I just wanted to shake his hand.
Here was a man I learned so much from, that answered so many of my questions about “being a man”, and I just wanted to meet him and say “your book meant a lot to me” — but there were rules.
It was 2011, and I was at the first of two 3-day intensives with David Deida, the author of “The Way of the Superior Man”, the best-selling book with an almost cult-like following (minus the “almost”).
We weren’t allowed to see him outside the practice space, which meant his assistant would assemble us, then we would sit quietly while she brought him in. After a few hours of practices, lessons and Q&A, he would exit while we sat and waited to be dismissed.
The whole weekend, we never saw him outside that room, and from what I understand he’s incredibly private and hard to reach outside of those weekend intensives.
While I found this odd, I also understood why. He’s not there to be our buddy, he’s there to teach us and there was a potency to his process that I respected.
Not only that, but during the sessions David was incredibly personable and actually quite funny. He told stories about his life, did his best to demonstrate what he was talking about, and he laughed with us about the futility of trying to ever understand what women want.
I still remember him walking in the room on the first day — he silently looked around (in a meditative, contemplative way) and after a few deep breaths began with “alright now everyone take off your clothes”, which was followed by laughter and smiles.
It’s hard for me to trust a spiritual teacher without a sense of humor.
Anyone who meets David Deida would agree that he is an impressive human, but he’s also someone who is severely disconnected from his community.
Baba in a Bubble
The problem with David Deida’s advice isn’t what he writes, it’s how people interpret it, then how other people interpret those interpretations.
He doesn’t engage with his community directly (outside of the handful of people who pay thousands of dollars to go to his retreats) so he misses the chance to see the impact his work has on the larger community of men and women who follow him.
He likes being a hermit. At my first retreat he told us he had only talked to three people in the last six months. Even his assistant’s assistants don’t get to meet him until years into their training.
Do I understand this need for solitude and isolation? Of course I do — I’m a writer. Distraction is the enemy of creativity, and one of the things people don’t realize about David Deida is that he strongly identifies as a writer. He’s written eleven books and counting.
I imagine he’d rather spend his time in a mountain cabin ruminating on the nature of existence than reading twitter mentions, replying to fan emails or trying to persuade rich hippies from Santa Monica to shut up long enough so they can breathe together.
I get it.
There’s a part of me that would love to live on a mountain and write all day too — yet there’s an irresponsibility to putting transformational work into the world without closely monitoring it’s impact.
Furthermore, it creates a downward spiral. When you don’t want to see the way your work impacts others you can’t self-correct, so the negative impact gets worse. Then because the impact is worse you want to see it less, so you remove yourself even more — and down and down we go.
Pretty soon you’ve built a wall between yourself and the people you hope to serve, and part of the reason is you’re afraid to see what’s really going on.
Deida had his reasons though. We were told that he was so exhausted from being in the same room with us that he needed to meditate between sessions just to recharge. Another time we were told he had to “breathe for us” because none of us knew how to breathe.
No, I’m not joking. That’s literally what his assistant said. And we bought it hook, line and sinker, complete with a side of shame for not being “3rd stage” enough to sit in the room with this apparent master of respiration.
This kind of spiritual gaslighting happens all the time, especially in new age communities. Spiritual teachers are notorious for dropping powerful wisdom nuggets then rolling out when things get messy in their community.
Gender ≠ Polarity
David Deida’s work is in many ways a study of polarity, otherwise known as the dance between the masculine and the feminine. As Deida might say, the opposing nature of masculine and feminine energy is one of the driving forces behind life itself, including (but certainly not limited to) sexual chemistry.
Masculine energy is direct, unwavering and spacious. Feminine energy is flowing, chaotic and expansive. Masculine energy is the container, feminine energy is what fills that container. Masculine energy is the banks of a river, feminine energy is the river itself — and so on.
This teaching by itself is wonderful. Tantra students have studied these two energies for thousands of years, and there’s no doubt that when you understand how they work, your life — including your love life — will improve dramatically. Mine certainly did.
The problem comes when we link these energies to gender.
Even the title of his book makes this error. While I understand that “The Way of the Superior Masculine Energy” doesn’t have the same ring to it, collapsing “man” with “masculine” causes problems because people start unconsciously (and consciously) associating the two.
To some extent Deida realizes this, so he addresses it in the introduction.
