On Men's Pain and Transformation

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"There is no coming to consciousness without pain" – Carl Jung

GI Joe

This article is about pain, its healing, and its transformative importance for men, particularly men in Western, secular culture. It's not to say that this topic isn't important for woman or that the challenges I outline don't translate to woman, but I'm exploring this from a male perspective to attempt to isolate some key hindrances to - and opportunities for - men's transformation. Specifically I'm speaking here of the deep psychosomatic and at times existential pain that comes in moments of personal crisis, loss, identity dismantling, and emotional breakdown – the pain experience that can open us to profound new ways of seeing and being in the world as men.

Since my earliest memories as a child, I remember stuffing emotional pain and hurt out of my awareness – either simply unconsciously as a pattern already set in my individual psyche and the male condition or by external influence from parents, family, father figures, and the pain avoidant Western culture at large. Throughout my childhood and adolescence, I vividly remember the all to common lines, "suck it up!" and "don't be a cry baby!", "boys don't cry", among many others. As a child I swallowed up and began to emulate many of the masculine personifications in television, movies, and play. You know them: Rocky Balboa, The Terminator, Hee Man, Gi Joe, and all other things masculine. At a very young age I learned how (or at least tried my darned best) to be strong, tough, and stoic. I don't mean to say there's anything wrong with these qualities, it's just that my environment and the culture around me provided very little encouragement to experience other essential qualities to healthy development such as vulnerability, openness, and emotional awareness. I know I'm not the only one here. After recently going through a life crisis with probably the most significant emotional pain of my own life I realized that I was very unfamiliar with pain, what do with it, and how to process it in general. After talking with other men during this experience I began to realize that this is a general immaturity among us. Several men I talked to in fact advised me to "just keep busy and keep your mind off it". I began to realize that in our secular, pain-avoidant culture men simply don't have an understanding of the importance of pain nor wisdom or contexts for making meaning out of pain and using it as a catalyst for their emotional and spiritual development.

A Pain Avoidant Culture 

pain avoidance

Our Western, secular society doesn't acknowledge or talk about the importance of experiencing pain as a means to further opening one's heart and mind towards further development. In fact, we are more pain-avoidant than we know. Pain is considered to be unnatural and is avoided at all costs. And we avoid and numb pain in a whole lot of ways, including repression, distraction through self-medication, entertainment, sex, consumerism, and through medical and psychological treatment. And this pain avoidance is deeply embedded in our institutions, particularly medicine. Consider these facts: antidepressants are the most prescribed drug in the United States and use of psychotropics has tripled between 1998-1994 and 1999-2000 (CNN Health, July 09, 2007); preschoolers are the fastest-growing market for antidepressants – at least four percent of preschoolers (over one million children) have been diagnosed as clinically depressed (Depression Facts and Stats, Murray & Fortinberry, 2005); depression is Canada's fastest-rising diagnoses; and although twice as many women as men are diagnosed with depression, most psychologists agree that is because men are less likely to seek help out of fear and depression in men often manifests itself as a substance abuse problem. The fact is most men (and many women too) have a tremendous amount of unresolved pain and we don't know what to do with it. In our secular culture we don't have a way of making meaning out of pain and suffering. In my good friend Olen's words, "we don't see pain as a corridor out of which new maturing can happen", we see it as an obstacle to get out of the way so we can get on with our lives.

Transforming Pain 


So what if we have unresolved pain, right? We've all been bruised, everyone's got their scars, so what's the point in experiencing it or 're'-experiencing it? Do we really want to encourage men to embrace pain? Isn't it one of the strengths of the masculine that he can rise above pain and "hold the ship steady amidst the storm"? Well, I think the answer to these questions lies in what happens to unresolved individual and collective pain. And what happens is that unresolved pain gets disowned (individually and collectively) and gets used up as energy in our shadows as anger, rage, hatred, and resentment and it gets projected onto our partners, family, friends, co-workers and the world at large.

In the words of Father Richard Rohr, "if you do not transform you pain, you will transmit it". Rohr, has dedicated much of his life to men's spirituality and understanding the challenges of the male condition today. In a talk called "Men and Grief", he gives a passionate and compelling speech to a congregation about the importance of men, particularly Western men, to learn how to deal with pain and grief as a means of healing and transformation. He said one thing in this talk that struck me to the core: "the way you can tell the grieving and weeping is over, is when you no longer have the need to blame anybody... including yourself". I remember when I heard that, I thought, "shit, I have a lot of work to do!" In his book The Hidden Spirituality of Men: Ten Metaphors to Awaken the Sacred Masculine, spiritual teacher Matthew Fox describes the path of transformation through pain so eloquently here:

This way goes into the darkness, the wounds, the pain, and also the silence and solitude of existence to find what we have to learn there. It is a way of letting go and letting be, of emptying and being emptied, of moving beyond judgment and beyond control, of sinking and learning to breathe, to sit, to be still, to calm the raging monkey brain, to dwell in silence, to taste nothingness without flinching, and ultimately to focus. It is the way of grieving. Without grief we cannot move to the next stage, which is one of giving birth. This, all spiritual warriors need to undergo many times and in many places and on many occasions and under diverse circumstances.

