Sacred Sons and the Rise of the Embodied Masculine
This essay is part of a new series exploring the next wave of men’s work. It was made possible through my Patreon backers. Please consider joining them, and get exclusive updates via my patron-only feed when you become supporter patreon.com/ianmack
“YOU MOTHER FUCKER.”
I’m one of seven men holding down another as these words escape his throat in a guttural roar. He struggles against our weight, veins bulging along his neck, eyes brimmed with tears. He’s not directing his tirade at any man present, instead he looks beyond them at an unseen other.
“You’re safe, brother.” whispers the main facilitator, Jason MacKenzie, who is gripping the man’s hand and hovering close to his ear. “Follow the energy. Where does it want to go? Don’t use words this time.”
The man on the ground roars again, raw powerful rage, before bursting into heaving sobs and collapsing back to the floor. The other men shift their fierce restraint into a masculine tenderness, many of them touched by emotion as well. We look at each other with eyes of mutual recognition.
I am met in a deep longing that seems to stir an ancestral memory: this is brotherhood.
I’m at the Sacred Sons Convergence: OMEGA. Hidden within the elemental desert just outside San Diego, at the property of Liberty Arising, the gathering brings together 125+ men to dive into deep healing work: exploring our wounds, resensitizing our bodies, and stepping into the mystery of the emerging masculine.
More broadly, this has come to be known as “Men’s Work.”
This is not entirely new to me. Since 2015 upon encountering my first men’s circle, I experienced then a deep feeling of masculine rest that had been unknown prior. There was something about men-only spaces where certain active parts of me became dormant: the need to unconsciously vie for the favour of women and to jockey for position within the hierarchy of men. Instead, I found a capacity to open more vulnerability, and a camaraderie that fed a deep well in my soul.
The roots of the Men’s Work movement in the West can be traced to the second wave of feminism. The ultimate origin of the world’s woes was named: Patriarchy, a political and cultural system upholding the brutal rule of men and the oppression of everyone else. (I take issue with the term, which more accurately could be translated as “the rule of the Father” or mythically diagnosed as “the rule of the tyrant king.” For this essay, I will use it as the shorthand most available in the current cultural conversation).
As men began to own their patriarchal oppression, a number of reactions branched off. Some sought to disown the violent and competitive characteristics of men and become more feminine. The result was a gentler, softer man, though for many it meant abandoning the primal aspects of masculinity along with it.
IN THE EARLY 1990’s, poet Robert Bly published the book Iron John which used the lens of myth to uncover and map the initiatory path of a man, inadvertently kicking off what became known as the Mythopetic Men’s Movement. The book ‘King, Warrior, Magician, Lover’ by Robert Moore and Douglas Gilette brought the Jungian archetypes to the mainstream, and soon thousands of men across the United States and the Western world sought council and companionship amongst each other.
The time also marked the birth of The Mankind Project which offers, among other things, weekend rites of passage for men called “New Warrior Trainings” — seeking to reclaim the Wild Man: the primal masculine force within. (These secretive gatherings also became the source for the cliche of men meeting out in the woods to dance naked around the fire). To date, the organization now claims that over 65,000 men have completed the training in 22 countries across the planet.
I myself completed the New Warrior weekend in 2016. It was a powerful and healing experience, though some of the approach and practices felt dated for my generation. I did not feel the call to continue participating in their weekly I-Groups: ritual men’s circle aimed at tending the momentum after the new warrior trainings — though I did continue to explore men’s work in a variety of ways.
Jason MacKenzie, now 36 and one of the three co-fathers of Sacred Sons, came to a similar conclusion. Upon first encountering the Mankind Project in 2014 he knew immediately he had found the fraternity he had been craving.
“I went right into it,” he remarks to me as we sit together in the teahouse late afternoon on the first day of the Convergence. The sides of his head are shaved and hair pulled back in a ponytail, looking like he just walked off the set of Vikings. “I staffed 8 trainings in one year. 12 over three. I loved it.”
With his sharpness and passion, Jason quickly rose up the ranks and became involved in the Young Warrior Training Adventure, aimed at attracting a new generation to the work — even co-authoring an internal manual for building an offering specifically for millennials. But after many months of effort, ultimately he came up against the organizations resistance to adapt.
