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Episode 43: The Body Knows Best

Owen Marcus is a men’s coach and the Co-founder of Evryman, a company focused on men’s emotional wellness with the purpose of destigmatizing men’s vulnerability and empowering individuals to build deeper connections. He teaches us how some of our biggest “problems” are unhealthy coping mechanisms that we have unknowingly adopted. He talks about the role of physical/somatic experience in shaping emotional experience, how suppressing our emotions creates PTSD pathways in our brains, and the power of “changing your mind” over “learning new techniques.” Lastly, we talk about how connection is the essence of being human, what it takes to achieve deeper connections, the benefits of emotionally risk-taking, and actionable advice for how people, men in particular, can cultivate better emotional intelligence.

Sasza
Thank you so much for joining us today, Owen, we’re so good to have you on the show.

Owen
Thank you. And it’s my pleasure and honour to be here.

Sasza
So to kind of open up as we love to do, to give some more context to our listeners who may or may not be familiar with you, with every man with your coaching, I’d love for you to tell us a bit about how it is that you came to be doing what you’re doing today and what events or experiences have shaped your work and the journey that you’re on today.

Owen
I got into working with men and with couples really because I needed that and the backstory is I’ve been working with people for over 40 years. I used to have holistic medical clinic in Scottsdale for 17 years and then worked on a more physical level. So my private practice started out as a role back in the 70’s. I got into all this because I didn’t know at the time, but I realized I ended up going through life with dyslexia and then I realized later I had Asperger syndrome and that explained why I struggled in school, but also why I struggled in relationships. The particular reason I got involved with working with men over 25 years ago and specifically release initially with men’s groups, was that I needed a way to learn what I didn’t get to learn around how do I connect with and relate to people. I had resistance in doing it with men, which was a good reason why I needed to explore doing that and I did. I immediately realized that that was a situation where I was in the only one experiencing that challenge of how to connect emotionally with other people. In the course of those 25 years, I just kept on diving deeper into that field and then I started bringing in other traditions and research and experiences I’ve learned and we’re really applying in my clinics. I’ve found that using those other approaches really was something that enhanced the work that we were doing with men.

Sasza
I think it’s so interesting coming from the background that you have, as you mentioned with the holistic medicine and being a role for. And I think that so often, especially this space that kind of BBXX and every manner in is kind of this new wellness but kind of mesh between mind and body that has, I think a lot of roots, it’s alternative medicine. Basically it should be considered mainstream that is, I think in a lot of ways, but particularly with that background in Rolfing. I’m curious what your opinion would be kind of on the relationship between the mind and the body.

Owen
Yeah. I actually wrote a book on it and I could go on for days about it, but I remember taking a graduate seminar in college and the topic of this seminar, the semester was mind body and back then I didn’t know anything. It was all academic. But when I was living in Boulder in the mid-seventies I had a roommate that had given up his law practice in Florida and moved to Boulder to study to be a Rolfer and he argued his case well enough where I said, all right, all right, I’ll try it. Once I tried it, it opened up another whole world of experience. So I went through the 10 sessions as most people would when they go through a Rolfing series. And I went once a week, nine months later, I was an inch taller. I lost a good 20 pounds of cheer tension. I was never overweight, but I was very tense. But the most impressive part was I learned how to relax and specifically I realized how emotionally Tido was. Now I didn’t know why completely at that time, but I saw that a year later I was an entirely different man because when my physical body relaxed, my emotions relaxed. And out of that I started feeling things I’ve never felt before.

Sasza
Yeah. I think it’s so interesting and it’s such a dynamic relationship. I think two way as well because when people kind of ask, oh, is BBXX in; what corner, do you guys have your foot? I always try and tell people that they’re so closely related that to treat the body, you can treat the body through the mind and help treat the mind through the body and they’re so ingrained in one another. So we kind of try and balance that because I think, especially for me, that while certain people thrive more in these body work heavy sessions to bring out emotions and stuff like that, for me what brings out emotions is also understanding the science and the research behind things and with that I can then tap into another level that flows down from the mind to the body.

Owen
As you know, it sort of goes both ways and I’m always into working any angle or all angles possible. I’m a bit of a hedonist when it comes to good body work, but also for myself and all my clients over the years, I’m always at what’s going to produce the most change with the minimal amount of effort and have it not just be sustainable, but genitive and this is what I saw with me and then consequently with my clients, is that when you give the person, this is sort of where you’re learning a new model which helps the mind relax and expand. Its possibilities of experience and you relax the body and really start to connect the body and the mind and not just the mental mind, but really more the emotional mind or the emotional body when you start connecting them all, not only do people live richer lives, but what they find is that they’re dealing with stress much better. We don’t realize how stressed out we are. One because we’ve attenuated to it personally, but on a cultural level, that’s the water we swim in. When I work with people in any capacity and now it’s a lot of men, eventually they start to realize how the stress in their life and the body’s natural response to that stress was taking them out of a lot of their things that they wanted in life from particularly their relationships, but also success on a professional level.