So how do you transform pain? According to Rohr in his new book, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, you do this by "turning wounds into sacred wounds, that heal others." This does not mean becoming wound 'identified'. Rather it means being with your pain, owning it, even loving it for where it takes you in your being, and then offering the state of being you've been graced with to others.

sacred wounds

The crack in your being that pain inflicts is a sacred gift where openness, love, compassion, vulnerability and new inner wisdom can emerge and connect with the world. Most would agree that these qualities are seriously lacking in the male condition as a whole. Carl Jung once said that so much unnecessary suffering comes into the world because people will not accept the legitimate suffering that comes from being human. It's hard to say how much of the violence, corruption, and harmful narcissistic behavior in the world today relates to the retarded development of these abovementioned qualities in men. I had a client recently (I work as a life and career coach) who had been going through a mid-life crisis and began to see through his own cracks; he said to me, "you know, I don't think I ever even knew what compassion was before this happened". In my professional experience, there are many, many men in the world like this. Granted, this is changing and a minority of men are now embodying, even championing qualities such as empathy, compassion, and an integration of heart and head, but we have a long way to go.

Through my own recent experience with pain I found that, by allowing the pain to be and to work on me, over time, the initial physical and emotion intensity and psychological disorientation of my grieving gave way for something new. I began to see and experience and understand the gifts that the pain was bestowing upon me: a profound openness and intimacy to my essential being, heart-connection, and vulnerability. As I kept this space open and allowed these qualities to be (in fact, I didn't often have a choice) I was able to connect with others in deeper and more meaningful ways than I had previously. I noticed how the qualities I mentioned above became magnified and took on new meaning. My experience of compassion and empathy, in particular, were heightened as I was able to understand and feel in all of my being, not just my head, the suffering of those around me, my clients, community, and the world. I was tuned in a different way. I was also able to see in this state how disembodied I was from these qualities prior to this experience – unfortunately, that's how it works sometimes. I realized that part of my own healing needed to involve sharing what I was experiencing with others. That intuition was verified in my experience as several people noticed and thanked me for this new degree of openness. I even started a local men's group where men could come and learn about different perspectives on pain and it's importance in their emotional and spiritual growth (I'm still waiting for attendees, lol). Indeed, what had happened is that I allowed my wounds to become 'sacred wounds'. Now the work is to continue to honor these gifts that my pain opened me to and to cultivate a space for them to be.

My culture has always taught me to transcend pain. Not to descend with pain as a means for my transformation. I was never taught about pain, given a context to fully experience it, process it, and transform it, which is a necessary step in real transformation. So, as a young adult I sought my own answers through reading and exploring different spiritual traditions and connecting with friends and mentors that had more experience than I did in this area. Unfortunately, most men in our culture today don't have the knowledge, resources, or experience to know how important the pain process is for their transformation. In our evolution as men and as a culture, we need to learn how to be with pain, to own it, and let it crack us wide open before we transcend it. And we need contexts that support men in transforming their pain so that we no longer inflict unnecessary suffering on ourselves and the world.

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  • Comment Link Chris Dierkes Monday, 26 September 2011 22:19 posted by Chris Dierkes


    Great piece.

    It made me think of two arenas in my own work in a downtown church.

    One--the vast majority (like 90+%) of the people who come to our sandwiches and soup are men. Many (though not all) are homeless or in transitionary housing. I was at a talk with an expert on this topic and someone asked her why so many of them are men. She said in her experience women are more resilient beings. It's fascinating to me that the tough guy training actually makes men weaker.

    Two--the men's group at my church consists mostly of men of our father's generation (and some of our grandfather's). And their experience is largely one of learning the language around their emotions. Also they often have broken relationships with their fathers (living or dead). The pain avoidance I think cuts off men from being able to relate on a deeper level with other men.

    It's a great piece, thanks man.

  • Comment Link Frances Amaroux Tuesday, 27 September 2011 20:21 posted by Frances Amaroux

    Excellent article. We all need to know more about the transformational journey from pain to wholeness and deeper connection with ourselves and others. And yes, men need to know this more than women, as so much of their conditioning to 'be a man' is all about learning not to feel, that feeling is for women, not real men. Until men are encouraged to feel, there is almost no way we can truly heal the divide between men and women.

