My journey towards manhood was barely acknowledged in my mainstream, Western culture, let alone deliberately nurtured or supported by other men or the wider community. There were no rights of passage, men’s circle, rituals or ceremonies to celebrate and acknowledge my coming of age and no initiations into each new phase of my journey through life as a man.
For most of my life, I had sought to be the man I thought my parents, peers, community and society had been telling me to be. On TV and billboards, in magazines and in films were images of men, respected, loved, admired and acknowledge for their masculinity.
And then there were the rest of us – men like me.
I first joined a men’s circle when I returned to Melbourne after the birth of my first child. It was a huge transition from a free-floating soul with few commitments to the life of a provider jointly responsible for my partner and my child.
Amongst my nervousness sitting in a circle of men for the first time, I was most aware of the weight with which some of the older men spoke: to the point, from the heart, open, vulnerable and courageous and without the usual superficial banter of the sporting and alcohol fuelled social settings I was used to.
Instead I found myself surrounded by a group of men where true strength was the ability to reveal and live through their hearts and their vulnerabilities in a way that allowed me to breathe more fully, speak more honestly and live more truthfully to who I was and the man I wanted to become.
One of the greatest gifts I received from that group of men, was the opportunity to gradually share and unload the heavy and shameful stories I had always thought I would take to my grave alone. To have the reality of my failings, fragility and wrongdoings revealed and acknowledged, and yet still be accepted, allowed me to breathe more fully, speak more honestly and live more truthfully to who I was and the man I wanted to become.
I next joined with a men’s circle undertaking a traditional Native American vision quest. Each year I prepared myself for months in advance to spend three days and nights alone on a mountain with no food, no water and no sleep, hoping to find a deeper sense of purpose and direction in my life.
My initial quest was to find an answer to the overwhelming struggles I had been experiencing in my relationship and the difficulties of being a partner and a new parent to a sleepless young child we had been largely unprepared for. I innocently strode up the mountain with the seemingly noble question of, ‘What is best for everyone – should I stay, or should I leave?’
It was one of the hardest things I had ever physically done in my life. I had chosen a site with no shade and no shelter and it was the sunniest spring week I can ever recall.
“You need to respect your mother, your partner and women in general” was the answer I can only described as ‘beaten into me’ by the mountain as I drummed, chanted, cried and collapsed on the third and final night of my quest.
Before the birth of my second child, a number of men organised a men’s circle fatherhood ceremony for me: a fire, prayers of thanks and sharing of experiences, suggestions and advice all bundled into a blessing not only for the birth, but also for me.
I had been completely ready to play the role I thought was expected of me as a man at birth. I had organised the birth attendants to support my partner and my sister-in-law to support our first daughter. The birth pool was up, lined and ready with hoses connected and water ready to boil.
I was so proud of how prepared I was I shared the clear image of my role as the protector and provider, patrolling the boundaries to create a safe space for the women to do their thing.
“That’s bullshit”, one of the men said. “You are avoiding entering that birth space because you are scared to own it as your own.”
It was like a slap in the face at first, but a good kind of slap. It was a slap that helped me realise I had prepared everything for the birth apart from the thing that mattered most – me.
His words and the directness with which he delivered them transformed the way I then approached our daughter’s birth. It was one of the most amazing and beautiful experiences of my life that might never have occurred without those men there to guide me.
Yet it wasn’t always happy families after that either, as I continued to struggle with my ongoing feelings of frustration, rejection and loneliness in my relationship and the constant squeeze between earning enough to provide for my family and spending time with my young children.
As I prepared to quest for my fourth and final time, I was deeply blessed to discover the word the Lakota people used to describe their traditional fasting rites more accurately translated by Black Elk as ‘lamenting’.
Deep inside I knew it was time for a decision I had been unable to make for almost nine years. On the one hand was committing forever to a relationship that felt like it was destroying me, and on the other, leaving that relationship and along with it, my children – either way a precious part inside of me was about to die.
I committed myself to fully lamenting both options. On the days before quest, with each and every one of my 197 prayer ties, I held a gum leaf to my heart and patiently waited until I cried. I cried for my children, I cried for myself and I cried for the idea of the woman of my dreams.
This time, I wasn’t seeking a vision that would unconsciously meet my expectations of what I ‘should do’ to be a good man. With my partner well aware of the possible outcomes, I gravely walked up the mountain, a shattered man with a different question, ‘What is truly in my heart?’
In the depths of sweat lodge, I saw a vision of what truly mattered most – my family is the most important thing to me, and that included my partner.
Returning to camp three days later to the timeless sounds of ancient songs and the beauty of broad, proud smiles, I had come to know that men could hold my heart just as gently as my mother had once done.
Early last year I also attended a men’s gathering in Queensland run by Men’s Wellbeing Incorporated. This time it wasn’t just a small intimate group but a huge mass of masculinity with 150 men gathering together in all shapes and sizes.
There was a huge range of workshops available over three days at ‘Manshine,’ including outrageous ones learning to striptease, sublime yet profound ones learning to drive a nail into wood, singing ones to ‘find my voice’, financial ones dealing with the practicalities of life as well as a host of healing methods and modalities.
The real beauty of the gathering was that each man got to choose what to do for himself, or whether to even attend a workshop at all. Plenty of times there were small groups of men just hanging out having a cuppa doing the real business of men’s work– simply relating to other men.
I will always recall from that gathering when on the day we left I saw a woman again for the first. It was only then I realised just how different we all had been without the usual ego, bravado, performing, showing off, one-upmanship or guardedness that frequently occurs when men are gathered in a social setting including women.
I heard it best described recently as ‘men getting together to get real about life.’
It was on the last day of that gathering the next phase of my men’s work inadvertently began. Amongst my foreboding and resistance, I found myself standing in the middle of the closing circle with two respected friends, publicly committing to create a similar men’s gathering in Victoria this year.
A year on and I am on a whole new journey of learning what it means to be in service to other men. In a few weeks time it will be my turn to stay in support camp and sing another group of men up the mountain on their quest for vision.
Now when I sit in circle on our Menergy organising committee, while there’s still plenty of opportunity to nurture, support and encourage each other’s individual journey, my focus has shifted noticeably from a lot of the men’s work I have previously done –away from what I can get from the group and onto what I can give to it instead.
And for me, what I most want to give other men is an opportunity to discover what it is like to be witnessed, accepted and supported by a community of men on the endless journey from our heads to our hearts to become the men we need to be.
Richmond Heath is a volunteer on the organising committee for the inaugural ‘Menergy’ men’s gathering.
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