Why does a man engage in men’s work? For many reasons. At the top of the list are likely some ideas around healing (whether vaguely or clearly formulated in his mind), alongside a recognized need for deeper interpersonal connections, and what he understands as personal development. Once he successfully integrates into a men’s group, where does he go from there? A natural development is into leadership of some form, but this option is not always available, or even desirable, for many men.
I have long taught that the highly developed man is close to the ideal of the Renaissance man. This term however can be problematic, as typically it has been associated solely with the acquisition of knowledge (across many fields) and broad intellectual training, or of the man supremely gifted (for example, Leonardo da Vinci). The kind of Renaissance man I am referring to is not one merely trained intellectually, or gifted artistically, but one who is also developed at the level of being.
Gurdjieff referred to two types of men: men of knowledge, and men of being. He maintained that the latter is more powerful. But he was not dismissing the man of knowledge. On the contrary, he himself was knowledgeable. His point was that wide learning needs to be balanced with the development of being.
(A third type of man, the man of ignorance, is probably the most common. This is a man who has not developed the ability to think critically and lacks at least some basic education in general areas of learning (science, history, literature, art, etc.), not to mention personal development. However it is assumed that any man even reading this blog, is likely already past this point and is at least beginning his journey toward knowledge and being).
Dilettantes, Specialists, and the Polymath
The dilettante is one who may be widely familiar with many areas of learning, but rarely goes deeply into anything. His knowledge is superficial. Dilettantism is a problem in current times owing largely to the Internet, which affords us rapid information bites that may seem to discount or even discourage the need for looking deeper. This also fuels the culture of myth-making, via conspiracy theories based on cherry-picking data to reinforce emotional anti-authoritarian complexes. Most dilettantes are harmless, but occasionally they can be dangerous. ‘Witch-hunts’, both the literal and metaphoric varieties, are largely driven by dilettantes.
The specialist has gone deeply into one, or perhaps a few, niche areas of learning, but commonly lacks breadth of knowledge and is often surprisingly ignorant of general or even classical areas of learning.
The polymath is one with a wide scope of interests who has also managed to gain thorough understanding in many of those areas. A Renaissance man is a polymath (from the Greek polymathes, ‘knowing much’). He may also have widely developed creative talents.
The Man of Being
The Man of Being is one who does not avoid life.
How does a man develop at the level of being? By moving forward, facing into his life. The Man of Being is one who does not avoid life. He gains life-experience by facing into his lessons, not recoiling from them or hiding out.
As to which lessons must be faced, a man needs to take an impartial survey of his life (and this can be surprisingly hard). If, for example, he is deficient in experiencing romantic relationships, he first must admit that to himself. The next step is to then gain life-experience in this area, by moving in that direction. He must make the decision to face into his fears of rejection and inadequacy.
Or if he is deficient in the area of physical health and strength, he must admit that to himself, and then begin to take steps toward developing in that area (perhaps by training in a martial art, for example). Likewise for intellectual training, or artistic training, and so on.
A man counters his fear of life by developing courage. He develops courage by intentionally going toward what he fears, not away from it. (Common sense must be used here. This is not a recipe for reckless, stupid actions, or justification for acting disrespectfully).
The general rule of thumb is, whenever faced with the choice between the known and the unknown, choose the unknown (provided it is not harmful toward others or yourself). This is close to the old Rabelaisian edict, do what thou wilt, meaning, to explore and allow one’s deeper will to manifest—again, provided it causes no unnecessary harm to others—or to Nietzsche’s become what you are. I will leave it to the reader to unriddle those. In general, choosing the unknown over the known makes us sharper, more intelligent, and more courageous. (Again, use common sense. The ‘unknown’ for a married man with children will be different for the ‘unknown’ for a young unattached man, or an elderly widower).
The main block in the way of a man developing at the level of being, is fear. There are two particular fears to briefly consider here: fear of women, and fear of men. (These generally apply regardless of sexual orientation).
Fear of Woman
For men, fear of women is more common than supposed, and often not talked about among men for fear of not just what women will think, but for fear of what men will think.
Many men fear the spontaneity, instinctiveness, and seeming irrationality of women. Many men think women do not know how to ‘hold space’—that is, to non-reactively listen with attention—or seem very unwilling to. Many men resent what seems to them to be obvious double-standards (the woman desiring the man to witness her intense emotionality, while being unable or unwilling to witness his). And moreover, many men fear even mentioning these fears, and the anger often accompanying them, in the current sociological climate, for fear of being labeled with the dreaded pejorative ‘patriarchal’, or worse, as a misogynist.
Many men deeply fear the loss of approval of women, and to that end, will willingly fight against men or perceived patriarchal standards if that will gain him approval from women. Many such men desperately seek this approval from women because they dislike or even hate their fathers and deep down do not care about the approval of men—or even believe such approval would be possible, let alone worth much. That is, they have no direct experience of, let alone faith in, the fellowship of healthy men.
