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A man's pursuit of happiness

What is a Mens Retreat like?

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The idea for this website came to me while sitting around a campfire in a remote part of Australia, surrounded by ancient, towering trees. It was a dark and chilly night and I was grateful to have packed a beanie.

This was the first night of a two-night men’s retreat run by the Good Blokes Co. It was my first men’s retreat and was booked in a moment of bleary-eyed, late-night, mind running away from me desperation. To be honest, I’m not sure what I expected to get from it, all I knew was that I needed it. Luckily I am a fairly gregarious and adventurous chap so the idea of “roughing” it in the wilderness with a bunch of other guys seemed like good fun. It wasn’t until I’d booked it online that I started to feel angsty at the realization that this was a bunch of strangers. Further, I’d be immersed in something that I couldn’t easily escape from due to the isolated location of the campsite (it was about 3hrs drive from a metro city location). We were informed that we needed to carpool to get there, the idea being to begin the conversations with your fellow travellers on the 3hr drive. This meant I wouldn’t have my car should I decide mid-way that this wasn’t for me.

The venue was an old timber mill situated in the midst of the famous South Western Australia Karri trees. I can’t give the exact location as we were all sworn to secrecy and to do so might give-away some of Mike Dyson’s (the Good Bloke Co’s head good bloke) secret sauce. What I can say is that it immediately struck me as a special place designed to help men heal. The raw crunching of twigs underfoot, hum of undergrowth bugs and shush of the breeze through the trees evoked something primal from within. Suddenly the air smelled cleaner and the fog in my mind seemed an obstacle that might lift.

Upon entry, the participants (around 20 men) were reminded to keep their phones locked in their cars so that the experience disconnected us from our worries at work or home. To me this was a worry as I run a few websites and the thought of not obsessively checking them filled me with terror.

The retreat ran for two and a half days so there was no time to waste. We dove into our first task which was thankfully lunch; a delicious Mexican style plate of nachos and pulled pork. The task was to gently sit with another person at the retreat and discuss why you had come. This was a tricky question for me as I hadn’t distilled my exact reason. All I knew was that something was off. I couldn’t put my finger on it but it was there, nagging at the back of my mind. Was it emptiness, hollowness, sadness or exhaustion? I’m a father of two brilliant little boys, I’m in the middle of a home renovation that will seemingly never end, I have a full-time job and several side hustles. Outwardly I’m winning but internally I feel… I feel… I can’t say. Whatever it is that I feel, I don’t like it, so I’m here.

The other men on the retreat felt something similar I’m sure, however they’d all managed to articulate it or at least isolate a particular reason for joining. They were an extremely diverse bunch. There were corporate types, tradesman, social workers, managers, workers, home dads, the lot. Almost every walk of life seemed to be represented. The age range surprised me though, I’m 36 years old and I was the second youngest (the youngest being 32). Most men appeared to be in their late thirties to early forties with a couple in their fifties. I’m told that previous camps have even had a few men in their seventies. On reflection, excluding the outliers,  this was a gaggle of men in the midst of a “mid-life crisis”. If it was then the cliche is a lie. There were no red sports cars to be seen and only a handful of ponytails although this might be more to do with their hippie natures than an attempt to hang on to their youth.

As the weekend progressed we were slowly rotated and made to spend time with each other one-on-one, mano’el’mano. This was done over meals mostly but also on long walks through the forrest. Each time I was paired with a new person, a new topic of discussion was suggested by the facilitator, and the conversation flowed freely.

What struck me was the ease with which words flowed on topics that I’d normally found too sensitive or private to discuss. I was raised in a relatively conservative house-hold, and although conversations were never surpressed, we rarely sat around and discussed our feelings. To do so was considered “naf” or soft. It didn’t help that these ideas might’ve been reinforced by my all boys high school co-hort. You see in a group of teenage boys, to show vulnerability is social suicide. What might start as gentle good natured banter, quickly degenerates into malicious mocking perpetuated for a few cheap laughs. On top of this, even if feelings were there to be talked about, the setting rarely suited it. When does one talk about these sorts of things? Space and time needs to be made, and a framework of rules in place to prevent ridicule or unwanted advice. The retreat addressed this on the first night. 

There are few settings that induce a state of reflection or meditation like a campfire. There’s something symbolic about sitting around one in silence, staring into the flames as someone speaks. The moment invites gravity. To ensure the sanctity of the moment a set of ground rules were laid out from the beginning. No talking when someone else speaks, no laughing, mocking or snide jokes. One liner zingers are not welcome, no judgement, just listening. When one speaks, that person must do so in the first person by using “I statements” (e.g I am, I feel, I want) rather than general statements like “men want, men feel” etc). This frames the story in subjective terms and allows a point of reference for the speaker. I found that this type of storytelling was useful, not when I spoke but when I listened to other men. For me the real lessons came when I heard other mens worries and anxieties. There is something about hearing someone be vulnerable that gives you persmission to be vulnerable in your own story and thus more honest.

That first night stripped away any bravado or machismo that might’ve been. From then on the groups defences had been lowered and in doing so, their ears opened. There wasn’t any defensivness and resulting frustration for the rest of the weekend.

The next day we spent immersing ourselves in conversation. There was surprisingly very little downtime. We went on another long walk through the forrest, chopping and changing conversation partners, discussing suggested conversation topics and really listening to other peoples points of view. 

That night, around the campfire, we shared our fears and thoughts again. Having stripped away any pretence over the previous day and a half, the men were able to engage with feelings and conversation at a seemingly deeper level. Yes there were tears.

I’m reluctant to spell out the too’ings and fro’ings of the last few days other than to say it was spent with a focus on future and self. To go into too much detail might disempower any reader that might choose to go on a retreat themselves. What I will say is that the heaviness of the first two days was slowly lifted and by the end of the weekend, a feeling of genuine refreshment and connection was felt by all.

So, would I do it again? For some in the group this was a no brainer. For them the answer was a resounding yes! For me, at first I thought “probably not”. I’m not sure why, but I didn’t feel like I’d gotten much out of it other than a weekend of sleep, good food and lovely surrounds (as a father of young boys this is heavenly). However, one comment was said by one of the men on the drive home, he said the retreat was like a car service. He likened it to taking your mind for a “tune-up” to have the oil changed and the tyres rotated. This made me think as it’s something men (at least men in my immediate orbit) don’t do. Rarely do I see men just unplug and do something completely selfish and for themselves. This to me has become a compelling enough reason to want to go again.

In the following week after returning, I found myself to be calmer and gentler with my kids. My wife remarked that I’m more pleasant to be around and encouraged me to book into the next retreat. She obviously sees the difference. Almost a month later though and the afterglow seems to have worn off. Work is stressful again and life sits on my chest, late into the night, sometimes making it difficult to breathe. Yes, it’s time to go again.

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