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Insights at the Edge
Tami Simon's in-depth audio podcast interviews with leading spiritual teachers and luminaries.
Listen in as they explore their latest challenges and breakthroughs—the leading edge of their work.
True Masculine Power
Robert Augustus Masters is an integral psychotherapist and spiritual teacher whose work emphasizes physical embodiment and greater relational maturity. With Sounds True, he has published the book To Be a Man: A Guide to True Masculine Power. In this episode of Insights at the Edge, Robert and Tami Simon talk about the deep shame that men often experience in a society that encourages them to “man up” and ignore their emotions. They also speak on developing a healthier approach to anger, as well as coming to a new understanding of masculine sexuality. Finally, they discuss Robert’s interpretation of what women truly need from modern men. (68 minutes)
Tami Simon: You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today my guest is Robert Augustus Masters. Robert Augustus Master is an integral psychotherapist, a relationship expert, and a spiritual teacher whose work blends the psychological and physical with the spiritual—emphasizing embodiment, emotional literacy, and the development of relational maturity.
With Sounds True, Robert Augustus Masters has written a new book called To Be a Man: A Guide to True Masculine Power, where he clarifies what’s needed to enter a manhood as strongly empowered as it is vulnerable [and] as emotionally literate as it is unapologetically alive—a manhood at home with truly intimate relationship.
In this episode of Insights at the Edge, Robert and I spoke about shame and the deep shame that men often go through in our culture—a culture that can ask men to “man up” whether they feel like it or not. We talked about healthy rage and what it might mean to develop the skill of having a “conscious rant.” We talked about the characteristics of a sexuality informed by true masculine power. Finally, we talked about what Robert Augustus Masters believes women need from men. Here’s my conversation on the new book To Be a Man with Robert Augustus Masters:
Robert, the subtitle to your new book is A Guide to True Masculine Power. So, to begin with, how do you define “true masculine power?”
Robert Augustus Masters: I would say that it is power that is significantly infused with heart—with an ongoing caring for the other or others. However, it’s not power over others. It’s not power that dominates or violates or abuses. But it is power that can take a very, very firm stand without ever losing touch with the humanity of the other person or persons it’s addressing.
TS: What would you say might be some of the misconceptions that we have in our culture about masculine power?
RAM: I’d say that it’s often conceived of as something that’s driven, hard—overly hard, perhaps—and can be extremely competitive. It’s kind of a narrow view of it. Many men, of course, grow into that as that’s what being a man means—is having that type of power. Power that’s cut off significantly from one’s heart and depths.
And the opposite doesn’t work, of course. I’ve seen many men who disown their power in the name of trying to be kinder, friendlier, more open to females. But they’ve lost so much in the process. There’s such a balance to have power and heart at the same time.
TS: You talk about this “alignment”—you call it “a full-blooded alignment”—of head, heart, and guts. Maybe you can explain what you mean by that.
RAM: Well, head: rationality, thinking—especially critical thinking. Heart is caring for others, feeling empathy. And guts is the ability to take a strong stand—even a very fierce stand. When they work in combo, damage is minimized. There’s a sense of being wholly embodied, because all of one as a man is involved in the process.
The adjective “full-blooded” is very important. It means there’s a passion. There’s no “shouldn’t it” or any intellectual kind of gathering of oneself to make a certain presentation. It’s more alive. It’s vital.
Those who are in a presence with that type of alignment usually feel pretty safe in it. A person can be quite fierce in this embodiment, but there’s a sense of safety and a sense that I can trust this person. You’re thinking, you’re feeling, you’re in touch with your guts—your courage—and it’s working together. It’s integral in the best sense of that word. It’s organically integral.
TS: When you talk about the heart and bringing the heart to our power, I can imagine someone who might say, “You know, this is a little confusing. I mean, you called it ‘a delicate balance,’ but how am I going to be vulnerable, heartful, and strong at the same time? How does that work?”
RAM: Well, it works in the sense of not losing touch with your caring for the other. Even if you’re angry or very angry, you allow yourself that and—if you don’t lose touch with your caring for those others that you’re angry at or upset with—what happens is going to be much more beneficial for all. In other words, if I lose touch with my caring for you if I’m really angry with you, then I can easily slip from being angry at you to being aggressive.
Of course, you’re not going to receive it as well. You’re going to feel threatened by it or hurt or want to get away. But if you can tell that I’m caring about you even though I’m being so intense or angry, you’re more likely to receive what I’m saying. You don’t have to agree with it, but you’re more likely to emotionally resonate with it and feel even a certain subtle intimacy with me because I haven’t excluded you from my caring. That’s a huge step for us men—to remember that in the midst of the heat.
TS: Now, in the beginning of the book, Robert—To Be a Man—you talk about how our culture shames men to be more manly. Tell me what you mean by that. How do we shame men?
RAM: We degrade them for not making the grade. We hold up a certain standard that supposedly constitutes being a man or being manly. So many boys are subjected to that. The pressure to meet that is very intense, and it’s so easy, so common, and natural to fall short of that. But when we fall short of it, we tend to feel bad about ourselves. We shame ourselves. Our Inner Critic has a field day with us. There’s a sense of falling short.
Because of this, many men tie this sense of being incompetent to shame. So, there’s a sense of, “I don’t measure up,” and here’s shame. Shame is an emotion that—for better or for worse—interrupts us in our tracks. It causes a certain contraction in the system. At worst, it makes us feel terrible about ourselves and it can be embedded in our system to where it becomes toxic.
Then the solution to this for many men is to get aggressive. So, if I’m feeling a lot of shame and I get aggressive, the aggression I’m feeling and moving and expressing can easily camouflage the originating shame. There’s that movement from shame to aggression that runs rampant through our culture, especially for men.
Once that’s seen, it can start to be broken through. So, then we can stay with our shame more, work with it, feel the vulnerability inherent in staying with it, and not to necessarily let it translate into aggression towards others or towards ourselves.
