The way men express themselves in daily life is a topic of interest for me. And particularly how that expression manifests itself in the dojo/gym/etc.
Many times, on the job or in the media, I hear the expression “that’s gay” or “you’re gay”. Oftentimes it’s meant to be humorous and said in a nonchalant sort of way. Then maybe another guy will make another joke based around that theme. And then I sort of shake my head at the idiocy of the banter and grimace.
I think it’s accurate to say I’ve always been a quiet and sensitive child. My mom likes to tell the story of when I was a baby, they thought they had left me at a restaurant because I was so quiet sitting in the backseat, it was like I wasn’t even there (I mean, how could they have known I was simply practicing my ninja skills?). I might have dabbled in sports like the other boys (baseball, basketball, soccer). I even started martial arts briefly as a kid:
But my greatest strengths have always lied within “softer” or “internal” expressions, i.e. within the arts. I wasn’t particularly good at or all that interested with sports; I’ll refer to those things as “external” expressions. [Side note: even though an art like dancing could be considered external, I think it has more to do with what’s internal and feminine.] So it makes sense to me why, in my mid-twenties when I started seriously practicing karate, I was always more complimented on my kata rather than my “sparring” (I don’t use the word “kumite” here because, to my mind, that means something else). Kata, without function, is basically dancing. I have no (more) illusions that its performance is about fighting (only if we’re gonna break it down and examine its essence does it become something entirely apart from dancing). I am definitely not saying here that my performance of kata was anything special, it’s just to emphasize that my internal expression was stronger (kata) than my external expression (sparring). Even when I was trying out boxing briefly in Oakland, I remember being complemented on the form of my punches. And yes, I’m probably capable of hitting hard, but inside I know, if I’m being completely honest with myself, that when it comes time to put those punches in action (in a sporting context), I’m just not…interested in that. In four months at the gym, I never spent time sparring in the ring (besides doing body-shots with a partner); never a full-on spar. Much of the time was spent learning hand and footwork, the fundamental punches, and focus-mitt/bag work. The intention was always to eventually build up to go into the ring (to overcome the fear of getting hit). But I just didn’t stay long enough. Plus, because I’m a four-eyed dude, I would have had to buy contact lenses, which I didn’t make enough money for at the time. Yeah, excuses, excuses. Plus, it’s just scary to go toe-to-toe with a boxer. Peyton Quinn is right. But I mean, my intention was to get in there and go at it. I just didn’t like rush it, if you know what I mean.
The point of what I was trying to say there was that these “softer”, “internal” pursuits are often what is shoved under the “gay” category. Besides being used homophobically, that term encapsulates for me the denial-rejection of everything feminine within a man. When you’re with a group of insecure men (despite however secure they might try and project themselves as), you fear being singled out or perceived as “gay”. It’s equivalent to being called a “girl”. Which is equivalent to being associated with being “soft” and thus “feminine”. I say “insecure” men because I believe, men are essentially living in a time of great flux with identity, not just gender. The old standards of what was considered to be a “man” are really no longer applicable and relevant in the 21st century (in my passionate opinion). The persona of toughness, not showing one’s feelings, not feeling period, etc. are, in my mind, highly corrosive to a healthy psychic well-being. Men may act as though they feel secure in their masculinity, but deep inside, great things are shifting. In times of such great shifting, I believe fundamentalism and rigidity start to become even more prominent. I think too that the reason for my “social anxiety disorder” which I underwent therapy for back in 2011 is partially the psychic result of feeling so much of this tension and shifting and change (that’s right, I make these claims cause I’m a metaphysical scientist – a metaphysicist).
Perhaps you’ve read by now of the recent shooting in Orlando, FL. A friend just recently sent me this article entitled “Toxic Masculinity and Murder” (which is the inspiration for these thoughts), which I think touches on a lot of the issues that have concerned me in recent years, in particular the mention of the shooter’s belligerent attitude towards homosexuality and his abusive domestic behavior. It also made me pause and reflect on my own toxic words towards a former friend (apparently I had called him a “pussy ass faggot” in a moment of now-forgotten context), as well as my physically abusive actions towards him. Everytime I think back on what I did, I cringe in shame, thinking to myself how entirely possible it would be to equate what I had done as the prototypical behavior behind such murderous rampages like the one seen in Orlando. This may sound disturbing but, I feel as though I am that shooter. That is to say, I feel as though I am in touch with the same psychic stress which caused him to erupt in that way. Carl Jung apparently once said, “Behind the wound lies the genius.” My own wounds as a male, in relation to my father, to society, to other men, have all informed me of what great sadness and tragedy there is in men who have not found initiation into a thriving, vibrant, and generative life. For men here, without individuated elders to guide us in life-giving rights of passage, we are left with the death rituals of suicide or violence.
For me, the practice of martial arts or karate or whatever style you want to call it, is of no use if it is not counterbalanced with an attention towards human spiritual development. This does not mean sitting in zazen posture for 5 or 10 minutes before or after practice; it does not mean entering tournaments and competing so as to gain “confidence” and “self-esteem”; it does not mean endless sweaty repetitions of kata, the function of which is not clearly understood; it does not mean quietly obeying your Sensei/Master/Hanshi/Guru/Professor/etc, because you believe that this constitutes “the Way”. When I use the phrase “human spiritual development” I am mainly referring to the psychological processes by which we can access and thus openly discuss the psychic disturbances which affect our individual and collective lives. For me, an innovative program might be something like: a Client comes into the center seeking or because they have been assigned therapy. The two-phase program consists of individual sessions with a psychotherapist/mindfulness-based instructor/etc, to determine the scope of these disturbances as well as to provide a safe container with which to work through them. The other half of the program is a skills-building course within a physical discipline such as karate. To my mind, this would be something similar to like someone enrolling in a technical/trade school or even like a music college, where they are taught the fundamentals and principles of their particular discipline. In sum, an inner and outer gōngfu (hard work to achieve skill). A modern-day Shaolin Temple.
And again, the emphasis is on men here. Not to say women are themselves not in need of such balance, but the main trouble here, the violence, the abuse, the destruction of our homes and ecosystems is primarily the result of misplaced male energies. I do not currently have on hand any scientifically tracked and researched data to support that claim. All I have is the wound. The wound that lets me know that men today are in great trouble. And we will continue to be, so long as we do not make greater efforts to re-define what masculinity means in the 21st century.