“Rise up, rise up sweet family dear...”
A lone man’s song begins to waft through the otherwise perfect silence of the pre-dawn morning in the forests of Maple Ridge, British Columbia. A faint light grows brighter in the distance, and soon, more men’s voices are added to the wake-up call, trailing after a flashlight carving through the velvety blackness.
“…A time for the lord, and remembering…”
The light and voices are heading towards a building in a clearing, where, beginning at 4 am every day, men gather to chant prayers and mantras, meditate, and pour their sweat into their yoga mats. This is 3HO (the Happy, Healthy, and Holy Organization) Men’s Camp, where men from all over the world assemble to attend lectures, learn how to control their minds and emotions, push their bodies through hours and hours of kundalini yoga, and shed generations of negative sociocultural conditioning in order to step into the future as vanguards for humanity.
There is a stark difference between being a light-minded hue-man (“hue” meaning “light” and “man” meaning “mind” in Punjabi), and a bipedal hominid. Here at camp, men learn that the root cause of the destructive and toxic masculinity that has subjugated the feminine principle and caused so much violence for thousands of years is a lack of connection between our three “brains:” the head, the heart, and the gut. This isn’t just hippie hogwash; it’s cutting-edge science. We have complex neural networks, densely packed and highly electromagnetically charged, at each of these processing centers in our bodies, which are all due for an upgrade if we are to move past our limitations as bipedal hominids and step into our roles as custodians of the planet.
Big heads get heavy and fall off without a proper foundation. In cultures which prioritize and reward intellectual proficiency at the expense of emotional and physical connection, the end result can be found in cold, dead hands clutching cold, hard steel – the proliferation and development of weapons and endless brainstorming about the most efficient ways we can hurt and kill one another. Our culture and the world it has created have evolved at a much faster rate than have our primitive minds, and we are still running on outdated and hyperactive sympathetic nervous systems that are constantly telling us, “fight or fly; kill or be killed.” On a planet with a rapidly increasing population and a rapidly decreasing amount of finite resources, the future of our species depends on our ability to control our fearful minds and deeply connect with our emotions, intuition, instincts, and other humans by distributing our awareness evenly throughout our physical bodies instead of exclusively in our heads. Rather than react to ancient threats that no longer exist, we must respond to the demands of the times and use our intelligence and technologies consciously in order to create a more sustainable future for all.
With the help of kundalini yoga, as one of our teachers had us shout in unison multiple times a day, “we’ve got this!” The sciences of yoga and meditation have never been more important in our mission to harmonize the mind, emotions, and gut instincts. Kundalini yoga specifically works to reboot the central nervous system and expand its processing power with breathwork and exercise, which also adjusts the physical body’s capacity for the increased electromagnetic frequency put out by our powerful three “brains.” Meditation wrangles the mind and literally recalibrates the cerebrum to minimize impulsive reactions to stimuli while maximizing its ability to consciously respond instead.
But that’s about enough intellectualizing for now. Talking about the very valid science behind yoga and meditation is nowhere near as meaningful as sharing the experiences that were had during this weeklong retreat. Men of all walks of life were found here – doctors, successful businessmen, fathers, husbands, and of course yoga teachers, to name a few examples. Every man on the planet has struggled in some way in his life, and these men are no different: whether through battling addiction (which we learned had to do with much more than just substances and other common compulsions), losing loved ones to suicide, searching for meaning in their lives, or simply trying to find a safe place to survive on what can sometimes be a dangerous planet. One friend who I grew very close with over the course of the week told me that his brother had a heart attack and died while getting into a fight on the internet about the Israeli occupation of Palestine, which forced me to recall the years I had spent on Facebook unnecessarily raising my cortisol levels doing the exact same thing over and over again. I am very grateful I made the decision to delete my old profile and to choose to never engage in those kinds of arguments ever again. The willingness of the men gathered here to share their stories and understand one another's struggles made for a profoundly healing experience. When, at the end of our time together, a teacher asked to see a show of hands of those who felt that this week improved their lives significantly, every other arm in the room was stretched towards the ceiling.
I flew up to my first Men's Camp on a whim after receiving an email about it, having always wanted to visit British Columbia and despite not knowing what to expect besides a deepening of my yoga practice. The friends I made and the experiences I had there ensured I will be back next year. I have a call with my two accountability buddies coming up this week, with whom we randomly met and were assigned to during the first few days of the retreat in order to stay in touch and hold one another accountable to our progress in our personal goals. Both of my experiences connecting with my buddies helped me commit more firmly to my path of self-discovery and development than ever before.
One of my buddies, whose name I won’t mention for privacy’s sake, is a Mexican immigrant who told me over lunch that he illegally swam across the border to the US twice. I laughed heartily in response to what I thought must certainly be a self-deprecating joke, but my amusement quickly shifted to deep respect when he doubled down and said he wasn’t ashamed to admit the truth. He said that the first time he left home, he did so with a lump in his throat, unsure if he would ever see his family members again. He was caught by border patrol and thrown in jail for three days, but told me he felt fortunate just to have not been killed, as many other border crossers had been. He was successful on his next attempt and worked as hard as he could for many years doing several odd jobs in Texas before being able to hire a lawyer and get his visa. He now lives in Vancouver and works at the yoga center that hosts Men’s Camp. His story was a stunning reminder that I’ve never had to work that hard in my entire life; he says I should consider myself fortunate for that to be the case, but his story continues to awe and inspire me.
