Joseph Jastrab is a psychotherapist with a background in Psychosynthesis and Native American Medicine Ways. He is the Director of Earth Rise Foundation, where he guidesWilderness Vision Quests and workshops exploring the Nature/self relationship. Since 1982, he has been guiding the “Men’s Quest,” an annual nine-day wilderness rite of passage in the Adirondack Mountains of New York state. He also facilitates day-long and weekend retreats for men.
This inteview originally appeared in the Summer and Fall 1986 issue of Wingspan, a journal of the Male Spirit (405 Main St., Wakefield, MA 01880), and is reprinted here with permission.
“THE WORLD NEEDS A MAN’S HEART…” The words echoed down through the desert canyon walls, dropping like so many pebbles into the quiet pools of my evening’s meditation. I was fully engaged that Summer Solstice eve with a group of datura in full bloom. Their trumpeting, ghostly white blossoms seemed to be enjoying a secret courtship with the moon rising in her fullness. I had come to these plants, to the moon, to seek counsel, intent on learning more of the ways of the Earth Mother. I had come with a wounded heart disguised in the question, “How might I better serve the planet?” Again and again, just the echoing words, “The world needs a man’s heart.” My first reaction was to try to whisk the words away as one would attempt to blow out a burning ember. Of course, the harder one blows, the brighter the ember. At the time, such counsel seemed out of place, as I was expecting an initiation of another sort. Like many wounded and searching men of my generation, I believed that my personal and planetary salvation lay entirely within the cultivation of the inner feminine. The Earth, in her compassionate wisdom, threw me back on myself that night. “If you wish to serve me, forgive…forgive your heart to me…your man’s heart. It all starts with forgiveness.”
(from Joseph’s journal)
Wingspan: Joseph, can you give us some of the context of this experience? Were you questing alone, or with a group?
Joseph: I was a member of a group of about 35 men and women who responded to a call put out by Elizabeth Cogburn. Elizabeth is the chief choreographer, shaman, and vision-keeper of the New Song Ceremonial Community. We had come together in the canyonlands of Utah for two weeks during the Summer Solstice of 1981 to participate in the New Song Sun Dance Ceremonial. Part of our time together was devoted to separate men’s and women’s lodges, where we worked to understand and embody “male” energy and “female” energy and sought to create life-affirming ways to bring these energies together in balance. I honor Elizabeth for creating a context which encouraged a radically new look at what it means to be a man, what it means to be a woman, and what it means to be in relationship with a fully-empowered “other.”
The experience from the journal excerpt happened one night when I left our camp to sit alone. It was such a setup! I was surrounded by images of the feminine: the full moon, night-blooming datura, the womb-like canyon, a powerful woman as our community leader.
Wingspan: It almost sounds like your deeper masculine side was evoked to meet the feminine energies present.
Joseph: It was either that or choose to remain a little boy in relation to a powerful mommy – a relatively secure position, but very boring after a while, for both parties. Basically, I was put on notice that it was time for me to grow up. I use the term “Earth Mother” advisedly in that description. That’s who I was seeking at the time, and for an early phase of development, that’s fine. Now I heard the Earth saying, “Please, haven’t we had enough of this ‘mother’ business?”
If I relate to the Earth as “Mother Earth,” then the highest relationship I can have is to be a “good little boy,” and I am blind to the possibilities of relating to the Goddess. As a Goddess energy is awakened in a man, the deeper aspects of his masculine side, or God nature, are likewise stimulated.
Wingspan: I am aware that you credit that canyon experience with being the origin of the Men’s Quest. How did you bring this experience home, and how did it relate to the work you do now with men?
Joseph: Well, walking in the everyday, business-as-usual world with the seed of new vision is rarely easy. And this certainly was a case in point. I returned home with great enthusiasm but few words. My trying to rationally understand or verbally communicate the experience always seemed to trivialize it. I brought the vision to the personal therapy I was engaged in. There was an initial stirring of energy that promised germination, but that soon fizzled, and once again I was left carrying just a seed of possibility.
I spoke with individual friends most receptive to processing the inner life – mostly women at the time. I received much encouragement from each of them but still felt incomplete. I kept asking myself the question, “How do I nurture this seed?” It seems so obvious to me now, but at the time, I was a man blind to the most natural source of support for my quest. It eventually dawned within me that the encouragement of the potential of my canyon vision required a larger context, a group context. But not just any group: a group of men. And I thought, “God help me!”
At that time, I had little regard for men as co-travelers, except in the realms of sport and idea-polishing. Women seemed to be the ones who could draw the best out of me. I was involved, along with many of my brothers, in trying to open my heart by cutting off my balls (or at least pretending they weren’t there).
