An Interview with Joseph Jastrab
Copyright © 1994 by Bert H. Hoff
Joseph Jastrab had the original vision for Wingspan magazine, long the national voice of the mythopoetic menís movement. He is the author of Sacred Manhood, Sacred Earth: A Quest into the Wilderness of a Manís Heart. As the men at last fallís Wingspan Menís Leaderís Conference at Indianapolis had an after- dinner drumming session, Bert took the opportunity to sit out on the porch and chat with Joseph about his visions and his vision work.
Bert: Perhaps the way to start is to tell us the start of your menís vision quest
Joseph: I literally stumbled into this Menís Work in 1981. I was 31 at the time. I was with a group of men and women in the canyon lands of Utah. One evening. I was called out into the desert. It happened to be a full moon night. It was quite beautiful and alluring. I felt that there was something moving in me that was going to find expression out there in the desert.
I came across some Datura plants, Jimson weed, which were in full bloom in the middle of the night. These plants have trumpeting white blossoms that open in response to the light of the moon. I was attracted to them, and sat down in front of them.
I went out with a question of how might I best serve the planet. That was the only question I knew how to ask in those days. It seemed to be the perfect one for that evening.
What I heard in response, in my meditation, was, "The world needs a manís heart." It came over and over and over again. I tried to whisk it away as being irrelevant. After all, what does a manís heart have to do with saving the world? But the harder I tried to whisk the answer away, the brighter the ember, that statement, grew.
So I left that situation with that phrase that was turning over and over again in my heart, in my mind. The world needs a manís heart. I can say that I was radically changed by that, because it opened by eyes to the whole territory of a manís heart, that I never thought to explore before. It began to open my eyes to men, who we were. It opened by eyes to our engagements to each other, to women and to the planet.
Up until that time, I had no close male friendships. In fact, outside of being good at basketball and what I call "idea polishing," I didnít have engagements with men. The thought of sitting with men and exploring what was in our hearts was, quite frankly, the most boring thing I could think of doing. All of the relationships that brought me deeper into myself happened to be with women.
That calling, "the world needs a manís heart," just changed that completely for me. I happened to be leading wilderness vision quests at that time, for both men and women. I was planning the next cycle of quests. The phrase "the world needs a manís heart" kept returning to me. I thought it might be interesting to lead a vision quest for men only. So in the summer of 1982 I had the first quest. I sent out a notice of this quest to a mailing list of over 500 men. I got two replies. The first was a friend, David, who said, "Sure, it sounds like great fun." The second response was from a man who scribbled a note on a piece of paper, saying "Take my name off your mailing list immediately."
That perfectly mirrored my own ambivalence about this. I, in fact, wasnít sure if I wanted to go in that direction.
David and I did go out into the Adirondack mountains in New York. We spent five days journeying together, seeding the possibility of future menís quests through our engagement with each other and with the land.
I remember one experience. We built a sweat lodge our last evening there. In the lodge I prayed for both guidance and the courage to continue with this journey. As we left the lodge we looked up into the night sky. The stars were brilliant that night. Off to the north there was a shimmering of colors in the sky. I feared my eyes had been scalded by the steam in the lodge, but in fact the Northern lights were displayed in their full glory. That display of light and beauty helped confirm in me the potential for this journey. So I was urged to continue.
Bert: Thereís a poetry in that image, of unlocking the light the brilliance, the beauty and the harmony in men.
Joseph: I like that reflection, Bert, because in fact what Iíve learned is that when we look into our hearts thereís a deep mystery there. A shimmering quality that you can't really put your finger on. As soon as you do, it changes. Thatís the mystery and the beauty of the heart.
We might also reflect on the fact that Northern lights are displayed in darkness. Certainly, what was true for my founding experience was that one has to enter the territory of darkness in order to discover the beauty that is available.
So, off into the unknown we went. The second year that I proposed the menís quest, about 25 or 30 men responded.
Bert: What happened between the first and the second year, that so many more men responded?
