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The Ordinary Hero

August 8, 2013
Paulus Berensohn dedicating a bowl to be offered to the earth at Penland School of Crafts

Paulus Berensohn dedicating a bowl to be offered to the earth at Penland School of Crafts

My next project could be…a manhunt.

I’d be on the lookout for men who live beyond the confines of conventionally defined masculinity.

Men who, as I’ve written elsewhere, embrace their capacities for emotion, tenderness, and intuitive knowing — even as the culture dismisses these human capacities as appropriate only for women and girls.

Men who, borrowing a term from author Philip Shepherd, are content to be ordinary heroes.

Through the example of their lives, they’d show us a glimpse of post-patriarchal culture. A culture that moves beyond violence, hierarchy, and fear toward reverence, community, respect. A life-affirming culture that places doing in service to being.

Here’s the start of a list of candidates, with links to their stellar qualities of creativity, courage, and compassion:

Coleman BarksColeman Barks

Paulus BerensohnPaulus Berensohn

Barry LopezBarry Lopez

Doug OrrDoug Orr

Patrick StewartPatrick Stewart

Paul WinterPaul Winter

Doing And Being

In Kurt Vonnegut‘s Deadeye Dick, Rudy Waltz encounters the tussle between doing and being in an airport men’s room (p. 253):

For a few moments there, I was happier than happy, healthier than healthy,
and I saw these words scrawled on the tiles over a wash basin:

“To be is to do” — Socrates.

“To do is to be” — Jean-Paul Sartre.

“Do be do be do” — Frank Sinatra.

In Asheville, North Carolina, Steven Jones invites men to a weekly Men’s Dance. He writes:

Being and Doing, are they the same thing? Do we know the difference? Usually, when asked who we are, we answer with a description of what we do — engineer, data analyst, social worker.

We pursue our relationships with others in our same task-oriented fashion: We gain, we take, we control, we feel powerful, but this process offers diminishing returns. We may feel needed, but for what we have and give, not who we are.

What would be truly fulfilling? What can we truly offer to others from the pure core of our being?

The answers are found in our bodies. We dance and move to wake up, to shake up. We look for who we are in relation to the wonders of incarnation and accept the freedom to be insignificant and yet vitally alive — how that seeming contradiction is capable of connecting us with everyone and everything.
July 1, 2013

As we dance and as we live through the “core of our being” — our center of being as it dwells within our body’s center — we are in the process of integrating polarities, however we express them: energy and matter, yang and yin, heaven and earth, spirit and flesh, male and female, doing and being.

What About Men?

Hara is the Japanese term for the belly as the body’s sacred center, our core connection with All-That-Is, the place where polarities meet and merge. Since 1988, I’ve developed and shared the hara-charging Honoring Your Belly program in workshops open only to women — our bellies are such tender subjects for us.

But what about men? Do men have hara?

Honoring the BellyTwenty years ago, Yoga Journal featured my article on Honoring the Belly. Within days of the issue’s publication, I received a letter with return address marked Tom Thompson, Hara Foundation. Thrilled to meet Tom, I asked him what he observed among the men in his yoga and meditation classes as they learned to live more and more through the body’s center.

His answer was concise. They became less narcissistic, less self-absorbed. He recently elaborated:

Living from the hara as the center of the infinite ocean of life energy makes one aware of the energetic flow within and around oneself and others. Being in this flow makes it increasingly difficult to fixate on propping up a self-image. (Look at me! I’m great! — trip, splat!)
August 4, 2013

Men as artists, dancers, poets, gardeners, educators, horse whisperers: Sure, some may have found a way to integrate masculinity into the generosity of being human. But what about race car drivers? What about do-be-do-be-do in a sport as macho as racing?

Tracking The Oval

[Update May 12, 2014: I’m deleting what was a piece on an electrical engineer turned race car driver and photographer. He no longer qualifies for this list.]

Hero Or Tyrant?

In New Self, New World: Recovering Our Senses in the Twenty-First Century, Philip Shepherd writes that the male (yang) doing aspect of human consciousness operates — in both men and women — either as hero or tyrant. The tyrant, striving for independence, guarding his isolation, attempts to rule the world from his high-in-the-sky, heady perspective. As mythologist Joseph Campbell characterizes him, the tyrant is a “monster avid for the greedy rights of ‘my and mine.'” He struggles to dominate and exploit the female power of being, the Sacred Feminine.

