L.R. Heartsong, author of THE BONES AND BREATH: A Man’s Guide to Eros, the Sacred Masculine, and the Wild Soul, recounts his experience of the 2014 Men’s Conference deep within the Northern California redwoods:
Standing in [...]
Men in community, restoring wholeness to ourselves and Soul to the world.
April 18, 2010
by Hari Meyers
2003: Living on the Verge, Our Wounded World, Our Healing Selves was the name of our 13th conference.
At this time of great uncertainty — with our world poised ready to self-destruct or self-realize — the struggle for clarity, sanity, direction, and purpose is churning inside of us. Out of the chaos in front of us, a new world will coalesce.
Corresponding to our loosening and easing up in the matter of recruitment of participants, we also began to trust that the content of the conferences, the processes, the rituals, and the creation of sacred space could evolve more spontaneously from the needs of the attendees during the conference itself. Progressively, we let go more and more of the need to tightly choreograph every moment of the event.
We are on the verge — of terror, compassion, vengeance, reconciliation? Where is my edge, my entry, my place to take a stand?
We wanted to open to guidance, needed to live on the “verge” of our creativity itself. Believing that responding to the needs of the moment would be more profound overall than our struggling beforehand to plan out every detail, we were willing to let go of reliance on the structural template for the conference. For example, we no longer held to a tightly pre-planned design for the Saturday night grief ritual but trusted that the right form and process would present itself as needed.
We surrendered a step further and, although we considered the grief ritual as an important element and Saturday night still a good time for it to occur, we let go of any insistence that it had to occur unfailingly. We have had conferences in the last few years that have allowed the expression of grief to be more integrated throughout the weekend and not just reserved for that ritual in that place. We always have the template and lots of ideas and pre-thought-out possibilities to apply if needed, but we are much more willing to remain flexible and be innovative in the moment. It is possible that a Saturday night grief ritual might be called for again as new men enter our circle, bringing their own needs. We trust ourselves and our community more and more, and it seems more and more that what we call “spirit” trusts us.
Within the sense of personal helplessness, isolation, and pain lies each man’s medicine, authority and ability to act effectively in the world.
Our 14th conference had the intriguing title Desires and Differences, Healing the Breach between Men and Women. Despite the cliché notion that what men do when they gather with one another is talk, disparagingly, it is feared, about the women in their lives, our conferences, and all the men’s work I have experienced, have been peculiarly absent of such talk. I suspect it is a subject we generally avoid, one that might be too rife with conflicted feelings, too charged a minefield to negotiate.
We encounter women, this other half of the human race, every day in ways that complement and violate each other. While embracing our love, respect, and gratitude for women, we men, whatever our sexual orientation, also need to address the challenging and disturbing aspects of our relationships with women. After all, they are intimately and intricately involved in both our deepest pain and our highest inspirations. We seek their approval and fear their rejection. We admire their wisdom, yet too often seek to control their expression of it.
Traditionally, perhaps even biologically, considering the driving force and genetic agenda of the “alpha male,” men are conditioned towards power. Alas, in the external world of social interactions this is predominantly power over others rather than inherent personal power. Men know all too well how to defeat other men, how to organize resources and energy to get things done, how generally to impose themselves. It is with women that men experience their hidden insecurities, experiencing feelings often forbidden in the company of other men. Perhaps Freud had it wrong and “womb” rather than “penis envy” is a primary cause of the mistrust between the sexes. Every man since infancy has experienced various dependencies upon women. Such a perceived weakness flies in the face of his essential masculine posture of independence and self-sufficiency.
Woman has become the mysterious “other” to men. He fears her censure and resents deeply his disavowed but desperate need for her approval. It is no secret that historically men have brutally dominated women. Such a relentless need for control can only be based in its turn upon fear, such fear upon a lack of understanding… of women.
Being out of balance with the women in our lives, as well as with the Feminine in ourselves, might just be the root disturbance which throws all else out of balance.
From the late eighties and on into much of the nineties when the “men’s movement” was at its notorious height much of the focus was on the “father-wound.” Issues relating to the mother were conspicuously absent. Perhaps we were waiting until we were collectively strong enough to deal with the inchoate complexity it would bring up. Robert Johnson spent a great deal of time educating us about the Mother, her archetypal and historical aspects, the “mother complex” itself, speaking to us of the multifarious emanations from our anima within, with which we were generally so “out of touch.” But his talk remained in the archetypal realm. It was quite another matter to deal with the real flesh and blood women in our lives.
This three day conference will focus on our relationships with women — whether mother, sister, daughter, friend, mate, lover, or muse. Let us risk gathering in a community of men to find strength, inspiration, and direction as we explore this issue through honest talk, open hearts, grief, celebration, story, ritual, art, music and movement.
To our credit we made a start, a beginning. We touched tender places in ourselves, melted sometimes in gratitude, sometimes in remorse, forgave and asked to be forgiven. It was powerful, but once again, as with our foray into our relations with brothers of color, many of us felt it did not go far enough, that an enormous amount of work remains to be done. The women’s movement has had tremendous impact in the lives of women and over western society in general. Women have effectively gathered together to liberate themselves from a vast array of oppression and subjugation. The men’s movement lagged by decades and has not yet had a parallel effect in society at large.
Many, including a great number of women, denigrate the men’s movement, wondering from what exactly men, who seem to have all the power, need to be liberated. Others, including an even greater number of women, support men working on themselves, understanding that there can be no lasting change in the world until those who wield the apparent power come out of their ignorance, become more authentic with their feelings, shortcomings, and their gifts. I often feel that women are waiting, mostly supportive and patiently, for us men to get on with our self-realization, hoping as mothers, sisters, friends and daughters that we might get “there” soon.
