Tag Archives: Manhood

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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Does my Black Dog really answer to the name “Depression”?

black dog2

The lake sat beautifully in the afternoon sun; it was late autumn, my favourite time of the year.

I first fell in love in September, when I was sixteen, and if you’ve been fortunate enough to ever feel that and then claim her, you’ll know it’s an unforgettable, indescribable, heart-pounding, rushing joy…

But that was twenty years ago. I’m now thirty-six, and I’m sitting by this beautiful lake with my girlfriend and a pulsating rot in my gut. There must be a medical reason I thought. It must be because I’m with her, I thought. It must be because… And so the whirring began. Creeping up as an oncoming darkness. The last time I’d had a hernia I was making a diving catch in the covers – but this is different. It’s not a hernia. It’s a unique sort of ‘pain’. It languishes in the spreading of its energy; a lost voice, nagging, clouding my thoughts, inducing its unique brand of anxiety.

What was this deep gnawing in my gut? What are these cries? These feelings that everything’s ‘not right’? They are so very deep, deep within me.

Perhaps that moment marked the beginning of the journey to meet my dog.

The black dog scratches at my door, he’s persistent. I let him in from the cold. He cuddles up to me in the darkness. He delights in the loneliness of my soul. His howls are the calls of my heart. Beyond his whining I feel the gaze and lazy smile of my tormentor.

Eight years ago and it was my fortieth birthday. I invited all my friends and I told them all to “fuck off” during a drunken speech. I hired a sports club; nice feel, wooden (it burnt down a few years later) and a bit rough. The usual getting drunk ritual took place. Some friends turned up whom I’d invited but weren’t really friends at all. My girlfriend took me home. I have a vague memory of being in a car and collapsing at my house. I crawled upstairs and Nathan my lodger had to drag me into the bathroom. I didn’t make it and was sick all over the landing. I just lay in it all. Happy Birthday. What a good night etc…

 Something had been wrong for a while.

“Here Dep! Good Boy… Where’s your bone?” He walks in and skulks in the corner, frightened and frightening, saliva dripping, seething dirty energy. He’s old, aged from his tormenting, yet his inner vitality rots at my core. He makes his bed next to mine.

Six years ago, I’m 42 and on West Hampstead station. The train taking me back to Richmond is an arrow firing me into the void. The later email confirming she doesn’t want to be with me is a message from the lips of Medusa. I curl up in a rack of pain, howling like the dog who’s licking his lips just around the corner. I try to cry but I don’t know how, I’m a man without the emotional armory, I’ve no language for this. My guts are razor-like and scooping, churning. Everything inside me is burning. For the next nine months I wake like this, frightened and alone. Crying myself to sleep with unhappiness, I take a lover, who comforts me. I plunge blindly through work; how, I don’t know. Everything is loss, all is lost. I can’t get her out of my mind. I can’t go into town because she’s there.

What was happening?

During those nine distressing but important months, deep losses collided within me. I’d been triggered. She was the object, yet I was trying to mourn something untouched inside me.

Stitched to my feet he’s my shadow; he’s my longing, my Peter Pan; he pads silently beside me, manifesting himself in my collected pain. He is part of me. He’s my dog. His eyes are my deepest losses; like those red stockings clinging tightly to her brown legs his saliva dribbles seductively down from his chin.

‘Depression.. a set of symptoms that derive from complex and always different human stories. These stories will involve the experiences of separation and loss, even if sometimes we are unaware of them.’ (The New Black – Darian Leader)

I’m now 49 and the last ten years are beginning to make some sense. This does not mean I’ve cracked it, it means that having unpacked some of this stuff with my therapist, I can begin to gently fold up my clothes again, re-sequencing them in a wiser order. I can see some of my luggage labelled now, laid out on the floor. All the stuff I’d been carrying on my journey. A heavy load.suitcase

For years I’d been longing for the relationship in which I could emotionally unpack. Of course that relationship isn’t about finding the special one; I’m not the first man to lose himself in the seductive, physical offer of The Goddess and I won’t be the last for which she’s the Achilles heel on this hero’s journey. Yet my longing is a divine call to return home. To meet my Maker. I am crying because I am separated from God. They are cries outward and upward, not in.

My soul was weeping.