One element in particular was highly contested: privacy. The Mankind Project draws upon the model of earlier mens lodges and keep their inner workings highly secretive. This is also to protect the vulnerability of the participants from the unkind eyes of a culture that tends to shame male vulnerability rather than praise it. Yet the secrecy has also shrouded the work in a “boy’s club” mystique that has kept the organization relatively small, given it’s existed for over 30 years.
Jason believes the new generation has a different relationship to privacy. Social media is the norm, with many offering up intimate details of their lives willingly to the public. Why not use the power of social media to spread the message and reach a lot of men in a more effective way?
“We wanted to dissolve the taboo around male vulnerability,” he says. “And show men that it’s cool to be vulnerable. To connect with your brothers. To do the work.”
Sacred Sons has been markedly successful with this strategy. In just over a year since their first Convergence, they have gathered over 43,000 followers on Instagram through posting raw & revealing photos and stories of men working through trauma, pain, and numbness. Interspersed throughout their feed are inspirational quotes that speak to the themes of embodiment, integration, and the spirit.
Today, the second Convergence has over 250+ men over two back-to-back weekends (dubbed Alpha & Omega) with many more left on waiting lists.
Men are hungry for this work, and they want in.
The structure of the Sacred Sons Convergence is akin to a transformational festival rather than a typical conference. Men are first divided into three participant squads with the co-fathers leading each one. Lionheart, Dragonspirit and Stag Squad.
Throughout the course of the three days, every squad will have gone through the three Pillar workshops, each representing one of the masculine archetypes and held by core facilitators. For this convergence it’s Kevin Walton (Living Beyond the Narrative, Magician), Stefanos Sifandos (Mastering Self & Relationships, Lover), and Trevor Spring (Wild and Wise, Warrior).
Each morning begins with a choose-your-own-adventure ritual. From a sunrise hike to the local vista, to a Wim Hof style cold plunge, to a primal flow yoga class — all before breakfast is served. After the meal, participants are further invited to attend a variety of options, including workshops on tantric sexuality, shamanic breathing, and even a two-spirit council.
I learn these men like to breathe. I am reminded over and over again to “take some breath” “connect to your breath” “breathe, men.” This remains an anchor and a gauge of my presence throughout the weekend. The emphasis on movement, sound, and breath is admirable, and has been generally lacking in the men’s circles that I have attended in the past.
If the previous generation was about connecting to the Wild Man, the new generation is co-creating The Embodied Man.
I also recognize the Convergence as one of the most diverse I have attended in men’s work. Generally the circles I’ve attended are primarily white. Though still largely within this spectrum, I see a number of skin tones and ancestral lineages present. This could likely be attributed partially to the diversity of the co-fathers of the Sacred Sons.
“I am devoted to every man here.”
Aubert Bastiat (35) is a Sacred Sons co-father, and new father to his son Cairo. Tall and lean, with a goatee and long hair, he looks perfectly cast as a mythic Asian warrior. Born in Taipei of mixed ancestry, he moved to southern California when he was 5. He was raised as an atheist and didn’t have much interest in spirituality, ultimately falling into addiction with alcohol and drugs in his teens.
One evening as he contemplated ending his life, Aubert asked God for sign. “If you’re real, I want to know.” Suddenly, he was filled with the compassionate light of unconditional love, as if a baptism by the divine.
“I recognized my life is sacred. All life is sacred.”
In the aftermath of his awakening he devoted himself to the spiritual path, studying and practicing yoga, eventually leading mass meditation gatherings in city squares and music festivals aimed at raising the consciousness of the collective.
“You cannot be a leader in this work unless you’ve gone into the depths of your shadow,” he believes.
Adam Jackson (39) is a bear of man, already a father with another child on the way. Over 6 feet tall, sporting long dreads to his waist, he is formidable to behold. Spend more than a moment with him though and you quickly feel the size of his heart and the kindness of his smile. Born to a black father and white mother, he grew up in Dayton Ohio and attended Catholic school.
“I was in skateboarding and in the punk rock scene,” he relates. “And I discovered the most punk thing I could do was be a vegetarian.” While organized religion never grew in its appeal, Adam shares about one teacher who introduced him to meditation.
“I had a realization that God is in our friends. It’s in our relationships.”
After being drawn to men’s work through Jason, he has found a lifelong calling — healing relationships between men, and therefore, their relationships with their partners, children, and families.
