The poet Robert Bly has called Michael Meade “one of the greatest teachers of men in the United States.”
Certainly, what Meade has to say about men — and women — is thoughtful and provocative. Indeed, it takes a brave man to stand in front of an audience of men and women, as Meade did recently in Chapel Hill, and insist that it’s misguided to seek equality between the sexes. Suggesting that it’s wrong to do away with our differences, he warns that we’re eroding the “gender domains” that make life meaningful and that give dignity to our relationships.
Interestingly, there seemed to be few objections. Perhaps that’s because Meade — as a storyteller, and drummer, and scholar of myth in traditional cultures — revitalizes the familiar debate over sexual politics with insights that are startling and compelling, even when they seem most arguable. I don’t know what to think about some of Meade’s more exotic ideas — for example, that everything has been going downhill since the thirteenth century, when rationalism began to eclipse the power of old myths. But there’s no question that we’re cut off from the wisdom of past generations. I like Meade’s summons to look at the past, at the rituals that once informed our passage from one stage of life to next. I especially like his observations about raising children, his humility in the face of that tremendous task.
Meade has taught at many workshops, using stories, poems, and drumming to help men link “the personal and the mythological.” He says he likes to use “dilemma stories” to challenge a group. As he once said in an interview, “They are open-ended, not some nicely-wrapped and tied-up Jungian Christmas present. With them, you have to suffer the story. And that activates us, too. The objective is to activate the emotional body.” Most of his work is with men only. “The old saying is that for a man’s emotional body to be truly alive, it must be activated by other men, not women.”
Meade is a ruggedly good-looking man, whose close-cropped hair and impish smile can give him a mischievous air. He grew up in New York City, where he studied philosophy and literature. For many years, he made a living teaching mythology, and organizing community festivals and concerts. Now, he travels the country giving workshops, often in conjunction with Robert Bly and the psychologist James Hillman. Forty-five years old, he has four teenage children, and lives with his family on Vashon Island, near Seattle, Washington.
THE SUN: Do you think there’s really something called a men’s movement?
MEADE: I prefer to imagine something that isn’t a single movement, because that suggests an ideology or a dogma. And I don’t think that’s what’s going on. I think there are a number of movements; there’s a lot of exploration going on, but not one coalescing movement.
Clearly, there has been a women’s movement, although when you look at it closely, you see that there have been a number of movements within it as well. But it does have a cohesive quality to it. Men are doing it a little differently.
We’re only just emerging from a historical period in which the royal king archetype, or the storm god archetype, has been dominant. That energy causes large, unified movements. But now that kind of energy has dissipated, and what’s coming in is more varied.
THE SUN: In what sense has that energy dissipated?
MEADE: It has been hundreds of years since the Western world has had a shared, communicated mythology. A lot of our current mythology is what I call “garbage mythology.” It’s fractured and torn in pieces. What used to be bold, mythological images are now seen in cartoons and comics. There is no longer a pageant of mythology, which presents everyone with the same imagery. For instance, there once was the image of young men coming into a castle to become knights; there was a clear progression that included guidance and training and significant ceremonies. The boys had become not only men but knights. They had a purpose and an appearance; they were dedicated, and they carried a banner that showed their dedication. Everybody understood what it meant, more or less. But now, there’s no clear marking of those stages. The training of boys lacks that sense of soul or spirit direction. So we end up with a junkyard version of mythology, such as heavy metal groups, whose use of face-painting functions like the old initiation masks, and whose music reveals an unconscious attempt to fulfill this need for a mythological movement through life.
THE SUN: Isn’t there a tendency to romanticize the grandeur of the past and, because we’re so close to what’s going on today, to be more aware of the corrupted nature of the present? Not every man became a knight.
MEADE: Not every man became a knight, but every man got to see the knight, and every man got to share the dream, the imagery of the knight; there was a greater understanding of what a knight might be. And I think we still carry that as a cultural memory. But nowadays, the shared imagery is minimal. Not only isn’t there a shared image of what a man might be, there’s just the opposite. Everybody’s saying, “Now wait a minute, what is a man?” Or “How do you know when you are a man?” Or, at worst, “What the hell good are men?”