[Hari Meyers was an early Associate of the Redwood Men's Center. He attended all of the Conferences since their inception and was a major organizer and planner on every one of them since 1996. His primary interest in composing this article was to articulate the essential archetypal passages through which men must pass on their journey to mature masculinity, and all such interpretations and opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Redwood Men’s Center itself.]
April 17, 2010
by Hari Meyers
By the time of our 12th conference, Rising from the Ashes, Calling Forth the Vision, Reshaping the World, the events of September 11th had occurred. They had commanded not only our attention but that of the nation, the entire world. Seldom do more than a few events in a lifetime command such universal focus. There had been the assassinations of President Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy when I was a young man, so for myself and my contemporaries we may have reached our share and quota. We could hardly miss the opportunity to consciously experience together the myriad of feelings, thoughts, fears, confusions, hopes and prayers that such a shattering event might engender.
In a time of crisis, what is it that men call forth — demons from the past or angels for the future? Men new to this work and returning elders as well, the time calls to us all equally — a time to stand up for what we know in our soul, a time to create a real alternative, a world that supports rather than crushes Humanity.
That year our opening Friday night ceremony in the meadow was especially stunning. Each of us brought from a prepared pile of shaved and shaped wood two pieces, one to symbolically contain our private grief and the other to carry the weight of what it was we were grieving in the world. Our two pieces were then stacked together with everyone else’s two pieces to form two separate towers of wood. The towers were then set on fire. We all stood in silence and watched these towers burn to the ground. Everyone was incredibly moved. Such collective witnessing brought on a cathartic release of our grief – no blame, no explanations, just our grief in the witnessing of this particular image of sorrow. It stood in a stark contrast to the vociferous reactive re-plays we had endured all year with the media images and their interpretation of the events of September 11th.
The present challenge is to create a new, potent, caring and benevolent vision, an imagination of bravery that leads to peace and shared prosperity. How can we help transform the world? When we stand together in a united imagination, we are powerful beyond all dreaming. We will explore these questions through ancient folklore, ritual, small group sharing, art, grief, laughter and music.
We had been led deeper into our creative imagining. At whatever point any one of us had entered the “men’s movement,” whatever limits we had placed on how much transformation was possible, whatever the doubts of our own will and abilities, we were inspired by the pressing realization that change, some change was absolutely necessary. None of us could go on in the old patterns any longer; we felt compelled to invest in some perceived hope, and our intention, perseverance, and willingness to change ourselves was what we had to invest and was, I believe, blessedly, enough. Forces hitherto unrecognized came to our aid, “a great wisdom,” as the previous year’s brochure had called forth, “aroused to help us in our quest.”
Now we knew not only that we had nothing to lose but that collusion with the old world was less and less acceptable. September 11th and the war which mendaciously followed rubbed our noses in the poverty and cruelty of the imagination that seemed to be taking the world further down the path of endless destruction. There had to be a better way and we had to be able to create it. We discovered our common longings and we were moved enough to allow them to lead us. Our collective awareness that change is not only necessary but eminently possible led us to the discovery of our ultimate resource, a “united imagination.” To gather, define and then learn how to apply this united imagination remains our ongoing work.
We started by resurrecting a different set of towers in our minds and hearts, sacred towers that might carry us to larger ideas of ourselves and place our hope on a firmer footing. We invoked two such images:
I am circling around God, around the ancient tower,
and I have been circling for a thousand years,
and I still don’t know if I am a falcon, or a storm
or a great song.
But as the Tower crumbles it reveals a sturdier foundation, something which perhaps you did not expect but which, nevertheless, arrives fully formed and strong into your life.
– Major Arcana #16 from the Ryder-Waite Tarot.
April 17, 2010
by Hari Meyers
In the first decade of the new century the conference passed through its adolescence and into a coming of age. A consistent factor in our collective maturing was our commitment to community. In the latter half of the nineties we shifted from a professional conference to a gathering of men willing to be vulnerable with one another, to build brotherhood and accountable community together, and, even more, to be in enough Soulful agreement to actually imagine and dream together.
How do we attract such men to the conference, how entice whatever level of longing is drawing them? We found step by often bewildering step that the only way was to surrender at each stage and release ourselves into Trust’s next challenge. There was a time when we attempted blanket mailing our brochure, fishing the likely psychotherapy and self-help waters for possible candidates. We purchased many mailing lists. The return was always very little for the effort. But we had over the years built up a mailing list of our own. Now we would trust to word of mouth amongst those who had attended at least once. If the conference were of continuing value, the growing community that had benefited from it would see that it continued.
Our largest attendance was a bit over 100. At that time with the conference still a collection of academic offerings we aimed for 80. When we chose to pursue it as a communal, Soul-building-and-bonding experience, we aimed for and achieved the smaller, more manageable number of 60 plus participants. This more intimate number helped create the depth we were seeking. Once or twice we had only 40 to 50 attendees, and that, felt even more effective, but our current goal remains 60, to cover expenses with a margin for scholarships. We trust that a few extra brochures in the hands of our regular attendees will bring in that number, and that those who actually do show up are precisely the ones who are “supposed” to be there.
Our eleventh conference was entitled Weaving the Fabric of Community, Remembering Our Vision, Revealing Our Purpose.
Everywhere we look we see the depletion of the spiritual, vital and physical resources of our planet and are no longer content to lead unexamined lives as consumers of those resources in pursuit of various illusions towards self-aggrandizement. Rather we are impelled to travel further along the journey towards a mature masculinity that can both protect and foster nourishment of the environment we share and the next generation we are to influence. Each of us will, no doubt, follow our own threads toward greater fulfillment of these goals – but how much more effective and rewarding it can be as we undertake the journey consciously together!
