Posted by: Mark Nielsen | August 18, 2008

Motormouth & the Search for the True Self

“Most men have no interior spirituality. They need something outside (like a law!) to kick them, to get them going, to offer them security, to promote them, to reward them, to make them happy. Spirituality is a matter of having a source of energy within which is a motivating and directing force for living. The man of spirit, or the spiritual man, if you will, is energized by something beyond money, sex and power.” 

-Richard Rohr, OFM  (in From Wild Man to Wise Man, St. Anthony Messenger Press,  2005)

Between last Wednesday and Sunday, I completed a Men’s Rites of Passage initiation, through Men As Learners & Elders (MALEs), which in turn is one of the ministries of the Center for Action and Contemplation. It was a glorious experience, very freeing and redemptive. Father Rohr, a Franciscan priest, activist and writer, was one of the leaders of the event. He’s also the founder of CAC, and a former leader of Cincinnati’s New Jerusalem Roman Catholic community.

I’m in a bind, though. I’m not prepared to write about the experience in its entirety, but writing and working out my thoughts for Marking Time is one way that I process how God is working, in my life and in the world. So I’ll try to just say some general things, since the more deeply personal stuff is not meant for public consumption (not that I’m above an “emotional strip tease” now and then… but not today).

The True Self is a term first coined by Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk and writer who was among the first in the modern era to build a useful bridge between Eastern (mainly Buddhist) ideas about meditation and contemplation and Western (or Christian) principles of faith and practice.

So for example, some of last week’s rituals and teachings had to do with stripping away the False Self, the nonessential ways that men try to define ourselves, but which do not bring us peace (inward and outward), nor self-confidence.   In a way, we got a brief glimpse of what monks do, through “surrender” to God.

Often this “bait and switch” for Western or industrialized males -such as substituting financial success for quality relationships- happens because we were never sufficiently initiated (defined) as young men by wise, intentional older men. We were not invited to embrace a sacrificial, painful calling to community-minded or family-oriented values (like integrity, duty, love, spiritual seeking, holding power loosely), nor did we see them modeled. Therefore, instead of having internal motivation that springs from a strong, transformed, and secure moral core, we settle for doctrine, competition and other external motivating forces that help us to get by… at least until the mid-life crisis, when it all starts to break down for so many men.

That’s all a lot of big words to say that many men are not “fathered” effectively — not watched and prepared and affirmed by their fathers, in the so-called First World. Not that we should blame the fathers, for they themselves were often not aware, nor were they indoctrinated into a loving but disciplined brotherhood of men, under God, who could be spiritually present for their children.

I first encountered some of these ideas back in the 1980s, when Robert Bly’s nonfiction book Iron John mined the rich soil of history and Jungian psychology, along with Joseph Campbell’s ideas about the social role of myths in conveying key values. Not long afterward, Father Rohr began bringing the ideas into a Christian context, where he could add in material such as that which Merton and other “contemplatives” and mystics had written about, like getting past the dualistic mind and it’s need to judge and separate, instead of integrating and being generous and generative. 

More than anything, I suppose the week was about finding, knowing, and owning my place in the world. The changes in how an initiated man relates to God, nature, his family, and his community may be subtle, depending upon where he stands before starting the rites. But if I let the healing, rejuvenation and power that I experienced in the past week take hold, and if I can keep up the meditative practice that is an integral part of it, then those changes on the inside, in the architecture of my soul, could be huge.

Not that I need them to be huge. Only an uninitiated man would go hunting for and pointing to all his own wounds or successes. That kind of narcissism has been a big part of my problem in the first place, for years. The key is to let the soul shift be given to me, not to go take it.

So I’ll settle for learning to breathe differently, and to quiet my mind. And my mouth. (Yeah, good luck with THAT one, pal…)

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