Sasza
I think that having the skills and therefore the capacity to kind of recognize not only that stress but eventually to try and figure out where it’s coming from because it can so easily kind of be mislabelled or miss sourced and attributed to other things or kind of leech into other things that with that awareness can be avoided or treated. So I’m curious, you mentioned trying to figure out what produces the most change with kind of the least amount of investment, the highest ROI for creating change. What would you say you’ve found that to be?

Owen
Well, particularly for men, and this is what I brought into the work I started doing with men specifically about 16 years ago when I redesigned the model of men’s groups and the work that we do with men, then that evolved into every man. What I brought in was a lot of the training I was referring to; I had the good fortune of studying with Ron Kurtz. You know who Ron Kurtz was? 

Sasza
No, I’m not familiar. 

Owen
Ron Kurtz developed a comi which is really the first psychosomatic therapy out there. He really was the one that took psychotherapy and the body and the body’s response and melded it together, primarily using mindfulness, the guy was a genius. I remember in his first professional training back in Boulder in the 70’s, and he would be able to stand someone up and ask him a few questions and the person would spontaneously start sobbing and have this life changing experience and just from a few simple questions, and back then I had no idea what he was doing. I was intrigued enough where I said, all right, I got to learn how to do this and in hindsight realized the thing that taught me the most and my ability to be able to do that kind of work now was my body and my mind relaxing. So I realized slowly that it was a lot less about learning techniques and more about changing my own relationship with myself and my own experiences, which gets to where I answer your question because I think the quickest return for people, certainly for these men I work with, is slowing them down, getting them connected to their experience, not just their mental one, which it’s guys we tend to be connected to and not just their emotional experience, but their physiological experience with physical or somatic experience.

For a lot of guys, you ask them, what do you feel like in an emotional context? I was one of these guys in the beginning and we just like roll our eyes, like feel, I mean, what do you mean feel? We don’t get a response, but if you start asking the guy, what do you feel physically you’re like, oh, I noticed you’re moving your foot or you’re clenching your fist. What do you feel and after a few simple questions like that sort of mindfulness questions. They start feeling their bodies and once they start feeling their bodies and then you can ask him what do you feel emotionally and inevitably they feel the emotions, which for some of these guys is the first time they’ve made that connection where often their partners like literally yelling at them to feel something and they’re just shutting down

So we work with that whole, the PTSD or emotions and how often has guys are required or requested to show up emotionally. What we do is, as Peter Levine would say in his system, we freeze. By slowing these guys down, giving them a new model and teaching them these skills of how to connect with their body and their emotions, this is a skillset that should be intrinsic for all of us but we’ve unlearned and once they learn it, not only does it become sustainable but they keep honing it in, in developing it. 

Sasza
I think that’s something that all of us could probably learn from. I know that, at least for me sometimes even when I can recognize what I feel, I struggle a lot to know where it’s coming from or what the cause is, or I can say, okay, maybe here are five reasons I might be feeling this way or having this anxiety but what combination of them or why it’s so much worse than this moment, whether it’s from some other source that I don’t even have on this list, that for me becomes a struggle. So trying to maybe help people work backwards to kind of see if flipping things around and looking at it from a different angle and through a new pathway can help them. So does that kind of go off of emotional physiology? If you could speak to that a bit more.

Owen
So that’s a term that I came up with to sort of how’s everything that we were talking about more. One of the other teachers way back was Peter Levine who developed sematic experiencing and he really taught me not just the theory or the science of PTSD and what the body does around trauma and what takes trauma and makes it PTSD or posttraumatic stress disorder but he also in the course of teaching me, taught me ways to unpack that and use the body as a vehicle to get a person out of their post-traumatic stress disorder. The emotional physiology is essentially distilling that model and applying it in a more general sense. In other words saying to particularly these guys is, look, you can’t have an emotional experience without a physiological or somatic experience. Much of, particularly if I think for men, our limitations or our struggles emotionally or more physiologically based or another way to say are more stressed base.

What happens is we can have trauma and unfortunately because of all the Wars or maybe fortunately we know a lot more about trauma and we think of trauma is something as extreme as the trauma of battle or rape. But most of that PTSD effect really comes from what I call micro trauma or the stress that we’ve endured throughout our whole lifetime. What it does is it, it literally houses itself and particularly the fascia of the body and the fascia is the connective tissue that holds everything together and the guy that wrote the first book on stress and cellular that wrote the book of the stress of life, was a physician in Canada and he called fascia, the organ of stress. So what happens is this PTSD affect this effect of the stress or the trauma not being released or completed, I could talk more about what that is, but essentially not having it go through its natural cycle. It locks in and then eventually it locks in as literally scar tissue or tension in the body, which sets it up to become self -perpetuating. So one of my metaphors is it’s like taking my plow truck and stopping at a stop sign pushing the clutch in, but the engine is still revving and so you’re not going any place but your nervous system is still in a hyper mode.

In other words, you’re having a stress response when there’s really no external stressors happening in your life and that really is the physiology of PTSD. But that physiology is not pathology. It’s a learned behavior. First a physical or physiological learn behavior and then an emotionally learned behavior that we can unlearn and by one understanding the model of this emotional physiology, understanding the physiology or the science of it, and then having some simple, and I hesitate to use the word techniques, but skills we can unpack that, slow it down and ultimately heal it.

