I remember the first time I saw porn.
One of my buddy’s had a playboy discreetly tucked away in his treehouse. He thumbed through the pages for me. I’ve got to be honest, my 10 year old self was not impressed. Parts of the female anatomy spread large on a super-glossy 8x11 did nothing for me. Probably frightened me more than anything, if I'm honest.
It wouldn’t be till years later at fifteen, when I stumbled upon a collection of magazines that I, perhaps mistakenly, assumed to be my fathers that I would find myself awestruck. I rifled through its contents, scanning the pictures and the words, drinking in every detail. My mind was awash with dopamine like a football field where the sprinklers had been left on overnight. Everything was fuzzy and swirling.
As I finally integrated the new found information, I felt a profound sense of shame, and disgust. First these emotions were aimed at myself for enjoying the shit, but then I became angry—mostly at my father. He was a minister. He was my hero. How could he do this—this thing that was clearly vile and loathsome in my estimation?
That night I confronted him. What a ballsy (and naïve) thing for a kid to do. I don’t remember what exactly I said, but I do recall what he did. He told me it wasn’t his. He said that he had been given it by a man desperate to get rid of it. That he had forgotten about it. That he, unlike the man in his story, was good and pure and to be trusted. And that’s how I knew he was lying. somehow I intuited even then that there is a darkness to men, that would make the images I saw in the magazine desirable. By painting himself as the virgin victim in a case of mistaken identity, he confirmed my suspicion of his guilt. But something else happened.
I was initiated into the ways of men.
Traditional male initiation exists around the single purpose of actually severing a boy from the softness he has become accustom to. Often it is to deprogram a child from his self-centric and narcissistic notions about how the world should work. Where once he learned that the village should orbit around his needs, and answer his cries, he now understands that he must grit his teeth and bear pain skillfully to meet life. While a girl becomes a woman through the experience of dying innate to her body, in the womb of her lived experience, a man must externalize his own death before death.
While a single crisis is often the beginning of such initiation, it hardly ends there. From this conception a boy is inducted into the tribe. He is now re-brainwashed. The elders and men surround him across the next several days, months, and years. They tell him the stories of cosmos. They communicate the answers to his basic questions, and at times supply him with the questions themselves. They show him the skills that he will need, that are absolutely vital to his development. He will learn to hunt, to forage, to make, to do, and to lead. This period of time will be the great womb of his life, incubating him, and creating a new reference point for all that which is to come.
Viking culture would hang a youth of twelve until he asphyxiates, crosses over a threshold of suffering and becomes a warrior. The Mandan Indians were pierced with wooden hooks and suspended mid-air until they passed out from pain. Maasai warriors undergo a kind of poisoning--those who survive the sickness and live are now considered men.
Here's how it happens for the Mardurdara Aboriginee:
The boy is led to the fire. He is fifteen or sixteen. An elder in the tribe guides him to lie down next to the flame while older men begin the songs of passage around him; begin to dance over him. Somewhere in the background a group of men known "The Mourners" cry loudly for the ordeal he is about to go through.
A village elder, or visiting shaman, sits down on the boys chest and faces his feet. He then removes the loin cloth from the boy and yanks the penis foreskin tightly, twisting it over and over, until it is stretched sufficiently for the circumcision. Two other men quickly cut away the foreskin with sheers or a knife. The boy wants to scream out, but this is forbidden, instead he bites deep into a boomerang.
When the ritual is over, he is held across the fire, allowing the smoke to purify the wound. Delirious from the pain and barely catching a full breath, he sits for a while in silence. Another tribal elder now comes to him and offers him a piece of meat--"This is GOOD meat" he says. Of course it is actually the boys freshly removed foreskin. As he chews, he is told that he has "killed and eaten his own boy" and may now grow strong.
Several months later the second part of this coming of age occurs. It sets up much like the first. This time a small wooden rod is inserted into the urethra of the penis. Then, with expert precision, the elder slices open the underside from right below the head all the way to the scrotum. There is now a split in his member. From this moment forward when the boy-become-man urinates he will squat, as women do. On occasion the wound will blead, even years later. In this way, the tribe believes, men may empathize with the pains of females, their menstruations and labor. The child is at last ready to enter the world of adulthood.