After breakfast, I’m faced with choosing the next offering. I’m conflicted over the Shamanic breath work versus Sacred Sexuality. I decide on the sex talk and gather in the Tea House with a group of other like-minded men. The speaker is Devin Fredericksen a tall flax-haired man with a lean physique and a golden tan. He grew up in Hawaii and now travels the world speaking on Taoist and Tantric philosophy and leading the kitchen team in crafting the delicious vegetarian dishes that grace our plates every meal.
We begin by dropping into our breath, before he flows into the talk.
“Our sexual energy,” he shares “is our creative life force. It is how we relate to others and penetrate the world. We can learn to develop sovereignty with our sexual energy so we no longer need to unconsciously seek it from outside of ourselves.”
Devin makes the case that masculinity is not toxic, but rather, what is toxic is how we’ve been conditioned to repress our sexual energy through shame. It’s no wonder it ends up expressing in unhealthy ways, often as rage and violence. The key, he says, is developing an authentic relationship with ourselves and our sexual energy first, so we can then connect with others, particularly women, from a place of abundance.
I’m left with the key insights: develop capacity for self-pleasure instead of quick masturbation, slowness instead of speed, and in lovemaking, connection instead of performance.
Plus, the astonishing fact that a third of a man’s caloric intake every day goes towards semen production. (Note: I haven’t found a source to back this up, but certainly raised a few eyebrows in the session).
LATE MORNING the Stag Squad heads to the Brotherdome for our turn with the Warrior. For anyone who has seen Mad Max and visions of an apocalyptic future — this scene conjures these images. It’s held in a geodesic dome over a sand floor, the late morning sun streaming through the dust that is kicked up by our arrival.
Trevor Spring is a man who moves light on his feet. He has the body awareness of a fighter and the grace of a dancer.
“Welcome men,” he announces as we gather into a circle. “We are about to go on a journey. It will challenge you. It will push your edges.” He pauses. “And, you’re going to have fun.”
We pair up with another man. I stand before a young fellow, late 20’s and a bit nervous about what’s to come. I’m hiding my anxiety well. It has been over a decade since I dabbled in martial arts and I haven’t spent much recent time in close quarters with other men. It isn’t so much the fear of pain or losing a competition, rather, an aversion to a kind of male intimacy that has been rare.
My partner and I shake hands, and we’re soon grappling, sweating, and heaving for breath. The feeling of trust and connection is immediate. I am reminded of an old adage: “You do not truly know someone until you fight them.” (Google reveals its actually a quote from The Matrix).
This spirit of play and mutual support is palpable in the men this morning, even as they grunt and roar and wrestle. Competition is an aspect of masculinity that is often judged as toxic. It’s true that when winning or losing become a marker of a man’s value, to the winner go the spoils and to the loser goes the ridicule.
Yet healthy competition remains deserving of a noble place. In healthy competition, both participants recognize they need each other — one only finds who they are in dynamic relation to the other. I am able to grow through the challenge of The Adversary, and for this I owe a debt of gratitude.
By the end of the session I’m exhausted, somewhat bloodied, and undeniably fulfilled.
Saturday afternoon, we enter into “The Ordeal.” Based loosely on the structure of The Hero’s Journey (as articulated by Joseph Campbell), the ordeal intends to drop men into the underworld; to challenge them in a deep and confronting way. Among the three options: a Sweat Lodge, a Kambo Ceremony, and Shadow Work.
I opt for the Shadow Work. I have encountered a version of it before, during my initiation weekend with the Mankind Project. Given the lineage of Sacred Sons, I expect a somewhat similar experience.
A large group, likely over half the total participants, gather in the large hall. The air is warm and thick with anticipation. For many, this is the main event. Whether they know it or not, this is why they come. Everything else is a build up to this moment.
Michael Gay steps into the center and the group falls silent. He is a striking man: dark hair drawn back in a ponytail and sporting a well-tended beard. He’s tall and speaks with soft intensity.
“Welcome men.” He offers an overture of what’s to come. He speaks about the end of the lone wolf and the importance of men doing men’s work. “Sometimes we have wounds that we can’t heal on our own. Sometimes we need others to clean and stitch these wounds before they heal.”