TS: Now, [Robert], tell me why at the beginning of the book To Be a Man you put so much emphasis on men needing to become familiar with this experience of shame and learning to stay with the feeling instead of reacting to it.
RAM: Well, if a man stays with the originating feelings of hurt, shame, [and] vulnerability, he can ground himself with that, stay with it. He’s less likely to act out, less likely to hurt others, to degrade others, to dehumanize others.
But unfortunately, there’s a message in our culture that men are not supposed to get really vulnerable. Yes, you can cry a few manly tears here and there. But don’t break down. Don’t sob. Don’t really let yourself cry, because that means you’re less than a man. You’re a sissy. You’re a wimp. There’s all kinds of insults for it.
The answer isn’t just for men to suddenly just start entering that realm of extreme emotional openness, but to do so in a way that does not involve any disowning of one’s power. There’s no loss of one’s balls, so to speak, just because the heart’s breaking, the heart’s opening.
When I see men enter this process again and again and again over the decades, it’s usually pretty squirmy at first. But it very quickly turns into a sense of liberation, of feeling very free—like, “Now I get to feel. I can feel fully. I can cry hard. I can rage in a healthy way. I can express my shame. I can hold these states in a way that serves all involved.” And there’s a joy when one realizes that’s a capacity we can cultivate and deepen.
TS: Now, you said this sentence: “I can rage in a healthy way.” I can imagine someone saying, “What? What do you mean? I don’t want to see a man rage in any way.” What would be a healthy way?
RAM: The healthy way is where the sense of caring for the other is not made obsolete or diminished or lost. There’s a sense of the caring [remaining] there. I call it “heart anger”—where the heart is involved. It can be very subtle, but there’s a sense [of], “I will not dehumanize you no matter how angry I am at you.”
Another part of that is if one has really gone over the top with that is to handle it responsibly by having what I call a “conscious rant.” That means a safely boundaried expression of the rage in a way that does no harm—where one can go over the top in a theatrical way with being angry, rageful. It lasts two or three minutes. It’s the appendix to the book. I found it extremely helpful for—well, not just men, but all of us to have that capacity on tap—to have a conscious rant when we get overloaded.
It’s not just rage. It can be despair. It can be all kinds of states that can take us over. To move the energy of that to the point where the charge is lessened enough so that can now skillfully face what we have to face.
Implicit in this is the responsibility. Healthy rage is responsible. It’s not aggression. It’s not out to attack—it just means this anger that’s relatively intense.
TS: OK, so this idea of a “conscious rant.” Let’s say that somebody’s listening right now and they’re thinking of a few things that they’d like to rant about. How do they do it in a way that is effective or “conscious?”
RAM: Well, the key word is “conscious,” because most of us rant unconsciously. We may go on and on at a partner or friend, repeating the same thing, escalating the argument, wasting our energy and the other’s, and creating some damage perhaps in the wake of that.
But if someone wants to enter a conscious rant, I’d say you put yourself in a safe space. There’s no interruptions. You may have a friend or partner there to support you—to simply be like a coach on the sidelines.
You take the situation that is really, really upsetting you, and you’re just caught in it. You’re overwhelmed by it. Stand up. Knees are bent a little bit. You’re breathing. Eyes are usually half closed. You start to let the movement of that intense feeling come through your body. You may shake. Your hands go into fists. Suddenly, you’re speaking in a way that is uninhibited and about the situation.
What helps here is to know that—if you’re self-conscious—you just do it more fully. Or you have your partner or friend say, “Do that even more. Say that again. Stomp your feet even harder.” It’s very theater, but at the same time it’s very authentic.
Usually, it lasts an average of two minutes. Sometimes, it becomes very funny if you’re being really reactive and you go into it. Suddenly, your reactivity is so up front, so melodramatic, that it’s hilarious. That leads to a very liberating laughter, maybe some tears. It doesn’t have to.
It’s usually uncomfortable at first, but I’ve had people who have never done this before in a group and we all take turns doing that, with some good coaching. Most people want to do it every day after that—maybe for just a couple minutes—because it feels so good to move the energy fully rather than to mull it over, think about it for hours, hurt our partner with the half-expressed part of it.
So, there’s a freedom in it. It’s like an adult temper tantrum—but a responsible one.
I know if I’m churning, Diane will say to me, “You know,” (Diane’s my wife), “you said that three times now,” about whatever the topic is. “Maybe you should have a conscious rant.” So I’ll come in the living room, she’ll sit there, she’ll watch, I’ll go all out. A couple minutes [and] it’s done.
That’s why I put it as the appendix in the book—I think it’s so helpful for men when there’s this sense that things are building. There’s a tightening. There’s a charge. It’s great for women too, but in the book I really want men to get that this is a really valuable tool. Really valuable.
There’s a pleasure too, because in it you’re so embodied. The legs usually will stomp some and your hands may go in fists. You may bend over. You may end up curled up in a ball crying your heart out at the end of it, or you may just stand there and roar with laughter. Or fall into your partner’s arms, or lay spread-eagled on the floor.
There’s a sense [that] there’s a healthy catharsis. It’s not just blowing off steam. It’s that, but it’s connected. It’s connected to a specific event or person.
The only thing that I would add to this is if it’s about one’s partner, it’s important somebody has to do that without the partner there. If there’s some things you want to say that could be very hurtful, you need to say them. You may have your partner be somewhere else for a couple of minutes while you do it on your own or have a friend there to coach you.
TS: So, Robert, you’re talking about how we can work with—you called it “heart anger”—and how we can express our rage in a clean way that doesn’t do any harm. But before we move on, we were talking about the topic of shame. I don’t want to leave that, because I want to read a quote from you from towards the beginning of the book. And here’s what you say: “One of the first things I do when I’m working with a man who is emotionally shut down is to help him explore his shame, and his relationship to it and his history with it.”
So, tell me why you would start there with a man who is emotionally shut down?
RAM: First of all, it’s because it’s there and it’s usually not spoken, because most men have shame about having shame—as if somehow that’s a sign of weakness. But it’s there.
