Michael is one of the founding figures of the men’s movement, along with Robert Bly, Sam Keen, and Bill Kauth’s Mankind Project. He co-edited, with Bly and the great Jungian psychotherapist and writer, James Hillman, a bestselling anthology of the poetry of passage called The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart. He is the author of Fate and Destiny: The Two Agreements of The Soul, Why the World Doesn’t End, and his latest book, The Genius Myth.
He is the founder of Mosaic Multicultural Foundation, a nonprofit network of artists, activists, and community builders that encourages greater understanding between diverse peoples. Currently he is working with at-risk youth. During our call he told moving stories of those encounters, often placing them in the context of myth and rites of passage.
Michael has a grounded masculine ability to communicate with soul-level authority. I am often deeply affected by his capacity to speak the truth and tell stories in ways that awaken insight, touch my soul and move my heart. His stories humble the pride of the thinking mind, transmitting the broken-open disposition in which wisdom becomes possible.
I invited him to have this public conversation because he has been working for years with the big questions I ask on Beyond Awakening, some of which are reflected in the below excerpts from The Genius Myth:
The answers to the overwhelming problems and daunting global issues we all face cannot simply come from the limited consciousness of abstract reasoning and scientific attitudes that currently dominate the world. The problems run deeper than the simple facts of the matter; the answers must be found in deeper places as well.
The loss of a felt connection to the divine spark hidden within each person may be the greatest curse of modern mass societies.
When the dark times come round and great changes are afoot, it becomes more important that awake people remain awake and that more individuals awaken to the nature of the spark of life they carry within. In the great drama of life the human soul becomes the extra quantity and distinct living quality needed to tip the balance of the world towards creation.
During our dialogue, Michael shared that in his work with at-risk youth, he discovered that whether rich or poor, they are pushed to the margins because they are born into a world on fire with conflict. In fact, we are all living in the margins during this time of “apocalypsis” — in which both collapse and renewal are unveiling all that has been hidden.
The collapse is unmistakable, as evinced by the recent series of tragedies and disasters: Orlando, Istanbul, Dhaka, Iraq, Dallas, Nice, Turkey, Falcon Heights, Baton Rouge, and others. Institutions are not holding and nature is rattled.
But renewal is less obvious. It is born of adversity “in the margins,” at the edge. This adversity triggers each person’s unique genius and gifts. In our unprecedented times, this fomenting of unique genius in the margins takes on added importance, since there is no one “right” solution for the complex global problems we face. Instead, there are many solutions waiting to be awakened in each person.
Listening to Michael, I felt sobered. It occurred to me that in some way, collectively, we are being given a kind of intervention, a wake up call to the out-of-control, “addicted,” unsustainable way that we have been living. The wounded among us are going crazy and lashing out in ways that are so horrific that we’re forced to pay attention. The ecological disruptions in nature and with the animals are doing the same.
On all sides, we’re being called to a process of reckoning and “sobering up.” Only by each of us personally letting this intervention bring us to our knees, will we become vulnerable enough to participate in the kind of turnaround, and the outpouring of genius, that is needed.
Michael’s ideas about genius and uniqueness developed out working with people in their darkest moments. He shared a heart-breaking, and deeply inspiring story of a Vietnam veteran who experienced such gruesome combat trauma as a 17-year-old soldier that he lost his sense of smell and suffered decades of PTSD.
At one of Michael’s events, where older veterans mentored younger ones, this Vietnam vet shared a war story he’d keep hidden for forty years. With Michael’s guidance, and a cleansing ceremony, he was able to reconnect with the desire he’d had to sing as an adolescent, before he was shattered by his war experience. At first, his voice was timid as he struggled to find it. But today he travels the country singing songs he’s written, “soldiers’ blues.” He discovered his genius and is giving his gift. And as he continues his own healing, so too the world is healed.
Michael works with people who are fighting life and death battles of the soul, where they’re ready to despair and even turn to violence. He says the soul is at the heart of the being. When we lose touch with it, we become engulfed in a kind of fog — the red fog in war or street gangs that smells of anger and violence and keeps people hyper-inflamed; the white fog of “distancing” in suburban white middle class culture which substitutes comfort for being alive, and is compounded by electronic devices which “disappear” us; the black fog that descends when the red or white fog pushes people into despair and even suicide. Young people in a black fog will say there is “nothing” inside them. They are devastated, utterly unaware of the genius they came into the world with. No one ever told them.
I asked Michael if it was possible to break out of the debilitating fog of confusion and self-hatred, and the thinking that we’re not doing enough to address the world’s ills. In response, he recounted an Irish folk myth. When the center cannot hold, it doesn’t disappear, it fragments and goes into the margins. In our time, each of us must go to the margin that both attracts us and makes us most afraid. We only need to find a single thread, pulling it back to the center.
In this incremental way, the center is re-woven. Not by big ambitious movements, but by individuals pulling themselves back to the center, their genius fired by adversity, bringing vitality and nurturing to the soul of the culture.
To be educated is for one’s genius “to be led out” (educare) into the world, to become engaged in ongoing creation. This process involves a shattering of ego, not just Trump-style megalomania, but the ego-trap of staying small and safe. Cultures used to help people to shatter the ego with rites of passage. Now our rites of passage are fashioned from the troubles of our own lives.
Reflecting on the tension between the “inner” and “outer” work, Michael says we are living in a time where it’s no longer appropriate to seek only individual enlightenment or salvation. We are called to bring whatever shards of consciousness we’ve been able to connect with back to our suffering world. We have long ago passed a point where withholding one’s genius can be justified.
Fortunately, we don’t have to be experts, or have all the answers, before we act upon our genius urge. If we show up, “things unknown” will appear through us, just as Athena spoke through Mentor to Telemachus, empowering him to deal with the suitors. The divine will always meet us halfway.
Toward the end of our broadcast, in response to a listener’s question, Michael voiced his resolute stand against cynicism. He believes that life intends to continue and humans are essential to it. Inside the soul of each of us, there exists something divine that is inextricably linked to the cosmos. If well-intentioned people don’t feel part of that ongoing creation, then by default they’re contributing to the collapse everyone’s afraid of. We can’t risk colluding with such nihilism.
It was a stunning broadcast, one that I will be contemplating for some time. I invite you to listen to the audio here.
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