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The Three Core Disciplines of an ARKA Brotherhood Men’s Group

*This is an updated version of an article first published on May 27, 2019.

Introduction

I wrote this post because I often encountered the question, “What exactly should we do in our meetings?” This question came up, explicitly or implicitly, just about every week when my then-co-Captain Chad McFarlin and I, along with our lieutenant Xiva Taverna, planned the Nighthawks meeting. 

We would go back and forth on questions like these. “Should we do father shares? What result would that produce for the men? How about doing the King Chair? Which would be better this week? Let’s do a grapple after the break to get the men into their bodies, wake them up for the second half of the meeting.” And so on… 

Lurking in the weeds as we sorted this out were these more general questions: 

  • What is a men’s group? 
  • What are we doing in our groups that produces the results we get? 
  • What helps us improve the results, and what does not? 

Phil Mistlberger has been clear about the first question, up to a point. He has repeatedly said that an ARKA Brotherhood squad is not a therapy group, it is not a spiritual group, it is a men’s group. 

I agree, based on my experience of all three. The next step is to sort out what a men’s group is, to develop a generally accepted conceptual structure or model to help us think more clearly about how the men in such a group produce the results we see and how to make the most of that. 

I spent a long time doing men’s work without feeling the need for a coherent answer to these questions. I started in 1986 with the Sterling Men’s Weekend. While with Sterling, I created and, for five years, ran an annual event we called the Grunt, in which 60 – 80 men spent a summer long weekend on projects such as building hiking trails for the Western Canada Wilderness Committee. I attended men’s conferences run by Robert Bly and Michael Mead, did the ManKind Project initiatory workshop, and since 1986 have usually been a member of a men’s team or a men’s support group, including one associated with Warrior Sage. I also did several Landmark programs, a spiritual development program called the Evolutionary Collective, several other workshops with mixed audiences of men and women, and have been in several mixed-sex support groups. 

Despite these many years of involvement in men’s work and other kinds of personal development, the question of how a successful men’s group works did not come into focus for me until after I joined the Samurai Brotherhood, which we now call the ARKA Brotherhood. I suspect that is because men’s work is part of an emerging cultural frontier and emergence takes place ahead of our capacity for explicit, conscious understanding. It is only after we have been doing something new for a while that we develop the ability to describe it. As we learn to describe what we are already doing, we increase our ability to manage and improve it deliberately. That is what motivated me to write this article. I want to know why the Brotherhood is so much better than the other men’s work I have done so that I can help us intervene competently to make it even better. It is more disciplined, competent, and powerful than other men’s work I have done, so how does that take place? Whatever that is, I want us to get better at it, cultivate it skillfully, and preserve its best characteristics as we grow. 

In this article, I suggest a general model that can help us align on a coherent, practical understanding of what a men’s group is. 

As you read this, I ask that you consider three questions, along with the others you may have. 

  • How would this model make it easier for you to plan and lead meetings and improve the quality of your squad? 
  • How would this model help us recognize what we have in common while leaving Captains and squads a free hand to develop squad sub-cultures and characters that serve them best? 
  • How would this model provide a framework for useful debate about the culture, policies and public communication of the ARKA Brotherhood as it grows? 

In my experience, a model is most effective when people hold it a bit loosely rather than treating it as a rigid template. That happens when people use the model in open discussions of what to do. My intention in writing this is to make such discussions more effective. 

What are we doing that produces the results we get?

I joined the Brotherhood at the October 2017 open house because of something striking about the Captains standing at the front of the room. 

One after another, they told us how much their lives had improved as a result of their being on Brotherhood squads and growing as leaders of the Brotherhood. I was impressed with the improvements they reported but even more by the energy these men radiated, standing there before us. They were thriving – at a time when many men were withering – and that thriving energy enrolled me. Since then, I have seen this energy emerge among the men of my squad, the Nighthawks, and I have experienced it myself. We’re thriving as a squad. Each of us is more alive. I am more alive. 

