"Wild thing….You make my heart sing….You make everything…groovy…..Wild thing…I think I love you…”
If you’ve heard the song from the 1960’s, you’ll recognize the reference here.
There is something mysterious, exciting, and even a little bit edgy about the “wild thing” within each of us.
For many people in our “civilized” society, we have all but tossed aside our wild nature in favor of ideals that emphasize intelligence, reason, and social refinement.
To express anger or aggression, to act unpredictably, or even at times to be direct and honest are often looked down as primal or uncivilized.
Instead we are taught to “be nice” and “smile”, or even to “put on a happy face even if you aren’t happy.” While there is some usefulness to this in growing up, when we start to step into the adult world, these old ingrained patterns can actually work against us and keep us stuck in childhood.
Fear of rejection, needing other’s approval, an inability to set healthy boundaries, and resistance to figure’s of authority, are just a few examples of what crops up when these patterns operate within us beyond their intended usefulness.
Young men often experience the most challenges with these lingering childhood patterns.
Looking to break free of these limiting beliefs and inappropriate emotional ties, young men often try to reconcile this by swinging to the opposite extreme by becoming rude, harsh, and domineering.
They become stuck between being the soft spoken “nice guy” and the cocky and arrogant “tough guy.”
Yet where is the mature man?… the one with authentic masculine power, courage and leadership?
When did we lose him?
More importantly, where can we find him?
Robert Bly, a well-known poet and one of the leader’s in the men’s movement of the 90’s, says that this dilemma that young men face is the result of the lack of male initiation in our culture.
Throughout all of history, in cultures all around the world, societies developed and carried out male initiation rituals to help boys transition into manhood.
Around the age of 12-15, a group of older men (from the tribe) take the young boys, for a year or more, away from their mothers and into the world of men.
Through trainings like rituals, vision quests, and story telling and myths, each boy learns what is means to be a strong male.
In his book, Iron John, Robert Bly discusses how the wild man within us guides us through this path into adulthood:
The job of the initiator, whether the initiator is a man or woman, is to prove to the boy or girl that he or she is more than mere flesh and blood. A man is not a machine only for protecting, hunting, and reproduction; a woman is not a machine for protecting, gathering, reproduction, but each carries desires far beyond what is needed for physical survival."
In the United States, for example, we have done away with most rituals and myths like these, and often even written them off as primitive, pagen, or purposeless.
In it’s place we have mentor-less boys who try to initiate themselves, often with disastrous results.
We see this in extreme forms in street gang initiations, but it can also take place in more benign forms like college fraternities, videogame clans, or sport team hazings.
The solution is not simply a matter of bringing back the old initiation traditions, but rather, it’s about learning how we can take that same process and make it work in our world today.
According to Caroline Myss, America was the nation that birthed the archetype of the self.
As a country, it honors freedom, independence, and self-empowerment; so it’s no wonder that tribal initiations are not a huge part of the culture (and this also goes for much of the modern western world as well).
The dilemma, then, becomes “how does a man become initiated if there is no tribe to initiate him?”
“How can a boy initiate himself into manhood if he only knows about boyish things?”
He still needs a group of men who are older, stronger, and wiser to guide him through the path.
Perhaps the trick here is for the young man to, not only choose when he will be initiated, but to also choose which men will initiate him.
In this way, he is conscious and empowered as he goes through each step of the initiation process, yet the process is still carried out by more experienced men who have his best interests at heart.
At the present time, there are some avenues that accomplish this initiation process to some extent.
Some men join the world of business and work under strong business leaders, other men study under a wise spiritual guru, while some learn through the no-nonsense approach provided by coaches in sports.
All of these avenues can assist the man into maturing into manhood, yet often these methods are still missing something….something deeper….within the recesses of the psyche, or perhaps, the soul.
The work of Robert Bly just may provide that missing piece.
In the documentary, A Gathering of Men, Bill Moyers dives into the Men’s Movement of the 1990’s, and specifically focuses in on the work of Robert Bly.
Bly, a well-known poet, has spent years learning and researching the myths and fairy stories from cultures throughout time.
He says that these stories provide hidden messages that communicate with us on a very deep level; a level that has been neglected in our current culture.
Bly says that although most fairy tales are centered on women’s issues, there are some that are focused on men and the initiation process itself.
One fair story in particular, Iron John, provides many valuable lessons on the path into manhood.
Bly also talks about one of the main emotions that men have been stuck at, unconsciously, for years – grief.
