As I stood naked in the doorway of my home posing for a female photographer, I asked myself, “How the hell did I end up here??”
Before proceeding with my response, let me first state that I am in awe of the brave women who are leading the current movement, as we all reel from an explosion of revelations about sexual harassment and assault. Theirs is a tough act to follow. Now, men must rise to the challenge of embodying the change that we all seek.
As it turned out, my consciousness-raising regarding these issues came to a head a couple of years before the recent allegations began pouring out of every sector of our society, sparked by the most peculiar trigger point.
It all began with a milestone birthday. I stumbled into my sixth decade as our older son began high school, and our younger son hit puberty. The passing years were easily apparent in their growth spurts, but where were the benchmarks of my increasing maturity? On the outside, it looked like I was defying the aging process, but internally I was aware that I was winded and tired. Had I peaked and passed my “sell by” date without any dramatic physical evidence to show for it?
Before turning 50, my life certainly had been full and busy. As a social entrepreneur who had kept his family afloat while launching two modestly successful ventures in education and youth media, I am more pleased with my personal achievements than my professional success. I am one of the guys who had aggressively pursued work-family balance, who made painful tradeoffs that many of my male peers did not.
I navigated the challenges of then-new social contracts between men and women who had been rewriting norms since the late 70’s. I was a champion for the new masculinity that has struggled to replace the persistent toxic mess that still surrounds us, and I endured plenty of ridicule for it. I have witnessed the passing of love, wisdom, and courage through three generations of men on both sides of our family, I was a ghetto priest to us all as we fell deeper into crisis, and tried to respond to the increasing polarization between men and women that had swept over us.
I had searched relentlessly for an occupation that would be financially rewarding and satisfy my soul. I had followed the deepest desires of my own heart to discover an experience of the divine within our very secular society.
Before this birthday, my path had been unusually blessed, but as I turned the big 5-0, I wondered: Would there be another chapter to explore? Was it possible to simply relax, work hard, and enjoy life with my wife? Could I learn to how to let go of the mental habit of doing, achieving, pursuing something? Might I finally develop the talent of being content with just being me, with nothing to prove? I didn’t know, but I was determined to find out.
From the beginning, I worried that I was starting this chapter on the wrong foot. Excited to be preparing to launch the third start up—a safe, secure social network for kids—and eager to map out the forbidden territory of being a social entrepreneur in his golden years, I could not shake some deep misgivings. Wasn’t my chosen field of work undermining my own stated goal? How could I possibly relax and enjoy life while also being a hard-charging entrepreneur? Was it even possible to be a be-er and a doer at the same time? I didn’t know, but of one thing I was certain. I had exhausted my innate energy reserves after decades of stretching myself too thin on so many fronts. Before I could begin my next chapter, I needed to re-group— physically, emotionally, and psychologically.
So I took some time off to go mountaineering with our older son in Zermatt. Although our guide had commented that I was surprisingly fit and youthful for a man my age, I wasn’t persuaded. My midriff bulge and my inability to detach from the world and enjoy our ascent offered incontrovertible evidence to the contrary. I wasn’t in any shape to compete at the altitudes I was climbing, in business or sport. I decided it was time for strong measures.
Renewing my attack on life was important, not just for my work. As the father of two adolescent sons, I felt an obligation to see my journey of self-discovery all the way through, so I could understand what it means to be a man in the 21st Century, and perhaps, to set an example for them.
I have never been willing to accept the prevailing 20th-Century models of masculinity. Hemingway’s macho posturing made no sense to me. John Wayne’s strong but silent pose was too narrow a bandwidth for most guys I knew. Jimmy Stewart’s awe-gee-shucks, good-ole-boy stance didn’t have enough punch for a hyper-competitive global knowledge economy. David Bowie’s metro-sexuality or Steve Job’s autocratic, geeky, self-interest were clearly not it. The many celebrities and athletes that we worship were hardly regular joes.