By introducing it in a skillful way where I’m emotionally resonant with him, we end up talking. I may talk a bit about how it’s been for me, how it is for men in general. We maybe take a smaller zone of his shame and we’ll look at it. Most men are unaware of how much shame they’re carrying—how much they’re being driven by their shame and how easily they tend to let it mutate into aggression, withdrawal, disassociation, et cetera.
So, it’s like an educational process. I don’t spend hours on it. It takes a relatively short time. Once he’s had that conversation with me and with Diane—she’s almost always there—there’s an easing into what the shame is about and also looking at the history. How was he shamed? How did he deal with it as a boy? How’s he deal with it now? Does his partner inadvertently shame him sometimes? Et cetera.
It’s a very interesting thing to explore. It’s like a lost continent of ourselves for many of us. Once he’s heard that, then we can proceed with what he came to the session for in the first place, with a little more ease between us—more resonance, more willingness to open up emotionally. Usually, when shame is exposed, vulnerability kicks in. A man may be closer to his tears then, or closer to really moving some anger that’s been stuck in him for a long time. And it goes like that.
TS: You know, shame cane be so uncomfortable. It can feel so terrible, especially if, as you said, this is a “lost continent” that we’re just discovering for the first time. How do you help people deal with that terribleness of contacting their shame?
RAM: Well, in part by letting them know that what they’re going to be learning from working with us is they’re going to learn the art of becoming more comfortable with their discomfort. Shame is, of course, very uncomfortable. That’s part of its nature. It’s squirmily uncomfortable. It interrupts us in our tracks, which can be great if we’re actually going in a direction that’s not going to be good for us or the other person. Our shame over what’s occurring can stop us and suddenly we go, “Oh my God, what am I doing?”
So, what I’ve learned when I sit with shame—I see people sitting with shame, being present with it—[is that] it opens up the system. It contracts us at first, and then there’s an opening. There’s an increase in vulnerability. And there’s often a sense of the conscience arising with that, accompanying by wanting to atone, saying sorry in an authentic way, and to reconnect.
So, in a way, shame disconnects us from what’s happening, and then it connects us because when we follow the impulse to atone—to humble ourselves—it usually eases the other. There’s a sense of increased intimacy. So, in a couple—in a partnership—when shame is shared, it brings the two closer together almost always. It’s such a vulnerable thing to share—to just say, “I feel shame,” and to stay with that in the full view of your partner, feeling an urge perhaps to drop your eyes and look away, but not doing that. Sitting with it.
It’s funny because there’s a sense of increasing dignity in that too, even though shame seems to be the opposite of dignity. When we sit with it and we’re present with it, and we allow it to course through our system for a short time, I think it does something really, really good for us. It lets us feel in part the consequences of our actions. The more in touch I am with my shame, the less likely I am to be able to hurt another [and] the more quickly I am likely to stop going in a certain direction that could be hurtful—because I can sense the impact I’m having on the other.
The shame keeps me on my toes, in a sense. It keeps me vulnerable. It keeps me raw.
Unfortunately, most shame goes in a deeper, darker direction—which is to make us feel bad not about our behavior, but about our very being. That’s what we call “toxic shame”—where we just feel so bad about ourselves. We can either sink into that [and] get lost in it—get very depressed—or we can overcompensate and become too prideful, too aggressive.
TS: It seems like both men and women have a lack of training, if you will, in how to be with the discomfort of shame. I’m wondering what you think the particular challenges are for men when it comes to this experience of shame.
RAM: I think it’s to notice the urge to aggress against others [and] to get even. To go from being the humiliated hero—say, in a cinematic sense—to the vengeful Clint Eastwood type of hero from the old Westerns where we get even. No one gets to put us down. In other words, for a man to sense that in him and to sense his motivation for going into aggression—the escape implicit in it.
I think for women—and I’m generalizing here a lot—women tend more than men to turn the aggression inward. Men do too, but women will especially turn that aggression inward—in part because historically outward aggression was not a very safe thing to get into.
So, here’s inward aggression. It manifests in the form of an Inner Critic—perhaps even an industrial-strength Inner Critic that just takes whatever you’re doing, puts you down for it, and most of us who have not worked on ourselves will tend to respond to the Inner Critic the way an obedient child does to a harsh parent.
But once we see this, we can start to work with it. We work with everyone we see for therapy training on how to skillfully face the Inner Critic—the internalized sense of self-shaming, of heartlessly negative self-appraisal. Once one relates to that thing we call the Inner Critic—that process—we give away less and less power to it. We sense it. We name it. We even give it a specific name. And we are—through relating to it—no longer under its thumb, no longer under its sway.
It’s very liberating to learn how to do this—especially when it kicks in the midst of, let’s say, a relational hassle [and] times when we feel crushed, to notice that we may think we’re being pathetic. But then we get, “Oh my God, I’m not pathetic. My Inner Critic says I’m pathetic.” What a difference. What a difference!
In many men, the Inner Critic shows up as a slave driver. Push harder. Do more. Be more competent. Don’t crack. Be strong for everybody. On and on and on, as if strength means simply shutting down our vulnerability and tenderness—just being this bastion of hardness.
TS: So, [I think] I understand the value of identifying this Inner Critic as being a separate voice. We’ve internalized it, but it’s separate from us. I can go, “Oh, that’s my Inner Critic pushing me, being a slave driver.” But what if you still feel like you’re being driven—like the Inner Critic’s driving? The whip is being cracked.
RAM: Then that’s the part where you need to shift your attention away from the content that the Inner Critic’s getting across to you to just the feeling of it—the sense of unease, disease—and shifting awareness from thinking to feeling. [This] can be emotional feeling or can just simply be sensation. In other words, you ground yourself so that you no longer have an open ear to the Inner Critic’s diatribes—which are predictable. It’s the same stuff over and over again. It’s just repetitive.
