(Adapted from a post written for elephant journal in 2015, garnering more than 21,000 views.)
Working on yourself is like peeling an onion; there’s always another layer beneath it to be discovered, examined, and learned from.
In my early twenties, mostly estranged from my adoptive father, I wrestled repeatedly with what it meant to be a gay man. I used to spend a lot of time walking and wandering amid the great evergreen forests of Oregon, opening to nature and pondering life. Intelligent and intuitive, there was a part of me that thought I had a lot of things figured out; another part of me, however, the larger segment, was still looking for answers.
Surely the heart of manhood rested in something more than reaching a certain age, earning a living, having children, or the gender of whom we love.
It seemed to me then (and even more so now) that authentic manhood had a good deal to do with growing up inside—psychologically and even spiritually—somehow maturing and evolving into a better human. A conscious man. For better or worse, there is no shortcut, and as I have written in a previous article (“Authentic Manhood: Rites of Passage and Soul“) the growing process is made all the more difficult in that our society lacks authentic rites of passage and wise-hearted mentors. Too, it seemed all the more challenging because I met so few gay men that I admired, or who understood that “coming out” was only a step in the personal journey and not the final destination.
As I struggled along, trying to locate my path, endeavoring to become more conscious as a man—and long before I had any notions of a “sacred masculine”—I learned a few things.
1) You have to find your own way. It is said that at the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, home of the legendary Oracle, were carved the words, “Know thyself.” As Shakespeare put it much later, “To thine own self be true.” If you want to discover your authentic purpose in life, there is no well-marked, clearly-lit path. Most likely, you’re going to stumble around for a few years (maybe even dozens), finding and losing your way in a darkly tangled wood. Strangely enough, that wandering is an essential part of the process in finding the real you.
As I have written in my book, “True adulthood is forged from exploring and living the questions that cannot easily be answered yet must be asked. Who am I? What or where is my place in the world? What do I most fear? And love? What am I willing (or afraid) to feel? What do I uniquely bring to the larger story that is unfolding, and what will I risk to bring that forward?”
2) Heart and intuition are non-linear. As men, whatever our sexual preference, we’re generally taught and encouraged to value reason, logic, and linear thinking; our center of identity is the head, not the heart. Yet addicted as we are to rationality and notions of ‘progress’, straight lines don’t exist in nature (our extended body and soul); everything is really a spiral and arc.
Even falling objects, which seem to obey a linear descent, do not. Our planet spins on its axis while orbiting the sun, cruising at 18.5 miles per second. The solar systems itself is hurtling on a spiral (not truly elliptical) trajectory through the galaxy at 155 miles per second. The seemingly straight path of the falling object, if it falls for one second, has actually traced a spiral at least a hundred and fifty-five miles long.
Come down to your heart, brother. Learning to feel, to take the longer, winding route (see #1 above), and to heed our curvilinear intuition is one of the most transforming skills (yes, it is a skill) that we can learn.
3) Real worth comes from within, not some external measure. While our society is obsessed with material possessions and superficial qualifications, the things that matter most in life are generally invisible: love, allurement (including gravity), energy (including electricity), passion, vitality, empathy, spirit. These seeming intangibles are really what knits everything together.
At the end of the day, my self-worth as a man comes from something other than external validation (i.e. my boss, co-worker, spouse, father). Similarly, it’s something more than success on a certain project, the brand or price of car/truck that I drive, the location of my house, size of my paycheck, or the girth of my “manroot.”
Happiness, as they say, is an inside job. Self worth, too. If we’re always chasing after someone else’s approval or validation, we’ve abdicated our own journey. (That said, see #5 below.)
4) Sex can awaken the soul. Pleasurable as the physicality and eroticism of sex is, it can be SO much more. Men tend to focus on sex as an activity centered around our genitals rather than the heart. Unless we’ve explored some form of Eastern spirituality like tantra, been blessed with a highly conscious lover or two, or have worked to unlock our armored heart, most guys have no idea that sex can be enlightening and transcendent—a chance to be broken fully open and transformed.
Gabrielle Roth, the renowned movement teacher and author, said that in order to come fully into our power, one of the most essential tasks in our lives is to learn how to make love. Roth asked, “How many of us know how to have a total, full-body, cathartic, shaking-all-over sexual experience?” Not many of us, especially men. Not even gay men. Yet when we finally discover soulful sex, we realize that it is healing, powerful, and consciousness-raising.
5) Working on your sh*t is an ongoing process. While I initially sensed that being an evolved man arose from some internal measure of psychological (and spiritual) maturity, I had to learn that such maturation is an ongoing and often difficult process. Once upon a time, I thought I was pretty damn enlightened; really, I didn’t know crap—especially about my own patterns and projections in relationship (which is always where they show up).
Working on yourself is like peeling an onion; there’s always another layer beneath it to be discovered, examined, and learned from. And just like those pungent alliums, sometimes it brings tears to your eyes. As if the personal excavation isn’t challenging enough, allowing oneself to be vulnerable through the process (and developing skilled communication) adds a whole new level of intrigue.
Personal growth is seldom painless. Yet in the end, regardless of our sexual identity, growing through our wounds and emerging from our patterns of self-limitation (we ALL have them) is what lies at the heart of being a conscious man—and being fully human.
Perhaps it’s no surprise that my own journey and ongoing questions about manhood eventually led me to working with other men—leading workshops and groups, as well as individual coaching and counseling—and writing a book on the subject. I’ve learned that our questions are pretty much the same—at least at the outset of the “what does it mean to be a man” quest. The answers are different for each of us, and will likely change as we shift and evolve.
I’m still wandering amid the wise, silent trees these days, pondering life. Listening. I never cease to be amazed how much I learn about life from observing nature. If I want to make this really simple, everything I’ve learned about conscious manhood, whether we’re gay, straight, or somewhere in between, could be distilled down to just three words:
Grow and evolve.