes, they are not ‘man enough’.
It is crucial men are able to have conversations with other men about their mental health and feelings, because it is only when the idea of ‘what it means to be a man’ begins to change, that men will be able to open up, or reveal about themselves, those feelings or difficulties they are experiencing. A key aspect of this of course is fear. Men fear that their own perceived failure to live up to the classic stereotype will be seen by other men. This gives a feeling of inadequacy, leading to shame.
But this is a major cultural habit that is embodied within us. We won’t break it alone. We need the help and support of our families, partners and our friends around us. Individually, we need to become mindful to our behaviours and the behaviours of other towards us and see there these stereotypes are being fed to us and where our cultural is influencing us. The starting point is in the noticing.
We can think of this as a script that we always follow. Both male and female follow the script in their own way and it all contributes.
A key part of this script is associated with what it is to feel and to acknowledge vulnerability. For the stereotypical male in our society, to be vulnerable is a big no-no. So I would ask you to explore something for a moment. Consider the things that us humans typically love. They are things that have fragility, impermanence and complexity in them. We love a rose, a sunset, view. We find it difficult to love a concrete block! Us humans, every single one of us is exceptionally complex, fragile and impermanent. Essentially we are completely vulnerable to the things that life throws at us. I believe that is when we don’t acknowledge this vulnerability, the rot starts. This is the seat of where mental health issues develop from. When we don’t seek our help from friends, family and colleagues, we start to suffer and this builds.
The disciplines we are examining here are things like yoga, tai chi and meditation. The popular press in the west encourages (perhaps unwittingly) a perception that these are predominantly female pursuits. Certainly a great deal of the light publications around tai chi carry images that show mainly females and also elderly people. The art does not have this in its origins and actually in the east it is practised extensively by young men. But because of the nature of Yoga, tai chi and meditation, they open our hearts and ask us to explore feelings and emotions within us. Without is, these arts would just examine simple body shape. The magic in the art sits in the mental and the emotional. This is why they are so effective at combating stress, anxiety and other modern-day issues that so many of us struggle with.
So, what do we do about this? Ladies, this is where you come in. Look after the chaps, because whether we admit it or not, we need your help. You are in generally already expert at emotional connection. You open up to your friends and family and you acknowledge vulnerability. We need to learn this lesson from you. Take care not to enforce the stereotype that is out there, watch out for the initial signs of stress, anxiety and depression and persuade us to talk with you.