Sasza
As soon as you mentioned kind of the PTSD part or the part about trauma, I thought back, because I remember hearing about that study in my talk with Dan Doty. I think it was mentioned and I would definitely love to learn more about kind of those techniques or I don’t want to call it coping mechanisms, but I find it so fascinating and I lost my mom in a fatal accident a couple of years ago and I buried it very deeply and lived and in coming out of a state of denial and I have had some very intense health problems in the couple of years since. So I can kind of very much relate to this theory and this kind of creating these feedback loops in this kind of; there are certain healers who will talk about the epigenetics and how trauma can change things. I find it such an important topic that I myself would love to dive more into. I might ask you for some resources after this.

Owen
I’m sorry about the loss of your mother and I’m glad that you understand that that is a traumatic experience for you and that that trauma can have broad effects. I would, I’m not prying and I don’t need to know, but if you’re like most of us, you probably had stress and trauma before your mother’s loss. So what happens with all of us is that we just keep compounding that process and then often you probably see this with someone; someone comes in and they have a minor situation, but they’re having a major response for it and they can’t understand it. A lot of the other professionals can’t understand why this little thing is causing so many problems. Well, it causes so much problem because there were a lot of other often little things, maybe big things prior to that.

Sasza
There were definitely many things prior and somebody who kind of does that alternative medicine stuff and was referring to those epigenetics also talked about kind of how certain years of your life, certain formative years in any trauma that happened in those can also become more susceptible to being locked in. But yeah, how it can kind of create this trigger that if not dealt with or at least worked on can become compound exactly like you said. Recognizing that and recognizing that all of our reactions to the present moment are written by our past and our experiences and kind of come out in ways that are shaped by that perhaps even more so than by what’s actually happening in front of us.

Owen
Well said and in this society, in our lineage with duality, the mind body split, we’ve been led to believe that if we understand something and our rational mind understands it, that that fixes the problem. Obviously for certain things, mechanical things or whatever, that’s probably true. But often for our emotional issues, particularly bigger ones, chronic ones, it’s not true and we get a lot of guys and I do from clients to coaching clients to guys in our groups or trainings that are really working hard to understand things cognitively, analytically, but they’re beating their head up against the wall and because they’re not getting any place, they’re making themselves wrong and when they dive into this work, they realize, wow, there is nothing bad about me and nothing really wrong. My body’s just experience this stress or trauma and the coping mechanisms that I’ve developed worked for a while and either they’re not working or the coping mechanisms themselves become their own problem.

Sasza
The coping mechanisms themselves. I can definitely also, or lack thereof or exactly, if your coping mechanism is distraction or avoidance or bearing things. Exactly, it lends itself even more so to that state of locked trauma. You mentioned in men and learning about how they relate to others and in this kind of self-exploration and you mentioned a bit earlier, but I’d love to hear just a bit more about that as it relates to your experience with Asperger’s and how you think that may have given you a unique experience or not, but may have taught you certain lessons.

Owen
Yes, I’d love to. As most of us know, one of the biggest symptoms of Asperger’s is that we struggle with social connection and emotional connection. I realized that that was true once I realized that I had Asperger’s. So realizing I had it…

Sasza
But not until then.

Owen
I struggled, but I didn’t know why. But once I realized, Oh, that was why it made a lot of sense and I relaxed because I knew why, I knew I was always different and it seemed to be extra hard for me, but I didn’t know why. As I started working more and more with men, I realized that most men in this culture struggle with what I call emotional Asperger’s. It seems like we all struggle. Maybe I was at the worst end of the continuum, but we all tend to struggle with emotional connections. Having that problem myself and really wanting to heal it, I dove into every possible thing I could do or study to not just find a better way to compensate for it, which I wasn’t interested in, but really heal it. And so much of it’s healed and probably in now in hindsight, I can say the biggest part came from sitting in a men’s group or this latest one that I created 16 years ago, once a week for four hours every week, which was longer than most groups but having all that experience with these men and them working with their comparable struggles or connecting emotionally really taught me how to connect with people, which has significantly improved my ability to connect with women and now you know, my partner Dalia.

Sasza
First of all, I love that the groups are four hours. One to give space for progress and diving deeper and to just as kind of social proof and something as I love the idea, especially if people do or are willing to talk openly about to these groups and everything. If we all spent at least four hours a week not divided up into tiny chunks where you can’t make much progress but it maybe even two hours twice a week. But really focused on that connection with oneself, with others and how to learn and grow as a result of that and just creating the time and space to do so I think is a really incredible thing. I think as well if talking about going to those groups or listening to podcasts like this and talking about it, we can help create that culture where that not only doesn’t become uncommon but perhaps becomes the norm or becomes the new standard.

You mentioned kind of how that label played a part in helping you recognize that. I think that for all of us sometimes we know we have a problem or feel something, but having the why or having the label and exactly what you were saying, kind of through that body work and labelling that stress or defining an emotion for it really I think is something we can all relate to with or without it being a diagnosis even on a smaller scale of an emotion. I love this in your, I’m not sure if it’s in your book or on your website, but you talk about how men can benefit from creating these connections with other men and therefore being able to with other people as well and how instead of just trying to survive the things in life that come at us, learning to surround ourselves with people and resources that can help us tap into a place of emotional autonomy of understanding of our own identity and therefore have kind of more purpose.