An important metaphor in this conference was taken from William Stafford’s poem “The Way It Is:”
There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.
This is a call for each of us to bring our individual threads to the Gathering. We do not know how our thread fits into the tapestry nor what the pattern is that will emerge. We do know that each thread is sacred. It is the inspiration that keeps us on our path, the purpose that helps shape our passion. The thread has been our enduring and generative link to the whole. It is time once again to re-member our collective purpose and design. In preparing for the conference, we ask each man to take firm hold of his thread, check in with the impulses that are stirring in him and ask himself the following questions: What is the source of your inspiration? To what thoughts and actions is it leading you?
We were asking more of the participants, requesting that they help us shape each conference. They could no longer come as passive consumers themselves. If we were truly a community, if our efforts were truly collective, then we must all contribute our piece to the common urge, weave our own threads into the tapestry. We, the organizers, had some facilitating abilities, had indeed our own insights, issues and preferences, were perhaps by nature, age, and experience elders, but we never posed as teachers nor deluded ourselves that we had some esoteric secret to impart. We had long ago given up our egotistical attachment to hierarchy, had abandoned the podium in favor of the more egalitarian circle.
In Africa there is a species of ladybug in which each individual displays a slightly different shade of color. When they alight as a community on the branch of a tree or bush they manage to camouflage themselves by forming the image of a flower. No single ladybug sees the flower as a whole but each brings their indispensable part to the pattern, so necessary for the survival of the community. We can not help but wonder what image we collectively create when we bring our unique portion to the whole.
The main task for us in preparing for the conference was to keep ourselves open to what Spirit was telling us, both as to what Time’s evolution might require and wish to bring forth in the way of feelings and ideas and also, more humbly, what we, the collective, might be prepared to accept. Any individual brilliance each of us might possess could be appreciated but hardly applauded, could not be displayed for ego gratification but had to be placed in service to the whole. There was no room for self-aggrandizement at any stage of this sacred undertaking. Although humor was never lacking, we took our mission seriously, were committed to and hopefully worthy of the endeavor.
… when we are fully present with our sincere intentions that great wisdom is aroused to help us in our quest. We believe that the collective Soul is drawing us into greater energy and consciousness as we aspire more clearly to serve the needs of our times. Our work, it seems, is to honestly aspire, to take our place on the branch of the world tree and shine forth with our brightest color. Who knows what pattern will prevail, what glorious image we might present or what wondrous eye might behold us?
April 10, 2010
by Hari Meyers
Our tenth conference, in the millennial year, was Bringing Forth The Gift, the Soulful Expression of a Man’s Life.
Our culture discourages creative expression in everyday life. A few ‘stars’ receive the projected glory while the rest of us are relegated to the role of consumers. Life is a process of creative expression. If we only take in images from the media and the culture without active expression, we are merely spectators, a story untold, a gift unopened.
And what we consume in “the culture of death,” the images persistently broadcast by its media can be toxic and self-limiting in the extreme. Most messages promote comparison of ourselves with others, always to the diminishment of one’s self – never making enough money, not possessing the sexy woman or fancy car being dangled before us, quite simply never good enough. A fragmented society knows only how to further divide. We become resentful and suspicious of other men, most women, younger people, all authority and the world in general. We fear and hold as an enemy all who were different, and the “culture of death” masterfully and incessantly advertises differences, seldom sameness. An emphasis on comparisons and divisive differences spells death to our creativity.
As men, we often find ourselves providing for and taking care of others, burdened by duties and responsibilities that crush passion and heartfelt purpose, leaving us passive and often depressed. It is easy to forget that that among these responsibilities is the one we have to our own authentic expression. Creativity is not something we generate; it is something we unlock. Somewhere inside every one of us is a creative voice longing to be free. By its release, the universe moves. It is every man’s right, or more accurately, every man’s gift, to feel the creative force move through him. This grace awaits every one of us.
The conferences were building a psychic and soulful momentum. The more we had the courage to surrender to the collective work of transformation, the more we experienced its gifts. There were so many – the gift of self expression, the gift of feeling and loving more, the gift of support and alliance – gift after gift and always another one, perhaps more subtle, perhaps more complete, some greater refinement of our wholeness, always another awaiting.
The key to releasing our gifts, what all the gifts have in common, is accessing our innate creativity. Creativity, like longing, is at the heart of all we might wish. Creativity, I imagine, just might be longing’s handmaiden. It is that part of our liberated Will which marshals the resources and shapes the route our Will might take in our collective dream, this world we experience together.
One man who has attended the last ten consecutive years, told me that when he first heard a man speak of his feelings, he had no idea what that could mean. Now, he is himself a prolific and accomplished poet. He credits the conferences, singing with men amongst the trees, grieving his own enormous wounds, ones he had thought he could never overcome, finding his own at-first-hesitant powers of self expression, all these gifts leading him to “unlocking” his own boundless creativity. “To have the gag remov’d from one’s mouth!” Walt Whitman sings ecstatically in his “One Hour to Madness and Joy.”
Lest you get the idea that everything is sweetness and light, let me share another part of our story. The year 2000 was Robert’s last year with us. In addition to the blessing he bestowed, that magical moment I have described, he always imparted in his genteel way the wisdom of an elder. One theme he returned to regularly was the importance of owning one’s own shadow. We discovered the truth of his wisdom, time and again, as we grew together in community.
