I spent the weekend at a men’s retreat. This bastion of the 1980s and 90s seems to have plummeted in popularity since the millenium (a Google search on “men’s retreat” brings up a scant 434,000 hits), which brings up the burning question “Why?”. Could it be that men are now so bonded and well-adjusted that they no longer need the rituals and self-affirmations of encounter groups. I doubt it!
Still, i found the retreat idea intriguing, especially since it built on a Men & the Environment conference that featured Victoria’s eco-uber-guru Guy Dauncey, whom i’ve wanted to meet for a long time. Man and the (degradation of the) environment . . . call it a hunch, but is there a connection there somewhere? I went to both events.
So the five stages of men’s retreat for me seem to be: trepidation, hope, deliberate participation, fear of hugs and tears, fun, annoyance, bemusement, getting lost in the woods, and hesitant embrasure. (How many is that?) It was an interesting experience. An eclectic 14 guys — no, men, let’s not shy away from the word — many of whom had experienced the movement years before, some drawn to it, some pushed by crises in their lives.
What did we do in those two days? None of your business is my first response. There’s a reason rituals are guarded — their secrecy gives them much of their force. The big surprise for me was realizing that ritual does have power. Heretofore i’d looked upon it as play-acting or metaphor, and assumed that what efficacy it had comes not from the acts themselves but from their attached cultural significance.
I was wrong: the ritual itself induces change in one’s thinking and the conduct of one’s life. And it works in ways that nothing else can. The more i think about it (i’m writing this ten days later), the more i realize the extent to which it has affected me. And the greater my dedication to the arts, which i see as ritual in another guise.
Men’s groups, as it turns out, also come with lots of gushy language and touchy-feely superlatives, to which i am NOT attached in this age of rampant and meaningless exaggeration. (That piece of toast was to die for, it was amazing, it totally changed my life! Pah!) So part . . . much . . . most of my reservations are me being uncomfortable with the physical and the sharing aspect of the weekend. I have pretty much NO experience spilling my guts to men, and that brings with it the correspondingly meager comfort level.
The whole exercise is pretty much one of creating a safe place for men to be with each other in a meaningful way, which is the key. There are plenty of safe places for men — work, the bar, the street, a sports field — but none are particularly meaningful and in none of them do we dare spill our guts or say what’s really on our minds. That’s necessary but almost impossible to find outside of the formal men’s circle.
Would i do it again? I would. I probably will. I might even start organizing a men’s group wherever i end up settling down.
Our three elders/organizers need mentioning:
- Michael Tacon, of the Well Foundation, grandfathered the whole thing.
- Dr. Steven Faulkner has run men’s groups as part of his medical practice for decades, and was our principal guide through the long Saturday. A steady hand on the emotional volume control. In his words (kind of telling me off for my cavalier treatment of the rites):
[The] purpose of the rituals was to re-enter our own mythological space and reconnect us individually to our universal nature. Once we reconnect to that, then we can return to the work immediately in front of us. Guy Dauncey reminded us that that there is an urgent need for leadership today. We engage where our higher self intersects with our natural skills.
- John Shields, ex-priest and current executive director of The Haven (25 years of personal growth courses on Gabriola Island — How could i not have heard about this?‘), wound the weekend up with a striking cosmological perspective of, well, the universe and everything in it. The man has presence. Brought tears to my eyes.
Dauncey, incidentally, lives in Saanich, Vancouver Island, and runs earthfuture.com and puts out the Econews monthly newsletter. If you’ve got those world-in-the-toilet blues real bad, Dauncey’s the pill. (Him and action, at any rate.) The man’s an optimist and a visionary and his uplifting message is oh, so welcome in these dark, dark times. Do yourself a favour and check it out.