Tag Archives: Rites of Passage

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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A Man in the Presence of Men

I’m heading down a darkening, wintry M3, returning home from an intense weekend in a Wiltshire forest. I’m sleepless, tender, and inspired by the healing power of a group of men. During the past few weekends I’ve attended various events and workshops with men: in Brighton, in London and here, near Salisbury. I want to write about how it feels being in the presence of men.

Men Together

There’s nothing more grounding for me than being in the company of my own sex: no distractions, straight talking, the sense of humour, men together getting things done. I feel at home, as if I’ve come home, and even though I’m meeting many of these men for the first time, everyone here understands me in a way no woman ever can.

Do I allow this to happen enough in my life?

I look deeply into his eyes, beyond the mysteries of his childhood, and held within a deep, beautiful vulnerability, lies the heart of this man. I feel his tenderness, longing and pain. I see myself reflected as his father, his brother, his son, and sense his spirit, lightly, flickering, slowly meeting mine. I am beyond my body now, in the places where God moves, and something holy here dances between us.

When I strip away the societal conditioning of how I am expected to be as a man – me against the world, just surviving, defined by my work and in a world where I’m taught that repressing my feelings is the only way to get on – and then step into a held space with other men, it’s as if the whole world tilts. I find I can speak what’s on my heart without fear of judgement, I feel I am not alone and that other men are similar to me – they too have been hounded by addictions: pornography, computer games, sex, alcohol and drugs, they too are wounded by the world, they too know what it’s like to be truly alone.

Shared Suffering

As I grew up I was conditioned into thinking that being ‘emotional’ was weak and that it was something best avoided or overridden rather than experienced. Vulnerability was what women ‘did’ and so for me to really feel was something to be ashamed of and therefore something that I learned to hold back. It’s okay for a girl to cry at school, in fact she’s not a girl unless she can do this, but it’s absolutely not okay for a boy. So, like many of us, I spent years and years storing up my pain.

A circle of 30 men define a woodland space. ‘Any man who has lost a loved one or partner – step forward. Men, you share a special bond.’ Damp leaves carpet the wet earth. As men step forward I feel time expand and the space around me ripe with the fruit of our shared past, our history; the circles of men that have stood for thousands of years.

As the circle shifts, I feel one man’s pain, then another. As if we are one body we stand; and as the inner circle of men sharing their grief shifts, I feel the presence of an ancestry only rarely recalled. I feel an overbearing sense of grief; and as the men’s tears moisten their cheeks and fall, we are lifted up into a unity and togetherness that I yearn for all men to share.

I’m crying again. A deep, deep sense of grief. I cry. I cry for us all, for those men before me, and those to come; for everything I’ve ever lost: my childhood, my friends, the women I’ve met and will never meet, for love undiscovered; for her, for you, for life, for God.

For me, they are the tears of deep healing, the years of stored male grief; all of our shared tears. And they are the same tears that invite me to fully live the next beautiful, sunlit morning.

After I cried I felt relieved… and happy and grateful, and maybe not fully healed, but helped in a huge way by expressing my feelings… (Thomas G Fiffer – Boys Do Cry, and Men Do, Too)

Taking It To The Men

No woman wants to be her man’s mother. It’s the last thing she desires or needs. It’s a complete turn off. It’s just a big NO.

So why is it I so often fall back into doing it?

How many times have I taken my needs to my women? Just how many? I don’t know about you but it makes me squirm. Let’s just say too many.

I’ll only set her free by taking it to the men.

I feel the circle around me, the men’s faces, their presence. I move them both around the space, the two women in my life. And as I stand apart from them both, fully seen in my need, I know that I am a man, my father’s son. I leave them both to their paths and step back into the circle, more determined and resolved – to keep on taking it to the men.

Validation

Is there anything more powerful than being validated by another man – where a man actually comes to you, meets you fully in the eyes and gives you positive affirmation? I don’t mean being told I’m a clever guy who’s funny, but have you ever heard a man speak fully of his experience of you? Until my early 40s the nearest I’d got to this was a few drunk ‘I love yous’ in a pub, or some throw away comments that never landed and fit only for the wind. I was too scared to make myself vulnerable. It’s my conditioning. Maybe I still wanted to be one up; I loved him, but I wouldn’t trust him with my heart.

As men, we need each other’s validation. The validation we maybe didn’t get from our fathers. The validation that, over the years, has been replaced by individualism, narcissism and competition. My father gave me strong positive affirmation many times, but if he were unable to meet me in this way, it’s possible that I’d never get this validation anywhere else.

