Men, retreat!

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.

The water altar

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.

The conference and the retreat were organized by the Well Foundation of Victoria. It was held at the YM/YWCA’s Camp Thunderbird, near Sooke.

Dauncey, incidentally, lives in Saanich, Vancouver Island, and runs 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.

Holy, holy, holy

I remember this like it happened this morning. I was 17. My girlfriend Dory and i were walking in a park near my home in Montreal’s west island. It was after supper, the fall evening warm and at that stage just before darkness. The boards of the hockey rinks had already been set up, waiting for the first freeze.

We were walking hand in hand, talking. There was a pause. I was usually more careful about what i said out loud, even back then. But for some reason i just blurted it out, a kind of intimate confession. “Sometimes,” i said, “i feel holy.” And it was true: At times a distinct feeling of holiness washed over me, more like a warm breeze than a blinding light, and i just knew without having to know that this was something called holiness and it was a gift, gratis, from the universe. It felt like something very special, but i never talked about it until i uttered that one sentence to Dory. I’ve never written about it since, until now.

Dory, bless her, laughed — not meanly — and poked fun at me. She thought i was trying to be either funny or pretentious. To my surprise i didn’t mind the laughter. I found i hadn’t really expected her, or anybody for that matter, to understand what was a private matter — private not because it’s personal, but because it’s incommunicable. Nothing more was said and the moment passed.

So too, gradually, did my spells of holiness. I didn’t feel that way at all after i entered university, or when i began to work and travel in the world. Too much else to do, i suppose: no time or importance for holiness.

But lately, that feeling has been visiting me again. Not often, and i don’t even remember exactly where or when. But i distinctly remember recognizing the feeling as the same one i was talking about back on the teenaged walk. And i’m glad it has begun to visit me again. Makes me think all this seeking is worthwhile.


Toss wisdom and holiness onto the garbage heap
and everyone will be better off.


Zennish thoughts

Some straight shooting from Huston Smith, The World’s Religions (p. 132):

Zen is not interested in theories about enlightenment, it wants the real thing. So it shouts, and buffets, and reprimands, without ill-will entering in the slightest. All it wants to do is force the student to crash the word-barrier. Minds must be sprung from their verbal bonds into a new mode of apprehending.

And this one from Te Shan, the Zen master notorious for burning all his Zen books following his awakening:

Those who have not attained awakening should penetrate into the meaning of reality, while those who have already attained should practice giving verbal expression to that reality.

Both these thoughts, discovered more or less at random on the Internet, give me pause. Ever since i began delving into Buddhism and Zen some three years ago, my writing life has waned in the face of those “verbal bonds.” I not only saw no way out of the conundrum of words artificially dividing the one world, i lost all interest in pursuing the verbal/written path.

The glaring paradox, of course, is the stacks of books written by Buddhist and Zen adepts — books full of words, natch — setting forth the principles and ideas of this supposedly wordless “mode of apprehending.” What’s a confused mendicant to do, stumbling around unguided in the dark?

The second quote offers up some light. Words, if not the only means for us to get into each others’ heads, are certainly the most common and arguably the most precise — and are therefore tools worthy of consideration, so long as one maintains the distinction between the signposts and the territory.

I still have little serious interest in writing, be it poetry, fiction or non-; it seems a secondary, derivative mode of being, as opposed to the immediacy of sense impressions and just plain living, moment to moment. But a person’s gotta do something with his days, and few of those potential somethings have any enduring import in the real world, and so storytelling is not (quite) out of the running. Yet.

The irony of this wordy post does not escape me.


Hah! The hidden engines of serendipity are firing. Stumbled upon (or was i invisibly guided to?)  this 28-second ejaculation from Terence McKenna:

What he says: Art’s task is to save the soul of mankind, and that anything less is a dithering while Rome burns. Because if the artists, who are self-selected for being able to journey into the other, if the artists cannot find the way then the way cannot be found.

Destroy people’s beliefs

[In the face of repeated questions, Buddha] maintains what is called Noble Silence, sometimes later called the Thunderous Silence, because this silence, this metaphysical silence, is not a void; it is very powerful. This silence is the open window through which you can see not concepts, not ideas, not beliefs, but the very goods.

But if you say what it is that you see, you erect an image and an idol, and you misdirect people.

It’s better to destroy people’s beliefs than to give them beliefs. I know it hurts, but it is the Way. That is what cracks the eggshell and lets out the chick.

–Alan Watts, lecture series Out of Your Mind (from the section A Finger Pointirg at the Moon)

Long ride

My debate leaving Fernie was where to go: Saskatoon (nice city but no hostel), Regina (22-hour bus ride), or straight through to mom’s in Winnipeg (because i’m a bored with the rootless life). Taking full advantage of my footloose life, i didn’t decide till i stepped up to the counter and bought the ticket — to Regina. And then found out it involves an 8 p.m. to 4 a.m. layover in Medicine Hat — unappetizing prospect.

The driver, when he saw my ticket, pointed out that the Hat’s bus depot would be closed and i would be “on the street” for the 8-hour layover. Then he scribbled on my ticket, changing it to route via Calgary, where there’d be only a 2-hour layover.

It was a delight to ride out of the Rockies’ Crowsnest Pass into the foothills and finally the prairies, over the next 4 hours. I had a double seat to myself, the clouds were dramatic, the visibility good. By the time we reached Fort McLeod i’d decided to forgo master-of-the-universe Calgary and the tedious Trans-Canada, and stick with the southern route, despite the layover. I like the Hwy. 3 milk run, with its stops in the small places. What, i’m in a rush?

Someplace in southern Alberta it just crept up on me, that flat, flat ground to the horizon all round, that endless sky full of clouds like turtles and shards of pots and gods’ playroom, and i could feel my consciousness unfolding from the valleys and reaching out and out, wide and unfettered as the wind, and i smiled the whole rest of the day. I love the prairies, and i’m back on the wagon train of life in the now. And it’s true, what they say: there’s really very little to worry about, right here, right now.