My journey with men’s work began over 15 years ago. Over that time, gathering with a group of guys around a fire, or a candle, has served as a faithful sounding board through the different stages of life.
The term – Men’s Work – applies to a wide range of activities, but the one I want to address in this write-up is the men’s circle. People have been sitting in circle around fires for millennia. Stories were shared, grievances aired, quandaries exposed and decisions made. In that sense, there’s nothing new about sitting in circle.
And yet, there’s often a bit of suspicion around the concept. Is this just another men’s club to get away from the women and children? Why is the circle gendered? Does anyone hold the men to account for the stories that are shared? Is this a pansy-assed new age kumbaya glee-club? (What is that even supposed to mean??) Isn’t this only for men with serious problems?
I don’t aim to give a definite answer to all these questions. Rather, I’ll speak from my experience of Men’s Work, and in the course of that cover some of the potential concerns listed.
You only have to type “what is men’s work” – into a search engine to come up with expansive, thoughtful responses to the question. One example is here. For myself. men’s groups are places where we are invited into a deeper relationship with ourselves with an aim to unpack our own traumas, as well as the more toxic parts of our conditioning in society, in order to grow into the person we want to be.
The conditions for this require a lot of safety. Which is why all groups that have been effective for me have been closed, committed and confidential. In a committed closed group, we create some consistency of relationship, which is the ground of trust. Over time, as I learned to lean into the vulnerability of sharing more of myself with the group, it became place of deep connection, and ultimately transformation.
One aspect of men’s groups that some people find initially off-putting is the format of a sharing circle. Most social circles are built around dynamic interactions and an absence of silence. What passes for conversation is many times near-reflexive responses to the questions and circumstances of the moment. Compare that to a typical men’s circle, where we first ground ourselves with several minutes of silence. Then, as we feel led, we speak into the circle in a monologue style – sharing the story of our week, or whatever lies on our hearts. The sharing is witnessed by the rest of the circle, but rarely responded to. This absence of response can feel strange. However, over time, what most come to recognize is that convention masks much of our discomforts. When I speak into the witness silence questions can arise – am I boring? am I making sense? no one cares about what I have to say? I have nothing to say? I’m taking up too much time? What I have to say isn’t important… and so on. By giving space for these undercurrents to surface, and explicitly inviting them into the space – for instance, “Wow, I’m noticing how uncomfortable I am when you’re all waiting for me to find the words to what I’m experiencing right now” – there’s a gentle healing taking place.
And there’s also more. Speaking in this way is a form of ceremony, and ceremony done well creates a sense of participation in something greater than the sum of its parts. We sometimes call this the circle as Shaman. That there’s a wisdom that exists in these gatherings. Not a wisdom simply in the words that are spoken. More that the entire experience is a mechanism to metabolize our current aches and past traumas. That our lives are a part of the strands of ancient enduring human history, and that in participating in this circle, we are simply doing our work of living, and attempting to live well.
Fundamentally, living well is what this is all about. We gather as individuals, and as relationships and intimacy develops, we turn into friends. Its inevitable. And as with all things human, one thing affects another thing, and most people find that the quality of the relating in the group spills out into the rest of their relationships, enriching and challenging those as well. And so it should be, that the fruits of our work are shared with our loves, our families and our community.
For me, this is the best kind of work.