Once you’re grounded more and you’re settled in your being more—and the belly’s softening—you can see more. You’ve embodied something different. You’re not in your head anymore with it. You’re not relating to it the way a child relates to a parent. You’re relating to it from a more adult perspective.
This is where meditative practices are so helpful. A really grounded meditative practice where we learn to observe what’s going on without getting too cut off from it. We can see it—”Ah, here’s the Inner Critic.” Here’s how it’s affecting my system. Even saying to a friend or partner when you’re having an Inner Critic attack, “My Inner Critic is really coming on strong right now. Here’s what it’s saying to me.” Quite a vulnerable undertaking, but it defuses the situation. It disempowers the Inner Critic. Many of us—a lot of our power is caught up in maintaining the Inner Critic.
TS: [Robert]—in your new book, To Be a Man: A Guide to True Masculine Power, you offer so many tips to men. We’ve talked about a couple of them: changing our relationship with shame, knowing the difference between anger and aggression, and being willing to have a conscious rant. You have a huge section of the book that talks about sexuality and what true masculine power might be in relationship to our sexuality.
I want to just pull out a couple of observations you make and have you comment on them. One is that you say to men, “Instead of expecting sex to create connection, come to sex already connected.” Really?
TS: I thought the purpose of sex was to help me get connected. That’s what happens when we have sex. What do you mean [by] I’m supposed to come already connected?
RAM: Exactly. That’s the purpose seemingly, in a conventional way—to make me feel better, create a certain sense of connection, make me feel like more of a man. What I’m saying there seems very counterintuitive, and it is for most men. Some men really get it, but most women get that. [When] men really sink in to the truth of that, it really shifts things.
Then sex is no longer pressured to be this go-to strategy for feeling good in a hurry. It becomes simply one more expression of already-present connection. If we’re already connected to the other—already relatively happy, at ease—then sex is simply celebration of that. If it doesn’t go all the way, it doesn’t matter. We’re still connected. We’re still there. We’re still enjoying the other.
But if we aren’t connected, then sex is kind of saddled with the obligation to make us feel better or more secure. That’s a lot of pressure. That’s reflected in the excessive interest many men have in sex. Not because they’re inherently built that way, but it’s such a quick solution to tension. You think of a very lonely, horny teenage boy discovering masturbation, [as well as] the connection between that and pornography. Here’s this go-to, very quick way of feeling good.
Unfortunately, that’s follows all too many men into their adult years and often is not outgrown. It’s such a focus. There’s so many jokes about how frequently men think about sex. Every 10 seconds, whatever. That’s a reflection of this—that sex has become overly important. It is important, but when it’s made overly important, we over-rely on it to make us feel good.
If I already feel good—through working with myself through different practices—then sex is much easier. It’s looser. It’s freer. In that, we’re going to be far more connected at many levels to our partner. Our partner is not just going to be just a means through which we can feel some release and relief. It’s going to be a deepening of an already-present connection—an amplification of intimacy.
Now, I think when men discover that and they enter into that, it’s so freeing. It’s so beautiful. But to get there, one has to see how one has harnessed one’s sexuality perhaps to various non-sexual needs that are not being met.
TS: Tell me what you mean by that. What non-sexual needs?
RAM: Well, let’s say a man feels very insecure, kind of shaky. Instead of facing the insecurity, working with it, unearthing its historical roots, et cetera, he simply finds a brief break from that insecurity through sex. In a sense, you could say he’s eroticized his need for security. He feels a certain security through being sexual. But once the sex act is done, the insecurity is still sitting there. It’s not been resolved. It simply was eroticized. But he has not moved through it.
And if he’s using pornography, that will probably reinforce it even more. It deepens that link between mind and genitals. I could go on and on about pornography. I have a whole section there called—I think I called it “Outgrowing Porn.” Which is so, so important for men. There’s an epidemic of it. There’s an epidemic. I see so, so many men who are really hooked into it and gone past the point of justifying it. They’re addicted. It’s an addiction. Their partners don’t like it. And the culture—there’s so much of it. It’s a big thing to face that. I think it takes real balls for men to face that addiction and humbly, courageously start to cut through it—because it improves everything. It improves relationships. It improves everything.
That’s not to say that porn is being moralistically condemned or extolled. It’s more like: how about outgrowing it? How about going beyond it? What’s it like when sex is completely free of porn—when it’s simply two beings connecting at deeper and deeper levels with no need to rely on fantasy or some sidelong glance at porn? The other is enough.
TS: But what if someone’s listening that’s like, “Come one Robert, what’s the big deal? What’s wrong with fantasy? I’m not an addict. It’s just something that gives me pleasure. What’s the problem?”
RAM: Yes. It’s not that something’s wrong with it. It’s more like it’s an unskillful approach, because if I’m fantasizing while being sexual with a partner, then I’m going to be somewhat cut off from the other person because my mind is really involved. I’m relying on that. I’m bringing a preset kind of conditioning into the relationship.
Yes, you can do some good things with fantasy. But there’s so much more when you go beyond it—when you really can gaze at the other person and see them. The connection is the aphrodisiac. You don’t need a turn-on strategy, something to stimulate you. You’re turned on not by certain buttons being pushed or certain sensations being aroused. You’re turned on simply because of the connection—because of the love.
TS: You have a quote from the book: “The degree of drive or compulsiveness that characterizes our sexual fantasies reflects the degree of intensity of pain that we’re attempting to bypass through our very immersion in such fantasies.”
RAM: Yes. Yes. I think the more pain we’re in and the more we aren’t working with that pain, the more we’re going to be drawn to various practices that temporarily relieve of us of that pain—sedate us a little bit. Sex is very high on the list.
I think the big step here—it’s a really big step [and] I admire anyone who has taken this step, however small—is to turn toward that suffering, turn toward that pain, and start to get to know it. Start to work with it. Start to reach the place where it doesn’t—we don’t have to turn away from it. Yes, it hurts. It’s unpleasant. And if we stay with it, we pass through it. It’s very liberating to do that—to not feel we have to get away from it.
