Last week I saw a brave, courageous and all-male performance of Wuthering Heights. In one image, two men appear naked, one dragging the other across the floor. Witnessing this ‘death’, or the naked struggle of facing one – a essential fear at the core of a man perhaps – really moved me. There was a simple power in these two men, completely vulnerable, still and bare.
Initiation rites taught a young man to walk through his fear of death. People often report encounters of near death as encounters with the sacred. Years ago, a rite of passage would teach men that death was the primary way to build or rebuild a real life.
Ancient rites of passage, perfected over thousands of years, were exquisitely designed to get the attention of young males and help them shape their mature masculine identity. Sadly, positive passage experiences for males are hard to come by today, and too many males are left to wander in that never-never land between boyhood and manhood. (Ancient Male Rites of Passage – Earl Hipp)
Men no longer have an experience of initiation from boyhood into manhood. Plainly put, boys will be boys and men will be boys — because no one is there to teach boys to be men. (Male Initiation in Post Modern Culture – Michael J. Formica)
The conversation about being a man is landing for me. Feminism and gender socialisation has confused us men. Women have rites of passage tied unavoidably to their biology and a clear path of womanhood is broadly laid out for you by how this is socialised and accepted in our culture. Not so for us, post-industrialisation we flounder amid an unfathered void.
‘men find themselves not only not knowing where they belong, but also not knowing who they are or even whom they are supposed to be.’
And so we run, uncertain and fearful of the force that draws or pulls us. We run in wanderlust across the planet. We run to compete and keep up within our cultural masks of masculinity.
We run to stand still.
2007. I was reeling and on my knees. My ‘story’ – achieving this, meeting her – this story I had told myself, it just wasn’t happening. After years of running I hit the ground burnt out.
I had been living in fear; living with my enemy.
I thought I needed to work. It was my identity. Men identify very strongly with purpose. I am a… profession or job title. It’s a measure of my social masculinity. I was the things I’d built, that I’d put all of myself into. Yet my social identity, the ego identification so ingrained in me, slowly became my prison. This happens to many men. Creating a first half of life ‘container’ is important, but I just kept on and on building it, and waiting for something, anything, that was not happening to happen. And a gnawing, painful emptiness in my gut followed me, yakking at my heels each morning. Life was shit. No doctor or medication can treat human pain. It’s a spiritual struggle. A hole in the soul.
The alternative was to face myself.
Year after year I’d tried to keep control but the signs piled up: collapses, hospitalisations, depression and so on, and an aching loneliness in my heart. But I couldn’t hear. I’d fallen away from my soul’s path and I couldn’t see it.
Soon after, I experienced debilitating, mental illness. Spiritually, I now understand this as a time in the desert. And only when in the darkness of that desperate, empty desert did it became a spiritual experience. During the fall, it was a petrifying “Oh my god what is happening to me? I’m having a nervous breakdown.”
And everything breaks down, physically, mentally and then, crushingly – emotionally. It affects the people closest to me. Men are not taught to fall. Perhaps only a man who has experience of falling can initiate another.
Something was going down big time, and to survive, to maintain my identify, my ‘self’, I used all my strength to hold on. And I was strongly attached to that ship. Clinging to a sinking ship while knowing it was going down was the extremity of my anxiety. Literally madness.
Sometimes I was conscious of my emotional ‘descent’, this katabasis, but yet so, so frightened of what would happen to me. During the struggle, I left the safety of my ‘career’ (who tells us we need these things?) and let go. It felt like being torn from the womb.
Robert Bly goes on to say that in the nineteenth century, men characteristically failed to notice the female suffering, and in the 20th Century, men added another inattention: they characteristically failed to notice their own suffering. Men endeavour to stay above it, away from it rather than dealing with it by going down and into it, to learn from it. He encourages men to take the downward path as an elective to avoid the crisis or potential disaster that can arise from katabasis. Depression is a form of katabasis. The epidemic of anxiety is wreaking havoc in the lives of millions of men. Exploring one’s grievances and getting in touch with one’s grief can be the antidote. (‘A Time of Ashes’ – Initiation into mindful manhood: Men’s Centre Los Angeles)
I had a long portfolio of achievement to shake off: a masters degree, ‘success’ as a drama teacher, ‘practiced’ as a director, gifted with students; I’d led numerous exciting theatre projects and undertaken a substantial body of ‘outstanding practice’. ‘A’ fucking star*. I’d recorded albums, managed sports teams and triumphed at various other projects. Done this, achieved that.
