A good deal of Keith Ashford’s practice counselling men in the Kingston, Ont. area involves getting them to stop twitching.
Men, he has learned, always want to be on the move – feel compelled to move. Sit them down and feet pump, fingers tap, and arms twitch. “It’s hard to take a man seriously who is twitching. It drives people crazy to be in the presence of a person like a marionette with four strings. The jumpy man is not a healthy man. It’s not a very healthy kineticism,” he says.
Mr. Ashford was a United Church minister for a decade and before that a critic for the Ottawa Citizen. Lately, he has been writing books that tell us a lot about balance and unbalance in men. His first book, published two years ago (for which I provided a supporting blurb having taken tai chi classes alongside him) tackled anger, and now he has just released The True Man: Meditations On The Male Mosaic. It looks at something he calls “the counter-cultural male,” who resists the traditional stereotypes of masculinity, and seeks a new way.
“The counter-cultural male is the balanced male,” he says.
That man has a balance, or is seeking a balance, between his masculine and feminine side, in the traditional sense. He is also balanced with respect to work – he places work in the right perspective. That means his values aren’t aligned with the prevailing culture: he is not consumed with winning, achieving, and accumulating. He is happy in the present, and not obsessed with the future. He can sit still and quiet his mind. He doesn’t twitch.
That’s not the man that many men want to be. But some do, as they struggle with themselves, and their work, and their family. It’s also a struggle that involves women, who Mr. Ashford notes can also get wrapped up in the current acquisitive culture, and need to find a better balance.
Part of the struggle for balance comes, he feels, because our culture is so results-oriented. “Nobody questions this results orientation that successful men hold up, preach about, and sometimes refer to as the bottom line,” he says in an interview. “The idea is that something in the future will make them happy in the present. Even a cursory examination suggests that’s silly. So this results orientation keeps us off balance: We’re never totally where we are right now. This is common for the Company Man.”
Ambition is part of that cultural orientation as well. Again, it is not questioned: It’s something many men (and women too, of course) accept unquestioningly. We are supposed to be go-getters.
“Ambition is man’s most mediocre impulse. Ambition is the opposite of love. When we’re in a loving relationship with the world and ourselves, we don’t have ambition. If we’re in love with our work and world, ambition doesn’t enter the picture in any way. Ambition is about making it different, changing it. It breeds conflict,” he says.
Whatever your religion or whoever your spiritual teacher, he points out ambition is not on the page. It is not exalted. Yet we pursue it, out of balance with our higher impulses. Tied to that ambition are two other factors that lead us out of balance: Competitiveness and acquisitiveness.
“For me to get ahead, someone else has to fall behind,” he says. “Company Men compete.” That led him, for a while, to tai chi, which wasn’t competitive. He noticed there were more women than men. He suspects there wasn’t enough competition for men. It was a co-operative model that men have to learn as they seek balance.
“The Company Man is very acquisitive,” he adds. “He wants what he doesn’t have. Contentment would be to want what you have and not to want or to be indifferent to what you don’t have. Company Men get this exactly wrong. They want what they don’t have. There can’t be a surer way to an unbalanced life.”
Idealism is usually praised. And Mr. Ashford, as you can see, is idealistic. But he is worried by the tendency of men to want to reform and change everything: “They are so damn busy.” He cites the French mathematician, physicist, and philosopher Blaise Pascal: “All of man’s misfortune comes from one thing, which is not knowing how to sit quietly in a room.”
Mr. Ashford believes we can’t achieve balance when the “active principle” has run amok. Aloneness is not an option, these days. “But alone time is essential. It should not be optional. That’s what balance is,” he says. People think they have to keep a dozen things going at one time, like a juggler. But he argues balance is on the inside: The man who can’t keep still isn’t balanced. Stillness is balance.
“The easiest thing to do is actually the hardest thing to do: Not to do the unnecessary. Doing the necessary is important. We are charged with necessities. But we also have to ask as we are doing things: Is this necessary? If we asked that we would immediately be doing less, as most of what we do is not necessary,” he says.
Then we would be more balanced.