THE BLOG
05/29/2013 02:47 pm ET Updated Jul 29, 2013

Healthy Masculinity

Seven men have been back in our valley for a few days after an intensive weekend training. They call each other "brothers," though they're not from the same family of origin. They are being welcomed home by an evening audience of 60, including wives, partners, kids, and men who have done the training earlier.

One by one they hold a ritual "talking stick" tied with ribbons from past groups and tell not what they've been through but how it's changed them. What they've just completed is the "training adventure" created and run by the ManKind Project (MKP).

"In my life I have never trusted a man, until recently," says one recent trainee. "Trust was taken away when I was 2.5 years old. This training is the first time I've ever allowed myself to fall apart. In the container created by the staff, it felt safe to cry, scream, chant. Now I have handfuls of mentors. This weekend has given me back my life." Another called the training "sacred work."

MKP has the main goal of "healthy masculinity" and structures the weekend training as an initiation, inspired in part by Jungian thought. Our society has a bit of an initiation gap, unless you count volunteering for basic training, and learning how to follow orders and to kill. Yes, fraternities offer some undergrads an experience called an initiation, and religious groups hold confirmation ceremonies and bar mitzvahs for young teens. But as compared with tribal initiations, including vision quests, these contemporary efforts, however necessary or worthy they are, serve a limited purpose and fail to deal with some of the gaps in our culture.

The biggest gap, says MKP, is a lack of trust and emotional intimacy among men. At the homecoming, almost all of the returning trainees spoke about this. In part, our society is based on the unproven assumption that individual selfishness is somehow invariably transformed by an "invisible hand"* into public good. In the movie called Wall Street, Gordon Gekko expresses this belief in the famous "greed is good" speech. In the competitive race that we take for granted, men are taught to deny feelings and to focus less on their personal missions than those of their organizations.

In the mid-1980s MKP was created over a kitchen table in Milwaukee by three friends, a teacher, an ex-Marine, and a psychotherapist who, having observed feminist "consciousness raising," wondered whether something could be done for men. Affiliated regional groups have so far trained more than 43,000 men, including the seven whose homecoming ritual I watched.

The first question that comes up for me about any group that professes to change people in basic ways is whether it's a cult. A cult has dogma. MKP has none and supports tolerance with regard to race, religion, and sexual orientation. A cult usually has a charismatic leader. MKP officials are temporary and, in some cases, self-deprecating like the Dalai Lama who calls himself "a simple monk." A cult often extracts as much money as it can, on a continuing basis. MKP charges enough for the weekend training to pay for the rental of the facility, enrollment, insurance, and the like. Any further activity is optional.

Even though MKP lacks the stigmata of a cult, I was not eager myself, a decade ago, to experience the training by going off to a campground for a weekend, confronting my shadow side, articulating a mission, and who knew what else. However, the other experiences of initiation I'd earlier stumbled into had made me curious and hopeful.

For example, I had done a vision quest with Angeles Arrien, a Basque who earned a doctorate in anthropology and now lives in the San Francisco area. During the week in the high desert of Arizona, one of the participants asked Arrien to arrange his formal initiation as a man. She sent all the men off to question the would-be initiate in detail about his fears and worst qualities. When that was done, she asked him to choose the man most unlike him to act, in the ritual, as "questioner." As it happened, I was chosen and given a painted wooden mask to wear.

My job was to lead a parade of men into a circle of the women and then challenge the guy's right to be initiated and thus be called a man. Of course, by design, I had derogatory material from his own lips. I assumed I'd be done in a few minutes, but Arrien motioned for me to continue much longer. I suppose this was, for the man on the spot, part of the "ordeal" typical of the classical initiation. He met the tests and was welcomed into the circle.

Earlier I'd done the Hoffman Process, also a week-long residential workout. It dealt with one's family of origin and, in particular, the "patterns" that each child learns from parents and regards as natural when they are not unconscious. Here I'd been one of the people undergoing initiation and discovered what it is like to uncover one's "shadow" with the help of a savvy and persistent teacher. Pleasant? Not at all. Challenging? Very. Liberatory? Amazingly so, at least with regard to basic family patterns.

In an initiation, the stage prior to the ordeal is "descent," which in the case of the Arrien workshop and the Hoffman process involved going to a new place, separate from my normal world. In the case of the MKP weekend, we gathered at a camp ground near the Columbia River -- an equal number of trainees and of a volunteer staff drawn from men who had already done the "adventure."

After the "ordeal," the next stage of initiation is the "return," which includes, on an optional basis, not only the welcome home evening but also weekly "integration groups" that continue for 10 sessions. These often lead to small circles of men who meet regularly. In my case, I benefited from five or so years in a group that called itself "the relentless optimists," and took a special interest in "social inventions." We always started a meeting with a "check in" in which each of us could tell what was currently happening in our lives. It is a basic belief of MKP that healthy masculinity is good for all living beings, including buddies, who, in circles, are enabled to discuss matters more personal than sports, office politics, or world affairs.

One lovely feature of the welcome home evenings is the invitation to members of the audience to speak, the theme being how the initiates seem to have changed. At that point, they have been home for four days and nights. I heard praise for the preliminary changes from wives, girl friends, even children, as well as from male friends who in some cases had nudged initiates into the training.

Sitting next to me at the recent welcome home was Bill Kauth, who was one of the founders of MKP, and who was later invited to fill the role of "visionary" for the organization. In his thought-provoking 2012 report, Kauth quotes writer Duane Elgin, psychotherapist Bill Plotkin, poet David Whyte, psychologist Dacher Keltner, editor of Greater Good magazine, and Lynn McTaggart, who is called a bridge between science and spirituality.

"Most of us," Kauth says in his report, "suffer from a broken 'attachment bonding' which makes it difficult to truly connect with others." MKP provides "significant healing over time by just being together in a safe container and more immediately thru the various forms of shadow work."

Challenging the common belief that society can best be built on the assumption that humans are primarily or overwhelmingly selfish, Kauth quotes research showing that people are also "hard-wired to give, to live the give-away." Here he alludes in part to the dazzling young writer Charles Eisenstein, author of Sacred Economics, for whom Kauth organized a workshop on the West Coast.

What does MKP do? "We build trust," says Kauth. "We bond with each other." Apart from the good done for individuals, perhaps the training is a preparation for coming out of our cocoons and into community? With his wife, Kauth has written a recent book called We Need Each Other: Building Gift Community.

For more by Craig K. Comstock, click here.

For more on emotional wellness, click here.

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