The Power of Menswork

“Most men don’t have a life. Instead we have learned to pretend. Much of what men do is an outer show, kept up for protection. Like a tiger raised in a zoo – confused and numb, with huge energies untapped. He feels there must be more, but does not know what more is.” Steve Biddulph, Manhood

After spending many years trying to prove myself on expeditions and voyages, it’s strange that the bravest acts I’ve ever witnessed have turned out to be ordinary men daring to tell the truth about their lives.

Let me explain. I’m currently a member of two different men’s groups, which means that every couple of weeks in an Edinburgh meeting room, and each month around a fire in a Perthshire forest, I circle up with guys I have come to love as brothers. We don’t bother much with small talk, or the usual male banter about sports or women or job politics. Instead, after some gathering rituals, we plunge straight into what’s actually going on beneath the surface of our lives. It’s addictively real, often challenging and moving – and utterly transformational.

For many of us present it has taken a long time to learn to let down our defences, and it hasn’t been pretty. In my case, the moment of surrender was one Monday morning a few years ago. I was sitting tired and stressed at my desk, staring at the oncoming juggernaut of another deadline, when I realised I couldn’t find the impulse even to type another word. As a young man I had believed I could achieve most of what I wanted in life by sheer effort. So it was humiliating to discover in my late 30s that crude willpower, like oil, was an expendable resource – and that mine had just run out. I wrote a book, Urban Worrier: Adventures in the Lost Art of Letting Go, about my response to that moment, and my men’s work was a natural progression – though my formal initiation came too late to make it into the book.

Male rites of passage

Initiation is a suspect word these days, mistrusted for its undertones of college fraternity pranks or shadowy cults. But male rites of passage have been a crucial part of every culture in history – except, of course, our own. Could it be that our current crisis of masculinity, the directionlessness and high suicide rate among young men, is in part due to our loss of a clearly defined way of bringing young men into maturity and adulthood? I had felt for some years that my masculinity was something to be ashamed of. Weren’t most wars and violent crimes perpetrated by men? And why was it so difficult for us to talk about our emotions?

Perhaps, in my own way, I was groping towards some kind of rite of passage when I embarked on my reed boat voyage, and my Scottish boat-hitching trip in my thirties. “Male initiation,” writes Richard Rohr, “always has to do with hardness, limit situations, difficulty, struggle and usually a respectful confrontational with the nonrational, the unconscious or, if you will, the wild.” (From Wild Man to Wise Man, P.32) That’s certainly what I was seeking as we launched into the Pacific in 2000 – and I was still searching when I signed up with the Mankind Project for something called The Adventure in 2010.

The Mankind Project is one of a number of organisations trying to offer a carefully structured male rite of passage for the modern world – leaving out the physical woundings of ancient rites but offering instead rituals that are psychologically challenging and designed to strip away layers of deadening or compulsive habit and behaviour. Another organisation, linked to Richard Rohr, is Male Journey UK – the one through which I first encountered men’s work, at monthly meetings round the fire. It runs an annual Male Rites of Passage over five days near Perth in Scotland, but in the event I couldn’t afford the time away from my family. So I opted instead for MKP’s more concentrated weekend version and prepared to down it like a double espresso.

Feeling the fear

But the nearer I got to it, and the more waiver forms I signed, the more nervous I felt – not helped by the fact that there was little information about what exactly we would be doing. Here are bits of my journal in the days before I headed off to Applecross, in the north of Scotland:

“Why am I doing this? Because I want to be artificially pushed to my limits in a place where wise people can help me deal with the stuff that will come up. In that sense, what’s about to happen is likely to be very powerful. My usual escape routes are closed. I’m lift sharing for 6 hours in each direction with people I don’t know at all, arriving in a remote place I’ve no way of leaving. My ego fears ridicule… and yet in my heart I know I need to do this. I know I want to find a “safe” place in which to unleash the cold bastard in the cellar, the primal part of me I have tamed and disallowed… I want to go into the wild and find a way to contribute to the world – to make my peace with who I am and reconnect with the passion that gets snuffed so easily by what I feel is expected of me as a man, a father, a son, a brother. I want to temporarily remove all the convention, all the expectations, all the reminders of our tameness, and let rip… It’s the closest I will ever get to being an African child heading off into the bush, knowing that something mystical and possibly scary and humbling lies ahead.”

