Tag Archives: breakdown

Every Man Has To Die

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.

Man Running-Ridge-1

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.

ship sinking

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.

natureDeath 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’)

man running

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Landscapes of Tears Men Cannot Cry

Have you ever seen a man cry? How often?tears of release

I’ve never seen a man break down in tears. It’s a rare event. I’ve seen young boys crying, but the ability to do this seems to get bashed out of us early on. By the age of twelve or thirteen I’d learnt that crying wasn’t on. It wasn’t what the men around me or the men in films did, what my father did, or what my sporting heroes did.

I saw crying as part of a feminine world. It was something you did. Woman. I grew to believe that women were more emotional than men. Well they must be – they cry more often. Right?

crying_lady

On reflection I think I learnt not to be interested in the real lives of women and that somehow, in the man’s world I saw, there seemed a kind of code emerging. If I identified with women, or with my feelings too much, that I would pay a kind of societal price for this. I wouldn’t be valued or ‘succeed’ in this man’s world if I empathised with woman’s emotional life.

I’d wanted to come across as tough and manly, so my primary concern was to protect you. This was part of the ‘mask of masculinity’ I adopted and is still my instinct now. I feel a duty to take care of you physically, to ensure you come to no harm, to defend the territory around you. Lauren Jacob’s interesting blog Why Strong, Independent Women Just Want to Be Taken Care of (Sometimes) highlights this. I want to show you I’m steadfast, in for the long haul, will support you if you fall pregnant, and ride with your emotional storms. I am the first line of defence as far as your protection is concerned. I want you to feel safe and secure. You lie in my arms.

And yet…

We are, of course, expected to not just carry the heavy loads, but we’re expected to be the last off the sinking ship. We’re expected to go to war purely because we have a penis. Someone invades your home? The man is the one who’s expected to fight any attackers. The man is always expected to be the first line of defence. We might be the most sensitive beings in existence, but when the chips are down, we’re still expected to “man up”.  DorianHawksmoon – Guardian Blog

I’d learnt about being emotionally strong, stoic even; I’d learnt though, that to risk vulnerability by revealing feelings was ‘weak’. Yes, I do want to feel like a man in that ‘first line of defence’, avoiding the dark alley when walking you home, and also within a traditional masculine protocol – opening doors, buying flowers. These are ways I can show I want to take care of you. But asking for help? Just another weakness. That wasn’t part of the deal I struck with the masculinity I knew.

The first ‘cracks’ appeared after a relationship break up in my early forties. Until then I’d “manned up” surviving disappointment and loss beneath a mask of masculinity I’d been taught and had adopted to protect myself. After the split I was curled on the floor, wrapped in a raw, gut-wrenching struggle of being with feelings that I could no longer suppress – it was animal pain that overtook my body and it wasn’t going away.

The beginnings of tears.

tears of timeless reunion

That year, 2007, I learnt to cry myself to sleep. The first real tears since boyhood. They only came occasionally, but they were as old, unnamed stones being turned at last. It began a journey to a new landscape of the soul; my exterior was beginning to crack, something painfully new began to unfold.

The pain grew.

I was unable to mourn the collapse of ‘my story’. The rules binding the masculinity code I’d grown up with didn’t allow me to. I’d learned that it was weak to ask for help, that exposing my feelings risked ridicule and I’d learned that the rules of engagement in attracting the opposite sex were to be confident, strong and in control of my emotions. Like many boys, I’d learned to become disassociated from many of my feelings from a young age, and now I didn’t know how to express them.

Crying is emotional release, words the heart can’t say.. So when I had a breakdown, after patches of depression, the emotional avalanche that stormed through my body after years of keeping the lid on deeper feelings was a real roller-coaster – yet looking back now seems no surprise. As well as burn-out, it was an explosion of years of pent-up pain, and marked the beginning of a deeper journey for me into katabasis or descent, to the underworld of my hitherto unexpressed grief, loss and longing. A dying to the old self. A re-birth of the soul-path.

Grief is the first sign that we are becoming alive (Steve Biddolph)

Rose-Lynn Fisher’s beautiful personal research into the landscape of her tears struck me recently as I reflect now on the struggle with the kaleidoscope of feelings I began to bring to the surface.

“It’s amazing to me how the patterns of nature seem so similar, regardless of scale,” she says. “You can look at patterns of erosion that are etched into earth over thousands of years, and somehow they look very similar to the branched crystalline patterns of a dried tear that took less than a moment to form.”

Tears basaltears

Gradually, excruciatingly, tears squeezed from my body. These hidden branches of my emotional core, these storage boxes of feelings spanning twenty years. Fisher’s images uncover some of the strange beauty of suffering for me; reminding me of the complexity of the maps of the heart, the loneliness of faithless life and of ongoing matrices which, lying unexpressed, map out an infinite hell on earth, an ongoing misery of being less than fully human.

