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Jungian psychotherapist Michael Boyle wants to reconnect men with each other to find their creative manhood
Heroes and demons
Interview by John Daniel
I was a businessman dedicated to making money until my late 30s. I was successful but my soul was dying. My own psychotherapy led me into a course at the Minster Centre but within weeks all the men had disappeared and I ended up in a group with 13 women. I used to make them laugh because I’d turn up and ask, ‘What are we going to do today?’ The concept of actually being was alien to me. I stuck it out but eventually I had to escape from Mum.
After reading Robert Bly’s book Iron John, I found myself at a men’s gathering in Dorset with Michael Meade, James Hillman, 100 men, a lot of drums, and a fairy story. The men were emotionally vulnerable, authentic, fierce and funny. The buzzword was initiation – and, looking back, this was mine. I began to understand my own life was driven by anger, shame and fear, and why and how indigenous peoples all over the world back through time have maintained the psychological health and wellbeing of their tribes by initiating their young men. I looked at all the troubles of the world and I didn’t see many women involved in causing them.
I suppose ever since my work has been about rebalancing masculine and feminine principles internally and externally, creating circles instead of hierarchies, and collaboration rather than competition. All my work is clustered around themes of stories – masculine initiation, leadership and, ultimately, community.
Although psychotherapeutic (mostly Jungian) thinking underpins my approach, the boundaries between psychotherapy, counselling, mentoring and coaching become slightly blurred. I see about four or five clients a week for one-to-one psychotherapy from my home in Chiswick. I meditate every morning and run most days for up to an hour, down by the river. I keep a yoga mat out permanently and play guitar or take time bending and stretching in breaks between clients and phone calls.
While working with men and stories I met Richard Olivier and, some years later, with others, we set up Olivier Mythodrama, which delivers leadership programmes using stories from Shakespeare as myths and mirrors for the human dilemmas of leadership that are relevant to our lives today. Shakespeare was a great psychologist and had an extraordinary insight into human nature. This work involves global travel and I’m usually away at least twice a month, so I only do time-limited therapeutic work, between six to eight sessions, mostly preparing men for initiatory experiences.
I completed my MA in psychotherapy with a dissertation on men and mythology at Regent’s College. Around the same time, in 1994, I helped set up the ManKind Project (MKP). MKP holds initiations for men called The Adventure four to five times a year in the UK. I’m still involved because I’ve never found anything else that’s such a powerful wake-up call for men. Female therapists often refer their clients to MKP.
No one tells you what happens on The Adventure; it’s about meeting the unknown. Jung said that anything not brought to consciousness shows up as ‘fate’, so I guess every man meets something fateful with which he needs to be confronted. The urge to encounter personal demons and realise full potential is what leads men to it – the heroic search for something more. Initiation sets off both an emotional awakening and the harnessing of the ego in the service of the soul’s purpose.
Although I appreciate one-to-one work, and have benefited from it myself. I see a clear developmental sequence to group work and on to full expression in the community. It’s akin to the developmental line from dependence to independence and then on to interdependence – you can’t jump from stage one to stage three. Men seem to discover much about themselves by interacting with other men in groups and unlearning harmful and destructive habits. A circle of men is a great leveller and a profound learning arena for old and young, rich and poor. Each man is my father, teacher, son, brother and mirror.
There’s a fundamental loss of community across contemporary mass society, and the nuclear family isn’t working either. Apprenticeships, shipyards, the mining industry, farming and other such spheres where men and boys used to connect are diminished and almost gone. Our society is most broken and dangerous between generations of males. So hard-earned wisdom doesn’t get passed on and there are few male role models on offer, apart from images of financial success, which are super-cool and macho.
I founded the charity Abandofbrothers to redress this. Young men seem to learn mostly by imitation and through direct experience rather than listening to what they are being told. So we take youngsters away on an intensive residential rite-of-passage experience called The Quest. We use the myth of Parzival as a means of engagement and we match each youngster with a local man as a mentor. This year we’re working with lads on probation from prison, 80 per cent of whom, the figures tell us, will return to prison pretty soon. We hope to offer them choices they were never aware of before. Some may not be ready to leave familiar comforts, or mother, or the institution – the first challenge for Parzival – so we assess them for readiness first.
Male mentors have to be confident in meeting and acknowledging young men wherever they are emotionally – depression and raging anger can be a sane response to these young men’s predicament. We’ve seed-bedded Abandofbrothers in Brighton, where we’ve got 80 men on a waiting list to train as volunteer mentors. We hope to expand to other cities.
I like to imagine myself as a bit of a subversive. Much therapy seems to me to be about getting people to adapt and fit into the social order, but I believe that human beings need more than just socialisation and behaviour adaptation. They need deep transformative experiences. I support men in becoming whoever they are as individuals, despite the pressures of a society that has no interest in maturity and where the values of the marketplace and the mass media drain imagination and depth.
It requires a dedicated effort for groups like MKP and Abandofbrothers to provide the necessary conditions – the liminal space – that can foster a more powerfully creative manhood than our consumer culture would want us to provide. But the growing willingness and ability of men to tell their stories, express their grief and rage and admit their fears, is cause for optimism and a great source of hope for us all.