Nick Duffell
May 30, 2017 · 11 min read

The Impact of Hyper-rationality on Men’s Hearts and the Way Out.

Paper delivered to the 6th Conference of Psychotherapists and Counsellors for Social Responsibility, entitled ‘Men, Patriarchy and Mental Health’, London 6th May 2017, © Nick Duffell.

I am probably going to disappoint many of you today with how I start, which is to say that I don’t think that Patriarchy is any longer a very useful term — it’s too conceptual and too polarising. It’s largely a creation of mid-20th Century feminism and needed at the time. In today’s world we already have far too much polarisation, so I’d prefer to begin with taking a much wider and broader sweep, and therefore a much deeper view.

Then I will change gear and talk about some therapeutic work of helping men to open their hearts, which goes against all cultural conditioning and is therefore profoundly revolutionary. For there is an extreme and on-going problem with the way we raise males. This drags our cultures downwards and resists the pull of evolution, as I shall argue. First, some of my starting points.

Between two wills

Human societies are projections of the human psyche, which in turn arises in the human body. Our bodies are regulated by different energetic centres, which both operate autonomically as well as intentionally; they work cooperatively but are arranged hierarchically. The sexually gendered body has three important energetic centres — involving difference, sameness and complementarity between the sexes.

Two fundamental wills — or impulses or clusters of needs — dominate our psyches and consequently our societies. These are the will to belong and will to autonomy. The latter, often associated with the archetype of father, easily becomes dominant and controlling when out of relationship with other more nurturing needs or wills. Autonomy or power is then established at the expense of belonging or love. Individuals and cultures then become chronically off balance.

In the modern period, this situation crystallised into a hyper-rational trance, akin to the cultural left-hemisphere domination pointed to by the scholar Iain McGilchrist[1]. However, hyper-rational social norms become quickly normalised and socially self-perpetuate because they demand emotional truth be dissociated and projected. Projected elements eventually become very scary to those who disown them; they then compose the traditional enemies of so-called patriarchal societies, like powerful women or emotional men.

Given the level of partnership potential built in to us in all our organs, including the brain, this out-of-relationship domination is an important principle, and perhaps even more important than the out of balance brain that McGilchrist highlights. But maintaining this internal and external cooperative relationship has to be intentionally achieved or we loose it.

The Prodigal Son

If we look to history, we could say that a perfection in the domination of autonomy, power, doing, technology, control, hegemony was established during the 1st Century AD by the Roman Empire. Then, suddenly, a new myth arises in the Middle East — one that challenged core beliefs of this civilisation. As the great writer Robert Pirsig who died last month demonstrated, it is not uncommon that when one will is strongest another begins to break it down, as if to compensate.

The myth I am thinking of is ‘The Prodigal Son’. It’s a story about two brothers and their father, a patriarch. It arises in a truly patriarchal culture — a pastoral society. Pastoralism practises a specific cult of gender management that imitates mammalian breeding patterns: one top ram or bull is spared to service numerous females and the rest are slaughtered. In primal pastoral myths, these slaughters become ritual sacrifice of young males. This does not encourage the opening of the male heart, and when the fathers do this to the young men on mass, as in the First World War, no one can afford to ‘have a heart’. It is just too awful. Hence, 100 years later, we are still haunted by this war.

The Prodigal Son speaks of transformation and evolution: a journey of descent prior to a journey of return towards maturation. It is a psycho-spiritual reading of a more ancient proto-myth of the Sun God, (always gender specific and always male — except in German and Japanese). In the new myth the sun/ son has to fall and suffer in order to learn self-reflection and an intentional return. The suffering soul is now embraced by what I call the ‘father with a heart’.

And of course, as with all deep myths, this is both all within the same person, at a universal level, as well as also at a specific (gendered) level. It shows the move from survival ego to big context Self, where the father stands for the mature male who welcomes the individuating younger man at the end of his initiatory journey.

The story’s three principle actors create an entirely new context — three qualities of heart: the experiencing soul, the self-examining, value-based, grieving heart, and the potentially open, receiving heart. In some sophisticated understandings of the body, for example in Willem Poppeliers’ ‘Sexual Grounding Therapy’, the heart is considered the prime receptive organ in the male. The other protagonist, the older son, just can’t get it; he is ‘in his head’ — the precursor of the hyper-rational trance. But the younger one is transformed through his internal individuation process.

Hold this idea of the evolving soul and the receptive male heart.