We’ve been in a crisis for hundreds of years; it’s been going on so long we don’t even notice we’re in it. And just as in any crisis — war, famine, natural emergencies — what we now call “sex roles,” which I prefer to call “gender domains,” change. The rules don’t apply during a crisis. No one says, “Hey, you can’t throw water on the fire because you’re a woman. Women don’t haul buckets of water.” That’s all forgotten. Definitions break down.
THE SUN: You talk of gender domains rather than sex roles. What’s the distinction?
MEADE: To me gender has to do with all the aspects of how someone lives. It includes the psyche, the imagination, the emotions, as well as the body and the way one works or plays with the body. Sex roles, to me, have their origin in anatomy; that’s restrictive and doesn’t carry enough imagination. Gender has more to do with what is masculine and feminine than what is male and female. There’s this whole dance of the imagination that comes with having a certain kind of body — not just the physical body, but the emotional body. There’s a mythological inheritance that comes with gender.
THE SUN: I wonder if women will read this and think, “Ah, this is just a fancy way to reinforce the same distinctions that have kept us subservient.”
MEADE: I can’t imagine what it has to do with subservience. I think of gender domains, gender dwellings, gender dances. That has nothing to do with dominating anybody. It has more to do with broadening and increasing the imagination in one’s place in life, not reducing oneself to a certain role. I like the word “gender” because it has gens in it; the Latin for people is gens. It also has “generations” in it; it has “generative” and “generosity.” “Gentility” is in it. It is a word that has great, wide roots, and it has more than one syllable. I’m generally in favor of that.
THE SUN: But when it comes down to the actual lives of men and women, can’t that definition be used to claim a realm of power or influence that has been traditionally male? Can’t it be used for male advantage?
MEADE: I really don’t think so. I’m thinking of the dances — such as the four-hand reels — in which the man keeps changing hands with the woman. The idea is of an asymmetrical complementarity, not equality. Equality is stagnant; when this equals that, there’s stagnation. Men and women dancing together is very exciting, a beautiful, lively thing. It’s very hard to see equality when they’re dancing together, because there is motion and fluidity; and there is a balance, but it’s asymmetrical.
In old Europe, for example, if the men were going to have power of, say, plowing the earth, then the women would be the keepers of the seed. Then the men would be the tillers, perhaps, and the women would be the harvesters. Then the men would carry the grain to the mill, and the women would have control of the mill. That is a sort of dance.
Equality is stagnant; when this equals that, there’s stagnation. Men and women dancing together is very exciting, a beautiful, lively thing. It’s very hard to see equality when they’re dancing together, because there is motion and fluidity; and there is a balance, but it’s asymmetrical.
THE SUN: How would that dance work in our culture? How do we create a balance?
MEADE: When things get too imbalanced, or when certain elements are carried to an extreme, then the dance has to be modified. As soon as there is a balance, somebody starts a movement, and off we go again.
Let’s say the men are getting carried away. They’re only going to the field. They’re plowing every field. They’re knocking the houses out of the way so they can plow everything. What do the women do? They hold on to the seed; they don’t plant. If they don’t plant, it’s very clear what’s going to happen. Everybody’s going to die. There’s only so much food left, and everybody’s going to die. So eventually the men say, “OK, what are we going to do?”
THE SUN: Is that what the feminist movement is doing — holding the seed?
MEADE: In part, yes, the feminist movement might be holding the seed. But the problem is that we don’t have a mythos that says this is the dance we’re doing, and therefore we don’t experience it as holding the seed. The men don’t sit down and say, “God, they’re holding the seed. We must have plowed too much. Let’s go find out what we have to do to get the dance going again.” It becomes this other thing, with victims and perpetrators of the victimization.
If you visit museums in the older parts of this country, in the Southeast or Northeast, you can see that there used to be men’s tools and women’s tools. They were sized differently, and shaped slightly differently. Everybody had his or her own tools; everybody enjoyed those tools, and worked with those tools, and sweated with those tools. It was only a stranger, coming into a locale, who would pick up the wrong tool, not knowing whose tools were whose. We’ve all gone from being part of a community, and knowing what part we play in the community, to being strangers. And now tools are made so that anybody can use them; the tools are getting uglier in many respects — less style, less definition, less sense of fitting right into one’s hands, of being right for one’s work. And out of that starts this envy between men and women. The tools aren’t fitting the needs, and so everybody’s just assuming the other person has something better. I think that has something to do with the fact that we’re at the end of a historical period.