In planning the 1997 conference, described above, we were greatly impressed with the ritual work of Malidoma Some and imported without adequate thought and preparation an African ritual, born on African soil, in an Arican village culture and designed to serve African villagers’ needs. We imposed the ritual, one in which men were to literally vomit up their pain and stuck-places into holes dug in the ground and then dance in relief around a giant bonfire we kept going all night. The energy released was more than any of us had bargained for and more than we knew how to handle. All sort of hurt and offended feelings arose from this. It took the bulk of the conference to even begin to process them and, in the end, much was left unresolved. There was real hurt and damage done, and some men chose to leave the conference and some men, to our sorrow, have never returned.
The ritual may have been effective in Malidoma’s village in Africa and might have been effective for us had we prepared more fully for it, leading up to it slowly and providing a meaningful context and a safe holding container. We simply, in our ignorance and pride, sprang it on the participants, full-blown from the inflated head of our collective Zeus. As I have said, rituals borrowed intact from alien cultures tend not to work when transplanted directly without careful thought and appropriate modification . Far better is it to allow the ritual to arise from the needs of the moment. As we advance in this work we try to become more skilled in the differences and the balance between planning, permitting and imposing.
We have had other misses, as well, leading to conflict. There was another year we had an all night fire. To make sure the fire was always tended, we asked each man to take a stone, like drawing lots. Time slots were written on the underside of each stone and the late night time slots proved problematic. Some men did not show up for their allotted time. Others, then, were forced to leave the fire untended or stay beyond their committed time. Hours of conflict ensued. The rocks with the numbers on them were brought forth as evidence, as if a trial were in progress. And though this conflict was of a different nature and of a different intensity from the thoughtless transplanting of Malidoma’s African ritual, it, too, was instructive and forced us to look at ourselves and laugh. We were arguing over a pile of stones.
Men respond to conflict in a variety of ways, sometimes with avoidance, sometimes with self-righteous picayune detail. What we have found as effective when conflict arises is to allow it to air completely – no cross-talk, no rebuttals. Usually when a man has had his say and his sense of insult and outrage has been released, reconciliation will find its own course. I believe men are gifted at synthesizing differences when the context and forum for such is respected. Anger is permitted but never violence. We understand that up-front, and, more and more, as safety is assured, the conflict either finds its own resolution or the differences remaining are accepted without rancor. When a man feels he has been fully heard, neither concurred nor disagreed with, simply heard and held within the circle, he is a part then of community. He is validated.
Our shadows, our limitations are always with us, even as we long for soulful connection and community. Part of that longing, as I have said in telling the story of the 1999 conference, was for a more diverse community. To bring a society from division to reconciliation that which was rejected, age, youth, gender, must be re-gathered, accepted and honored. The culture must risk opening to that which was excluded as different or inferior. Further constriction only compounds and multiplies its ills. Interpersonally we were dedicated to enhancing community. To bring a man to wholeness the cast-off parts of himself must be retrieved, welcomed, and reintegrated. Each man must examine his prejudices, his defenses towards the unknown, his shadow. He must open to the possibility that the person he has dismissed may be his brother, in many ways his own self. Intrapsychically we were committed to wholeness, and wholeness holds both lead and gold.
We had declared in our call to that conference that any healthy and enduring community must embrace and celebrate diversity. We had taken on age and found encouragement in a significant healing of generational opposition. Now to go further and take on more: sexual orientation and race.
Sexual orientation is so often a source of deep, painful, and extreme divisions among men. Our conferences are welcoming to and have always had gay men in attendance. As we have grown in community, finding brotherhood between gay and straight has not seemed at all difficult. But I can remember back to the Sonoma Men’s Gatherings and our conferences in the earlier nineties where homophobia would rear its head and gay brothers did not feel completely comfortable. But as we have experienced one another year after year in the more intimate setting of our small groups and in the community circles, gay men have been comfortable enough to express their pain at rejection, have been listened to and held in community with great empathy, “I hear you,” and, unless I am greatly mistaken, it has not been much of a problem with us for at least a decade.
Race and ethnicity on the other hand has been a much more difficult issue to synthesize into our community. We have had men of different ethnicities attend, Hispanics, Asians and Native Americans, and, although the experience always felt rewarding at the time, few if any would return. For two years in a row an African-American group from Oakland called “Simbha” sent some men and a few youth to attend. They had been drawn by the language in our brochures, had requested and were granted scholarships (we’ve always stretched our funds to provide financial help to those who request it).
I remember much that was moving and illuminating in our encounters with the men of Simbha. In one community circle a white attendee who had grown up in Oakland confessed in a trembling voice how frightened he had been in high school of the numerous blacks there. One of the Simbha men called out ”brothers” and in an instant all of the black men attending were on their feet and in the center of the circle holding and hugging that man. The rest of us got up and surrounded them. For a moment in time, and who knows how long or deep in our Soul, we merged in a rapture of reconciliation.
Several of the Simbha men told us we did not understand how difficult it was for them to attend a white conference, implying that we had not done enough to make them comfortable or ease their way in. “You do not know how much courage it takes for him,” one said pointing to a teen, the youngest brother amongst them to attend, “just for him to be here in the woods. He is a street ghetto brother and the woods themselves are alien and frightening territory to him – much less to be here with a bunch of white dudes.”
I later saw that young man being hugged by Robert Johnson. He hardly came up to Robert’s shoulder. He had his arms around Robert’s mid-section, his head on Robert’s chest, hugging Robert as though he were a redwood. For his part Robert stood still and firm, grounded in his inherent dignity, moving only his right hand to tenderly stroke the youth’s face. That image is indelible in my memory.
