The absence of elders

It is obvious that there is a lack of elders in our society. By elders, I mean people who can help others because they themselves have learnt about the depths in themselves. People who have both the wisdom and courage of survival. Without elders, a society begins to devour itself. Our youth are violent to both others and themselves because of the lack of elders to guide them. Where are the men to do this? And where will these men go to receive guidance for themselves? For six years I have wrestled with this problem, both in my own life and in my work. I look around me and see very few elders. For many men of my age (44) this has to be done with our peers and with whatever true guidance we can find from older men, whether they be living, or alive in spirit or in words. For me this has mainly been the men doing men's work in America, namely Michael Meade, Robert Bly, James Hillman, Malidoma Some, and poets such as W B Yeats, Rumi, Kabir, D H Lawrence and William Stafford. Important also has been the wisdom and nurture given me by Aboriginal men I lived and worked with in the Kimberley 10 years ago.

In July last year I travelled to the United States to attend the Mendocino Men's Gathering and to make contacts with other men who are working with men. Yearly men's gatherings began at Mendocino in the early 1980s, often having attendances of up to 130 men. They are held in a protected area of redwood forest approximately two hundred kilometres north of San Francisco. One hundred men attended last year, all residents of the United States except one man from Germany and myself.

Broadening the gathering

Until two years ago nearly all the men attending were of European descent and mostly middle-aged and middle class. Robert Bly was there every year, as was Michael Meade, James Hillman and often Jack Kornfield, a Buddhist meditation teacher. Bly had been leading men's gatherings since the early 1980s and in 1991, after the success of his book, "Iron John", he decided to withdraw for a while in order to refocus and leave the teaching to those who had taught with him. Michael Meade had been working with Bly for some years, drumming and developing his skills as a story teller and teacher of mythology. He built on the foundation created by Bly and began a solid move to include men of different racial and economic backgrounds and to redirect the focus out into the community.

The theme at Mendocino this year was "Exiled voices and animal spirits in men" and through the strong support (including financial) of Meade, many "men of colour" and poorer economic circumstances were able to attend. There was a strong focus on indigenous knowledge and spirituality. As well as Meade, who is of Irish descent, the "teachers" were of mixed background: Malidoma Some (African), Dadisi Sanyika & Onaje Benjamin (African-American), Martin Prechtel (American Indian-Guatemalan), and Miguel Rivera (Guatemalan). It was quite a mixture of men who gathered together.

Conflict hour

I found the week very intense. The days were broken up into time spent together as a large group, small group activities and evening community time. By far the most intensive was the conflict hour held every afternoon before tea. This was the place to air unexpressed grievances from during the day. Soon, deep areas of rage, anger, sorrow and grief going back many generations were opened up. I was very impressed with the seriousness with which all men approached this, especially the way in which African-Americans were able to express themselves emotionally. Their anger about the violent racism they and their families have experienced for many generations was very strong and had to be heard. This was difficult for many of the white men there, who took it personally and asked for it to be toned down. There was quite a reaction to this and I often felt numb, glad to be an Australian, and yet uneasy, for I recognised myself in the white men who were fumbling around. Can I hear Aboriginal people's pain about what has and is still happening to them? Can I hear women's pain over what has happened to them for centuries? In order to stop feeling totally diminished, I have found it necessary to not take on the guilt of feeling responsible for these things. Not personally. Yet my culture and my sex have been responsible.

In Mendocino there was a clear lesson in what is required. It is the opportunity to be heard. For white men to hear and feel what it is like for men of colour. Black men wanted to know from the white men, "What are you angry about?", "How can you not be angry at what is going on in the world out there?" and the very telling statement, "I can't trust a man who isn't angry about something." After some heated exchanges, and very brave and skilful guidance from Meade, very deep grief and anger emerged from many white men. And black men said they learnt a lot about white men that they had not known before. There was a profound shift in the mood of the whole "community". Much of the emotion was expressed in song, poetry, dance, drumming and ritual. There was much joy and celebration hidden beneath suppressed grief and anger.

By the end of the week we were all in a different space. I was very moved by being with a hundred men joined in song and in ritual. And in knowing that strong bonds had been formed across racial and economic lines which will be carried out into the larger community.

Back to the community

Meade's aim in these gatherings is to create the space for "sudden communities" to appear. Especially with a diversity of people. It is a move toward spirituality and political work in the community. His view is that inner work is necessary, and isn't complete until it goes to the outer. He favours reflective group rituals balanced by activities that go back to the culture. Meade runs similar events all over America, and is involved in many projects that have a profound effect on the communities where they are located. This includes work in prisons and with gangs of violent young men. This the real strength of the mythopoetic approach - positive action in the community by men that stems from a solid foundation of inner work.

Meade also runs similar gatherings for men and women, where each can be heard and healing can occur.

In coming back to Australia I now see where a major focus for men is needed. It is in the direction of older men providing guidance for boys and younger men and the recognition of indigenous knowledge and spirituality, which includes that of Aboriginal people. It is in bringing men of diverse cultural and economic backgrounds into our circles and then taking the "work" into society. It is in hearing the voices of women and in beginning the healing work which needs to be done between women and men.

Rein van de Ruit is an experienced social worker now in private practice in Lismore. He has worked in a variety of settings, including child welfare, juvenile justice and with tribal Aboriginal people in the Kimberley region of WA. During the last four years his interests have focussed on men's issues, particularly the work of Robert Bly and Michael Meade. Recently he has trained as a Gestalt therapist. Together with John Allen, he has formed an organisation, Circle of men, which facilitates a variety of gatherings for men and boys as well as services for men and women.

First published in the magazine XY: men, sex, politics, 5(1), Autumn 1995. XY, PO Box 26, AINSLIE, ACT, 2602, AUSTRALIA. Reprinted with permission. © Copyright 1995