Given what I had witnessed as a member of the Brotherhood and other men’s groups, I wanted to know what is working here so we can cultivate it skilfully and preserve it as we grow. I began to ask these questions: 

How is it that a man joins the ARKA Brotherhood, spends two years on a squad, and winds up with a life so much better than the one he had when he started? 

More specifically, what are we doing that produces the results we get? What helps us improve the results, and what does not?” 

As a society, we are just beginning to explore men’s inner lives in ways that reflect what men’s experience actually is rather than prescribing what it should be. Consequently, how men’s transformation works is a bit of a cultural mystery. In a situation like this, it is natural to fall back on existing models like group therapy and personal development to understand what’s going on. But, as Phil Mistlberger has stated clearly and repeatedly, an ARKA Brotherhood squad is not a therapy group, and it’s not a spiritual group; it’s a men’s group. 

And a men’s group is…… precisely what? 

I didn’t have an answer until recently. 

The penny drops

The penny dropped during the September 2018 Open House. 

I was by then a squad Captain, standing in front of the audience with the other Captains while one of them spoke of the way his life had changed since he joined the Brotherhood. Scanning the crowd, I saw 80 men sitting absolutely still, listening with unequivocal intensity. Only 2 or 3 looked down, which made the complete concentration of the rest more evident. There was no whispering; there were no side conversations. 

That’s when it occurred to me – that’s what this is. That’s what I notice at our squad meetings: men listen with this intensity while one of their brothers tries to tell the truth about his life. 

What if it’s that simple? What if the transformation of men’s lives emerges from that kind of connection between one man speaking his truth and the others in the group listening? 

That got me started. 

The three core disciplines of a men’s group

I reflected on this experience, working on a unifying idea to help us pull the pieces together. I wanted that idea to be as literal and concrete as possible and to carry as little ideological baggage as possible from existing models and theories about men’s work. 

I concluded that there are three core disciplines: 

  1. Men telling the truth about their lives 
  2. Men listening for each other’s truth and witnessing it 
  3. Men creating the disciplined container of an ARKA Brotherhood squad within the larger container of the Brotherhood as a whole 

Learning and applying these disciplines generates the life of an ARKA Brotherhood squad and causes the men to thrive. 

These three disciplines are not unique to ARKA Brotherhood men’s work. They are found in therapy and spiritual development as well. However, in these other fields, people may do somewhat different things to carry out the three core disciplines, not use all three or add others we do not employ. Stripping men’s work down to the three core disciplines provides a framework that helps us to think about what we do, the actions, processes, beliefs, and nuances that work particularly well in men’s groups.

The diagram below summarizes the three core disciplines of a men’s group, with each discipline including three sub-disciplines. The three core disciplines provide the overall structure for thinking about what we do, and the sub-disciplines provide the detail we need for taking action.  

Three Core Disciplines diagram
(Original design credit: Jason Chau)

The specific, actionable sub-disciplines we practice in the ARKA Brotherhood

Speak the truth

Self-discovery 

Learn to speak the truth of your life, exploring, finding your way, and stumbling from time to time. 

Be curious about yourself. Find your edge. 

Build self-awareness and self-knowledge. 

Ownership 

Speak in the first person, using “I” statements. 

Acknowledge your mistakes and faults and your wins and strengths. 

Talk about what is actually going on with you, in your life and your world. We’re not here to listen to your Ted talk about personal development or the state of the world. 

Hone your words and develop your capacity for reason. Learn to speak accurately and responsibly.

Boundaries 

Speak your mind, be direct. 

Listen with both discernment and empathy. 

Ask for what you want: I want you just to listen/give feedback/offer advice. 

Push back when you are full, when men are “piling on”, and when men are giving advice when they would serve you better by listening and asking questions. 

Expect to be challenged. Sooner or later, your squad mates will tell you that you are blissfully unaware of something important that is blindingly obvious to them, that one of your most cherished beliefs is nonsense, or that you are just generally full of shit tonight.