TS: I think that—many times—when people think about “to be a man,” it would mean to have a very high libido. That’s a sign of manliness—to be turned on a lot. And yet, you’re questioning that.
RAM: Yes. Yes, I think that so many men are pressured—just like when younger men are often talking about their sexual exploits to each other, they will exaggerate how many lovers they’ve had, what they’ve done—as if somehow their egoic sense of self is tied to how well they perform, how many lovers they’ve had, all of that. There’s such a tie-in between egoity and sexual performance.
Beyond that is a sexuality that is not tied to our small sense of self. It’s tied to something much bigger and much more connected, and truly mutual. Truly mutual.
But you’re right: a lot of what being man is to many men is, OK, the more studly you are, the more powerful you are sexually—it’s like an initiation. One of the initiations into manhood in conventional terms is having sex—getting laid for the first time. Just like getting royally drunk. There’s a certain status in it, however low grade that may be.
That’s understandable in a younger man, but I think it’s so important for men when they step into their maturity to outgrow that—to outgrow that sense of sex being somehow tied to their self-esteem or status as a male. I mean, a man can have sex very infrequently and still be a profoundly mature man. He doesn’t feel driven to do that.
The men who I’ve seen and worked with who want to have sex a lot are almost always filled with a lot of turbulence, agitation, anxiety, and anger. Sex for them was kind of relief, in which their partner was the outhouse for their frustrations or anxiety. That’s just a very low-grade way of using one’s sexuality. I think men are capable of so much more in that area.
That begins with having more of a sense of who they are as sexual beings, how they’ve been conditioned, how they’re affected by the culture, to what degree [they are] obsessed by certain sexual things—and on and on.
TS: So, if you were going to summarize for men [your view of] a sexuality that was informed by a type of true masculine power, what would be its characteristics?
RAM: Healthy embodiment. Integrity. Staying connected to the other. Not being tentative. Being direct and sensitive at the same time.
And being vulnerable—that’s very central. Being vulnerable at the beginning, middle and end. Just staying open. And being emotionally transparent—being emotionally there. So, their lust is held in a kind of a heartfelt, connected context. It still can be gloriously alive lust, but it’s not divorced from connection.
I keep saying the word “connection,” and I think it’s so, so important to not lose that with the other. That’s the most common complaint that I hear from women when we’re doing couple’s counseling around sex—it’s that the man loses connection, or comes to it not connected. Or wants it when he’s not feeling connected, but just wants it. They’re saying, “See me. Look in my eyes. Be with me.”
In that sense, one can reach a point when the whole relationship becomes foreplay. Not in a sexual way, but where every conversation—it all is there and it reinforces connection as expressive of connection. Sex is relieved of the pressure to be the go-to strategy. If it happens, great. If it doesn’t happen—hey, we’re still connected. What’s the big deal?
Which is especially important as we age and our sexual drive lessens—so that we’re not going, “Oh my God, I wish I still had that.” It’s more, “OK, I can adapt to this because I love feeling connected to you.” If it’s erotic, great. If it isn’t, that’s also great.
TS: Now, you said something interesting: “Not being tentative.” What’s the problem with being tentative when approaching your partner sexually? What’s the problem?
RAM: If I’m being approached tentatively by another, then I’m feeling both their pull to connect more with me and I’m also feeling something else that’s not there. It’s not about connection. You’re divided. You’re not wholeheartedly with me.
I think a non-tentative touch is not a clumsy touch or an aggressive touch—it’s a touch where there’s presence. If someone touches you—puts their hands on you—I don’t mean to sexually; it could be non-sexually—most of us can tell through the touch, “Is that person really with me right now?” You can almost feel the motivation or if they have an agenda. Are they divided? If someone’s really with you and they put their hands on you—like in a good bodywork session with a skilled bodyworker—you can feel that person is really present in their touch. Not just with their hands, but their body. Most of us feel much better when we’re being contacted in a way that’s non-tentative.
I mean, it’s always important to be cautious with some people. This is something different. I’m talking about people who are already close. But there’s a tentative quality. There’s a sense of being on eggshells. “I have to be careful with this person.” There’s a sense where a man may touch a woman in a way where he’s trying to decipher, “Does she really want to have sex with me?” She may find that probably kind of creepy or as a turn-off, because he’s not there present in his full masculinity. He’s partially there.
And when a man’s head, heart, and guts are in full-blooded alignment, there’s a natural confidence he has that emanates from him that I think makes the other feel safe, feel more drawn to him. It’s not a seductive strategy. It’s simply a way of approaching that feels so natural, so easy.
TS: That sounds really good, but what’s a man supposed to do when he feels tentative—if there’s fear? “I’m afraid. I’m afraid I might be rejected.”
RAM: He needs to explore himself and look at where that comes from—which is not that difficult to trace back. He can probably find it in his early history. Then the question is: What did you get out of being tentative? What do you get out of that? What are you avoiding by doing it?
Then, start to explore the fear that’s at the heart of it—and not just through talking about it, but actually through some direct emotional work with that fearfulness. [Let] that fear mutate into something that’s more than just fear into something more—it’s like excitement. It’s a presence. There’s some power. There’s a natural confidence that comes from that. It’s hard to have that confidence if we’re trying to meet a certain standard or we think we have to always be a certain way. That increases tentativeness too.
So, it’s worth exploring deeply. My book, of course, is an invitation to men to start where you are, explore it, appreciate yourself for the steps you’re taking, and realize it takes courage to start the process. It’s not about being a great hero in your own eyes just overnight. It’s just slow but steady progression.
I see [this] when men reclaim their balls and their heart at the same time. Literally, they can stand in a way that has more depth and integrity and dignity. I’ve noticed again and again and again that women in the groups when we do this always feel much safer with men who are standing like that. Because the men are naked in that way. They’re vulnerable. But they’re rooted. There’s a grounding to them.