How I wish they had chosen to return more than the two times they did attend. I do not believe the failure to create greater harmony in our race-divided brotherhood was either a fault of ours or of theirs. The gap between us in those years was simply too large, the time not yet ripe enough. I sincerely hope we get the chance again.
So this gift, this gentle man, who reflected our gold and alerted us to our shadow, was soon to depart from us. Our final hours together had come to the following Monday morning schedule: singing in the Temple of Melodious Sound, breakfast at eight, the Memorial Day ritual of calling into the circle the names of our departed friends and ancestors, songs and poetry on both the honorable service of men and the wastefulness of war, large community circle in which we would speak what our hearts may yet wish to express, meet in small groups to say good-bye, a closing ritual at the beach, something conclusive to, as Doug put it, “get us out of Dodge,” and then a 1 p.m. lunch with a birthday cake for dessert as Robert’s birthday was right around Memorial Day. At this, our 10th conference, Robert’s 6th with us, he announced it would be his last.
It was his 80th birthday in 2000 and he was retiring from all public activities. He said he wanted to give the rest of his time to facing without distraction, welcoming without reservation, and psychically preparing for his approaching death. We would see him no more but would feel him in absentia, continuing to think of and bless us. And, still on this physical side of the dream, bless him, we have had cards and phone calls from him. Farewell, Robert, your gifts to us were incalculable!
I remember first meeting Robert. I had drawn the lucky assignment of driving him from the San Francisco airport to our 1995 conference at Gualala. My parents lived at the time near the airport and I had visited them earlier. I no longer remember what comment I made about lunch with my mother, but Robert’s response I remember perfectly.
“Ah, the great question is how to separate the archetypal mother from your historical mother and from the mother complex. A man lives with all three. Each can be dealt with in a healthy manner, but if they contaminate one another, if a man confuses one for the other, he’s finished. The great task of mid-life is to keep these forces separate.”
Over the years Robert emphasized the importance for men to befriend and understand their anima, the feminine side of our consciousness. He exhorted us to find the nurturing archetypal Mother within ourselves, to honor, respect , love but not seek redemption from our external historical mother, the woman who gave us birth, and how to untangle in our psyche the knots of the mother complex with its self-defeating collapse into a desire to be mothered and rescued. He demonstrated how to ritualize and symbolize our harmful energies, resolve them intrapsychically, keep them from spilling damage on the physical plane. One conference brother said, “He helped us develop a culture that not only tolerated but honored masculine intimacy.” Finally, he increased exponentially our access to and comfort within the archetypal world. Farewell, Robert!
Having received the blessing of an elder, having absorbed the alchemy of its capacity to turn the lead of our doubts into the gold of self-awareness, we knew, or would come to know, we were moving towards an inevitable goal, becoming blessing elders ourselves.
[Hari Meyers was an early Associate ofthe Redwood Men's Center. Heattended all of the Conferences since their inception and was a majororganizer and planner on every one of them since1996. His primaryinterest in composing this article was to articulate the essentialarchetypal passages through which men must pass on their journey tomature masculinity, and all such interpretations and opinions are hisown and do not necessarily reflect those of the Redwood Men’s Centeritself.]
April 9, 2010
For our eighth conference, we articulated what we believed were some essential stages of that return – three were described in the brochure for our 8th conference, Longing, Terror, and Blessing, Stages of the Return.
The longing we feel is what calls us home from exile. It is the gravitational pull carrying us to where we belong… the salmon swimming upstream… the river dreaming of the sea. When longing is not felt consciously, it leads to a multitude of addictive behaviors and to the ravenous consumption of our world. When we fully understand and appreciate the deep longing of Soul, we transcend personal desire and experience what is calling us at an archetypal level.
Longing infuses everything, and articulating and making it conscious is key to almost all men’s work, inner and outer, desired or mandated. This may be why the great medieval mystic Jelalludin Rumi, master at expressing longing, has become the patron poet of our recent awakening. A prerequisite to the freedom and fullness a man seeks is to feel and acknowledge the depth of his primordial and irreplaceable longing – a longing for home, for wholeness, for some completion of self. But the emotional deficits in most men, resulting from their competitive and closed-mouthed conditioning, blocks their understanding, even more their relishing, the universal and eternal aspects of longing.
At the Soul level longing is a transformative pull to merge with a higher consciousness, a movement towards more integral understanding of self, a wistful ever-present motivation to come home to wholeness. Most men in their developmental immaturity however, are condemned to translate this longing at an ego level as a pervasive restlessness, to experience it as relentless discontent. They attempt to possess one object after another, strive for greater accomplishments, seek renown in order to satisfy this mysterious hunger within them. But, that hunger, once recognized not as insatiable needs but as a deep and indispensable longing, becomes the delicious source of its own satisfaction. Rumi, comforting a devotee discouraged at not receiving an answer to his prayers, declares in his poem “Love Dogs,” “This longing you express is the return message.”
Countless myths tell us that the road home leads through the Underworld. Terror arises when we realize our vulnerability and limitations. Plunged into darkness we careen out of control. For many of us this means a bout with depression or disease or failure. But at the heart of terror lies awe, which reveals itself only when we are able to embrace our fears and face our shadow selves.
My own terror in the year preceding this conference was an overwhelming dread which came to me in the immediate wake of my elder son’s serious accident. I was racked by a realization of the fragility of our lives, and, overwhelmed by the “terror,” could not for many months feel any counterbalancing grace or mercy.
I was emotionally distraught and my perceptions were distorted. The walls of the hospital melted grotesquely as I raced down the hallway to see my son. The personnel performing their duties in those corridors looked misshapen, hunchbacked and limping. I had been transported in a moment to an Underworld of my own.
