12.12.2005

Out of the Womb, Into the Comfort Zone

This post is from a Canadian e-zine called the Void. It details a man’s experience visiting an Integration group (iGroup).

I'm out.
Old-faithful Wolf
>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

Out of the Womb, Into the Comfort Zone

The Mankind Project Turns Men into Warriors
By Philippe Gohier

Very few men are comfortable with the possibility that they are failures at simply being men. Then again, very few men have answered the call of the Mankind Project on this grim Tuesday evening to seek out… apparently, to seek out each other.

Tormented by the dead ends and wrong turns on the road of manhood, and lured by the promise of an alternate path (one of integrity and responsibility), seven men have gathered in this church basement to share an existential crisis, to communalize their displeasure with the human condition.

Though each and every one is unmistakably male, their Y-chromosome is like a prison tattoo on Martha Stewart; it is entirely consistent with their experience and context (five of the seven are or have been husbands, fathers or both), and yet it is somehow completely irreconcilable with their broader identity. Theirs is isolation like no other: amongst the hordes of round holes, they stare down at a square peg. So, they shamefully reach out for the platonic comfort of one another. Failing that, they meet here for the certainty of being surrounded by other men who understand the grave realities of modern masculinity.

This evening, however, is not one of the group's regular circles. It is for the "uninitiated"-those men who have yet to emerge from the matriarchal cocoon and blossom into "New Warriors," those men the Mankind Project (MKP) seeks to transform one at a time, those men who have yet to undergo the New Warrior metamorphosis. This is the MKP's Warrior Light evening, a sort of primer for the two-day New Warrior Training Adventure.

The New Warrior Training events are kept entirely secret. Otherwise, "it would lose some of its meaning," says Robert, a handsome man in his mid- to late 40s and the leader of the Montreal centre. The promotional literature nonetheless promises that the weekend will "enable men to live lives of integrity, accountability and connection to feeling." (Though the meeting's participants are not anonymous, they are deeply private; their names have been changed because none of them want to be identified.)

"The New Warrior is a man who has achieved hard-won ownership of the highly focused, aggressive energy that empowers and shapes the inner masculine self," reads the MKP's Web site. "Sustained by this new energy, the New Warrior is at once tough and loving, wild and gentle, fierce and tolerant," it continues.

Isolation is a key component to the moulding of a New Warrior. Spiritually threatened by the norms and demands outside, the men here commit to the creation of an emotional comfort zone.

"As long as Robert and I are still standing, there will be a place in Montreal where men can feel safe," says Paul, a smallish man in his early 50s.

Seduced by this metaphysical space they would describe insistently throughout the evening as a "container," each man integrates it by "checking in," by vocalizing two of the feelings that have led them here to these cheap, tweed-upholstered couches and chairs. With the lone exception of Paul, everyone invariably checks in with fear, mitigated by some conditional happiness or frustration. Paul, on the other hand, checks in with a smug contentment.

"I'm a men's work junkie," he offers as a possible explanation for his delight, or maybe just his presence. "I'm going to three circles this week," he says.

As each man progresses through the extended check-in, the "place of introspection" where the men are expected to publicly reveal and discuss the nature of their emotions, Paul constantly interjects with the evening's creed: "I hear what you're saying." He and the others repeat this at the end of every revelation, their left hand resting on their chests and their right hand held up with the palm facing outwards. The gesture is reminiscent of an oath-taking, only the men have substituted themselves for a Bible.

"I'm afraid I'm not a good father," says one.

"I hear what you're saying."

"My fear of success drives me to failure," says another.

"I hear what you're saying."

"I'm without a circle and I wish I had one to sit in," says a third.

"I hear what you're saying."

The cycle of sympathy breaks only when one man gets up and heads towards the door.

"Where's the bathroom?" he asks.

"It's just on your right," Robert answers.

"I think I heard a woman outside," Paul warns the man, as he is about to leave the room. "You should probably use the [italicize]men's bathroom further down the hall on your left, then."

The break provides Paul and Robert a few moments to reminisce about prior powerful circles, since this particular evening had been spared the usual bridge between the initial and extended check-in rounds. With their existential wounds freshly exposed by the initial check-in, the men generally proceed with a "clearing." The clearing consists of role-play exercises in which the participants release their repressed frustration with other men, either inside or outside the circle. This process is necessary to rid the individual of the "aggressive competitiveness" inherent to the contemporary masculine identity, explains Robert. Men cannot function with each other in an angry state because "people are a mirror of my life, of me," continues another.

"We had a doozy of a clearing the other night," says Paul, smiling and nodding.

"Oh, I love those nights," says Robert.

The MKP belongs to a segment of the so-called men's movement that came to prominence in the early 1990s under the influence of Robert Bly, the high priest of the mythopoetic men's work groups. Heavily inspired by Bly's 1990 book, Iron Paul, which mythologizes a Brothers Grimm fairytale to provide lessons to men, the MKP blames the dysfunction of the male gender on a failure in conditioning.

"The Industrial Revolution has meant that the boy is not taught how to be a man by a man. Initiation is a natural need for a young man," explains Robert. "The transformation component of the New Warrior Training contains processes that may be found difficult," he continues.

Despite its noble intentions, a remedial initiation may not be sufficient. For the past 17 years, Lloyd MacKenzie has been working with men who the court orders to attend group therapy sessions. He points to the powerful influence of the corporate economic model on the home life, rather than any past transgression, as the source of male malaise.

"We don't have an inclusive sense of what we're supposed to be doing because everything is so commodified and put into categories," says MacKenzie, 39. "The traditional corporate model basically tells you not to take any responsibility for anything that you don't have to and doesn't lead to the bottom line, back to the shareholders. I think that men maybe want to, or need to, take more responsibility."

Though the presence of the men's movement in the public arena has waned, the MKP claims to have trained over 30,000 New Warriors at a cost of approximately $500 and operates 38 centres in eight countries.

In their exceptionally earnest attempt to "own their wounds," as the pseudo-poem written by one of the group's elders encourages them to do (the reading of which anchored the introduction to the MKP and their Warrior Light evening), the men confine their experiences to a strict paradigm: they are the prodigal sons who rise from epic descents, the heroes of their own redemptive parables, ennobled by the healing power of their constructive feedback. This may, in fact, eliminate the need to relate the individual experience to a broader relationship with the external world. Manhood could just be a labyrinthine journey where experience is a continual diversion, and self-knowledge a comforting myopia.

"When I started doing men's work, my wife had told me that she had consulted a lawyer to start divorce proceedings," says Paul. "Seven years later, our marriage is better than ever." There may really be a few square holes after all.

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