Men In Circle

This article was posted on The Circle Way website. I’ve also uploaded a  PDF version here.


It starts with a drum beat, often. Eleven of us, all men, aged between late 30s and mid 70s, standing together around a three foot diameter drum suspended before us. We each have a drum stick, which we begin to use together in simple, collective beat. The drum itself has a story of where it came from, just as we eleven each have a story of where we came from, that we are eager to explore in this semi-annual retreat. “We” includes those that work in regular 9:00 – 6:00 jobs. Some are retired from 30-40 years of career, and wondering what is next. Some now volunteer with local communities. Some are fathers, and sons. There is ceremony in this drumming together, in this beginning. It feels natural and potent. We are gathered for men’s work, which will have many aspects to it. Circle and it’s premises will help us shift from social connection to a deep listening group of men together.

Circle will help us find our stories together. Get past an initial not knowing what to say with each other. A bit like an oxygen mask restores what our autonomous nervous system knows to do — breath and restore circulation. We will pass a talking piece. Many times over three days together. Each of us will have opportunity to share, to think out loud. Each of us will have opportunity to witness and do what is long forgotten for many, yet so needed. We will debunk a pervasive mythology that we are alone in our stories, and that we should carry them in separateness. Alone in our suppressed emotions. Alone in our not knowing how to return to what American poet and author, Robert Bly calls “original radiance.”

From many experiences over the last twenty years (in most, 25% men and 75% women), I havelearned that men want to be thoughtful together. Whether in men’s work, or in the contemporary lives of leadership as doctors, lawyers, government officials, educators, mechanics, plumbers and such. It’s just a story that men don’t want to share, or can’t share. Men want to share openly. Men have much to contribute.

My friend and colleague Quanita Roberson started a project a few years ago that demonstrated this yearning that men have to contribute. Her project started as a a few bits of advice to gift to a thirteen year old boy, but then turned into a book. She asked me and 65 other men, “What do you wish someone would have told you when you were 13?” The men she asked ranged from their 20s to 70s, were born and raised in eleven different countries, and were from diverse stages of life, artistry, spirituality and sexual orientation.

Says Quanita, “What struck me most in their responses was how generous and thoughtful they were in sharing their wisdom with me, and therefore with Jason, a boy that only one of them knew. In the questioning, and their answering, I realized that we [as contemporary society] are asking men for everything but their wisdom, and that they are desperate to share it. There is something in them that knows this wisdom is needed now. There is something in them that knows our boys are lost without it. Maybe some of them have been lost without it as well.”

Wise together. It’s different than wise alone. There may not be a drum in the room. But there will always be the possibility of a circle. Men, joining with women, people joining together, to be wise. Many men, but gladly not all, have just forgotten form in a way that many woman have not. We’ve forgotten how helpful it can be to slow down to listen with ample pauses. To include silence as part of our speaking. To just feel, not fix. To elder each other into a presence and ability to stand in today’s complex world.

The circle is for men too. Never doubt it. This is a call to men. Men, please hear it. Join in circle. Make it part of you. Make it part of your leadership. Be part of an evolving and available healthy masculine. Listen. Share. Discover. Be moved. Be moving.

It was one of the other men, Chandu, whom I have met now at two weekend events, who summed it up nicely for Quanita’s book given to her 13 year-old friend. “Remember perfect doesn’t mean infallible; frail doesn’t mean weak; strong doesn’t mean right. Start with empathy; love will follow.” That’s what men have to contribute, and remember in circle.


A footnote: I read a draft of this article to my 11 year-old son. I think I wanted to share it with him to seed an idea and alertness in him, perhaps more for his future 21 year-old self. He was working on a picture puzzle when I read it to him, moving the orange colored pieces around at that moment. I asked him if it would be ok for me to read to him what I’d been writing. His response surprised and delighted me, which he added without blinking. “I have one more thing to add. Men have been mean, you know. Like not letting woman vote. And they have been told to protect their families and told not to cry. But men have feelings too. They’ve just been taught to keep them inside and not share them. But we need to because if we can’t it can hurt you for the rest of your life. And now women are acting like men used to act. Some are being mean. That’s not right. We all need to be who we are. And let it out. It’s awful not to. We all have things to say, but we are scared of being judged.” Maybe Quanita’s next book might be asking a bunch of 11 year-olds what they want to say to grown men.

Meaning Making Creatures; Meaning Projecting Machines


QT, the gathering I cohosted on the weekend with Quanita Roberson, is largely about the simple process of being curious together. I like it that it is that simple.

