The men's gathering and fast in the Inyo mountains was for me a watershed event. Looking back at it months later, I’m shaking my head in wonder and smiling in gratitude. I’m still incorporating the lessons from it into my daily life.
It was my second fast with the School of Lost Borders and I went with some foregone assumptions. For one, I was sure it would be a pretty placid experience. After all, I had already faced most of my inner demons the first time around. It would probably be less rewarding, there was just no way it could match the incredibly raw primacy of my first awakening. Diversity would no doubt suffer given only one side of the gender coin would be present.
Wrong on all counts.
Looking back I can now say there is certainly something unique to sitting in circle to undertake a wilderness rite of passage with a group composed only of men. We all struggled to put words to it but the verbalization efforts were futile even as the experience was acutely palpable and the camaraderie immediate and deep-seated. The experience felt timeless, like it we were drawing from the wellspring and earliest blue-prints of male initiation ceremonies. Harking back to a time when such practices held genuine meaning and accompanying responsibility within society.
Like many others of my generation I had thus far not given much thought to what it meant to be a man in today’s world, at least in the best sense of the term. I had few in the way of meaningful male role models in my life to guide me. A large part of me still cynically resisted deliberation on the issue itself as regressive, a patriarchal notion from a bygone era. Wasn’t all society mercifully headed towards androgynous wholeness anyway, making such discussions irrelevant?
We came as cautious pilgrims from all walks and inclinations to talk and share and found the opposite to be true. The experiencing of hearing everyone’s stories was a heart rendering and deeply moving experience, forming a tapestry of male archetype tales across four generations.
The patterns ran the full spectrum but were woven from the same fabric, the everyday struggles symbolically echoing the oldest myths.
Much like the poetry of Rilke and David Whyte that informed our time together. The experience of the fast itself is hard to describe however without touching on the extremes and inherent paradoxes of it.
It is about male energies and identities but we talked a great deal about the women in our lives and the timeless struggle and joys of relationships and family. It's about Campbell, Jung, the hero's quest and the monomyth of a thousand faces but the myth is meaningless without its incorporation into the everyday of our very ordinary lives.
The place we fasted in is a barren desert but lush with hardy vegetation and a complete interdependent web of animal life. Drier than an old carcass but dark clouds gather with premonition and promise in the afternoon and erupt into lighting storms.
Sometimes the rain evaporates just before it hits the ground.
It's much higher elevation than anything near my home in the mid-atlantic but the surrounding snow-capped roofs of the Sierras makes it feel like another death valley.
The eastern sun rises proudly with a buoyant presence by 6AM and then acts like it just never wants to set. The night sky is so clear you can trace the details of the arc of the milky way. It's about searing afternoon temperatures that have you hovering between shady respites.
Frosty mist simmers in your breath in the chilly wee hours of the morning twilight.
It's about facing your darkest griefs in fear, anger and isolation and reminding yourself that your gold lies buried somewhere within its murky recesses, waiting to be claimed. You’ve put away childish things for a long time now and stare at the mirror darkly but the time has come to step through that looking glass.
It's about purging and cleansing yourself completely so you can fill it up with what really matters, feeling close to the bone of death and under the skin of your real life.
It is about having more time and freedom than you know what to do with. It's about walking out of the threshold and realizing you have no more time or excuses left to stop attending to what really matters.
It is mystical with vivid hallucinations that come without warning and the whistling of prayers carried by the katabatic winds. It is incredibly mundane with long, nearly endless bouts of boredom, frustration, exhaustion and hunger where your mind and belly find novel ways to torment you. You tug at your hair, flail and swear never to return to this self-sacrificial madness.
It is about how unique and modern each of our stories is yet how ancestral and universal in its blue-print, feeding into the earliest myths and archetypes of humans.
It's about revering the sacred in everything and honoring it, renewing our kinship with the natural world and the creative forces of the universe that started it all. It's about pissing into the ceremonial fire, masturbating over your sleep grounds and smearing your feces onto nearby rock faces to celebrating the profane and bodily forces within us.
Everything I've just written is utter bullshit... this shit is completely real.
It would be remiss to talk about the ceremony without giving a tremendous show of gratitude to our guides Joseph & Will. Yang & Ying.
Magicians, elders, tricksters, guardians, poets and mentors. They shaped, contained and mirrored each of our journeys in the ceremonial passageway. I cannot imagine better men for that role and or people I am proud and fortunate to call as friends going forward.
In the months following the men’s fast I’ve shared my story and lessons from the experience. Some have expressed that this was exactly what they were looking for without knowing where to find it or being sure if it even existed. A lot worried they would be bored and frustrated with such a ceremony, others that it would be much too challenging and they weren’t really ready yet. Some pondered how voluntary ‘starvation and loneliness’ made any sense in today’s society when we could mercifully turn to professional therapy, counseling, religious groups, etc for help…supplemented with daily walks/meditation, weekend workshop retreats and an adequate dose of self-help books.
I tell them all their doubts, misgivings and fears are completely true and will have to be met and overcome at some point in the ceremony. I could sit and explain in great detail why a wilderness rite of passage amongst men is a unique experience with no equivalent in contemporary society, in part because it predates modern civilization or the written word.
But ultimately the only way to really know for oneself is to take the initiative and step into the ceremonial circle. Our lives are hungry for it and our community will be much better served from it.