“I lived with Jason back in Boulder,” Michael shares with me by phone interview later. “It was during the time when the seeds of Sacred Sons was stirring.” A psychotherapist by trade, he has honed his practice through many years in wilderness-based healing, along with gestalt: an expressive performative style of group process.
In 2005, just before a friend committed suicide, the man had recommended a book to Michael. It was Iron John by Robert Bly. “After he died, I knew I had to read the book.” Michael was stirred by what he found. He attended the Minnesota Men’s Conference (also started by Bly) and had the chance to work with him directly. “He was in his later years at this point, sharp as ever, though with less focus on the body. I think this imbued the work at that time with an absence of attention to the body, which had been more present in the earlier years.”
Michael also connected with The Mankind Project and staffed a number of New Warrior Weekends. Ultimately he found the shadow work to be too formulaic. “While I have no doubt the originators of the work were gifted with profound insight into healing, the process had become concretized into a set number of scripts for how to work with each man. It was imitative, instead of alive. Emotional experiences felt forced, rather than attuned to the aliveness of the unique moment.”
Michael became drawn to the work of Alexander Lowen and the field of bioenergetics, which includes a deep awareness of the body, breath, and movement to support the alchemizing of stuck energies. He incorporated the technique into his own practice.
When Jason spoke to him about the first Sacred Sons gathering in 2018, Micheal was drawn to co-create how they might differentiate the work from their predecessors. This adaptation, weaving threads from the Mankind Project’s style of shadow work along with bioenergetics, is what I encountered that Saturday afternoon.
“Big energies in men don’t move without presence,” says Michael Gay. “It’s the power of ritual contact with the wound. What is been kept internal is able to be expressed, and from there it can be released.”
With Michael’s overture complete, the large circle splits into four groups. I stay with Jason as the lead facilitator of our group and he’s joined by three others. The rest of the men in our cohort, about 13 or so, hold the outer circle. Another circle is formed close by in the same room — though they’re hidden behind folding paper screens that are placed between us. The two other cohorts exit to other areas on the property.
Our group places our arms upon each others shoulders. We take a breath together, grounding into the space. We look into each others eyes as if we’re about to embark on a perilous journey, the outcome far from assured.
“Alright men, let us begin,” declares Jason.
The first man, late 20’s, sandy brown hair, nervous energy in his face, enters the middle and he’s circled by the four facilitators. They glance at each other until it’s decided without words that Jason will be the first one to proceed.
He steps to the man, studies him intently for a moment, then asks, almost a whisper: “Where is the energy in your body?”
“Here,” the man indicates his chest just over his heart.
“Is the energy moving up or down?”
“Up,” he responds, breathing more deeply.
“Okay,” Jason says, and with the certainty of a spiritual surgeon, goes to work.
Over the next seven hours, I experience and bear witness to many moments of profound beauty and anguish. One by one, each of the men step into the circle and is led through an intense journey of “following the energy,” giving it sound, movement, and breath as needed. I’m struck by how little story is involved in the unfolding. I recognize there is another intelligence that is being tapped, one that precedes the rational, intellectual mind.
This is the unique intelligence of the body.
In patriarchal culture, men are conditioned not to feel. We are taught to numb our innate ability to experience sensation, and instead led to derive our value from our ability to achieve. This happens in a myriad of ways throughout our youth, though most directly through the mechanism of shame. We are shamed for our vulnerability, by both men and women, who have adopted the patriarchal view as their own.
I know this is true for me. I remember early on becoming aware that my ability to process my emotions internally felt like an asset. On the surface, I remained stoic and unfazed. This seemed the best way of being self-responsible. I could be looked to as the trustworthy guy that “always has it together.” I have only in recent years come to terms with how this has come at a great cost, largely in the inability for others to be able to feel me. And how that has culminated in a categorical mistrust of my own feelings.
Partiarchal culture says that feelings serve no purpose. Therefore, says the story: best to hover above them in the citadel of the superior rational intellect.
This relates to my growing understanding of trauma. I used to think that trauma is something “really bad” that happens to people which negatively affects their ability to function. Through the work of Peter Levine, one of the world’s foremost authorities on the study of trauma, I learned that trauma is actually not the thing that happened, but rather, the energy from that impact that is unable to move. It becomes stuck in the body, like a large stone placed in the path of a brook. The water then needs to channel around the obstacle, inhibiting the natural flow, creating disease and dysfunction.