THE SUN: Do you see anything encouraging about being at the end of a historical period?
MEADE: The opportunities for change are incredible. When things collapse there’s a lot of fresh air, a lot of openness. So, yes, I think there’s a lot of good in it. Sometimes I focus on what’s lost, because it helps me understand why we all seem to feel the way we do. People, for the most part, seem to be suffering a sense of loss.
THE SUN: In the men’s groups that you’ve been involved with, how does the loss express itself? What are the more common laments?
MEADE: Oh, that’s a nice word, “lament.” There are many things that have been seen as losses. Isolation has become a common experience. I often think of it as exile. Sons feel exiled from their fathers, fathers feel exiled from their sons. It’s as if there were huge chasms between them, reinforced by sex roles. The father is supposed to act like a father, the son is supposed to act like a son. Sometimes, when people try to conform to those behaviors, the interactions get lost altogether.
Men feel a loss of home. The male spirit or soul doesn’t feel that it has a home. The man goes to work and deals with that set of responsibilities and difficulties. Then he goes home and deals with that set of responsibilities and difficulties. He doesn’t have a sense of home — as in a dwelling place, where he gets to dwell within himself.
There’s also a loss of connection man to man. At a men’s conference, it’s clear that everybody’s afraid — rightfully so, I think. Nobody knows what the dance is. So, men wind up working on how to connect with one another, how to get together. Men feel a great loss for some fluid way of being with one another. They are often tired of working so hard: you have to work hard to find meaningful work; you have to work hard to stay in a relationship; you have to work hard to stay connected to children.
Men have inherited a great depth of sorrow; so have women. It’s what we used to call “the sorrow of the world.” But the tone for grieving, or dealing with sorrow, is different for a man than it is for a woman. Grief is grief, but as the grief ascends or descends, moves through a particular body with a particular psychic shape, it takes the tone of that body. So the tone of a man’s grieving is a little different, just like the tone of a man’s voice is different from a woman’s. Somehow men have lost those forms of grieving together, and lamenting. People used to sit down, and take turns lamenting — just being in the sorrow of the world. Men do it very well together. It’s one of the great joys, interestingly enough, of working with men — seeing how men grieve and express sorrow together. Men activate each other’s emotions. And when men have some purpose and some depth of meaning that they’re dealing with, and they get together in a safe environment, then the feelings will deepen tremendously. That kind of opportunity is generally missing in men’s lives.
THE SUN: Along with what you describe as the collapse of a shared mythology, we’ve also lost the old rites of initiation. What are our contemporary equivalents?
MEADE: I think initiation is built into the human experience. The form is going to be there no matter what. For instance, sports have a kind of initiatory framework, though it’s dealt with unconsciously. The military has the remnants of the warrior initiations. These old forms reside in the psyche, but nowadays, people lack the awareness of what the form is for, so the initiation lacks direction.
We live in a monolithic culture, based on one god, one country, one mother, one father, and one marriage — that used to be the idea — or one great love. Sadly, because of that, there tends to be the notion that there’s one initiation. And the feeling of having missed it is very widespread. But actually initiation is repetitive; it’s a way of experiencing life over and over, not one time. The old initiation forms, as I understand them, were set up to be repeated, in the sense that different parts of ourselves go through the experience, time and again. Sometimes we’re on the initiate side, and sometimes on the initiating side. The idea, I think, is to initiate all aspects of one’s humanity fully into life. Part of the initiation is physical, and that still happens to some degree in sports and other activities; part of it is emotional, in which ordeals and trials are used to intensify the emotional experience; and part of it is mystical, in which one is initiated into the world of spirit. We can’t get away from this; it has to happen to some degree. But mythos is what gives it form and style and makes us conscious of the process; through mythos, we can describe it in a coherent way. That is why I talk about a collapsed mythology.
There is something in us that wants to get initiated; the initiatory desire in men is extremely strong. To complain that it’s crazy for young men to drive around in cars at ninety miles an hour is useless. We need to ask what the craziness is. To say that it is foolish for young men to want to hurl their bodies against each other in sports or to practice intricate physical routines is to say nothing. We need to ask why. What’s pulling men and boys into that?
THE SUN: Does war in some sense serve as an initiatory rite?