Joseph: Itís really hard to know, to point to a single cause. But I feel that Keith Thomposonís interview with Robert Bly, "What do Men Want?" in New Age in the spring of 1982 contributed. I think Robertís call spoke to many men who, in those days, had ears to listen. I sense, though, that on a larger level there was a critical mass, enough men had done enough work, and there was a ripeness within menís souls at that time. I donít think itís fair to point to any single cause. That would dishonor the many years of individual menís work.
Bert: Thereís the inner cause, too. Itís almost as if as soon as you got clear on your own intent, what needed to happen came forward.
Joseph: Yes, I feel thereís a lot of power in that. When anyone takes a stand for what they perceive to be the truth, it does attract others who are looking to take a stand in that arena. Certainly as I faced my ambivalence and continued to keep on walking down the path that I had intended, my desire to know what was in my heart as a man touched other menís desire.
So we came together. My experience was not so much as me as a leader, particularly in those early quests. I came with a lot of burning questions. My questions were on fire, and it didnít take much to ignite the burning questions in other menís hearts.
It became apparent to me after the second quest that there was, indeed, a hunger for this kind of work for men. In exploring the realm in their hearts, but also exploring that in the context of the natural world.
One vision came early on in the summer of 1984, after a I had done a couple of quests. After hearing many stories and seeing many expressions of grief, of anger, of prayerfulness, both the light and the shadow of menís hearts, I thought it was important to create a vehicle to communicate this to other men outside of the small circles we had formed in these wilderness encampments. The vision of a journal of some sort came up. This has now grown into Wingspan. Chris Harding [the editor of Wingspan] was one the 1984 quest. He agreed to take up the lead on that call.
Joseph: I learned that men needed a safe space in order to reveal their hearts. I learned how important the ritual context was. I learned there was some work that men alone could do together. This, of course, is not to negate the important work that men can do with women. But there are areas of a manís heart that need the safety of a male container.
So we began to structure more and more experiences and workshops for men alone, beyond the quest work itself.
Bert: What were the other kinds of things, that you began to bring into your workshops for men?
Joseph: The most important thing is perhaps the least dramatic . It is simply the importance of encouraging men to tell their stories. I would say that 90 percent of the healing that takes place is simply in the telling of menís stories. Both the light and the shadow of our stories.
Bert: Thereís something important in what youíre saying. In order for men and women to come together, the men need first to be off by themselves to find out who they are.
Joseph: I believe so. There always have been, and I believe there always will be, a place where men and women engage together, and other places for them to be in their own gender camps. I think we simply need to respect the differences between these spaces.
Another images came out of that early time, that have grown over time and continued to work powerfully in my own work. It had to do with recognition that manhood arises out of selfhood.
That statement came out of the experience of witnessing many diverse men gathering on these quests. Each man came with a wonderfully unique expression of manhood. As we used to say back then, if you want to find a real man, the place to look is in the bathroom mirror. In those early days, before the terms "mythopoetic" and "menís movement" were really thought of, there was a certain amount of looking for models of the "new man." We looked in mythology and other traditions, but we began to realize that the only place were going to find something that was real, not just a "model," was inside ourselves. There was a real focus of work, to look inward to find the truest expression of real manhood, and to celebrate diversity.
Bert: Iíve heard so many men say, "I donít know what it is to be a man. All the old myths donít work. I donít know if Iím a man, or what it is to be a man."
Joseph: I know. Iíve been in that place, and occasionally return to it. What Iíve discovered for myself, and have corroborated in other menís stories, is that when weíre in that place of not knowing what it is to be a man, it means that weíre looking outside ourselves. Of course weíre not going to know when weíre looking somewhere other than within us. There are many compelling places to look for "real manhood." In our fatherís eyes, or expectations. Or, for "mythopoetic" men, in mythological figures. There are thousands of places outside of ourselves to look. But thatís where the confusion arises.
When we first begin to look inside, what we see first is darkness, before we see anything else. So the journey inward requires a tolerance for darkness, chaos and the unknown. This is where the metaphor of the quest comes in to inspire us and keep us on our journey. We keep asking the question, "What is real inside me? What is true inside me? What is authentic inside me?" If we have a tolerance for silence in response to those questions, eventually we live into the experience of that truth. Itís hard for me to put this into precise words. Itís a mysterious process of becoming.
