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A Call to Arms
for the Postmodern Male

by Andrew Cohen

Until I was in my early twenties, I never even thought about what it meant to be a man. I grew up in an upper-middle-class secular Jewish family in Manhattan and went to liberal, progressive schools throughout my childhood. I never had a bar mitzvah, the Jewish boy’s traditional rite of passage into manhood. My brother, who is five years older, used to beat me up on a regular basis from before I can remember, which turned me into a bit of a wuss. I was always one of the last picked when we engaged in competitive sports, and it goes without saying that I lacked confidence. Endeavoring to relieve my insecurities, my mother sent me to a therapist at the ripe old age of five.

My father, who was not an introspective man, loved me deeply. When I was eleven my parents separated, and shortly after my fifteenth birthday, my father died a slow and painful death. During those years and afterward, I spent a lot of time with my mother, who was at the time a passionate advocate of feminist values. My teachers in the three different high schools I attended in the United States and in Europe were generally decent, sophisticated, and well-meaning people. But when I think back on those days from the wisdom of my current fifty-two years, I’m stunned by the realization that no adult, including even my counselors at summer camp, ever counseled me about what it means to be a man. I now understand that I wasn’t the only one in this strange predicament—in fact, it seems to be a cultural phenomenon. I don’t think this subject was brought up in any situation I was ever in until I began to think about it myself in my early twenties.

When I was twenty-two, as a result of a profound spiritual experience that had occurred six years earlier, I seriously committed myself to becoming an enlightened human being. My first step was to take up a disciplined daily practice of martial arts because I wanted to become strong. I wanted to conquer my fear; I wanted to be tough—I wanted to be a man.

At the age of thirty, after much serious practice and dedicated searching, I found what I was looking for in Mother India. To my own astonishment, I ended up in the uncomfortable position of becoming a spiritual teacher virtually overnight! In this unusual profession where soft and sweet are generally considered to be the hallmarks of authenticity, I’ve been the very opposite. Almost from the start, I’ve had a reputation for being bold, strong, direct, and confident—for more than a few of my contemporaries, too confident.

Ever since my life turned upside down in this way, I’ve had the rare privilege of meeting and interacting with many different people from all over the world. I’ve gotten to know lots and lots of men. And I came to recognize that the majority seemed to share the same perplexing postmodern cultural predicament that I did: Very few seem to have ever considered the perennial question, What does it mean to be a man?

I’ll never forget my surprise when I discovered a hidden secret about some men who have seriously considered this question. I’m talking about men who are invested in being tough and who can project an air of confidence that is uniquely masculine—the kind of man that I at one time in my life had aspired to be. I’m talking about students of mine who were martial artists of high attainment. I was amazed when I discovered that whenever one of these tough guys was in a situation that required that they trust a little more and give up a bit of the control they were so invested in, they usually fell into an utter panic. Underneath their bravado, even though they weren’t afraid of a street fight, they were terrified of real intimacy, especially spiritual intimacy. Ironically, this would come to the surface especially when they came together with other men—spiritual brothers who were committed to creating a new culture together, a culture based upon higher values, the evolution of consciousness, and the commitment to be strong, transparent, and authentic at all times.

I became a man when I found the courage and conviction to trust God more than I trusted the fears and desires and conditioned thinking of my puny ego. The first expression of authentic manhood was when I boldly declared from the therapist’s couch, “I don’t want to do this anymore; I want to be free!” and noticed no hint of fear in myself when the therapist responded strongly, “But Andrew, you’re barely getting started!” The final moment of transition happened eight years later. My longing for liberation had become so all-consuming that I was ready to let go completely—to die to everything I had known and been up to that point. I was sitting in front of my last teacher, passionately telling him, with a hint of desperation, “I want to die, but I don’t know how.” I can visualize that moment as if it was yesterday, and I clearly remember that he remained silent. At first he looked shocked, and then tears welled up in his eyes.

What it means to be a man, of course, always relates directly to the cultural context within which the question is being asked. We are living in a very challenging time, when old values are crumbling and new ones are just barely beginning to emerge—including what it means to be a real man. My experience as a spiritual teacher in the midst of this upheaval has convinced me beyond any doubt that it will be impossible for the postmodern male to become a vibrant, powerful, and truly evolved expression of the masculine principle unless he pays the ultimate price by transcending his culturally conditioned, overly sensitive, highly narcissistic, and painfully arrogant self. A cultural revolution at the leading edge needs strong, liberated, and highly evolved men to be compelling examples of what is possible for us all. That’s what spiritually enlightened men do.


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This article is from
Constructing the New Man