The stuff we invited people to be curious about is that which has their attention. That’s pretty simple too. Sometimes, quite literally, attentions like those harvested in the photo above. A wall of post-it notes, in this case seven per person, with the freedom to respond at any layer. Thanksgiving — great. The Bengals football game — great. Racism and presidential politics — great. There are no wrong answers in “what has your attention?”

Sometimes, the “attentions” were accessed through dreams. We started the day by inviting people to share their dreams — with awareness that the dream might just be for, or connected, to the group. The subconscious works that way, right. We didn’t process the dreams therapeutically or with imposed objective definition. We simply used them as sets of symbols upon which we could individually project meaning. “If that were my dream, my detail would be the van driving to Columbus.” Then from there, to say just a bit about why that symbol stands out and has personal meaning, for example, “I relate to being lost.”

It’s a beautiful process. And this time, it taught me something further. We, we humans, are meaning making creatures. We can’t help but do it. Our brains, hearts, and bellies can’t help but make associations through connecting experience and ideas. Yes, there’s a whole pile of that that happens subconsciously. But we can’t help it. It’s as natural as blinking. Or smelling. Or our heartbeats.

But also, we, we humans, are meaning projecting machines. And my machines, I mean extremely productive. Prolific. Mass produced. Sometimes running amuck. Projection, the phenomenon of attributing (or piling on / heavily imposing) meaning in someone else’s behavior that comes from the projector, not the projectee. This one takes discipline to realize that we are doing it, which of course is at the heart of shadow work.

The former, meaning-making, is part of being human. The latter, meaning projecting, is part of learning to become more human, more aware, and more awake.

I’m grateful for a weekend of fantastic meaning making together, to all of the group in Cincinnati. And to the men in particular, for those 25 minutes in the kitchen of sense making and evolving the edges of healthy masculinity.

Dare to Be Powerful

One of the things I appreciated from the weekend’s QT gathering was a quote that my friend Karla Reading broad with her. It is from Audre Lorde, the Caribbean-American writer, feminist, and civil rights activist.

“When I dare to be powerful,
to use my strength in the service of my vision,
then it becomes less and less important
whether I am afraid.”

It was a weekend in which one of the important focus areas was coming in to relationship with fear. I continue to learn that there is a time when fear serves me. It builds an important resolve. And then, there is a time, if lucky, when I just forget the fear, and go for it! It’s good to do this with friends.


This morning, Quanita Roberson, a dear friend and colleague, and I were reflecting together, as we do. We had just completed hosting and gathering the three previous days together with a delightful group of people willing to be in deep learning together. “QT” is our creation. It’s two days spread over three of dialogue, questions, rituals, stories, and play.

Quanita’s and my reflection turned to the topic of doorways, and in particular, how there are so many doorways in to a kind of learning and experience that people are ravenously hungry to have. Starved. “There is no shortage,” we recalled together, knowing that a primary pattern in QT is to work with the symbol in front of us to invite an essential wondering and wandering together. A snippet from a dream, great. An object that people had brought with them, awesome. Any of the many artifacts in my home, perfect. They all come with a story.

It’s not content that is missing for most of us as we attempt to be good and resourceful human beings together. There are many, valuable entry points. What is missing, often, is the awareness that all of the content is connected and provides a generous invitation to start. It’s the most basic premise and simple structure that opens the doorways wide to get to the content. The premise — that we are coded to be curious together (it’s just often programmed out of us). The structure — of some simple listening and witnessing together, much of what I have learned through practicing The Circle Way.

Towards the beginning of this QT gathering, I had named out loud, “that we don’t have to accomplish anything while together, nor did we have to produce anything.” I said is slowly, almost one word at a time. It’s funny how relieving this can be, and, how, ironically, it makes many of us almost unavoidably available for the kind of accomplishment and product that most teams and groups of people would die for.

But doorways are what Quanita and I reflected on. And then she shared this poem, “Abre La Puerta, Open the Door” by American poet, author, Jungian specialist, and spoken word artist, Clarissa Pinkola-Estes. Enjoy this one.

Abre La Puerta
Clarissa Pinkola-Estes

“She’s 12 years old, — going on 20-to-life.
She is God at 5 feet tall.
But, abre la puerta,
open the door and let her in.
Give her food.