He says that many men mistakenly buy into the notion that a man shouldn’t feel grief at all, and that this idea actually cuts off a man’s ability to feel anything at all.
Soon these men walk around emotionless and cut off from life.
In the documentary “A Gathering of Men”, you will hear Bly discuss these topics with Bill Moyers, and you will even hear the beginning of the Iron John fairy story.
Bly is an incredibly story teller and has a knack for communicating to men on a deep and profound level.
He goes into depth about these ideas in his book, Iron John.
In it, Bly goes through the full fairy story and provides insights and interpretations that we can relate to in our modern life, especially when it comes to getting in touch with our inner warrior and our inner wild man. From Robert Bly’s Iron John:
“Michael Meade reminds us of the old Celtic motto: ‘Never give a sword to a man who can’t dance.’…The initiator offers the sword only after the young man’s heart has been touched by the lover’s privacy and the lover’s dance.
…The warriors inside American men have become weak in recent years, and their weakness contributes to a lack of boundaries, a condition which earlier in this book we spoke of as naivete. A grown man six feet tall will allow another person to cross his boundaries, enter his psychic house, verbally abuse him, carry away his treasures, and slam the door behind; the invaded man will stand there with an ingratiating, confused smile on his face.
When a boy grows up in a “dysfunctional” family (perhaps there is no other kind of family), his interior warriors will be killed off early. Warriors, mythologically, lift their swords to defend the king. The King in a child stands for and stands up for the child’s mood. But when we are children, our mood gets easily overrun and swept over in the messed-up family by the more powerful, more dominant, more terrifying mood of the parent. We can say that when the warriors inside cannot protect our mood from being disintegrated, or defend our body from invasion, the warriors collapse, go into a trance, or die.
The Inner warriors I speak of do not cross the boundary aggressively; they exist to defend the boundary.
…Robert Moore, the psychologist and theologian, has thought goently and intensely about the warrior, and we’ll sum up a few of his ideas. He emphasizes that for men the warrior is “hard-wired.” It is not software. He may say to men: “You have plenty of warrior in you-don’t worry about it-more than you’ll need. The question is whether you will honor it: whether you will have it consciously or unconsciouly.”
Moore emphasizes that the quality of a true warrior is that he is in service to a purpose greater than himself; that is, to a transcendent cause. Mythologically, he is in service to a True King. If the King he serves is corrupt…or if there is no King at all, and he is serving greed, or power, then he is not longer a warrior, but a soldier.
…Contemporary war, with its mechanical and heartless destruction, has made the heat of aggression seem disgraceful….‘Women hate war,’ it has often been said, ‘but love the warrior.’ That is no longer true. Most women in the West see no reason to distinguish the warrior from the soldier or the soldier from the murderer.
..The fading of the warrior contributes to the collapse of civilized society. A man who cannot defend his own space cannot defend women and children.”
Bly does a great job of opening our eyes to the honorable warrior that upholds truth and the integrity of the tribe.
Caroline Myss touches on this in her program, The Language of Archetypes (a must for understanding archetypes), saying that the warrior is successful when he prevents war because his duty lies in the well-being of his people.
Most of us here in the west have forgotten that. The naivete that Bly refers to in Iron John is the fear-based distortion that we should do away with the warrior (which many well-intentioned but ungrounded people buy into, I know I have).
It’s basically the equivalent of trying to stop war by killing all your tribe’s warriors, then naively thinking that there will be no more war.
Bly has also recorded a number of workshops which cover other male-centered fairy stories, and touches on the challenges that men face.
You can get access to many of these programs online through sites like MenWeb, or through Audacity. Audacity has 6 of the these talks (about an hour each) for a couple bucks each, these includes:
- Into the Deep: Male Mysteries
- Male Naivete and Giving the Gold Away
- The Power of Shame
- The Masculine Road: The Red, White, and Black
- A Society of Siblings
- William Blake and Beyond
I’ve listened to many of these already and can tell you that it feels like something with me is re-awakening, as if these stories have activated a part of me that has been sleeping and long forgotten.
Woven into all of Robert Bly’s work is a subtle lovingness towards being male and an appreciation for what it means to be a man; something that is quite rare in this day in age.
For males looking to become empowered, self-actualized, and authentic men, then Robert Bly’s work is a must. A good place to start is with Robert Bly's recorded workshop where he goes into the Male Mode of Feeling and Iron John in detail.
Here is more interesting video of Bly that will give you a good idea of his approach and personality: