The Buddha Archetype: Confronting the Masculine Fear of Vulnerability

What is the greatest fear of men, the quality that they least want to be perceived as possessing? 

If you ask most men, I think you’ll get the same answer overwhelmingly: men don’t want to be perceived as weak.

They don’t want to be perceived as weak because society has told them since the beginning of time that being weak is the worst thing, but (straight) men also feel this in a visceral way because they know that a woman does not want a man who is weak. 

The questions that most men don’t contemplate with enough curiosity and depth are:

  • What is it that makes a man weak? 
  • What is it that makes a man courageous?

In evolutionary terms, of course it made sense that a woman would want a man who could protect her and that in more archaic times this quality of physical strength was prized above all others, long before being an engineer in Silicon Valley was seen as being able to signal that same quality of being a provider and protector. 

The Buddha is interesting because he represents the warrior archetype in a unique way: he is a warrior focused not outward, but inward. He is willing to confront the shadow of the masculine within all of us: the fear to confront our own vulnerability. On a societal scale, we can see how many men have a lot of courage to go outward into the world, to serve in the military, to take a risk and to create a huge business empire, but they are afraid to turn within and face themselves. They don’t know how to be present with their own emotions. This is the case because society has conditioned men to believe that vulnerability and weakness are synonymous. 

When you step back and look at it for a moment, and just recognize that an unwillingness to turn towards vulnerability is itself an expression of weakness, it is pretty much by definition the opposite of courage, you can recognize the inherent contradiction in this collective belief. However, most men are unable to stay present with their emotions long enough to recognize this truth which might transform them.

Vulnerability can show up as a result of many things, but for a heterosexual man interacting with a woman he is romantically interested in is the most potent way that he sees this vulnerability reflected in the mirror of consciousness. When this vulnerability shows up, men usually react in one of a few ways towards women: they become aggressive and abusive, they become resentful and hateful, or they become silent and withdrawn. All of these are manifestations of an unwillingness to turn towards men’s fear of their own vulnerability. 

This is the source of patriarchy and misogyny. Everything that we see in the institutions of societies begins in the minds of individuals. If you want to understand the source of this in our world, as a man, look within your own mind. You might not act on these tendencies but if you look closely enough you will likely discover them.

Recently, I was talking frequently to a woman with whom I’m very close. This is someone whom I trust completely, who is very conscious and compassionate, and who makes me feel loved in a way that I’ve never felt before. We’re just friends, though for me there are moments when it feels like there’s the potential for more than just friendship. Perhaps the relationship will evolve in that direction or maybe it won’t. Either is fine when you can view relationships from the larger vantage point that sexual desire is normal and healthy, but that our deepest desire is for love and connection, which can exist in many forms of relationship, not only in romantic relationships.

It is actually the ability to act without attachment to the outcome–a classic yogic teaching from works such as The Bhagavad Gita–that allows us to confront the discomfort around our own vulnerability and to step through our fears and towards our desires with a sense of spaciousness and not grasping.

But we’re all human and we all want to feel not only loved, but also desired. There’s a push and pull between intimacy and eroticism, as Esther Perel describes in Mating in Captivity. On the one hand we want trust, openness and connection in order to facilitate intimacy. But if you’re interested in someone romantically or sexually, then there’s obviously another dimension to the interaction as well. Eroticism needs space; intimacy collapses it.

There’s a delicate balance between these conflicting desires in any relationship, and the confusion about how to act can invite you back into exploring your deepest desires and intentions: why am I really in this relationship? How does that pertain to my own purpose? which should always serve as the foundation for orientating one’s life.

I’ve come to trust that when I return to my intention of bodhicitta, the desire to awaken for the benefit of others, and when I let this intention guide my interactions, especially in relationships with other people committed to a similar path, that things will unfold in the way that they should. 

What elicits these feelings of vulnerability can give you a lot of insight into your ego structure if you’re willing to stay present and turn towards these emotions.

In this situation, the very simple summary is that my friend and I were speaking very frequently and I sensed that she needed some space. We had also been sharing our feelings very openly, which felt completely comfortable with her but in a way that I’m not used to doing with my male friends. 

My rational mind can understand it completely. We all need some space sometimes; we want intimacy but we also want autonomy. Yet, as a straight man, what it was like to feel this way, to be the one experiencing that emotion conveyed to you by a woman and not the one eliciting it in her, is pretty close to one of the worst feelings that I could possibly imagine. At that moment, I could understand clearly why there are men who courageously go to war and stare down death and then come back home and don’t know how to be intimate with their wife or how to tell a woman they love how they actually feel about her. 

Perhaps as a woman it would be hard to comprehend why this emotion would be so intense for a man. That’s very understandable. As a man, I can listen to and empathize with the challenges of being a woman, but of course, on some level I’ll never fully understand it since experiencing something and understanding it intellectually are two very different things.

