Over the past several months I have been ruminating on Peggy Orenstein’s disturbing revelations about how little change there has been in the masculine identities and behaviors that young men assume during adolescence and early adulthood (since the 1950’s!!). I keep asking myself why we have made so little progress. It’s clear that some inner work reengineering the male psyche is not happening. Looking for an answer, I have increasingly wondered whether a spiritual dimension is missing from the development process.
My own journey down the path to becoming a spiritual adult male, began with meditating for stress reduction in college. Transcendental Meditation “TM” was all the rage in the 70’s, thanks to Benson and the Beatles, and I practiced, a lot.
Then in 1979 or 1980, I attended a journal workshop led by a facilitator trained by Ira Progoff, a psychotherapist who had trained with Carl Jung in Switzerland in the early 50’s. Publication of his book At a Journal Workshop was a watershed moment in the US. It expanded public perception of psychology as the study of mental illness into a field dedicated to healing, self-development and personal growth. Progoff’s analytical tools for calling forth and integrating the inner and outer components of our lives impacted millions of Americans. His workshops made the collective unconscious, and its close association to various religious experiences, a pop-cultural phenomenon.
A decade later I read Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette’s King Warrior Magician Lover, just before we had the first of our two sons. Its Jungian archetypal imagery spoke to me deeply, providing a capstone to a decade of self-discovery and identify formation as a young American Male. I was always a prolific and vivid dreamer. For many months I swam in the collective unconscious of these archetypes, journaling my brains out, as I took on the demands of parenting and earning a living.
The 90’s also happened to be yet another period of significant shift in the roles of women and men. As the feminist movement struggled to make gains in the workplace, it became clear that men were not conditioned to make the fundamental changes women demanded for their professional or personal lives. Yes, we welcomed women into our men’s club, but more often than not we expected women to perform as men at work, often requiring them to adopt our bad behaviors and prove their fitness without equal pay. Meanwhile, we went about our lives as we had before, taking on a few chores at the home but little of the real work of keeping a house and family together, while exercising our libidos as profligately as we could get away with. Many women looked the other way, abiding by the archetypal, age-old adage, “Boys will be boys.”
Two decades later we have now arrived at a point where we are experiencing a global polarization between men and women, and an epidemic of anxiety, depression, substance abuse, suicide among men. This seems especially strange when only twenty years ago Daniel Goleman, Michael Gurian, William Pollack, Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson, then later Niobe Way and Peggy Orenstein have issued a clarion cry that we must pay more attention to the emotional lives of men, young and old. Is it any wonder that we are now also crying out for a deeper, spiritual understanding of the world we live in?
It’s no surprise that a new generation is once again turning to retreat work, meditation, and yoga, while men’s groups study the Jungian concepts advanced by Campbell, Bly, Moore, and Gillette for answers.
The problem with the King Warrior Magician Lover model of masculinity is the archetypes it advances are derived from the patriarchal structures that we are now trying to evolve away from. As a result, many men’s retreats and websites still working with these images tend to reify and reintegrate outdated models of masculinity that we need to update and expand.
The existence of these powerful images in our collective unconscious presents both an opportunity and a hurdle to our advancement: we can’t just throw them out, but we can’t live by their wisdom unedited either. Whether or not we like it, we must rewrite them, as decades of behavior modification therapy, changes in rules in the workforce, and social protest have not solved the root problem. Transformational change must come from the depths within in order rebuild the modern American Male psyche. The question is how.
In search of answers, I recently consulted Richard Rohr’s 2005 revision of his book Wise Man to Wild Man (first published in 1990). The book is a wealth of insight about the inner life of men and male spirituality, drawn from Rohr’s study of male archetypes around the world, and the demons inherent within American masculinity in his work with male prisoners in Albuquerque and men’s retreats across the US.
Fr. Rohr furthers our understanding of the Jungian archetypes and the hero’s journey by placing them within a carefully constructed context of what it means to be a spiritual male, and offering illustrations of the inner psychology of men on their journey. In doing so, he provides thought-starters for today’s men – those of us who consider ourselves regular joes – as to how we can become whole, and plants clues as to how male archetypes can be rewritten.