In the event, what lay ahead was undoubtedly the most powerful spiritual and bodily experience I have ever had. I’m not going to tell you exactly what happened, because every attempt I’ve ever seen to write it down makes it sound either ludicrous or trite – certainly the tabloid newspaper article I read only days before the event almost made me pull out. But thank God I didn’t.

All change

Ultimately, it’s one of those experiences which can only truly be understood from the inside – but here are some more extracts from my journal which give at least a hint of its effect on me:

“Everything has changed, in the sense that the way I see the world has changed… An extraordinary, powerful, sad, joyous experience which liberated me in a physical sense from something that has dogged me all my life – a fear of failure… I am surrounded by men who are here for the same reason as me, to come finally face to face with their demons, their limitations. Men whose lives have been marred by abusive or unavailable fathers, smothering mothers, addiction or violence… and some who have simply allowed themselves to die prematurely inside, afraid that life is draining from them before their time. I look into their eyes and see my own fears reflected back at me. And each of us steps into the circle, facing down the terrors one by one… supported by strangers who we have come to love like brothers, like fellow warriors.”

After 48 hours that felt like a week, I drove home smelling of sweat and woodsmoke, feeling humbled, moved, energised, shell-shocked, mischievous and utterly in love with life. I felt initiated – there’s no other word for it – into a shared manhood that had eluded me until that point.

Of course, it was only a weekend, and the memories inevitably fade, but my regular meetings with remarkable men continue. So, two years later, how is life different?

Ten reasons I love menswork

1) Most days I feel grounded and content and proud to be a man – in contrast to my previous sneaking sense that we men were somehow the problem. I also feel profoundly grateful for the complementarity of women – and one woman in particular…

2) I am essentially at home in my body, with all its tensions, imperfections and quirks. I am neither ashamed of my physical urges, nor compelled by them. I am grateful for the miracle of living, breathing flesh.

3) On days where I feel like crap or generally fall short of where I hoped I’d be, I now have a deep-seated conviction that my flaws are not enemies to beat into submission, but parts of myself to be compassionately befriended.

4) Instead of relying solely on women friends for emotional connection, I now have enduring friendships with men that are strengthened by shared vulnerability, rather than threatened by it.

5) For the first time in my life I have male friends I know I could phone at 2am in a crisis (I realise I may previously have had friends who would have responded to such a call for help – but I don’t think I would previously have risked picking up the phone to find out!)

6) I have a much stronger sense of connection with the universe/God/higher power, experienced primarily through nature and moments of honest human connection.

7) I feel less burdened than ever by established religion, which usually seems to me to value theological doctrine and entry qualifications above the messy, liberating, painful human experience of love which Jesus fully embodied.

8) For the moment the men’s movement has become my “church” – a secure and caring circle in which my anger, my joy, my shame, my fear, my hope, body, my sadness and fatigue are all deeply welcome.

9) I have a clear picture of the negative patterns that can send me into a dive (and how that affects my wife and son and others I love) – and some great strategies for turning that dark matter into gold.

10) I have an sense of my mission in life, what I can contribute uniquely to the world, and a passion to see that play out before I return to dust – as I inevitably will one day.

If any of these things resonate with you, I encourage you to look more closely at menswork (and yes, before I forget there are also parallel organisations for women, for example Woman Within). It’s not something to do out of idle curiosity – it’s strong medicine, and you’d need some kind of inner pull simply to get through the tough stuff you’ll face.

I would recommend either of the organisations I’ve mentioned, which play to slightly different strengths. Both started in the US and now have strong UK memberships. The Mankind Project has been going for nearly 30 years, plenty of time to put in safeguards and vet leadership for what is undoubtedly deep psychotherapeutic group work of broadly Jungian origin, and an underlying spirituality based on earth religions. Male Journey UK is younger, a little more contemplative and less in-your-face, and comes from a broadly Christian tradition – though both organisations welcome men of all faith traditions and none.

I’ll probably blog further on this subject, with book recommendations etc. And do let me know if you want to come along to open meetings at either organisation – and see for yourself.

Posted on: 22 Jun 2012 in Menswork, Spirituality
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