(A post written initially for my former column at Good Men Project.)
In the modern world, where identity is only as deep as our business card, or the screen we’re staring at, we need something authentic and alive.
As a youth growing up in greater Los Angeles, ‘nature’ was something that seemed very far away from me. Both as a child and adolescent, I felt mostly content within the grid of concrete and palm trees, tailored lawns, shopping malls, and traffic-clogged freeways. For an escape, I always had the refuge of my room, my books, and a wild imagination.
Yet when we would occasionally go to the mountains above Palm Springs to stay in a friend’s cabin in Idyllwild, watching the raccoons at night on the deck, amid the fragrant tall pines as I explored the natural world, something stirred to life in me — something that never went fully back to sleep.
In my early twenties, I found myself living in a lonely adobe tower on a wild mesa near Taos, New Mexico. Five miles down a rutted dirt road, the nearest neighbor was a quarter mile away, and the house was surrounded on three sides by 28,000 acres of national forest. I had no television, radio or phone; in every way imaginable, I was a very long way from Pasadena.
Having left my first significant relationship with a man, I was wrestling some ghosts and old patterns, but the deeper calling was that I wanted to somehow feel more alive in an authentic way. I wasn’t just running away, something in my soul was calling me to a wild and lonely place.
I spent six months there; working in a half-assed way on the manuscript for a novel, but mostly roaming alone amid the piñon and juniper trees beneath a wide turquoise sky, imagining myself as some solitary gay cowboy. Often I felt crushingly alone, but that part of my soul awakened in my youth by nature was becoming fully embodied.
Living on the mesa, where the only sounds I heard were windsong, the croaking of ravens, and scruffy coyotes yip yipping at the moon, I stopped wearing a wristwatch. I apprenticed to ‘nature time’ — slowing down and learning to watch clouds, shifting moods of light and weather — and discovered that the world around me was far more alive than I had ever imagined.
Somehow the wild aliveness of the natural world mirrored something hidden, powerful and essential in me. In a curious way, I felt I was finally coming home to myself — to the real me, the one I had always hoped to discover. A wild soul.
In the 1990’s, a trio of now-classic books launched the mythopoetic men’s movement: Iron John, by Robert Bly, Fire in the Belly, by Sam Keen, and King, Magician, Warrior, Lover, by Robert Moore. Collectively they sold more than two million copies. Bly, in particular, urged men to discover the Wild Man, the “deep male” within us, and legions of readers went into the woods with groups of others to bond and reclaim a deep part of their psyche, to embrace a new kind of masculinity — in touch with its wounds and shadows, reclaiming its rituals and also its wild heart.
Though this movement was mocked by media and the mainstream, and though it eventually faltered under a backlash from both men and women, something deep and essential had been touched, something close to the bone. In the decades since then, a host of men’s gatherings, workshops, trainings, ‘vision quests’ and wilderness ‘rites of passage’ work have sprung up, all of them focused on the deeper questions of what it means to be a man. A Wild Man or a wild soul — like the one I met while living on the untamed mesa.
A neo-movement is rising. A new generation seeks its own answers to the perennial question: what does it mean to be an authentic man connected to his wild soul? The question persists because deep down inside, under the armor and the surface persona, whether gay or straight, most men feel a sense of emptiness, that something essential is missing. We feel more powerless than powerful, and in a humdrum world we want desperately to feel alive.
Some years ago, apprenticing as a guide for an organization that leads wilderness-based ‘vision quests’, I began to realize the sheer numbers of men seeking something deeper than what their lives currently offer. We feel the deep longing for a life of authenticity and connection but don’t know how to move closer to or embody it; we’re trapped in our lives by chains of work, family, social pressures — or simply our own patterns.
A deep immersion in wilderness, especially in the company of other soul-seeking individuals as in ‘rites of passage’ work or a men’s gathering, is bound to change you and awaken the Wild Man. Not everyone needs such a catalyst, but most of us need something … because in the modern technoworld, where identity is only as deep as our business card, or the screen we’re staring at, we need something more.
In a modern urban culture, the vast majority of us are very disconnected from any sense of ‘wild’. We are thoroughly domesticated. Wedded to technology and distractions, any sense of wildness and nature has been effectively banished from our air-conditioned lives. The result is that we are severed from a deeper, authentic sense of ourselves — from our innate power and the sensual, wild soul. (To be clear, I mean ‘wild’ as in free, natural and unchained, not destructive or out of control.)
This doesn’t mean that we have to live in a log cabin on the side of a mountain, or on a sagebrush-strewn mesa; for most of us, that isn’t very practical for our work in the world. (And as gay men, it could get really, really lonely.) But it does mean that we need to get out into nature, because that is always the best place to discover or reconnect with the wild soul. Nature is our extended body and spirit — ecstatic, abundant, sensuous — and it awakens us to something ancient and wise.
Our citified, technological lifestyle severs us from nature and our true aliveness. Yet to discover our wild soul means we must also begin examining the other ways in which we keep ourselves domesticated, ‘safe’ and small: the patterns and habits that limit us, along with our Shadow — those repressed, hidden and undesirable parts that we have locked away.
Within each of us, in the silence between breaths, exists a deep longing. It’s a yearning for a larger life in which we feel connected, authentic, rooted, and powerful. This longing isn’t something that needs to be fixed; it is the summons of your wild soul.
There is a gift that only you can bring to the world. Discovering and then offering that forward is what the soul helps us to achieve, and in doing so, we come fully and authentically alive.
Brother, I dare you to go in search of your wild soul: whether in the wilderness, the urban jungle, or simply in your own heart, find him. He’s waiting for you.