TS: Now, you use this other phrase: “Treating a woman like,” (I think you called it), “an outhouse for unwanted emotional energies” I think you said “outhouse.” I’m wondering: Let’s say a man’s listening and says, “God, you know—in that experience of sexual release, I feel so sane and I do feel the sense of discharge. What’s the problem, Robert?”
RAM: The problem is if he’s not connected to her while that’s happening. A lot of men disassociate when they get really excited and aroused. It may seem like they’re right there, but they’re immersed in their own arousal and they’ve lost touch with the other. So, it’s not a shared experience. It’s more masturbatory.
One can be masturbatory and have a partner right in there, because there’s a sense of not really letting one’s self open deeply so the other can see. That’s what we often suggest for couples—when you’re getting close to orgasm, stay in touch. Stay connected so that, yes, it’s personal in you, but it’s also relational. It can be transpersonal too if you give yourself to it fully. It can be an opening that’s profound.
But there’s a trust in that. There’s a trust in that if I get really vulnerable—wide open—nothing bad’s going to happen. I’m safe. I’m going to go for it. It’s a leap of faith.
There’s so much to this. Let me throw this in: I think that it’s a mistake to try to crystallize our sexuality for the rest of our life. I think what we do sexually, however indirectly, reflects the rest of our relationship with the way we live. It shows up. It can’t help but show up. All our neuroses are there. All our longing. It’s all there. If we’re willing to show all that—to be present with all that—we can have profound encounters.
TS: OK, there’s another section of the book To Be a Man: A Guide to True Masculine Power that I found really, really interesting. It’s a chapter called “What Women Need from Men: An Invitation to Be a Full Partner.” You offer a list of—in your view—of what women would like from men—what they need from men.
I’m going to read some of the different items that you list here. So, one is that you say, “Listen to her without trying to figure out solutions for what’s going on.” Of course, I think this is very, very, very, very common—that this is a dynamic between men and women. So, why is it so hard for men to simply shut up and listen? Why is that so hard?
RAM: In part because a lot of men are very uncomfortable with what the woman is perhaps going through in her feelings. So, if she’s really hurting or sad or emotionally really twisted [or broken] in a certain way. He may not want to feel that in himself, and the quicker he thinks he can fix her or get her out of that uncomfortable state—relieve her of that state—then he can feel at ease.
It takes a lot more work and depth and courage to simply be present. If she’s really upset or hurting, to just be with it. Not like an iron man, but a man who can feel it. He empathizes, but he can still hold space. He’s still present. He’s not lost in her state, but he’s very empathetically connected. If I’m her and I feel that empathy, it’s going to make a huge difference. Huge difference.
And true listening is not just to the words. It’s to what’s not being said. It’s listening with the body. It’s being there. And we can tell when someone’s really with us when they’re listening. It’s a pleasure to be in the presence of someone who can just sit there and listen. True listening is not just this passive, head-nodding activity. It’s dynamic.
But we’re not sitting there trying to rehearse our response. We’re interested in the other person. So, in essence, he [would] be interested in her and curious. She would feel his interest. That would draw her forth more.
Whereas if she simply can tell he’s kind of partially there, he’s tentative in his hearing, [and] he’s not really there, she’s going to feel less like continuing the conversation or dialogue or whatever it is.
TS: OK. You offer another guidepost here: “Be trustworthy, a safe place for her, protective but not possessive.” When I read that, I thought to myself, “What’s so bad about being possessive? What’s the problem?”
RAM: The problem with being possessive is that it can become clingy, it can become too tight, it can be overly attached. It can be the essence of codependence. We grab on too tight, and when any of us are grabbed on too tight usually there’s a sense of being suffocated. So, there’s a sense of not wanting to go there.
TS: OK. And another guidepost here: “Don’t let the little boy in you run the show, but don’t push him away.”
RAM: Yes, that’s a good one, because so many men will push away the little boy—this childlike, vulnerable, soft, tender [aspect]—as if [it’s] embarrassing to admit that’s there. But also so many men will, under certain pressures, turn into that little boy. They may use adult language, but they’re still back there trying to get mum’s approval, trying to fight off something. And if they don’t know they’re doing that, their partner’s probably going to suffer way more than is necessary—because when he’s acting out like that, he’s in a reactive mood. He’s in a reactive boat. He’s just simply not present.
But once a man is in part of himself that we call “little boy”—that tender place—that brings a certain quality of ease and vulnerability to the relationship. The appropriate image in many cases is [of] one hand is kind of holding that little boy—a vulnerable little one, maybe even the baby in him. The other hand can take action. It can say no. It can set a boundary.
So, he’s simultaneously embracing that boy in him and he’s also protecting him. In this, he’s not identified with the boy. He’s intimate with him. He feels him. I think a man that’s doing that is much safer. He’s in touch. He knows these different zones of himself. And he also has the courage and capacity to say when he regresses, he’s taken over, he feels like he’s a kid again. He can say that not as an excuse for his behavior, but as a fact. “Here it is—I want to share this right now. I feel like I’m back someplace. This is happening to me, and yet I’m here with you right now.” It’s honest self-disclosure, but it’s not an excuse for anything. It’s simply, “Here’s some information. Here’s some sharing.”
TS: And do you think that women would be receptive? Here my partner is saying to me, “I’ve been taken over—hijacked—by the seven-year-old in me right now. I just want you to know that.”
RAM: I think if the man does that as an excuse for his bad behavior, I wouldn’t blame her for being bothered by that. But if he’s doing it and she can actually see that he’s sharing this and he’s taking care of it—he’s saying, “I feel this coming up in me, but here I am.” He’s relating to something that’s kicking in, but he’s still responsible. He’s not indulging.
He’s also not trying to cover it up like he’s this tough guy. He doesn’t have this stuff going on. Here it is, and he’s shaken.
We all—from time to time—are shaken by the emergence of old patterns in ourselves—things from a long time ago. If we can share that without shaming ourselves for it or thinking it’s a sign of weakness, it can be quite a lovely thing to bring forth. If I hear that from another, then I’m curious [about], “How is that for you right now? How do you feel identified?” It will awaken my compassion and deepen my compassion.