From a spiritual perspective Fr. Rohr asserts that the hero’s journey begins as a “call, an invitation to rebirth.” Then there is a period where one’s “system of logic, meaning, success, and truth breakdown” which results in the “annihilation of the ego.” As we let go of our false sense of self, our true self is revealed along with task that we must undertake that is larger than our self. Upon completion, we return to the community with some kind of gift or bonus as a result of our quest. (pp. 38-41)
What’s most interesting about his rendering of the hero journey is that Rohr notes that religious archetypes that we revere have set a pattern of “(1) radical Traditionalism, which led to (2) radical critique of the present system, which then led to (3) the death of [one’s] own small self,” (p.46) New American Males take note: we are trying to do the same thing today.
Other key insights he offers as to how men can become 21st Century Males are equally intriguing.
Although he does not use Tony Porter and Paul Kivel’s the term “The Man Box” to describe the current mess that we are in, he devotes several chapters to detailing the destructive emotional and psychological damage of “the white male system” and the oppression its flawed ideology causes. Working at the personal level, he believes that the primary pain that we men experience arises not so much because a set of expectations are enforced upon us (as articulated in the Man Box), but because of the absence of fathers who have bought into “the system” and are not available to engage in the process of raising young men. He is no less adamant than many social commentators today that this crisis has reached global epidemic proportions. In his view “The father wound is so deep and so all-pervasive in so many parts of the world that its healing could be the most radical social reform conceivable.” (p.77)
Rohr probes deeply into this line of thought. Early in his book, he observes, “Almost every man in western society suffers from some sexual wound. It bleeds excruciatingly in sexual violence towards women, addiction within [ourselves] and homophobia towards other men.” He contends that because men have never had healthy sexuality modeled by their fathers, we all “make the same mistakes generation after generation.” (p.75)
In a later chapter, Rohr returns to the issue of male sexuality, and the penis, as central to our experience, suggesting “strange as it sounds, [every man] should meditate on it and see what it is telling him about his deeper nature. …our male genitalia is a metaphor for manhood. Don’t be afraid like Adam was.” He goes on to offer an extended reflection on the penis’s proper place in our lives, the way in which it should call us, train us to “find the balance between the focus inward and the focus outward,” which is the perfection of the moral act, according to John Duns Scotus. (pp.120-121) Rohr’s aim is to help us erase the shame that we all feel about this piece of our anatomy, so that we might reclaim its dignity, grace and beauty, and understand the way that it defines us.
The epidemic of emptiness and pain experienced by men has led Rohr into a significant amount of grief work with men. “Without the father’s energy, there is a void, an emptiness within the soul that nothing seems to be able to fill.” He asserts that grief opens our hearts. Citing our overdevelopment and repression of innate internal capacities in order to become warriors, he contends that we must enter our experience of loss, practice letting go, in order to develop a male way of feeling, and our capacity for empathy. (pp.83-84) His observations have been confirmed by a parade of researchers in the boys movement since.
Interestingly, he believes that “women cannot teach us a healthy way of feeling. We need a man to do that for us.” (p.81). That said, he is adamant that another significant challenge for men who would be whole is that we need to recover our feminine wisdom within, learning the essential power that lies in being open and vulnerable. “A man without a feminine soul is easily described. His personality will move toward the outer world of things, and his head will be his control tower. He will build, explain, use, fix, manipulate, legislate, order and play with whatever he bothers to touch, but he will not really touch it all – for he does not know the inside of things. He has no subtlety, imagination, ability to harmonize or live with paradox or mystery. He engineers reality instead of living it.” (p.9)
Fr. Rohr offers entire chapters devoted to the perils of our extreme focus on making money (Chapter 10), and going on retreats to feel good, “bliss out,” and escape, as so many men and women today do (Chapter 18). Instead, he advocates considering the Hindu model of male spiritual development, which begins as an initiation into scriptures, and learning discipline and self-control through meditation and yoga as a youth, followed by a period of being a householder, much as most men during this COVID-19 crisis are now. Then when our primary role as provider is complete, we go off to be alone and seek to understand the meaning of life. That culminates in becoming an elder, or a wise or holy man making a significant contribution to others (Chapter 16).
In the end, Fr. Rohr leaves us with quite a lot of spiritual direction as to how we can rebuild our American Male identities from the inside out, becoming better men at work, at home, and in our community. This is a tough, essential task. There are no easy fixes. It demands that we develop internal capacities that have been conditioned out of us as men, including our spirituality.
The question is whether we will rise to this challenge?
I’m putting a big bet on the American Male to succeed.