The power of initiation and transmission
As I was going deeper into this work two words, initiation and transmission, kept popping up.
Joseph Campbell, the author of a Hero with a Thousand Faces, talks about how initiations were used in many traditions to mark the end of childhood and the beginning of adulthood. The idea was that boys, the representative of the masculine (provider, warrior, hunter etc), would be taken through a rite of passage of sorts where it’d become an experiential reality that they were no longer children.
The elders would find ways to have the boys experience a tinge of death during this process. Something beyond their physicality, so that they were ready for the responsibilities of manhood and learn to live with a reverence for life, for the very land they walked on and for the mother in all beings. The boy would be separated from his mother and the very life in them would find an expression in the world. It marked a new beginning of sorts. The birth of the mature masculine.
There is a frequently quoted saying that you’ll hear in many growth/development work: “Heal the boy, find the man.” Some traditions have realised that the masculine thrives on challenge, while the feminine thrives on praise and appreciation, and aimed to cultivate their livelihoods as such, in which initiations played a significant role.
Now we have college kids running naked through campus in the name of “initiation”.
Not the same thing.
Not even in the same ZIP code.
Elements of this are still alive in some cultures today but perhaps more so in a ceremonial role. Yet boys, and the masculine dimension in them, still requires it. However, one of the problem is that there are really no more “elders” around as families have gotten broken up and settled often at large distances.
To quote again from Robert Bly’s Iron John: ”Initiation of Western men has continued for some time in an altered form even after fanatics destroyed the Greek initiatory schools. During the nineteenth century, grandfathers and uncles lived in the house, and older men mingled a great deal. Through hunting parties, in work that men did together in farms and cottages, and through local sports, older men spent much time with younger men and brought knowledge of male spirit and soul to them.
Much of that chance or incidental mingling has ended. Men’s clubs and societies have steadily disappeared. Grandfathers live in Phoenix or the old people’s home, and many boys experience only the companionship of other boys their age who, from the point of view of the old initiators, know nothing at all.”
As the quote above notes, there is very little transmission from one generation to the next, even less that is done consciously, in these modern times. As many parents have found out the hard way children don’t listen, or don’t learn from, what they tell them rather from their behaviour. It’s a kind of osmosis. So if you have a problem with the behaviour of your child it’s most likely your words and actions that are the culprit, not theirs.
To paraphrase Ram Dass, you just don’t get transmission from watching Donald Duck on afternoon TV. Initiators and elders have said many times that a boy needs a second birth, to be born as a man, and perhaps the most effective way for that to happen is by an initiation of elders, the representatives of the mature masculine.
Now, you don’t need to go so extreme and look for tribal elders to initiate you into life. However, the idea is that you have to look for it, at least a little bit, because what is available in our “normal” society is not necessarily designed for the very life in you.
Just look at traditional schooling. It is not a process designed for you to help solve problems rather to be socially acceptable and accumulate infinite amount of information. For someone with a masculine core that is not helpful at all, especially for someone with a smartphone and access to infinite information.
You can let life initiate you but that requires you to stay open (really that is the work, as noted above). With every bit of challenge that comes into your life a little bit of your personal, your ego, has to die. Or you can seek out an elder person, need not be a family member, who has gone through their own initiation in life who can guide you. Or you can seek out training dedicated specifically for men where you can further explore and embody mature ways of masculinity.
Mature vs immature
Unfortunately, without some form of initiation we get immature masculinity and society with a lack of reverence for the feminine. This is the end-product of the world we currently live in.
As we’re coming to the end of this essay, I wanted to take a moment and talk about mature and immature masculinity.
From my experience, and again my non-representative surveys, when women say, “I hate men. I hate masculinity”, they normally refer to what can be deemed as immature masculinity.
These days it’s been upgraded, or downgraded depending on your perspective, to “toxic masculinity”. And they’re not that wrong.
But I hope you can see, through reading this essay, that while our society is not consciously geared to create immature men, if one doesn’t pay attention that is the unfortunately the default outcome. I’m not saying this to abdicate responsibility, far from it, rather to show that the mature masculinity is available in all of us, most have seen and experienced glimpses, but to make it the default way of living takes work.