Owen
Well, that’s another big question. There’s research that you might be familiar with around attachment, which is how we connect and that’s the therapy word for your listeners or for what connection is called in the therapeutic realm. So we learn, and this comes around the work of Stephen Porges, who’s the researcher about the vagal nerve and how that’s a key to dealing with PTSD. What he found was that we really learned who we are in relationship to others and essentially how they give us feedback and model for us. So our ability or our lack of opportunity to connect with people on this emotional level when we’re young, really determines that skill set going on for the rest our lives. For so many of us, particularly men in this culture, we weren’t connected to enough or in a way that really instilled or activated this instinctual skillset of emotional connection and how to have it within ourselves, but particularly create it with another person.

To refer back to what I said earlier about so many men having emotional Asperger’s. So a lot of guys that come into our trainings or coachings or particularly our groups are normal guys, some of them would be considered highly functional, but almost consistently they would say or would start to realize that they’re performing below at least where they want to be in terms of connection and relationship. Then they start to realize within our system that because it’s not really prescriptive, it’s more educationally based through their own experience that, oh, I never really had anyone modelling this, let alone teach me this experientially or academically and by sitting in these groups, which again often are four hours long, they probably range from two to four hours once a week for these guys. They get to practice this, they get to, through relating to other men, which is actually safer and which I can talk about then in a coed situation. But by relating to other men, they start to fill those gaps that they didn’t have when they were a child connecting to someone in a vulnerable way on an emotional level and then modelling and guiding other men to do the same and then guiding other men that really reinforces their skillset but also makes these men really feel like they’re contributing. 

Because most men do not feel like their emotional intelligence or skill set is really a contribution to anyone. We often feel anything from shame or just confused around that realm of existence. But by being in these groups, they start to see that after a while they developed a skillset that they should have had as a kid, but they didn’t, it’s not their fault. And then they start to guide the newer, younger men in these groups and that really not only reinforces their skill sets, but makes their presence and who they are as a man of more value, which I wouldn’t have thought would have been so important until I went through it and I’ve seen hundreds of men go through it, which is one of the reasons that we get so many men in our events and wanting to learn how to do this and starting groups because they see the pleasure they get in helping other men. 

Sasza
I think that’s such a beautiful thing for people to realize and kind of grow into is that fulfilment that comes out of helping other people on their journey, be it in your footsteps or parallel to yours or in some other place completely. But getting that sense of purpose out of that and actually in my interview with Dan, he mentioned you don’t need a four year degree to be able to sit with someone and help them in some way, whether it’s just listening or asking questions or just being there with your presence.

I’ve read the book elastic, it’s on elastic thinking and it actually gives instances in which people who are novice in a field or task or topic and have less qualifications and less knowledge sometimes prove more capable and are more likely to be able to complete the task or the challenge or because they aren’t functioning within this previous understanding or boundaries they’re thinking in this other more elastic, flexible, creative sometimes way due to that lack of exposure. So I could imagine how for some of these that could contribute to a new dynamic type of growth as a result of kind of being exposed to this different type of thinking that you can have from having no experience versus a PhD.

Owen
You’re right on with that. One of the other things that I mentioned was that I grew up with dyslexia and I struggle at least, well, I struggled in school. I mean I as I went through school and to graduate school and I got better at it and then I also focus on the things I could do well, not the things I struggled with. I went down to Phoenix to study with a Milton Erickson. I had a meeting scheduled to meet the fellow and Milton Erickson for those that might not know, developed a kind of indirect hypnosis that is very powerful, and he became known for his mastery. He did hypnosis unlike anyone else did hypnosis and unfortunately the day I was going to meet the gentleman he died. So, I never got to meet him and one of the first things I learned was that Erickson was dyslexic.

Once I realized that, I immediately understood the kind of hypnosis he did, and this just goes to what you were saying about being out of the box. Dyslexics as you can imagine, struggle with a lot of boxes. I still struggle in some ways with linear things and I learned for myself and I know a lot of dyslexics, which tend to be more men and a lot of entrepreneurs are dyslexics that we have to find workarounds or coping mechanisms or whatever that get us through the things that we’re supposed to be able to do well or doing a certain way. Often these work arounds ended up being better and I credit my dyslexia as much as I guess my Asperger’s to being one of the drivers, but also one of secret weapons for this kind of work.

At first it made me, I couldn’t work in the normal boxes, so I had to get out of the normal boxes to start with. But it also allowed me to like with Erickson to perceive things differently and in the course of perceiving them differently, create things in a new way that so often ended up being more efficient. I think that is really affable, particularly for men because we grow, we, and then this whole culture has grown up with a certain model of what it is to be emotional. And as I mentioned in my TEDx talk, I think part of that what we struggle with men is that motto over, you know, or at least since the industrial revolution and men went to work and women were raising the boys and related to men. And then the teachers were women that the model has sort of skewed towards the feminine, which is, I don’t think it’s any kind of conspiracy, but what’s happened is we don’t know as men what it is to be fully emotional as a man, which at least indirectly is what we are able to start to provide with every man.

