December 2019 – January 2020

The Nation Reviewed

Big man energy

By Adam Curley
At the Menergy retreat, men tackle anger, address emotional resilience and dance like wild women

Arion gyrates his hips, making figure eights below his pale, round belly. He has stripped down to his polka-dot boxer briefs. “Every man has a pussy,” he announces to the room. “Let your pussy’s energy take over.”

A rap song plays through a speaker on a side table: Lick it now, lick it good…

In the community hall’s back office, 20 men in a variety of clothing-optional states dance with their eyes closed. Some drop to all fours on the carpet, embodying the Slut, one of the feminine archetypes identified during Arion’s morning workshop (“She who takes what she wants, when she wants it”).

In his introduction, Arion has told the group that “for thousands of years men have ignored their feminine energies and it has caused us to rape women, to rape the earth”. The men are “holding space” for each other to remove the masculine masks they wear in the outside world. They dance the Mother, the Maiden, the Wild Woman and the Priestess. When the workshop ends, they embrace and trickle out into a groomed valley surrounded by hills rippling with shades of green, barley and wild grass in the spring wind.

Men also wander out from a workshop held in the indoor basketball court. They come from a chapel and from the Chai Tent, a marquee furnished with old lounge chairs and decorated with draped purple cloth.

It’s time for their sharing circles.

At Menergy, sharing circles are sacrosanct. The annual three-day retreat is supported by the Queensland­-based non-profit organisation Mens Wellbeing and is held at the Licola Wilderness Village, in the wane of Victoria’s alpine ranges. Sharing thoughts and emotions is its cornerstone activity, and nothing is too immediate or too engulfing to be expressed in a circle: experiences and traumas, physical sensations, long-held behaviours and intentions for the future.

Upon arrival, attendees – 200 of them in the event’s eighth year – are allocated into a “tribal group” that stays together in a cabin fitted out with bunk beds, and meets at a scheduled time each day. Each group’s leader ensures his circle abides by guidelines set out in Menergy’s program. What is said inside the circle is kept in confidence; if a man is processing a thought he is not to be touched or interrupted. “Things will come up,” the program states.

Around the valley, things do come up. Shame. Whoops and cackles. Fear. Fear of men.

Menergy’s website explains the retreat’s purpose: “It serves as a place for men to come together, explore the challenges of modern life, and map out a path to honour the changing times while embracing the essence of who we are as men.” The insistence on a male essence reflects 20th-century conversations about traits and behaviours deemed biologically inherent to men and women, up to and including those explored in American poet Robert Bly’s bestselling 1990 book, Iron John: A Book about Men.

Bly embraced the idea of men getting back to nature and learning from their elders, addressing what he perceived to be the problem of “soft males” unable to channel their inner “Wild Man” and live with dignity and conviction. Remote fathers were an issue. Bly’s book leaned on Germanic folklore, Greek mythology and initiation rituals of African and Native American cultures to promote shared knowledge between men.

Menergy expands Bly’s interest in ritual, adding a vocabulary inherited from the New Age. Men “hold space”. Men “arrive”. Men are present and grateful. They have intentions.

One man faces the hills and takes a deep breath. He has left his man-mask at the gate, he says. “I’ve arrived much faster this year.”

Rituals are a way to separate what happens at the retreat from the codes of everyday life, says one of the event’s organising committee members during an introductory speech. Tribal groups, repeated phrases and dawn wake-up calls played on djembe drums create an environment in which attendees might tap into their “essence”, or at least be open to change.

Menergy has a policy of inclusion; its marketing materials welcome anyone who identifies as male. The committee member says to the group on the first night: “Menergy isn’t about promoting one ideology, an ideal way of being in your gender. It’s about everyone finding their own way.”

Free time between workshops and meals allows for private discussions about contemporary theories of gender performance and fluidity. The range of workshops also provides reasonable evidence of the need for a focus on men and masculinity.

After each meal, workshop leaders pitch to the group. They promote classes on taming and harnessing anger, understanding sexual and emotional needs, building emotional resilience. Pitching a sharing circle about suicide, a facilitator asks those listening in the hall to stand if they have ever seriously contemplated taking their own life. More than half of his audience gets to its feet.  

At lunch on the second day, an invitation goes out to anyone interested in being filmed for a social-media video. This year’s turnout is the largest Menergy has ever seen, a committee member declares. “Maybe you want to speak about why this is happening now – why men want to be better and do better in the world,” he says. There is excitement in his voice, and urgency.

That night, all 200 attendees first gather around a fire and then arrange themselves into a line from oldest to youngest. At the front is a man aged 75, and at the end a 17-year-old who has been carrying around a journal, taking notes as he sits and speaks with older men. The line files silently into the hall and then into rows of chairs facing the stage, on which a microphone is positioned next to a tree branch held vertically on a stand. A talking stick.

In the Heart Space, anyone is welcome to approach the stage to share their thoughts. One by one, men walk to the microphone, and each begins with the same phrase: “If you really knew me, you would know that in my heart…”

Adam Curley

Adam Curley is a writer living on Wurundjeri land. 

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