What Does It Mean to Be Masculine?
Interview with Justin Patrick Pierce by Tara Lange, SAND Magazine
A teacher of intimacy, an author, and a leader of workshops for men, women, and couples, Justin Patrick Pierce helps us to shift the way we show up. But not just how we show up in relationships; how we show up in the world. How comfortable we are with intimacy shows itself in the ways we accept feedback at work, how we listen when a friend needs our advice, whether we pursue our dream job. Are we living our full potential? Are we showing up to every moment open, flexible, willing to get in flow with the current of life? In the first of many conversations to come, Pierce talks with us about masculinity and how connecting with it ultimately connects a man to his purpose and potential.
What ultimately led to your desire to teach a “new kind of masculinity”?
Masculinity isn’t new. And it isn’t old. If it’s understood, it’s timeless.
I never had a desire to teach masculinity. Over the years, I’ve found most of the men claiming to teach masculinity to be no different than any average man. They still struggle with women, relationships, sex, food, substances, money, and their life’s purpose all the same.
“Masculinity” is a controversial subject to teach. And with good reason. Who’s to say what’s “masculine” and what’s not? Who is the leading authority on the topic? Is it the U.S. military? A therapist with a concentration in gender studies? A chronically single “relationship expert”? A spiritual guru sourcing wisdom from thousand-year-old texts? Who is the authority on what “masculinity” means in our modern Western world?
There are few men I’ve crossed paths with who can say with confidence that their fathers were the ones who held the secrets to this age-old question: “what is masculinity?” More often than not, the maturing men of our modern world are looking everywhere for answers—everywhere and anywhere other than to their fathers. If our fathers don’t have the answers, if those who brought us into this world fail to answer our big questions, “who am I?” “why am I here?” and “what is the purpose of my life?”, then where do we go to find out? Who or what is left to trust?
Call it karma, fate, or dumb luck, but the answers that found me were never anything I went looking for. I never thought I’d be discussing such things in public, let alone teaching them. Everyday I question whether or not to continue my work with men. And everyday the answer is the same: surrender.
Can you talk briefly about the masculinity of now, vs. of previous generations?
Men of previous generations were confident they knew what it meant to be a man—right or wrong, they had answers. Today, we are confident that, as a culture, we are more confused about what masculinity means than we have ever been before.
There are many ways “masculinity” can be defined. Some are useful, many are not. First, we must decide for ourselves which definitions ultimately serve our lives and those we love, and which do not.
Many years ago, I was given a rare opportunity to explore the definition of masculinity at great depth. This exploration had nothing to do with reading books, listening to lectures, or analyzing studies on the subject. For the first time in my life, my masculinity was something to be demonstrated through my body, my attention, and my breath in the presence of other men and women, as they were instructed to critique what they saw in me.
At first, it’s very natural to think, “Who are these people to judge? What do they know about me or masculinity? How could what they see in me be of any real significance at all? Afterall, they’re strangers.”
But something profound became apparent very quickly. When asked the right questions, this random group of men and women, virtually unanimously, was capable of seeing when I was “hiding” something about myself and when I was not. They could easily identify the exact moments I was suppressing my strength, or felt anxious and uncertain, or was masquerading a false sense of confidence—it was as if the collective could see right through me.
After working with countless groups, hundreds of men and women, scrutinizing the integrity and authenticity of my masculinity through nothing more than my physical presence, something had become painfully clear: others can see me better than I can see myself. These men and women had no special training. They were not experts in masculinity. And yet, group after group, their observations and responses were pointing towards a single definition of what masculinity could mean—a definition that can be traced back thousands of years across myriad cultures throughout the world.
It was presence. A presence defined by those precious, fleeting moments when my attention would become absolutely free; when I was no longer trapped in thought, contracted in my body, or bound inside myself. It was the embodiment of consciousness.
I’ve heard you speak about the masculine mission or purpose. How can a man know his mission?
There is little a man can’t endure.
Under the right circumstances, he will willingly lay down his life to defend that which he believes in and that which he loves. This masculine quality that resides within us all has been demonstrated by our forefathers since the dawn of human history.
When a man knows his Purpose, he can endure almost anything. But he may arrive at a point in his life where his Purpose is lost—he feels directionless, worthless, as if life has no meaning at all. For the masculine, there is no greater suffering.