MEADE: It serves as a substitute — a desperate substitute. When the culture cannot initiate itself in a creative way into the fullness of life, the only alternative is to find a destructive way. War is the desperate, destructive attempt to have some kind of initiation. The fascination of war is that everything is there in front of you — life and death right now. That’s what initiation is — life and death right now. Those who survive are initiated, and those who don’t are initiated into death. But I think that when initiation work is widespread in the culture and is taking place consciously and effectively, then there’s no time for war. Life and death are being faced already, and experienced, so the drama doesn’t have to be created on a battlefield.
THE SUN: William James said that we need to come up with a moral equivalent for war, but we haven’t been able to do that.
MEADE: That’s right. We’re lacking the moral and mythical equivalent of war. Commuting to work doesn’t satisfy the desire to be in the drama of life. That’s one reason I say that initiation is the basic archetypal flow in life. If we don’t actively engage the archetypal flow, it engages us.
THE SUN: I try to respond to this by creating my own rituals or challenges. Do you do this, too?
MEADE: There’s an individual and a group aspect to rituals. Something is changed about the rituals when they’re done in a group. They become less idiosyncratic. They’re somehow bigger, and not just bigger by the number.
I’ve also learned the importance of creating a private space — a space that is my space, that is safe and protected and familiar. I put things there to help me get centered, to help me drop into a deep enough level of consciousness where I can work on what’s going on inside of me. A word that’s become important to me is “dwell”; a place to dwell is also a well. It doesn’t have to be big — at least not for me. The objects in the room are meaningful to me. I like anthropology and mythology, so I have masks, and art that stirs my imagination; and I have drums and other instruments. When I go there, I don’t know what it is I have to do; it may be to hear music, to listen, to write, to draw, maybe even just to dwell, to sit in there. So that’s the first thing I need — a separate space. The second thing I need is a certain amount of time with stories. I need to be looking at either myths or my own story or someone else’s story. I need to be involved in story, and dealing with it, and dwelling in it.
It’s taken me a long time to learn that being alone is not loneliness. I now cherish my time alone. It can also occur outside, walking through the woods, or by the water. But if I don’t feel that I’m in some kind of community, then time alone doesn’t work as well. The two have to go on, for me, alternately. I have learned that what makes my time alone useful and what gives me a real reason to work on my inner self is the community. One community is family. Another one is this community of men — which has been very good to me. I’m amazed at how rich the community of men is, and how many men must be working on themselves, because when they come together they bring courageous abilities and a willingness to attempt things and even to fail within that community. So you see how those two are connected. Then the possibility arises of doing things in that community that have the same kind of in-dwelling quality.
The initiatory desire in men is extremely strong. To complain that it’s crazy for young men to drive around in cars at ninety miles an hour is useless. We need to ask what the craziness is.
THE SUN: Another dimension of community, of course, is political. I wonder what connections you see between the men’s movements and politics.
MEADE: There’s almost always a political aspect to anything, but it’s not a major aspect of this work right now. I’m thinking of it as complementary to the women’s movement, but in an asymmetrical way. Women had a need and a desire to get out into the world — the political, economic, and social world — and to say they weren’t getting what they wanted. I think that was valuable and correct for them. What’s going on with men is more internal. It doesn’t have extensive political ramifications immediately, because it’s going on inside. Men seem to have a need to be in the deep emotions, exploring inner possibilities and possibilities between men or with a community of men.
THE SUN: The spiritual renaissance of the Sixties and Seventies was open to the criticism, rightly or wrongly, that turning within — through drugs, meditation, Eastern philosophy — was an abdication of responsibility. Do you feel that can be said now of the men’s movement?
MEADE: This is not an abdication — I can’t even imagine it that way. It’s more like an expansion. We’re not going to the mountaintop to close our eyes and wait for the light to part our hair. It’s more like going into the depths of the waters and doing deep exploration. One of the terms we use from stories is “a dropping of the reins,” as if we were riding a horse without guiding it. For now, we’re going to let the horse take the path. So there’s an abdication only in the sense of letting go the reins.
THE SUN: What’s the age range in men’s groups?