But more specifically allowing or supporting these men to break out of the traditional model what it is to be emotional for some of these guys it’s huge once they see and experience some of the stuff that we do in our trainings and our groups and our coaching, but blown away because it’s like, oh, this feels so natural. Why didn’t someone show me this earlier?

Sasza
Kind of diving deeper into that concept of what it means to be an emotionally connected man or human. I have a few shorter questions that I would be curious to ask the first of which would be, what would be your definition of what it means to be a man?

Owen
That’s a hard question. I think first it’s really, what does it mean to be a human?

Sasza
Yes. And sometimes I love to ask after and how is it different than what it means to be a human?

Owen
Men and women are way more similar than they’re not. I think being a human is really about being connected and it’s being connected to yourself and your own experience and there are many ways that we can experience ourselves and then really being connected to our world and the native traditions would say to the four worlds and to nature, but also to the technological world that we’re in. So, all the aspects of life and then being connected to other humans. I think that’s really the essence of being human is our ability to connect and enjoy the emotional connection that we have, and it actually need for our own survival. Being a man is first finding your own unique way to experience that and to do that and then allowing yourself to do it as a man, which for us isn’t a prescriptive way of doing it.

There are certain general commonalities that we could probably talk about. But I think in this culture, again, we have lost the meaning and the power and the means to know really how to connect emotionally to ourselves and to other people. I think that’s what needs to be emphasized more and that’s one of our goals with every man is to really support men in that connection. What we find is that first or biggest advocates are women and second after these guys go to our trainings or coaching or groups, women are blown away and guys come back and say this laughing, they go, wow this is what my wife has been telling me or this is what my partner sees his benefit and she’s been trying to quote, teach me this for years and then I have this experience with you guys and I learned it in my own way pretty quickly and it’s easier than I ever thought and it’s fun and I’m naturally doing it with my partner and it’s not work and she’s really happy and the distinction there is women are really perceptive and knowing if we’d get or don’t get it, they’re less effective at teaching men how to do that, say last 20% of how to connect to our own experience and how to share that experience in a way that fosters more human connection.

Sasza
I love that definition of being human is being connected. I would venture to ask, how do you think our world could hopefully will be different if we all men and women could kind of get this proper emotional exposure education sounds too stiff, but kind of like nurturing guidance to lead more connected lives?

Owen
I would think it would transform the world and I don’t think we’re going to have change or transformation until we get this, I’d make an argument that disconnection on all of the levels that we just described is what drives all the pain that we experience. When we are connected, we don’t do all aberrant behavior that literally destroying the planet and in all of us.

Sasza
Off of that, and we’ve talked about kind of obviously everything we’ve discussed thus far that understanding can help us all live more connected lives, but more kind of in practice. In terms of actionable advice, what might you offer to our listeners as ways to help intentionally try and lead more connected lives?

Owen
Simply, and I’m not saying this is easy, simply just being present. Everyone talks about that and men who have been told to relax for a long time. What I started realizing years ago, working with all these men and what brought into every man and we keep developing and honing is this process of really facilitating men to be able to slow down and which allows it to relax, which gets them connected to their own experience, which is the foundation to being able to become vulnerable and to become vulnerable is really the conduit for our connection with others. So we can say, oh, you have to connect to me or someone else. Well that doesn’t do these men in much good and you can say, oh, you need to be vulnerable, well, okay, they might get that, but what do you need to be vulnerable?

First you need safety because if we will not be vulnerable or it’s very hard, or our vulnerability is limited if we feel that we’re not safe. In other words, if we’re in a survival situation and our nervous system or endocrine system, our survival system, our sympathetic nervous system is bracing against or dealing with what it experiences is survivable. We are not going to be vulnerable or the vulnerability is going to be greatly limited and even if that external situation is safe, but our internal process is one of that sympathetic responses. That part of the nervous system where the survival response, we’re still going to be struggling with being vulnerable. So the key is for all of us is to slow down and to begin to experience what’s happening and that’s scary at first because if I slow down and I start feeling my body and/or my emotions often, the first thing I feel is displeasure, discomfort, pain, fear all the things that we want to avoid. But the greater my ability to experience and accept those feelings, the greater my ability to be vulnerable, to connect with others and really to feel pleasure and joy and the beauty of being human.

Sasza
What kind of skills or tools do you use to help yourself be more present?

Owen
Well, I’ll always like cheating and that’s one of the other things about being a dyslexic. I’m being somewhat facetious, but really not doing it in a normal way. So, part of my cheating is the more my body is constitutionally relaxed, the more my soft tissue or fascia particularly is relaxed, the easier it is. So that’s where good body work really helps. Not only does it relax you in the moment, but it releases a lot of the chronic stress. So that I’m not in this case with me, I’m not up against dealing with that. In other words, I’m not in a relaxed situation, but having a stressful experience. So that’s the first thing I get rid of much of my chronic stress as I can, I understand this model that I just described. So with that, one of the things I worked on for decades is my ability to experience what’s happening in the moment to its full extent, owning that experience on a physical level and emotional level. That’s a bit of a game I play and being in these groups, it’s really helped me to do that because there are moments in these groups over the years where it would be intense, emotionally intense. My job was for me was how much of that intensity could I experience and sort of run through my system before I would check out. And as I developed that skill set or that muscle, I just found myself in other situations just being more and more present.

