Men’s Work: Weekends That Change Your Life

Early morning coffeeIt’s 6:00 am, and I’m sitting in the half-light with about 75 men, most in their 40’s and 50’s, and we’re chanting.

The group leader, a Merlin look alike named Doug, intones the ancient Sufi words with the resonance of an oak barrel, and we follow along.  As we relax into the deep, sonorous tones of the chant, and feel the sound’s vibrations hum along the wood slats barely holding this old cabin together, we forget my self-consciousness and short winds and croaky voices…something happens.  I…the ideas, opinions and feelings I recognize as me…seem to dissolve, to become one with the other voices and the cabin and the flickering candlelight.

I look into the faces of the other men.  It seems as though they’re experiencing similar feelings.  And then, in the stunning silence that follows the abrupt ending of the chant, with only our collective breaths moving in and out, making the candle flame dance, there’s just…that.  No next step no expectation of more or better.  No insights, or exploration of group dynamics.  Just silence.

Then, incongruently, Doug lets out a satisfied laugh and, rubbing his hands together, says “Okay, guys, let’s do one more number and get outta Dodge.”

As it turned out, the youngest among us, a 26-year old named Stuart, was celebrating his birthday this day.  So with Doug leading, we all sang Stuart a slow-building, rafter-raising Mormon Tabernacle Choir rendition of “Happy Birthday.”

When it ended, with the same, almost monastic hush, Stuart’s face seemed lit by fire.  As he thanked everyone, I was aware of the 60-ish, bearded man sitting next to me, tears streaming down his face.  In response to my inquiring look, he said, “If a group of older men had sung like that to me when I was a young man, how different my life would have been…”

This scene took place at a men’s conference I attended in May, an annual gathering deep in the redwoods of Northern California.  The conference lasted three days, during which time we attended workshops, hiked, and did group rituals of singing and movement.  We also listened to various guest speakers, notably Robert Johnson (famed for his books on Jungian books on gender issues, He and She, etc.) and John Lee (The Flying Boy, At My Father’s Wedding).  But these planned activities had little to do with what was actually going on, had little connection to the kind of underground river at whose waters we gathered.

As a psychotherapist and writer, I find colleagues in both fields generally dismissive or cynical about the so-called “men’s movement.”  I tend to similar feelings, reflected most succinctly by a woman friend’s comment about “the group with the most access to power in our culture, the white urban male, claiming now to be victims.”  However, as many others have pointed out, the image of some dominant, empowered male striding the earth, getting his every whim and impulse satisfied, doesn’t exactly correspond to the life experience of your average “guy.”

Whether men need a movement or not is debatable, perhaps, but that doesn’t invalidate a man’s need to communicate feelings and compare experiences of what it means to be a man, particularly in this society.

What I’m saying is, I’m suspicious of how suspicious most people are of the idea of men congregating to explore their lives.  When women meet in this way, the assumed goal is that of empowerment and solidarity.  If men do so, particularly educated urban males, it’s a conspiracy, a further consolidation of patriarchal power.

Traditionally, of course, this has been true.  Male-only clubs, conferences, and “power weekends” continue to cloak the exchange of important business or technological information under the guise of male fellowship.

This exclusion of females (and minority males) has been one of the dominant culture’s most open secrets for a hundred years.  (And not just at the Yale Club.  A few miles down the road from where the men’s conference was held, the Bohemians, a kind of right-wing, Fortune 500 version of the Boy Scouts, meets once a year to swap choice inside information around the old campfire.)

But the core of what’s happening in the men’s work I’ve witnessed has very little to do with power, at least as defined in our culture.  It has to do with something much deeper in the human psyche.  It is certainly much more dangerous to the status quo.  It has to do with authenticity.

I could feel a sense of authenticity within hours of arriving at the gathering.  In the casual comings-together, the impromptu bull-sessions and conversations over lunch, some of these deeper meanings began to emerge.

Normally, men compete for status and position using what they wear, drive, live in (and who they marry) as recognizable symbols of their success. However, during this weekend, we all wore jeans with t-shirts and shorts. So, you couldn’t tell if the guy next to you was a corporate CEO, a physician or a poet. Nobody knew how much money you made.  Or cared.

With such role-definitions erased, and the rustic life-style eliminating the need for social niceties (like shaving), a true solidarity could at least be glimpsed. Contrary to the media-inspired caricature of a bunch of privileged whiners pounding drums and bitching about women, what I experienced constellated around three particular elements.

The first was the natural and curative connection between maleness and nature, so schismed now in our technological culture. The ease of standing by a river’s edge, in the company of men, tossing stones, noting the swoop of a hawk, talking and not talking. The scent of your own sweat, wind-dried against your skin, stirring a kind of remembrance that seems ancestral, encoded at the cellular level.

The second element was a revalidation of male spirituality, (represented powerfully by chanting), as a distinct and fundamental aspect of man’s true nature, and source of his identity.

Lastly, the solace and sense of continuity to be felt when younger men and older men encountered each other; the longing for a father, and an acknowledgment of fathering, as a basis for a cultural standard of male initiation.

Exploration of such issues requires trust and a willingness to take risks. For most men in our society, taking such risks does not come easily. Many feel isolated, from themselves and other men, fighting vague feelings of inadequacy, and, for all practical purposes, feeling fatherless. Which is why most men attracted to men’s work, in whatever form it takes, tend to be at least 35 or 40. These are the concerns of a mature man, for whom the stereotypical “mid-life crisis” is, in fact, a yearning for authenticity.

There is nothing more frightening, more exhilarating, more earth-shattering than to have an authentic experience of oneself. For most men, caught in the dance of changing role expectations, in a status-driven consumerist society, the appeal of much of men’s work, particularly that rooted in nature, spirituality and fathering, is a return to an authentic male experience. This rare experience of feeling is, in the words of the conference brochure, about “holding the tension between power and love.”

Do you have to go live in the woods for a weekend with a hundred other guys to find your feelings? Probably not. But it couldn’t hurt.

Article written by Dennis Palumbo. First published in August, 1994, the Whole Life Times, P.O. Box 1187, Malibu, CA. 90265.

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