But what a revelation, to consider for the first time the possibility that men, indeed the masculine principle, might carry a healing,nurturing aspect of its own! I opened to the possibility that my search for wholeness as a man had led me into a box canyon which allowed only the narrow vision that all of the evil in the world was due to masculine qualities of perception and action. You know, the all-too-familiar notion that “Men create war, men create poverty, men create pollution, etc.” and the distorted indictment of the entire masculine principle that grows from that. I realized that, while many men and women were looking to the Great Mother for salvation, nobody I knew was seeking to embody the Great Father. In fact, at that time, I hadn’t ever heard of such a thing as the Great Father. Imagine what that means to a 31-year-old man in our culture. We all seemed to be reacting against the “terrible father,” the one who fathers reason cut off from love, truth hardened into static form, law and order void of compassion.
Wingspan: Wasn’t it the role of the elder males in traditional cultures to introduce the younger males to the positive ways of manhood?
Joseph: It certainly was, and still is in some parts of the world. Yet, for most men of our culture and generation, such initiation is haphazard at best. The father is away from home much of the time; the mother is the predominant force in our lives. Men can’t get very far by using their mothers as role models, except to attempt to be not like them. It’s difficult to grow up with a positive self-image when all you have to go on is a sense of who you can’t be like. That’s like trying to get somewhere by backing away from what you don’t want. No wonder we stumble!
Occasionally we turn around, face forward, and in the absence of adequate male role models, we face nothing; that’s scary. Every so often, into that vacuum comes crashing a figure like Rambo. The young boys of today are so hungry for a male role model. With dad gone, you can’t blame them for latching onto figures like Rambo.
Wingspan: Getting back to the process of creating the Men’s Quest, after you opened to the value of being together with men, what moved you to act on that?
Joseph: The most important single event was Keith Thompson’s New Age magazine interview with Robert Bly entitled “What Men Really Want” in the Spring of 1982. I read it, and the world stopped for a moment. It was more than just reading an article; Bly put words to the instinctual call to a truly heroic and vital manhood that was seeded in me the summer before. It was as if Bly had written a personal letter to me. But this, of course, is the gift of the poet: to give voice to the pulsebeat of creation in such a way that we hear our own voice speaking as we read the poem. Something came through Bly’s words that provided the act of confirmation for my vision seed. It was as if all the elder males of my tribe encircled me, gave of their blood for me to drink, and said, “Go for it!” And feeling the ground confirmed beneath my feet, I was encouraged to take my next step in growing my vision.
Wingspan: Which was…?
Joseph: At the time, I was guiding Vision Quests for mixed groups of men and women. It was a natural step to then put out the call for an all-male Quest. I remember the mix of enthusiasm and terror that accompanied that act. It was clear that the only way I could “guide” a men’s Vision Quest would be as a full participant. I would be coming with as much ignorance about what it meant to be a man as anyone else. And none of us had any idea of where this thing was headed. We all stood pretty naked, gawking at each other. Yet, I trusted that there was fertile soil for our questions and stories that longed to take root.
Wingspan: What happened in those early Men’s Quests that you remember now as significant?
Joseph: I remember an early perception that each man came to the Quest as a “seed,” a seed carrying medicine that could heal both itself and the planet. And I remember being shocked at the depth of suffering within men. The most censored, most ignored story of our times is the story of men’s suffering. Until that story is fully told by men and heard by both men and women, the medicine contained within a man’s “seed” will be forever impotent. But it is precisely the tears released as the story is told and witnessed that moisten the hard seed coat, initiating that rooting into the earth; that is an act of love, an act of courage.
We began to open our hearts to both our joy and our suffering, and further, to the beauty and suffering of our planet. And through this, we began to understand what courage was really about. Gaia (the Earth) is calling for her spiritual warriors now, perhaps more now than ever. She is calling for warriors who are courageous lovers as well as courageous hunters. I find that men who are open to their suffering make better warriors. And better lovers. That is where the strong counsel on forgiveness from my canyon vision comes in.
I noticed during the early Quests that most men were attracted to the warrior image and came with an inner list of criteria for being a warrior. These lists generally included such qualities as commitment, courage, strength, discipline, etc. The warrior archetype awakens me to a more fully embodied life of service and action. It helps to focus strong, primal male energy towards service to one’s people. And one thing is for certain: to follow the warrior’s path necessarily means that one will repeatedly fall flat on one’s face, short of the ideal.
