The Keys to Healthy Masculinity: 8 Practices For Becoming a More Conscious Man
BY SHEMS HEARTWELL
most men never go through any training or right of passage to help them embrace a healthy sense of masculinity. that needs to change. photo: karl fredrickson
Tending the Fire of Healthy Masculinity
Over the past 20 years, I have been fortunate to participate in multiple initiation processes with men. I sincerely believe in the power of ritual and intention to heal and transform men’s lives. I also know from experience, and a bit of maturity, that initiation and inner work are just the first steps along a never-ending path of evolution and discovery when it comes to cultivation healthy masculinity.
Many men are becoming aware of a growing hunger within, a fire that burns with the desire for authentic power and deeper meaning. We know, beyond our minds, that something new needs to emerge for the future of our children.
As I describe below, tending a fire requires consistency and commitment. Meditation retreats and events like Burning Man can be fabulous catalysts of inspiration and renewal, but even after the most impactful and transformative events of my life, I still come home to my daily responsibilities, work, and relationship.
In this article, I am going to share about an initiation journey with a friend and some valuable ways that you can tend the fire of healthy masculinity within you.
Around the Fire
The stones had been in the fire for an hour or so now. It is cold and drizzly as we prepare to enter the sweat lodge. Our brother Rion is on his way down the mountain after four days of vision questing. I am here with Lino, a native elder who has been watching over and praying for Rion, along with a dozen friends and family members. We represent his community and are preparing to welcome him back to the world with a sweat and ceremony.
As soon as I see Rion walking toward the fire with his head hanging low, tears come to my eyes. Indeed feeling and processing emotions is one characteristic of healthy masculinity. He looks weathered, pale and beaten down. I am watching his gaze as he sees his girlfriend and father next to me by the fire. His eyes are narrowed and tears are pouring down his face. I imagine that Rion is feeling relief and gratitude to see us waiting for him. That he is moved to have loved ones here who truly care about him after some long days alone on the ridge above us.
My heart is beating faster as a wave of emotion is rising from my belly to my throat. I feel a mixture of excitement, fear and pain. For a moment, I vision myself alone up on the mountain in the cold winds and rain storms we have had over the past few days. I wonder about my own strength and courage to face my fears and inner demons as my stomach tightens up.My brief emotional wave fades to the background as I continue to observe my friend walking toward our silent circle around this blazing fire. At first, he looks raw in his vulnerability and thin from fasting. As I tune deeper into him, I feel his unwavering strength and commitment beneath his weathered features. I see wildness in how he is moving and intensity to his gaze that has me stand up straighter and connect with a more primal energy within me.
In this moment, Rion represents the characteristics of healthy masculinity and the quality of man that I respect. He has chosen to push his edge in a profound and empowering way, while being witnessed by some of the most important people in his life. He has humbled himself enough to work with a mentor that can guide him beyond his false limitations and love him through the journey in a profound way. An elder like Lino is like an anchor to a wandering mind, keeping the focus and encouraging a deeper journey.
Most indigenous cultures have some form of ritual or Rite of Passage that helps boys step into their manhood. There were a few representations of this in my childhood, like Boy Scouts and summer camp, but they lacked something that I cannot explain. I probably received more initiation through after school rebel rousing and playing basketball than any organized group. The men who led the organized events usually lacked the potency of an initiated man. They had good intent and care, but it was obvious to me that they lacked something in themselves. Like my father, they had not been initiated into their power and, as as a result, had no strong characteristics of healthy masculinity to pass on to us.
Our busy-minded, face-paced, consumer culture generally raises men to be physically, emotionally and spiritually weak. Even though there is no shortage of male bravado and conditioning, ultimately, men are taught to avoid pain and maximize pleasure. We’ve become soft and dependent on modern comforts, polluted by industrialized foods and distracted by overly stimulating screens.
Like me, most men do not know how to tend a fire, sit with their discomfort or face the raw challenges of long-term relationship. There are few maps for the most important aspects of our lives. What men learn in school and through movies and television does not model real masculinity nor what is needed to truly thrive in our lives.
