Conference History: 1994 & 1995

In 2010 we celebrated our 20th Annual Men’s Conference. In honor of that occasion, Hari Meyers, the Redwood Men’s Center Master Storyteller put together a retrospective of the first twenty years.

A History of the Redwood Men’s Center’s Conference-Gatherings

by Hari Meyers

1994 & 1995

In order to foster our desire to build a community of men, we decided to extend the time of our conference in 1994 from a Friday night until early afternoon on Sunday. We looked for a place that would house us, preferably some place rural where our weekend’s explorations, which we now unhesitatingly called “depth work,” might not be diffused or interrupted by the busy-ness of an outside world. Camp Gualala in northwestern Sonoma County became our home for the next sixteen years.

And what a home it was! With a winding river and a fabulous suspension bridge above it, 2400 year old redwoods, rustic but comfortable cabins, a homey dining hall and other fairly large buildings, where we could hold the scheduled lectures and workshops. The physical setting of Camp Gualala carried us a quantum leap in self and group identity. This was ours and we were us, alone for three days, soon to be four, free to immerse ourselves in the infinite beauty of the surrounding nature and through exciting processes to dive as deeply as we dared into our collective mind and spirit.

Our offerings at the ’94 and ’95 conferences were rich. As for the structure of these weekends, there were various lectures, workshops, movement processes, small group meetings, sometimes several of them scheduled at the same time. We’d invited fine presenters like John Lee, psychologist Alan Chinen, Jed Diamond, Jeremiah Abrams, Aaron Kipnis, Francis Weller, and presentations from some of the organizers.

In addition ritualistic processes, something we defined as “entering sacred space,” became important to us, and, of course, as an offspring of the larger Men’s Movement, we allowed plenty of time for drumming, dancing and poetry. But on the whole we were still following the general format of professional conferences with participants choosing from a variety of offerings. We used as a general title for these conferences “New Directions in Male Psychology.”

However, something very significant and, looking back on it, magical happened during the 1995 conference, something that moved us away from the professional conference paradigm. To appreciate its full impact, I must refer to a concept which emerged from the earlier Bly/Meade/Hillman events.

Bly and his fellow presenters guided us towards a greater understanding of ourselves, clarified our confusions, and inspired our hopes to become more effective in the world.   In this they enacted roles as our teachers, but even more significantly, given the hungry striving of the men who came to listen and learn, they became elders in a communal, tribal sense. Although we hadn’t been aware of it, collectively we were pining for elders, older men of heart and soul whom we could trust to help shape us toward responsible manhood.

The problems plunging men into such identity confusion and ineffectiveness in worldly relations were due, in a large part, to a deplorable lack of such male elders. On the political front there was only mendacity coming from those who supposedly could lead and inspire.  Religion had grown pallid for most.  In the work place, men doing their jobs as they had been taught were betrayed by their superiors’ reluctance to praise or reward.  Also the military experience, by exploiting the honor of men for unworthy and deceptive causes, had become insulting.

One traditional role of an elder is upholding accountability.  The younger man is seen, truly seen, in his potential and held to a worthy fulfillment of that promise.  Bly and his peers stepped into that role well.  They demanded that we men stop our prevarication, get off our “pity-pots” and shoulder the task at hand. They pushed us to re-discover and fulfill a much deeper and enduring vision of masculinity.  With powerful literary and artistic metaphors they sounded the trumpet of a calling to step into our genuine, authentic selves.

Within this role they were experts at “busting” us when we reverted to boyish habits of uncertainty and subtle self-denigration.  They became the fathers and older brothers we had longed for, the ones who could see us, really see us, and help keep us on track.

But another even more primal and essential role for an elder is that of bestowing blessing.  Bly himself had said, “If you are not actively praising a younger man you are harming him.”  The desire for blessing from an elder is an aspiration and motivation recognized from earliest times – consider the entire book of Genesis, in which generation after generation seeks the father’s blessing, exceptionally clear in the story of Essau and Jacob.  When a man struggling toward self-realization receives a blessing from an elder he is immediately transported from the depleted area of his doubts to the rich realm of self respect.

A blessing gives one a deep sense of validation, of being seen and being held. In those early days of the movement there was, perhaps, a greater need to chastise than to praise, but, for whatever reason, Bly and his fellows at the podium, although proficient in the accountability side of the balance, did not take on the elders’ role of bestowing blessing.

Here I return to the story of our RMC Camp Gualala conference in 1995 where we were amazingly fortunate in receiving the blessing of an elder—unplanned, unsought but none the less bestowed.

That blessing came to us in the person of a most remarkable elder indeed. We had invited as a keynote speaker to our 1995 conference the Jungian analyst Robert A. Johnson. He is the author of quite a few wonderful books, paramount among them “He,” which analyzes the great Arthurian myth of Percival and the Holy Grail, reflecting on the universal masculine task of growing from a feckless and often foolish youth into the wisdom and service of mature manhood.

Robert, who cherishes his deep introverted nature, is the most soft-spoken of men. We bent forward in our seats to hear every word, for we knew instantly we were in the presence of real authority. For the next six years Robert A. Johnson’s presence would continue to bless our gatherings; he would tell classic stories and expound with quiet commitment the stages in psychic development we men were to pass through on our journey to Wholeness. I remember most clearly neither the story he analyzed nor the specifics of his first address but an off-hand observation he made. Disguised as a digression the blessing was bestowed.

Standing there like the great grandfather in front of our dining hall fireplace, he expressed with absolute sincerity,

“I have been watching you men as you go back and forth this weekend, and what I see is each of you carrying the alchemical gold for each other … moving around with purpose, in contemplation sometimes, sometimes in confusion, but seeing in each other all the while something shining. It is hard for a man to see his own gold directly. Easier to see it reflected in another. I see you this weekend seeing each other’s gold. And, what you are seeing is the true self in the psyche we share, what you are seeing is your own worth, the gold of your own sound being, your own Wholeness. That is being reflected back to you through your brothers.”

More than a description, it felt like a benediction. Something transformed in us, something expanded. From our own individual purposes and seeking, our own separate reasons for being at the conference in the first place, we were drawn into a kindred collectivity. If not alone, then together we could see our gold, and we could see it, right there that weekend. If only for a moment, we brothers carried to one another the reflected recognition that we were already Whole.

Though we would continue to work on issues of our own personal healings, something within us felt already healed. We were empowered to imagine the world’s healing, and what that might ask of us.