A Band of Brothers

Theseus and the Minotaur

The purpose of my vision quest last September was to perform a ceremony whereby I would initiate myself into full adulthood.

Rites of passage is a familiar concept for most people in our culture, but nonetheless we tend to underplay the importance of ceremonially marking life’s big transitions. We take for granted that at various points in our lives we will experience rites of passage of one kind or another. Births, marriages and deaths are the most common ones. Losing my virginity, my first time getting drunk and stoned, my first gig and festival, first pill, passing exams, first job, first car, going travelling, first time engaging in direct action – for me these were all rites of passage, or seemed to be at the time, the best subjective markers I could offer myself of my growth and development as a human being.

At the age of seventeen my three closest friends and I made a sincere attempt to initiate ourselves into the community of adult men in a rudimentary ceremony involving copious amounts of alcohol, pin pricks of blood and vigorous handshakes all round. It was silly and we laughed about it afterwards but it was also a very meaningful moment in our young lives. These were very meaningful friendships and still are. I remember other times when the four of us would find ourselves openly weeping together as we expressed our love for one another and the deep support and acceptance we experienced in our relationships during that chaotic, adolescent period in our lives. The fact that these occasional weeping sessions were also catalysed by copious amounts does not diminish my gratitude that I had such a loving and emotionally open set of friendships with other boys at a stage in my life when I was struggling to figure out how to become a man.

I’m reminded of this very moving and enjoyable blog about the nature of boyhood friendship and the discomfort we can often feel in our culture about this kind of emotionally intimate relationship between boys, how they are subtly and not-so-subtly frowned upon so that by the time most men reach adulthood they have been conditioned out of relating to other men in this way.

These teenage friendships of mine set the bar pretty high. Five years ago I helped to establish The Silvatici, a men’s group which over the years has matched them in terms of openness and support, helping me to navigate my journey with my wounded masculinity and deepening my understanding of what it means to be a well balanced, psychologically healthy heterosexual man in the twenty-first century. In our own gentle way we have attempted to guide and initiate one another, I think failing in this endeavour as often as we have succeeded.

In indigenous communities it is the task of the older men to initiate the younger men into the community of adult men. Often this will initially involve the young men (or boys at this stage) physically leaving their mothers in the women’s compound and moving in with their fathers and older brothers in the men’s compound. This process roughly equates to the first stage of Severance in a vision quest, that of leaving the familiar world and taking the first steps on an adventure into scary and unfamiliar territory. Made explicit in this indigenous process is the idea that it requires men to initiate men. A woman cannot initiate a man and a man cannot initiate himself.

When I returned from my vision quest last September I believed I had successfully initiated myself. This soon turned out not to be the case. Looking back, I realise it was the most useful lesson the quest had to teach me, as well as the most painful.

How I understand it now is that the experience of the quest and what happened to me afterwards is more akin to the pupal stage of a caterpillar. I journeyed inward and downward and for a while I was lost down there, like Theseus traversing the labyrinth of King Minos, hunting and being hunted by the fearsome Minotaur. I’m thankful that there were plenty of friends keeping me company in my lostness during this difficult time but, with increasing urgency, I needed someone – or something – to set the stage for the final battle, when I would come face to face with and fight my demons, so that I could emerge out of the labyrinth into daylight and finally start my life as an initiated man.

This is when A Band of Brothers came along. ABOB is a voluntary organisation which initiates and mentors young men from the criminal justice system. Older men, many of whom do not have any formal mentoring experience, are initiated in the same way and trained to become mentors for these younger men. Like a lot of men in my men’s group, for a long time I was suspicious and cynical about ABOB. The consensus seemed to be that they were probably a bunch of willy wavers. Nonetheless we were all curious and sensed there was a lot they could teach us.

As is so often the strange way with these things, the scene was set for my invitation to participate in an ABOB initiation during my vision quest. I travelled to Dartmoor for my quest last September with a man a few years older than me who has been involved with ABOB for a number of years. Here was a man who was clearly on a similar path to me, facing many of the same challenges and asking many of the same difficult questions. Furthermore, he did not seem to be a willy waver. On my return to Sussex after the quest I resolved to find out more about ABOB but a number of months were to pass until the time was right for me to take the next step. At a perfect moment I reached out to this man and an invitation to attend A Band Of Brothers initiation weekend was given to me.

I’m struggling to figure out how to tell the story of my experience of this initiation weekend without giving away too much. What I want to do is crystallise the wisdom and the insight I gained from the experience into a few paragraphs and yet I realise that this is going to be very difficult to do. I’m reminded of that famous line from The Matrix, spoken by Morpheus (the older initiated man who embodies the Magician archetype) to Neo (the younger, uninitiated man embodying the Hero archetype) at the moment right before he’s invited to step across the Threshold (the second stage of a vision quest) and begin his descent: “Unfortunately no one can be told what the Matrix is, you have to see it for yourself”.

Unfortunately no one can be told what an ABOB initiation is, you have to experience it for yourself.

Given this inconvenient fact, this is the best I can do: I knew that a part of me was crying out to be initiated. I knew that part of me was still tangled up in childish patterns of behaviour which, transferred into my adult life, were manifesting in destructive ways. I’ve spent many hours and many thousands of pounds on counselling and psychotherapy which has given me a detailed understanding of the processes which feed my fears and thus hold me back from living fully. I’ve completed an extremely difficult counselling training and gone onto become a therapist who has supported a lot of people through the darkest chapters of their lives. I’m proud of what I’ve achieved. I’ve undeniably grown up a lot. And yet through all of this there has been a shadowy aspect of myself which has worked tirelessly to sabotage me, in order to keep me in safe and familiar territory. Since my vision quest I’ve become painfully aware of this part of myself.

In their best selling book King, Warrior, Magician, Lover, Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette suggest that many of the emotional and psychological challenges that men (and women) face relate to the fact that parts of their psyche have not yet reached a fully mature stage of development. According to Moore and Gillette, for many of us, Man Psychology has not yet superseded Boy Psychology. The ABOB initiation is a two day ceremony designed to facilitate the transformation from Boy Psychology to Man Psychology. I’ve attended my fair share of “transformational” workshops. I thought I’d seen it all, but I was completely bowled over by the power and the potency of the ceremonial container that around 35 initiated ABOB men created for me and the 16 other uninitiated men who accompanied me across the Threshold, like Neo taking the red pill and choosing to see “how far down the rabbit hole goes”.

Pretty far down, as it turns out. The initiation process invited in each of us a greater degree of depth, courage, vulnerability and trust than I had ever before witnessed in a therapeutic group process. During the course of the weekend it was like I underwent a shift on a cellular level which I experienced as a deep sigh of relief which reverberated throughout my body as I realised that something which had been missing my whole life was gradually slotting into place. It was like coming home. And actually, in essence, it was so simple: A community of initiated men offering deep acceptance and emotional support for a group of uninitiated men, providing us with an experience of being welcomed, challenged, celebrated and initiated into our full masculinity and the community of adult men.

I cannot speak for other men, but it was an experience I needed in order to recognise and embrace the healthy masculine energy which I had disowned a long time ago because I had concluded it was dangerous and destructive. I realise now I had thrown out the baby with the bath water.

With great relief and gratitude and I know I can now return to my vision circle in September to spend the night and formally end the ceremony which began there a year earlier. Incorporation, the third and final stage of my vision quest will continue, but I believe that the hardest part of this particular quest has come to an end. It’s with excitement, trepidation and a growing sense of readiness that I acknowledge that there are of course many, many other quests yet to come.