MEADE: First of all, it seems to require three generations. There are often about a hundred men. A certain number are in their late fifties, sixties, or even seventies. There’s a great number between thirty-two and fifty-five, and there’s another group between twenty and thirty-two. Those three elements are important, and would be in any initiation, almost anywhere. But the average age tends to be forty. When we first started to do these groups, the average was younger. There’s some readiness that begins around the age of thirty-two, thirty-three. The desire is bigger; the needs and the longing are more clear; there is the awareness of loss, and there has been the experience of failure. They realize it’s not just a matter of driving the right car to the right job and getting the right retirement plan.
THE SUN: Why doesn’t it engage more men who are significantly older?
MEADE: There are different ways to look at it. So many older men are isolated — in old-age homes, for instance. Also, there’s very little reverence for old age in this culture. We’ve lost, for the most part, the feeling for elders. Since we don’t honor old men as elders, why would they go anywhere? I’ve heard older men say, “Go be with a bunch of men — why? So you can be criticized for ruining the world? So it can be proven that your body is not as strong as it used to be? So you can be told that you didn’t raise your children right, and that you have no feelings, and your life has been useless?” I wouldn’t go either.
But the older men who do come are wonderful, courageous men who have somehow kept as a goal for themselves that they’re going to continue to take risks. They’re beautiful to see. The old men get up and dance — and not just waltzes either. We also play drums. To me, it’s great to sit down and play drums next to a seventy-five-year-old man. Anybody who has lived to seventy-five deserves some honor anyway, because this world can be very, very painful and difficult. But to sit and drum with someone, and to feel the rhythm in him and in the music — that’s beautiful. And then the older men get to see the young men, and they have a way of admiring the young men, of saying, “Don’t worry about that. You’re good.” Men need that desperately.
The so-called midlife crisis is genuine in a certain way. It’s like a repetition of puberty; the cycle comes round again. There’s the same kind of life-and-death crisis. It’s as if the inner forces say, “Something’s got to change now,” and you go through this stage. That’s why they used to have initiations. You had a chance to practice going through the stage. Sometimes it was a ten-year initiation, two or three months a year for ten years, with the same men, over and over. You get depth that way. But we hit that place of change, and we have none of that practice, none of that depth. Suddenly that fragilely put-together character that we have managed to scrimp and steal and borrow and beg for forty-five years has to take the pressure of a whole pivot of life forces, and there’s no support, no practice, and no place to do it.
THE SUN: How do you personally deal with what you’re calling midlife crisis?
MEADE: To me, the first half of life is looking forward, with very little looking back. Where am I going? How great is it going to be out there? How big is it? Where are things, anyway? It’s almost as if in the second half we have to pivot around, look back, look down, and say, “Where have I been? What have I become here? What do I want? What’s moving inside me?” So the first half is: what do I want to do with my life? — as if it were that simple. And the second half is: what do I want to do in my life? I’m in it now; it’s not going to change that much. It’s almost like a change in gravity. The first half was headed for life and the second half is headed for the grave, so things have more gravity to them. Something happens and I notice that it resonates on and on and on, and it has gravity that I didn’t recognize before. Things were lighter. I like that gravity. It’s not just that things are heavier; they’re also thicker, and broader, and deeper. But going through that change alone without some connection to family, to a sense of community, and, nowadays, to an intentional group of men seems to me very, very scary.
THE SUN: You’re a father. Is there a difference between being a father to a son and to a daughter?
MEADE: There are different rhythms. It’s almost like a biological rhythm, a pulsing. When I stand next to my sons, I can feel that rhythm, and it’s very easy for me to play in a certain way with them. Then when I stand next to my daughter I notice a very different rhythm. There’s an easiness in that sometimes, but I find I have to work hard at hearing what that rhythm is. It’s more mysterious. In many ways it’s easier to hear what my sons want than to hear what my daughter wants. That may just be the way it is for me — I don’t know.
Every man is somebody’s son, but not every man is a father. And when the son becomes a father, things change. I don’t care who it is or what politics he has or what dreams he has. The inner alignments change. One of the big things for me is to make sure my kids are OK. I wind up checking on that a lot. I think I used to try to make them OK, and now I more often observe.
Some men become afraid when their child is born, and it’s hard to understand the fear. One fear is that the man’s life is about to change drastically. Now he’s going to be not just son, but father and son — which is one of the hard things about being a father, because we never stop being a son. Then, of course, we get busy trying to fix our sons because we desperately wish someone would take care of our own inner son.