It is at this point that he must ask himself, “what must I do, accomplish, or become before I die?”
If the answer is, “I don’t know”, then his Purpose is to find out.
If he thinks he knows, he must pursue his vision and ask himself nightly, “if I don’t wake up tomorrow, will I die complete tonight?”
This inquiry becomes his compass.
Can you elaborate on this? What does “purpose” mean for men in this era?
Purpose is like an onion—it has many layers. It has its superficial, flakey layers, and it has its deeper, more nourishing layers. Unlike an onion, however, its layers are infinite.
There’s a certain point in a man’s life, once he has evolved beyond the belief that his happiness is based on “getting what he wants,” that he seriously contemplates the deeper layers of his life’s Purpose. The deeper the investigation goes, the more obvious it becomes that no matter what he accomplishes, the haunting feelings of incompleteness, doubt, and failure persist. These feelings may manifest in the most subtle ways, and his frustration with life becomes obvious through daily reminders: his imperfect relationships with his woman and children, his steadily declining health, his remarkably limited finances, his never-ending laundry list of to-do’s, all the way down to the simple inconvenience of buying, cooking, and eating food to survive.
If he persists in the inquiry—cutting away frivolous activities and reorienting his attention towards a deeper sense of Purpose—he will inevitably discover that his fundamental “problem” is that he feels he is not already free. He will realize that every action he has taken in his life up to this point has been an attempt to exploit, to experience, to know, to taste absolute freedom. At first, it may have been hard for him to see the motive behind his actions. But now, it’s clear as day...
Why chase money? Because it symbolizes the freedom to spend our time how we want, where we want, when we want.
Why chase power? Because it symbolizes the freedom to do whatever we want, when we want to do it.
Why chase significance, growth, contribution, or leaving a legacy for future generations? Because it symbolizes the freedom to feel that we’ve done our part, that we’ve given our gifts fully, that we are done — mission complete.
This hunger for freedom, this hunt for liberation, drives the masculine psyche mad. But until he discovers the part of himself that is already inherently free, prior to action, prior to thought, prior to desire, he will remain captive in a prison of his own design.
What are some ways to start incorporating this type of thinking into everyday life? When you begin working with a student for instance, what are some basic practices you give them to land these teachings?
In order to incorporate this thinking into everyday life, we must associate this thinking with everyday experiences. Food is an everyday experience. Money is an everyday experience. Sex, whether physically engaged or not, is an everyday experience for most men. A thorough investigation of any one of these areas of your life is sufficient for profound personal growth. The close observation of all three is subject to transform a man’s life completely.
As a sacred sexuality teacher, sex is my primary area of focus. There are few activities that consume our attention, influence our actions, and tantalize our cravings the way sex does. Through the proper practice of sacred sexuality, you can learn to transcend one of the most primal impulses known to man—second only to survival—the reactive, biological urge for release. This urge cannot only be transcended, it can be transformed. It can become the fire that fuels your Purpose.
Touching on the ideals of SAND, how do you take time out to incorporate “slow living” and wellness-oriented concepts into everyday life and why this is important? Any tips for the reader?
When we develop the awareness and sensitivity to feel deeply inwards and identify the impulse behind our every action, our every thought, our every reaction, that is when we begin to understand the depth of our masculine essence.
When we develop the awareness, sensitivity and equanimity to feel profoundly outwards and offer the depth of our masculine essence from a position beyond desire, beyond personal gain, beyond our strategies for release, then we will discover what it means to live that thing each of us may uniquely define as our Purpose.
Observe your body, your breath, your posture in real time. Begin watching yourself now. See yourself objectively. Watch how you fidget. Observe your discomfort. Notice the rhythm and depth of your breath, moment to moment—while reading, while eating, while talking, while making love. This practice alone can change our lives.
Every great spiritual tradition has some version of this practice as its foundation. The best part is, nothing needs to be added to your busy schedule to reap the benefits of this practice. Once we have developed a strong sense of awareness, to deepen the practice, we begin to not only observe our own body, but also the bodies of those around us. When we reach a deeper layers of practice, we stop using our bodies to satisfy our own personal needs and desires, and start offering them in service to our loved ones, and ultimately to the world.