What I learnt on a men-only retreat…

They can’t be serious. I can’t do this.

“Look into the other man’s eyes.”

Look into their eyes? This was supposed to be a "men's retreat". I was expecting some kind of initiation into manhood; not relationship therapy. I was waiting for podcaster and man’s man Joe Rogan to appear with a psychoactive toad in one hand and a copy of Mark Wahlberg’s morning routine in the other. We would take turns to lick the toad, slay a hallucinatory dragon, drink a pint of butter coffee and hit the cryo-chamber. Then – and only then – could I call myself a man.

“And now maybe you want to make a sound. Without shame.”

This was not what I wanted. I wanted to learn how to really bottle it up. I wanted to leave secure in the knowledge it was totally fine never to engage with my feelings, ever. I wanted to sit on the train home with my legs manspread wider than a fully extended speculum. Any of these things would be preferable to screaming at Karl.

“Feel the energy and let it OUT.”

I look helplessly into Karl’s eyes. Karl is a 22-year-old German PhD student with a shaved head and beard. He has just jokingly told me he thought we were here to learn how to pick up women. Now look at us: two men, standing in a yoga studio by a canal, about to scream in each other’s faces.

Oh god, here it comes.

I take a breath.

I’m actually at a men’s retreat for a reason that is not very easy for me to write about. I wish it was. Other people tell me to just open up – and I'd like to. It just doesn't come easily.

So for now, let’s focus on the second reason I'm at a men’s retreat: I am trying to find out the answer to a question. In the wake of the #MeToo movement there are calls for men to change and they are getting louder and louder. The American Psychological Association (APA) is leading the charge. Its new guidelines for men and boys state that "traditional masculinity" hurts men more than it helps them, and that “socialising boys to suppress their emotions causes damage”. Sexist constructions of masculinity lead to “higher levels of intimate partner and sexual violence toward women”. Men who understand their privilege and power “may be less apt to rely on power, control, and violence in their relationships”. Change men, one of the authors claims, and we can “change the world”.

But men aren't taking it brilliantly. Discussion of gender remains fraught. An advert for razors instructing men to stop bullying and catcalling has become – by some margin – the most disliked YouTube video of 2019. Perhaps changing men isn’t easy after all. How do you tinker with masculinity without alienating men?

One British outfit thinks it can help. Rebel Wisdom hosts retreats for men and women, and its "New Masculinity" retreat takes place a few times a year in Uxbridge, northwest of London. I was curious to read on its website that it would help me "explore a new vision of masculinity" and "embody a relaxed confidence". At a time when everyone seems to be telling men to shut up and listen, you might say it takes a lot of balls to argue that what’s needed is "more masculinity".

And that is (partly) how I found myself sipping herbal tea in the kitchen of a large country house with 30 men just outside London.

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It would be funny, I thought. A Burning Man-splainers – or Ru Paul’s Lad Race. Finally, I would have a consequence-free environment in which to express my big, muggy masculinity.

From the outset, though, the only mug is me. The other participants are likeable, thoughtful and interesting. There is Kieran – a 20-something sheep farmer with a mohawk and tattoos. Johann is a Belgian mid-30s systems engineer with thick black-rimmed glasses. Paul, 27, arrives on a superbike and is into meditation and martial arts. Jim, 31, is a charismatic youth worker. There are scientists, a startup CEO, and a personal trainer. It was like a strange stag do – if you’ve ever known a groom who plays in the rugby team, parties at Glastonbury and has a level 99 on World of Warcraft.

The founder is David Fuller, 43. David hasn’t always been a mentor to men. He used to work in television as a producer for Channel 4 News. But 12 years ago, something changed.

David Fuller (Rebel Wisdom)

David Fuller (Rebel Wisdom)

“I had a really bad relationship breakup,” he says. “And also had a sense that a lot of the difficulties I was experiencing at work and in my life were related to childhood stuff. I felt like I was fighting against authority, and it was exactly the same dynamic that I had with my dad.”

David signed up for a week-long retreat which appealed to him because it had been described as two years’ psychotherapy in seven days.

“I'm the kind of person who wants to save time,” he says.

Far from being a quick fix, the retreat led to years of "personal growth work" and therapy.

David is trying to solve a problem. The workshops he attended dramatically improved his life and relationships, he says. He is much better at channeling anger constructively, for example. And the key to his transformation has been "emotional honesty": learning to recognise his feelings.

“The only way to get to have a healthy relationship with ourselves is to be really conscious of our feelings,” he says.

To many people, this might sound intuitive; however, the psychological literature suggests that men, on average, are worse at it than women.
And getting men to do it may not be easy. David noticed that men didn’t seem to attend workshops as often, and don’t buy as many self-help books. He had a hunch this was because of the way personal growth work was being pitched to men.