I find fathering very hard; certainly the first ten, twelve years of fathering were very difficult. I think the father has to make an effort to connect with the child in the first couple of years of his or her life. His connection isn’t always as immediate as the mother’s. Her ability to resonate with the rhythm of a child is tremendous. It’s one of those great mysteries and powers that women have, and have immediately. The father often really has to work at making that specific, personal connection, and then has to work at the nuances of that relationship. The way that a father does it is often different from how a mother does it. The father gets criticized for thinking of the child’s career and all that. But it’s the way a father sees things; it’s one of the feelings the father has for the child.
THE SUN: Do you think the father is more naturally predisposed to bringing in structure and discipline?
MEADE: I think it’s the father’s job. There are jobs fathers have, things to do. Why doesn’t someone tell us right from the beginning? Changing diapers is not hard, really. It’s messy, of course, but it’s a technique — after a while you can get it. But how to bring consistent structure and direction, and to create or support opportunities for each child — that’s hard work.
Each father is in this incredibly broad, mysterious world of the family. Trying to provide structure and guidance for each child is incredibly difficult and frustrating, and tends to fail more than succeed.
Generally speaking, fathers are not the best ones to initiate sons, in the sense of a ritual, repeated initiation. Fathers have already initiated both the sons and the daughters from such a deep place — I’m talking about sperm and impregnation. That’s an initiation; it’s initiating life. The connection between the father and the child is cellular, deep, and wild. But when it comes to the actual initiation, because of the depth of that connection, there’s too much psychic pollution in the nuclear family between father and son. As a father, I say something to my son. It resonates, down through all the years of our involvement, both when we’re awake and interacting, and when we’re sleeping in the same house. It’s very hard for me to do something as clear and precise as initiation needs to be. So in most cultures, the initiation would be done by unrelated elder men, who could come in and size up a boy, and say, “This is what he needs.” My understanding of initiation is that it was not one formula applied to each person. It wasn’t the way it’s done now in the military. It had nuances for the individual. “Here he comes — look at that boy. He walks like a warrior. He puts his face into the wind the way a warrior does. I think we should take him in that direction, so that he can learn the depth of that position, so he can learn what responsibilities come with being a warrior, so he can fully move into that. And look at him. He’s coming along now. He moves like a snake, constantly going this way and that. This is someone whose inner life is already being called by Hermes or Mercury — he’s been called into the realm of the trickster, or the merchant trickster. And that one has the movement of music. Maybe he’s a poet. Let’s pull him that way.” But a father cannot do that. The father looks at him and says, “Hey, you’re not walking right. Why are you walking like that?” The father doesn’t understand what he’s given birth to. And if the father is serving Saturn — fathers always have Saturn, because Saturn is the father in some respects — he is being pulled toward order, toward the building of forms. And here comes this little son who seems to have this bounce and style. And the father goes, “Hey, cut that out.” And the boy’s going, “Hey, leave me alone.”
But when there’s a group of men, one of them is going to say, “Oh, I get what he’s doing. I know that.” The father can do only what he knows how to do anyway — that’s the family inheritance. But to put everything on the father, and then everything on the father and the son together — whew! That’s trouble. I don’t think anyone is up to that.
When the son becomes a father, things change. I don’t care who it is or what politics he has or what dreams he has. The inner alignments change.
THE SUN: Of course, husband and wife can collaborate.
MEADE: Yes, but they’ve got a dynamic going on. There’s pollution in there. And often the child is the battlefield and the dancing ground of the husband and wife, and each wants something from that child. Each has a different dream for that child. So someone from the outside says, “You guys are dreaming. He’s going that way.”
Every initiation has a wound. Now the father has already wounded the son. That has happened early on — there’s no way around that. When I first became a father, I said, “I’m not going to do what my father did.” That’s one of the first fantasies of a father. “I’m going to do this right.” Another father fantasy. “I’m not going to make all the mistakes. And I’m not going to hurt my children.” Well, it doesn’t turn out that way at all. The more I dwelt on that, the more I realized that it’s inevitable; wounds are part of what parents give to their children.
