Thursday, July 24, 2008

Andrew Cohen - A Call to Arms for the Postmodern Male

From the new issue of What Is Enlightenment? This is a brief but interesting essay on Cohen's journey of understanding what it is to be a man. I'd be curious to hear any thoughts readers might have.

A Call to Arms
for the Postmodern Male

by Andrew Cohen

Until I was in my early twenties, I never even thought about what it meant to be a man. I grew up in an upper-middle-class secular Jewish family in Manhattan and went to liberal, progressive schools throughout my childhood. I never had a bar mitzvah, the Jewish boy’s traditional rite of passage into manhood. My brother, who is five years older, used to beat me up on a regular basis from before I can remember, which turned me into a bit of a wuss. I was always one of the last picked when we engaged in competitive sports, and it goes without saying that I lacked confidence. Endeavoring to relieve my insecurities, my mother sent me to a therapist at the ripe old age of five.

My father, who was not an introspective man, loved me deeply. When I was eleven my parents separated, and shortly after my fifteenth birthday, my father died a slow and painful death. During those years and afterward, I spent a lot of time with my mother, who was at the time a passionate advocate of feminist values. My teachers in the three different high schools I attended in the United States and in Europe were generally decent, sophisticated, and well-meaning people. But when I think back on those days from the wisdom of my current fifty-two years, I’m stunned by the realization that no adult, including even my counselors at summer camp, ever counseled me about what it means to be a man. I now understand that I wasn’t the only one in this strange predicament—in fact, it seems to be a cultural phenomenon. I don’t think this subject was brought up in any situation I was ever in until I began to think about it myself in my early twenties.

When I was twenty-two, as a result of a profound spiritual experience that had occurred six years earlier, I seriously committed myself to becoming an enlightened human being. My first step was to take up a disciplined daily practice of martial arts because I wanted to become strong. I wanted to conquer my fear; I wanted to be tough—I wanted to be a man.

At the age of thirty, after much serious practice and dedicated searching, I found what I was looking for in Mother India. To my own astonishment, I ended up in the uncomfortable position of becoming a spiritual teacher virtually overnight! In this unusual profession where soft and sweet are generally considered to be the hallmarks of authenticity, I’ve been the very opposite. Almost from the start, I’ve had a reputation for being bold, strong, direct, and confident—for more than a few of my contemporaries, too confident.

Ever since my life turned upside down in this way, I’ve had the rare privilege of meeting and interacting with many different people from all over the world. I’ve gotten to know lots and lots of men. And I came to recognize that the majority seemed to share the same perplexing postmodern cultural predicament that I did: Very few seem to have ever considered the perennial question, What does it mean to be a man?

I’ll never forget my surprise when I discovered a hidden secret about some men who have seriously considered this question. I’m talking about men who are invested in being tough and who can project an air of confidence that is uniquely masculine—the kind of man that I at one time in my life had aspired to be. I’m talking about students of mine who were martial artists of high attainment. I was amazed when I discovered that whenever one of these tough guys was in a situation that required that they trust a little more and give up a bit of the control they were so invested in, they usually fell into an utter panic. Underneath their bravado, even though they weren’t afraid of a street fight, they were terrified of real intimacy, especially spiritual intimacy. Ironically, this would come to the surface especially when they came together with other men—spiritual brothers who were committed to creating a new culture together, a culture based upon higher values, the evolution of consciousness, and the commitment to be strong, transparent, and authentic at all times.

I became a man when I found the courage and conviction to trust God more than I trusted the fears and desires and conditioned thinking of my puny ego. The first expression of authentic manhood was when I boldly declared from the therapist’s couch, “I don’t want to do this anymore; I want to be free!” and noticed no hint of fear in myself when the therapist responded strongly, “But Andrew, you’re barely getting started!” The final moment of transition happened eight years later. My longing for liberation had become so all-consuming that I was ready to let go completely—to die to everything I had known and been up to that point. I was sitting in front of my last teacher, passionately telling him, with a hint of desperation, “I want to die, but I don’t know how.” I can visualize that moment as if it was yesterday, and I clearly remember that he remained silent. At first he looked shocked, and then tears welled up in his eyes.

What it means to be a man, of course, always relates directly to the cultural context within which the question is being asked. We are living in a very challenging time, when old values are crumbling and new ones are just barely beginning to emerge—including what it means to be a real man. My experience as a spiritual teacher in the midst of this upheaval has convinced me beyond any doubt that it will be impossible for the postmodern male to become a vibrant, powerful, and truly evolved expression of the masculine principle unless he pays the ultimate price by transcending his culturally conditioned, overly sensitive, highly narcissistic, and painfully arrogant self. A cultural revolution at the leading edge needs strong, liberated, and highly evolved men to be compelling examples of what is possible for us all. That’s what spiritually enlightened men do.


Anonymous said...

Cohen's dead-on. I never had any kind of guidance from other males. It was as if you were supposed to just "know" what a man was.

However, plenty of people told me what a man "wasn't," and unfortunately, most of those qualities were ones I seemed to have more than my fair share of. Don't by empathetic or kind to others, don't be introspective, don't care about spiritual or artistic things--on and on. I'm not trying to boast but that was my reality. I certainly didn't fit what my culture called a "man."

But I wasn't impressed with the picture of men I was shown--cocky, careless, aggressive and proud to be ignorant of anything but gadgets, guns and girls.

It was my spiritual path that kept me sane. It also opened up ways for me to be intimate with others on a spiritual level. Oddly, i was never "terrified" of such intimacy, as Cohen describes. And as a gay man, i was never terrified of the physical intimacy either. When i discovered that, it felt like the most natural thing in the world.

I think positive change has to start from a spiritual basis. You can get men to open up in many ways, even change their behavior, but somehow spirituality is still off-limits for many. I think it's because it really reveals deep vulnerabilities and weaknesses, and it takes a true courage that lots of people, men and women, have a hard time expressing in this culture.

WH said...


Thanks for the comments (here and on other posts).

For a long time I thought it was just that my father died when I was 13 that left me w/out any sense of what it means to be a man, but the more I read and blog here, the more I get that many men have grown up without any guidance in this realm.

I agree with you that change must have a spiritual foundation - for me it was Buddhism, but I also see some goods things happening with some of the Christian men's work (though not all of it). I also agree that many men are content to hold the beliefs of their family or friends, w/out an actual practice, which is too bad.

When I was growing up, I foolishly tried to intuit what it meant to be a man from my peers and from the culture - wow, was that f***ked up.

All that is part of why I started this blog, to share some of what I have learned and what others are learning.


Evan said...

My father is a classic western male - identified with his work, litte idea about emotions and relationships. This is not to say that this is without value - willing to put in the work for what he wants, caring for others (through action, not talk) and so on.

I of course rebelled against this.

My guess is that there may be hormonal realities to consider. But the qualities I value (compassion, courage etc) are gender-neutral. It may be that they are done differently by men and women. I don't think we will know until we have lots of people who have freed themselves of their conditioning.

So lets press on to freeing ourselves from our conditioning, we can then find out about the authentically masculine (and feminine) - but we may not care a whole lot about it by then.