Fire as a Teacher
Rion’s vision quest began with a solo sweat lodge ceremony four mornings ago, and tonight we are ending the journey together as the sun goes down. Rion has not eaten since the opening sweat, which seems like a day or so ago to me and probably a lifetime to Rion.I have been asked to be the fire tender for the night. Building the fire, taking care of the ancestor stones and ushering them into the lodge with deer antlers during the four rounds of the sweat. I showed up for this role with confidence and enthusiasm that has been cooked down throughout the process.
Multiple times over the last few hours Lino has schooled me on keeping each of the stones covered with wood and fire, not to let any of the grandfathers be exposed and left uncovered. It seems like an easy thing to do; and, like all true skills, it requires undivided attention and commitment. Every time my mind wanders or someone comes to talk to me, I miss something that is needed to honor the fire and stay true to my task. Lino has been firm with me, and I simultaneously appreciate his direction and feel humbled by my inability to do this job perfectly well.
This whole experience highlights what I am lacking and also feeds a deep longing within me to tend the fire of healthy masculinity. This is not my first sweat lodge ceremony, and yet I am experiencing the depth of this tradition in a new and more profound way.
Throughout my whole life, I have longed for deeper meaning. I am not a man who gets excited to sit around watching the Super Bowl, I would rather play ball, surf ocean swells or bask in the serenity of nature. I crave connection and participation and feel it is usually lacking in modern-day male rituals like watching sports or hanging out around the BBQ. Being in a circle around the fire with prayerful intent and reverence, reflecting on healthy masculinity, is an activity that feeds me in a way that I can only describe as timeless and mesmerizing.
Going Beyond What We Know
“Few among men are they who cross to the further shore. The others merely run up and down the bank on this side.”
― Gautama Buddha
Too many of us have lost, or never known, our passion for facing and overcoming our limits, or how to brave the intensity of our woman’s disappointment without defending ourselves, or what it takes to sit through a ten-day silent retreat.There are men who are stretching the norm by meditating, learning about Tantra Yoga and leaping off mountains in flying squirrel suits. Yet the majority of men are caught in the hustle and insanity of living a life without reverence and meaning—motivated more by fear than by the mysterious pulse of the universe.
Connecting with Rion after his vision quest has reminded me of the value of going through a passage into the unknown and then returning to worldly life again. He knows and trusts himself more now and has a fresh energy to bring to his life as a result.
Like Rion, I have gone through a few initiation processes and realize that I need to continually cultivate this energy, or the current of modern life will rob me of my instinct to stay close to the fire of healthy masculinity. If I don’t keep challenging my edges and confronting my fears or resistance, something in me goes to sleep. I lose connection to what I value most. I lose trust in my strength and capacity. When I don’t trust myself, I show up less in my work and relationship. I hold back.
Fuel for the Fire
“Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.”
― Kahlil Gibran
No matter where each of us men is on our path, our pain, our suffering and our purpose are the fires we must tend to cultivate the characteristics of healthy masculinity. The heat of discomfort or relational frustration is the fuel for healing and expanding our capacity to fully live and love. So many men bypass this beckoning to go deeper by playing with fire rather than burning through the resistance and cooking in the transformational flames of presence.
We play with the fire of unhealthy masculinity activities by using alcohol or smoking herb to escape at the end of the day. By watching porn rather than cultivating a thriving relationship. By holding back our feelings or blaming others for the hardship in our lives.
We go deeper into transformation by harnessing and utilizing our anger in a healthy way, rather than misdirecting it as aggression toward others or ourselves. By facing our fears and avoidance tendencies with commitment and curiosity. By grieving what is lost with our hearts wide open. All of these represent healthy masculine characteristics and activities and practices.
The biggest fuel most men either repress or misuse is anger. I avoided feeling anger for many years. My father struggles with anger, and I received some of the worst of it from him and never wanted to do that to others. So I either held it in or turned it on myself. I was like a raging lion inside and a weak kitten on the outside until I built up enough tension and lashed out in some aggressive way.
With guidance and modeling of appropriate expression of anger, I have learned how to run and roar like a lion. Now anger is a positive and motivating force that serves me more than it hurts others or me.
When anger appears, it is alerting us to something. It is feedback that we are being mistreated, that we may need to approach things differently, or that something in our life is not working. Anger is an awareness tool, which shines a light on injustice and provides us with the insight and charge to act, to make changes.