For me, the warrior’s way is about doing whatever it takes to live life at the highest level of integrity. There has always been risk involved in that, and likely there always will be. Without forgiveness, the high ideals of the warrior’s way remain ideals at best and severe reminders of one’s inadequacies at worst. We men must come to forgive those aspects of ourselves, our brothers, fathers, grandfathers, generations of grandfathers that have fearfully denied life. This forgiving is the give-away of renewed life. And this renewal must begin at home before it can expand to embrace the earth. I see this beginning to happen.
Wingspan: Tell us about your use of the term “warrior.”
Joseph: I use the term “warrior,” or even “spiritual warrior,” and I know many men feel both a strong “Yes!” response and a strong “No!” response. Some feel there is something regressive and barbaric about the image of the warrior that might keep us stuck in an old story that isn’t working. Well, there certainly have been men who have called themselves “warriors” whom I would consider barbaric. But let’s explore those two responses. Where does that strong “Yes” come from? What in us resonates positively with the term “warrior?” Perhaps it’s the excitement, the adventure of the warrior that we’re drawn to, that part of us that feels fully alive when we have a mission in life, a sense of purpose and commitment.
And what in us says “No” to identification with the warrior? Perhaps we react to images of destruction, blood-lust, war, and violence that arise. We fear that the use of the term “warrior” might somehow tend to validate these images.
Let me say at the outset that I am not encouraging wholesale acceptance of the warrior identification for men of service and action. I use the term “warrior” because it is a transformer for me, now. It reveals to me those aspects of myself that are destructive and war-like. So this play with the “spiritual warrior” image has catalyzed an awareness of the war that goes inside me between, let’s say, sub-personalities engaged in a win/loss conflict. For example, I have a couple of inner characters I call “Striver” and “Layback.” Striver says “Go, go, go!” and Layback’s motto is “Manana, tomorrow.” Needless to say, these two are often at odds with each other. They each feel that their freedom can be met by wiping out the other. They create a win/loss game built around fear and distrust, which is essentially war. I find close parallels between the tensions of these two inner beings and the tensions between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. I don’t think war would be the most popular world game if it were not the most popular inner game as well.
So, I can personally relate to anyone’s yes/no reaction to the warrior image, knowing that both sides live within me. It’s helped me to come clean with myself to acknowledge that war is not just somebody else’s problem.
Wingspan: What would you say is the difference between what you call the “new warrior” or the “spiritual warrior” and the warrior of the past?
Joseph: I would say that both share qualities of aliveness, courage, and committed action, but they are dedicated to different purposes. The old warrior still believes in the win/loss game, and he dedicates himself to protecting the life and values of a particular ideology or nation. The new warrior’s allegiance is to the whole planet and to the whole self. And I imagine that the battleground of the self is a well-traveled territory for the new warrior. I think another important aspect in our imaging the new warrior is this: the new warrior has a very inclusive definition of his or her “people.” This warrior’s people include, as the Lakota would say, the “flying people, swimming people, tall-standing tree people, four-leggeds” and the rest of creation, as well as the “two-leggeds.”
There is a world war going on at this present moment that rarely gets recognized as such. It’s the imperialistic violence of us two-leggeds against the other peoples of the Earth. I see the new warrior as one whose heart grieves for this loss of life and takes inward and outward action to show a way to peace. The spiritual warrior, I would say, is one who is not willing to substitute the kind of action that simply buffers one’s heart against the suffering of the planet.
I’m thinking now of my many political protest acts during the 60s. On the surface, they appeared, at least to me, to be acts of healing service. But not far below the surface there was desperation, and now I see that many of those acts were done to resolve the tension and discomfort I felt when I really opened up to the suffering of Viet Nam. My grief tolerance level was very low then, so many of my acts were a defense against feeling. And I think men generally have a more difficult time than women with simply being with suffering. When I hear “The world needs a man’s heart,” I sense that there is a healing that takes place for both men and the Earth simply by keeping our hearts open to the grief that pervades our planet now – just that. And our tendency to do, do, do all the time cuts us off, and the Earth off, from the nurturing presence of the male heart. Of course, it’s not that doing is wrong. Yet, if action covers up or denies feeling, then the action has little potency.
I love the image Chogyam Trungpa offers of the warrior in his book Shambhala. He speaks of the “sad and tender heart of the warrior.” You cannot be a warrior without a sad and tender heart, he says. That’s beautiful; there’s strength in that. Trungpa says that without the sad and tender heart, one’s bravery is brittle like a china cup. You drop it and it shatters.
We’re to call on the tenderness, the courage, that allows us to hold the Earth in our hearts – the whole Earth, not just the “nice” parts. Can you feel the compassion that arises from carrying the whole Earth in your heart? It’s a compassion that is enduring enough to inform all of our actions, so that everything we do becomes “Earth-healing work.”