Posts Tagged ‘mythopoetic’

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ManKind Project 25th Anniversary

29 July 2010

Back in 1985 three forward-thinking men designed something called the Wildman Weekend, an attempt to get men to recapture a sense of rooted masculinity for the new world.  Twenty-five years later, The ManKind Project has “initiated” over 30,000 men through the weekend and has vital programs for men operating throughout the world.  As the only lasting expression of the mythopoetic men’s movement, it has special importance as an indicator of what is working for men in the 21st century. 

MKP is celebrating its anniversary with a three day conference in Louisville, KY, October 21-23.  I’ll be presenting, as will a number of other men and women.  Get the details at http://anniversary.mkp.org/

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Rumpelstilskin, as Interpretated by a ManKind Project I-Group

1 February 2009

For those of you who don’t know, I am part of a ManKind Project (MKP) I-Group, which seeks to pursue healthy manhood in a small group format.  Besides some more modern therapeutic techniques, the I-Group utilizes “non-linear” methods like ritual, poetry and working out emotions through kinetic activities. 

Last month I brought to the group a classic fairy tale which, to no surprise, none of them had heard in years: rumpelRumpelstilskin.  I used the later version from Grimms’ compilation, one you can read here if you’re also having a hard time recalling the story.  I had rediscovered the story in a German textbook (the story was originally named Rumpelstilzchen) and was struck by its multifaceted presentation of important life themes.  Although (or maybe because) the story features a girl as the protagonist of the story, I wanted to see how a men’s group would respond to it. 

After telling the story with as much flair as I could muster, I launched a basic question: “With whom did you resonate most?”  Most of the men immediately said, “The girl.”  “Why?,” I asked.  “Because she was exploited again and again, and she did what she had to.” 

But upon my pushing for more details it seemed that, while they liked the story and felt it to be somehow important, they couldn’t put a finger on why they resonated with the girl, or anyone in the story for that matter.  We spent a chunk of time picking apart the significance of each character.  All of them are men, and most of them seem like evil bastards.  But did they have to be interpreted that way?

My own conclusion, one I had come to earlier, was that this story had pretty thick social meanings attached to it.  I suggested to the men that any girl who heard the story would be learning about what it is like to be a woman in the world of men.  Though people would expect her to have magical powers (even turning straw into gold), she would have to hope for resources beyond her, powers to deceive, manipulate and, through them, to survive in an androcentric world.  Maybe it helped us peer into the world of women and the demands we as men make upon them.

mentalkThis seemed to make sense to the men, but it didn’t make sense of it for a men’s group.  Where was the value in it for us?

Still, I stayed with this tack.  I wondered aloud if there might be a way to understand the story as an address to (or at) homosexuals.  Could it be that both girls and boys alike in old Germany were being warned about strangers, in particular “strange little men” who had their own magic at work, but were, at best, strange, at worst, conniving paedophiles?  The I-Group could agree to this hypothesis, at least cognitively.  Or, I mused on, we could queer the story by telling it a little differently, that this strange manling, Rumpelstilskin, was trying to deliver the girl-queen’s son from the world of oppressive men; that the reason he wanted to take the boy away in order to initiate him into a different kind of manhood, one not based on the patriarchal tyrrany exhibited by the girl’s father and king. 

This time no response from the I-Group. 

The problem, I realize now, was not that these hypotheses were uninteresting to them.  Nor were they unsavory (I would describe most of them as more consistently to the political left).   The problem was that my interpretations were primarily sociological, not psychological.  In a group dedicated to personal health (of five heterosexual men), social ramifications played second fiddle to personal application. 

With the evening coming to a close, one of the older members of the group began a very productive line of thought along Jungian lines.  He suggested that, perhaps, the bizarre character of Rumpelstilzkin could be interpreted as  one’s “shadow,” that part of us which we suppress but comes out anyway as a kind of dangerous but creative alter-ego.  That shadow must be honored in order to deal with crises in life.  One must deal with the devil, so to speak, in order to meet the demands of the “king” (or father), that archetype which would direct us in life directions.  The king’s men who go out through the kingdom to figure out Rumpelstilskin’s name are expressions of the “warrior,” the get-it-done part of the soul (or, externalizing a bit, maybe the king’s men can be our warrior brothers in ManKind Project).  And, lest the shadow dominate our lives too much, at some point the shadow must be “named,” exposed for what it is in the limits of its power. 

