Conference History: Introduction

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.

 Our Twentieth Year Come Round

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

by Hari Meyers

In 2010, the Redwood Men’s Center’s conference and gathering for men celebrated its 20th year. Remarkable! In many ways our gathering has been modest, sparsely advertised, dependent on “word-of-mouth” and yet very successful in its continuity. Among many possible reasons for this success, one that seems fundamental is that our conference resonates with a deep need many men must feel. The conference is but one outcome of a rising awareness in men that:

  1. the past prescribed roles no longer work or satisfy;
  2. the harmful conditioning for those roles promoted competition and isolation, resulting in a severely constricted emotional field;
  3. to break out of it, men need to communicate openly and honestly with other men.

Part One: The Hero’s Quest, The Elder’s Blessing

From the mid-80s to the early 90s, the “Men’s Movement” had a tremendous impact on men’s individual and collective awareness. Under the guidance of poet Robert Bly, with help from storyteller Michael Meade, psychologist James Hillman, and other celebrated teachers, it accelerated and articulated a pressing need for men to emerge from superficial self identity and stereotyped ideas of their worldly roles, to explore instead a deeper and more useful understanding of genuine mature masculinity.

Robert Bly observed often how lost were modern men in regards to their sense of identity. Women, he remarked, were becoming stronger, having found a sense of their sovereignty over the preceding two decades of the women’s movement, but men had grown weaker, were seeking direction from outside themselves, most notably from the increasingly powerful women in their lives. In essence they were turning the women around them into mothers and themselves, naturally, into boys. Bly designated these “new age,” sensitive but powerless males as “naïve.” Naiveté, he suggested, invited betrayal from the world.

Men were caught in a debilitating cycle of accommodation and rejection, of trying harder but reaping only disappointment and defeat. Their backbone of self-identity was lacking. These jeremiads, mind you, issued not from a football coach but from a poet.

A major source of this naiveté in men was an ungrounded avoidance of the dark, harsher issues in life, an escape into abstract ethereal realms. Such men, feeling inadequate to meet the dross realities of their everyday needs, were attempting to fly above them in imagined idealistic realms, were clinging to an unexpressed belief that by being nice they would be forgiven their inevitable failures. If not all men, at least sensitive men, wishing to evolve and transform themselves, had embraced the placating, bargaining and manipulative elements of their personalities; they had become the puer aeternus, Peter Pans, what John Lee called “flying boys.”

Bly’s antidote was what he termed “the path of ashes.” Men were encouraged through poems and stories to turn from desires for escape and to face their fears, misgivings, and deep sadness. The way to transformation was not to fly above the difficulties and contradictions of a challenging life but to go down into and through them. Bly, and the others who shared the platform with him, displayed genius in getting men to feel deeply the painful but beautiful sorrow inherent in this business called living.

I was very grateful for this message and the work invoked. I had been a champion pleaser and, facing my second divorce, was feeling almost universally disappointed. My escape had been into an unrealistic spiritualism, which denied not only the physical and material challenges which confronted me but robbed me as well of the emotional muscular development so sorely needed for passage through my mid-life. I was however, also a lover of poetry and mythology, and the words of Rilke, Yeats and Rumi, and the stories I heard at these events resonated somewhere within me, somewhere deeper than my ego, somewhere I would come to unabashedly denominate as my Soul.

Others were moved. Indeed, the Bly-led “Men’s Movement” rapidly gained national attention. After attending several of the Bly/Meade conferences, four Sonoma County-based psychotherapists, James Badiner, James Foster, Larry Robinson and Donald Morris met in 1987 to found the Redwood Men’s Center. Their intention was to bring together various local men’s groups to compare, contrast and generally “share notes” on the evolving issues and interests of the by then nationally known movement. This association led to the first Sonoma Men’s Gathering in the spring of 1988.

In 1990 I gave a talk at the local Marriage, Family and Child Counselors association on issues of fatherhood. In my audience were Don Morris and Larry Robinson who took me to lunch afterwards and asked if I’d like to join the Redwood Men’s Center. I was hungry for friends in my profession and jumped at the opportunity. I became a presenter at the next Sonoma Men’s Gathering, illustrating the issues of fatherhood with the story of Telemachus and his absent father Odysseus. I see this now as my first step into the rich mythopoetic stream emerging as a dominant strain in the Men’s Movement.

A few words on the word “mythopoetic” — I had attended my first Bly/Meade workshop in the fall of 1987 and was greatly relieved to find that its emphasis was not the all-too-standard “psychobabble” of professional psychological conferences. The announced issues were explored through poetry, storytelling and metaphors of the Soul’s, rather than the ego’s, journey. Even the celebrated psychologist James Hillman, who helped guide the early days of the movement, avoided clinical terms and perspective and emphasized instead the deeper archetypal patterns which underlie standard ideas of personality. This combination of poetry, story, and archetypal motifs became known as a “mythopoetic” approach to the evolving psychology of masculinity.

There were other branches of the Men’s Movement which focused more on socio-political issues and embraced a more conventional approach to masculine psychology. The mythopoetic was often viewed by these other wings of the movement as too ethereal and elite to really serve men. I and most of my close friends who became instrumental in developing the RMC conferences however, became more and more captivated by the mythopoetic.

We continued to organize the Sonoma Men’s Gatherings, Saturday events held at the Unitarian Universalist Life Church in Santa Rosa. These gatherings explored issues such as the absent father, common wounds, men and money, the hero’s journey, isolation versus community, and we felt more and more that the introspective mythopoetic processes furthered our goals – the way we put it was “they took us deeper” – than processes focused on more external socio-political issues.