As so many attest, however, once what was deemed a disaster is faced and accepted, embraced as a transforming event, the feared occurrence becomes a doorway to a greater appreciation of the enormous and unfathomable magnitude of life. “Tragedy” shatters our complacent habits of control and through surrender we enter the realm of perennial mystery. Our response is awe. We are humbled and, as the poet Rilke puts it, “made great by that harsh hand, which kneaded [us] as if to change [our] shape.” The blessing of terror and the Underworld is that, at last, encountering and enduring what had previously been feared and avoided, we transcend the naiveté of a supposed immunity to life’s fullness, become immeasurably stronger and wiser.
Blessing comes in the healing vision that all is well, in the recognition of a benevolent shaping of Soul beyond the control of our personalized will. We find beauty and solace in realizing that all that has happened was exactly what needed to be. As we come to see our ordeals as a necessary prelude to blessing, our struggles become the practice in which we deepen our connection to Soul. The richness we experience brings the blessings in the wisdom it yields.
The healing vision in the blessing we had received a few years before was our ability to see one another carrying our reflected gold; it came with the realization that the wholeness we ultimately sought was, on the other side of our struggles, already ours. An initiation had taken place, expanding our sense of ourselves from separate confused egos into a collective trusting and knowing Soul. All was and, indeed, would be well. We were learning that pain and sorrow could be “medicine” to our Soul and, more than endured and tolerated, could be welcomed and revered.
April 9, 2010
Wanting yet more time to go even deeper, we scheduled our 1997 conference for the full Memorial Day Weekend, which became a tradition as it gave us not only an additional day to meet but an opportunity on Memorial Monday morning to engage in a moving ritual remembering and honoring dead friends and ancestors.
We adopted the practice of developing different themes for each succeeding conference. They provided metaphors around which our ideas could coalesce and, by reminding us of the feelings and understandings we wished to elicit in community, were of invaluable help in designing effective group processes. They also served a much wider use than the confines of the conference by clarifying the predicaments, dilemmas, and challenges of modern day manhood. In planning each conference and composing the brochures, we asked ourselves always “what was needed, what might be the next archetypal stage in our healing and empowerment?”
We were richly rewarded. Our time together, both in the planning stages and at the conference itself, became more precious, and, as the strengthening bonds of our brotherhood assured greater safety, our hearts opened further and more fully. Insights, as if from the well of some collective knowing, arose with their own momentum.
Home from Exile, the Return of the Creative Masculine was our theme for the seventh annual gathering.
“The deep masculine with its nurturing and creative qualities is in exile. The earth is calling back the creative masculine.It is time to return home.”
“In our fragmented world,” the brochure continued, “the immature, incomplete and superficial masculine dominates.” We knew that, had certainly felt the devastation of it, but by archetypally naming this condition of masculine isolation as a story of exile – of wandering and longing but rarely belonging we could comprehend more deeply the costs and effects of such a condition:
“In our heroic quest for autonomy we collided with our own limitations, became wounded and wounded others, and were drawn into further isolation…In our absence the garden, untended, has withered; the kingdom, mismanaged, has become a wasteland.Our skies and water are poisoned, our psyches assaulted, our fragile connection to community threatened, the refuge of family lost…Still, we refuse to grieve.”
Whether defensive armoring, a fearful withholding, or whatever the cause of such refusal, we knew we could no longer hide behind it. Our condition must be fearlessly faced and our wounds, both those we received and those we inflicted, honestly grieved. Traditional cultures often ascribe specific sites for different sacred purposes, central to many is a grief-house. We chose a time, Saturday night, and space, Coalman Hall at Camp Gualala, in which to create a container safe and expansive enough to hold our grief.
We men were purified with smoke and water, then entered the darkened and, thanks to Doug, beautifully decorated space. With music and poetry enveloping us we moved around the room to take our places in a circle. It all felt familiar, hauntingly so, men gathering together to grieve and heal, to sing songs which carried the weight of preceding generations, surrendering themselves to the sacred work at hand.
Yet, we were coming from a fragmented rather than integrated, a profane rather than sacred society, so, though we had hints of elements that defined and created such sacred space, we could not rely on any intact rituals to provide it. This was actually a good thing, even essential, forcing us to create the ritual process, the magic of release, from scratch, relying on sincerity of intention rather than worn habits or professional “tricks,” such as word-association games or imposed constructs like a “hot seat.”
Nothing could be hackneyed or mere “lip service.” We trusted that if we were able to genuinely feel what was needed, offer an open willingness to have that come to us, then the spirit we were collectively creating would inspire the means of its delivery. We had our share of attempts that fell flat or brought forth inauthentic performances rather than genuine emotion, but, blessed by the gods, so to speak, our grief rituals succeeded more often than not.
I remember one moving ritual as an example of the aesthetic relief we experienced. World class potter Daniel Oberti (bless him he died of cancer this past fall, ’09) joined us one year and, as we expressed our grief, we fashioned small clay vessels in which to symbolically place a specific sorrow. A candle was set into the clay and lit to accompany and honor the imagined pain we were releasing. We then marched in solemn procession down to the Gualala River and one by one surrendered our clay containers to the water and watched the flickering lights disappear towards the sea.
It is time to return home, to see beyond the pain of our wounds, to reveal their hidden gifts. The hero’s journey is a cycle: a quest and a return. We have become obsessed with the outward half. Now, more than ever, the world needs the return of the Creative Masculine. We left as warriors; let us come home as healers!