Sasza
Following that vein of your personal experience, I was wondering if you could give us an example of a moment or an experience in which you think that you could have been a better man or a better person or kind of not lived up to the version of yourself that you have been exposed to through all this work.

Owen
So, as I mentioned earlier, I just came back from doing a couples training with my partner, Dalia, who’s a couple’s therapist in Northern California and one of my edges in our relationship is me being just present with her. It’s where my Asperger’s does come in is when I’m tired and I just check out. I have my reasons and excuses, but I don’t like to make excuses and there was a time this past weekend where I hadn’t slept and I was just not there for her, not an in some critical way, but just not present. She’s really sharp and she called me on that and how I own my experience was not to the best of my abilities. So I’ve feel shame in how I didn’t show up and how I’ve fully or not immediately own what I did and the impact that it had on her, which had me feel sad because I love her and one of the things I want to do in these trainings is to support her and certainly a model what I’m teaching. That’s been one of my ongoing edge is to, regardless of what’s happening for me how much can I stay connected to my own experience and still stay connected to another person. Then in terms of the positive, one of the things that I realized I needed to do many years ago was create a really powerful and intense process for men that would embody everything that we were speaking about. Emotional physiology, emotions, the body and man’s need to often experience all this through their body moving. 

I created a process called a healing journey that we use in our trainings. I’ll ask for a volunteer and we did a training a few weeks ago where I asked for a volunteer, this man stood up in a circle of like 70 guys and I took him through this healing journey. When I do that one part of me is feeling fear because I’m in front of 70 guys, I don’t know what’s going to happen, but another part of me just drops into just being very connected to my own experience, but particularly to this man and just working with what happens in each moment and in this process, taking the man deeper and deeper and deeper into his own experience and through that, connecting them up to the parts that he was disconnected from because of stress or trauma and that is really the combination of all this work I’ve been doing for over 40 years.

Sasza
That’s beautiful. Thank you. I imagine too as we were discussing earlier with these groups, one of the biggest growth points and sources of fulfillment comes from helping other people along that journey. I love that moment being kind of the culmination of an example of your work in this process and journey for you. You mentioned the workshops or retreats that you are doing with your partner that are with now men and women. Your work with every man is kind of men’s only retreats and these ones now being with couples, so I’d love to kind of hear about what you’ve learned or how you plan to dive deeper into helping share this process. Either give this same process to women who I’m sure can benefit from it or having them be a part of it but working kind of across gender binaries and across partnerships to help augment the growth and learning even more.

Owen
Yeah, I enjoy challenges and that’s a challenge and I see pretty much how naturally I’m able to bring a lot of what we developed with every man and I’ve been working on for all these years into work for couples because again, like I said, men and women are more similar than a dissimilar. In my sort of dyslexic way, I just cut to the chase but in a very kind, soft, gentle way. But in one direct way, I cut to the chase and I just asked just to back up. We teach certain things in these couple’s trainings and then the couples go off and work individually. So we don’t really do any group work. They might share stuff with a group, but it’s really done as a couple. So Dalia and I would go around and work with these couples individually and I’ll just drop in and most cases, I don’t know these people. So, I just drop in and I go, okay, what’s happening? And I just really cut to what’s taking them out and applying what I’ve learned with working with men, I help both people to drop down into really what they’re experiencing and they’re not saying. This again, it’s not that they’re resisting, not saying, it’s like they don’t have the emotional, physiological language. 

It’s true that, yeah, generally it’s more than man then the woman. But it could be either or both and particularly for the men, what we think, and I use that word deliberately, what we think is emotional communication in most cases is not emotional communication. One of the things I often do, both of these people is that they think they’re having an emotional conversation and they’re just giving advice judgments but then not really talking about their emotional experience, particularly in the vulnerable way and so when we can go to vulnerability, our own vulnerability accesses up for empathy and connection with the other person. When I can help facilitate that in a course of a few minutes, this couple could have a major breakthrough because it’s grounded in just speaking this emotional physiological language in such a way that it’s intrinsic for them and once they experience it on that level, it’s something that they can start replicating on their own and we get that feedback that that’s what they started doing.

Sasza
I’m wondering if you could give a kind of concrete example of whether recent or not, but kind of from either a participant in these trainings in any of the men’s retreats that our listeners might be able to on a practical level use as an example or a guide or someone from whom you might have learned something in return.

Owen
So one of the things that I ended up creating that we used it with every man is what we call the rock form your R O C and so r is for relax, O is for open up and being vulnerable and C is to connect and I referred to this earlier. So as we’re able to do that with ourselves, we end up developing a much deeper relationship and inevitably in all these venues, from the coaching to the couples work to all the events with every man in our regular groups. What I see in all those situations is that with a little guidance, people will slow down. Now the foundation of that is feeling safe. If you’re not feeling safe to slow down and to have that experience, the first thing you need to do is start working on what it would take for you to feel safe.