Ultimately, how we express ourselves and move with the pulse of life is how we fuel the fire. My invitation to you and commitment to myself is to stay close that fire. I encourage you to continually seek out opportunities to face your shadows and lean into the hardships of your life. Not all men need to go on a vision quest to develop the characteristics of healthy masculinity, but I believe that men thrive when they commit to daily practices that ground them deeper into their core and stay involved in some form of conscious men’s work.
Ways to Tend Your Fire on a Daily Basis
The following activities are meant to help you develop the characteristics of healthy masculinity. Activities range from what you can do on a daily to yearly basis.
1. Every day, breathe deeply into your belly for 5 minutes. Few things are more physiologically impactful that deep breathing. Oxygenating your body reduces stress, increases energy and calms the mind. It’s is your best weapon against stress and mundane frustrations. When you feel more centered and alive, your creativity and optimism become guiding forces rather than fear and frustration.
2. Do something that enlivens your whole body. Whether it is a yoga practice or a gym workout, move your body in creative ways that get you out of your mind and into the totality of your experience. We burn up so much vital energy by over thinking and using only our eyes. When you move every joint of your body, your blood becomes enlivened, and your awareness spreads throughout your entire body. This is a powerfully nourishing, healing and rejuvenating activity. It only takes about 10 minutes of deliberate movement to profoundly impact your masculinity and state of being in a positive way. The secret is to diversify your movement to maximize your experience.
3. Participate in some form of regular men’s group. Getting together with men with the intention of supporting and challenging one another, in healthy ways, feeds masculinity in a way that work, friends and family life doesn’t. Many times I have resisted going to my men’s group and then find that when I am there it simply feels really good to be in a circle with other men who are speaking their truth and listening to one another without trying to help, fix or change anyone.
4. Show up for your relationship more fully. Listen to your partner and take the time to be together without watching TV or going out to dinner. Share quality time without an agenda. Practice feeling into your woman from your core and genitals to cultivate healthy masculinity. Appreciate and value her in ways that melt her heart open to you. Surprise her with a blindfolded date night where you take her to a new place and feed her. Don’t remove the blindfold until dinner is over.
5. Bring your sexual energy to your woman and away from any screen. Avoid spilling your life force into the over stimulating and wasteful porn hole. If you don’t have a partner, then simulate and pleasure yourself without all the visual and audio. Learn to be aroused by breathing and touch rather than visual stimulation.
6. Regularly check in with another man to share your challenges, victories and intentions. Cultivate a few male relationships that are centered on being allies and support for one another. Ask a man to hold you accountable to what you are focusing on in your life. This may be a work-related project, personal goal or relationship struggle. Share what you are committed to with another man and ask him to check in with you about how you are doing around your commitment.
7. Take a solo or spiritual journey once a year. Do something that focuses on your inner and outer well-being as a way to maintain healthy masculinity and balance. Even if it is simply one day that you go into the forest or spend on a secluded beach. Give yourself a break from responsibility and outer stimulus to go internal and listen more deeply to your inner voice. Set a strong intention that will guide and deepen the experience.
8. Participate in your community locally and globally. Be a part of something bigger than your own family life. Find ways to contribute to a cause or movement that you feel strongly about. It may be a financial contribution, group meeting or taking action in some way. Whatever it is, think of it as a way to be involved in the larger community of life. To give back to future generations. To have a positive impact on the world around you.
Check out Shems’ upcoming course called The Men’s Passage—a three-month powerhouse program that will guide you into a new frontier of healthy masculinity. Where you will learn how to transform anger into usable energy, increase sexual pleasure and vitality, and break free of repeating relationship struggles by learning the three essential skills that will improve every relationship in your life. Find out more at: shemsheartwell.com/themenspassage
About The Author
Shems Heartwell is a highly experienced couples coach and men’s empowerment facilitator. Shems guides couples into new territories of deeper connection, intimacy and fulfillment together and supports men to harness their authentic wisdom and power in every area of their life. His work goes to the core of what is needed for embodied transformation by integrating the physical, mental, sexual, emotional and spiritual. Visit his website: shemsheartwell.com.