No, none of these models spoke to me as all-encompassing of the Y vibe. Being male had to be some biogenetic fusion of all of these types and probably more, especially in this modern era. There was something missing, and I intended to find out what it was.
Our mountain guide provided a glimpse of the new man I sought to become. He embodied a combination of strength and assertiveness, with an openness and receptivity, and an easiness in his body. He was a balanced, mature male, inside and out, in the Alps.
When I asked him how we should prepare for next summer’s return trip, he suggested that we swim to increase our cardio conditioning and lung capacity, on top of the running and weight training that we were already doing. So, upon our return home, taking his advice to heart, I bought a Swiss-red speedo and got my ass in the water. There would be no messing around. If I needed to strip down and shame myself in public in order to get fit, so be it.
I swam laps, miles and miles of laps, every day, every week, every month. Zoning out for hours. Nothing on my mind but moving my limbs and breathing.
I also found a hot yoga studio that was run by a couple of guys who had gathered a group of midlife misfits sweating through their life struggles. Tears streamed down my face at the end every class, as I stretched out my brains, and my body, determined to shed the twenty-five-pound tube that rolled over my compression shorts. I hated looking at myself in the mirror as directed by our instructor. I had the body of an aging athlete that had let himself go to shit. My upper body, torso, pelvis, and legs were still showing bulges in all the right places, under a two-inch layer of fat. Well, perhaps there was hope.
Recognizing that not only my body but my mind, too, needed a program update, I phoned a buddy who could help me clear out the emotional crap I had accumulated over the years. A non-traditional therapist who worked with clients around the US, he had an uncanny, intuitive ability to empty my mind. In no time at all he was dialed into my head, drilling into my anger management issues, the anxiety attached to yet another career shift, the stress of constantly raising money for new ventures, the challenges of feeling like I was never home enough for my wife and the boys. We decided I needed to undertake a “do-whatever-the-fuck-it-takes” plan. It was time to solve these problems once and for all. I agreed to keep a warrior journal, setting milestones and keeping track of my progress.
As our sessions continued, I opened up to him in ways that one would only contemplate with a soul brother. Perhaps it helped that we never met in person, but only talked by phone. Totally unfiltered, completely vulnerable, and emotionally naked, I unloaded tons of garbage and offered up revelations that no guy ever shares even with his best buddy—my actual sexual history and fantasies, for example. He listened without judgment.
Through it all, he encouraged me to stay focused on my body, and not allow myself “to escape,” as he knew I had a tendency to use alcohol and my “spirituality” as ways to remove myself from my pain points. He insisted that I needed to stay grounded, rooted, to confront issues directly, to live in the here and now. Using visualizations to help me excavate my psyche, he urged me to “stay present in your cock” (one thing that keeps all men focused), as it was obvious that, for a long time now, I had not been just going through the motions. I laughed. It reminded me of Eve Ensler’s “Who Lives in Her Vagina” sketch, in The Vagina Monologues, where she described walking down the street and analyzing which women “lived in their vaginas.” I was now working on the Penis Soliloquies.
As I marched through my manhood training program, various forms of brotherly support showed up, first in the bookstore, where I virtually lived on the weekends, because our younger son was hyperlexic. While browsing the store as he made his next set of purchases, I spotted Dan Millman’s The Way of the Peaceful Warrior, bought it, and finished it in a week. Then, American Shaolin by Matthew Polly jumped off the shelves. The message that kept coming through was,
Dude, you need a reboot. Power up. Keep training. Unleash the warrior within.
Slowly but surely, I was making a shift. The spiritual gladiator inside me was going to serve me well. I had never been much of a babe magnet, but at a cocktail party in New York, our hostess cornered me for nearly twenty minutes, ignoring all her other guests. Then, a second woman sidled up for a long conversation. It felt like I was being passed around like an appetizer. There was a new spark here.
