Mutual Transformation – The New Hero’s Journey
Two stallions, father and son, meet on common ground. The heart between them gathers strength as they share the breath of life. Hope springs from the depths of an ancient wound, causing even the stones to weep.
Power and gentleness find a new way to coexist, balance, and finally heal the immense injustices perpetrated by – and on – the masculine body, mind, and spirit.
True masculinity has been twisted, tortured, and betrayed by a culture of conquest and consumerism. It’s hard to fathom what a peaceful, healthy, form of virility might look like. To have any hope of changing the world, men and women must re-evaluate and re-socialize the active, masculine principle within their own families, and their own psyches – a test requiring significant soul-searching and imagination.
Few horses ever lay eyes on their sires, let alone get to play or spar with
them. Generations of absent fathers and mal-socialized sons have created stallions whose erratic behaviour bolsters our belief that they’re explosive and untrustworthy, and therefore deserving of the very isolation and rigid control that makes them so crazy.
That certainly seemed to be the case with my stallion Midnight Merlin. The coal-black Arabian Stud was fascinating and flamboyant, the perfect mate for my registered Arabian mare – on paper. He was also dangerously disturbed. I’d inherited him by default six months after his trainer skipped town. The owners of the boarding facility where I kept my herd took care of the abandoned horse before I agreed to adopt him, but Merlin’s volatile temper made turnout such an ordeal that he was relegated to a roomy but isolated corral. Any good-natured souls who attempted to halter him were subjected to fits of rage. If they managed to get him out of the gate, he’d try to wrap them around the nearest tree. As much as he pined for company, he couldn’t be trusted with people or horses.
Stallions like Merlin quite simply suffer under our current system of domestication. Mares and geldings commonly live in herds, or at least touch noses over adjoining corrals. Most colts, however, sacrifice any hope of a social life the moment some human deems them worthy of breeding. To remain intact is to be sentenced to a stall, hence the word stallion. People admire them from afar, yet the vast majority of studs in the United States lead lives incongruent with the passion, freedom, and magnificence they represent. They’re worked on a strict schedule, turned out in solitary confinement, and relentlessly showed and campaigned to bring in the best breeding price. And, when they finally do get to mate, their every move is choreographed at the end of a chain “for their own safety”. When profit is the only motive, it’s too inefficient, too risky, too time – and imagination – consuming to help young stallions form relationships with other horses.
Increasingly, the act of mating involves sperm collection for mares these stallions will never meet. Performance – in the show ring and the breeding barn- dictates their every move and determines their very worth. Yet what we’ve cultivated in horses is symptomatic of how civilization views and subdues masculinity in our own species. We’re thrilled by the sight of a stallion snorting and rearing at the end of a lead line because we hope we have a scrap of that kind of power and spirit left somewhere deep inside ourselves.
In “Fire in the Belly: On Being a Man”, Sam Keen follows the poet Robert Bly’s contention that we’ve “raised a whole generation of soft men – oh so sensitive, but lacking in thunder and lightning.” He tells men they must sever the ties with mother, stop looking at themselves through the eyes of women, and recover the “wild man” within themselves. This, of course, is only the first step in a long, mostly uncharted, hero’s journey. We live in a world where sensitive men are seen as emasculated and virile men as violent and wild, especially when they create their own gangland rules. That certainly seems to be the case with male horses. Turn a few studs out together in one pasture, and a few geldings in another, and you’ll see a difference in intensity.
Yet Midnight Merlin’s rehabilitation and ultimate fulfilment hinged on finding that fertile middle ground between power and domestication – just as the average man hopes to find acceptance, purpose, and intimacy in life, without being gelded. Like a colt forcibly weaned too early and trained to obey his human master without question, society has kept its men in a state of arrested development, socializing the vast majority of them to serve an even more smothering, devouring, demanding, and aloof parent. Some rebel, most submit, but few find peace in either direction. Keen suspects that “If we are burned out without ever having been on fire, it is mostly because we have allowed ourselves to be engulfed by a meta body, a masculine womb – The Corporation. Our fragile, tender, wild and succulent bodies are being deformed to suit the needs of the body corporate. Climbing the economic or corporate ladder has replaced the hero’s journey up Mt. Analogue.”
If that’s not enough, the intensely competitive modern world is based on a conqueror’s mentality that affects both sexes, creating a traumatizing subtext even in times of peace. “In the old war code”, Keen emphasizes, “warriors were expendable but women and children were to be protected behind the shield.” Granted, the sanctity of innocence was violated as often as it was respected in warfare. Men, however, are still raised with the knowledge that they’re “legitimate candidates for systematic slaughter – cannon fodder….When we accept the war system, men and women alike tacitly agree to sanction the violation of the flesh – the rape of women by men who are conditioned to be ‘warriors’, and the gang rape of men by the brutality of war.“ The cult of profiteering, conquest, and rape is dramatized daily in the horse world. It’s common for human caretakers to assist forced sexual encounters, hobbling a mare who objects to the stallion her owners have chosen. Apprentices also learn methods for deceiving and blindfolding stallions who refuse to cover certain mares.