At the same time, notice when your boundary is being crossed inappropriately and develop your ability to say “No” accurately. 

Listen for the truth

Presence 

Stay present while a man struggles with speaking the truth; more specifically:

Recognize and let go of the feelings and thoughts the man’s testimony triggers in you and focus back on him.

Recognize that your desire to give advice is often a bypassing technique that enables you to avoid the discomfort that witnessing a man’s testimony triggers in you. Treat listening as your growth edge. 

Allow for “the space between.” When a man pauses, he may be waiting for the next thing to emerge. Be silent, allowing that space to remain empty until he fills it. Empty space may make you anxious. You may want to jump in and fill it.
Resist that urge. 

Be attentive to the language the man uses, his tone and manner of speaking, and his body language. 

Do not allow distractions – phone, eating, checking the time. 

Inquiry 

When a man begins sharing, ask: What do you need from us? 

Ask open-ended questions to draw the man out and avoid questions that lead to a yes/no answer. 

When confused, ask for clarification: Please clarify that. 

When a man seems to have made his point, ask: Are you full? 

In general, show curiosity and interest through questions.

Reflection 

Mirror / summarize what the other man said, then ask: Did I get that right? If he says “No”, keep going until the speaker agrees that you got it right. Remember that understanding what the man said does not amount to agreeing with it. 

Acknowledge shared experiences to demonstrate that you get him. 

Look below the surface, and develop awareness of the shadow forces that may be at play.

Call bullshit when you sense the man is fooling himself. Responsibly calling a man’s attention to his blind spots is one of the most important gifts you can give him. 

Create the Disciplined Container

Cohesion 

The cohesion of each ARKA Brotherhood squad owes a great deal to the structure and culture of the Brotherhood as an organization.

Founding values: The Code of the Conscious Warrior, The Three Core Disciplines, and the more general values of initiative, autonomy, exploration, effectiveness in the world, and cultivation of leadership. 

The structure of guidance and accountability embraces all squads and members, providing direction, standards, and support. This structure runs from the Founder, Phil Mistlberger, through the CEOs, the Division Commanders, and the Captains to the individual squad members. 

Within the culture and structure of the Brotherhood, squads develop cohesion by practicing the following specific disciplines. 

Ask: Why the fuck are you here? Establish and share what brings and keeps you together.

Demand realness: get on with it / you’re wandering / you’re avoiding something. 

Keep the promises you make to yourself and others and produce results that improve your life. 

Invest in and care for each other’s success. 

Remember: you build trust by revealing yourself. This takes time. 

Study. Develop your masculine capacity for reason.

 Practice the Three Core Disciplines. 

Respect the Commitments (see below). 

The Captain steers the ship and maintains the squad’s connection with the organization. At the same time, all the men on the squad, including the Captain, are responsible for upholding and defending the rules, expectations, and culture of the squad and the Brotherhood as a whole. Apart from his specific duties, the Captain gets no special treatment from squad members. If anything, they hold him to a higher standard than the others. 

Commitments 

Follow the Code of the Conscious Warrior and the ARKA Code of Conduct.

Learn, improve, and make real changes in yourself and your outer life

Hold yourself accountable to the squad for keeping the promises you make to yourself and others. 

Pay on time, arrive on time, complete on time, and attend all meetings.

In general, insist that each man be accountable for taking action and producing concrete results in life. Require him to think through what is going on and what he should do about it so that he becomes progressively more competent. 

Respect 

Stay present while a man tells his truth is the cornerstone of masculine respect.

Show respect for masculinity and masculine values. 

Respectful disagreements and differences among members are essential to the dynamism of the ARKA Brotherhood. 

Learn and apply the codes, practices, and disciplines of the ARKA Brotherhood in squad meetings, Brotherhood events, and your daily life. 

Do not allow the men to disrespect the group container. For instance, do not allow anyone to co-opt it to act out their drama or advance an agenda unrelated to our mission.  