I don’t care how old we are. We all have those dimensions in ourselves. The more intimate we are with them, the better. The better we know them, the more skillful we are in our relationships.
TS: OK, Robert. You offer about 40 guideposts in this section on what women need from men. I’m just going to read a couple more: “Initiate the conversation when it comes to addressing relationship difficulties.”
RAM: Oh, that’s such a big one because so often I hear the opposite: the complaint of women saying, “I’m so tired being the one that has to bring up relational hassles, difficulties, challenges. I’m just getting sick and tired of doing it. But if I don’t do it, then it doesn’t get dealt with at all.”
So, I often give homework to a couple after we’ve worked with them for a little bit. The man has a chance, a choice, a need to do that—initiate that. See what it’s like when he says, “You know, I feel a little uncomfortable about what you said a little while ago,” or, “You seem a little uneasy.” He initiates those sometimes very difficult conversations, which actually can be very, very rewarding when both people enter into them with integrity and openness.
Difficult conversations like that are part of any deep relationship. They just arise. But if one person is doing the lion’s share of bringing it forward—and it’s usually the woman, we’ve found, in heterosexual couples. I think men take to it. There’s a sense of, “Ah! I can do this.” Once they get past the sense of, “Oh, I don’t know how to do that. I’m not emotionally literate enough. I don’t understand the psychological dimensions of relationship enough.” Once that’s worked with and gotten past, then it becomes a mutual undertaking.
Then the couple has a sense of both bringing it up and both—here’s the image of sitting side-by-side, gazing with mutual compassion upon the neuroses and challenges of each. It’s not a competition. it’s not a power struggle. It’s a sense of being on the same team, and the we-space gets stronger and stronger. So, both can look at the difficulty together.
What a liberating thing to share that with another person. Where you’re both looking at it and you’re both growing through it. You’re both evolving through it. The more you do it, the better you get at it.
TS: Now, this next one, Robert, I think in many ways shows part of the challenge that runs through the entire book, To Be a Man. This is the guidepost you offer: “Be vulnerable without losing your spine.”
TS: How do I do that?
RAM: Practice. I mean, the first thing is to be able to be vulnerable. That can take some work—to face the shame of that, the history of it, the fear of, “What will happen if I do this?” But where I’ve worked with men has always been to keep the spine. Find the ground. Don’t lose power because you’re doing that.
You have the strength and vulnerability, but also some vulnerability [causes us] to just fall on the floor in a puddle. We have lost power.
Sometimes that’s appropriate when we’re reliving something really heavy, like in trauma work. Having one’s spine is about having dignity—where I can have dignity and still be very soft and vulnerable. But I’m not going to crumble just because I feel tender inside or my heart feels ripped open. I’ve seen something that really breaks my heart.
It’s not hardening, but it’s a sense of still standing. Like a tree that’s swaying in the wind, but you still have your roots. I think it’s a beautiful thing to find, discover, and deepen within one’s self. To have that tenderness, and yet there’s that power that’s right there so that you can also take very strong action.
But the vulnerability keeps us from taking action in a way that would be harmful or hurtful or dehumanizing.
TS: And this might be my favorite one on the list, and the last one I’m going to mention: “Don’t neglect personal hygiene.”
RAM: [Laughs.] I’ll say something here: When I did that list, Diane suggested I do a chapter like that. I thought, “OK, but I want you to go over it with me very carefully because I’m a man.” I mean, I’m very empathetic towards women, but I’m still a man. I want to know your perspective. So, we worked on that a lot.
I think that’s an import point. It can seem trivial, but it’s about self-care. So many people put up with another partner [doing] something that kind irritates them, doesn’t quite work for them, and they still stay quiet and don’t want to hurt their feelings.
But it’s worth saying. I’m glad you enjoyed that one.
TS: Now, Robert, here I am as a lesbian relating to so many of the points in your book, To Be a Man. I wonder what your view is—here, we’re living in a time where people are moving beyond this binary categorization of men and women into a transgendered world and a whole gray zone of what’s masculine [and] what’s feminine. How do you view all of that, especially in light of publishing a book [called] To Be a Man?
RAM: Well, when I wrote it, I knew at one point—because I’ve worked with quite a few gay man [and] lesbian couples over the decades—I thought I have to have a chapter in here, even though I am heterosexual. “I got to have a chapter in here about gay men.” I think I called it “Including Gay Men.”
And I really wanted to include it, and I remember making sure it got in the book. I had different gay men read it and give me feedback. They felt great with it, so I thought, “Well, I’m going to put it in there.” I think it’s such an important consideration.
I know that when we worked with non-straight couples, the same dynamics are there. It’s the same work in many ways. I think—to re-step into one’s full, healthy masculinity; to embody our full manhood—a straight man cannot leave out men who are not straight. They have to be included—not just in a politically correct way. They have to be included to where, after a while, it’s not straight men and gay men, it’s just men. We’re all men.
I felt really good bringing that in. I think it’s so important to have that be included.
TS: And how about women such as myself, who are relating to questions of masculine power from the perspective of still being in a female body, but really relating to this idea of, “What is true masculine power?”
RAM: Well, I think that so much of what I wrote in the book—even though I addressed so much of it to men. It’s also for women. I don’t see huge gender differences. I mean, there are some differences that are biochemical. But here we are.
When I write about masculine power, I’m really writing about power per se. There’s a certain intensity and depth of power that men need to embody more—so do women. It’s all mixed in. I don’t know if that answers your question, but I see it as all working together.
TS: I’m curious: You’ve written this guidebook, To Be a Man. What part of your own journey into true masculine power would you say has been the most difficult and challenging for you?
RAM: I think it was getting vulnerable. I mean, I was a very, very sensitive, dreamy child, but I got very hurt. I grew up hardened. I was like a fortress. Ultra-competitive—sports, grades. I was Fort Robert.