I’m going to say something that will probably get me into trouble but existentially both the masculine and feminine are just dimensions of this life. Neither toxic, nor right or wrong but just are. Masculinity or femininity in themselves are not toxic but it is men (also women, yes these days there is something called as “toxic femininity” too) who can create such conditions and environments for both men and women through their behaviour.
What’s called as “toxic masculinity” today very much exists, just look at most workplaces, families, law enforcement or politics, really the list is endless, but instead of calling it as such, which can be an abstract concept, I prefer the term “immature behaviour”. I like to break things down to make them workable. We’re talking about the same thing but once you identify it as a behaviour that’s creating problems it can be fixed. If you title it as some philosophical concept it’ll remain as such and I don’t think this helps anyone.
All the behaviour that gets lumped into the “toxic” category is really driven by fear. The two most basic psychological fears we human have are that (i) I’m not enough and (ii) if I’m not enough I won’t be loved. Our need for love, or whatever we define as love such as acceptance, and our need to belong to someone or something is so important that if left unconscious it can make us do awful things. Can you see what extreme behaviours people would engage in to meet these two basic needs?
I could spend pages on mature vs immature masculine but often a short video can sum it up better. I want to show you two videos each about a minute long and ask you to decide for yourself.
The first video is what is commonly known as normal, family friendly Friday night TV entertainment while the second might be considered as a violent macho movie. Whatever floats your boat, I’m far from judgemental, but I ask you to look close.
In the first one, women, hopefully willingly, partaking in a glorified wet T-shirt contest while people around them are clapping and dancing. You might deem this just as a silly TV show but do you realise the message it sends to children and young boys? It’s okay to put young women in such positions, to strap plastic cups around their chests (I mean who comes up with such an idea anyway?!) and have them play in water-filled kiddy pools as they pour water from one cup to another? Is this what we want to transmit to the next generation? I have no way of knowing but do you think the creative genius behind this Emmy-hopeful of a master piece was a woman? Somehow, I doubt it. Was the director more likely a testosterone overdriven male with some very unhealthy, sexually repressed shadows lurking in the back? You got it. Can a man like this be trusted, by women or men, to always do the appropriate thing? Would you like your daughter to marry someone like that? I don’t think so. Just look at the facial and bodily expression of the anchorwoman. It will tell you all.
Now, look at the second video. Look at the idea this man is portraying. Someone is trying to destroy his very livelihood and he is tapping into his very core, the very essence of the masculine that is always yearning for freedom. He is saying, in no complicated terms, that I’d rather die than you take my home without me defending it to my best. I might not have your resources but there is nothing stopping me. I have gone beyond death. I have gone beyond caring for my own personal fears and desires. I’m in service of something much greater than me. I’m not tolerating any less from the other men in my army than their best. I’ll show them a way they can tap into the deepest parts of their being. I’ll lead them. I’m fully present. Together we will live or die in the name of freedom. Bring your best. Because I know I will. It doesn’t get more masculine than this.
Choose for yourself which one would you like to represent in the world.
It’s not that men are bad or we have to cancel them, no far from it (okay, I’m biased). Men can create fantastic things in this world and be extraordinary, it’s just that the vast majority haven’t been held to high enough standards.
I could go on for a long time about this stuff because it is very important. We haven’t even gotten to archetypes and their shadows, relationships and intimacy, many other aspects of this work, which I’ll save for other articles.
In the meantime.
To the men: thank you for doing your work! What you’re doing is so worth it. This is the single best thing you can do for yourself, for your partner, for people around you and the world at large.
To the women: I hope these few words have been able to convey a little bit about masculinity and men. While men’s work is not an underground movement anymore you might not have encountered many men doing such work. Rest assured, these sincere men exist. On the other hand, if you’re with a man who is doing his work and if you find it in you then please help him and become his oracle. He will worship you for the rest of his life. And who knows one day he might even paint his face blue and white and fight for your mutual freedom. Whatever it may be.
Thanks for reading!