Produce demonstrable changes in both your outer life and your inner life

There is much more to an ARKA Brotherhood men’s group meeting than expressing your feelings, which is not an end in itself. Most importantly, men grow by demonstrably improving both their outer and inner lives and by challenging each other to keep the promises they make to themselves and others. 

Learning is a vital element of each of these disciplines

No man joins an ARKA Brotherhood squad knowing how to do everything listed above. No man ever completely masters them. In practice, the three core disciplines are 1) Learning to speak the truth, 2) Learning to listen for the truth, and 3) Learning to create the disciplined container. When a man stops learning through his participation in a squad, he should move on or at least step away for a quarter or more. If a squad stops learning, it effectively dies and should reinvent itself or disband. 

Concreteness and accuracy are essential warrior qualities

I have focused here mainly on tangible, visible matters because they provide a robust, practical starting point for answering the question, “What are we doing that produces the results we see?” 

I developed this approach during my consulting-coaching work with business executives. I have repeatedly been struck by how often experienced, successful businesspeople do not know what they are doing that is producing the results they get. It’s right under their noses, but they do not discern it because it lives in one of their blind spots. That creates problems when what they are doing, that they are not aware of, is producing results they do not like. Blind spots are part of the human condition – we often run on autopilot. For that reason, making the implicit explicit is essential to helping my clients excel when stepping up as leaders, leading turnarounds or explosive growth. 

Using this model to guide your squad

Here are some guidelines for practicing the three core disciplines. 

In general, treat this as an inquiry. Ask yourselves: do the specific actions we take, the processes we use, and the judgment calls we make help us behave in accordance with these three disciplines? 

More specifically, try things out and assess what happens by asking these questions: 

  1. Does this make us better at speaking the truth of our lives? 
  2. Does this make us better at listening for each other’s truth? 
  3. Does this help us build a better container for speaking and listening for the truth? 

Resist the urge to embellish. Keep this work simple and elegant. When thinking of adding something to improve your meetings respect this principle: 

Anything you add must make your use of the core disciplines more effective. Otherwise, let it go. 

Caveat

Participating in a Brotherhood squad has therapeutic effects but is not a substitute for professional therapy. A man may need specialized help for matters his squad mates lack the experience and training to help with. Being on a squad may help him identify his need for other support, but squad members, and particularly Captains, have to insist that the man go elsewhere for that help. The man can continue as a member of the squad unless his issues are damaging it. 

Participating in a Brotherhood squad also enables a man to develop what gives meaning to his life, but a Brotherhood squad is not a spiritual group. If a man wants to go down a spiritual path, he must do that work separately from participating in his squad. 

A man is free to do whatever personal work he wants outside of his involvement with the ARKA Brotherhood. This independence of thought and action is a fundamental value of the ARKA Brotherhood. 

Brotherhood and respect

The three core disciplines, as articulated above, provide us with a good model for understanding the transformative power of participating in an ARKA Brotherhood squad. Still, there is one more thing to include in order to have a deeper understanding of how and why a men’s group works. 

This one thing is the generative power that emerges when we use the three core disciplines consistently for an extended time within an ARKA squad. 

I believe this generative power is brotherhood itself, the elusive dimension or quality of relating among men that emerges in a disciplined, purposeful group of men. Put differently, brotherhood emerges as a group of men work together on something important to all of them. 

Something about the container we create in the ARKA Brotherhood, the specific ways we speak and listen, and the masculine qualities we are encouraged to bring to our conversations, generates brotherhood. This emergent quality, brotherhood, causes men to go beyond doing well to thriving. 

I further believe that the emergence of brotherhood is highly sensitive to respect. Respect is the essential quality of brotherhood. As practiced in the ARKA Brotherhood, the three core disciplines help men show the healthy, masculine respect for each other that I have consistently seen in good-quality men’s work. Here are some of the characteristics of this kind of respect. 

