So, Gus, what do you do between Minnesota Men’s Conferences?
Well, I’ll tell ya. And you know why? Because Robert Bly taught me how to mentor young men “You give them your blood! That’s how!” Bly replied when asked. So, gentlemen, I’ll donate my psychic plasma this evening about belonging to a gathering of men.
1983: Forty-five, married, father of two, a sociologist by training, brought up in a strict Lutheran, fundamentalist household, I’d suspected that I led a severely sheltered life but somehow could never fully get in touch with what was missing until I joined a circle of men.
George Black, my friend, called one evening to tell me about an idea he had to form a small group of men based upon community building described by M. Scott Peck in The Different Drum, Community Making & Peace (first published 1978). George was studying psychology in grad school at Ohio State University and wanted to experiment with small group behavior…only this would not be a therapy group…rather we would seek to move from pseudo community into true community…attaining safe intimacy. It would be a group of all leaders (unlike the Gestalt Therapy group I was in)…no professional facilitator was involved. Immediately, red flags went down on the field inside my head…do I want to be in an intimate setting without someone to insure that each individual would be safe…and with all men, for that matter. Well, George pointed out that our group would be safe because of certain ground rules: 1) use only I statements; 2) eliminate all prejudice against my fellow man (emptying); and 3) keep the focus on feelings. Want to know more? Read Peck’s book for details, please.
Well, the sociologist in me became fascinated by his suggestion…and especially the ‘all men” part because the small therapy groups I’d been in were mostly women…probably because men at the time didn’t do such things likely out of fear, shame and belief that people who saw a psychiatrist by definition had to be crazy. Besides, this was in the 80’s before Iron John…back in the dark ages prior to the men’s movement (if there ever really was one). I wondered: what about the male psyche which seemed to be devalued at the time. I wanted to learn more.
The original five of us met Tuesday evenings from 7 p.m. until 9 p.m. It took us several Tuesdays before we ‘fell’ into true community. We had to be reeled back in often whenever going off topic into mundane things such as sports. I sensed a lot of fear initially…which morphed into comfortable intimacy…I knew I was in True Community when I felt safe enough to cry. (I’d never seen my father cry…so this was an important achievement for me. Today, thanks to community my children have seen their father cry. For me tears are the healing feeling.
We were employed as and self-identified then as a Harvard trained PhD sociologist, a lawyer, an architect, a psychology grad student, a masters in sociology (me)…one and all clueless about… well, lots…relationships, marriage, parenting, sexuality, divorcing, drumming, poetry, humor, sorrow…
Each Tuesday we would each have a five minute check-in after which whoever needed or wanted more time would share more, asking for feedback afterwards if he wished. Well, we soon turned into a group of fast friends and often continued ’til midnight or 1 a.m. rather than 9 p.m. Lots of tears of joy, sorrow, pain were shed.
I was pleasantly surprised that men could sit together, make eye contact and not run out of things to talk about from childhood to the present be it loss of innocence, puberty, dating, siblings, lack of siblings, religious dogma drummed into them, their soul murder, vocational issues, and never discuss sports or politics. Alice Miller termed soul murder the unconscious splitting off of parts of a child’s psyche (Soul) done in the name of healthy parenting by breaking the will of the child early on so that you will have an obedient adolescent and she or he will be unaware of it ever being done.
Groups have a life cycle. They are born, mature, die, then reborn in another iteration and so forth… Ours ended after seven years when George and his wife divorced. We all were so heartbroken by their separation that we couldn’t contain our pain within the group. George left for two years “chopping wood and carrying water” at the Green Gulch Zen Center.
When that group ended I started another group in German Village, Ohio with friends from my men’s Al-Anon group. Incidentally, I learned from Al-Anon that most men have difficulty talking about some things when women are in the room because they feel shame over being unable to help their addicted spouse or child. So, that’s another advantage of same sex groups. Oh, sure I remember when women would gather in the kitchen and men in the living room but somehow that’s not as effective.
In the new group I was getting out of the house weekly to sit in a circle of community with men …the only place I could find refuge from work and family. That group lasted for another seven years. Today I meet every other Tuesday with five men…at times renting a cabin at Lake Hope for a weekend of fellowship, poetry, and drumming.
