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The search for my inner ‘hero’: a modern masculinity retreat


Despite spending 62 years as a man, I have never quite worked out what the possession of my defining Y chromosome implies. I doubt, in truth, that much of the damn thing survives anyway. I was brought up in a generation when nearly all the parenting was done by mothers and I have now helped to bring up four daughters as well as having been through the crucible of two marriages. In short, I have lived most of my life in the penumbra of women.

Lately, in the tremors of #MeToo, #TimesUp, the Jordan Peterson phenomenon and the emergence of “incels” (involuntary celibates) and Mgtow (men going their own way), I find myself puzzling over the question: what is masculinity anyway? To try to answer the question, I signed up for a weekend intensive course run by the media platform and transformational workshop company Rebel Wisdom, titled The New Masculinity, at a retreat in a converted barn in Buckinghamshire.

The weekend is built on the idea of the “hero’s journey” pioneered by the Jungian anthropologist Joseph Campbell. It suggests that all myths, stories and folk tales follow the same essential pattern because they reflect inner psychological states present in all human beings and therefore contain clues to how we might better “integrate” ourselves. The work involves, metaphorically, going into a cave and confronting the monster inside – usually negative aspects of ourselves that we deny. We then return home with the “treasure” – a more fully integrated personality.

I find myself waiting for activities to start in a room with about 30, very normal-looking and sociable youngish to middle-aged men. They include a war correspondent, a TV director, a yoga teacher and a martial arts teacher. We are met by three facilitators who divide us into groups of six to build trust, by each closing our eyes and falling backwards to be supported by the rest. We each make a public statement of general commitment – “To face the dark and unacceptable parts of ourselves” – and a personal one, which we offer to our group. I commit to keeping an open mind.

We go to bed in silence (on instruction). The next morning, we rise at 6.45am for a “wild man” workout. After vigorous push-ups and stretches, to the sound of Navajo chanting, the group is asked to walk, then run in a circle round the room, catching and holding one another’s gaze. After breakfast, we have an “embodied meditation” called Out of the Box in which are told to “let out our frustration”. Men jog around the room and grunt, then scream, until the room is full of reddened faces. We divide into twos and stop and stare deep into another man’s eyes. One by one, the men in the room begin to roar at each other. It is discomfiting to stand in front of a man whose face is distorted by rage and know that one’s own face must look much the same.

We start to move again. Firestarter by the Prodigy blasts out and the march turns into a wild dance. Despite being an inhibited person, I am swept up. Half the men take off their shirts. The group leader shouts over the cacophony: “Get out of the box!” I’m not sure what kind of box, but I get the drift. It is liberating, but so intense that one man actually throws up after the session.

We stand at the “mouth of the cave” and now we are going to “face our own shadow”. I suggest to the group that during the Out of the Box exercise, we were just a few steps away from pillaging and looting the nearest village. I was also acutely aware that any women in the room might have found the spectacle terrifying. I was assured that the idea was not to “let the beast run free” but to control it through forming a relationship with it, to foster a “positive masculine spirit”.

During lunch I ask some of the men to try to define this spirit. Among their suggestions were boisterousness, level-headedness, risk- taking, protectiveness and assertiveness.

Later, we go into a one-on-one “talking meditation”. We speak without interruption for 10 minutes about our fathers, always maintaining eye contact with our partners. My “buddy” is “Adam”, a likeable and gentle man in his mid-30s. I gaze into his eyes as I say anything that comes into my head about my father, who died five years ago. I find myself quickly in tears. I hadn’t realised how much I had missed him.

We prepare to go “into the cave” using controlled breathing to enter into a different state of consciousness. It is surprisingly effective. Adam lies on the floor. I put my hand on his chest so he can register my presence and support. Eventually, he squirms and arches his back and his hands curve into claws. He begins weeping and muttering and starting a dialogue with his father. Exclamations fill the hall. “Fuck you,” shouts one guy, repeatedly, at the top of his voice. Many others call out and sob. Adam is crying so much I find myself weeping in distress.

When my own turn comes, through rapid breathing, I enter a space that I can only call akin to taking a small dose of LSD – dissociated, vaguely euphoric. I do not cry, but I do lose control, and call out yelling at the top of my voice. But I cannot remember what it is that I say.

Having encountered the “monster”, we can return to the real world with some kind of “treasure”. Each of us has to write our “Letting Goes” on a piece of paper – fixed psychological or emotional states we are trapped in that we can now symbolically dispose of. We gather around a bonfire and one by one walk inside the circle of faces, again making eye contact which each member. We cast our Letting Goes into the fire and speak – or shout – their contents. One lets go of his need to be liked. Another lets go of his need to be in control. And so on.

A celebration begins. A guitar is produced from somewhere. A singer performs songs. A hip-hop artist begins improvising lyrics. There are jokes and stories. The atmosphere between the men is one of camaraderie, closeness and warmth.

The next day we are going to learn “reintegration”. It’s about, apparently, being “kingly”, which means to be fully aware – “showing up” – and taking responsibility for ourselves. Another talking therapy has us reveal “The man I want to be and what stops me getting there.”

We each write a commitment on a piece of paper and head outside, where there is a bridge crossing a stream. We cross it alone, calling out our commitment on the other side. Then we return, again crossing the bridge alone, and are applauded by the whole group as we cross back. Our own unit of six gathers for a group embrace.

There is a final talking meditation in the groups of six, each of us having to state what we appreciate about ourselves and what the others in the group appreciate about us. In my experience, although men banter and are capable of great compassion, they rarely directly compliment one another (women seem to do it naturally). To affirm one another without irony feels highly novel and very rewarding. When the other men in the group tell me what they appreciate about me, I find myself very moved. I realise I am not used to experiencing this kind of praise, from either gender. Men often survive in a culture of criticism. I don’t think I’m unusual in recalling a father who almost never praised me.

We say goodbye, standing in a circle of 30 in front of the teachers. One by one we are asked if we have something to say before we leave the weekend. As my turn approaches, I think how bizarre it is to experience something more intimate by far than you would do with male friends you have known all your life. Sadly, fear – of the unknown, of intimacy, of feeling silly – will keep many men away from workshops like this, partly because what goes on is actually so feminine, full of warmth, connection and affirmation.

That may be a pity, even a tragedy. When my turn comes, I talk of an acquaintance of mine who killed himself earlier this year – a charismatic, attractive man in his 50s. I dedicate my time at the retreat to him and men like him – superficially self-possessed, but on another level, deeply vulnerable. My friends meet my eyes – I now think of them as my friends – and in my imagination seem to understand. That is some consolation. With that, I leave the circle, already considering when I might return.

For more details, go to @timlottwriter