The evolution imperative

Maturation of the human body is driven by the imperative to evolve, called the individuation process by C.G. Jung. It consists in the balancing of the two wills, autonomy and belonging, fashioning an internal sexual synthesis out of polarised opposites, which Jung called the ‘Inner Marriage’. Through a psycho-spiritual lens, not cooperating with evolution may be not fulfilling one’s destiny, not individuating, not having remorse, not seeing a greater, deeper way; in our story, it would be not to return home. It may be understood as sin or self-betrayal.

In fact, the original Hebrew word for ‘sin’ has been mistranslated. It does not mean to commit something wrong; it means rather ‘to miss’ something, to be absent, not to ‘get it’, or to do something without being present. The opposite is what Gurdjieff, following both Plato and the original meaning of the Sanskrit word smrti, called ‘self-remembering’. Smrti has also been mistranslated in modern times as ‘mindful’; but it is less a quality of mind than an event of remembering what is important. It feels more heart than mind.

So, says the myth, our evolutionary journey is more important than where we start from. This is precisely what gets missed in postmodern gender approaches, in which the big problem is the direction of travel — sideways rather than upwards, as evolution offers. The notions ‘narratives’ of gender and ‘gender fluidity’ have been necessary responses to controlling, defensive power structures. But the fault lies in not recognising the maturation potential, mistaking translating somatic form with psychic transformation.[2] When we really get this, it changes everything.

The Male has a journey to do. It leads away from the closed-hearted autonomy of the soldier, factory worker or entrepreneur, which consensus culture tends to keep in the starting blocks by refusing to educate or support the male’s emotional body. The journey leads towards the maturity of an awakened heart. Our art and mythology offer some travel guides, such as this myth, for the soul’s journey and the awakened, mature male heart. But, having started as a revolutionary tale, this myth became absorbed by organised religion that was the only bastion of rationality against the brutality of the Dark Ages for 1000 years, and went underground for many years.

The erotic art of India

Then in the 12th century something new arises in India. In the wonderful sun god temples of Konarak and Khajuraho we witness a never-before-seen erotic artistic sensibility. Eroticism, I suggest, can be seen as the most easily accessible and attractive illustration of the will to belong and connect, now presented as the foundation for the evolutionary path. Gorgeous sculptures show the creative process as the congress of Purusha (the Self) and Prakriti (that which is created) — Eros and Psyche are the nearest we have in the West.

Eventually, this knowledge penetrates Europe via the Arabs and morphs into chivalry, in which the cult of the warrior, which has gone as far as it can go, becomes transformed by being in service of the feminine. Inevitably, of course, the archetypes of the knight and the lady became degraded and literalised, according to a process throughout Western culture where a left-hemisphere reading eventually dominates.

Unlike the West, Oriental ecstatic art concentrates on abundance rather than suffering. What Indian spirituality was playing with in these temples is very dynamic; it fascinated me when I was a teenager, but its meaning wasn’t clear to me till I met Willem Poppeliers in my forties. Sexual Grounding Therapy explains how the heart of one partner is seeking the heart of the other. Behind the deep instinctual procreative drive of sex is a vital energetic direction. Down through the male, via his genitals, through the genitals of the female, and up into her heart, to be recycled endlessly like a generator that creates boundless vitality, streams this energy. And the heart of the male is its key starting point: the least visible organ in these sculptures turns out to be the most important.

Observing the forms barely constrained by the sandstone, one cannot help being struck by the overflowing fullness of the female figures’ breasts. I suspect it is not ancient pornography but a depiction of the energetic charge seeking to open the male heart in order to kick-start the flow. Something like this is what is happening on the walls of Konarak, as Alan Watts knew[3]. It has nothing to do with any kind of athleticism in the bedroom, as all the Western Tantrikas get wrong. And it is pragmatically observable, as we know from couple counselling: whenever a male is not receiving in his heart the energetic flow between male and female tends to stop.

So this male heart has to open to create abundance in the world. If it does not, we are in trouble, we may conclude, and our current politics bears witness to this fact. This is not the patriarchy, but our unwillingness to learn how to evolve. Transgenerationally, while masculinity was traditionally defined by what it is not, male hearts have not been encouraged to awaken because it looked like weakness or femininity[4]. So learning to do it is a revolution that combines connectedness with autonomy and self-regulation of the male emotional world.

Searching for the male heart

This is the main goal of the therapeutic menswork I have been involved with for 30 years now[5]. I believe it to be revolutionary because the awakened heart has been the enemy of defensive, controlling dominant masculinity (aka the Patriarchy, if you must).