Disciplined conversation that provides the vehicle for constructively challenging each other, which leads to accountability, competence, and success 

Highly competent focus on personal development accompanied by accountability for producing inner growth and concrete results in the world 

Effective personal boundaries in play among the men in the group 

Support for masculinity and masculine values 

We are defining a form of brotherhood that works for today’s men. It is emerging to replace the cultural practices men formerly followed in establishing boundaries and engaging with each other. I will explore the origins, requirements, benefits, and shadow of brotherhood elsewhere. 

Trust, love and caring

Trust is built, love develops, and while one man may experience your “caring” as a gift another may find it to be an imposition. All three are visible and necessary qualities of an established, successful men’s group, and you can bring intention to them. But they are not disciplines. Somewhat like happiness, they emerge during the course of life and are best approached indirectly. Human beings are born with the capacity to have these kinds of experiences and when we practice the three core disciplines we cultivate relationships and a container that help them emerge. 

Explaining the ARKA Brotherhood to non-members

Whether inviting a man to an open house or talking with someone curious about the Brotherhood, the three core disciplines provide a simple, straightforward way to explain what we do in our squad meetings. You could say something like this:

Our work has three parts. Each man is learning to speak the truth about his life, the other men on his squad are learning to listen for that truth, and all of us are learning how to create a suitable container for those conversations. We find that this, on its own, improves our lives. 

The person you are speaking with may press you further, asking what you are doing that is specific to a men’s group. If that happens, you can refer to the ARKA Code of the Conscious Warrior and Code of Conduct and refer again to our consistent observation that when men meet in our squads their lives start to better. 

Summary / Conclusion / Next steps

I have been active in men’s workshops and men’s groups since 1986 years, and our work in the ARKA Brotherhood is the best I have seen so far. I want to know what makes it so, and because I think by writing, I wrote this post to help me understand what we are doing that produces the results we get. I am publishing it in the hope that it will be helpful to you as well. 

I have built a model that will help us think coherently about what we are doing that produces the results we have been getting. The model is based on three core disciplines, each of which is broken down into three major sub-disciplines: 

Men speaking the truth of their lives 

Self-discovery / Ownership / Boundaries 

Men listening for the truth 

Presence / Inquiry / Reflection 

Men creating the disciplined container of an ARKA Brotherhood squad, within the larger container of the Brotherhood as a whole 

Cohesion / Commitments / Respect 

The three core disciplines provide structure, the sub-disciplines provide traction. Practicing these disciplines consistently over time generates brotherhood, and brotherhood causes men to thrive. 

In writing this, I have tried to be as nuts and bolts as possible in describing what we do, staying away from ideology. The purpose is to identify what works particularly well for men’s groups. If it works, use it. 

This model will help us think through subtle matters, make better decisions, and have more coherent discussions about the Brotherhood. If you use it, please hold it loosely, not as dogma. 

In practical terms, consider asking these three questions: 

  1. How would this model make it easier for you to plan and lead meetings and improve the quality of your squad? 
  2. How would this model help us recognize what we have in common while also leaving Captains and squads a free hand to develop their own distinctive squad sub-cultures and characters? 
  3. How would this model provide a framework for useful conversations about the culture, policies, and public communication of the ARKA Brotherhood as it rapidly grows? 

This model is one piece in a larger, more extended conversation. You may have a different view of the core disciplines or how to act on them. Let’s discuss that. 

 

NOTE: I am grateful to Matt Cooke for his contributions to this update of my original article. This is a work in progress, and I welcome your comments.

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2 Comments. Leave new

  • I agree with the bulk of the article and appreciate you breaking things down into their most simplistic elements. The one thing that seems off to me is the spiritual part. Personal growth is inherently spiritual. Witnessing people find their most vibrant alive selves, I don’t know how that could NOT be spiritual.

    Reply
  • Leslie Colin Genge
    March 18, 2024 3:24 pm

    My 27 years experience in a men’s group Puts me in agreement with pretty much everything you’ve written.

    It would be nice to have a shorter version for those totally unfamiliar with this work. You seem to have repeated the basic ideas several times. That may be confusing for some.

    Reply

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