There is no one right way to be a man or woman.
Growing up in the 1960s, I was exposed to the beginnings of the Women’s Movement. Women seemed so angry at men, burning bras and such. I didn’t really understand it and it was a confusing time to grow up. I thought there must be something inherently bad about men, and this must apply to me also. I was a boy and I knew I would someday turn into a man.
Today, the relationship between the sexes is very different than it was 50 years ago, a fact I was reminded of while watching “Mad Men,” set in NYC in the ’60s. Today, people talk about the sacred feminine and the sacred masculine. It seems there is more of an effort to resolve the age old battle of the sexes, so it can become the partnership of the sexes. That sounds great to me, but it seems we have a long way to go.
Women have changed a lot in the past 50 years, and have had a lot to say. Men have changed too, but have been relatively quiet about it. In my opinion, it’s time for men to find their voice, and for men and women to sit down to find a new way together.
Part of this new way involves looking at what masculinity and femininity really mean in today’s world. Most of the articles I’ve seen about the sacred masculine list qualities the author thinks men should embody. However, they always seem a bit arbitrary to me; some fit, whereas others seem to apply to women as well.
I believe there is a big paradigm shift underway. For the last 10,000 years or so, masculine values have dominated. From the dawn of agriculture—the period during which most of recorded history has taken place—men and masculine values have dominated. This history is his story.
We don’t know as much about prior periods of human history, but homo sapiens have been around for about 200,000 years. Evidence indicates, throughout most of the 190,000 years of pre-history, human culture was matriarchal. Could the shifts we are now experiencing be a move toward balance and integration of masculine and feminine qualities? This is my hope. But what do masculine and feminine even mean?
If we try to define masculine as “the qualities a man should embody,” it becomes very difficult to come up with a clear definition. It’s just as difficult to define feminine as “the qualities a woman should embody.”
Men are strong, but women can be too.
Women are nurturing, but men can be too.
The Women’s Movement created more freedom from sex roles for women and men, but there is not yet a set of agreed upon principles to help us understand and integrate the sexual dynamic.
In my view, the sacred masculine is something for men to embody, as well as women, just as the sacred feminine is also for both women and men to embody. We carry within us both qualities, and these qualities vary from person to person, as well as within a single person at different times.
I believe, part of the paradigm shift we are going though involves ceasing to expect women to embody only feminine qualities, and for men to embody only masculine qualities. We are humans first, and women and men second. The definition of what a man or woman should embody is constantly in flux as culture and values change. There is no one right way to be a man or woman. A little more freedom please, for all of us.
In fact, I have never seen a clear definition of what these words mean. In this article, I am instead going to use the terms from Taoism: Yin for the feminine, and Yang for the masculine.
I offer here my own definitions of Yin and Yang—narrow definitions, as they relate only to humans and their relationships. I don’t intend these to be final and absolute definitions. A great conversation may need to take place involving many women and men before we can come to some sort of universal and commonly acceptable definitions. Consider this a part of that conversation:
Yin: Connection, relationship, accepting, intuition, submission, subjective experience.
Yang: Separation, individuation, improving, deduction, dominance, objective experience.
The Yin side of us wants connection, intimacy, security and accepts things just as they are. The Yang side of us wants independence, self-expression, freedom and wants to improve things. It’s Yin that allows us to immerse ourselves in an experience, and it’s the Yang that wants to stand back, analyze and be objective. Even the most freedom-loving man will have some desire for intimacy, and even the most intimacy-minded woman will have some need for freedom.
In my opinion, it is wrong to tie these qualities too closely to gender. Women may generally have more Yin than Yang, but it will vary from woman to woman, and for a given woman, will vary over time. The same principle applies to men. This Yin/Yang dynamic is present regardless of sexual orientation too; generally one partner will be Yang-dominant and the other Yin-dominant.
One of the ways these qualities express themselves is in our Yin desire for intimacy and our Yang desire for freedom. This plays out in healthy couples as cycles of closeness and separation. As Khalil Gibran said, “Let there be spaces in our togetherness.” When the partners in a couple separate, they each have their own experiences. Later in the intimacy phase, they can bring back these fresh experiences and perspectives, which enliven their experiences of intimacy. If both partners embrace the Yin and Yang in themselves, then the separation phase does not threaten abandonment, and the intimacy phase does not smother. The relationship breathes through the cycles of intimacy and separation.