I was all these things.
Yet on my soul path, I was nothing.
“What do you do?” (What a ridiculous thing to ask anyone.)
“I’m a drama teacher..”
So who was I?
Back in August 2008 I met a man on a ‘self-development’ activity holiday in Skyros, Greece. It was a pivotal moment, and it was then I had my first experience of being deeply ‘real’ and open with another man, a place I’d previously held for women. The experience marked a turning point. I was inspired to inquire more deeply and learn to listen within. Gradually I began to hear what I now understand as the ‘cries’ and the ‘calls’.
Gradually, during the next few years, I accepted, surrendered, and finally just chaotically nose-dived into a relationship with the God-self I’d resisted. A lifetime of emotions and experiences compressed themselves into a few months. It was a battleground. And then again. And again. It was an on-and-off living-in-hell, Hell. I didn’t try to take my own life. But I didn’t want to live. At times the fear was so great and it just covered me; feeling death and still breathing.
This ship’s finally going down.
I surfaced twice, clinging to the last debris of the old ship, those old ways and patterns that bound me, the chains of my former self. I was learning the hard way. There was years of resistance to break down. And I was strong. I resisted very strongly. I knew I would die if I went down.
No-one had taught me that dying was what living was all about.
Throughout the struggle, I was learning a simple, spiritual truth: a truth of initiation into manhood.
Death and rebirth are part of every living cycle on our planet. Inside and outside. Death and resurrection; nature’s promise of renewal, Yin and Yang, the Cycle of Life. The evidence is overwhelmingly everywhere. Something must die! Who was I to even question that? It’s a daily experience with my eyes open. It must be within me then, too.
I’ll cut short the story, but, the relief. The truth was that my life was not about me. And it had been about me for too long. That me needed to die.
For the man who has descended into the drowning waters and come up on the other side, for the initiate who has been in the belly of the whale and spit up on the shore, there is an ultimate new shape to the universe. It is re-enchanted, it now works in a way other than he expected, someone else is on his side, he is not alone, and the young man knows in his very bones that “my life is not about me.” The initiate henceforth knows that something always has to die, and until you have lived through that dying, there is something essential that you do not know. It is always the false self that has to die, so that the Godself can be born. This is major surgery for the private and imperial ego, a surgery we all avoid if we can. (Richard Rohr – Sojourners ‘Boys to Men’ Initiation Article)
So I am reborn, though not without many of the old attachments. They don’t just disappear. I have to work with my shadows and learn how to dance and play with them. But there is a new spirit within me now, The Holy Spirit, empowering me with the courage and strength to live in a different way. And I asked this spirit in. And like the courageous men in Wuthering Heights last week, I was also dragged, struggling naked into mystery.
The truth has changed. And it’s all about The Truth, actually, it is really not about my truth. It is a paradox, but this is a really important thing not to be confused about.
So my offering is now my experience of becoming this real man.
I’m moving together with men into communities in service and men are stepping forward to ‘be’ together in LAB processes and workshops. We are exploring. I want to explore reclaiming these lost rites of passage. What does this mean today?
Don’t we all want to know: Where Are We Going?
At times it feels too much for me – in purpose for the first time. Rainbows of feelings radiate through me most days. I chose the narrow gate. It was a conscious decision.
What is Faith? My faith is the Grace and courage I’m granted each day for every next unknown step. It’s my flow and my stillness. It’s humbling and exciting. It’s not my story any more, I don’t need control, and I don’t know what’s next – thank God 😉
I fled him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled him down the arches of the years;
I fled him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the midst of tears
I hid from him.
(Francis Thompson – ‘The Hound of Heaven’)