    Because the worst thing you can call a man is a 'pussy' or a 'girl'... it leaves men in a double bind. If he starts to connect with feeling, he becomes more vulnerable and sensitive ... like a female. And yet every part of his conditioning will be screaming at him to not go there.... so protect his 'manhood'.

    I look forward to the day when we perceive feelings and vulnerability and sensitivity and compassion as non-gendered attributes... as merely human attributes.

  • Comment Link Olen Wednesday, 28 September 2011 15:53 posted by Olen

    Really appreciated your article here bro--as I know did others!

    I like how it speaks to and from the very heart of your experience right now, as well as to others. It definitely speaks to me—the importance of feeling into and through pain as a basis for carving out deep sanity, an ease of being, but also courage. True courage it seems requires this difficult ability to fully face into, be present with what is and what is arising, hell even what was. A kind of radical presence, a witnessing that doesn't emotional bypass, but surrenders into tender or at least felt contact with these kinds of difficult experiences as a kind of ontological ethic or commitment of being in the world.

    I'm also happy to see your voice on Beams. As one of the guys, knowing what moved you to write this, your story, your journey into existential relational pain as of late. This is sacred work and I think you've made an important contribution here, offered a reminder for many of us to return to and I'd like to add—develop capacity, check in more around and continue to refine our abilities with..

  • Comment Link TJ Dawe Wednesday, 28 September 2011 16:11 posted by TJ Dawe

    Tim, excellent piece. It brought to mind something I learned from some recent Enneagram training, which focussed not only on the nine personality types, but how they look at the varying levels of health. At the mid-average to lower stages a person is increasingly ruled by the compulsions of their type. And what's happening at these levels is a great deal of suffering. This gets expressed in ways that might not look like suffering at all: an Eight gets aggressive, a One scolds, a Seven indulges, a Nine tunes out, etc. From the outside, it isn't apparent that these are manifestations of suffering, but that's exactly what they are. Add to that the cultural taboo for men to admit vulnerability and pain, and there's all the more impetus to keep expressing these compulsions, believing we can play through the pain, or that there's no pain there at all, that by being a man and doing what we do, all the bad shit will just go away, or that we were big enough and tough enough that it never bothered us in the first place. And then we have heart attacks.

  • Comment Link Tim Walker Wednesday, 28 September 2011 17:08 posted by Tim Walker

    Thanks for the comments everyone.

    Chris, on your comment about men's lack of 'resiliency', who was the expert on this that you mentioned? I'd be interested to read more. Richard Roar talks about this as well - how in Western culture especially, men are lagging behind women in terms of their ability to transform pain.

    I also agreed with you that a lot of 'tough guy training' does weaken men in their wholeness. It often has a lot of blind spots. One of the most common developmental challenges I find in coaching executives stems from a lack of empathy and compassion. The difficult thing is, it seems to be very hard to develop, especially when we've got our armor on...

    Frances, I'm also inspired by the possibility of moving towards vulnerability and sensitivity as human attributes, not gender-attributes. From an educational perspective, I believe there is a lot of opportunity here. Especially as the West relaxes it's fixation on developing cognitive faculties alone. Here is a link to an interesting documentary about a Japanese teacher that emphasizes compassion in his teaching.


    TJ, I found your take on the Enneagram interesting as well and how pain is expressed as unresolved suffering at the lower levels of functioning in different types...


  • Comment Link Hokyo Joshua Routher Thursday, 29 September 2011 22:33 posted by Hokyo Joshua Routher

    Hey, I just wanted to say great article. I really love the simplicity and intensity here. I wanted to invite others to check out a book by Warren Farrell called "The Myth of Male Power" which expands on this culture of learned pain and helplessness of men.

    Thank you again,
    Hokyo Joshua

  • Comment Link Richard Munn Friday, 30 September 2011 13:41 posted by Richard Munn

    Hey Guys,

    I'll post a link to a piece I wrote a number of years back about my practice of meditation and deeply body-inclusive therapy in relation to grief, which I think is relevant here.

    I haven't yet read the comments but would like to engage in dialogue.


  • Comment Link Tim Walker Saturday, 01 October 2011 14:14 posted by Tim Walker


    Thank you for sharing your article. It resonates very much with my own experience right now.

    I'm also inspired by Robert's work. In fact, I'm trying to find my own balance right now between practice and therapy and you've described some things (e.g. the subtle body work) that I want to pay more attention to.