My own initiation, along with millions of other men today, is what I call "shadow initiation; a sort of awakening that occurs though it is not deliberately named and is even kept hidden from view of the initient. Because it’s not as though male initiation has ceased. It’s not like men have stopped training the younger males of the tribe. We learned, but unintentionally. The lessons I walked away with were: Men hide shit. Men lie. Men don’t acknowledge their shadows. Men are vile and disgusting creatures who skulk around only pretending to be something other than they really are. To get ahead, a man must lie. He must pretend. He must perform and play a part.
As bio-social animals we are always learning. If we do not externalize these processes we most certainly will continue to internalize them.Today we experience cultural indoctrination quite a bit. As my good friend Mike Morrell is fond of saying, “Cult and culture are words that share the same root. The cult of modern society is easily the most effective at programming its members and making sure they don’t escape.”
Formal preparation for the shadow rites of manhood begin largely through the school system. We experience a homogenized telling of values, vision, and priorities. Our ability to “make the grade” depends upon downloading the dominant motifs such as The Myth of Progress, The Myth of Hard Work, The Myth of Change, the Myth of Consumerism and the Myth of the Indidual. These story lines are taught to us so subtly that it is as obscure as the water a fish swims in—barely noticeable. We are trained to enter the world, freshly prepped with these tropes, taught to blend with all the other unique individuals. As my 13 year old son put it: "In school we learn to take life sitting down, to hide our emotions. They’re trying to prepare us to work in offices, to sit in a row, to be on time, to let somebody else have control over you while you don’t talk back.” From the first kindergarten class onward school instructs us to comply, to accept, and to achieve—but only within the narrowly defined parameters provided.
As I have stated elsewhere, boys in particular are now actively taught to sublimate their biologically innate way of being in the world: aggression, assertiveness, and activity. Each of these qualities are attacked, whether through overt punishment, lack of reinforcement, or pathologizing and medicating. When I brought up these concerns to one close friend he instantly slipped into the Myth of progress which lays forth that such cultural evolution is, while undesirable, inevidabtle. “The best we can do,” he lamented “is get on the band wagon.”
Such inevidability, or fatedness, is often the hallmark of shadow initiations. There is a sense with powerful myths that they and their consequences are iron-clad. A casual observation such as “he’s just like his father” describes this conditioning. Statistics which demonstrate little variation in socio-economic status across multiple generations within the same family point to it also. While modern Western culture is often filled with the concept of mobility and placticity, the opposite tends to be true. Talk therapy, chalk full of ideas concerning self empowerment and human potential, has less than a 30% success rate according to American Psychological Association statistics. SSRI’s, or antidepressant pharmaceuticals, show little better results than placebo pills at shifting people's attitudes and emotions. As one friend recently said, "It's amazing that for a culture that believes in change as much as this one, there's so little of it." The hidden caste system is filled with ninja belief structures and discreet indoctrination’s. These powerful framing stories, never overtly offered or chosen, guide our daily lives just as surely as did the initiations of indigenous peoples, in perhaps even more concrete ways.
My own initiation moments, like many of the men I have spoken with across the years, are often obscured. I hardly even knew that I had been inculcated. Yet the lessons I learned shaped my priorities and behaviors. It would largely take the experience of profound failure and ego-dissolution to force a confrontation. By having foregone the wounding or death-simulations so often found in indigenous cultural rituals, failure, which I intend to look at in greater depth in a future post, seems to provide a kind of profound instruction. The shocking reality is that if we do not simulate such a wounding, it will be provided--later, when the consequences are much more extreme.
Some of my companions have set up, or participated in, modern initiations. In many ways these substitutes take the best of what has come before, but apply it within our cultural framework. While there is, in my opinion, a limited draw and scope to such rituals, they may offer a fine stand-in for our hyper active and disconnected lives. Whereas the implicit threat of actual death often accompanied traditional initiation, today affords a safety in which everyone cuts the mustard. This has its downsides, but frankly, may also be a gift. As long as men are willing to question the dominant mythologies they are living into, and allow other s to ritualistically cast the shadow of mortality over them, they may avoid the more brutal teacher of the mid-life crisis and meltdown. If we do not practice ritual initiation we will be acted on by shadow ones. We are initiated one way or the other
I can't help but wonder what would happen if men would give themselves to developing such tribes, to initiating such rituals, and to experiencing overt indoctrination into best of manhood.