|The paperbark trees stood around us in graceful witness, the white of their bark an arresting counterpoint to the greens of the scattered understorey of shrubs, grasses and ferns.
For the past two days that I've been leading this workshop we have stepped outside the buildings and conducted our business among trees whose bark was shedding and unfurling in tattered banners – a lovely metaphor for the unravelling and sharing of stories between us.
Towards the end of our time together I propose a simple ritual that is an enactment of a dream image that came to me a few days before. I am reminded of Jung who held that the unconscious uses "the best possible image" in dreams for things it wishes to communicate, not the most obscure.
I had dreamt of a group of men standing in a circle outdoors; they took their shirts off and placed them in a pile in the centre. Then, turning their backs to the pile, they walked away.
The men now standing with me under the trees smile as they see where the theme we had been working on for the past two days had sprung from. I had told a traditional tale involving the dual images of releasing and revealing. The men had spoken eloquently around the fire the night before, giving life to the powerful masks they had made to evoke the spirit of that which they were wanting to release or reveal in their lives.
I was glad I had trusted the Muse's gift and gone with the tale it evoked. The thoughts it had engendered had also brought to mind the roles, social faces and conditioned ways of behaving and being that we men struggle with in these times of unprecedented change and increasing complexity.
Often are we told to change, told to "take off the shirts" of various ways of being. Sometimes they are ripped off or stripped away. Many men would be only too happy to take some of their "shirts" off. But where is a safe place to learn to do this? Where can we see how it feels to jettison out-moded accessories? And what are the "shirts" that a man would like to try on? There is a world of difference between being ordered to do something and being asked or invited – even better to choose to do it yourself.
Now as I look at the group of men before me I am again struck at how well they, and for that matter most men, respond to story and enactment when it is offered to them in a straight forward manner. These men, who range in age from 26 to 79 years, are a real cross section of classes and occupations – from farmers and plumbers to engineers and health professionals. Most of them have had no involvement in any "personal development" work let alone a men's workshop or men's group.
I'm also taken back to those nights ten years ago, to the groups I ran for violent men. On one occasion there was not a dry eye in the room as one man's childhood story was enacted. There in our midst a scene of mind-numbing brutality was enacted. Hard men wept for the man sharing his story. They wept for their own deep wounds. And they wept for what they had become in their confusion and hurt and fear and anger.
But to head down this road requires a free and protected space and an invitation to "step outside". Most men are hungry to find ways out of the narrowness of response that our culture seems to offer or require of men; and so they respond to the invitation.
This stepping outside of outmoded roles seems to be easier when there is also a stepping out into the natural world. There is a deep response in men to the natural world. I think this connection is integral to men's spirituality.
Now coming back to the circle, I invite each man to join in a simple ritual of affirmation and commitment.
I also invite you, dear reader, to make a virtual circle, and drawing on the great powers of imagination participate in the ritual.
Each man, in turn, speaks directly about those qualities or behaviours he wishes to release or reveal. Then, as a sign of commitment he takes off his shirt and places it in the centre. For some of the men it marks the end of a long struggle, for others it marks the beginning of a new course of development. There is a great power in being truly seen, in witnessing and being witnessed in this way.
I call it the "community of witness." I have seen it work its powerful and understated magic on many men in all sorts of settings. It provides an aspect of the educative process called initiation that is sorely lacking in contemporary life.
Life brings initiatory experience aplenty, more than we can cope with. While the lack of formal structures of initiation is missing, initiation is an archetypal process. This means it will roll on whether the culture accommodates and uses its energy or not. The problem for most people is not the absence of initiatory experiences. The problem is the absence of appropriate communities of witness where we can bring initiatory experiences to an end, and move on to the next level of learning.
Perhaps the greatest structure we contemporary men need to step outside of is the prison of alienation that is the predominant mental illness of modernity.
Stepping into community of all sorts is the answer. (I often say that making friends with another man is a radical political act for men.) It is vital that we do so as the pervasive madness that arises in humans when we feel alienated and separated has led us to the brink of destruction.
Perhaps we humans are in our collective spiritual adolescence. If so, it is instructive to think of the burgeoning social and environmental crises as a ritual of destruction, a collective suicidal despair arising from alienation, that is an unconscious enacting of a shadow form of initiation.
Death or sacrifice and rebirth or transformation of consciousness are the two main subsets of the archetype of initiation. True initiation is initiation into a fuller experience of life; shadow initiation is initiation into death – symbolic or literal. The perpetuation of structures of alienation promotes the sadness, loneliness and depression that is such fertile ground for shadow initiators.
When I talked about these issues to an aboriginal elder who grew up in a still largely intact community, he told me that the main feeling he remembered having as a boy was joy.
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