“Men’s work can take itself too seriously, which doesn’t work for the British,” he says. “We want to subvert seriousness wherever we see it. But the thing about this work is you have to actually put a lot into it. You have to really mean it."

Two years ago David started designing a retreat programme he thought would appeal to men (who could afford the £395 price-tag): one combining insights borrowed from psychology, religion, ritual, meditation and breathing exercises. He wanted to help men without alienating them. He decided that the best way to do that was by appealing openly to their masculinity.

“There is a narrative out there that says men are broken. They’re faulty,” he says.

“But nothing good comes from a place of shame and humiliation - it’s not an empowered place to be.”

Men need to make peace with themselves, he says. And to do that, they “need to get their shit together”.

At 5.45am the following morning we start on the long road to doing just that.

Most of the retreat takes place in a large yoga studio – and that’s where we’ve slept, spaced out across the floor in our sleeping bags. Removing our earplugs and rolling up our mats, we stand rubbing our eyes and murmuring in the dawn.

We are introduced to Paal, one of the retreat’s mentors. If I was going to picture the perfect physical embodiment of masculinity, I might come up with somebody like Paal, who is a muscular Norwegian with blue eyes and a shaved head.

Paal and David met on a beach in Thailand and have been friends ever since. He describes himself as a ‘Tantric Wildman’ who coaches men, women and couples on how to harness their sexual energy.

“I haven’t had an orgasm in two years,” Paal tells me later. He claims to have mastered a tantric state so profound he can attain a full body orgasm at will – and hold off ejaculation indefinitely.

Today, though, Paal is keeping his tantric side under wraps. He is taking us through a morning exercise routine he calls "The Wildman Workout", and there is no mention of sex (although we do thrust our hips a lot).

So this is the end goal of Rebel Wisdom, I think, as we grunt through another set of push-ups. Each of us will become a testosterone-soaked bauble of muscle capable of achieving sexual enlightenment.

Except it doesn’t play out like that. After Paal we are introduced to Rafia Morgan, who is softly spoken with a confident, reassuring manner. He has been leading workshops for men and women for a long time. He's the founder of Path of Love, a week-long retreat which one alumnus described to me as like "having every protective layer you have peeled away from you like an onion". Being peeled open like an onion was fairly low on the list of things I'd hoped to experience this weekend, I thought, but so be it. Let the man-whisperer peel me open.

“Close your eyes,” says Rafia. “What is masculinity? What is it to me? Feel a kind of curiosity inside.”

Rafia’s role is to guide us through a process of “self-enquiry” so that we can "directly experience" our own "masculine essence". I close my eyes and try to think.

My masculine essence is not immediately forthcoming. I'd always suspected that masculinity was a kind of drag that could be learned through sheer observation and repetition. I had hoped the retreat would provide me with a crib sheet of approved male activities and behaviours.

Later, David explains that they are deliberately trying not to be prescriptive about what it is to be a man.

“I really try and keep it out of the conceptual realm as much as possible because I think you can then start going round in circles,” he says.

“For example, you could say there’s an element of self-sufficiency to masculinity. But someone else might accuse you of saying that women can’t be self-sufficient.”

If you have to ask other people what masculinity is, it seems, you'll never know.

“We are asking people to inquire into these subjects for themselves, and if they're open to it, I think they'll find an essence inside that they can connect to,” says David.

I open my eyes, uncertain about my male essence. The retreat has more tricks up its sleeve, however. We're introduced to Ali, another mentor, who is here to take us on a journey.

“This is the hero’s journey,” he says. “Right now we’re standing at the mouth of the cave. And inside that cave we will encounter darkness. We will encounter shadow.”

The hero’s journey is a metaphorical journey that all men go on in life, according to Ali (although women can go on a hero’s journey too, David explains to me later). It is a pattern that is common in ancient myths and modern stories alike.

To go on the hero’s journey, we must confront our dark side: the “shadow”.

It’s important to learn about our dark side, Ali explains, because if we try to repress it, we might project it on to the world around us.

“I might write a really passive aggressive note on the fridge at work, for example,” he says.

To encounter the shadow, you have to think about the man you most hate in the world. You have to imagine them acting out the things you dislike them for. And you have to get angry.

“The fear is that if I express that anger, I’m going to get that anger out unhealthily,” says Ali. “But that’s really not, in my experience, what happens.”

We team up in pairs to describe our shadow to each other. I sit cross-legged in front of Karl, the German PhD student, and stare into his eyes without judgement or reflection while he talks.

“I went to university with this guy,” says Karl, “And he would give all the girls a hug. Just when he’s talking put his hand around them.