    I'd be interested in engaging more with you about this.


  • Comment Link Chela Saturday, 01 October 2011 14:20 posted by Chela

    Hi Tim,

    Thank you for this very important article. This piece inspired today's Daily Bricolage: http://www.beamsandstruts.com/bits-a-pieces/item/621-emotional-literacy-for-boys-raising-cain

    I am curious, either in your own personal experience, or with working with clients, what types of practice you might suggest one works with in transforming pain.

    You did speak to this a bit in your article. You also spoke to the challenges you see in your clients who have limited emotional literacy. What have you found useful in supporting them in the expansion of that emotional literacy as well as transforming the pain they may be not in touch with, suppressing or escaping?
    Or anyone else jumping into this discussion who may have suggestions for such things.


  • Comment Link Chris Dierkes Saturday, 01 October 2011 18:54 posted by Chris Dierkes


    It was Judy Graves who said that--she works as the homelessness advocate at City Hall in Vancouver. I don't think she's ever written anything on the subject. She was just giving her view (based on her experience). She did frame it by saying it might be her sexism. From my experience--which is far far less than hers-I get the same feeling.

    One of the points she mentioned is that having children prevents a number of women from ending up on the street who are otherwise right on the border. Children give them something to live for, which with the men who are usually quite alone and alienated, I don't get that sense.

    Also I think they just have less tools. I'm not sure it's some essentialist thing (men vs. women) so much as the men are simply not prepared and don't have the investment (like children) that the women (very generally speaking) do.

  • Comment Link Tim Walker Sunday, 02 October 2011 15:00 posted by Tim Walker

    Hi Chela,

    I enjoyed your bricolage. I think teaching emotional literacy at a young age is key in our culture. And many school boards are now doing it at a very young age, which is great. Because it's so hard to reverse this stuff at a later age and most men aren't up to the challenge and commitment of it. We're content just trucking along with our armour.

    The pain experience with my clients is new to me. Typically, I work with executives and they often resist taking their armour off. Recently I've had a few clients going through crises and it just so happened that they exposed their pain to me. One of the things I have done is talked to my clients about the pain and let them experience it with me by creating a very open environment. Also, I jump in when I get the sense they want to blame themselves or rationalize out of the pain. Also, I give them alternative perspectives on pain when I get the sense they want to escape it. When there is processing happening, I just try to create a space to allow that to happen. Outside of the coaching context, I have given suggestions to clients to practice emotional awareness and non-judgment. Recognizing when they have pain or difficult emotions, being with it, and not reacting to it. Anyway, I'm still experimenting.

    Doug Silsbee has a good book on coaching and he touches on somatics quite a bit. It's called 'Presence-based coaching'. You may want to check that out.


  • Comment Link Chloe Monday, 10 October 2011 20:10 posted by Chloe

    A massage therapist friend of mine here in Vancouver mentioned recently a project in elementary schools where children are taught massage and are given time to practice on each other.. apparently studies have shown that this has decreased the rates of bullying (which is most cases stems from pain) in schools. Very interesting!

    On another note, as a birth doula, I am inspired by this article and how it relates to birth... I guess this is a very woman-centered response, but I will share it anyway. It seems to me that many of the problems that arise in our modern birth practices relate to this desire to avoid pain. As someone who has never given birth, maybe I am not actually justified in having an opinion here, but here is goes anyway.

    In regards to the fear-tension-pain cycle (where each one leads to and amplifies the next in a spiral) and the body-mind connection, it is clear that beliefs around pain in childbirth dramatically affect the outcome in birth.
    When women harbour strong fears of pain in birth things tend to either slow down and stop (epinephrin from fight or flight response) or else lead to the use of medication. This medication (especially epidurals) can lead to ineffective pushing efforts (imagine how clumsy you feel when you try to eat with a frozen mouth after a visit to the dentist) and results in increased rates of cesarean section (50% rate with epidurals), vacuum and forceps use.
    All these interventions are very expensive and can lead to feelings of disappointment postpartum, or even post-trauma stress.

    What if women were given positive images of birth in our movies and TV shows? What if women entered birth knowing that there would be pain but that the pain was necessary for the transformation to motherhood and the infant's journey from womb to world? How would the outcomes be different if women knew that this pain did not equate to bodily harm?

    In what other areas of our lives do we need to embrace pain as a catalyst for change?