Some of it can be finding a way for yourself to be safe. Will you start off maybe like a meditation or whatever where you’re not distracted, you’re in a physical safe space and you start to train your body and your nervous system to slow down and regulate that kind of safety. So, you know what it is. So, for a lot of people, even in the safest environments, they’re not really feeling safe, so they’re not going to feel safe in any real interaction with people and consequently they’re not going to be able to really connect or people won’t feel connected to them. So a lot of the work we do is on these very basic skills that in this culture we’re not encouraged to develop and once you start to develop these skills, the rest of it gets pretty easy and often just happens naturally.

Sasza
I think that in terms of talking about safety outside of a fight or flight mode or physiological, sometimes we can feel threatened by our partner or family member or friend in terms of feeling afraid of the consequences that might come of breaching a certain topic or trying to express ourselves or not even knowing how to express ourselves. So, then the potential to fail at doing so or just to enhance the other person’s frustration. So, working on practicing that one and realizing that although bringing these topics up, trying to share our perspectives and kind of communicate and talk things out, it can be daunting, can be very difficult and can lead to a lot of fight or flight emotions. But it always pays off. No harm comes or maybe harm in an emotional sense but in terms of like in the bigger picture, it is always of benefit to try and better understand your perspective and that of the other person, especially since so many issues come out of a very simple root of misunderstanding or mis-attribution of words or actions.

Owen
You focused on a part that I think is critical, that you have to be willing to take a risk. And often in our groups we will say put it at risk, take the risk, speak the unspeakable and then the groups, I joke, look, you don’t sleep with these guys, you don’t work with them, you might be real tight with them in the group, but you don’t generally have extraneous relationships with. So here’s a great place to practice these skills and same with our events. The guys get to practice with no real consequences other than in that situation or in that moment. Most of us, and I don’t put myself into this category, have a hard time asking for what we want, speaking the unspeakable and I just saw it again this past weekend in this training for these couples, both men and women and saying at the end, wow, there was something I needed to stay and I finally said it and it wasn’t really that big of a deal. My partner heard it much better than she or he, I would have expected them hearing it and we hold onto it as you say and it really often the savvier tour of a relationship because those are small disconnections and those small disconnections add up to being one big disconnection. One of the things that one of our friends and mentors talk about, Ester Perrel is the need for excitement in relationships to keep the passion going and taking these emotional risks is the best way to foster excitement.

Sasza
I think also kind of trying to work together to change that perceived definition of what is speak the unspeakable well it’s only because as a society we’re afraid of speaking things that they are unspeakable. When in reality, once they’re spoken, we generally, physiologically, mentally, even just on our own out of catharsis can feel better and then in terms of with the other person, oftentimes if these sort of things are approached from the right way, while they can be so daunting and perceptively difficult from the beginning, can looking back often are so much easier or make us feel so much better that, you know, it’s worth it. So how can we work to kind of change that norm and all of our own perceptions? So to wrap up, and before I ask you a few kind of just for fun, rapid fire questions, I wanted to close by asking you what question or what questions do you think are most important for us to be asking ourselves right now?

Owen
I think the first question is, what are you experiencing in this moment when you experience in your body? Where do you feel tension? What do you feel? What don’t you feel? Where you’re disconnected from your body and no judgments. Just being aware of it. And that right there as we know changes the experience and then applying that to our emotions. Where do I feel those emotions in my body? What do I feel? And then the next level is what do I want? What do I want? One of the things that we say in our group is ask for what you want. It doesn’t mean you’re going to get it, but the power is in the asking and often the healing or the shift or careers from the asking. And again, we often hold back on not only our feelings but what we want. I remember recently, I was coaching a guy that was a successful attorney, he was struggling in a relationship. He was in counseling with his wife and I just supported him to really feel very wanted and go and ask her for that and put it to risk and then I find out that that simple little conversation transformed their marriage.

It put them down, going down a new path. So, it was a huge release and shift and it gave both of them a new venue to really relate in and develop. And then I guess the next thing is really, and we talk a lot about passion and purpose, particularly for men. And that’s another whole topic. But I think as men we need to be living for something beyond just our own pleasures and what we see, again with these guys in the group, for a lot of these men, one of their purposes becomes how can I take what I’ve gone through and leverage it to help other men going through similar things. There is a huge reward and being who you are and having that make a difference in someone’s life.

Sasza
As you mentioned earlier too, we are shaped and kind of influenced by the people around us. And so, then who do we choose to surround ourselves by and let shape who we become, but then to help shape them as well. Those questions are particularly pertinent as well. I love that. So, I guess my last question for people would be, do you make it a priority to connect in what ways are you choosing to connect more deeply with yourself or with others or to help them do so? So to close out, I have just these kinds of silly rapid fire questions. They’re two little series of them and the first one you just choose one or the other. So, I’ll give you two options and well, one of them doesn’t have, not one of them, so a couple of them are open-ended, but it’s just you give the answer. Pizza or pasta?

Owen
Neither.

Sasza
Sunrise yoga. 