“He’s kind of one of those really friendly guys and just to me I guess he’s really creepy.”

Ah. I am a hugger. Hopefully not a creepy hugger – I hug women and men fairly indiscriminately. Unless they don’t want to, obviously. Basically, I've never knowingly non-consensually hugged anyone.

Privately, I begin to wonder if I am Karl’s shadow.

When it’s my turn to talk, though, I stop thinking about Karl. This exercise is doing something to me. My palms tingle as I remember a man from my past who I dislike very much. He managed to combine lying, sycophancy and arrogance into one impressively dishonest package. A flicker of anger spreads from my ribs until I'm vibrating with a rage I barely knew existed. It feels... strangely good.

At this point David introduces an uncomfortable plot twist.

“The shadow is a part of you,” he says.

The only way to avoid becoming consumed by the shadow side is by “showing up”. This means really listening, acknowledging what you feel and making eye contact. The opposite of showing up is holding back.

“What I see most with men is that we carry a lot of frustration because of compromise and because we hold back,” says Rafia, taking the microphone.

“Maybe we hold back our sensitive side because we don’t want to be a feminine, blubbery guy. Or maybe we hold back our strength and our power because we don’t want to be like that asshole we know, or like our father, or like that guy we hate.”

The room is silent. And now we are walking around it in circles, making eye contact with each other.

David puts on some music. It is Breathe by 90s rave act The Prodigy.

And then the screaming begins. The most surprising part about this is not the noise, or even my resistance to it (which quickly melts away). It’s the sudden realisation that I like screaming. I really like it. I have a deep, guttural roar, and it feels extremely good. Is this my masculine essence?

Outside the studio, a man walking his dog jerks his head towards the yoga studio, apparently startled by the sound of 30 men roaring simultaneously.

“Let’s see if we can make a little more chaos,” says Paal. He barrels into David and presses his chest against him, the men wrestling without their arms like two penguins. It is completely ridiculous but by now I'm too intoxicated with adrenalin to care.

Soon enough everyone is either wrestling or running around the room.

“I’m going to ask you a question,” says Ali, wandering through the swirling circle holding the microphone, like a rock star in a mosh pit. “Do you want to get out of the god damn box?”

The room erupts. David reaches for the music and puts on Sandstorm by Darude. The synths jab the air. The noise is somewhere between a stag party in Magaluf and a scene from 300. All around me men are ripping their shirts off. As the drop hits, one man has grabbed a crossbeam and is swinging back and forth. David slams into another man who does a full backward roll, his shirt drenched with sweat. Jim steps outside and vomits.

Hoo! Hoo! Hoo! we chant in time to the beat.

Firestarter by The Prodigy begins.

“We have so much denial over it,” says Rafia over the microphone.

“That fury inside me. It can go all the way to hate. Hate’s the extreme end of it.

"And that energy can become creativity, love, passion, life force. But when it’s denied we’re essentially castrating ourselves.”

As Firestarter’s drums pound through the studio, and men swing from the rafters, I think I understand what Rafia is getting at. You can ask people to change their behaviour - but you can’t control their feelings. You can socialise them so that they repress their feelings. Even better, though, you can channel them into 90s rave anthems.

Afterwards, I stand outside with a few of the men to cool down.

“I almost felt the same way I do as after sex,” says Kieran, beads of sweat still visible either side of his mohawk. “A 10 out of 10 shag.”

Everyone seems energised – and surprised at the transition from anger to screaming to dancing. It felt like the kind of emotional trajectory you only get to go through as a child. Rafia’s observation that men hold themselves back seems to have struck a chord. Perhaps that is one limitation of being a man.

“If you’re a little girl you’re being asked how you feel all through your life,” says Jim.

“You’re being asked to name it. But as a child I was never asked how I felt.”

“The Tibetans have 18,000 different words for emotions. The average British boy has 'I’m pissed off'."

Men don’t talk about their emotions. It’s a boring cliche – but it’s also part of the reason I was at Rebel Wisdom. Actually, I’m not being totally honest. It was the main thing on my mind.

My friend Ed killed himself at the beginning of August. He was 33. Ed had been a digital director for one of the largest magazine publishers in the country and the VP of a tech firm. He had a loving family and partner. By any standard his life seemed meaningful and good.

We'd known each other for 10 years. We were at university together, and built up a relationship based mostly on our taste in books, music, bad haircuts and black comedy. We'd been to parties and festivals together and edited each other's work in the student newspaper. We'd been attacked by teenagers armed with cricket bats (he lost a sandal; we both lost brain cells). When I came to London, I stayed at his place while I was between houses. We had in-jokes and names for each other and a shared taste in knitwear I now largely regret.

