• Mara Elwood

Compassion and Gender

The most amount of male participants that I have had in one of my courses is 2, and one of them dropped out after the first three weeks. In my retreat experiences there has been more of a mixed group, especially when one of the teachers was a male, but still there are usually more females. Why is that? Is it easier for women to meditate? Or perhaps women need to meditate more? What about compassion? Is this easier for one gender than the other?

Decades ago when I was in graduate school for ECE, my Master’s thesis was looking at the gender biases that teachers have about emotional reactions in boys. As I was examining my results I had my first born, a boy. A few years later I had another. I could not let these two enter a society with these biases, and felt the need to prepare them to be able to feel and express what they felt without judgment. In our house we cry when we are sad, and we laugh when we are happy, and we have been known to stomp across the room, or slam doors when we are angry. When we can recognize our emotions and name them. We can validate them and be with them in a healthy way.

Perhaps one of the most tricky emotions is anger. This is a hard emotion that can be very helpful, but can also turn harmful. Anger can draw us in and close us off to what lies beneath. The soft emotions that anger is protecting. As I tell the participants of my MSC courses in session 7, “Anger is sad’s bodyguard.” The only way that we can be with anger in a healthy way, so that we are not bottling up what we are feeling, self criticizing because we are feeling this way, judging ourselves and adding insult to injury, is to validate the anger. Validating our own self worth and right to feel angry in a situation, because others in the same situation would also feel angry. Recognizing that the anger is a primal reaction to crossed boundaries, injustices, a way to stay safe.

Once anger has been validated we can examine it and see what lies underneath. What has brought this reaction on? What is anger protecting? Is it sadness, fear, shame? Recognizing that these underlying feelings are connected to unmet needs. The most basic human need being one of feeling loved and accepted. Sometimes those needs can be the need to be heard, or connected, to be seen, or valued, or respected. There is nothing wrong with any of these needs, there is nothing wrong with you for feeling these needs, and how did we get here to recognize them? By validating the initial reaction of anger, creating enough space to look with curiosity at what really was going on. Marshal Rosenberg founded Nonviolent communication, and if you are interested in exploring the above more, I urge you to look up his book and workbook.

So how does compassion enter into this equation? Compassion for self is offering ourselves what we have wanted from others. Validating our authentic self. “ I hear you, I see you, you matter to me.” Compassion for others is turning this understanding and acceptance outward. In both cases we are asking. “What is needed in this situation?” and offering it as best as we can. Knowing that we only know what is going on for us, no-one else can truly understand, just as we can’t truly understand what is going on for anyone else, but we can offer compassion.

What does this have to do with gender? At the time of writing my thesis, and still today, there are definite biases about emotions, and compassion. Anger is an emotion that seems to be more male dominant and accepted, which means there is no room for examining the softer emotions that are being held under this anger, preventing moving through. For women, anger is not as accepted, but that means there is a criticism of self when feeling anger that invalidates it and can also lead to being stuck. However, there is more acceptance now than before for holding difference and diversity with acknowledgment (I see this especially in the language and actions around gender identity that is part of my sons’ vocabulary now, and was completely unheard of when I was their age). There is also the beginnings of understanding that compassion is not a weakness, and that we all can experience the caring, gentle, nurturing compassion commonly attributed to the female side (perhaps a good current public example being the picture of Prince Harry holding his newborn son), and we can all experience the acting out, taking care, protecting, or as Kristin Neff says, “fierce compassion”, that has commonly been attributed to the male side (as is seen in women speaking out about past abuse more publicly now).

As for my two boys…..they express their own emotions and are sensitive to others’ experiencing emotion. They are definitely different in the way they express emotions, one being much more able to pinpoint those soft emotions more quickly, the other sometimes still needing a bit of help, and they still only feel completely comfortable to express those soft emotions of fear, sadness, and shame around their mother, but they are seeing a shift as well. The world is starting to open to being accepting of things that weren’t seen as acceptable in the past, and in doing this, the world is becoming a more balanced community. There is still a long way to go, but we are heading in the right direction.

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