As the men’s words sink in I feel my heartbeat, the visceral pumping blood of history, the man inside me preparing to rule, a benevolent king ready to serve. I feel an inner strength within me, shining, and I feel something of the boy in me die. My spirit quickens, I sense God’s gentle power and feel ready to stand in the world.

What I needed from my Dad

When I was 14 what mattered to me more than anything?

What mattered was having my father there. What mattered were the words he spoke to me. What mattered was his presence. What mattered was the rite of passage he offered me from his world – to play rugby like the men.

Much of my childhood I watched my Dad play. Every Saturday we’d go to Lazards Sports ground and I played with the men, often for hours and hours. After the game, beyond dusk, the cheap florescent bar lights illuminating the muddy grass, one of the guys would usually hang out and play with me, show me how to hold the ball, pass and kick. I’d learn special things my Dad hadn’t taught me. The men’s world mattered. I loved being part of it.

It’s a wet, windy day out on the school playing field. It’s cold. We’re playing a strong opposition. They were usually better than us – the other teams. Our record defeat was 0-78. Dads litter the touchline. I’m playing number 8 this day. (This is the guy that sticks his head in the back of the scrum, mauls into other guys when he picks the ball up from the back of the scrum, and tackles everyone) Now I wasn’t big, but I was brave, and I’d tackle anyone. It was a matter of honour. I’d do anything to prevent a guy getting past me. Especially when my father was watching.

What mattered most was hitting the earth, body and body, wound on wound. What mattered was that they didn’t score.

When I played full back (that’s the guy right at the back of the team wearing 15) I used to tackle a cascade of boys who broke through. I was the last line of defence. And even though I was small I’d hit these guys, heroically saving many points. (No team ever reached 100 against us). I loved playing the hero; when all else was lost I’d save the day, do the very best I could for the team.

I was learning that I had what it takes.

So, I’m 16, a few years older and it’s cold. It hurts when you mis-tackle someone. You get your body in the wrong position technically and if the guy’s bigger than you, which virtually all of them were, it really hurts.

So I’m at the back of the scrum and we’re under pressure. One of their team picks up the ball in the loose and for a split second there’s an option. I know it’s going to hurt. I’m out of position and this boy is 3-4 stone heavier than me. But he’s my man. And as he charges through like a young bull, I hit him and down we go.

The earth, the blood.. bodies.. contact.

There’s no sound from the touchline. There were a lot of players around us. Did Dad see? That was the best tackle I’d ever done. Did he see it?

The game goes on and I quickly recover from the hit.

Just a word, I need just a word.

The game ends. Somehow the score’s irrelevant. The players clap each other and mill off, some to the changing rooms, to each other or the touchline.

I need to hear his voice.

I loiter around, not asking but needing.

“That was a great tackle on their number 8.”

My heart shifts a beat and I’m welling up with an enormous feeling of pride, unity and belonging. He said the right thing, but not only that. He felt  it. He’s been there, in the wild country of the sports field, he knows exactly how I feel. He noticed me in my stepping up. This joy I experienced in my father watching and tending to me was second to none.

I wonder now what type of masculinity I was subscribing to when I stepped up to the mark. What exactly was I ‘manning up’ into?

When I was younger I cried. Or was it the feeling of longing to cry? I’d get tackled and winded, and everyone used to want to hit me hard as I was the teacher’s son. Dad was reffing. I remember one time particularly, I’m 10 years old and it’s a house 7-a-side rugby game, so for a 10-year-old it’s basically a cup final. I’m playing scrum half, the pivotal position in the short game, and I get tackled hard by a friend and go down wheezing.

I don’t want to cry.

boy cryingCrying’s not what men do.

And I can feel my father with me, struggling to be with my withheld tears as well as playing his role as referee and teacher. It seems to go on for ages. I’m embarressed in front of the other boys. Somehow a boyhood wound is shaped.

Is it impossible? To develop as a boy with direction, certainty and purpose, to stand ground when others around are failing, is it possible to become this fully embodied masculine man and CRY playing sport?

Can the boy become the king without a wound? Wounding is important to be with and overcome. And what kind of space for wounding is the modern sports field? It’s one of the few spaces for men to go. How is it boundaried and held?

Last night I saw the fantastic film The Hunter. If you want to understand men a little better go and watch this. It’s terse, direct, staccato, beautifully shot and WILD. During the fantastic climax, where the Daniel Dafoe character, Martin, confronts the essence of his own beautiful, untamed wildness, more of those lost boyhood tears stream down my face, unashamed, cleansing and pure.