Modern masculine initiation

2 weeks ago I attended something called the Mankind Project. It was a weekend in a mansion in the woods outside Drogheda a city half an hour away from Dublin, Ireland. We were some 80 men separated from society for 48 hours. Only men, no women. Of all the things I’ve done, this was probably the furthest from the mainstream norm. It’s hard to explain what the weekend was about.

You could say it turned boys into men by pushing us to be brave, honest and show up to our commitments. But that’s not fair cause that’s not done over a weekend. There are so many aspects of growing up, like getting a job, losing your health, marrying away a sibling, getting married, losing someone dear, getting a child, buying a house, getting dumped, or facing up to your fears. These are all part of the complex mosaic of becoming an adult.

You could say it was an initiation ceremony that marks the shift from boyhood into manhood, but that’s not fair either. That would make this seem like a mere ceremony, like the punctuation of an otherwise finished sentence. This weekend was certainly a marking, a ritual, an initiation, but it was definitely more than that as well. It was primarily about figuring out your sentences and rewriting them for the future.

You could say it was a workshop that helps unhealthy men become healthier by putting us in touch with our emotions. Nah, that’s not right either, because it touched on a wide range of our masculinity, not just emotions. Plus it was more participatory and experiential than the usual workshop. I really felt like I lived through something that represented my wider life.

Hopefully you’re curious about what this weekend was and what we did. Plus you’re probably wondering if it was a sect :)

To be honest, we’re told to keep the process a secret. The two men who recommended the Mankind Project to me also kept the weekend a secret. I’m glad they did. It added to the adventure and amplified the experience.

The thinking is that some men will feel an urge to explore this unknown when the time is right. Probably when their old ways come up short in their everyday life, be it relationships, careers, or addictions.

This feeling of the old ways no longer holding up is what eventually pushed me to plunge into the unknown. This weekend was the continuation of a long stream of activities to figure out life at a deeper level.

6 months ago I started seeing a therapist to explore my emotions and shift some of my behaviours. This has lead to some powerful insights, especially around my definitions around masculinity. One very strong example was the inherent trade-off I see between emotions and strength.

The reason I felt pulled to the Mankind Project are the examples I see around me. There are a few men in my office who’ve explored this field or been active with the Mankind Project. What unites these men is an inspiring combination of grounded stability and compassionate vulnerability. They all seem to have found a way to combine strength and emotions seamlessly.

To honour the weekend and as a gift to future men who partake in this weekend, I’ll keep the process a secret. Instead I want to share some of my general observations from the weekend.

My overwhelming observation coming out of the weekend is that men are struggling when it comes to relationships and emotions. I think we particularly struggle with these things among other men.

It’s obviously dangerous to generalise, but I suspect the men attending this workshop are at the forefront in exploring emotions. I suspect that the most emotionally illiterate men out there will never make it to this type of weekend. So I think it’s fair to believe that men as a species are largely lost when it comes to emotions.

If you wanna read about men in general, I suggest you give this Mark Manson article a read. I’ll stick to what I saw at this weekend. At this weekend, we men repeatedly proved ourselves to be inept when it comes to emotions.

A common example was the gulp. A man would talk about or relive a heavy personal experience and you could see a metaphorical lid inside his body suppressing his emotions. The emotion would build up in his body, heading for an inevitable escape. But with no outlet in the form of healthy tears or screams, the only release for the emotion would be a gulp.

Even more startling was to see how men would ignore this gulp. The gulp would come with some sort of distant look, a swallow of the emotions and a small pause to a catch them-self before continuing the numbed and rationale thinking that preceded the gulp.

I recognise the gulp, because I do it myself. I’ve done it on countless occasions. I didn’t use to notice the gulp or the swallow, but now I do. I’ve learned to acknowledge it and to be compassionately curious about it.

The gulp looked even starker when putting it in the context of the stories shared. At a few points I cried with empathy about what other men have gone through. It’s clear that we all carry deep wounds. We obviously carry father issues, but also a bunch of other issues. The collective weight is heavy.

But what seems particularly startling about us men is how deeply these issues are berried. So many of us looked deeply unconscious about our own deepest struggles. We looked thoroughly surprised about which emotions those deep issues uncovered.

I personally expected to head into the emotion of anger, but somehow took a sharp turn into the emotion of sadness. I had not expected sadness. I didn’t even realise that I didn’t know sadness. I was surprised that I had to be told that sadness comes in waves when you don’t try to box it in.

A common question I’ve gotten since returning to everyday life is whether I was happy about going. If I got something out of it. The question is a definite yes, no question about it.

