Men’s Spirituality

Discovering our Myths and Remembering Ourselves

by Mark Walstrom

Why is it that so many men, especially middle-age and older men, are angry, confused, and depressed? Plain and simple — it’s because they’ve lost their identities — individually, but more important collectively. Men don’t know what it means to be a man anymore.

Historically, men have been expected to solve problems, build things, and be soldiers in a war. They have been the breadwinners for their families, presidents of their companies, and leaders in their communities. In our predominantly patriarchal society the role of men has always been clearly understood — until now. With the emergence of the women’s movement in the sixties and significant paradigm shifts as we move toward a global community, men’s traditional roles have disintegrated.

The result has been a loss of soul for men, a spiritual dis-memberment that has left many feeling fragmented. Alarming rates of alcoholism, workaholism, hypertension, heart attack, and divorce in the male population has signaled something is terribly wrong. Men are in a lot of pain.

The good news, however, is that this pain has been a catalyst for countless numbers of men to reach out to each other for understanding and support. Men around the country, and in many other countries, are fully engaged in dialogue with each other about the deeper issues of their lives. In her book, The Gods in Every Man, Jean Shinoda Bolen writes, “For each man, the process of spiritual awakening is a gradual descent to find buried feelings, to discover his inner world, where he can pick up the threads of his personal story. It is necessary for men to find their myth and live it.”

With the loss of their marriages, careers, and health, more and more men are looking closely at their lives for the first time. Men are gathering in small and large groups in a variety of settings to talk about their lives. Spirituality for men in the twenty-first century is about connecting with other men, sharing their stories, and being vulnerable. It is becoming more common for men to talk about their struggles and insecurities, rather than continuing to put up a front of bravado.

The contemporary men’s movement dates back to the early eighties. Books by Sam Keen (Fire in the Belly), mythopoetic writer Robert Bly (Iron John), and many other writers inspired men to explore the emotional and spiritual geography of their lives as well as create a new vision for what it means to be a man. Nowadays there are a variety of options to choose from for men who desire to connect with other men and explore their spirituality. Workshops, retreats, and men’s groups are providing safe havens where men talk from the heart instead of the head. The Mankind Project, an international men’s network of inter-dependent centers in the U.S. and many other countries, offers weekend trainings in wilderness settings that include ritual, group dialogue, experiential activities, vision quests, journaling, and one-on-one counseling.

A commonly held perception is that men express their spirituality in more primal, aggressive modes such as beating drums or warrior workshops. What seems to be emerging in men from these gatherings, however, is a more reflective spirituality that focuses on cultivating inner qualities such as compassion, intimate connection, and mutual respect rather than power and stoicism. In addition men are saying their spiritual work is helping them find inner peace, live more authentic lives, and have more fulfilling relationships with others, especially women.

The challenge many men are encountering on their path of spiritual awakening is how to integrate these more sensitive inner qualities into their way of living without losing touch with their masculine “warrior” energy. The goal, it seems, is not to become a sensitive, new-age guy but instead embrace one’s wholeness.

For many men the greatest fear they have to overcome during their spiritual passage is having to face prolonged uncertainty. The void that all spiritual warriors pass through between the disintegration of the “old” unconscious self and the emergence of the “new” conscious self is terrifying. As one men’s workshop participant recently stated, “I’ve never experienced anything as frightening as not knowing who I am, where I’m going, or how I fit in day in and day out. I’m used to having the quick fixes.” Many men have said the work of spiritual transformation has been the most difficult and the most fulfilling work of their lives.

The most rewarding moments of their spiritual journey, men are saying, are the times when their words and actions are spontaneous, genuine, and authentic rather than the usual habitual, conditioned ways of reacting that have often been misguided and self-destructive. Men are slowly liberating themselves from the inner prisons they have been living in for generations. Slowing the pace, listening more attentively, and cultivating inner awareness are ways men are making healthier and more conscious decisions.

Men are also seeking spiritual guidance and inspiration from the various wisdom traditions around the world. What many say they are learning from their search into the sacred texts and teachings of Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sufism, mythology, and Native American culture is that they are experiencing what every spiritual warrior has experienced through the history of time — the loss of self. As frightening as this is for many men they are also realizing that not having a fixed identity is helping them discover their more true, empowered selves moment by moment.

Slowly, one by one, men are going through the transformational fire of death and rebirth and coming more fully into their wholeness, into their power, and into their humanity. And because of this the world is becoming a better place for everyone.

Mark Walstrom is a Licensed Professional Counselor in private practice in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He can be contacted at (616) 222-9857.