When purchasing Christmas presents just before the holidays, I stumbled upon a single copy of The Multi-Orgasmic Male by Mantak Chia. The title naturally got my attention, so I bought it without even opening the cover, and hid it in the piles of books in my office, far away from young, prying eyes. With all the end-of-year madness, I completely forgot about it.
Cleaning up after New Year’s, I unearthed the book. To my astonishment I had purchased a very thorough discussion of male sexuality that had sold millions of copies in the 70’s, enabling a generation of guys to harness their sexual energy in order to improve their health, life force, following the precepts of an ancient Taoist tradition.
I talked to my therapist buddy, and he agreed that buying this book was no accident. Though we both knew this wasn’t the meditative practice that he was encouraging me to restart, it had spoken to me, so I should read it. As it turned out, I was a natural at figuring out how to stimulate myself to bring my sexual energy up to its tipping point before channeling it up my spine to the crown of my head, swirling it around left to right, right to left, then carefully lowering it through the front of my torso back to my groin, without ejaculation. In no time at all, I felt the fog in my forehead dissipate. I was more mentally alert than I had been in ages. On top of it all, I was pursuing a spiritual discipline in which I was adept and physically grounded.
As my morning practice progressed, I felt the most amazing, tingling sensation all over my body. I was energized, alive. A strong, sturdy, male, in command of his own libido, and able to channel his energy to a positive outcome, at the time and place of his own choosing, for a purpose that was his to determine. I was finally fully present in my body, firing on all cylinders, without transcending.
As I shifted into higher gears physically and mentally, I dropped weight and got my head together. I began to feel the mind-body connection in ways that I had long ago forgotten. But there was still something missing. I wasn’t completely in the zone. I could pump myself up in the morning, and later bliss out for a couple hours at the gym, but I was still struggling with a lot of day-to-day stress and inner turmoil.
So I finally decided to resume a meditation practice that I had abandoned a few years after college, once my work and parenting responsibilities took off. Back then, I spent an hour or two meditating every day, but it began to frighten me that, through such intense focus, I was beginning to lose my grip on reality. Strange dreams and altered states had swept over me. Could I resume my practice without escaping? Now grounded in my physical being in a way that I had never been before, I resolved that I would try.
To my surprise, meditating was like riding a bike. My practice came back effortlessly, taking some of the pressure off. However, I was still struggling, erupting in volcanic angry outbursts as things still weren’t clicking into gear at work or home.
That’s when my buddy and I decided that it was time to work with a second coach with an entirely different approach from ours—a female colleague who saw my set of problems from a fundamentally different perspective. She insisted that I was making a mistake that is typical of most type-A personalities: trying to muscle up and run the show when I needed to power down and be more receptive. She advised me that I needed to let go, and allow myself to be led. Embrace the yin within.
To say that was a difficult task for me is an understatement. It did not come naturally, but as I worked more closely with my female coach, I discovered that she wasn’t asking that I stop performing any of the exercises that I had undertaken in my manhood training program. I just needed to make my mind release any goals or expectations that I had, be open, even vulnerable, and watch what unfolded. Tall order. It went against the male code. What was the point of that anyway? Wasn’t I supposed to earn a badge, certification, or a medal confirming that I had become a 21st-Century male?
So I bought another speedo, this time size 32, electric lime-green trunks, in which I could project the laser-like jag of energy that was now coursing through my body. I was living in my cock, and I was doubling down. I repeated the mantras as I swam more laps. I amped up my yoga practice with power Vinyasa and Bikram. I meditated to make as much free, interior space as possible, to empty out, erase my ego. I was determined to make myself accessible to change and grace, rocking my body and soul, as I attempted to go with the flow. Eventually, I began to notice that strangers were smiling and saying hello to me, acknowledging the new wattage I now packed.
In short order, the “new” me was put to the test as my path crossed that of Bek Andersen, a young female fashion photographer making a series of portraits of nude men. I stumbled upon an exhibit of her work by accident at precisely the moment I decided I wanted to make a record of the man I had become at age 50. This was no small decision as I hate having my picture taken.