    [Chris says that my comment shows the need for me to write a piece on birth. Seeing as many of my comments turn into tangents about birth even when the articles have not much to do with that! : ) ]

  • Comment Link Trevor Malkinson Monday, 10 October 2011 21:15 posted by Trevor Malkinson

    When first reading this article I was reminded of a conversation I'd heard between Michael Dowd and Bruce Sanguin on the topic of pain being able to open us up greater compassion, as Tim speaks to in the article from his own experience. I sent that to Tim while I was doing edits for the article, but I thought I'd reprint that here for other readers of the piece and thread. It was from the The Advent of Evolutionary Christianity Teleseries:

    http://evolutionarychristianity.com/blog/audio-downloads/ (Dialogue 2)

    (19:00 minute mark)

    Michael- "Joanna Macy’s work around being able to feel the suffering, of the world, other species, other humans, because it’s in letting that in- we often protect our hearts, we don’t feel that, we keep it out- but if we open our hearts, our hearts break open with compassion, we become that compassion, that empathy that lets us know how profoundly interconnected and interrelated we are. And it’s a softening and an empowering sort of thing".

    Bruce- "I love what Joanna does with that, because she picks up on Robert Lifton’s work, I think he was the guy who came up with the term psychic numbing. We just numb down because the amount of suffering is overwhelming, but the paradox is, as you’re saying, that if we will allow ourselves to actually contemplate the suffering, go deeper into it, our hearts will open up and open out, and we’ll become the heart of the cosmos in ourselves, we’ll embody that loving compassionate impulse, we’ll be shaped according to that kind of, animating heart that beats at the center of the cosmos".

    I also came across this Bible passage the other day via Father Richard Rohr, who was writing about the importance of our suffering and pain for making us capable of compassion, love and service (he was talking about it in an addiction/recovery context).

    "Peter, you must be ground like wheat, and once you have recovered, then you can turn and help the brothers". (Luke 22:31-32)

    I'm pretty I have some more wheat grinding to do myself. Thanks again Tim (et al.)

  • Comment Link Richard Munn Saturday, 15 October 2011 08:00 posted by Richard Munn

    Hey All,

    I want to include something here that very vividly speak to 'Men's Pain.'

    It's a BAFTA-winning short-film by my martial arts teacher about the world of male violence.

    I don't recall the exact statistics but it's something like there are 7 times more men in prison than women and the highest murder rate is man on man.

    This film shows male love and brotherhood, male aggression, male vulnerability (and male character-hardening, which is not in itself unhealthy) and male pain.

    I'm including it because it makes so vivid some important male issues without glamour and with tons of heart. I hope you get something from it.


  • Comment Link Richard Munn Sunday, 16 October 2011 16:19 posted by Richard Munn

    This is also an amazing and (I don't use this word often) ground-breaking conversation between Ken Wilber and Warren Farrell


  • Comment Link Amy Jean Cousins Tuesday, 25 October 2011 06:16 posted by Amy Jean Cousins

    Thanks for your work and for sharing this post. I have a deep appreciation for men doing this kind of work. I belong to a community of folks in Victoria who host Sweat Lodges with native elders. The sacredness and raw transformative power of the lodge has been amazing. And as a woman, one of the most powerful experiences has been holding the men as they cry, scream and feel into the pain of the world and their ancestors. To see men break open into their vulnerability is so full of beauty. We are re-defining in an integral culture what qualities define strength. It takes a strong man to cry. It takes an incredible amount of strength to reach out and share pain with others. And so, as a woman, I say thank you for your work and for inspiring this work in other.

  • Comment Link Amy Jean Cousins Tuesday, 25 October 2011 06:24 posted by Amy Jean Cousins

    I just read the other comments... Yes Joanna Macy's work is beautiful in this context. I've been in workshop with her and I hold a deep appreciation for her work and process.

    From a teaching perspective (I'm a teacher), we use Non-Violent communication -also known as Compassionate Communication - at my school with the students and among the staff. Lots of great stuff there.


  • Comment Link Tim Walker Monday, 05 December 2011 03:23 posted by Tim Walker

    Hi Amy,

    Apologies for the very late follow up here. Thanks for your comments and the additional links.

    I have heard of the intense impact sweat lodges can have in opening you to pain and vulnerability. I have yet to do one, but I plan to in the future. It sounds like you are doing great work there.

    I have done some workshops with a men's development organization called the Mankind Project (http://mankindproject.org/) and many of the experiential activities they use have been 'gifted' from aboriginal communities around the world. In my experience these processes are very effective at getting to the core of wounds.

    Another great organization doing work with adolescent men to support the development of vulnerability and emotional awareness is Boys to Men (http://www.boystomen.org/). I volunteer with this organization. We visit schools and have group dialogue groups with teen aged boys and as mentors we strive to model the expression of feelings, vulnerability, and emotional openness.

    There's hope after all :)


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