And then I had an incredibly painful relationship break-up in my 20s, and it cracked me. I did not want to crack. I did not want to cry. I would not cry. I hadn’t cried since I was very young. But it was so intense, it just broke me. It was such grace when I look back upon it, but I hated it. I fought it.
When I broke, I discovered I could sense things more. I could see more. I felt more. I had feedback from others right away about how much more they liked me. There was so much. I was ashamed of it, but I couldn’t stop it. I persisted to the point where it became more and more natural for me.
But I had to kind of break that down. I was not very empathetic. My motto, in a way, when I was younger was, “What’s in it for me?” I was into survival and being very tough, hard, and accomplished. That breaking was so, so important for me. And I broke open.
I went back and forth. I didn’t just stay open. I went back and forth. I’d learn the art of finding a healthier power. I’m 67 now, and I still have times when I break open. I still don’t like it, but I trust the process. It feels so right to me when I allow that. What comes through is so healing, and I have the great grace of having a partner who can be 100 percent with me in that.
Actually, it’s an ongoing journey. It’s not like I’ve arrived. I could be a higher level of Fort Robert. It’s about opening more and more deeply. In that, I find a deeper masculinity. I feel more male in a beautiful way.
I also feel my femaleness too, and my androgyny too. I feel very androgynous a lot of the time—especially when I’m doing work in groups and I’m working with couples. I love the work. I don’t identify myself [as], “OK, I’m a guy doing this,” or I’m a very feminized male. No—I’m androgynous too. I kind of like the span of it. I embrace all of that.
And I learned that, in many ways, the hard way growing up. So, what I’m writing I’m writing from my own experience—which feels so good. So, it’s not theoretical. I’ve been there and done that. And I’m still growing. I’m still evolving, even as I get older and older.
TS: Now, one final part of the book To Be a Man that I want to highlight was a section that you wrote called “Being at Your Edge.” You talked about how it’s important for men to actually challenge themselves and to be at their edge. Of course, our program’s called Insights at the Edge. So, I paid special attention to this section on the edge and being at your edge. What do you mean by that?
RAM: It’s the place where growth is maximal. It’s a place where we approach often with some trepidation because we know what’s going to be asked of us. There’s a leap of faith involved with it and really being at one’s edge.
The edge varies so much for each of us. One person’s edge may be simply to raise their voice very slightly in a therapy session. Someone else’s edge seems much bigger and much more dramatic.
That’s where we grow, and I think the more intimate I am with my edge, the more alive I feel. We’re not taking foolhardy risks, but there is a risk. I think it’s a bigger risk not to go there, not to hang out at the edge. If we play safe in our relationship, for example—we start to deaden. It’s secure. We’re going to be this person for the rest of our life. But we’ve deadened ourselves.
What I’ve chosen is to be as alive as possible. That means there’s risk involved. Not foolish risks, but there is risk. I remember, I wrote a lot of movie reviews for the book, and it was really hard in the editing process. I thought, “These are such incredibly beautiful reviews,” but I had to cut them down so, so much. Like Avatar was originally five pages long, and in the book it’s like one page.
In the chapter you mentioned, there is a review of a movie called The Instinct—where an edge is shown very early in the film, which really gripped me when I saw it. I thought, “This has to go in the men’s book. It’s perfect. Here’s an edge. Here’s a so-called civilized man who hasn’t been in his edge for a long, long time. Here’s a more seemingly messed-up man who is at his edge, and they’re getting together. Let’s see what happens.”
It’s all unrehearsed. It’s fluid. It flows. It goes very deep. As often things will happen, it will require an immense amount of presence from me. And I like that edge. I feel at home with it.
TS: Let’s say there’s a man listening and he says, “I’m not quite sure where my edge is in this moment in my life. I’m not quite sure.”
RAM: Well, you could ask what scares him. What makes him quake in his boots a little bit, that he knows he could do or he might move toward. For example, something he might share with his partner or friend that he hasn’t before that he knows is relevant. He’s afraid of what he’ll feel when he says it.
There are so many edges. So many edges. I think the more intimate we are with that edge—the more we play it—the better. Being intimate with it means we don’t go past it. We don’t go too far. We respect our limits, but we do stay with that. We stay with that.
It’d be like at night if I wake up and I can’t sleep, I may just lay there and hope to get sleep. This is a very small edge. But I may get up at 3 AM and have a full work day, just come into the room, do some yoga, meditate, go very deep, and let go of the urgency of, “I’ve got to sleep!” to do my day. I’d rather go deep, get the meditation, sit in that [and] rest in that, feel myself.
I’m so used to it. You probably do too. I enjoy being there. It’s more vital, it’s more alive, it’s more messy. I can look more foolish at times. I may be less articulate in some ways, but I’m there.
And I am in a relationship where that is required of me. My wife Diane feels the same way. We’re not on edge, there’s an ease to it. But at any point, we can go much, much deeper and we’re both there for that.
I love that. And I think men enjoy the challenge of that. Like, doing psychotherapy is an edge for most men. There’s a sense of moving toward one’s pain, one’s fear, one’s mortality. That’s an edge. Most of us would rather not look at our own death. I find it very liberating to consider that in a more than just intellectual way.
And on it goes.
TS: I’ve been speaking with Robert Augustus Masters, and we’re talking about his new book, To Be a Man: A Guide to True Masculine Power. Robert, I want to thank you so much for the conversation and for, really, writing a book that is so comprehensive and offers so many different guideposts for men. I love this endorsement from Harville Hendrix: “To Be a Man—every man should read it as autobiography, every woman should read it as revelation, and our culture should embrace it as a healing balm.” Powerful endorsement.
RAM: Oh man. I loved getting that from him.
TS: Thank you so much for being with us on Insights at the Edge. Here we are—at our edge in this conversation. I feel a little foolish, a little, “OK, that’s my edge.” Thank you, Robert!
RAM: Thanks, Tami. And there is so much more that we can say, but I appreciate diving in with you like that. It was great.
TS: Thank you. SoundsTrue.com. Many voices, one journey. Thanks for listening.