It doesn’t matter if both partners are men or both are women, it doesn’t matter if, in a heterosexual relationship, the man plays the feminine pole and the woman plays the masculine pole. It doesn’t matter if you change every day who plays the masculine pole and who plays the feminine pole.1
Yet he writes the rest of the book with the assumption that every man’s ultimate preference is to be masculine and every woman’s ultimate preference is to be feminine. He also continues this assumption in his workshops, which feature men exclusively playing the masculine role and women exclusively playing the feminine.
On the surface, we could argue that he’s doing this for the sake of simplicity, but over-simplification is the problem. We need more complexity, not less.
Can we point to places in his writing where he clearly states that he’s not collapsing gender and masculinity/femininity? Yes, but look at his community and his workshops and you’ll see a different story. He’s not connected to the impact of his work, and the implementation of it is just as important as the instruction.
The result of his work is a collapse of gender and polarity, and when we reduce people to “men are masculine, women are feminine” it downgrades us from curiosity to assumption. Instead of working to understand people’s unique human expression, we simply assume the “truth” about who they are, based on pre-determined notions and archetypes.
We put people in a box, because boxes are easier to understand than complex humans. We also put ourselves in a box, because it gives us a way to feel good about ourselves, to feel like a “real man” or an “evolved man” because now there’s a set of lofty standards we can compare ourselves to.
And yet, to say Deida’s standards are lofty would be an understatement.
He is the king of hyperbole — so when we compare ourselves to what he suggests it’s a recipe for disaster.
He is more of an artist than a teacher, and I don’t think he’d be all that upset to hear that. His language is more poetic than it is prescriptive, so his words are very quotable but almost impossible to implement.
In many ways, we’d be a lot better off if we saw him more like Rumi, and I think we’d enjoy his work more. Instead of reading Deida’s books as instructions for living, we could view them through the lens of poetry, and fall in love with the beauty of his words, while also remembering they are idealistic and not meant to be the Bible.2
Lumberjacks and Goddesses
Over and over, people would leave Deida’s community feeling guilty because even though they had tried and tried, they didn’t fit the mold, and felt broken because of it.
Meanwhile, the praise and approval would go to the men who looked like lumberjacks and the women who looked like yoga goddesses.
As a man who often rolls out of bed looking like a lumberjack, I didn’t mind this type of preferential treatment, but I couldn’t help but notice that we were subtly reinforcing the played out gender stereotypes by rewarding the people who looked a certain way.
And then there were the people who didn’t fit in.
At every Deida event there always seemed to be one woman who owned one too many pant-suits, and one man who just couldn’t scare anyone with his warrior face. They always got special attention, and would inevitably end up in some process where David or one of his assistants would uncover the blocks they had to being more like the stereotype we were all expecting from their assigned gender.
Don’t get me wrong, there are many women who are blocked in expressing their femininity and just as there are many men who are blocked in expressing their masculinity. This work is important. I’m not suggesting we should all become androgynous, but I am saying we can do this work without the side-effect of shame and the nagging feeling that we’re never good enough.
In fact, I have proof.
Polarity Without Gender
There is actually a simple way to work with masculine and feminine energies without collapsing them with gender.
When in the context of a workshop, instead of gender balancing or having men on one side of the room and women on the other, you would simply count off by “twos” and voilà — you have two groups of people you could assign either the masculine or feminine role. Then you would switch them.
I’ve actually run workshops like this. I called them “Gender-less Polarity Games” and they were influenced by the exercises I experienced at Deida’s events, except they had nothing to do with gender. Turns out it was more fun to allow people to work with masculine/feminine energies without the expectation that they should show up a certain way because of the sex they were born with.
As an added benefit, uncoupling gender and polarity pushes people’s comfort zones, because our culture shames men for feminine behavior and women for masculine behavior.
Masculine and feminine energies aren’t in competition, they complement each other, so when we work on one and ignore the other we’re actually limiting our ability to be a great lover and partner. In my life, I’ve found that the better I get at one, the better I get at the other.
A Large Grain of Salt
Ultimately, my hope isn’t that we discard Deida’s work, it’s that we take it with a grain of salt — and when I say “grain” I mean a big old Himalayan salt lamp’s worth.
For me, reading and understanding feminism has been a useful antidote to some of the drawbacks of Deida’s work. It’s not “the” answer, but when paired with Deida’s work it creates a kind of wholeness I see missing in his community.
For anyone interested, I’d suggest starting with The Will to Change by bell hooks, it’s a personable and in-depth look at how our culture sets up men to fail, and what we can do about it.