The guys were so relaxed and natural in their portraits, it felt like maybe she could get me to loosen up in front of her lens. I arranged a drink through her gallery to ask whether she would photograph me. She smiled, then began to talk about her project… Observing that posing nude in front of the camera fundamentally changes the human psyche, she was asking men to get naked physically and emotionally, stripping off their mental armor to reveal their inner selves for her lens, and to make themselves more transparent, accessible. In doing so, they were agreeing to loan out their bodies so that she could make a public statement about what men could do to rebalance the genders.
When she asked me whether I would pose for her to take one for the team, I hesitated. “Full frontal,” I questioned? She indicated that decision was one that we would make together when we saw the images, but yes she hoped that I would let her photograph and exhibit every inch of my body. I then asked how the experience would differ if I didn’t commission the work, but submitted, surrendered my manhood to her lens. She replied that I would need to make myself more “open and vulnerable,” posing exactly as she directed. Ah, I thought to myself, the very qualities that my female coach insisted I needed to learn in order to disarm my internal demons. Sensing that an unyielding task was now squarely was set in front of me, I asked myself, was I ready to relinquish control, let my guard down, and man up, putting it on all on the line for next generation of men and women? I took a deep breath, then agreed to be her next subject.
I soon found myself positioned around our home before the unblinking eye of her camera as she recorded my body and soul. I was terrified, at first. I had never felt so naked. However, as she directed her gaze and my movements — challenging me to do the unthinkable in the beginning, posing in public view at our front door, testing my commitment to do anything she wanted — I began to feel liberated from the self-imposed “manly” conventions to which I had shackled my being. A powerful energy burst out of my body now that I had let go of my inhibitions, more potent than anything I could generate. It felt great to be released from all the bullshit we have told ourselves about what it means to behave like a man.
Due to our conflicting schedules, it was several weeks before we could look at the pictures together. I was stunned by what I saw. Who was that man in the picture? Growing up, I had been bullied into believing that because I did not adhere to conventional male norms, I was not a real man. But staring me in the face was a spectacularly strong, virile male presence. Fearless, brave, and bold. Exuding a confidence that radiated energy off the page. Was he really me?
My initial answer was no. The guy in the portrait was totally unrecognizable. An alien had commandeered my body. But there was no one else present during my shoot, and the camera doesn’t lie, so I had to acknowledge that perhaps I was that guy, albeit a dude I didn’t know. Slowly, with much reflection, I began to unravel the revelatory process that Bek had launched. Somehow by getting me to physically discard my clothes and mental habits, her lens had documented a deeper level in my physical being that I did not understand was there. She had given me a pure, unfiltered view of Mark.
Had she captured the way the universe sees me in the body that I occupy—a manifestation of a primal force or perhaps a common energy that anatomically comes in to focus as male, as “Mark”—a presence that exists underneath the surface crap that I have wrapped around my soul? Was that the real me?
Untethered by the personal and tribal narratives of what it meant to be male, and finally able to be open and receptive, I felt released, unleashed, finally free to project the real, crazy dude within. I began to notice that the confident, robust guy in my portrait was now moving his body through space in a profoundly different way. There was a magnetic force propelling me forward and attracting others. Rooted, grounded, and clearly sexual, I was beginning to enjoy and let others revel in the man in me.
As it turned out, posing nude was not only a timely political statement of what men can do in response to the #MeToo Movement, but also an important next step in my personal journey. It forced me to open my eyes to the way in which I aggressively thrust myself at the world; experience the position that I mentally put women, the negative impacts of the male gaze and other demeaning, subconscious behaviors; and come to grips with my deep-seated feelings of shame that I attach to my own body, and self-image. Bek’s lens had been portal through I had to pass in order to become more fully male. More transparent to myself and others, I was ready to tackle the world. I had unleashed the warrior and the lover within.
What’s your take on what you just read? Comment below or write a response and submit to us your own point of view or reaction here at the red box, below, which links to our submissions portal.