From A to Z: Being Alpha, Becoming Zen
This morning in Men’s Yoga, I found myself resisting the teacher’s suggestions to quiet the mind by becoming more aware of the sensations in my body. The part of the brain responsible for these sensations is called the sensorimotor brain, and it is evolutionarily much older than our cognitive, “talking brain.” My sensorimotor brain keeps me breathing, enables me to walk without falling, lets me know when something is hot or cold, causes pain when some part of my body is broken or ailing, and tells me the beautiful woman next to me might just be interested in a little bit of romancing. Paying attention to the enormous number of physical and emotional sensations that are present at any moment may seem like a recipe for disaster but, for some people, it can quiet the inner voice that chronically chatters to us. For others however, this type of mindfulness is threatening and scary: becoming more aware of feelings and sensations can bring back memories of traumatic events and create bodily sensations of pain, fear, or helplessness. Even though it’s not actually happening now, it feels like it is.
I’m one of those other people, so I come by my resistance to the teacher’s suggestions honestly. Even non-traumatized people realize mindfulness doesn’t come naturally, finding they must practice it again and again to get anywhere close to the desired state. Our Western culture rewards us for training our minds to make plans about the future, or to perseverate on the past, whether it was triumph or failure. Our culture doesn’t encourage us to enhance our awareness of the body’s sensations or to be a non-judgmental observer of whatever crazy thought is running through one’s brain right this minute. So, for me in Men’s Yoga, it becomes, “Let’s pay attention to anything other than what is happening right now.”
It’s even more important if you’re an alpha male, not to be distracted by this mindfulness business. “Hey! There’s a lot of shit to do if I’m gonna be a winner by the end of the day and, right now, in this quiet little room with this overly helpful teacher, is a great opportunity to sort out my plans for the day.” But here’s what usually happens: as the pace and intensity of the class picks up, as my body warms, and the poses become more challenging, my talking, thinking brain begins to shut down. This is simple physiology: the body begins to conserve energy when the rate of energy use rises above a certain level. It’s about survival. If I need all my energy to run from the tiger, I certainly don’t want to be thinking about that report I have to write this afternoon. So, whether I want to or not, I find myself starting to pay more attention to those sensations and feelings the teacher, with her soothing voice, is encouraging me to be mindful of.
“Hooray!” you say. Well, no. My mind begins to alternate between words and feelings, and the words I hear elicit unpleasant feelings. It goes something like this: “What does it say about me that I’m doing this girly, yoga stuff?” “Who in here is more alpha than I am? Whom should I fear?” “What if I’m the most alpha? What if these guys are more afraid of me, than I am of them?” “What would happen if I weren’t so walled-off?” “Richard, you know you’re supposed to be working on showing more kindness. Why aren’t you doing that?” “Well, if I’m kind and nice, which of them is going to laugh at me?”
In the past, that way of thinking would have spiraled into anger towards myself for not being able to control this nagging, whining voice. But today is different, and I begin to focus on my breathing and the poses. When self-defeating thoughts pop up, and I let them dance on through and follow them with breath-work and kinder thoughts, something new happens. More space appears, and other thoughts move in: “Most of these guys are probably wondering why I’m so aloof rather than why I’m such a weakling.” “How can I show up as kind and caring and still feel safe?” “Richard, you know you don’t control what anyone thinks about you anyway, so why don’t you just work on showing up in a way that feels good to you?”
My competitiveness and “game face” are old, dependable habits—a protective stance I took to appear strong and fearless when, in reality, I was scared shitless that someone would see me for what I really was: a scared young man, unsure of how to make his way in the world. My limiting and harsh beliefs about manhood have harmed my life, costing me friends, relationships, love, and joy. Now that I am creating new beliefs and habits, how much gentleness will I allow into my life, how much joy, how much sadness, how much connection, how much caring? Why is learning these new ways of being and thinking so hard? Will this new way of living be worth it? Will people even notice, let alone care? For that matter, how much will I care?
After class, while I’m putting on my shoes, a classmate sits next to me. I tell him how much I’ve enjoyed watching his son work at the coffee shop. It’s obvious that his son is conscientious and takes the job seriously, but he also seems to love helping people, working hard to insure they have a good experience at the counter. My friend smiles and tells me how much fun it has been for him to watch his son work. He never would have guessed that his highly intelligent and motivated son would take so warmly to a people-facing, service job. Later, when I remember this moment my friend and I shared, it feels to me like a moment of kindness, of caring. And it leaves me feeling good—about him, about his son, about myself, and about the future of the world. That’s a lot of payback for a few minutes of caring and sharing.