The Descent

I am not a mechanism, an assembly of various sections.
And it is not because the mechanism is working wrongly, that I am ill.
I am ill because of wounds to the soul, to the deep emotional self,
and the wounds to the self take a long, long time,
only time can help
and patience, and a certain difficult repentance
long difficult repentance, realisation of life's
mistake, and the freeing oneself
from the endless repetition of the mistake
which mankind at large has chosen to sanctify.

D. H. Lawrence, Healing

In 2012, the same year I met my wife, I began a number of other relationships which have had a big influence on the direction of my life. That was the year I began my counselling training – an experience which has changed so much my relationship with myself – and with other people. It was also the year when, full of zeal and self-belief after participating in a transformative personal development course called The Journey, I co-facilitated the first meeting of my men’s group, the Silvatici, an experience which left me feeling so emotionally bruised that the universe and I conspired together not to attend another meeting for six months while I explored the painful wound which it had re-opened, a wound which in my naivity and bravado I had assumed had long since healed up.

As the D. H. Lawrence poem above suggests, this is not the way deep psychic or emotional wounds work. They never completely heal. Like a broken arm sustained during a childhood adventure, they tend to ache on damp days, reminding us of our mortality and the recklessness of youth. It seems obvious, but in my impatient striving towards a transcendent perfection I will never achieve, it wasn’t until about halfway through my counselling training that I really began to experience the truth of this. I also owe a significant debt to a book called Iron John, the first fifty pages of which I read back in 2012 and which I picked up again recently and could not put down. I really cannot recommend this book enough.

Iron_JohnAt the beginning of his book, in the chapters I read back in 2012, Robert Bly talks at length about Sacred Wounds, the mythological idea that it is that which has hurt us most in life which has the potential to be our greatest strength. The notion that my deep emotional wounds – the things that I am most challenged or limited by – could be transformed into a source of strength and my greatest gift to the world, really resonated with me at the time. Even though I could readily perceive these wounds as limitations I desperately wanted to overcome, I was unable at that point to connect with them on an emotional level – I didn’t realise I needed to. The pledge I made to myself at the end of The Journey – to go fearlessly into the world – was built upon a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of personal change.

So on that mild December afternoon back in 2012 when I met with an assorted group of men (some of whom I knew well, others I did not) for the first meeting of the men’s group that would later become The Silvatici, the particular wound associated with my self-image when I’m in a group of men (which I describe in more detail here) manifested as nervousness which I did my best to surpress. My promise to myself to be fearless fresh in my mind, I wanted very badly to create a sacred space which we could step into together and I somehow imagined that without any real experience I would  be able to hold the group in order for this to happen. My downfall was brought about by a subtle interaction with a man who was threatened by my suggestion that our circle was not a place for drinking or getting stoned or joking around. So brittle was the identity I had created for myself (activist, counsellor, wise man of the world) that all it took was for this man to interupt me when, a short while later, it was my turn to speak my heart in the sharing circle. For the rest of the afternoon I went through the motions with a smile fixed on my face, I was even able to convince myself that I wasn’t hurting inside but when I got home my composure disintegrated as I lay sweating on my bed and began a descent into a world of pain I thought I had long ago left behind. Bly captures the essence of this experience.

Your inner psychology changes as an old shame surfaces, one walks with head down and feels it's all inevitable. The inner masculine self changes. While one is still grandiose and naive, a young man lives inside, shiny-faced, expectant, hopeful, dandified, a prince. After the Descent begins, an old man takes the place of the prince. To one's amazement a helpless, anti-social, brittle, isolated derelict takes over.

Robert Bly, Iron John

I realise now I was puffed up at the beginning of The Journey and I was even more puffed up at the end. I was just like the young man Bly describes; grandiose and naive, shiny-faced, expectant, hopeful, dandified, a prince. Little did I know that – in my case at least – the extraordinary moments I experienced on the course were not transformative in themselves as I supposed but set me up for a much needed fall from my princehood which would ultimately become radically transformative. That seemingly innocuous interuption (which felt to me more like a castration) marked the beginning of a process which Bly calls “taking the road of ashes, descent and grief”,  a deeply humbling and painful journey which would last for several months but would ultimately enable me to begin emotionally engaging with my wounds and so start the lifelong process of transforming them into strengths.

I was inspired to visit Embercombe – the home of The Journey –  and to eventually participate in the course after hearing Embercombe’s founder, Tim “Mac” Macartney tell the story of The Children’s Fire at the Plaw Hatch Farm raw food festival in Sussex in 2011. This is a very powerful story and Mac is a very powerful storyteller and to say that he made an impression on me that day is something of an understatement. I urge readers to take the time to hear Mac’s telling of the story themselves…

That day Mac told another story about a young man who was – at that very moment – making his way on foot towards Embercombe along the River Teign, a journey which marked the conclusion of a three day vision quest,  a self-constructed rite of passage reminiscent of an Australian Aborigine Walkabout. I didn’t know until that moment that my heart was crying out for initiation too. It was crying out for initiation in that men’s group meeting in 2012 and it still is today, despite the fact that I have been through a number of extraordinary initiatory experiences since: I feel I have a lot of catching up to do – and so tomorrow I head to Snowdonia to participate in The Descent – the course which follows on from The Journey in Embercombe’s Circle of Fire programme. Having a sense of what may be in store for me, when he heard what I was doing a good friend commented, “Haven’t you put yourself through enough?”

As I sit here contemplating the challenge of the week ahead all I can think of to say in response to this is that these are desperate times. Perhaps our adolescent, grandiose society now needs very badly to take the road of ashes, descent and grief. Giving what we’re witnessing during these tumultuous times, perhaps no other future is now possible.