Why Men's Spaces Matter To Me
I'd been dreading it!
Having hosted dozens of groups of mixed genders before - all of which provided a nourishing and respectful space - for the most part I'd felt very much at ease with the people I met in my role.
But this time was different.
This time I wanted it to be over before it began.
This time those in the space would be...ALL MEN!
In the summer of 2017, I was six months into my year of living and working as a volunteer coordinator on the retreat. The Barn of Sharpham Trust was created on pillars of community, meditation and living on the land - with time scheduled each day from some nourishment through gardening.
For the first half of my year I had gone through much emotional baggage, as a space of quiet reflection is bound to unpack, whilst also benefiting from being a member of our close-knit, week-long groups.
A community retreat provides a container where people can practice mindfulness and meditation whilst feeling safe and benefiting from sharing and receiving support from like-minded fellow attendees. I had found The Barn such a comfort when I needed to 'retreat' myself the year before, so much so I had applied to come back as a volunteer. I found the gender balance of each retreat was a big reason for that sense of comfort.
Tending to be a 80/20 percent or 70/30 female to male split, I felt at home most weeks. I enjoyed the male conversation there, making some close friends, though I always felt safer having the buffer of mainly women around; having always tended to go to females in my life for emotional support.
At the start of the men's retreat all twelve of us sat around the dining table. As was done at each week, I invited all to share reasons for being there. Before another man spoke I still sat with a feeling of foreboding. A story I lived with. A story I felt to be true.
Men could not be trusted. In fact, I just didn't really like men all that much.
The main element of my personal journey that led me to this conclusion was my time at my all-boys grammar school - the most miserable five years of my life - where I'd learned that achievement for the sake of institutional reputation overrode the well being of pupils. With bullying rife from teachers and emboldened pupils alike, from my experience at least (and others I have connected with since would agree I might add), it was every man for himself if you were to 'survive'. As a skinny, sensitive introvert in a macho 'rugby school' within an aggressively academia-focussed environment, I did not fair well.
Back on retreat, I had surprisingly found the courage to share this story as we went round the table, including admitting my apprehension of being with eleven other men that week. That courage came from the physical shift in me as I heard other men speak.
I sensed a collective weight lift as heavy, burdensome masks fell to the floor. Speaking for myself, my judgement was I found safety in the vulnerability of sharing similar stories. Stories that had been been threaded throughout our individual and collective lives from people, religion, media...from every angle. Stories that can make a man whisper to himself:
"I am not good enough. I am not a real man!"
Within the shared sense of vulnerability in that space, contained by one another's trust, I felt something I had not strongly felt in my life before that week.
With the shared experience of connecting with other men, without the need to compete or make myself accepted among them, I discovered trust and belonging amongst men.
I felt relief in that moment whilst feeling overcome with grief for the times that I had felt 'not enough' and not been able to open up to other men. That I had learned to keep my distance. Yes, I had male friends and felt grateful for them but there was a level of depth I hadn't felt able to access.
For all the appreciation I had for the women in my life, I saw how there was only so much I could empathise and be empathised with by those women. There are differences that come with genders, so easily amplified by a world that polarises groups and sets men and women, our roles and traits, so far apart.
Men's spaces are few. Their importance cannot be underestimated.
Suicide is the biggest killer of men under 50 in the UK; 76% of all suicides being men. This now much-stated statistic is frustratingly accepted as normal. In a culture where men have not been encouraged to share emotionally, or indeed have been admonished from a young age to show signs of sensitivity, it's vital that men are made aware that spaces are available to undo the generations of hurt inflicted on men and women through the story of masculinity. It's vital we find the courage to find those spaces.
Following that week on retreat - incidentally becoming the most significant and nourishing for me during my year of service - I continued my exploration into understanding the thoughts, feelings and behaviours in my life that were a result of my inherited story of manhood. I started with a group I kept hearing about...
The Mankind Project (MKP) is a men's community for the 21st Century. A nonprofit training and education organization with a belief that "emotionally mature, powerful, compassionate, and purpose-driven men will help heal some of our society's deepest wounds". Having heard about them from another man on retreat, my training one of the most pivotal moments of my life.
It's important not to share too much of the initial training, as a level of trust in being held in the space and guided by other men who have been though it is an important factor (read testimonials on the website for a flavour of what other men got from it).
I say training because that is what it is - it requires work to unlearn a behaviour. To rid ourselves of something toxic - which is, in some cases, killing us - our work is the medicine.