While I do think men would benefit from understanding feminism, this isn’t about that. What I’m trying to say is that Deida’s work requires a lot of additional learning, lest you become a “Deida-bot” — and no, I didn’t make up that term — it’s commonly used to describe his followers who blindly accept everything he has to say.
The Seduction of Certainty
It seems like every day, I see another guy in his twenties enthusiastically get handed “The Way of the Superior Man”, and I can’t help but wince. I’ve been there, and I remember the sense of relief I felt to finally have answers to questions I wrestled with for so long.
And yet, questions like “what do women want?” or “what is my purpose?” deserve more nuance than “all women are X” and “all men want Y”. We sacrifice truth for certainty, and if there’s one thing young men (and women) crave more than anything — it’s certainty. We want to know we’re on the right path and when someone charismatic comes along with answers (and those answers also involve getting us laid), we’ll sign up for just about anything.
Deida’s writing is seductive, and his concepts provide a lot of temporary relief for men who are lost in the areas of purpose, women and sex.
I know it’s up to the next generation to take his work (and the work of so many others) and run with it, but it’s disappointing when I see other “leaders” in the field parrot David Deida’s work and present it as “new” when they are just re-arranging the words.
One of the most successful podcasts for men (The New Man Podcast) literally stole a phrase coined by David Deida — beyond the macho jerk and the new age wimp — and used it as their tag line.
I’ve been to workshops led by Deida’s former assistants—workshops called “The New Men’s Work” — only to see that these men are teaching the same thing (and the same way) as Deida, but conveniently re-packaged. I imagine it’s hard to go your own way when there are such big financial and social rewards for appealing directly to Deida’s followers.
We can do better.
We can stop judging women for being “in their masculine” and start looking at why we’re so threatened by it.
We can talk to women and improve our ability to communicate and listen, instead of continuing to theorize and mastermind about what kind of man they want. Holy shit, listening to women — actually listening to them without responding — that would be some radical men’s work.
We can realize that working on our own feminine energy is just as useful as working on our ability to embrace it in others.
We can understand women from the inside, by leaving the comfort of our traditional roles as men. Some of the most eye opening experiences I’ve had have been bringing straight men out to gay bars to get hit on. If you want to understand masculinity and polarity, go to an aggressive gay bar on a weekend and wear something cute.
This is what new men’s work actually looks like.
It’s about challenging the assumptions about what it means to be a man — not so we can come up with new boxes and declare that “the truth”, but so we can be free to find our unique expression and know that it works for us, and may not work for others.
It’s about getting honest about how massive an effect homophobia has on our lives and actually doing something about it.
It’s about welcoming things like beating our chests and howling at the moon, but not thinking that’s who we have to be because we were born with a Y chromosome.
It’s about feeling free to explore the depths of how we can show up within both our masculine and feminine essence, yet not being limited by having to choose.
After five full years immersed in his work — two weekend intensives, many evening practice nights and three years in a men’s group based on a curriculum he developed — I left Deida’s community in 2015.
I absolutely value everything I learned, but was it worth all the baggage it came with? I don’t know. I still feel shame when women hold space for me, or when I do things that make me seem weak or vulnerable. I’m secretly worried that women only value me for my masculinity.
I think I even did some damage to my posture through always trying to stick my chest out (I’m not joking… ask my chiropractor). I got messed up.
That’s because underneath our know-it-all exterior, men actually don’t have a clue and we’re desperate for answers. We’ll do just about anything for approval from women, and deep inside our egos all want to be seen as the “superior man” — but superior to whom? Other men? Are we really playing into the same kind of unhealthy win-lose competition model that is already the cause of so many of our mental health problems?
And what would it even mean for there to be a superior man? Aren’t we all different and unique? What if “success” is completely different for every man? When we step back and actually ask ourselves these questions, the idea of a “superior man” is just as ridiculous as the idea of a “superior tree”.
We need to start measuring success based on what works for us, instead of other people’s standards.
When we do — when we finally let go of who other people think we should be, we can be free to thrive in a way that is uniquely ours — and we won’t be so attached to what someone else thinks is superior.
Got something to say? We’re listening. Leave a comment on the Facebook thread.
I also recommend listening to Chris Ryan’s critique of “The Way of the Superior Man” on his podcast Tangentially Speaking. Click to listen to episode 461 — The Way of the Inferior Man.