Bert: This sounds like the Jungian process of discovering the Self. Marion Woodman describes that as finding the creative potential within. She puts it in terms of holding the tension of the opposites. Finding the balance between "I want this," and "I want that." Instead of going for the one or the other, you hold the tension of the opposites. If you stay in that space of tension and anxiety, and hold with it, a third alternative that you would not have recognized emerges and allows the full development of your creative potential as a human being. Is that the process youíre describing?
Joseph: Very much so. I think this willingness to hold the tension of the opposites is the courage of vision questing, or living these important questions. For example, in terms of manhood, two of the opposites weíre asked to hold as men, and to allow the dance and the conflict between them, is the masculinity and femininity in each of us. It needs to be pointed out that manhood has as much to do with femininity as it does with masculinity. These two live within us.
Itís an easy thing to understand that and agree to that intellectually. Itís a whole other thing to actually live within the tension between the two. To trust the unique blend that each one of us carries forth in to the world, in terms of our blend of masculinity and femininity. To not be seduced by fear into comparing ourselves to other men in measuring ourselves against them.
Bert: "Iím not doing it right." At this conference, some men are very committed to the New Warrior training. Some other men are saying that what comes up for them is that you need to have done a particular program, or act a certain way, in order to be considered "initiated" or to "be a man." There was a consensus in our circle that we need to recognize and respect the diversity of each man and each manís individual path. Thereís a trap, of trying to do something to look like the next guy. Then youíre following the next guyís vision, instead of your own vision. Is that what youíre getting at?
Joseph: Yes. When we stop recognizing diversity and start institutionalizing any particular form of manhood, weíre going to create an institution. Living in any institution is a deadening experience, no matter how idealized we label or describe it.
Bert: I need to bring this home in your own work. What I hear you saying is that vision questing is a route that works for you and the people involved with you, not that everyone needs to do a vision quest to fond their own route to their own selfhood.
Joseph: I would agree wholeheartedly. My point of view is that anyone who is talking the planet right now and asking the question, "Who am I?" is on a vision quest. A vision quest is simply a way of looking at life, for a man or a woman. The vision quests that I hold are merely a ritual acknowledgment that a movement is already in process in our lives. When we go to the Adirondacks for our eleven days of "vision questing" weíre simply choosing to wholeheartedly and mindfully focus on living the important questions in our lives for eleven days. Thatís all we do.
Bert: Youíre reminding me of something that Malidoma Somť and Martžn Prechtel, the Mayan shaman at last summerís Mendocino Menís Conference, say. We may be missing the point of initiation. Initiation is the end of the process, and a recognition of where you are. Itís the final culmination of the work that leads up to that point.
Joseph: Thatís a point that needs to be emphasized. I agree that the initiation is in many ways a celebration of the work thatís been done. But then, of course, as soon as that work is confirmed, it is ripened by the initiation that opens a whole new door in that moment. In my experience initiation is a door that swings both ways. It is a celebration of completion, and a celebration of new beginnings. Any new completion automatically becomes an opening. Our culture has tended to value openings and beginnings. It has a fixation there. So itís helpful to look at a celebration of completion.
Bert: Martžn Prechtel then goes on to say that the young man initiated as a warrior is just a young hothead who can go around and act out all that testosterone stuff, but who is not ready for responsibilities like family life. There is a second initiation that happens ten years after the warrior work, where he is ready to step into a new, family role. At a still later age, he can go through another initiation process to be an "echo man." He echoes the ancestors, the knowledge of the ancestors, and the community. The warrior initiation is just the start of a life-long process.