My other buddy’s name is Tommy Rosen, a published author and an established expert on addiction – first and foremost from spending most of the first half of his life choosing to indulge in his own before a confrontation with his tearful father encouraged him to go to AA. With the help of yoga and meditation, Tommy has not only been sober for around 25 years since his first meeting with his sponsor, but now has nothing close to even the faintest desire to consume drugs or alcohol. He now helps countless others get ahold of their own addictions and, by doing so, know themselves in ways more profound than possible without first accepting and reconciling with their weaknesses. It’s important, he says, to understand the metaphor of the pearl: it is only produced by mollusks in response to extreme irritation and discomfort. Thus, our greatest strengths often lie hidden in our deepest wounds; Tommy would not be the man he is today, having created a program that has helped so many, without the suffering that pushed him to get there.
Recovery 2.0, Tommy’s program, takes a broader look at addiction, and defines it as any kind of compulsory behavior that inhibits our natural growth and development into our greatest potential. He says that the universe naturally pushes us to be the best we can be through the many challenges life presents to us, and that addictions are the spiritual ego’s way of trying to slow or halt this process, which causes a tremendous amount of pain. When, during his workshop and yoga class, Tommy asked everyone if they’ve ever struggled with an addiction or any kind of compulsive behavior, every single person’s hand at camp went up: the phenomenon of addiction reaches far beyond the boundaries most people seem to place it in. After this week, I’d say that the collective addiction to the familiar and the resistance to growth and change is probably the greatest obstacle the human race faces in its progress towards peace.
In addition to his class, Tommy hosted AA-style circles every morning, a kind of group the likes of which I had never attended but that provided a space for some of the most important moments of the week. Here, men shared the kinds of deeply personal stories that unfortunately would more than likely be too emotional to be acceptable (yet!) in typical male meet-ups due to our cultural constrictions. I may not deem myself to be in that bad of a hole with my compulsive behavior at this point in my life, but after being a part of these circles, I’m highly considering attending more just to be a part of the tremendous healing that occurred from the simple act of opening up about struggles. Tommy reminded us to never struggle alone with difficult thoughts or feelings for too long: to stay on top of his game, he doesn't let himself go more than an hour without connecting with another human in the event that he has difficulty processing something.
[It is worth noting that, while we were encouraged to open up emotionally at camp by our teachers, we were discouraged from simply finding someone to complain to and thereby find validation for staying in a negative mindset. This is a distinction that will be hugely important moving forward as men begin to move more comfortably into emotionally secure spaces.]
One of my goals for the week was to come home and build a better relationship with my parents, and the highlight of my week occurred just after Tommy’s class. Similarly to his story, my father has also witnessed me go through hard times, particularly when I was living away from my family in Miami. I fortunately never got too deep into the drug habits I had, and my father had the grace, patience, and wisdom to give me space and allow me to make my own mistakes, but there was a period in my life, as I learned when I finally returned home to her and my dad, when my mother thought I would die in Florida. As unsettling as that was to hear, I never quite understood how they felt until right after the meditation Tommy chose to end his class. It was a Venus kriya (meditation done with a partner) I did with a man about the same age as my father, who told me after about five minutes of intense eye gazing and mantra chanting that he felt fortunate to have connected with someone my age in such a deep way because his son had died 10 months prior. He would have been almost exactly my age if he were still alive, and hearing that broke my heart and tear ducts wide open. The slight back pain I had been feeling behind my heart that day came out with my tears, and I was reminded of their value in the release of stuck emotions in the body-mind continuum (Yogi Bhajan, the man who brought kundalini yoga to the west, used to say that the bags under the eyes of extremely busy men were a sign of all the tears they haven't cried; cry more, my dudes!).
I returned home with a deeper understanding of the love my parents have for me and with a deeper commitment to carrying myself through my life with a grace that will honor them and myself. Upon sharing the story of my mutual meditation with my parents and the value it had for me in understanding how my father sees and cares about me, he and I both tearfully embraced, sharing more love and understanding for one another that had been held back in our hearts for I don't know how many years. Until this point, there was always an unconscious script running in my mind, which I suspect formed some of the gears that got my hands moving to the nearest joint or beer bottle, that said I was basically of a piece of shit and that my existence didn’t really matter. It was only after seeing the love a father has for his son, reflected in the tear-streaked eyes of a father who had lost his own, that I truly began to understand how much I am valued, at least to the two humans who created me (and that’s good enough for me).
The fate of the human race on this planet depends on men’s ability to connect with themselves and others on a deeper and more genuine level. Men’s Camp is a great place to learn how to do that; without the pressure of having women around, it’s so much easier for men to just be themselves. As the founder of men’s camp said, “we sure do love women, but we’re sure glad they aren’t here.” I don’t want to understate the importance of women’s roles in the cultural shift towards the more female future that is sorely needed, but let’s be real – it wouldn’t be fair for them to clean up the messes that we’ve been making for tens of thousands of years. Yogi Bhajan used to say that women are sixteen times more powerful and capable than men, so we’ve got some catching up to do; it’s about time we stop looking towards the mothers to clean our collective dirty laundry. Don’t worry, loved ones: we’ve got this.