About that time I noticed a flyer about an afternoon gathering of men at Hocking Hills State Park Lodge for five dollars. When I showed up, there were seventy-five men! The organizers anticipated maybe a dozen having reserved a tiny room. Men in Ohio were hungry for community, it turned out. Out of that resounding success evolved the Sons of Gaia which met once or twice a year for three day encounters at Camp Akita in south eastern Ohio. Alan Cohen would tell stories inspired by Michael Meade’s telling of The Horse of Power. “Don’t pick up that feather,” the Horse of Power said. Well you know the rest…having picked up your own collection of feathers. We sat in a circle hungry for myth much like the Lost Boys listening to Wendy. Myths are stories about what never happened and is happening every day.
And then there was poetry! Imagine men and poetry! Incredible, it seemed to me. Alas, each man was given a verse to memorize…for me my first exposure to Jalal al-Din Rumi. I’d never learned poems…not loved college poetry lectures…not understood (Robert reminds us that true poetry isn’t taught in most colleges). But standing in a circle of men reciting “Out beyond ideas of right doing and wrong doing there is a field, I’ll meet you there. /When the soul lies down in that grass the world is too full to talk about. /Words, ideas, even the phrase each other do not make any sense.” When a rousing cheer rose to the high rafters of the lodge I could feel a shift in my entire being. I fell in love with woids! Life was never the same thereafter. Today, gratefully, I’m a walking Rumi compendium, committing volumes of Robert Bly & Coleman Barks translations to memory. I feel as if Rumi is alive when I recite poetry aloud. Moreover, poetry is meant to be spoken aloud, David Whyte says, because then it bypasses our internal censors. I agree! Try it sometime, please.
Also, in attendance at Hocking Hills was a Cincinnati chiropractor who taught meditation, an Aikido sensei who taught us about soft belly, a Jungian gastroenterologist who couldn’t stop cracking jokes reciting Alden Nowlan, a PhD neurophysiologist who taught movement, a gourmet chef from Athens, Ohio, an American Indian shaman with a PhD in anthropology from the London School of economics, a psychologist who taught the language of feelings. What a stark contrast when I recall having married into south-eastern Ohio where to be a man meant six packs and a pickup truck with a rifle rack.
Homophobia came up as a discussion and for the first time in my life I realized the pain of discrimination based upon sexual preference. One man wore a dress which threatened none of the 135 men as best I could tell. Another youth boldly decided to tell his parents that he was homosexual and we encouraged his honesty and strength of character.
One weekend I brought my 13 year old son, Augie to a Sons of Gaia retreat. My social worker wife thought that he wouldn’t be safe among adult males. She even insisted I ask our member psychologist for “clearance”…! “Well, of course, he’ll be safe,” he assured her…he gave the green light and we were on. As a result we were the very first father/son couple at the Sons of Gaia retreat. Mirabile dictu it turned out every man treated him like the Christ….a miracle that someone so young wanted to join with them. For him it was an initiation into the world of men…walking/breaking away from mother just like the boy with the golden hair he’d read about in Iron John. He loved it. Several men said “gee I wish I’d brought my son.” And in the future…they did. Augie came along often. Today, he continues to reap benefits from those experiences within a circle of men.
Amid the crosstalk on that weekend, John Lee’s program in Mentone, Alabama and Robert Bly’s Minnesota Men’s Conferences were mentioned. Eagerly, I sent for a Minnesota Men’s Conference brochure, but like the three knocks on the door in folktales, I took well me three years before I finally made it to Minnesota for the first of many on Sturgeon Lake.
Next time I’ll share more about my personal blessings derived from sitting in a circle of men. So, Reader, what do you do between Minnesota Men’s Conferences? I’d like to hear your experiences. Tell me, please.
For me the annual Minnesota Men’s Conference is the hearth where my soul is fed. And my Ohio men’s groups inspire me to continue to live more consciously in between the annual gatherings. More next time…like how it happened that Martín Prechtel taught us this Mayan blessing,
Honey in the heart,
Thirteen thank yous.
Author: Gus Brunsmen
- VIDEO: M. Scott Peck
- NYTimes: M. Scott Peck
- Overview: Gestalt Therapy
- VIDEO: Gestalt Therapy
- Green Gultch Zen Center
- The Horse of Power
- Jalal al-Din Rumi
- Alice Miller
- VIDEO: The Drama of the Gifted Child, free audio book
- Prisoners Of Childhood: The Drama of the Gifted Child and the Search for the True Self