Now, you’ve got to admit, this is a pretty dang good interpretation.  Thanks to the last minute personalizing hermeneutic, everybody felt edified by the activity, myself included.

Still, I feel a little uneasy about how the personal so often operates independently of the political.  Can we hear the story of Rumpelstilskin and find in it something that speaks to us and addresses the situation of others? 

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Next session we’re hoping to do some mask-making.  Yes, I know you think that’s weird.  If you find wearing a tie and watching ESPN makes you a whole man, more power to you.  For some of us there are shadows to name – and who’s to say you don’t have one?

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Wild… er… Responsible at Heart

5 September 2008

When John Eldredge’s Wild at Heart came out in 2001, Evangelical men latched on to the existentialist bad-boy path to Christian manhood.  According to the book, the problem was that men in the churches had become sissified by a sentimental, moralistic, inauthentic environment.  The solution could be found in pursuing the “wild” road of authentic, manly living.  Eldredge’s indebtedness to the mythopoetic men’s movement shows through, albeit in a superficial way: William Wallace and Luke Skywalker replace the ancient fairy tales, Jesus Christ replaces the “I” to some extent.  Wild at Heart struck that perfect marketability for Evangelical men: conservative family values + shame-healing + anti-Victorian backlash + self help group therapy + badass role models. 

Seven years later, men’s ministries are holding Wild at Heart retreats, the latest cropping up in Peoria, IL.  Such men eagerly report that they go on such weekends to buck the system, to get fierce, to prove to themselves that they can be, well, “wild.”  It’s interesting, then, that the primary way these men demonstrate their wildness is by (to quote them) “learning to communicate.”  They admit their failing as husbands and fathers.  They confess their well-hidden wimpiness.  They acquire new skills to speak honestly with God, themselves, and their loved ones.  

Nomenclature aside, let me applaud this wildness.  Truth be told, most men struggle with fear their whole lives, often fears of emotional vulnerability.  Moreover, it seems that in this age young American men struggle with a fear of responsibility (a.k.a. permanent adolescence syndrome).  Christian men are no exception: they don’t cultivate inner strength, they don’t take risks, and so in self-defense insulate themselves from any kind of shame or public accountability.   Let us grant that it takes courage – maybe not the courage of a broadsworded Scot, but courage nonetheless – to put oneself on the line and say, “Yes, I’ve run away from my God-given responsibilities.” 

Masculinities trade in fecund contradictions.  Evangelical men, for this reason and that, spend time being irresponsible to the world around them, if only for a Saturday, in order to recapture the strength to dive back into their world of responsibilities and responsiveness. 

[Keep an eye out for future posts on John Eldredge.]

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How the ManKind Project Survived the End of “the Men’s Movement”

5 July 2008

           

Historians, if they remember the mythopoetic men’s movement at all, place it roughly between 1990 and 1993.  Everyone seemed to be talking about men.  Robert Bly’s Iron John and Sam Keen’s Fire in the Belly were each bestsellers.  And then off the media radar.  The men’s movement was dead.  Or was it?  One organization survived, even thrived, through it all: the New Warrior Network (NWN), later renamed ManKind Project (MKP).

The New Warrior Network had benefited from the boom years of the movement, certainly, but it also saw uninterrupted growth through the 1990s.  Where five regional centers existed in 1991 and nine in 1992, a full 23 cities had Training Adventure weekends established by 1996.  Some 10,000 men had been initiated by summer of the following year; by summer 2006, 32,000 had been through the weekend training.  The NWN renamed itself “ManKind Project” in 1996 for publicity purposes, but the mission remained relatively steady.  Despite high costs for new initiates ($500-$600 for a weekend) and demanding schedules for the volunteers, the organization has expanded well beyond its initial scope.

 

How has the ManKind Project (MKP) sustained itself?  At first glance, it may have seemed the least likely to survive.  New Warrior weekends received some of the most disparaging media coverage.  The organization had even caught flack from Bly himself, calling it a quick-fix and a caricature of the warrior archetype.  In a devastating turn of events, Ron Hering, one of the founders, was murdered in 1993.  How did it manage to press on, even thrive?  Four things appear to have set it apart: 1) simplification of principles, 2) an outline for progress, 3) federated centralization, and 4) an evangelistic temperament.  These factors made it possible to outlast the boom.

