Allan Ishac shares what it really means to belong to a men’s group today.
I didn’t know what I was doing when I joined my first men’s group more than twenty years ago. I had no grand plan, no goals, no notion of what was supposed to happen there or what the benefits might be.
I didn’t do it out of self-awareness or some burning interest in the emerging men’s movement either. I did it because I was tasting the ashes of my own life and was desperate for a sustenance that I sensed I could only get through communion with other men.
After two decades and participation in three different men’s groups, I finally have some idea why it is so important for men of every age to sit with other men, exclusively with men, at least a couple times a month.
But here’s the rub: men’s groups are not as easy to find as they were 25 years ago when the publication of Robert Bly’s book, Iron John, touched off an avalanche of interest by men in filling the emptiness we felt in our guts. But don’t let this scarcity stop you. If you can’t locate a regular men’s group in the city or town where you live, then start your own (more on that later). Here’s why:
- Male Milk Matters
I have heard the term “male milk” or “father’s milk” used in men’s circles for years to refer to a vital kind of nourishment or spiritual food that passes between elder men and younger men (or between compassionate men of any age). This food is as real as mother’s milk and, I think, as critical for our maturation and survival.
The conveyance of male milk is essential if a young man is going to leave his mother’s house, make the journey from soft male to hard male, and find his own sovereign energy. Unfortunately, male milk seems in troublingly short supply today.
Many men, particularly in the West, get emotional sustenance and a distorted kind of initiation into manhood from the women in their lives, rather than from their fathers or other nurturing men. Bly contends in Iron John that modern men generally appeal to their mothers for the keys to their inner kingdom (in the allegory, incidentally, those keys are hidden under our mothers’ pillow—and, oh, what a mess that makes). This dilemma leaves men bereft, confused, unsure of themselves and generally unable to build healthy intimacy and sustainable relationships with other men. How many times have you wondered, where is my band of brothers?
The point is, a men’s group can become not only a plentiful source of male milk, but a place of deep masculine healing. I have seen this happen for myself and with other men countless times. Speaking your truth in the low tones, in the company of mentoring men, has an almost alchemic affect on our troubles. This resonant brew allows us to anchor our feet, stand up, and carry on. Male milk revives us.
- Kill The Boy
I borrowed this poignant phrase from a Game of Thrones episode where a naïve male character receives a quick and painful lesson in growing up.
In the men’s group environment, we like to think this process is slower, gentler, and free of violence. Perhaps it would be more appropriate to say that there is a way to “love the boy” into manhood. But exiting the boy phase is still the goal.
When we as boys are reared by women, with no consistent infusion of elder male energy, we end up unable to move easily from prince to king, often living in a perpetual state of petulant boyishness. I was this way. I was smart, capable, had a solid career, and looked successful to the outside world. But inside I felt scared, unmoored and uncertain. I felt young. I could never fully commit to myself, to my dreams, or to the adult authority that I knew was in me.
An alternate expression for the woman-reared, testosterone saturated boy is a kind of savagery that develops in the teen years as a way to cope with the confusion and anger at not being guided along the road to manhood. Adolescents who are guessing at the role of men, who believe it involves violence not virtue, can get hopelessly lost in this masquerade of maleness.
Fortunately, in the company of men who have not gathered to intimidate, sabotage or kill us (think the office, the athletic field, or the local bar), but rather to bless us, we can work our way past boyhood to a fully alive and productive manhood. In a men’s group, where all present are working to excavate a clear path to their own deep masculinity, and to help you do the same, it is possible to honor, and then release, the boy.
- Drop Your Shield
Despite what Donald Trump tells us, we are not safer when we build a wall around ourselves, we actually feel more endangered. No man who is truly living at the core of his formidable inner strength would ever consider imprisoning himself in a fortress of his own making.
Our real safety lies in knowing ourselves and our feelings fully—a process than we can begin to explore within the sacred walls of a regular men’s meeting. When we have command of our no’s and our yes’s, and an ability to speak forcefully and clearly on our own behalf, we no longer have to tiptoe through our lives speaking softly and peering over our shoulders.
It is invaluable to have a group of reliable men who we see consistently over time, with whom we can build a circle of trust and where we can tell our darkest stories without risk of shame. Together we form a stronghold where it is possible to drop our heavy shields and replace our defenses with the real safety that comes with genuine self-awareness and self-understanding.
When we are no longer guarding and hiding, buoyed instead by an indomitable inner security, we are free to live as men on fire, fully expressing the passion that burns inside us. A men’s group holds that promise for every man.
- Measure Yourself Against Other Men
This is in no way a call to competition. Quite the opposite. It is call to locate your own authenticity. It’s an appeal to sit with other men with the express purpose of listening to them fully and taking them in without judgment. And being heard yourself.
What we are listening for in their stories is our own. When we hear a man’s truth spoken from the center of his experience, from the very marrow of his miseries and heartaches, it strums the same chords in us. That sound is one that men hear and feel in their bodies uniquely. It is a vibration that starts in the chest, travels to our groins, and settles in our hearts. Once you feel it, you know indelibly and forever what true brotherhood feels like.
I see so many withdrawn men today, living in devastating isolation. They almost never speak with each other of their fears, doubts, vulnerabilities, or longings. Even if they are in relationships, have families, hang out with their buddies for beers, or meet to watch the game, they still feel lonely, and their connections and conversations are often soulless. When they do risk sharing themselves in an intimate way, it is often with women.
In an article titled, Men Helping Men, Dr. Adam Sheck talks about a related, professional concern—namely, that men express themselves differently in counseling than women do and, therefore, need male guidance. But he points out that there is a growing shortage of male psychologists, with the percentage of men receiving psychology PhDs dropping from 70% in 1975 to less than 30% in 2008, a trend that continues. He adds:
Men are deeply challenged in seeking professional help to begin with. Having fewer men available to listen and counsel them could very well add to this grave dilemma.
I believe that the kind of shoulder-to-shoulder contact found in men’s groups can be a vital part of the healing that we urgently seek.
- Become Double-Hearted
When I first heard Robert Bly speak of the double-hearted man, I choked up, because I knew instinctively that I was on the road to becoming one… and that it had cost me.
Bly says that every boy receives a blow that leaves a grievous wound into adulthood. All men know where they received that blow. The wise man explores this soul wound, and in so doing, grows a compassionate heart. We can think of him as double-hearted—he has the physical heart he was born with and the heart of humanity that allows him to make his mark in the world. When a man knows his wound, and embraces it, ways open that can enrich and enliven every aspect of his life—and the lives of others.
I have met double-hearted men inside the doors of our gatherings.
These men have raised the windows on their shuttered feelings and shined a light on the fears, shame and isolation that have obscured their hearts. They have made the sacred journey back to their deepest longings and authentic purpose … and have wisely done so in the company of other men.
Creating A Village of Brothers
If you’re on your own quest for personal authenticity and restored masculine vitality, and feel a village of brothers might be right for you, you can do an online search for men’s groups in your area.
If that search does not turn up a gathering that feels right to you, consider starting your own group, either by bringing together like-minded friends, or by running an ad online or posting an invitation to men at your local yoga studio, health food store, or any place where you think that willing men might congregate.
You’ll also find resources online to help your start a group. I belong to a men’s circle in New York City called On The Common Ground. Its founder, John Guarnaschelli, put together the wonderful Common Ground Booklet as a guideline, or meeting outline, that you might find useful.
Whatever path you take, don’t wait. The absence of brotherhood in our lives leaves an agonizing hole in our hearts—an emptiness that nothing quite fills like the company of other tender, benevolent men. We need each other. We can help each other.