The hero’s journey, it became increasingly clearer, consisted not only of leaving the familiar to quest for something hitherto hidden – “answering the call,” as Joseph Campbell called it – not only seeking a “holy grail” which might heal the collective ills and illuminate concealed meaning, but, once having found the all-healing balm or earned some sword of knowledge, the completion of the journey required a return home with the needed medicine and wisdom. The outer journey, usually resulting in a kind of wounding and a period of exile, had been explored by us and others in great detail, but the return was less known, even neglected. I believe this parallels western society’s far greater interest in the dramas of youth, the puer, than the realizations of maturity, the senex.
Hari Meyers was an early Associate of the Redwood Men’s Center. Heattended all of the Conferences since their inception and has beena major organizer and planner on every one of them since 1996. His primary interest in composing this article was to articulatethe essential archetypal passages through which men must pass ontheir journey to mature masculinity, and all such interpretations andopinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the RedwoodMen’sCenter itself.
April 9, 2010
The majority of men attending our conferences and participating in the Men’s Movement in general were white and middle aged, mostly professional. We desired diversity and in our 1999 conference, The Youth in Every Man, the Man in Every Youth, we put out the call:
Although our underlying unity as men is ultimately indivisible by age, race, culture or economics, any healthy and enduring community must embrace and celebrate diversity. In an effort to further expand the circle, we want to encourage and welcome the participation of younger men.
Again, we were blessed. Not only more men in their twenties came but a number of high school youth as well, some the sons of men who had attended previously. These men were hoping to share something they found of value, all of us were, hoping the next generation would find this experience relevant. It was all hope; we did not know how to effectively heal, just that healing was necessary, that there’d been a chasm between the generations for far too long, and, painfully, that most fathers and sons were still estranged from one another. Uncertain, fearful maybe, we had to do it!
To the age old rift between generations have been added the peculiar problems of our times. The demands of work, the high rate of divorce, the pulls of new technology have all created a world in which men often do not know their children, sometimes fear them, ignore their emotional needs and attempt to control them through ridicule and force. In the name of being realistic we dash their creativity, originality and idealism as ours may have been crushed by our fathers. How horrible that youth can not feel safe with elder men, cannot count on their loving guidance. It is time to address this wound and begin healing by listening to one another.
Besides certain designed processes, our format included having the attending men organized into groups of six or so. In these small groups, men were able to feel safer and consequently to share more intimately and freely about a question that may have come up from the story told, or some feelings that had arisen from poetry or movement, or from the singing and drumming. The selection of the groups was often playful but seldom random. We tried for a good mix of seasoned men with those coming for the first time, and, at this weekend, we wanted some young men in each group, and we intentionally placed the fathers and their sons in different groups.
Quite a few of the youth opted to come back to the conference, not once but regularly. In the next eleven years we witnessed several graduate high school and even college. How gratifying for elders to participate in a young person’s life, to offer, if the youth requests, guidance, and to witness with appreciation the journeys of the young. How empowering for the maturing youth to be listened to, encouraged, appreciated, to be, as the poet Sophia deMello-Breyner wrote “beheld, beloved and known.” And these young men, as they returned and matured, and as their elders became more comfortable with simply listening and receiving, elected to be in the same small groups with their fathers.
Elder and younger men need a connection with each other. Younger men often crave to learn from the more experienced, and elder men yearn for the vitality, enthusiasm and vision of the young.
The two hour community circle evolved over the years as such an essential component of expression and emotional healing that our weekend came to have five of them. In these circles or councils, as we call them, any man can have his say, to be received and never interrupted by the others. We had to work our way through various reminders for brevity (confidentiality was always a requirement) and we adopted the use of the “talking stick,” a gift from Native American circles. We learned, and in time there was no need for the stick, a man simply waited until the previous speaker had finished – and we evolved a vocal and ritual gesture of hand on heart saying in unison, once a man had spoken, “I hear you.”
The generations have lived too long in fearful competition with one another. What our culture lacks is a healing ritual through which the generations might look upon each other with acceptance and respect. The elder generation can welcome and bless the challenge that the vision of youth may offer, the new possibilities it brings. The younger generation can honor and bless the experience of the elders, the wisdom it contains.
The term “healing ritual” may sound pretentious, ominous, or too serious for our fragmented abilities to achieve. Yet, it is very simple. The intention is everything. One needn’t be a shaman, nor a priest, nor anything but a man of good heart and will. All that need be provided is the space and time to hear one another — consecrate that space, with a bell, an altar, candles, if it helps, and it will, but what is essential is the intention to listen with the heart and not the mind alone. I can think of nothing more moving and healing than for a man to be part of a community witnessing a father and son express and demonstrate their love for one another – unless it be to be that reconciling father or son.
As elders we want very much to hear the concerns of our youth, to learn what they might wish from us. They will help us remember and rekindle the spark we so often ignore within our Soul. We can reconnect with our own youth and perhaps provide now what we would have wanted then – reliable relationships with trusted and caring elders. We yearn for the love and respect of younger men as they yearn for ours.
As we experimented with the form of the conference, always in the direction of micro-planning less and trusting spontaneity and inspired guidance more, a template of emotional progression evolved: We would explore the issues that came up from the announced theme, reveal and discuss, primarily in the small groups, the wounds those issues may have caused; we might experience catharsis as during our Saturday night grief ritual we collectively mourned the inevitable hurts, insults, indignities and compromises dealt our ideals, our very Soul by a society hardly interested in promoting wholeness, the “culture of death,” which we ourselves unknowingly perpetuated by passing on the wounds we had received. By consciously honoring those wounds however, which meant paying attention to them, giving them respect, and trying to understand any lesson or “medicine” they might contain, we could perhaps find liberation from endless repetitions of the same pain, the same failures, and, finally, by Sunday night or certainly Monday noon, we would celebrate any resultant insight, resolution, or turn towards a healing. Whatever beneficial experience garnered, whichever understanding deepened or self-forgiveness accepted, we hoped to hold the change long enough to place it in service to our families and communities back home.
