In this 5-part series, Josh Bowman outlines his view on masculinity, and details a harrowing workshop experience.
Note:I recently attended a relationship intensive weekend with my wonderful girlfriend. It was during this process that I discovered something profound about myself, and about masculinity in general. I have also come away from this experience with a deeper sense of self and from this place, a more profound love of my partner than ever before. It was an experience that I found revelatory, terrible, and shocking…and I would like to share it over the next week through a series of posts.
I have always been a skeptical person. Even in my activist hippie days, living in Vancouver, I was sarcastic and cynical. And I had only become more snarky over time.
I love my girlfriend. She is smart, funny, beautiful, and we fit together perfectly. As a skeptical, sarcastic person, however, I have often made fun of her for her belief in energy healing, healing stones, and anything else I saw as unscientific. I saw these things as placebos; pseudo-scientific bunk.
I was equally skeptical about attending a relationship workshop. We had attended a short introduction to the workshop earlier on, and I had to admit that the breathing exercises worked for me. For all I thought about Chakras and energy healing (not much), the exercises seemed to help. We signed up for a weekend introduction, saving up our pennies. We were excited and nervous about what we were getting into.
The first day and a half of the workshop were excellent. We spent time learning exercises to raise our energy level, and they were effective. After one exercise, our hands felt like magnets. After another, we felt deeply connected to one another in the group (where before we were mostly strangers). We discussed the events in our past that have held us back, and the lies we tell ourselves. We took time to really appreciate the world around us, using all of our senses.
On the evening of the second day, the men and women were separated. The men were taken outside, and the women were left inside, to complete different rituals. They were meant to be secret, and upon completion we would meet back together, with renewed energy.
I went with the men, and immediately noticed a change in atmosphere. From being in a safe space where we could all share and discuss together, we were immediately lined up, and told to shut up and walk. Along with one of the other guys, I was smirking and laughing. I was confused, but I figured I would go along with this for the sake of the work we were doing. I had found it useful so far, after all…
We were made to jog, and taken to a park near a school. We were asked questions which, I imagine, were to get us in the mood for what was to come. Who would come to your funeral? Who would you die for? Who would you kill for? If a man was holding a knife to your mother’s throat, what would you f***ing do?
It was very aggressive, and it was a total departure from the rest of the workshop.
In the park, we were asked to line up and perform what is called the Haka. The Haka is what the All Blacks rugby team does before a match. It is a dance of aggression and intimidation. It is loosely derived from Maori tradition. Again, I followed along, skeptical as always.
We performed this over and over, with our volunteer leader shouting at us to feel the energy more, to feel the aggression. It was what the women truly wanted. Their reactions would surprise us, we were told. This was just between us. None of the women knew what we were doing. This was just for the men, the brothers, the warriors.
When someone spoke up and objected, they were shouted down until they conformed. In my case, I said nothing, and did my best to dance around, shout the words, and slap my knees. It was clear, however, that I thought the whole thing was hilarious.
When it was my turn to be singled out, it was particularly intense. I was called out for having the biggest vagina in the group. For being a pussy. I was told I needed this. Then I was physically attacked by one of the volunteers, who began trying to push me into the street, hitting and pushing at me while I backed away. I was told to hit him, to push him into the road. Once I realized he wasn’t going to stop, I moved to the side and got this volunteer into a chokehold until he calmed down. I say this not to tout my own fighting prowess, but just that I acted out of necessity. I had no desire to be violent…I was just confused at this point. A second volunteer moved to attack me before the volunteer leader called it off and asked me to lead the Haka.
I acted my best, led the Haka to their relative satisfaction, and then we walked back to the space. We did this dance once more, shirts off, before we entered. We were told to remove our shoes but otherwise rush straight in. No bathroom breaks, just bring in this aggressive, powerful masculine warrior energy.
The men formed an inside circle, the women formed an outside circle. We danced together, thrusting and moving our hips to Congolese music. It was, to say the least, disturbing and bizarre. What was most disturbing was my inability to speak up about this strange secret ritual.
Through this experience, I felt deeply, deeply upset. It is one thing to be aggressive on a sports field. It is something very different when it is in the midst of a workshop where we are allowing ourselves to be vulnerable. And it was even more disturbing when I thought about the context. Violence. Intimidation. Murder. Never backing down. All of this aggressive energy in the context of a relationship workshop. All of this violent energy in the context of our lovers, our wives, our sisters.
I participated until the dinner break, all the while feeling shocked. All the while feeling disgusted and confused. I listened to the women and men talk about their feelings. The people who spoke up loved the powerful energy. They felt attraction. They felt empowered, safe, aroused. What was wrong with me? Why didn’t I get off on this energy?
I was in shock. As soon as I had the chance, I bolted. No jacket. No wallet. No phone. Boots undone, I bolted out the back door and never returned. I let nobody know, not even my girlfriend. I never spoke out. I just ran. I couldn’t be in that space for a second longer.
I wandered for hours in the dark, Toronto cold. I sat in a parking lot. I shuffled along the street, I cried and nearly fell. I was incoherent and deeply upset. I was angry at myself for not speaking up, and disgusted that I took part in something I saw as a terrible charade.
I wandered until I came to my senses. I ran into a friend, who loaned me some money to get home and let me use his phone to text my girlfriend. It was hours after I had left. She also had no idea what I had gone through, and no idea why I had left. Up until then, the workshop had been terrific. Not even the woman who coordinated the workshop had any idea what went on when the men left (I told her later, and she is changing the workshop and has refunded my money. She was shocked and disturbed. I bear her no ill will).
