men, masculinities and gender politics

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Bringing soul into men's work

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It was on the Saturday evening of the recent Men's Leadership Gathering that a man said to my friend Joseph Raya: "The time when I've felt most connected to the men here has been when we sang Tall Trees last night and the grief lament this afternoon."

Along with 139 other men of various backgrounds from all over Australia and New Zealand, this man had come to spend three days in a residential setting in the hills near Canberra. Some men had been involved in men's work for many years. They'd been to men's groups or festivals before while others, perhaps half, had never been to anything like a group of 140 men together in such close circumstances. For these men this really was going in at the "deep end".

On the opening night, some men expressed fear at being there. This had increased during the following day, when there was strong disagreement and difficulty in exploring this fear. The man with the comment was expressing his gratitude at having been able to feel at one with the other men, even if for only a few minutes. For him, he had not been able to do this except in those moments when the sound of 140 male voices had resonated through his whole being.

I knew and felt close to at least twenty of the men there, and yet yearned to "meet" these and other men in ways other than talk. There were so many unknowns. There were men I hadn't met, and given the numbers I wouldn't be able to meet in any substantial fashion. There was networking to be done, workshops to attend and present, as well as catching up with men I hadn't seen since last year's gathering.

How to do all this? How to welcome the men who were nervous, afraid, and often very emotional? How to get past the different ideologies and meet as fellow male human beings?

Going beyond

In my work with men over the last four years, the input of soul has been very important. The use of ritual has been central. To join in song together, to experience the emotion and images in a story or poem, to dance and move together are all rituals. They are all enactments of something we know cognitively. When we are "going through the motions" of singing a song together we come to a different place inside ourselves. When we do it with others and have a shared experience in our entire being, we meet others at an energy level, at which there is no argument. If we stay only at a cerebral level there is bound to be differences, with no way of going beyond.

The poet Rumi says it this way:

Out beyond right and wrong there is a field
I'll meet you there

When men get together there is always the potential for conflict. It is necessary to explore it, for often our genius is hidden in the conflict. It is necessary to develop a container to hold disagreement, deep anger and grief. In so doing we allow a sense of community and soul sharing to become possible. The use of ritual, song, dance, poetry and story are all central in opening up to deep levels of emotion, to the imagination to go beyond stuck positions and to celebration.

I have come to this because I have felt so impoverished at times in my life that I've had to go deeper. My first experiences with a large group of men were in the Engineering faculty at University. There were shadow versions of initiations, without elders to hold the container and guide the process. Instead of growth and a sense of trust and soul connection being created, there was abuse. Instead of being welcomed into a community of men, there developed distrust in others, especially of older men. Part of me shut down and I went the way of many men in the 1970s: soft, feminist in values, anti-macho and unaware of the possibility of being connected to other men. With hindsight, I realise that I became anti-male, which is horrifying, as deep down this meant I was against myself.

In my early thirties, I spent three and a half years working with Aboriginal people in the Kimberley region of Western Australia. This opened me up on different levels, as I experienced nurturing from non-family older men for the first time in my life. Despite this, I still went along on an isolated path, especially in relation to other men, so that by the time I was in my late thirties I felt empty and barren. Conventional psychology and social work seemed to offer nothing but dry theories, while politically correct ideology felt very much a trap.

Poets and storytellers

It was not until the late 1980s, when I came across a story in a magazine by Robert Bly, that a seed of hope began to grow. Aspects of the story hooked me in. I wanted to know more. However, whenever I ordered a book by him, they turned out to be full of poems. Reading them meant little to me and I put them down, feeling disappointed.

It's said that the soul of a man is feminine in nature and that often an inner female figure will appear in his dreams when he begins to develop his creativity. Sometimes a woman in the outer world will assist and fortunately this happened to me. With her assistance, live recordings of Robert Bly became available. I had expected a nice cultured voice like that of Robert Johnson. Instead, here was this man with the gruff voice, twanging on his bazouka, and stopping in the middle of poems to make comments. But something important happened. Listening to him opened up the "inner ear" in my chest. Something shifted that had resisted movement for so long. I grew to like his manner, and his bravery in speaking the images that came from his heart.

Rumi puts it this way:

I have lived on the lip of insanity
Wanting to know reasons
Knocking on the door
It opens
I've been knocking from inside!

Since that time much has changed in me. Through story and poetry, images arise easily and give me insight and inspiration. I am beginning to overcome my deep reluctance to be with men and I can trust, share and celebrate more than I ever have.

The creative artist is essential for all of us. The way forward will not come from moral judgements or academically planned strategies and ideologies. It will come from the visions of those amongst us who are willing to open ourselves to our imaginations. This is very much a participatory and experiential thing and I recommend that anyone who is organising a men's event hires creative people first. Recognise the worth of a musician, poet, or storyteller and that they have skills and talents that are as essential as physical food. Pay them well, for in so doing you will also be honouring that part of yourself.

I am writing this after several hours of singing with my eight year old daughter. Doing this is a very recent delight, discovering the joy and laughter which can be had from joining in voice, not caring about whether it is "good" or "perfect." She doesn't care about that. We now have a new connection: one of soul through our bodies. And often songs that I have heard others sing many times before reveal new meanings as I sing their words. She and I go past our differences, tensions and love to share a "knowing" in another world.

Rein van de Ruit has worked as an engineer, social worker and psychotherapist. For the last three years he has been involved in organising and facilitating large bush gatherings with the Circle of Men in the Northern Rivers area of NSW. He has recently moved to the Blue Mountains near Sydney where he works as a counsellor and gestalt therapist.

First published in the magazine XY: men, sex, politics, 6(3), Spring 1996. XY, PO Box 26, AINSLIE, ACT, 2602, AUSTRALIA. ©Reprinted with permission.