becoming a man

Initiation

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.

Brass Tacks of Initiation

It’s interesting because we really don’t see that word until the middle of the 1500’s in France. They use it to mean a secret ritual.  I think that men today use it in much that same way. But the Latin word here is telling… it’s actually fairly close to the word originate or to begin. That’s really what initiation, as I understand it, is all about: a beginning a birthing, so to speak.  And for so many of the men I work with, and certainly in my own experience, it’s about a RE-BIRTHING, or a REMEMBERING (which again is an interesting word meaning to give something Body Life once more, to put it back together)…that’s really what Initiation I think means—a renewing, a new beginning. 

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. 

This is a Hero's Journey. Its a quest. Its part coaching, part depth psychology, part contemplative practice, part mysticism, part modern initiation ritual. But most of all this is a birthing. It does not represent the END of something, but rather the beginning.

First, these highly interactive processes cut a boy away from the soft and empathetic world of the feminine. Up till this point the youth had his needs met, he was given dignity on the basis of his identity, he was treated with tenderness and compassion. However important this was to him, it hardly would meet his long-term developmental needs, or those of the Tribe. A man only exposed to this type of life would be unable to face adversity, easily fragmented, fearful, and ready to blame others. The initiation ritual aimed to simulate hardship and force the boy to learn self-reliance.

Second, it created the conditions where a child could acknowledge his own mortality and face his death. If a man had not done so he might unconsciously develop phobias, obsessions, and compulsive behaviors to deflect, avoid, and mitigate his ultimate fear of dying. By ritualizing Death, a boy gave himself to a cycle of life and death without terror.

Third, an initiation confirmed a candidates sense of purpose and education.Everything he had done up to this point in his short life was evaluated, examined, and either embraced or discarded based on how it served his mission.

Lastly, it was a confirmation and transmitting of a very subtle force that imbues the individual with greater power and wisdom. It imparts skills, and communicates mastery. 

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. 

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. 

Initiation, Today

If we do not practice ritual initiation we will be acted on by shadow ones. We are initiated one way or the other. Traditional cultures understood that a man could not be trusted without a great examination so to speak. He had to confront his softness, as I said earlier. He had to be circumsized at a heart level. A part of him had to be cut off…that’s what circumcision was all about. It was an outward manifestation of something. What they understood was that a man who grows up who doesn’t loose this egoic process is simply not safe. He wont be a stable member of the community. He will either be covertly predatory to females or overtly domineering. His energy towards the tribe won’t be balanced. 

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.

Where to Go From Here

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  

The great news is this isn’t hopeless. Men are realizing this in wide swathes. I see adds for it on social media or read about it on blogs. I think there’s a real resurgence happening here. Again, we’re trying. I think that’s good. But we have to move to a truly radical vision of manhood in which we get past the Dummy’s Guide sort of approach where we are just learning to follow a new set of rules. Simple, step by step, reducible, paint by numbers approaches are more of the same. That’s a part of the incestuous Mommy’s Little man and Nana’s helper approach. Still being a follower. 

I think the goal of working with men—my goal—is not to tell them THE ANSWER—But to create the conditions by which they learn to trust themselves again. Since culturally we are told not do trust ourselves any more, part of what INITIATION today has to be cutting away all the outer layers that have buried and DE-CONDITIONED us.  It really is a new beginning a RE-NEWING.  That’s what I mean when I talk about soul initiation. In many it recognizes the importance of historic tribal initiation, but builds on the concept of Jungian individuation. It’s meeting men where they are today, which is largely isolated and alone. So we start there. We build a man who trusts himself and who lives without hope, without fear, and is therefore truly free. From that place of truly identifying with his essential self we find he is free to live out his purpose, his gift, in this world. A man really can’t be initiated into Tribal culture, or honored as a member of a band of brothers until he has demonstrated he has the capacity to think for himself, to know his own values, and to navigate the stars that guide him.  That’s what my focus in the work. 

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. Lets Find out Together.