In contrast, the hero devotes himself to serving the female (yin) power of being. Rather than standing apart or above, the hero immerses himself in the nothing-special particulars of the world, the experience of what simply is. Down-to-earth, as ordinary as this very moment, the hero surrenders himself to the Sacred Feminine.

As Shepherd describes the process, the integration of male and female dimensions of human consciousness takes place within the body’s center, the hara, the pelvic bowl. Such integration leads us into authenticity, wholeness, presence:

Who you really are is the part of you that can center itself in the energy of the present. To open to [the unknowable present] and allow your spiritual center of gravity to live there is to join the mythic hero. It is also to side with life.
(p. 28)

The Hero’s Descent

Shepherd asserts that the hero’s journey is “a descent into the perplexing depths of the body to reunite with the center of intelligence that enables us to ‘be.'” He offers an experience of the ordinary hero’s path: picking up a pencil from the floor:

What could be simpler? But try it, and pay attention, questioningly. Are you deciding to pick it up and then executing the order? If you don’t will yourself to pick it up, then how can you? Is it possible to pick it up as an act of self-achieved submission? And if so, how does that happen? If you submit, where does the impulse to pick it up come from? As you bend down or rise, is there a sense of effort? Does that effort open you to the world or focus you on the self? Are the processes of your thinking and Being happening in separate realms? Can you allow the energies of your thinking to course down and merge with your being? Can you release the awareness of the self as a whole into the heart and let it greet the mindful present?
(p. 158)

Here’s one way to borrow a pencil from gravity:

I sink down to the floor, stretch out alongside the pencil, run an index finger along its surface in appreciation of its lineage: Wind, water, sun, and soil nourishing its original tree; insects, birds, and squirrels living among its legacy leaves. Women and men harvesting, transporting, shredding, blending the bit of tree with eraser and graphite into pencil form. Women and men distributing, wholesaling, storing, retailing, stocking, and ringing this pencil up for me, placing it in a bag and giving me the receipt. This one pencil, emissary of much activity and many agencies. Does she miss her arboreal origins? As I consider pencil’s genesis, relationship blossoms. It becomes thou.

How to pick this pencil up when we’re both on the ground? With her permission, I roll pencil toward me, tuck her into the pocket of my pants, roll myself over, press up onto hands and knees, shift my weight further into my feet, press feet into ground, am lifted upright.

Here’s another way:

Standing just behind the pencil, I bend my knees and squat, yield my perineum — that lowest, deepest earth-point of my pelvic floor — to the ground, exhale an invitation. My hands, in prayer position, pivot at the wrist, descend to meet and greet the pencil. Responding to contact, pencil opens a space between my palms and enters.

I tuck pencil into the back of my waistband, rise into standing, lifted by the perineum’s pull.

Shepherd reveals the do-be-do-be-do lurking in this experiment:

When the present comes to rest in our core — then we can feel the pencil as a whole within the whole to which we ourselves belong. That kinship reveals it to be no longer a dead thing on the nondescript floor, but a living revelation of the self. From that starting point of mutual awareness, we undertake a journey in which we surrender to what we might discover in picking up the pencil; and so we are carried out of our agenda of doing and into the experience of being.
(p. 160)

(As it happened, I rediscovered pencil later that day, during a business meeting, as she migrated from the back of my waistband through the spacious realm of my trousers. Such are the perils of practicing ordinary heroism.)

Ordinary Hero, Mythic Mother

Philip ShepherdI’m adding Philip Shepherd to my list of men defining and demonstrating masculinity in a life-affirming light.

Philip compares the ordinary hero, committed to serving the power of being, with the all-embracing mythic mother and finds them in alignment:

The hero’s quest elevates him into motherhood. In fact, the whole journey of the soul is an evolution into cosmic motherhood — a state of grounded sensitivity that looks to the world with love, listens to its need and its calling with compassion, and acts, often heroically, always selflessly, on its behalf. Whether our own evolution shapes of us a heroic mother or a mothering hero is a matter of indifference. As a mother gives of herself to her child, wanting it to grow into its own strength and clarity, so too the reborn hero upholds with compassion the world around him and those with whom he shares it. Through his actions and inactions he births a deeper harmony.
(p. 405)

Coming Home

We know the tyrant, within ourselves and within our culture, all too well. We know the abuse that follows from attempts to control, to dominate, to have one’s way above all else.

We crave the homecoming — the nourishment, the peace — that is the hero’s quest for wholeness.

We demonstrate heroic courage as we’re gutsy enough to be ordinary and, at the same time, entirely alive.

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