April 4, 2010
by Hari Meyers
Even before the ’96 conference convened the change was markedly noticeable. The brochure announcing the event was different: instead of the usual “New Directions in Male Psychology” (although that was kept in subsequent brochures in a small ikon by the registration form) the theme of the gathering was announced as a rallying call. In bold type it proclaimed its intention, Restoring Soul in a Culture of Death.
The organizers knew the title was audacious, a bit grandiose perhaps, but it reflected our new commitment. No longer would exploring aspects of ego psychology be its primary focus but rather the collective visioning of a release of Soul from a culture which had done its best to imprison and deny it.
The suffering each of us experiences in our life is not solely personal. The collective pain is pervasive and invites surrender to a culture which is killing our Soul… What collusion and tacit agreement permits such vast levels of destruction and suffering to occur with only nominal recognition? How does a culture of death maintain itself, and at what cost to our heart and soul? Our dreams remind, our fantasies and pathologies compel, our longings move us towards re-union with Soul. It sustains all culture and all life. Soul is the place where the inner and outer worlds meet. Unless Soul is brought back to our lives, our culture and our species face extinction…
The planners elected in ’96 to change not only the style of the brochure but the structure of the conference itself. Reinforcing a sense of community amongst us, we chose to facilitate common experiences which would strengthen our bonds as brothers. No longer would we present an array of workshops and a selection of lectures competing for the men’s attention. From Friday evening until Sunday afternoon all participants were asked to go through each facet of the conference together. The emphasis was less academic, the insemination of information less important than the sharing of “soulful” experiences.
To further an agenda based on the wishes of Soul and fulfillment of Wholeness rather than the vanities of mind and demands of ego, we found that the greater changes and learning took place in “sacred space,” as mentioned above. We tried our best to invoke such space, inviting our ancestors to bless and be with us, honoring spirit, reaching for an eclectic wisdom and guidance beyond contending schools and religions. We had moved solidly and unapologetically onto the mythopoetic side of things; in fact, we had gone a giant step further and claimed our ground in the ceremonial and archetypal worlds.
The archetypal world, as we began to understand, gave us access to the universal components of our struggles and story. It enlivened and enlarged our own ideas of ourselves, brought relevance and meaning to the thoughts, feelings, and actions which in our burdened lives too often seemed humdrum, worn-out and insignificant. The archetypal world, though invisible, is a world of essence; it confers a unique grandeur, and the key to its door must be turned from the inside.
What we had termed in our brochure as “a culture of death,” however, is committed to denying the archetypal. It fosters instead the stereotypical. Its world is not of essence but image, presenting ceaselessly before us one futile image after another, and suggesting we lose ourselves in the pursuit of these impossible images. Stereotypes are everywhere foisted upon us. They invite comparison, always to the diminishment of one’s self. This endlessly comparing of ourselves to fleeting images, images which promote consumption and promise possession, is a formula for failure. Redemption and resurrection lie elsewhere – not through identity with outer images but by merging with some inner essence.
Doug von Koss was listed on the brochure as our “Ritual Elder,” the one we could rely on to choreograph our endeavors, to help carry us from the mundane to the sacred. With his long flowing white hair and beard, Doug has the power to astound as he recites poems, allowing the words to inhabit his person and bringing them forth with gestures and intonations which reveal the full magnitude of the language.
He also consistently serves aesthetic ideals. Former props-master at the San Francisco Opera, Doug has a vast collection of fabric and an eye to add beauty to any setting. For example, in our night ritual in the meadow the year Robert told the Indian epic the “Ramayana,” Doug, inimitable magician, managed to have a scarlet cloth path unroll amidst us, down which strode one of our younger brothers in gold vestments and antlers – a visual image to haunt us as we later heard in the story of the “golden deer” that led Ram astray from his vigilance, and we contemplated in our small groups the question, “What ‘golden deer’ lured you from the path of your higher calling?”
Doug’s ultimate gift is his ability to create what he calls “a perfection-free zone” in which he gets men to sing together. He’s created over the years “the Temple of Melodious Sound,” a fabric-bedecked cabin at Gualala, in which as many men as possible would gather before breakfast to sing together. The songs and chants are from around the world and they can take us deep in feeling sorrow or joy, but, whatever is sung, the act of singing together is in itself healing, ennobling – an act fostering kinship and illuminating “Soul,” unfailingly.
The stage was set, our skills and dedication heightened. We had come of age and could agree upon a statement of mission and purpose.
“We at the Redwood Men’s Center recognize the need for men to come together in community to express and explore ideas which restore wholeness to ourselves and Soul to the world. As healing professionals and men of service, we move beyond the limits of traditional psychology with its exclusive focus on ego concerns, by embracing the deeper needs of Soul through mythos and ritual. We provide a container in which to heal the wounds that result from our lost connection with Soul and support men in bringing this healing back to their communities.”
Hari Meyers was an early Associate of the Redwood Men’s Center. Heattended all of the Conferences since their inception and has been amajor organizer and planner on every one of them since 1996. Hisprimary interest in composing this article was to articulate theessential archetypal passages through which men must pass on theirjourney to mature masculinity, and all such interpretations and opinionsare his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Redwood Men’sCenter itself.