An interview with David H. Wagner for The Testosterone Project.
By Susie Arnett (See Testosterone Project founder Susie Arnett on HuffPost Live today, Tuesday June 26th at 12:26 pm)
When my used copy of Iron John arrived from Amazon, two pieces of paper fell out. One was a piece of paper with a woman’s name and phone number on it. The other was a boarding pass with a different woman’s name on it for a trip from Chicago to Charlotte on February 14th, Valentine’s Day. Although this book spawned an entire men’s movement, these two mementos made me wonder how many women had read this book to try and understand some specific man. And how many men had read this book to get laid?
I opened the book and read Iron John hungrily, trying to understand something deep and true about one man in particular and also about all the men I’ve ever known. Although published 25 years ago, its mythic nature makes it evergreen. Robert Bly, who penned this book, is a poet and author and this very popular book became the catalyst for the most publicized men’s movement in recent history, remembered now mostly as a bunch of men drumming in the woods to reclaim their masculinity.
Wanting to understand the movement, I looked back and read Nick Tosche’s article, Oedipus Tex about his experience on a men’s retreat in the 90’s. Written for Penthouse magazine, it’s a pretty tongue-in-cheek take on his journey into the woods. He writes, “The call of the wild has brought us here; here, to become men. We have had our dinner of bison chili. Now in the Sacred Grove, bathed in the eerie shadows of the dancing flames and moonlight, we scratch our balls and wait. The journey is about to begin.”
He encounters everything from “drum envy” to lipis (the spirit counterpart of a tipi) but in a moment of seriousness, he also descends and finds the bloody heart of the masculine wound. He captures perfectly this need to make fun of male displays of emotion and sensitivity and also acknowledges the deep pain that can be as much a part of being a man as it is of being a woman. Women are better talkers—speaking on average 13,000 more words a day than men–so we’ve just gotten more airtime about our wounds of late.
Robert Bly’s movement petered out, but today, a new men’s movement is rising up from those ashes. This new generation also believes in the power of drums and nature and mud but it has been re-imagined for modern times. People like David H. Wagner, founder of the Wildman University, are leading the charge.
David is a spiritual teacher who works primarily with men who have lost their way and he hopes his new book, Backbone, will offer modern man more relatable and resonant tools to reclaim his power and masculinity. I talked to David in order to understand where some men have gotten lost and what he’s discovered makes a difference.
He said that Robert Bly was a definite role model but instead of looking to mythology for answers as Bly did, David looks to a variety of sources. Although David is a meditation teacher, he veered away from eastern wisdom traditions because—in his opinion—there’s something inherently feminine about them. He wanted to offer a counter to that and draws from native american teachings for example so the wisdom could come through a masculine voice and be heard by masculine ears.
After spending a decade teaching meditation, he had his own epiphany. From what he was seeing in his practice, few people needed more tranquilization. In his words, “The people I meet need to wake up and connect to their ability to seize their life.” His sitting practice is more yang than yin and not about becoming still but about connecting to an inner source of power so you can live an awesome life. It’s more about glory than being quiet and he does this not by quieting the mind but by making the heart loud.
A big issue that David sees in the men in his practice is that they’ve become isolated from each other and from older men, echoing Bly’s sentiment that boys don’t simply grow up into manhood, it has to be earned. As Bly wrote in Iron John, “The ancient societies believed that a boy becomes a man only through ritual and effort—only through the ‘active intervention of the older men.'” Women have a built-in ritual in their bodies. They begin to bleed, they have babies. Nowadays, aside from a first sexual experience or a first paying job, rituals are few and far between for young men as the older men are disappearing from their lives or no longer taken seriously as a source of wisdom because they don’t know how to use an iPhone.
In our conversation, he reminded me that “It wasn’t a long time ago when there wasn’t 911. If you had wealth, you had to protect your wealth, it was up to you to protect your property and the people under your care. If you were going to eat meat, you had to butcher it, and kill it, and this mentality is so far away from most modern men, because life is so easy in those kinds of ways.”
In David’s practice, he sees three types of men who are trying to reclaim their backbones. There’s the man who is waking up to the wreckage of a life that was created in passivity. He’s settled for a career path that wasn’t right or a relationship that wasn’t right because he didn’t know how to call the shots in his own life so others called the shots for him. Oftentimes, he’s on the verge of a divorce or a career or business failure. As painful as these times are, it’s a golden time to do the work.
There’s also the “spiritual man” who David calls the Omega male. He’s the opposite of the Alpha male. Often found in yoga or spiritual communities, they have no interest in their masculine power so he helps them find their “thump”, to get back their ability to take charge of their lives.
And then, there’s the recovering hard man who is working to open his heart after often decades of callousness. As David says, “they don’t want anything to do with anything spiritual and they may call a man a pussy because he doesn’t know how to change the oil in his car.” But in David’s opinion, this guy isn’t truly connected to his masculine power either.
But there are some things that are good medicine for all men…
David H Wagner is a spiritual teacher, men’s group leader, and proud father who has dedicated his life to the path of personal transformation. After walking his own path for nearly 3 decades, he travels widely leading workshops and retreats for people from all walks of life from all over the world. He is the host of The Whole Manchilada Podcast, is a featured meditation teacher on Yogaglo.com, and serves on the faculties of Kripalu and Omega Institutes. Learn more on his website www.davidhwagner.com. For more information about Backbone, click here.
The Testosterone Project, created by Susie Arnett, explores the evolution (or devolution) of masculinity in modern society through a series of interviews with leading thinkers on the topic of men and men’s health. For more information, please contact Susie Arnett at [email protected]