Report: Men Gathering at Marino Institute May 1995

A Report: Alan A. Mooney

The last meeting of this kind was held at Bellinter in the latter part of 1994 (see report, Inside Out Winter 1994). This one day workshop for men was organised as a follow-up to that gathering and was designed to bring men together to explore questions around loss and belonging. Of course every­one, male and female, experiences loss and grief in their lives and everyone finds ways of dealing with these issues. Some of these ways are healthy and create healing, others are destructive and cause loss and pain to be carried around in ways that cause more pain, isolation and hurt. This workshop was for men to work on these issues with other men.

Another part of the agenda for the day was to explore possibilities of networking since many men had indicated they would like to have regular smaller meetings.

What is important about men gathering like this is that it is so unusual for them to take the risk of coming together with the intention of opening them­selves with other men. From these meetings it seems clear that men are un­comfortable with other men and feel isolated and suspicious of each other. Yet there is a longing to make more than superficial connection. The desire is there to break through the privacy, separateness and ‘status games’. The men who come to these gatherings are aware that they are not satisfied with themselves, there is something missing. Without necessarily knowing why, these men want to reconnect with other men and they discover that trying to do that brings up very strong feelings, often very old feelings of loss or anger, fear or loneliness (a loneliness specifically about the absence of men in their lives – fathers, brothers, close male friends).

John Rowan (from London) who is a well known workshop leader and psychotherapist in the humanistic and integrative field and who has facilitated men’s gatherings internationally was the facilitator for the day and he began by looking at the kind of cultural, political and social philo­sophies that have created the Patriarchal world in which we live. He began to explore the price men have paid for their power and to acknowledge the damage this kind of power has wrought on both women and men.

The group was large, more than 70 people and the backgrounds were varied. Initially the way John began the gathering seemed to be in conflict with the expectations of some of the group, (some people thought the day was to be more of a ‘nuts & bolts’ type, e.g. how to set up and run men’s groups), there was some discussion that became heated for a while about the way the day was shaping up and the group asked John to rejig the format to allow a good proportion of time for the participants to work together in groups.

In order to help clarify expectations we broke into small groups to explore our hopes and expectations for the day and this helped us to express the reasons that brought us to the group.

We learned that there was a lot of common feeling and experience in the room and that most of us wanted to listen to the stories of success and failure, love and hate, sadness and happiness. Essentially we simply wanted to do this with each other and to feel heard by other men. At this point John Rowan took a ‘back seat’, he moved among the groups, listening in to the discussions.

Later, after lunch John organised a ‘fish-bowl’. All the chairs were placed in concentric circles with the smallest (about 8 chairs) left empty so that, as John explained, these chairs could be taken by anyone in the group who wanted to speak or express feelings on issues that were important to him. These seats were quickly taken and the central circle became a therapy group facilitated by John Rowan. As each person finished whatever piece of work he needed to do he vacated the chair and it was filled by someone else. It was intended that this piece of work would last about half an hour but in fact it went on for over an hour.

Whatever the story or piece of personal work done in the fish-bowl the overall sense among us was the clear awareness for a deeper, richer, stronger connection between men. This felt good and the feedback indicated that the men present were touched by the experience of listening to and resonating with the tragic, fear-filled, joyful stories that mirrored their own lives.

Nevertheless, there was a sense of fragmentation about the day. Earlier John Rowan had proposed that during the later part of the day we would engage in a ‘ritual of initiation’ but when the time arrived to do this some of the participants thought it would be inappropriate because they considered that such a point of integration had not been reached. A discussion followed and some decided to opt out of the ritual while the majority agreed to go ahead with it. Since I was one of those who chose not to go ahead I can’t report on this aspect of the day. Those of us not participating went outside where the sun was shining and continued to talk about the issues of the day and to discuss possibilities of continuing to meet for support.

When the whole group got together again it was agreed that some of us would take responsibility to get in touch with others to arrange ongoing support groups to meet regularly. The day finished with a closing circle with most people expressing the thought that it had been a valuable gathering despite the fragmentation.