I want to propose that we are both sent and drawn by the same force.. We are driven and called forward by a kind of deep homesickness, it seems. There is an inherent and desirous dissatisfaction that both sends and draws us forward, and it comes from our original and radical union with God. (Richard Rohr – Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life)

What is Depression?

So what is Depression? Is it simply part of a pharmaceutical circus that prescribes us pills to feed our own capitalist economies? Or to show the NHS that it’s meeting its government-set targets? Isn’t it all a bit of a medical wind-up that we invented for ourselves forty years ago – to make the drug companies millions as part of some big consumerist cover-up? Are any drugs making any of us feel better? Don’t we need to call it an illness to retain this facade? Isn’t it all nonsense?

But it really wasn’t nonsense when I was finally reduced to a shuddering pool of twenty-four hour anxiety, fearful of the next moment, unable to care for myself and struggling to understand the complete despair I felt. What was happening to me? And it absolutely wasn’t nonsense having to return to this state of living hell three times. Perhaps Prozac assisted me in getting through the very worst, the ‘survival’ hours, the bottom of the pit, to help the hellishly, derailed sleeping pattern, to help me feel I was taking some action against the endless despondency, fear and torment. But they’ll never treat the cause. They won’t remove the pain. Yes, serotonin is a factor, but the experience of loss doesn’t lie in my brain, despite what some Government literature might tell me. The NHS can prescribe me a CBT quick-fix course, but it won’t help me in getting to the bottom of me. Drugs are not transformative. They are not the real work.

They can’t tell me that the cause is spiritual. They want to tell me it’s an illness and that it can be treated. And at the time that’s what I wanted to hear. I’m so desperate and it’s an answer! Thank God they can make medical sense of this. But.. What an arrogance! They don’t want to tell me that the only way is through, and not out. They don’t want to tell me there may more suffering on the journey. They don’t want to suggest I need to learn about courage and hope. But of course, don’t ask us to live in this paradox!! We expect to be ‘fixed’ in this postmodern, scientific world…

Leader employs a brutal analogy: quick-fix remedies work in the same way as a missile strike works on a terrorist base. In the short-term it looks successful, but it does nothing to alter the terrorist mindset. When loss and misery enter our lives, we are impatient to condense a process that, by nature or through talking therapies, can only be worked out over years. We want a name for our condition, and we want a timetable. (‘Anatomy of melancholy’ – Hilary Mantel, Guardian)

After my first nervous breakdown I realised I had made a huge descent, a road to my ashes of the type Robert Bly describes in Iron John.

I had finally started to hear my weeping soul.

Darian Leader frames the term ‘Depression’ well for me in his timely new book The New Black.

It is used so widely and with such little care that it acts as a barrier to exploring the detail of our responses to loss.

Overcoming loss will always be painful. My loss is part of me. My suffering is the roots of real transformation. The question I am asking now is – how do I integrate it into my life? Poor choices may mean my dog whines at the foot of my bed for years; wise choices that he’s free to go. Part of the paradox of being alive is that the human condition needs to endure necessary suffering and not suppress it. I see this clearly and complexly in the supreme gift we are offered; Jesus is the moment in time where God steps towards us and shows his human face. I’m beginning to understand this.. and integrate it into how I want to live. Being is about compassion, community and loving the other. Leaving the old behind is tough. I realise I don’t want a comfortable life, I want to live the adventure of life. Jesus asks me to follow – so God asks me to walk on my edge each day.

Yet it’s not all about psychotherapy and religion, it’s about the integration of a real truth into my life. Richard Rohr speaks of the truth as always being the truth, it can’t be questioned once established. Much of this truth can be found in the myths and legends of ancient cultures and civilizations. Jesus’ image in Matthew’s Gospel of a winnowing fork is used 700 years before by Homer in the Odyssey, yet might the image be at home in a modern trainee therapist’s thesis?

His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire. (Matthew 3:12   New Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition)

wheat-from-chaff

I don’t think my dog wants to answer to the name ‘Dep’. He’s Smudge or Joe or Monty. And he doesn’t need to be black. I think my ‘depression’ belonged to an old identity that has died. An identity that bled to death in his own ashes – no longer the big ‘I am’ – and then knelt quietly, and surrendered his soul to his Lord.