I’ve now come out of the weekend with a greater understanding for where my emotions sit. My anger is in my hands, underneath my feet and throat. My sorrow is in my eyelids, left chest, bottom stomach and overarms. My shame is in my belly and shoulders. My fear is in my chest and throat. My joy is in my heart and face.

Once you can feel into these emotions, it’s easier not to be overwhelmed by them. It’s easier to access an emotion when you know what body parts to listen to. It doesn’t all have to come out in one messy, scary, suppressed gulp.

More importantly I’ve experienced the beauty of letting these emotions loose. I’ve seen how they can interconnect and be a source of something positive. I don’t think the world has ever looked as beautiful as it did just after I rode those waves of sadness. Part of me wants to go back to that.

Amazingly, I’ve seen other men who are thoroughly trained in letting emotions work their magic. I saw men who were overcome with intermittent grief whilst giving an inspiring talk. They expressed their grief as if it was nothing but a small jump in the middle of a run. They’d let the tears out instantly, but the talk continued. They didn’t have to pause to collect themselves because the tears gave strength. This sight of men letting emotions work through them in this way was a first for me. I suspect it was a first for many of the men there.

This type of emotionality was so much more attractive and enticing than the emotionality I’m used to seeing. Much of the emotionality that I’ve been taught so far in life is essentially taught to me by women. At the Mankind Project I got to discover a different path towards emotions.

Emotions were not wrapped in sympathy, understanding or caring. They were rather packaged as a sign of strength and bravery. People were asked to be clear, concise, and honest when communicating how they felt. Some people were asked to speak up when sharing their emotions in hushed, muddled voices. I feel like I was entering a modern version of masculinity.

One common remark I’ve heard about the weekend is the fact that women are not invited. The very act of excluding women from an activity has become sensitive. Even my language around men and women is likely to get some people worked up.

To be honest, I’m terribly glad there were no women there. I would not have gotten what I wanted out of the weekend if there were women there. I behave differently in an all-male, all-female or a mixed gender space. I find it easier to show emotions and vulnerability amongst women, I find it easier to be brutally honest and crazy amongst men. That’s just how I’m programmed and I wanna stretch those limits. It’s good to have a weekend where I can test some of those limits.

I’ve previously had my fair share of all-male settings, be it in the context of playing sports, gambling at casinos, going to sports bars, attending board meetings, going to strip clubs, travelling on boys trips, attending rugby drinking nights, smoking cigars in posh gentlemen’s clubs, playing computer games, shooting at gun ranges, or working 5 years in finance.

What set this experience apart was the total diffusion of competition. Many men have a tendency to create immediate pecking orders and triangular pyramids. Male groups often have very status-driven lines of communication with one or two men taking centre stage.

Over this weekend, that pre-programmed pecking order loosened significantly. I’m confident that the absence of women, and the absence of other sources of competition, helped loosen that dynamic.

Your competitive senses could rest. You knew that no-one was gunning for your spot in the hierarchy. You knew that no-one would stab you in the back to find his love. You knew no-one was trying to get your money.

In this context I was freer to explore myself. One startling observation I had was the range of ways in which I block connection with other men. These blockages would vary depending on the other man’s body type, voice, status, femininity, strength, courage, sensitivity, or any other factor that my ego might care about.

A few days after the weekend I was in a shop in Kinsale buying an Irish hat. It seemed a fitting souvenir from a week in Ireland focused on manhood. Another man was also buying a hat. We got talking about the hats and eventually he asked me why I was in Ireland. I asked him if he’d heard about the Mankind Project. Most people haven’t, but somehow I got the sense he might have.

It turned out he’d attended this weekend 5 years ago after his divorce. We decided to go for a beer and share some experiences. We both felt free to cut through some of the surface chat. Plus I was obviously curious to hear how this weekend had impacted his life in the longer-run.

One insight he shared was that he no longer felt the need to bring all his dirty diapers home. He’d developed a way to talk about serious issues with other men. This had relieved some pressure off of his relationships as he no longer placed all that burden on one woman in his life.

I’ve since talked to women back home in Stockholm about this particular aspect of the Mankind Project. Many of them laugh with a smile of familiarity. It seems to resonate as much with them as it does with me. That condition where emotions are so compartmentalised that they only come out occasionally in oversized gulps to very specific people.

This is where the Mankind Project seems the most promising. For those willing, the initiation weekend can trickle into everyday life in the form of men’s circles. This Monday we’re going to start a circle in our office.

We’ll be a group of men talking about deep stuff, be it relationships, commitments, careers, sex, families, fears or whatever may come up. I’m looking forward to the gulp. I’m looking forward to being part of modern masculinity.