I revisited what I now understand as ‘major relapses’ twice again within the following two years. Two more journeys to recover Eurydice. Two more visits back to the sleepless, anxiety-ridden, ruminating madness; a completely overpowering blanket where the first few seconds of consciousness after waking are only a prelude to endless days and nights of insanity. Two more dives into the ashes.  Two further opportunities to shed the grief I’d been carrying, the trapped feelings, hurts and disappointments I’d bottled up.

Although the empirical nature of tears is a chemistry of water, proteins, minerals, hormones, antibodies and enzymes, the topography of tears is a momentary landscape, transient as the fingerprint of someone in a dream. This series (of tears) is like an ephemeral atlas.

How many of these delicate tapestries lie unshed in us? These atlases of the soul, these deep, unspoken landscapes of the heart.

Now it is easier. Sometimes tears are daily. There is an inexpressable joy in the aliveness of it all. Most of the compressed pain I stored has moved through my body, each tear a transforming landmark in an opening to a new life.

A few weeks ago I was sitting at my desk planning a rehearsal for a Deep Diving Men Lab theatre project and just feeling the freedom of wetness on my cheeks is enough; tears of love and joy, tears of the impossible made possible, tears of faith, tears of gratitude.

Tears, idle tears, I know not what they mean,

Tears from the depth of some divine despair

Rise in the heart, and gather to the eyes,

In looking on the happy Autumn-fields.

And thinking of the days that are no more.

(The Princess: Tears, Idle Tears  – Alfred, Lord Tennyson)

 

The Day I Lost My Edge

What do men really need?

What is ultimate bliss for a man? What is that special something that makes me different from those desires of a woman? What makes me in essence, unmistakably masculine in my heart?

I was talking to a good friend of mine yesterday. He’s doing a TEFL training course. He’s under pressure yet inspired by it, tired yet thrilled by the intensity of his experience – and in his late 50s he’s rediscovering his edge. Undiscovered country. New land. A new test.

How does a man find his purpose?

A man’s edges thrill, inspire and challenge him. I like being challenged. I need to map out new boundaries and terrain. I have only met a handful of truly fulfilled men, and they are constantly within their adventures, mapping out new lands, charting new territory. My experience of men is that we admire each other for our activity and courage, often in the face of danger or risk. Women admire us for this too. When I shy away from that risk, I neglect something about my core, my essence; I withhold my spiritual gift.

I’d worked as a drama teacher for over 20 years, a master of creative inspiration and technique, a man with the Midas touch: miracle-maker! At a jot I could turn the most mediocre theatre work into gold. I led class after class to their creative brink, to doors of their newly found artistic freedom. But I’d mastered my edge long before. The inspirational production line stopped rolling, breakdown and burnout came knocking. Depression began to eat me up as my soul shrank, my offering crumbled and the lights began to go out.

I didn’t want to see it.

I couldn’t hear the cry.

My edge was clear back then. My purpose unclouded. I was a teacher and I shaped theatre. We made the unrealised possible and the undiscovered known. I’d held that unchartered land for many rising performers and students. My edges were the windows I provided for their creative potential. How beautifully or thrillingly I could make that happen was my ultimate edge. I thought it was about them, and of course it was, but actually, it was still deeply about me.

Understanding that your life is not about you is the connection point with everything else. It lowers the mountains, and fills in the valley that we have created. (Richard Rohr – Adam’s Return)

I’d lost my edge long before I eventually ‘broke down’ at work. I’d danced a thousand dances on and over it. I was standing on a flat, over-trodden, worn-out landscape with not a mountain in sight. As I looked up that day, the only light for my office was from a single window which framed an unused, concrete wasteland. It was a September morning, the start of term, and I was running a large Drama Department single-handed. As I sat down at my desk after the morning’s deadening briefing I felt numbness spread through my body and deep emptiness within me. It was as if my soul was stirring. A deep longing and breath within me was saying “I’m here, I’m here. Why are you still treating me like this?” I looked at the walls adorned with photographs of past triumphs, bibles of dramatic knowledge and at the names on the lists of the new students coming in. I didn’t want to be there. I knew. The edge had long gone.

Where a man’s edge is located is less important than whether he is actually living his edge in truth, rather than being lazy or deluded. (David Deida – The Way of the Superior Man)

Looking back, I wonder how I spent so long inviting these years into my life. Many of my colleagues just seemed dead men walking. How was I still working with these half-alive people in this completely uninspiring institution? 

Laziness.

And Fear.

Fear of change, of not being needed, of being broke, of being lost, of drowning out of the pond, of not knowing. Fear of finding out who I really was.

I shift the paper on my desk. Students mill around outside waiting, excited, nervously expectant. The pendulum of another academic term swings and the ensuing tide carries me unerringly with it.

I did eventually listen to the voice within, but I needed a strong dose of divine intervention. Four years later an Almighty hand finally plucked me from the safety of that pond and lay me like a fish writhing on the concrete, flipping and jumping, strangely tossing and twisting its last.

Only when the struggle for that life was over, could I hear.