Sunday, June 3, 2012

Man Up - Zen Style

Spoken word artist Guante has it right. The phrase "man up" sucks. Big time. It's riddled with sexist connotations, homophobic notions, and is generally damaging - in my view - to anyone who doesn't conform to gendered norms. In fact, I'd argue it's really all about conforming. All about creating a hostile environment for male-identified people.

“Man Up” assaults our self esteem by suggesting that competence and perseverance are uniquely masculine traits. That women—not to mention any man who doesn’t eat steak, drive a pickup truck, have lots of sex with women and otherwise conform to gender norms absolutely—are nothing more than, background characters and props in a movie where the strong, stoic, REAL man is the hero. More than anything, though, it suggests that to be yourself—whether you, wear skinny jeans, listen to Lady Gaga, rock a little eyeliner, drink some other brand of light beer, or write poetry—will cost you.

So, what does this have to do with spiritual practice? Well, in my opinion, everything. Buddha taught about the perils of attachment. And of the numerous attachments, gender is high on the list.

It's no accident that monks and nuns of Buddha's order shaved their heads, wore patchwork robes, and abstained from sex. Among other things, this was an attempt to help cut through attachments to both one's biological body form, and also the socially constructed narratives around gender.

At the same time, it's impossible to ignore how difficult it was for the men of the Buddhist sangha throughout the centuries to break from their attachments to patriarchy. Even as they taught the perils of attachment, they themselves demonstrated a deep attachment to gendered narratives about wisdom and enlightenment.

In the minds of many Buddhist men historically, and even some still today, enlightenment was a man's domain. And any man who wanted it better "man up" in his practice. The obsession with marathon meditation retreats and hardcore, "balls busting" koan studies you see in some convert Zen communities reminds me a lot of this ancient mud.

On the one hand, "man up" is a pop culture phrase that probably is rarely heard in Buddhist circles. On the other hand, we do not live in a vacuum.

Growing up in sexist societies only increases the potential level of attachment to gender a person can have. Not only do you have the biological sex components to work with, but all the warped stories about what a woman is supposed to do, or what a man is supposed to do. Notice there is no room for a healthy gender spectrum here. Little wiggle room to explore and be flexible about identity. This is starting to change, but for every step towards more openness, there seems to be two going back.

If you take anything from this post, please consider this: gender is an important realm of practice. The path to awakening ultimately will take you through your beliefs about being a man, a woman, or gender non-conforming. Certainly, many never examine it at all. Being a "man" or a "woman" is simply a given. Others choose to ignore or bury such concerns, afraid of what they might find.

Don't be like that. Leave no stone you are aware of unturned.


Algernon said...

Yes. An onion layer of identity.

spldbch said...

I work with members of the military so I constantly see the negative consequences of the "man up" attitude. Anyone who does not "man up" is labeled a dirtbag and becomes a target for mistreatment.

Your post also made me think about a story that was widely publicized in the media maybe two years ago. There was a married couple with three children, including a newborn. The couple decided not to reveal the sex of their newborn. They didn't want the way others treated the child to be influenced by the child's gender. (It's a well established fact that people treat little boys differently from how they treat little girls). Of course there was widespread outrage. People accused this couple of being bad parents and of causing irrepairable harm to the child. Just goes to show how attached our whole society is to gender.

Mumon K said...

All of what you wrote above notwithstanding, rather than deal with sex issues, I think a reasonable synonymous expression would be "Be courageous."

Which, etymologically speaking might even be akin to "Put your heart into it."

Whether telling someone to "Have courage" is going to help them act courageously is of course another question; it probably depends on how it's done.

There may be times when it is better to use the phrase "man up" than it is not to.

Anonymous said...

"It's no accident that monks and nuns of Buddha's order shaved their heads, wore patchwork robes, and abstained from sex. Among other things, this was an attempt to help cut through attachments to both one's biological body form, and also the socially constructed narratives around gender."

The phrase "it's no accident" raises a red flag for me here, and I wonder if it means that celibacy is a solution to biological attachment. If so, maybe constipation will help me not needing to defecate.

I also wanted to say something about meditation marathons and "hardcore" training: It seemed like this meant "manly" in your post. Can't this kind of practice also be associated with fierceness, too? And can't a woman have a fierce practice without it looking manly?

Nathan said...

I think anyone can have a fierce practice, and I would support that. There is a difference between that, thought, and pushing so hard for "enlightenment" that you burn yourself out. Certainly, some women do this kind of thing, but in my experience, it tends to be male dominated, this high pressured approach.

It's interesting you brought up celibacy. I was kind of torn about those comments. I wanted to include something about Zen "red thread" teachings and/ or the tantric teachings, but couldn't fit them into the narrative that day. You're right that that is a red flag, and needs more examination.

Joanne said...

The phrase "man up" to me has always been one way to tell a boyish man to "grow up". Mind you, I've never heard the phrase "woman up".

Something for me to think about.

Was Once said...

Man Up, reminds me of my father teaching me how to walk "correctly," saying in effect that I was not good enough in his mind. Later in life, his acceptance of me being gay, was more about him than me and showed some real softening of who he thought he was or wasn't.

I must say that in Asia, there is an absence of being worried about the other manliness.