Therapies that focus primarily on talk and the mind are therefore less effective, because trauma does not live in the mind. It lives in the body.
The way to heal is by creating a field of safety and trust, then encouraging the innate intelligence of the body. From there, movement, sound, and breath can trigger the floodgates of emotion that have been held back — in the case for many men, releasing emotions that have been stuck for years, often since childhood.
One man, early 30’s, is guided through the process into a fetal position where he screams many times in emotional agony, while the other men rock him tenderly back and forth.
“I just wanted my mother to love me,” he cries. “I just wanted to be held.”
Another man, this one mid-40’s, built like a tank with a cascade of tattoos across his torso and arms, unleashes a torrent of rage, requiring all the men to buffer him on all sides.
“WHY DID YOU ABANDON ME!” he bellows.
“I AM WORTHY OF LOVE!”
“You are worthy of love,” the men respond in unison.
He continues to rage, vibrating the walls of the hall.
Eventually he breaks down into sobs, collapsing into the arms that hold him. He is guided into the carpet, where he is given the space to find his breath again, find home within his body, releasing the tide of guilt and shame and hurt.
Throughout the healing process of each man, the rest of us are entrained with their expression, matching their breath and sound.
I distinctly perceive the impression of becoming a singular meta-organism, providing the enlarged vessel for the wounds of each single man to alchemize within the context of the collective. This allows for the emergent intelligence of the body do what it innately knows, and through the release, creates the possibility for a natural flow to return to the man. The original purity of being, now with the maturity of having gone through a healing process, provides a clearer channel for Eros, the power of life, to move through us.
We become one organism of Men, healing together.
IT IS NIGHT by the time the men complete the shadow work, exhausted, as if returning from a great battle. A mutual warmth adorns our steps together as we line up for dinner and conversation, sharing our individual revelations from each ordeal.
Post-meal, an announcement is made that “the cacao will be served shortly” and we will gather once again in the main hall, this time for a much-earned celebration of live music and ecstatic dance.
I feel a hesitation, borne of the same resistance to the thought of further intimacy among men. I’ve been socialized to seek contact, particularly on packed dance floors, with women. I wonder how I will feel within a primary field of the masculine.
We gather in the space and we’re led through an initial connection to our breath (of course). When the first track begins, a bass-heavy groove from CloZee (one of the main artists featured in my film Amplify Her), immediately my fears melt away. My body finds a freedom that feels at once unfamiliar and more liberated in this men-only space. It’s as if a layer of self-consciousness has melted away and what remains is the pure joy of movement.
The music is joined by a row of live drummers who strike their djembes in unison, rippling a rhythm into the crowd. A dance circle spontaneously forms between the men, and one by one, each are encouraged to step into the space and express the unfiltered beauty of their being in this moment. From the sideline, I watch each man in their uniqueness: all shapes, skin colours, and sizes.
There is no competition, only celebration.
Hours later I depart the evening and am greeted to a blazing moon overhead. My breath curls before me in the desert cold. I spy the glow of the tea lounge, and decide a few hot cups would end the night well.
As I walk towards the tent, I’m reminded of the words of feminist author bell hooks, and her prescient words in ‘the will to change’:
“To truly protect and honour the emotional lives of boys we must challenge patriarchal culture. And until that culture changes, we must create the subcultures, the sanctuaries where boys can learn to be who they are uniquely, without being forced to conform to patriarchal masculine visions. To love boys rightly we must value their inner lives enough to construct worlds, both private and public, where their right to wholeness can be consistently celebrated and affirmed, where their need to love and be loved can be fulfilled.”
I feel an overwhelming sense of philia, what the ancient Greeks understood to be brotherly love, what I recognize as an essential part of a healed culture of masculinity.
We cannot shame or guilt our way toward that future. But we can step towards it by leaning into intimacy, with ourselves and each other, rediscovering an authentic and true love of men.
In the words of Sacred Sons: brotherhood is the medicine.
This essay was made possible through my Patreon supporters. Consider joining them by visiting my Patreon page as I write further essays about the rise of new masculinities.
Special thanks to Sacred Sons for inviting me to the Convergence, and brother participant Daniel Robert.
You can also listen to my podcast The Mythic Masculine, for further explorations and interviews on this theme.