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Healing the Male Psyche: Therapy as Initiation

by John Rowan

[Editor's note: John Rowan has written a book (same title as this article) that will be published by Routledge in 1996. This is his rationale for writing it.]

Being a man in today's world hurts. The male psyche is wounded, and needs to be healed. If men are to escape from the shackles of patriarchy, of the dominance of society, of hegemonic masculinity, of the false faces they have been made to put on, they need to be initiated into a new kind of masculinity.

I use the word "initiation" because it seems clear to me that nothing less will do. It is a kind of rite of passage which is required, where a man can move out of the old roles and into something else. Like all rites of passage, it involves aspects which are of the body, aspects which are of the emotions, aspects which are of rational understanding, and aspects which are of the soul. The doors of the imagination must be opened.

In today's world the old kind of initiation, which moved the person from one fixed role to another fixed role, is not an option. The roles are not fixed any more, and to the extent that they are, they are harmful. Today's initiation must be unique to each person, personal to each man. We can say general things about it, as for example that simply reversing the existing stereotypes, and trying to produce a gentle, feminine man, is not the aim. We have to go beyond all stereotypes.

Because the change required is so major, entailing nothing less than the undoing of many years of laborious conditioning - conditioning which is still going on, still being reinforced in many different ways - a weekend will not do. Five days or a week will not do. What is required is a continuous process, seeing the man through the ups and down, the contradictions and paradoxes, the breakthroughs and the setbacks, the insights and the blindnesses. Only therapy (by which I include psychotherapy and the deeper kinds of counselling or personal growth) can perform this task, because only therapy stays with the man through all his difficulties.

Many kinds of therapy are not up to this task. They have a limited philosophy, or inadequate aims; they have goals which are too highly structured or too pessimistic. Many therapists do not have the required skills. We have to be just as critical of therapy as we are of any other aspect of the patriarchal system. Therapy cannot be taken for granted; it must be problematized just as much as anything else.

In trying to understand what needs to happen, the alchemical model seems to be useful. It offers a sequence of processes, involving all the paradoxes, circlings and reentries already mentioned. It helps us to see in a pictorial way that what is involved is a path of psychospiritual development, but one which we are all on already.

Given the right kind of therapy, given the appreciation of the need for initiation, there is hope for men to come through. It has been said that for change to take place, what is needed is dissatisfaction, and a vision of what is possible, and some idea of the first steps to be taken. My book addresses all three. The male psyche can be healed.

This article appeared in the Winter 1995-1996 IPA Newsletter.

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