Add to this the fact that the ‘civilized’ equestrian arts were originally designed to prepare horses for battle, and you end up with all kinds of unconscious, archetypal stress at the barn. The highly sophisticated protocol of dressage, for instance, emerged from formalized European drills and strategies derived from Persian and, later, Greek techniques for training war mounts. Advanced riders in the Olympic Games and other competitions continue to demonstrate moves originally designed to intimidate and injure foot soldiers, yet peacetime performances can carry an intense emotional charge for horses, especially if their owners attach life-or-death urgency to winning. The equine collective memory scintillates with the painful memories of countless immaculately trained, four-legged warriors who died in battle.
This certainly seemed to be the case with Midnight Merlin. I could see from his explosive reactions to simple activities that something significant had been burned into his emotional memory, something that could easily turn violent with the slightest surge of adrenaline or testosterone. One day, he’d act the perfect gentleman. The next he’d snap over something so minor it was hard to determine what set him off. After one particularly terrifying encounter, I tried to discover the root of his strange behaviour through some intuitive animal communication techniques. The surprisingly violent imagery did not involve a trainer beating him unmercifully. Rather, my request to see Merlin’s ‘original trauma’ involved a scene of unbelievable carnage.
A man of indeterminate race and age galloped across the raging battlefield on his magnificent steed, hacking through the madness with a heavy sword. The sheer numbers of daring foot soldiers, however, eventually overwhelmed the team, and the warrior was thrown from his horse by a soaring spear. His mount screamed and reared, striking several of the men, when one soldier stabbed the stallion in the abdomen. The furious animal hit the ground with full knowledge that he would never stand or run or fight again. If that wasn’t enough, another soldier dodged spears and arrows to reach for the fallen warrior’s sword. He raised the massive weapon with all his might and cut off the horse’s head. Grabbing a substantial hunk of mane, the man dragged this heavy trophy behind him, disappearing into a sea of flashing steel and falling bodies, convinced that through this gruesome act, he had taken then power of a great warhorse.
After the vison dissipated, I sobbed, infused in shock and outrage. It seemed I had tapped an ancestral memory, but a part of me wondered if such a thing could have ever happened. In a subsequent dream, the goddess Hera approved of my work with Merlin and, mystifyingly, gave me a ticket for a “literary cruise” on a ship called “Lacrimae”. It took me some literary research to decipher this strange image. The Latin phrase sunt lacrimae rerum is a famous quote from The Aeneid, written around 30 BCE by the Roman poet Virgil. Translated as “Tears for passing things”, it refers to a sense of grief and compassion evoked for the traumas and transience of life, and the release a defeated warrior feels in finally letting those tears fall. Aeneas weeps, interestingly enough, in a shrine for Hera’s Roman counterpart, Juno – built on the site where settlers had dug up the head of a fierce war stallion. The walls of this temple were lined with intricate mosaics depicting the Trojan Wars, the very same battles Aeneas survived.
Yet regardless of who had won or lost, who had lived or died, the weary and embittered warrior was comforted by the realization that someone deemed these events important enough to be embraced in the shrine of a goddess, allowing him to witness his trials from a more exalted perspective and, finally, to grieve the horror and pain that all warriors endure.
Yet what about this image of Juno’s temple being built on the very site where her followers discovered the head of a fierce war stallion? It’s obvious that in suppressing the horse’s spirit to use him like a machine, the human race eventually forgot the animal had a mind, or a heart, at all. In the same way, men socialized for war must sacrifice their minds, hearts, and will to the State. The challenge, it seemed, was to dig up that long-buried knowledge, to put the stallion’s head back on his body and begin to collaborate with him as a soulful, sentient being. To fathom doing this for another species, however, we must first engage compassionately with the wild masculine power the stallion represents in us.
Horses may be excused from war, but like men, they’re still raised and trained by a warring mentality so deeply ingrained it’s hard to imagine an alternative. Experimenting with ways to reintegrate the stallion’s intense energy into the horse-human herd, rather than dictating his every move at the stable or turning him loose in the wild, becomes an exercise in changing our entire paradigm. The horse and human elements have to be re-socialized. This process not only involves imagination, experience, timing, and courage, but also demands that we assess our most basic, largely unconscious, assumptions about masculinity and femininity.
According to Keen, the conquest and commerce system has long shaped the dance between the genders, “Once the actuality or possibility of war becomes the context in which we live, men and women are forced into set roles. This is the choreography of the relationship between the sexes that has dominated the last era of history.” When men are raised to protect, suffer, kill, and die, their bodies and character harden, yet underneath they remain fragile, terrified of tenderness and mortality. Overemphasizing power, reason and competitive, goal-orientated thinking, the shadow side of a man becomes uncontrollably moody – without the skills to deal with emotion. When women are raised to be submissive and nurturing, developing intuitive care-taking skills at the cost of their own self-definition, when they’re expected to sense and compensate for emotions others refuse to own, they become overtly manipulative and cruel, opinionated yet lacking in disciplined thinking.