Joseph: I like that. Any life thatís worth living is a life of one initiation after another. I think that in this day and age weíre being asked, and it feels like itís being forced, to broaden our view of what initiation is. In former times, the community gathered around in these initiatory moments and in many ways helped precipitate them. I think itís also possible for us to be initiated by life. Iíve experienced in my own life some powerful turning points that feel as real as all the initiations Iíve heard about from any other culture. My experience in the Utah canyon lands, for example, is something that both ended a former existence and precipitated a new journey. I found myself needing to go to my community of friends to help confirm this within me. But the responsibility was within me.
Bert: Rudolf Otto describes that as the experience of the "numinous."
Joseph: Yes. And oftentimes we stumble into these experiences! (Chuckling)
Bert: I told you about a couple of mine, earlier. It would then take me a process of a couple of weeks to assimilate what it means.
Joseph: That time of gestation is very important. On our vision quests we honor this gestation time in a small but important way. The people go out for three days and three nights of solitude, in which theyíre fully engaged in their initiatory phase of the process. We ask that they return in silence. We donít speak to one another any of the content of our experience for a full 24 hours. We live with that experience, and allow it to grow within us. The first contact we have, in terms of sharing that experience with each other, is in the form of what we call the "vision dance." There, the experience is revealed without conversational language, through forms of dance, song or poetry, the one way you can use language creatively. Or mask-making, or psycho-dramatics. All of the art forms are used to articulate our experience.
Bert: A different image comes to my mind as you describe that, and we focus on initiation as community. The people come back in silence, but they are in community with other peopleís energy. So itís almost as if the people are in a community of energy, and in their silence they exchange the energies of their individual visions. What emerges after 24 hours, then, is really something quite different, enriched by the community energy in that silent time. Does that happen?
Joseph: Thatís very important. Because vision is nurtured by conscious respect for silence. If a scientist were to come into camp with a machine to measure whatís going on, absolutely nothing would register on the machine. Yet on a soul level something very important is happening in our willingness to be together in silence, carrying the seeds of vision within us. The respect given to the silence and the openness that surrounds that silent seed encourages the seed to grow in its own time, in its own way.
We tend, in a material, industrial age culture, to think of vision as a commodity, something you go out and get. If you do the right things, in the right order, youíre going to "get" something.
Bert: Vision guaranteed within 24 hours or your money back. Visa and MasterCharge accepted.
Joseph: You got it! These are the quests that sell. And to be quite honest with you, in my early days of guiding quests, I tended to "hot-wire" the experience, if you will. Guarantee the vision, force the issue, make sure that before everyone left they were able to verbalize a vision with clarity.
Bert: So not everybody who would go on a vision quest would necessarily come back with a vision? And that part of it is OK as well?
Joseph: That part of it is absolutely necessary, as far as Iím concerned. Who am I to say? Perhaps the most important thing for a man to return with after that time of solitude is deep, deep disappointment and deep grief in the emptiness of his life.
Bert: So weíre coming back now to the theme of holding the tension for something else to emerge as this man goes home with this deep disappointment.
Joseph: And he goes home and we suggest that only fear could rob him of the creative potential of that fear and grief, by trying to convince him that that was not a "worthy vision." It becomes less worthy only as he compares himself to someone elseís experience, perhaps, or compares his expectations against what he received. But if you could continue to care for it, and nurture it as you would a young plant, and not expect it to grow any faster than it organically will, keep listening, keep listening, and have the courage to stand by your experience, then marvelous things come from that. Iíve had people get in touch with me five years after the event, and say, "itís hard for me to believe, but this event is still unfolding in my life."
Bert: What other visions came out of your work?
Joseph: Another had to do with a growing recognition that within the earth there was an Earth Father as well as an Earth Mother. I began to watch myself calling to the earth, calling Mother Earth, time and time again. This is what weíve been taught to be the proper and respectful way. And yet if we begin to trust our experience more and more, we begin to see the presence of a Father Earth as well. So now we practice allowing for Earth Mother and Earth Father to live as co-equals in our experience.
Bert: This, then is a surprising experience that come out of your own experience, your own soul-work. It must have been a real surprise to you to hear Jed Diamond read that poem yesterday, that Clarissa Estťs read in her appearance with Michael Meade, about Mother Earth and Father Earth.