We'd also talked about anxiety. Ed had experienced anxiety and depression for years. Despite months of contact with mental health services, at the time of his death he was without access to one-on-one therapy. The extent of his withdrawal from his friends and family, which he had hidden by telling friends he was with family, and vice versa, only became apparent after his death.

I spoke to him a few hours before he did it – via LinkedIn. This wasn't usual. It was the only exchange we ever had on the social network. Ed had contacted me because he was worried about his job. He wanted to know if I could keep an eye out for any work he could do. “Yes of course!!” I responded. “Why are you messaging me on LinkedIn?” Ed read the message but he didn’t reply.

There was a wake at a small museum in London. The sun was too bright and the room was too loud. All of his friends were too young and none of us knew what to say. We were like children in a school play who didn’t know the lines.

Suicide is currently the leading cause of death in men under the age of 50 across the UK. Men are three times more likely to kill themselves than women, and this gender gap has widened over the last 35 years. The causes of suicide are different for every individual and they're always complex. But being a man is a significant risk factor for reasons we don't fully understand, according to Martin Seager, a clinical psychologist at UCL with a particular expertise in how masculinity intersects with suicide.

“Given that being of the male gender is almost universally the biggest single risk factor for suicide since records began, it follows that suicide research would be dominated by studies of male psychology and behaviour. In fact the opposite is the case,” he says. “Male gender is largely neglected in suicide research.”

Within The British Psychological Society, a Male section has only existed since August last year (a Women’s section has been in place for more than 30 years). Boys and men have historically been the focus of psychological research, according to the APA, so it is understandable that over the last few decades there has been a shift in focus to women’s needs.

Over time, however, some experts have become concerned that our current approach does not work for men. As well as being overrepresented in suicide statistics, men are two to three times more likely to be addicted to drugs and alcohol, half as likely to be referred to psychological therapies and comprise most of the prison and homeless populations.

Part of the problem is getting men to seek help in the first place. According to Professor Rory O’Connor, head of the International Suicidal Behaviour Research Lab in Glasgow, one key to improving the suicide rate for men is developing programmes which use language and behaviour men are comfortable with.

“Arguably we’ve done that for females,” says Prof O’Connor. “If you look at the evidence base for psychological treatments in the context of suicide prevention, most of the research participants are women.”

A 2015 review of suicide prevention interventions in the US over the last three decades found that “in almost all cases, females seem to be more likely than males to benefit from existing prevention programming”.

“The traditional model of our expectation, if somebody is suicidal or struggling, is that they go and seek help to go to a general practitioner or some mental health professional,” says Prof O’Connor. “I think we need to completely reconsider or rethink our model of support and deliverance, and think about how we should be going to men.”

The same approaches do not necessarily work for men and women, agrees Sally Austen, who has been a clinical psychologist for over 20 years.

“If a notice in a GP waiting room says, ‘Do you think you might be depressed?’ you might well miss a big chunk of people who don’t think they’re depressed,” she says.

“Certainly over the years I've had lots of men who've come to me with anger problems, or who were disengaged, or sluggish, or not eating, or drinking too much, and it turns out they’re depressed – but they had no idea that was the word for it.”

The question we should be asking is not “how do we change men” but “what resources do men need to find the best and healthiest version of themselves?” says Sally.

What could have made a difference for Ed? It is impossible to say, but perhaps he would have stood a better chance of accessing psychological therapies if we acknowledged men's different mental health needs. In 2011, a coalition of charities called for a national men's mental health strategy (a women's mental health strategy was established in 2002, and a taskforce in 2017).

By the end of the weekend, I feel drained. I had entered with very little relationship to my own masculinity. I left with an awareness of it that was hard to quantify. But the experience had been an overwhelmingly positive one.

It occurred to me that there was nothing exclusively masculine about any of Rebel Wisdom’s teachings. You could just as easily say that women, as well as men, need “emotional honesty”, or to “show up” and stay true to their “feelings, values, needs and vision”. The hero’s journey could apply to a woman as much as a man. But it’s men – not women – who are being challenged. The hero’s journey seems useful as a framing device if it helps men to explore their feelings.

I had gone into the retreat with Ed foremost in my mind. I had no idea I was carrying so much anger myself. Perhaps emotional honesty is easier, on average, for women; perhaps it is not. But there seems to be a consensus that men need to be better at it. Perhaps it is not enough to simply demand change.

“I think that men are going to be called to do this work more and more,” says Rafia. “I think that women have put a lot of issues on the table and a response needs to come from the men. We do need to show up. We do need to heal ourselves. And the world does need authentic men.”

If you’ve been affected by any of the issues raised in this article, help and support is available via the BBC Action Line.