It’s interesting to see what happens when we assign all the Yin energy to the woman, and the Yang energy to the man, in a “traditional” heterosexual relationship. Most likely, the woman will be responsible for all their social connections, writing Christmas cards, remembering birthdays, etc. It would also make her responsible for the quality of connection between the two of them. The man will be responsible for tending to their place in the world, money, politics, etc.
When I think about this, I always envision the image of a woman sitting at the table with her husband, wanting him to engage with her and open up, while the husband sits reading the paper, saying as little as possible. Each is frozen in their role.
If the woman gets fed up with this situation and threatens to leave the relationship, she will have switched from an expression of Yin energy (connection) to Yang energy (separation). Like the poles of a magnet, this will often flip the polarity of the man into Yin mode, and he will then put a lot of time and attention into connecting with her. If she accepts this and settles back into the relationship, the polarity will often flip back, and she will again be craving connection while he goes back to reading the paper.
Recognizing this interplay is about our sacred feminine and sacred masculine aspects gives depth to our understanding. It is a much healthier situation if both partners embrace their desire for connection, and their desire for freedom, instead of these being gender-specific qualities.
In our culture, being subjective seems to be considered an insult, whereas being objective seems to be a compliment. I believe this is because the masculine or Yang values are still dominant.
The subjective is undervalued, but is actually where happiness and contentment reside. The Yang is never satisfied, and wants to improve things. The objective by itself is cold, detached and restless, and the subjective by itself is naive and lacks perspective. We need both the subjective and the objective to live a full life. In an ideal world where the masculine and feminine are valued equally, we would regard the subjective as a valued partner to the objective.
Dominance is Yang, and submission is Yin. The dominant person has the pleasure of being in control. The submissive person has the pleasure of not having to make decisions, and thus can simply be immersed in the experience. Both are valuable and equal roles, as long as the roles are entered into with permission.
Dominance without permission is anti-social, or even criminal. Although we may have a preference for one role or the other, if we go too far we’ll crave the opposite. I think this explains why corporate titans often crave the company of dominatrices. They have to constantly make decisions in their corporate role, so it’s a pleasure for them to just submit to the wishes of another for awhile.
When a man is dating a woman, if he is the Yang (dominant) partner, it’s better for him to have a clear plan for the date. Some flexibility can of course be incorporated, and he should have a good idea beforehand what would please her. By taking charge, he is being dominant. A woman is fully capable of making decisions on the date, and even directing it if she has to, but if she’s more Yin than Yang, she likely won’t want to.
The problem is stepping into decision-making mode is very Yang, so making decisions pulls her out of her immersion in the experience. Yin wants to be immersed and subjective. Sometimes, a couple may want to switch roles, because being immersed in experience has its own pleasure—as does being the one more in control. Neither role is superior to the other, but we often have preferences. Don’t sacrifice sexual tension at the altar of a contrived equality. Embracing who we are and how we really feel is erotic, but let’s keep it flexible too.
Whatever the definitions of Yin and Yang, I think our task is to understand and integrate both qualities into who we are, and how we live our lives. One is not better than the other any more than the inhale is better than the exhale. You can argue about which is superior, but stop either one and you’ll be in big trouble. Real equality between men and women does not come from trying to walk a tightrope, where everyone has to express Yin and Yang equally at all times. There is great joy in the dancing of these qualities within us, and between us.
The Yin is not superior to the Yang, and the Yang is not superior to the Yin. I believe power actually comes from skillfully embracing and integrating the Yin and Yang. Real equality and individual wholeness can only happen if we elevate the Yin to be equal to the Yang. However, it seems our culture is still too Yang, and could benefit from continuing the shift toward more Yin values.
We could, for example, start recognizing the downside of progress, become more accepting of ourselves and others and embrace the validity and importance of subjective experience. Time to step out of his story, and into our story.
I close with the serenity prayer, a beautiful expression of the integration of these two qualities:
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.
~ Reinhold Niebuhr
Alan Starner has been studying Eastern and Western spiritual teachings for over 35 years, and seems to become less and less certain as he goes along. He has been teaching yoga for the past 10 years, and likes to think of that role as being more of a facilitator than a teacher; the real teacher is in each practitioner. You often will find him wandering and wondering, dancing and philosophizing about random things. He is the creator of a clothing line for yoga and dance that can be seen at www.attaapparel.com, and his blog is www.alrishi.wordpress.com.
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Assist: Jennifer Spesia