 

First, MKP managed to boil its beliefs down to a minimum.  Other expressions in the movement were so open-ended as to appear either muddled or dismissed as “New Agey.”  The New Warrior Training Adventure weekends were able to focus on several key issues: getting men comfortable with each other, affirmation of male worth, grappling with family wounds, and formulation of a life mission.  A modest set of wisdom could be imparted over the three-day event, enough to feel like true initiation had occurred.  This initiation was understood to be a starting point, an entrance into male maturity.  Moreover, the ManKind Project felt no need to multiply endless archetypes.  Stories and images could be helpful, but the important thing was having a workable theory.  This fell into place for them with Robert Moore’s work on the four-fold king, warrior, magician, lover.  Moore became the unofficial theorist of the masculine soul, speaking at MKP conferences and expositing his anthropology in print.  The organization also loosely appropriated Joseph Campbell’s stages of the hero journey as a paradigm for men’s lives.  It was a manageable system in which to work.    

 

Secondly, MKP offered a blueprint for masculine progress.  After the initiation, having been introduced to the male mysteries, a man is given the next step.  The microcosm of the “I-groups” allows men to process the weekend, bond with each other, and work on personal issues.  Starting shortly after the weekend experience, these groups might last anywhere from eight weeks to several years, two to three hours a session.  From there participants are encouraged to oversee other initiation weekends, or perhaps seek further training, as in Bill Kauth’s “Warrior Monk” program.    Men have responded well to having some manner of structure, instead of having to invent their own way forward.  Where other mythopoetic strands preferred a laissez faire model, the ManKind Project provides a plan for masculine growth.  In the same vein, MKP’s activities have appealed to a spirit of “manly” proactivity that has usually already been inculcated in its participants.  In my own experience, the most frequently used phrase in MKP is “Good work, men.”  The training materials and suggested readings reinforce this approach, emphasizing self-determination, while giving practical steps to make that happen.

 

Third, naturally, MKP’s growth was made possible by centralization of the organization.  From the outset its founders desired to maximize the program.  Kauth was clearly the most important presence within MKP, but he believed strongly that the programs would only grow if managed under local leadership.  While he, Tosi, and Hering had disproportionate control in the early years, they found ways to flatten the hierarchy as the organization expanded.  What resulted was a presbyterian polity, something analogous to the United States government’s balance of powers.  In 1991 the organization established a board consisting of one voting representative from each center.  In 1993 an “executive training director” was appointed to ease the burden on local leaders, and after that numerous “chairs” were added as an executive branch.  Certification of leaders was established, as was the writing of the “Governance and Council” guidelines.  As one leader of the movement conceded, “To become bureaucratic is inevitable.”   By creating a federation that governed both locally and nationally, the MKP adopted polity that had shown itself viable in America.

 

Finally, ManKind Project was evangelistic.  By this one should not hear “Evangelical,” “doctrinaire,” or even “proselytizing.”  Spirituality, being attached only to humanistic principles, allowed the organization to claim, “[W]e don’t invest any of the rituals we use with religious significance.”   MKP, nonetheless, was built on a fairly aggressive word-of-mouth network.  They understood themselves as having a mission to redeem men, and this mission meant initiating and training others.  In language reminiscent of Christian revivalism, Robert Moore once said at rally, “The ManKind Project, I believe, represents a sincere effort to try and create for the first time in the history of our species a vessel of masculine initiation that strives truly to be inclusive . . . . This is a new thing on this planet – a grandiose undertaking, but a worthy undertaking that we have decided to work on.”  He finished by saying, “These are the words I want to leave with you – Keep love alive, keep love alive!  And if we keep love alive, my personal judgment is, nothing is going to stop us.”   In such a way, the MKP retained the belief that men, if truly initiated and transformed, could become the impetus to heal the world.  This gospel was used to recruit men for weekends and plug them into the leadership structures.  Unlike individualistic men’s groups, MKP anchored men within the fraternal system, actively generating a network of “warrior brothers.” 

ManKind Project presses on today.  It faces new organizational struggles, but the content of the programs and the charisma of the participants remain.  In all likelihood MKP will not initiate a new public phase of a men’s movement – but if it stays the course it should darn well survive the next. 

[For footnotes or bibliographical information, contact me.]