Owen
I’m sorry. 

Sasza
Fill in the blank then.

Owen
Thai food. 

Sasza
Sunrise yoga or dancing till sunrise?

Owen
Sunrise yoga.

Sasza
Drink of choice?

Owen
Spring water.

Sasza
Hugs or kisses?

Owen
Hugs.

Sasza
Sex or intimacy?

Owen
Both. 

Sasza
Nature or nurture?

Owen
Yes, on the academic level, nurture. But as a human, I need both.

Sasza
Best year of your life?

Owen
This year. 

Sasza
Who is a hero of yours?

Owen
An old teacher of mine, her name is Nolita Anderson. She’s passed away, but she was a medical kahuna.

In this week’s episode we talk with Owen Marcus, an incredibly committed men’s coach and self-described “Emotional Superman” who founded the nonprofit, Men Corps, along with co-founding the company Evryman — both of which are dedicated to providing men with the skills and tools they need to build meaningful relationships, and thus, fulfilling lives. In our conversation we discuss the mind-body connection, the importance of psychosomatic therapy and the emotional struggles men face. We also delve into the benefits of emotional risk-taking, the connection between safety and vulnerability and why our society desperately needs to rewire its preconceived notions about what it means to be emotional.

Finding the Mind-Body Connection

Owen’s first introduction to the mind-body connection came through Rolfing, a form of bodywork whose practitioners claim reorganizes the connective tissues, called fascia, that permeate the entire body. Rolfing has been known to alleviate chronic stress and induce emotional catharsis, though most evidence remains anecdotal versus scientific. In Owen’s own experience, after 9 months of consistent Rolfing sessions, he had lost 20 pounds, gained an inch in height and learned how to truly relax. 

Hakomi: The First Psychosomatic Therapy

Developed in the 1970s by Ron Kurtz, the Hakomi Method is a body-centered, somatic form of psychotherapy that centers around a specific set of principles: mindfulness, nonviolence, unity, organicity, and mind-body integration. The method first starts with guiding the client to a state of mindfulness before processing any strong emotions that may arise and ultimately re-working any negative “core material” the client may have. 

You can’t have an emotional experience without a physiological or somatic experience.

Releasing Locked Trauma 

Owen often works with clients who have experienced trauma and as a result have suppressed emotions. Studies have shown that suppressed emotions can lead to serious psychological distress, including depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder or dissociative disorders. While we usually equate trauma with major life-changing events — abuse, war, etc. — Owen emphasizes that “micro traumas” built up over the course of a lifetime can have equally as damaging effects. He explains that by harnessing mindfulness, one can begin to unwind the effects of trauma and build a new narrative surrounding these negative experiences. 

In this society, in our lineage with duality — the mind-body split — we’ve been led to believe that if we understand something in our rational minds, then that fixes the problem. But often for emotional issues, it’s not true.

The Healing Power of Healthy Connections 

The research of Dr. Stephen Porges has found that we as humans learn who we are through others — it’s impossible to truly understand yourself within a vacuum, within pure isolation. As we’ve seen time and time again, humans thrive best in environments that foster community and meaningful connections. Porges found that trauma can affect our ability to connect, but our connections to others can heal our trauma. Owen has found that although the men in his groups may initially find it very difficult to connect, once they start sharing their personal stories and relating to one another, they begin to feel seen and can start to address and heal past wounds. 

Being a human is really about being connected.

Creating a New Definition of Emotional

Our society equates “emotional” with “feminine,” ostracizing men from the emotional arena and leaving many of them repressed or shamed for feeling emotional. Owen urges us to re-examine what we define as “emotional” and to recognize the universal human need to express ourselves.

Men grow up with a certain model of what it is to be emotional. But that model is skewed towards the feminine. What happens is, we don’t know as men what it is to be fully emotional as a man.

Safety First: How to Cultivate Vulnerability

Vulnerability has been soaking up the limelight in the psychology and self-help realm for the past few years. We know by now that vulnerability is essential to forming deep, meaningful relationships. But how do we allow ourselves to become vulnerable? Owen offers us some guidance: safety first. If our parasympathetic nervous system is running on high-gear, we’ll never reach vulnerability. What we have to work towards is feeling safe first and foremost, both externally and internally. Owen says slow down, become mindful and recognize your own needs in order to feel safe and secure. 

Remember the ROC Formula

Owen has created a simple acronym for his students and clients to remember the steps to connection. 

R – Relax

O – Open up and embrace vulnerability

C – Connect

Take the Risk

Embracing vulnerability feels like one the riskiest things we can choose to do, but it’s a risk that comes with incomparable rewards. Owen urges us to take that risk, to speak the unspeakable truth and to watch as over time it slowly gets easier. 

Last, but not least: what questions should we be asking ourselves?

  • What are you experiencing in this moment? 
  • What are you experiencing in your body?
  • Where do you feel tension?

And after those questions are answered…

  • What do I want?

About the Expert

Owen Marcus

For more than twenty years, Owen Marcus has worked with men's groups to develop programs that give them the tools and teach them the skills to be successful men, to celebrate their strengths, and to live their lives fully and with joy.

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