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The Invisible Presence, by Michael Gurian

 The Invisible Presence: How a Man's Relationship with His Mother Affects All His Relationships with WomenAlthough it’s not clear until you begin reading the book, this is a new edition of a book published in 1994 as Mothers, Sons, and Lovers, and it includes a new preface and study questions. Michael Gurian has published twenty five books over the years, establishing his reputation as a leader in the world of gender studies, as well as founding the Gurian Institute, which conducts research and provides training and education for other professionals.

You may be asking yourselves, as I certainly did, why Shambhala Publications has put out a book on men’s studies and Jungian psychology. This esteemed press is best known for its Buddhism books, especially Chogyam Trungpa and Pema Chodron, among many, many others. It turns out that Shambhala published the original edition, back in an era where they did a lot more psychology and philosophy books, including most of Ken Wilber’s books.

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Title: The Invisible Presence: How a Man’s Relationship with His Mother Affects All His Relationships with Women
Author: Michael Gurian
Publisher: Shambhala Books
ISBN: 978-1-59030-807-3
Available from: Shambhala, Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk.

One of Gurian’s essential points in the book, and where he begins, is the lack of initiation for boys as they enter manhood. In tribal cultures, and even in the modern world until the previous century, boys were not intimately tied to their mothers the way they are now. Child-rearing was different, and separation from the mother and the family was not only expected, it was enforced. Primal cultures often had a series of initiation ceremonies that progressively removed the son from the family of origin and signaled his emergence as an adult. Sometimes this process even included a new name.

Until the last century or so, with the advent of much-needed child labor laws, boys from “middle class” families often were sent to work or to apprentice with a craftsman — a carpenter, a blacksmith, an accountant (if they were really well-off), and so on. This apprenticeship process, which often took years, was a form of initiation (separation from family, initiation into a trade guild, and his return as an adult — the classic model outlined by van Gennep more than a century ago), even though Gurian doesn’t mention it in the book.

Now boys live at home until college, and often they return when school is finished until they can find a job and their own apartment. Mothers make this separation process even more difficult in trying to maintain their early attachment to their child, which is the opposite of what a young man needs. An adolescent boy is beginning the individuation process, moving away from the mother and into the world of men, and going to college should finalize this separation. Yet this is not happening for a lot of young men.

So what happens to the son when the mother has been dismissing the role of the father, or dismissing the roles of men in general — or worse, disparaging the father with put-downs or insults? How is a boy to find his place in the male world when his mother has negated what he is destined to become, an adult man?

As Gurian demonstrates, that boy does not become an adult man — he remains stuck in an in-between place where he needs the approval of women and men to feel of value, in essence, because there has not been any internalized male ideal (since men are bad, abusive, or useless: “all men are pigs,” “men suck!” “all men want is sex,” or “men have ruined the world”). While this does not happen in the majority of young men’s lives, it does happen much more than we would like to believe.

The other possibility for this individuation failure is an absent father, either through abandonment, divorce, or death. My father died of a heart attack when I was 13-years-old — and there was no good male role models in my life. I was dismayed to see myself in one of Gurian’s lists of characteristics of uninitiated men (p. 38-39). While I have spent years working on this aspect of my life, it seems I still carry some of the scars.

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In the third chapter, Gurian looks at how this initiation failure and the impingement relationship with the mother shapes a man’s adult romantic relationships. By impingement (a reference to the work of D.W. Winnicott, a pioneer in parent-child attachment theory) Gurian is referring to the ways that parents fill their own emotional needs through their children. This is a difficult thing to monitor in ourselves — Dr. Dan Siegel spends a whole book on how we can development this skill (Parenting from the Inside Out, 2003) — but we need to be aware of it because it puts the infant or child in the impossible position of taking care of the parent.

For boys, growing up in this environment — which can continue into adulthood, especially when the father is absent due to emotional distancing, work, abandonment, or death, and shows up in comments such as, “Don’t ever leave me,” or “Be my little man” — symbolically forces him to be a surrogate “lover” or partner for his mother. And what little boy does not want to please his mother?

But this sets up the young man to remain more loyal to his mother than to his romantic partner when he begins that element of his life. This was classically known as the mother complex, and although it’s a near cliché, it’s also an accurate assessment of what can happen. The girlfriend or wife ends up feeling she comes second to the mother, and she is correct.

Other elements of this pattern can manifest as a need for approval from the romantic partner. A boy-man who grew up with a “smothering” mother (which is how I look at my own childhood with my mother) has no sense of self outside of that external approval. This man is “spineless” or “weak” or “hen-pecked” — all clichés that pathologize something the man had no control over in his life. He did not choose to be parented in that way.

In this respect, I would recommend this book for women as much as for men. Understanding how the man you love was raised will help you understand those aspects of his personality that you might find challenging. (Gurian offers study questions for women at the end of the book.)