“Old Florencia lives in the parking garage
at the university, with her bags and packs
on the floor all around.
She washes her 84-year-old body in the sink at the library,
with a piece of flannel from her deceased husband’s pajamas.
Abre la puerta, she is God.
Florencia is God, the God named Florencia.

“Remember that old abuelita,
your grandest grandmother?
how she staggered toward you
on legs so thin? You were just a baby then.
And she smiled all over your infant self,
as you rose young and steaming from the void.
That was God in her abuelita form
crying with joy just to see you.
“Que, que, que, bebebebita!” says the grandmother God.
“Look,” she says, “I opened a door in my belly for your mother.
¡Miré! ¡Look! your mother opened a door in her belly for you.”
Ah, this grandmother, you can see God through her.
God is a grandmother.

“Remember that red room where you grew?
That was God.
Remember the warm hands that received you?
That was God.
Remember your father’s hands holding your face
As though it were a jewel?
In that moment, God shone through.

“Maria Martinez tells me she dreams of chickens made larger
when she cannot find shelter.
She licks her hands, “and they taste good,” she says.
She is God.
God is homeless, yet she has hope.
Abre la puerta, let her in.

“Your mate who snores, well, maybe God snores.
Your mate is God who can never find his socks.
Your lover who burns for things you cannot give,
your mate is God.
God is a housewife in mud-face and curlers
standing at the door in a housecoat
waving good-bye.
God wears a housecoat once in a while.

“Oh world who is young, and has loved so deeply,
and been so betrayed,
whose skin hangs like rags,
whose arms have no muscle,
whose eyes have lost luster —
Open the door of your heartache,
step through the door of your betrayal,
pass through the hole in your heart,
Pass through!
It is a door.
¡Abre la puerta!
Open the door…

“Oh the world is a thing whose lover disappoints,
who is tired of the news that is no news,
who toils for silly people doing silly things.
Pass through the eye of the needle that shreds your skin.
¡Abre la puerta! it is a door.
Your only hope — step through the break in your own broken heart.
¡Abre la puerta! open the door.

“Do you remember that your legs are el anillo,
the ring that circles your lover?
Your legs make a door.
Pass through the door.
¡Abre la puerta! pass the bolt through.
Open the door, the most sacred of doors,
the trail through your belly
The road up your spine.

“Remember, fire is a door.
Destruction is a door.
Song is a door.
A scar is a door.
¡Abre la puerta! Open the door!

“The forest on fire is a door.
The ocean ruined is a door.
Anything that needs us,
or calls us to God
is a door.
¡Abre la puerta!
Open the door.
Anything that hurts us,
anything we make holy
opens the door.
¡Abre la puerta!
pass through the door!

“All those years of seeming indestructibility,
and then, the grandfather of your world dies;
…his heart explodes,
and yours breaks into a thousand pieces.
Each tiny piece of your shattered heart is a door…
These are doors…
Open the doors…
Abre la puerta …
Pass through these doors.

“Whatever has died and left its big muddy boots
cold and hard by the back porch door —
put them on…
Walk through the door of this death,
the door that dying has made for you.
Walk in those boots that bend with your warmth.
You are the grandfather now.
You are the grandmother now.
¡Abre la puerta!
Open the door.

“The world is a tribe of one-breasted women …
walk through the doors of the scars on their chests.
¡Abre la puerta! open the door.
Over the edge of the world you go,
into the abyss we all march in time.
Put the best medicine in the worst of the wounds.
¡Abre la puerta! open the door.

“The lake in which you almost drowned?
That is a door.
The slap in the face that made you kiss the floor?
That is a door.
The betrayal that sent you straight to hell?
That is a door
¡Abre la puerta! open the door.

“Same old story, all strong souls first go to hell
before they do the healing of the world
they came here for.
If we are lucky, we return to help
those still trapped below.
¡Abre la puerta! open the door.
¡Abre la puerta! open the door.
Hell is a door that is caused by pain.

“Opening a flower,
rain opening the earth,
the kisses of humans
opening the hearts of the world,
These are doors…
No further lamentation required…
¡Abre la puerta! open the door.

“The scar drawn by razors…
that is a door.
The scars drawn by chain saws across forests…
those are doors.
These all are doors,
¡Abre la puerta! open the doors.

“The poem of New Life that comes every dawn,
the soaring of sun…that is a door!
The grave is a door.
The door to hell is a door to Life.
¡Abre la puerta! open the door.
¡Abre la puerta! open the door.
¡Abre, abre la puerta! open the door.”