Current attempts to liberate the sexes inadvertently condone the dark side of each: Women in the corporate world and many female horse trainers, for that matter, become aggressive, emotionally inept, and pathologically fearful of vulnerability as they adopt the habits of men to succeed. Men who refuse the reins of conquest quite often fall into the passive-aggressive, catty behaviour modelled by disempowered women. What’s more, according to Keen, when everything is evaluated by performance and profitability, intimacy gets lost in the shuffle. “By and large, our sexuality has been so formed by our roles as warriors and workers that we do not yet know how to separate our sexuality from the mood of performance and conquest.”
We might well adapt the old Zen koan, “What was your original face?”, to make a new koan for modern men: “What was your penis before you were warrior and worker?” Women also suffer from performance anxiety, unable to separate sexuality from the socially sanctioned rewards of cultivating beauty. When asked “What was your original face?”, some would be able to show you pictures – before plastic surgery.
Neither men nor women benefit from this system, and neither sex in its unbalanced state is truly capable of socializing the explosive forces of male virility for peacetime pursuits. It becomes a chicken-and-egg dilemma: we assume that well-adjusted children come from well-adjusted parents. But when the last five thousand generations have been socialized by a warring culture, how can we possibly have hope? The answer, as I learned with my stallion Midnight Merlin, is that fathers and sons can transform each other – when the goals of performance and profit are removed from the playing field and the referee accesses a conscious mother archetype nurturing a fierce sensitivity, one capable of helping frustrated, misdirected male energy grieve, mature, and transform.
In releasing Merlin from an obligation to mate for money, I began a tempestuous, six-year journey to re-socialize him. Along the way, I learned the difference between boundaries, assertiveness, and aggressiveness, as I taught him to temper the latter in favour of the first two. I also helped my mares, Rasa and Comet, set boundaries with Merlin as he was finally allowed to run with his first herd. A stallion’s dream come true, living with two mares, turned out to be much more difficult than he expected. When Comet begged him to mate with her over and over, he stood by the gate exhausted, looking longingly at the private corral he once so desperately wanted to leave. When both mares became pregnant, Merlin lived an entire year with increasingly cranky females who had no interest in sex. Sometimes they tried to rule his life, sometimes he tried to rule theirs, but eventually through much experimentation and frustration, they found their own harmony. The image of this once violent stud standing over one sleeping mare and letting another eat his food was enhanced all the more when Merlin learned to play with his own son.
The first difference I noticed was that, even though Merlin and Spirit lived over the fence from each other, the weanling’s obvious delight in being massaged and groomed translated to the older stud accepting and even seeking out touch by humans. Father and son would also run, stretch and yawn in synchrony. Yet increasingly, Spirit and Merlin began to spar. Not sure of what to do next, I found an experienced stallion trainer who was willing to let go of the standard agenda and create new ways of working with the ever-intensifying energy of a young stud colt. Shelley Rosenberg devised some simple non-competitive activities for Merlin and Spirit that exercised restraint, affection, and mutual respect. The games worked so well that even after Spirit moved to his own bachelor herd, the stud colt and his father continued to look forward to time spent together away from the women and boys. Yet as much as Rasa, Comet, Shelley and I were integral to the process, Merlin’s Spirit helped transform his own father from an explosive horse who would ravage anyone who approached him, to a centered, considerate, yet still powerful and passionate stud. He became a “fierce gentlemen”, Keen’s term for the balanced male psyche accessing feeling as well as logic, vitality as well as restraint. One who uses that battlefield-level courage to keep his own heart open through life’s deepest, gut-wrenching challenges. Only fierce gentlemen can channel warrior energy, which wreaks havoc in its adolescent stage, into a mature masculinity that can truly save the world.
“The historical challenge for modern men is clear,” Keen writes, “To discover a peaceful form of virility and to create an ecological commonwealth.” Yet we step into the unknown here. We do not yet know how to restrain our technological compulsion, limit economic growth, or keep population within an ecological balance. We do not yet know how to act purposefully and rationally in the natural world in a kindly way. We have not yet found the courage to calculate the true profit and loss to all species that results from trade, business, and industry. We have not yet created a form of government in which the nonhuman constituency of the land is given an equal voice in decisions that determine the fate of all members of the commonwealth of living beings.
In this effort, it’s not enough to recover our own wild energy. We must allow the natural world to reclaim its own intelligence and virility. We must put the stallion’s head back on his body and form a true partnership with him. When Merlin was no longer forced to show and breed for profit, he looked forward to Shelley’s training sessions because they allowed him to connect with his mares and his son. It took a feminine impulse, the of wanting to exercise relationship rather than performance, combined with the courage to stand up to the potentially explosive energy of a mal-socialized stallion and an adolescent, testosterone-raging colt, to create an arena for the wounded masculine to form a relationship with its own son. Only those men, and women, who can fathom undertaking such a project, in themselves and in the world at large, have any hope of riding a wise, fully empowered horse on this next, greatest adventure.
From “The Tao of Equus”, book and Tarot deck, by Linda Kohanov (Thanks to Lisa Guenther for providing this excerpt.)