Gatherings help men open themselves up to one another

October 28, 1990|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Sun Book Editor

LONGMONT, COLO. — Longmont, Colo.--Jeffrey Duvall believes so much in what Robert Bly says that he has become a facilitator of men's gatherings. He organizes trips in the wilderness where men can, over a few days and through much effort, break down barriers inside themselves and between other men. He meets weekly with a men's kiva, or group, in which the most intense kind of anguish is shared. He participates in the spear-making, mask-making and men's dances that so many outsiders find amusing or bizarre. And he has never felt better.

"I was 31 when I went to my first gathering," says Mr. Duvall, 38, of Boulder with a smile. "It sounded pretty strange, but I had always liked to do dangerous things, so when a friend mentioned all the drumming, I thought I'd give it a try. And none of my relationships seemed to be working. I felt spiritually dead."

What he found was unsettling. "I realized that I wasn't alone with my pain and grief," he says. "All of a sudden something started to happen. I was frightened to be with men, but it warmed me up as well." And he realized "that it was never true that you could solve all your problems by yourself, especially men, with what they have gone through. Now I relate to men so much better. I have dreams about being old and coming into a men's group at 80 and finding out what they are talking about."

At this "day for men," nearly all the participants were in their 30s or 40s -- Mr. Bly's target group, he told the gathering, "because until you reach 35 you haven't experienced enough failure or enough grief." The skeptics were few and dissent almost unheard. Perhaps that was because of its proximity to Boulder, a university town that long has had a reputation for free thinking, but nonetheless it was striking to see a large group of men so at ease with one another.

At one point, Mr. Bly urged participants to turn to the man next to them and tell him about an early moment of deep shame, then to listen to his own story. Within seconds, more than 300 men were involved in animated, intimate conversation; only a few men surreptitiously left the room. "This was an unusually well-developed group," Mr. Bly said later. "They got involved right away and asked really good questions."

Outside the room, one could buy tapes on various topics by Mr. Bly, the philosopher Ram Dass, mythologist Joseph Campbell and others. Fliers advertising drumming lessons, workshops, retreats, dances and other activities were put out on a long table. No question Robert Bly was preaching to the converted.

"I first heard of him through the Bill Moyers show," said Jeff Johansson, 38, a psychotherapist from Conifer. Following that show last winter, he joined a men's group in the Denver area and says he likes what Mr. Bly says "about the relationships between fathers and sons, about warriorships." As for his wife, "She has been wholly supportive. She told me if she could have come with me today, she would have."

Most men queried said they generally got positive responses from women about Mr. Bly and his teachings, but Mr. Duvall conceded, "I'm very careful about what I tell women about what we do. It gets misconstrued very easily."

Then there was the drumming. Certainly one of the more memorable aspects of the day was two long segments in which dozens of men drummed away on various instruments and chanted. The rhythms might not have been coordinated and it was comical at times to see white-collar types bellowing Indian chants at full volume, but in a strange way it was rather affecting.

"Drumming was really the first psychology," said Sam Silver, 36, of Denver, who teaches courses in sacred drumming and on this day led the drummers on congas. "Ancient people drummed when they were frustrated. The way I look at it, drumming is a lot cheaper than five years of therapy."

Then he added with a grin, "It's almost like white Anglo guys like me trying to find our older culture and rhythms. Sometimes we do dances going up to eight hours."

About Robert Bly and his teachings

Quotes from seminar participants

"I have friends who think some of what I do in these men's groups is silly, and at first I felt a little silly about it. But I soon got over it. I love the drumming. It really opens you up."


a Littleton, Colo., psychotherapist.

"When I first met Robert about 12 years ago, some of the things he said didn't sit very well with me. I was a big fan of the feminist movement. The 'wild man' concept sounded like a regression to insensitivity. And he used to get on me for being a 'soft male,' which I undoubtedly was. But being with Robert has helped me protect my separateness and perhaps my hardness."

--DAVID WHETSTONE, 36, a Baltimore-based sitarist who often plays at men's gatherings with Robert Bly.

"Like the rest of us in the 1950s, Robert used to give really stiff readings, but then he developed this presence. It wasn't the beauty of his voice -- it's kind of high-pitched and he has a bit of a slur -- but his poetry readings became marvelous. Like Buckminster Fuller, Robert is a maker of ideas after ideas -- they drop on the audience like maple leaves falling on the ground."

--DONALD HALL, a well-known poet

and longtime friend.

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