Clearly, women struggle with feelings of vulnerability as well. I have no doubt that it is much more challenging being a woman in this world than being a man. I’m not trying to diminish that or to compare it. To experience these feelings though as a man, especially as a straight man, is unique in that it absolutely cuts to the core of your identity and touches the greatest masculine archetypal fear: of being perceived as weak. Women want a man who is confident but not too confident; they want a man who is sensitive, but not too sensitive. That’s a very fine line for a (straight) man to walk. Of course, men have their own set of contradictory desires and expectations about women that evoke their insecurities.

All of us are contradictions. We all have these conflicting desires for both freedom and relationship, autonomy and intimacy. We want to be seen but then we’re afraid what will happen if we really let people inside to discover who we really are, a reality which itself is always changing and somewhat mysterious. 

The biggest tragedy, and irony, is that if we’re afraid to open up and be vulnerable we not only miss out on deeper connection, but we also miss out on greater freedom, for it is only through seeing our patterns, fears and insecurities through the mirror of relationship that we are able to polish that mirror of the heart-mind to purify obstructions so that our true nature shines more brightly.

How can people transform their fears, including the instinctive aversion that we feel to being present with our own feelings of vulnerability?

First, it can help to see yourself through the lens of different myths and archetypes and to contemplate the question: what does it mean to be a warrior? 

If a warrior is someone who is willing to face their own fears, to step into the darkness, then you start to realize that being present with your vulnerability is actually a form of strength, not weakness. Reframing the situation this way allows you to step into and to embody the archetype that you want to manifest, the warrior, in a more substantive and transformative way.

The practice of meditation also leads you through greater levels of equanimity and liberation as you deepen in your practice. Initially, you learn to stay present with the emotions and to see clearly that even if a negative emotion is present, adding resistance on top of it only creates suffering. If you look closely into your experience, you might find that the aversion to vulnerability is a form of resistance that actually makes the suffering worse. The Buddha called this “the second arrow:” it’s the way that the mind habitually layers additional suffering on top of already unpleasant experiences through instinctive aversion or attachment.

Next, the practice of meditation enables you to see vividly how quickly all of your emotions and thoughts are constantly changing. As you develop more insight into impermanence, attachment and aversion to emotions, thoughts and objects of the senses diminishes. You see the suffering and pleasure caused by these phenomena as transient and not worth clinging to.

There are successive stages in liberation as one progresses in recognition of the true nature of the mind. The simple answer is that the mind begins to recognize its own nature as like that of a mirror, one in which appearances arise and pass away ceaselessly. The story the mind creates from that initial feeling of aversion to vulnerability is itself an appearance in the mirror. In the end, it is simply the act of recognition and of letting go over and over and over again that liberates consciousness from clinging to its contents.

You start to let go of your identification with your insecurities once you can see clearly that you are not your insecurities. The mind is like the sky: always wide open and illuminated by the sun, even if the clouds are covering it over. 

Intention is also very important. In my own journey, I have found that The Tibetans are correct when they say that it is bodhicitta, the awakened heart, the intention to wake up for the benefit of others, that radically transforms us. It was the act of turning my own experience into this writing that might be of benefit to others that allowed me to let go even more and to make meaning out of my own discomfort and the aversion to it. This act of turning our suffering into art that helps others is another lesson of myths like The Churning of the Milky Ocean: it’s the story of how we turn poison into nectar. 

Above all, the critical factor that transforms our experience is the quality of attention that we bring to the present moment. If we notice resistance or judgment and just allow that to be there without trying to get rid of it, and then get curious about what we’re feeling, that will shift how the mind is relating to experience. 

Curiosity changes everything. Inviting a sense of playfulness by viewing consciousness as a play, also lightens things up and allows our emotions to feel less solid and to move around the body-mind.

In waking up and healing ourselves, meditation is indispensable but it’s not everything. People also need myths and archetypes, to see themselves reflected in and refracted through the narratives. Psychotherapy, including a focus on trauma, is very important. For me psychedelics, in particular plant medicine such as Soma, a combination of chacruna and peganam harmala, has also been extremely beneficial, though entheogens are not for everyone and you have to consider these choices very carefully before deciding what is safe and appropriate for you. 

But meditation does offer a unique pathway to freedom not promised by any of the other avenues, for it offers a direct, non conceptual seeing into the nature of the mind. Sometimes, we need to go into the story to break through it or to heal it. In other moments, it’s helpful to recognize that you’re not going to get out of a prison of thought with more thoughts.

Self inquiry through journaling, especially after meditation, is also a great practice. In that spirit I’ll leave you with a few questions to contemplate:

  • In what moments do I feel most vulnerable?
  • When I feel most vulnerable, how do I usually respond?
  • How might my life be different if I were more willing to turn towards my fears and to move through them?

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