Teacher Bulletin

The Man Barrier: Issues and Opportunities for Bringing Men into the Practice of Self-Compassion

by David Spound
Certified Teacher
February 11, 2019

What percentage of participants in your MSC courses are men? My experience as a teacher of MSC and of MBSR, and my conversations with dozens of MSC teachers, suggests that it is common for about 10-15% of any course group to be male.

I have taught MSC courses in which I was the only man in the room. I once taught an MSC course that was equally male and female, but my average is about 10% male and 90% female. (I am starting to see a very small number of transgender people, too.)

A few years ago, I was part of a group of male MSC teachers who met monthly on Zoom to puzzle out why the percentage of men in our MSC classes was so low and figure out what we could do to attract more men.

Many of us who teach have noticed that men in our society do not seem to take courses related to their own health and well-being, with the possible exception of when they are in an unavoidable crisis. As my friend and colleague Daniel Ellenberg writes, “men are conditioned to suffer in silence.” Rather than participate in self-development workshops about health, well-being, presence, and compassion (such as MSC and MBSR), men are more likely to take “training” courses related to improved focus, results, effectiveness, income, and overall success.

That’s because male cultural conditioning favors a bias toward developing so-called “hard” skills that are outwardly focused and do not involve gentle and tender emotions, as opposed to “soft” skills that are inwardly focused and involve softer, more vulnerable emotions. A major reason for the misunderstandings and misgivings about self-compassion is that it’s falsely perceived as soft, weak, and wimpy. One way to begin shifting this misconception is to include both the Yin and the Yang aspects of self-compassion in our presentations and conversations.

In addition, I have found this article by Chris Germer and Kristin Neff on “The Near Enemies of Self-Compassion” to be very illuminating. It reflects on the value of self-compassion practices in meeting the real challenges of our lives and our world — a perspective that might appeal to many men. Self-compassion is central to thriving and resilience.

I don’t think there is any disagreement in our community that men benefit enormously from MSC courses. We have all seen this happen. So what can we do to bring in more men?

For one thing, I would like to invite the entire MSC Teaching Community to continue this conversation. Whether we do so on PowerSchool Learning, during MSC Teacher Trainings, or periodic community gatherings, sharing effective ideas and strategies would be extraordinarily valuable. As part of our efforts, I would like to see us collect statements and testimonials from the men who do take our courses. We can ask such men what they would say to encourage other men to participate.

In his excellent talk at last fall’s Compassion in Connection Conference at the Omega Institute, CMSC Executive Director Steve Hickman offered his thoughts on bringing men into the world of self-compassion. He also suggested that we widen our view to consider how we might bring in more types of people who are not commonly represented in our classes. 

Another approach may lie in providing MSC groups that are just for men. There are issues such as shame, bullying, and sexual abuse that some men will feel safer and more willing to explore when in the company of just men.

CMSC did try to fill two different 5-day, men’s-only MSC Intensives but was not successful in attracting enough participants. However, in January 2018, Daniel Ellenberg and I worked with Chris Germer to fill and deliver a weekend MSC Core Skills for Men workshop in Boston. Such weekend workshops might offer a more appealing and accessible approach than a 5-day intensive or 8-week course.

CMSC is also beginning to offer Live Online MSC courses that are just for men. One such course, with Martin Thomson-Jones and Joel Grow, happened in 2018. Another LOMSC for Men program, led by Rainer Beltzner and me, will begin March 7.

Even with these men-only MSC offerings, we might also need a different approach, perhaps with different branding, that would be more appealing to more men at first glance; so that they would not be forced to confront their biases against words like “self-compassion” before they even consider the possible merits of the program. In recognizing this need, about two years ago, Steve Hickman, Daniel Ellenberg, and I began offering a weekend workshop called Ultimate Courage. This two-day workshop is deeply rooted in the core concepts of MSC, and also draws from other traditions and approaches. We invite men to engage in the healing cultivation of loving, connected presence in the face of pain and shame, and we also include specific techniques and exercises that encourage them to connect with each other and to discover and acknowledge what is most valuable within each of them.

We have two Ultimate Courage weekend workshops coming up this spring, one in Massachusetts in April and one in California in June.

View upcoming Ultimate Courage opportunities

Let us keep this conversation going. Feel free to be in touch with Steve Hickman, Daniel Ellenberg, and me, David Spound.