So as I begin to sort out the wheat from the chaff, it’s time to stand by what is real, and leave what is unreal, to stand by what lasts, and leave what doesn’t last behind me.

 

Man – You’re not Alone, You’re with the Men

“What’s the point of a men’s group?”

I was asked this question recently in the pub. I used to pour beer down my throat by the way, now I enjoy a pint and it’s enough. It’s much better.

drinking1

Ten years ago I never would have dreamed I’d be holding a fortnightly group for men in my home. That would have been too weird. I’d have been one of those weird guys. Back then, I used to seek intimate male company only when I was drunk or getting drunk. That was normal. Yet of course, drunk people really can’t listen or talk very well. It was all deeply, deeply dissatisfying.

Have you thought about how other men could be a mirror for you? How another man could teach you about yourself? What would it be like to be clear in your direction and purpose, to strengthen your integrity, become more trustworthy, strong, consistent, clear and grounded? Wouldn’t you like to know how it feels to be at your edge and be held accountable?

How are you spending your time these days..? Are you living your life? Or is it just passing?

How do you really feel?

Father meets Son

Last week I was privileged to witness one of our group re-connect with his 17-year-old son, who he had invited to come to our meeting, after a period of separateness and difficult communication for them both. It was a beautiful evening. As I sat listening, the gravity and depth of the ‘father wound’ in our society became clearer to me.

We are all wounded by our fathers somehow, all of us.

Many young men growing up within an un-fathered culture reject authority from an early age. The 2012 riots in London are only one example of the dive-bomber culture of violence and unfocused aggression many young men are involved with. Statistics from schools regarding the low achievement of boys compared to girls are undeniable. Some suggest teachers have lower expectations of boys than girls. Our young men are largely schooled and brought up by women (only 15% of primary staff are men) and the older men in their lives appear distant and unreliable.

My experience is that we can help our own sons and young men by sharing our inner lives with them. Young men need to grow up in immediate contact with a reliable and secure man. One who models a healthy sexuality, a sense of inner compass and a grasp on his soul. Perhaps one step towards this for us as men is learning how to be real with other men. It took me a while in my life to feel that being vulnerable with other men was okay. The men in our group challenge me to step up to the mark when I flounder and are transparent with me. They hear me as I am, and I hear them.

Honouring the Child in Me

father-and-son3

Deep in the heart of me, my inner child, is the man waiting to be honoured. If this honouring is absent before any man brings himself to woman it is likely he will remain a ‘boy’ in that relationship. I have found this to be painfully true. Perhaps this thought underpins much of the malaise in our society. Many of us are not meeting our women where they need us.

I am learning that this honouring can only take place among a group of men. It used to take place in the tribal rituals of our ancestors, in the fields and communities of farmers who worked on the land, where skills and trades were passed down from father to son. Boys understood how their fathers actually worked. Where does this take place today? Does it take place at all?

In the tragic and moving story of Eddie the shipyard docker, Arthur Miller identifies in his play Death of a Salesman that all most men require is respect.

‘I want my respect. Didn’t you ever hear of that?’

eddie2

Yet Eddie tried to do it alone. He didn’t speak his truth until it was too late. He couldn’t escape being his own island. He got stuck deeper and deeper into his own shed. The ‘respect’ he longed for was an illusion; all his pain and anger welled up over the years. He was looking for his soul.

And he lost it.

Being part of a group of men has taught me that we need each other for real right now; in a space where we can challenge each other safely, be together, and identify with some of the challenges, joys and longings of being a man in today’s world.

No woman can teach us that.

So, it’s not weird touchy-feely stuff. It’s making a commitment to other men to be the strong, authentic and loving man you are. It’s making a commitment to the people around you too, in your life, to ‘man up’ and be one of the men that we all need around us today. It’s standing shoulder to shoulder.

“there is a real sense of aliveness and clarity when men sit together and share”

Make a change. Stop taking it to the women in your life. They don’t need your stuff. Yet don’t keep it festering and rotting within you, like Eddie.

In the conversations I have with men, I frequently hear “I’ve never been this open with another man before.” It’s tough out there. Other men are waiting to shoot us down, waiting for any sign of perceived weakness so they can get one over on us. But my vulnerability is my strength, and now it can be heard. What would it be like to have the real support of other men in your life?

You’re not alone man, you’re with the men.