Joseph: Knowing what I know of Clarissa and the level at which she works, it didnít surprise me so much. When I heard the poem, it just felt right. It just confirmed in me the feeling that, these days, thereís a quickening process. Weíre not working alone. There are a lot of different windows to look upon the same truth. Whatís heartening for me is that a man and a woman can look through a window and be willing to recognize both Father Earth and Mother Earth. They can celebrate each otherís power, and see each otherís grief. That was a moment of confirmation, of hopefulness, for me.
Bert: Tell us about your new book.
Joseph: The working title is Sacred Manhood, Sacred Earth. Itís subtitled "A Quest into the Wilderness of a Manís Heart." The book chronicles my carrying out of the vision that the world needs a manís heart, and my ensuing work with men in vision quests. The stories that the men who have actually experienced this quest share are really the heart of the book. What they discovered in their own hearts, and what theyíve discovered in their interactions with other men and with the earth. And although all of the stories are different, and touch on different aspects of our experience, grief, anger, sadness, celebration, disappointment, and initiation, a common thread is the sacredness of all of these things. The need to honor our manhood as a sacred experience has come up strongly through this process.
So the book, as I see it, is a give-away, that the other men and I are willing to offer to the culture, to those who may be served by hearing the stories of men of our times as they put themselves in a mythopoetic environment. We take that literally, to mean an environment that encourages the making of myth.
Bert: So the two threads youíre tying in is men and women, and their individual and collective quests, and the role of this work in planetary healing.
Joseph: Letís start with the planetary healing. Iím a little cautious of the term "planetary healing," if it takes our attention away from that part of the planet that lives within us. If our vision of planetary healing is a vision of something outside of us, then weíre going to be eternally frustrated in our efforts.
Bert: The story is told of the environmentalists who went to a sacred sweat lodge in the Southwest. They were all to pray for something. The environmentalist were all praying for the healing of the earth. The shaman had to tap one of them on the shoulder and say, "No, no, donít do that. The earth is perfectly capable of taking care of himself. You had better pray for your own ass."
Joseph: Thatís a beautiful story. The healing that needs to happen, I think is the healing of the split between ourselves and the earth. The earth, I think, has demonstrated over the years a great capacity for caring for itself.
Bert: And we are a very non-essential part of that process. The earth may not need us around, in order to take care of itself.
Joseph: I think itís typically human, to take more responsibility than is our due. It gives us a meaning to live. But in that attempt, I think we miss the point. Thereís so much healing and caring that needs to take place within us. I agree with Joseph Campbell when he said that a vital person vitalizes the world. Someone who is trying to save the world in order to stay employed needs to recreate the world as a victim continuously. Itís a delicate matter, sometimes, what effects our attempts to save anything really have.
Bert: The other thread you were tying in is men and women. What is the value for men and for relationships, when men do this inner work?
Joseph: Itís so obvious to me that this is vitally important, that itís hard for me to talk about it. Of course men need to be together at times, to journey into their souls, and women need to be in their circles doing their work. I canít imagine any finer way to celebrate both the unity and the diversity of life than giving ourselves sacred and soulful time.
Bert: One of the purposes of this separate and individual work is to be coming back together again in new and deeper ways.
Joseph: Yes, good point. For example, one of the ways that we remind of ourselves of that on our quests is to continually be aware of the larger circle and context in which we are engaged in. I think that anyone who has returned from this work has learned that when we share the fruits of our labors with others, thatís when we taste its sweetness ourselves. Itís only in that sharing that the full flavor of our experience comes forth. If we keep the experience to ourselves, it rots.
Bert: So what happens of men go off and their vision quests, and women go off to do their vision quests, and they come back together?
Joseph: Sparks. Wonderful sparks. And perhaps shimmering, as the Northern Lights shimmer, in mysterious and unexpected ways. Life happens. You need a healthy male and a healthy human female to create a healthy human baby. If we want our souls to grow healthy as well, we need to cultivate forms that increase our vitality. When this coming together happens, creation celebrates it. Perhaps we, then, are the Northern Lights.
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