For me, seeing the work of other men - their stories, their hardships, their processing of deep shame and trauma - has been no picnic, but has given me permission and courage to look at my 'stuff'. To accept my shame.
To own my shit! And to be proud of the responsibility of dealing with it.
To work on that shit and turn it into compost; fertile soil that I can grow the aspects of myself that serve me and know what needs to be treated.
That is not to say I am able to fully eliminate the weeds, never to return - to continue the analogy. It's important to know my nature - that I am capable of behaviour that can sabotage myself and others, tripping me up like a creeping vine. To know it is not who I am, just what I am capable of if I let myself get in my own way.
The more I understand my psyche, if I can see the signs knowing that many of them have come with this shared story of who I should be as a man, I can more easily see them as elements of that story. With kindness, I can know I didn't intend for them to be there but now I see them I can work on them, if I want to protect the soil. Suddenly I see why tending to a garden can feel such an apt form of meditation.
From the spaces I've encountered, I can happily say that I have many male friends in my life now; men I connect with on a deep level, feeling comfortable to positively encourage and challenge one another on our behaviour and the language we may use about ourselves and others. It's also seen some existing friendships deepen, providing courage to venture beyond surface level banter.
MKP isn't the only place for men to find a space, it's what has worked for me in my early days of exploration. And of course it could be another man has a healthy, mature masculine group in his life already. In my experience however, many men are part of a close friendship groups, but still long for an explanation why they don't feel as connected as they'd like to themselves and the wider world. There are some links in the resources section of the The Big I Am's website for those interested in looking further into such work/enquiry.
Regarding other spaces, under The Big I Am we're trying to do our bit in offering a space for young men an opportunity to see and question this story of masculinity. With gratitude to Gloucestershire College, we have held sessions with hundreds of pupils as we look at the story of masculinity and how the world around us as shaped our expectations and puts the pressure on men to be a certain way. I've learned as much as I have guided - we're all navigating speaking in a way that is open and trusting, perhaps in a way we felt we couldn't before or didn't know how to do because those around us didn't know either.
Men's spaces can save lives.
There are of course examples of men's movements which offer a form of brotherhood; a belonging to a resistance to the men-hating they feel has come about through the feminist movement, with #MeToo being a big catalyst. Many online forums reveal men who feel accused for others' more monstrous crimes and abuses and yet seem to be turning to violent words and actions, mainly against women, to seemingly 'take back control'.
I present such behaviour as example of the work there is to be done. For a culture that has failed to nurture boys as they become young men, many grow frustrated at being unable to navigate their emotions. And so blaming women, the feminist movement or the men who aren't 'man enough' to stand up for themselves is easier than looking at the parts that have been left vulnerable and now exposed by an inherited story.
Tools other than anger have not been nurtured enough, and there has been little guidance in how to express that anger usefully. It saddens me as much as it angers me; to understand and yet be appalled by something is one of the most difficult feelings to stay with. And yet, ignoring that feeling will not create much change. Indeed, it has helped me understand my own school environment was not one intended to torture me - it was simply following a story that doesn't serve the world. Seeing this acts as a salve to the wounds, at least. Wounds that heal more with the work I do.
There are many men who need help. They can be helped by other men modeling 'the work', helping themselves and their loved ones at the same time. In acknowledging the shame that comes with recognising a misguided story of masculinity we've been handed we can do our bit to ensure the cycle of emotional and physical violence, to self or other, does not continue. We can do that by coming together in spaces for men.
Brotherhood isn't about men standing apart from women, but sharing connections with others to become the men that this world needs - now more than ever.
I'm tired of living in a world of 'every man for himself'. I has meant a life lacking connection with other men when we could be supporting one another. In this last year alone I've personally known more than one man who has ended his own life. At times of such despair it can be suffer in solitude.
I used to dread being in a room of men. Now it gives me hope and strength. We can continue fine work and show men another way if we stop living with an attitude of 'every man for himself.'
On this International Men's Day, let's start finding more spaces. Let's remember to 'Never leave a man behind!'
- If you're in Higher Education and think that your students could benefit from the 'Your Story of Masculinity' workshop, please get in touch via firstname.lastname@example.org
- I'm pleased to announce there are two opportunities to attend a six-night men's retreat next year in May and August 2019 at The Barn. Click here to find out more.
Note: I'll be returning to the retreat to co-coordinate both Sharpham Trust retreats; it is not a program or workshop created by The Big I Am.