Fatherhood is generous; but this generosity is indiscreet. Fathers give of themselves, and they give their wounds, too. So every son is wounded by the father. Every daughter is wounded by the father. Part of the business of living is healing those wounds. By “healing,” I don’t mean getting rid of them. Sometimes a wound needs to be opened and cleansed, and scar tissue needs to develop. The wound isn’t erased or permanently bandaged. Hearing thousands of men’s stories over a period of time, I found one wounded story after another. And of course, in mythology, the father is always wounding the son. There’s no way around it that I have ever heard, except not having children — which is a different wound. So, since the father has already wounded the son, it’s better if the second wound — the wound of initiation — comes from an unrelated source, biologically unrelated but mythologically or spiritually related. For example, if the Hermes man, the man who has a feel for the hermetic way of life, can be the one to wound the boy who’s coming along in that same style, then it’s a good, accurate wound. And it can be done cleanly.
THE SUN: How much deception do you think is characterized by “new age” thinking?
MEADE: I think there is a genuine hope that there will be an age of unwoundedness, but I don’t think it’s possible to go through life unwounded. That’s naive. Now, naivete can be a good thing. We have to have naivete or we don’t keep going. Naivete keeps us saying, “Maybe it will be different today. I won’t bleed as much. I’ll hear a good joke. I’m sure I will.” But when naivete goes too far, you get denial, and that’s the part I’m concerned about. Why all this healing if there aren’t a lot of wounds? Carrying our wound is necessary; it affects how we dance — it actually creates our style of dancing, our style of moving through life.
You see, it’s an odd time. We’re at the end of a millennium, and that means that some things are ending and some things are beginning, so we get extremes. Entire, age-old systems are rejected, and there are attempts to create brand new systems — or systems that at least appear new. People tend to forget. People say, “Oh, get a crystal, all light passes through.” They forget that a crystal is formed deep in the earth — that’s how it got crystallized. It’s been in the dark, in the dirt; it’s been pressurized. That’s what made it go to the light and absorb light. But only this facet is seen; only the new is seen.
THE SUN: Would you talk about the term “wild man” that is so much in vogue now?
MEADE: Robert Bly has done a lot of unearthing of that image. I like it very much. There is a key distinction, though, between the wild man and the savage. People consider whatever is wild to be primitive. But when people think of the primitive they also think of brutality and savagery, and so those things get mixed up. The wild man is aware of his woundedness. The savage man doesn’t know he’s wounded and therefore keeps wounding other people.
No poet can continue to write without some contact with this wild man or wild woman. Poetry is wild. It erupts just like wildflowers do when the waters hit the desert in the spring, and all of a sudden what was dry is colors and flowers, and you can almost see the sound of them coming through the ground. That’s wild. But it’s not savage. I think that anything wild has a beauty, a crisp beauty, and an angular movement in its beauty that arrests one’s vision.
THE SUN: How do you balance that wild, spontaneous dimension in yourself with the need for discipline?
MEADE: Form, form. What works with what is truly wild is form. To me the practice of a form increases the amount of wildness inside.
THE SUN: What do you mean by “the practice of a form”?
MEADE: I mean doing something repetitively so that it tends to have a solid form. Wildness without form is very dangerous, and that’s another reason people don’t like it. When the rains hit the desert, you might get wildflowers, but you might get flash flooding. One can delight your soul and cause an eruption of feeling and energy, and the other can kill you. So wildness has those two directions. A form makes it into something that can be worked with. Drumming is a form — when it’s not wild, arrhythmic drumming. But when drumming has form, meaningful patterns, and there’s still spontaneous sound — well, that’s beautiful. You have the steadiness of form and the repetition of form, along with the exciting, inspiring, unpredictable sound. So it’s not a matter of being wild; it’s a matter of being in touch with wildness, and having a form for it.
THE SUN: Do you have to struggle to keep that balance?
MEADE: All the time. What am I doing? Am I holding the reins too tightly? Or have I let them go for too long? Who’s been leading lately, me or the horse? And if it’s too much me — the ego, the persona — the horse is getting angry or resentful. And if it’s too much the horse, then perhaps I’m feeling out of control. So there are always little adjustments of the reins, or maybe big adjustments. Always. With rhythm, playing, drumming, the form can get too static, too rigid, and it starts to be metronomic rather than musical. So it’s got to get a little looser; you have to loosen it up, give it some more nuance, more subtlety, so it doesn’t become a military form, a march. It goes back to its dance.