Fear of Men
The fear of men is an equally significant fear and for some men, can be crippling. When Freud first talked about the idea of ‘castration anxiety’, many assumed over the years that he was referring to a man’s fear of losing his power to a woman. But in fact Freud was referring to a man’s fear of being crushed or defeated by his father. Many men carry the fear that if they truly break through in life to a higher level or to any level of notable success, some older male figure will be there to swat them down, to undermine them, or to crush them. Success = being crushed, is a core-level fear, typically buried in the unconscious, that many men must face and overcome. A typical way this fear will surface is by it being played out in the current relationships of one’s life. For example, a man achieves some level of success, and then finds ‘evidence’ that older male figures in his life are not applauding his success, or are perhaps even discounting it or trying to diminish it. If he focuses on this ‘evidence’ it will grow in his mind and will eventually ‘get’ to him, reinforcing his core level negative beliefs.
How does a man overcome these fears? This is done in two general steps:
- Acknowledgement of the fears. This usually requires confession to at least one other person, or a trusted group.
- Demonstration, acting as if the fear is not controlling him.
The first step is the basis of psychotherapy. The second step is the key to transformation. And I will say little more here, for it must be part of the initiation process of every man to stumble his way through this path, in order to find out what works for him. A man should not spend excessive time processing his fears, talking endlessly about them, hiding out in years of psychotherapy. Some work in therapy is important and needed, but ultimately, a man transforms himself via what we call acts of power.
Acts of Power lead to the Transformation of Fear into Passion
All the therapy and personal development workshops and trainings in the world, all the books in the world, or deep contemplation and meditation, will not result in actual transformation, in actual quality of being, if not grounded in acts of power.
In this context, an ‘act of power’ means a visible and tangible demonstration of an action in one’s life that shows that one is unwilling to be controlled by fear of consequences. Again, this must be accompanied by temperance. ‘Temperance’ as we mean it here, refers to moderation and avoiding extremes of behaviour fuelled by negative emotions. An ‘act of power’ is not a foolish or reckless or arrogant demonstration. It is rather a courageous movement toward the unknown, a venturing forward in spite of fear.
Fear has its biological purposes—it’s useful to fear the train headed straight toward you if standing in its way—but psychologically, fear is often reducible to distorted excitement. Fear is very much like disguised passion. When we get in the practice of moving forward in life, in the direction of the unknown, our eyes gradually adjust to the dark. As Roethke once said, ‘in a dark time, the eye begins to see’.
As we ‘adjust to the dark’, our fears gradually transform into passion, gusto, zest for life. A Man of Being is one who has self-confidence because he is in the habit of looking things straight-on. Naturally, this also leads to increased curiosity on his part. He grows deeply curious about the wondrous universe he is travelling through, and accordingly, his curiosity leads to him developing abilities, talents, and ultimately, wisdom. He becomes a Renaissance Man.
Totality and the King
To be total in one’s actions is, in this context, to be impeccable—that is, to always give it your best shot.
The key ingredient that brings all this together is totality. To be total in one’s actions is, in this context, to be impeccable—that is, to always give it your best shot. When cooking a meal for someone, do your best. When reading a book, pay attention to what the author is saying. When outside in an urban environment, pay attention to the buzz of life around you, as if you are in a dream where you know that you are dreaming. If in Nature, notice what is really there, and open up to what Blake called ‘infinity in the palm of your hand’. If with your intimate partner, don’t take them for granted—be with them as if it is the first time. When in the quiet contemplation of your thoughts, or when engaging a mundane activity, do it with presence. Squeeze the juice entirely out of the lemon. Leave nothing on the playing field.
Ghosts only persist when there is unfinished business. Get in the habit of finishing things, and the king within you will emerge.
The Renaissance Man, the benevolent King, the Man of Being—these are all terms that describe a man who has consistently tried his best. The end result of all this is to become a man who basically lacks self-pity. The absence of self-pity may be said to define part of the realized man. Such a man may have more than his share of hardships (inevitable with aging), but the attitude remains one of being free of defeatism. That enables him to truly be of use to other men. He can support other men because he is not consumed by his own drama. He is not self-absorbed. Therefore, he can pay attention. He can broadcast presence.
To ‘broadcast presence’ is to have gravitas, or weighty presence, based on the ability to show interest in the reality-world of another person. A man who is a worthy leader always has this quality. He is not a perfect man. The idea of ‘perfection’ is a sterile ideal projected onto authority figures based on the childish desire to find the perfect parent. But the worthy leader is one who has compassion for the human condition precisely because he has not been overcome by self-importance, self-absorption, and self-pity.
To be a Renaissance Man, a benevolent King, a Man of Being, is to grow, learn, and avoid getting stuck in resentments and fears. The end result is a man who can truly help others.