Group therapy can be more effective for men than one to one individual therapy. Since men learn defensive masculinity in groups of men, they can best unlearn it in groups, as a step towards maturity, which is evolution and individuation. Many males grow up with inadequate fathering which affects their own masculinity, building in a sense of distance But what men missed in their own fathers they may find in other men in order to ‘re-programme’ their internal lack.

Exploring identity issues and practising being emotionally present in groups facilitates better family and work relationships. Supported by therapeutic menswork, men can end the isolation in which unspoken emotional issues may lead to suicide or bullying. Then they can challenge the patterns of dominant masculinity to become a force for social change in their own communities[6].

The process of men individuating from their gendered stereotypical staring points is what Helena Løvendal and I called the move beyond the ‘Gender Imaginative Tendencies’ (GITS) to the ‘Gender Evolutionary Tasks’ (GETS) [7]. This work of maturation cannot be done mentally: it has to be done by shifting the centre of self-regulation from the mental ego to the heart. This is why men in couple counselling need so much supporting: we are trying to strengthen the energetic centre that starts out with the weakest ‘charge.’ A facilitated men’s group is a perhaps the most resilient field to counter the transgenerational problem of men closing the heart so much so that it is normalised and overrides that natural maturing from the GITS to the GETS that our myth portrays.

Cultivating heart for our world

Such cultural normalisation is perhaps nowhere seen in such clarity as in the British boarding school habit that produces what I have called Wounded Leaders.[8] It is a unique closed sample study on a grandiose island, and I know its problems from the inside out, which is why I have specialised in it.

The Wounded Leaders phenomenon is but a micro-sample of the cultural disease of our era, which, if we could heal it, could lead us to the great cultural leap forward that Western society needs to make — moving from an objectification of our world and others to an empathic re-connection. Despite the pioneering work of HeartMath and Sexual Grounding Therapy and so on, our world is still miles away from knowing how to cultivate the heart.

In my recent excursions in pursuit of a new psycho-spiritually informed politics, I have met some very interesting minds — especially from Scandinavia. There are new and intelligent ideas galore about how our world needs to change, and many accomplished young networkers out there disseminating them and practising meditation — mostly young men. However, the overwhelming sensation I have is that many people are quite disembodied.

In humanistic psychotherapy in the 80s and 90s, we pursued the general theme about our culture that people lacked ‘meaning’. But today it seems less the case; the overriding impression I have, especially in the age of digital obsession, is that people lack grounding and self-regulation, and this is does not seem to be gendered.

The heart is essential to self-regulation in the body as the core organiser of our nervous system as well as our blood distribution. It is the mediator of connectivity within our bodies and consequently also in relationships. This is a grounding function. As it is in relationships, so it must also be in social organisation, which is why I delivered an experimental paper last year in Athens called Steps to a politics of Heart.[9]

A new education of the heart is essential in males. Even if this may still be considered a ‘soft’ art, it will pay off, I’m sure. Many times I have conducted experiments with couples in a clinical situation where bringing in the role of a father with a heart who is grounded has utterly changed the context. And, as our myth tells us, the father with a heart is already inside just waiting for us to come home.


[1] McGilchrist, I. (2010) The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, New Haven & London: Yale University Press.

[2] See Wilber, K. (1995) Sex, Ecology, Spirituality — The Spirit of Evolution, Boston: Shambhala for an explanation of this important distinction.

[3] Watts, A. (1974) Erotic Spirituality: The Vision of Konarak, New York: Collier Books.

[4] Roper, M., and Tosh J. (1991) Manful Assertions, Masculinities in Britain since 1800, Hove: Routledge.

[5] See

[6] Duffell, N. (2016) ‘Searching for menswork that works: a report on an experiment in therapeutic groups for men,’ in Self & Society: An International Journal for Humanistic Psychology, Volume 44, 2016 — Issue 3.

[7] Duffell, N. & Løvendal-Duffell, H. (2013), ‘Evolutionary perspectives on Sex and Gender,’ in Evans, R. & Simpson, S. Essays on the Theory and practice of a Psychospiritual Psychology, London: Institute of Psychosynthesis.

[8] Duffell, N. (2014) Wounded Leaders: British Elitism and the Entitlement Illusion — a Psychohistory, London: Lone Arrow Press.

[9] Duffell, N. (2017) ‘Steps to a politics of heart’ in Humanistic Psychology: Current Trends, Future Prospects edited by House, R., Kalisch, D. and Maidman, J. Abingdon and New York: Routledge.


Systems, Souls, and Society.

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