I went to bed. I was shaking, crying, freezing (even after a hot bath). I barely slept. The next morning, I spoke to my girlfriend. I told her some of the things that had happened. I drove to her place, and we spent the day together. I spent the morning crying, shaking, sleeping, and staring off into space. I was in shock. I was angry, sad, miserable. I don’t know that I have ever felt that way before in my life. Not that intensely.
I began to think about what I had experienced. At the workshop, we were told that there is masculine energy and feminine energy. We were told that men are warriors, and women are goddesses. We were told that men have forgotten what it means to be men, and women have forgotten what it means to be women. We were told that men have forgotten how to defend, fight, and protect. The women were told that they were controlling, or crazy, or emasculating.
Remarkably, these exercises WORKED. They were effective. They led to the group (well, most of the group) becoming closer, more excited, more connected. Yet, how we got to this place was through a path that I found destructive, manipulative, and dishonest.
Imagine, as a man, you have a girlfriend who wants you to be more assertive and confident. Frustrated, one night you go to a bar and end up cheating on her with someone you meet that night. The next day, your confidence is soaring. You have the swagger of someone who can pick up, damn the consequences. You meet up with your girlfriend and she is impressed with your newfound confidence. She admires your swagger, and is attracted to you all over again. She doesn’t know what happened the night before, but she is turned on by the energy you now radiate. What you did ‘worked’, yet the means to arrive at this place were despicable.
Imagine that you are single. You have had no luck with women. You meet a pick up artist, who shows you how to trick women into dating you. You meet someone, and you neg her, grab her hand at the right time, and buy her enough drinks to convince her to give you a try. It’s not really you, but being yourself wasn’t working. You get a date. Maybe you get laid. Again, do the means justify the end? I believe that they do not.
I think back on our secret male ritual. I wonder…would the women still be aroused and feel safe if they witnessed what had happened? If they saw the aggression and violence? If they saw me being called out and physically attacked? If they saw another man being shouted down for raising an objection?
At the same time…I also had to analyze my own reaction. Why did this work so well for some men, and so poorly for me? Why did I react so incredibly badly? Why could I not tap into that warrior aggression? Why didn’t it turn me on to unleash my deep, primal self? What kind of man am I?
As a man today, I have found negotiating gender roles confusing. I am not the only one. Some men believe that the rise of feminism has been emasculating for men. The empowerment of women has confused traditional gender binaries…and, they say, this is for the worse. Some men believe that the alpha male is a relic. The notion of men watching sports, drinking beer, wearing Tap Out t-shirts is antiquated. Other men believe it doesn’t matter anymore. We are all just people, dressing and acting as we please. Some men are feminists, some have male guilt.
We can blame women, or the outside world, or the media, or politicians all we like. I believe that the crisis of masculinity today is not the result of any outside forces as much as it is a true confusion about our nature as individuals and as men.
This is a revelation for me. A revelation is that I am not a warrior.
I am something else. It is not in my nature to be a warrior, and much of my frustration in life has been from not matching up to my perception of masculinity, framed in the language of aggression, strength, and violence. This likely comes as no surprise at all to those who know me (I’m a pretty non-threatening person), but it is much more powerful for me to fully embrace this realization, and take solace in it.
My revelation is that I can find strength, leadership, discipline, and control by tapping into my true nature. The energy I participate in is, and always has been, playful. Peaceful. Childlike. Humorous. There is tremendous strength in peace, just as there is in war. It is not weakness to avoid violence…it takes just as much strength and presence of mind. Maybe, I would argue, even more.
I can let go of my anger at not being tough enough on the basketball court. My frustration with not asserting my strength at work. My disappointment in not confronting men harassing women on a bus or on the street.
I can release my overall frustration in trying to win a game that other men have trained their whole lives to play.
My ability to do any of these things has to come from an honest place. I have to stand up for someone who is being harassed or intimidated, but not as a warrior. I have to stand up because I know what’s right. I have to stand up because of my love for them, and for myself. That is where I will find my strength and my confidence.
Now I realize that all this time, I have been training to play another game. I have instinctual skills and strength that come from my heart, my morality, my peace, and my discipline. I am an expert at this game, yet I have so rarely truly embraced it.
To extrapolate from my own revelations, I wonder….how many other men out there would find peace and strength once they stop chasing a construct of who they imagine they should be? How many men could find strength in embracing their own power?
I now truly know that there is not one masculine energy. What we understand as masculinity is varied and diverse. At the same time, I believe I have discovered a series of helpful models of four distinct forms of masculinity. I believe there are four types of men: The Warrior, The Philosopher, The Monk, and The Bard. Very few men are only one of these, and it may be that these archetypes could be transposed for women as well. Given that I cannot speak from that experience, I am writing about these archetypes as a man.
Over the next few days, please read these as they are intended: as theoretical models to help you on your journey. The language I will use implicitly asks you to accept that there is energy in the world, and that we participate in this energy. I am also asking you to agree (for the sake of the series) that there are indeed four key archetypes of masculinity, with an infinite number of combinations. Think of the primary colours: red, yellow, and blue. You can combine these colours in an incredible variety of ways, yet the results are still derived from three colours (and two shades, of course). If the colours were called something else (blorp, ning, chundle), the results would be the same. If you prefer the word “priest” to “monk”, so be it.
Ultimately, if you think there are five, six, or seven archetypes, it doesn’t matter. What is important is to begin finding individual strength, comfort, and solace in the energy and nature that you were born and raised with. I know that for me, much of my anxiety and frustration has dissipated in the strength and comfort I have found in embracing my own energy. Maybe you will take away some level of comfort as well as you continue on your journey.
Edit: corrected primary colours. Thanks Kevin.
Tomorrow: The Warrior.
—Photo Collin Key/Flickr
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