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In the second half of the book, which is more like two-thirds, Gurian offers a way out of this liminal space between boyhood and manhood, a series of initiation tasks that can help us toward a mature individuation.

In offering his outline and exercises for experiencing our own initiation, Gurian is men identify and move from the adolescent hero (seeking adventure and power, the traditional hero seeking his place in the world) into the mature, masculine hero (who seeks wholeness and wisdom, not ego trinkets). He actually makes this distinction early in the book:

The mature counterpart of the adolescent hero, the Mature Hero, gains his maturity when he makes the journey out of the survival mode, stepping out of the need for ego fixes and ego approval. (p. 37)

He presents the “Heroic Quest” in the second half of the book as a “search for information, understanding, inspiration, and recovery” (p. 119). He asks us to take the tasks he will present very seriously, as ritual, which includes creating a ritual space, some sacred objects, a notebook, and even a special pen devoted to just this project.

Wisely, he also suggests that some men will want to seek support from a therapist or a men’s group, and I would generally agree with this, especially the therapist part. I have found that working with a good, spiritually-inclined therapist is very helpful in sorting out family of origin issues.

Finally, I want to present abbreviated versions of the seven affirmations he presents in the introduction to Part II of the book, which I found supportive for men beginning such a journey:

  1. A man is a loving, wise, and powerful male adult.
  2. The human unconscious is a mythological story.
  3. My outward behavior and inward yearnings are guided by countless personal and family myths I rarely articulate.
  4. My personal myths are not written in stone, just as wounds are not permanently damaging.
  5. Not all damaging personal myths and wounds respond to personal odyssey work.
  6. There is no such thing as a perfect man.
  7. Because our culture has turned away from the magic of the inner story toward the radiant distractions of external stimulation, I must look inward toward the dark center of my being, where my sacred self lives. (p. 128-129)

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While I can easily recommend this book with only minor reservations, I did find myself questioning several things as I read the book.

Gurian begins with his acknowledgments, a standard move, but I immediately became skeptical in seeing Carlos Castaneda in the list, a well-known fiction writer still sometimes thought of as an anthropologist. Also on the list are many authors who have made the complexity of Jungian psychology seem little more than the misappropriation of another culture’s mythology.

R.W. Connell, in Masculinities (2nd edition, 2005), is very critical of the archetypal move in mainstream Jungian psychology, by which he refers to the impulse to find archetypes nearly everywhere. In his later work, Jung did this as well, and his followers picked up where he left off.

This results in deeply confused texts such as Marshall Bethal’s The Mythic Male, an errant hunt through Greco-Roman myths, taken utterly out of context…. Iron John is a Jungian work in exactly this vein, except that Robert Bly finds his archetypes in a folk tale recast by the Brothers Grimm…. (p. 13)

I bring this up because Gurian also does this in his book. There are several instances that I marked early in the book, before I gave up due to the sheer number of them. At one point (page 74), he rattles off a series of examples of the devouring Goddess myth from various cultures. But what he does not mention is that these are all pre-rational (or pre-personal) myths, meaning that they come from a time in human history before we developed much of a rational sense of self, a time when humans showed very little compassion or empathy in raising their children (see Jeremy Rifkin’s The Empathic Civilization, Chapter Four). Those myths were appropriate to those times, but they bear little relevance to how we live now.

On the other hand, Gurian also makes reference to literature, poetry, and film, and in these instances, his point is carried more clearly and makes more sense to the educated contemporary reader. For example, in one short section of the book, he references Hamlet, Don Juan, and a poem by Robert Duncan. When he makes these references, he is giving the reader a modern, accessible correlate to the point his is trying to make and it works better.

Gurian is not alone in this issue — it’s endemic in popular Jungian psychology, as Connell pointed out. In this respect, Jungian psychology fails as a useful tool for men’s studies. And yet, as I also pointed out, when the author avoids primitive myths and uses modern literature and film, he offers us a mirror of our own struggles raised to the level of art, which is both instructive and comforting (we are not alone).

Later in the book, when he is outlining his initiation program, I found myself referring to some of the things Gurian suggests (as I often do when I see them in New Age books) as “woo.” If you are less rational than I am, it probably won’t bother you.

If you come to this book as a Buddhist, you might also be put off by all the talk about the self. On the other hand, what he is seeking in men is openness to experience and a reduction of ego drives. Both of these allow men to experience and express greater love and compassion — and that can only be a good thing.

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About William Harryman

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William Harryman is a freelance writer, a personal trainer, nutritional coach, and integral life coach living in Tucson, Arizona. He has been a practicing Buddhist since 1998, at first sampling among many traditions before settling into the Shambhala tradition of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. William blogs at Integral Options Café, and you can follow him on Twitter. Read more articles by .

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Comment from phillip johnson
Time: January 21, 2012, 11:28 am

Goodmorning, I’m a junior in college and have a psych term paper to write. The topic I’m interested in is “having a bad relationship with your mom affects your relationship with future women”. I’m taking any suggestions of anything

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