Interview with Dr. Stephen Johnson
by Chrysalis Hyon
Throughout the country in different supportive settings, men are participating in workshops to come to terms with what it means to be a man today, and in the process renew their commitment to themselves, their community and planetary stewardship. Psychotherapist Stephen Johnson, Ph.D. is the founder and director of the Men’s Center in Los Angeles, created in 1988 as “a vehicle for men to support each other and the women and children who love them.” He also conducts workshops nationwide. To learn more about Dr. Stephen Johnson’s Sacred Path programs in Los Angeles, please go to www.menscenterlosangeles.com.
Chrysalis Hyon: Stephen, you offer an unusual service in today’s world: men-only retreats not associated with any particular religion, for and by men. Can you share how you began this program? Why retreats for men only?
Dr. Stephen Johnson: Many men from my generation had close relationships with our mothers, and distant or uneven relationships with our post-World War II fathers. As we hit midlife coming from that earlier paternal history, some of us confronted a lot of internal ambiguity and did not know exactly how to navigate those waters.
We were quite confused about what it meant to be consciously mature men. We were becoming more defined by what we believed that women wanted in a man, as in passive or “feminized.” Women in fact wanted men who were conscious, who were in their hearts, who were spiritual and who were also self-confident. However, the leadership for consciously evolving men at the time was neither well defined nor integrated.
CH: So you were sensing there was a need for men to somehow define themselves, independent of women?
SJ: I was doing a lot of spiritual work to help both men and women contact their souls and to listen to and trust the voice of their intuition. During this period, an inner voice spoke to me and said, “Bring good men together, and bring out the best in them. And furthermore, when you bring these men together for the purpose of healing their wounds, they will naturally want to give back.” As a result of that direction, I created programs for men, their sons, and youth at risk.
CH: When and where did the retreats begin?
SJ: The first Sacred Path retreat was held in 1987, up in Topanga Canyon. Forty-five men participated. That was how the work commenced. And that was before I had heard of Robert Bly!
CH: Robert Bly’s Iron John seemed to make a momentary splash. Was there an intersection between your path and Bly’s work?
SJ: When I saw “A Gathering of Men”—the Bill Moyers interview with Robert Bly—I realized that Robert truly understood what men in midlife were going through. He understood that men had to have a place separate from women, to just do their own work. That validated the mens’ work I was facilitating.
When Robert was writing his breakthrough book, Iron John, he came to California to co-lead a weeklong retreat of 125 male therapists with mythologist Michael Meade and Jungian analyst James Hillman. During that retreat, we got into some very deep and soulful work stimulated by mythology, fairytales, stories and poetry. We explored what it meant to be a “conscious man.” The men who were doing this mythopoetic work were talking of a mature masculine – a deeper contact with one’s soul. Somehow, this distinguished what we were doing from the work of the women’s movement, which was inadvertently giving “masculine” a pejorative connotation. The challenge for us was: how do we reconcile the masculine/feminine duality without creating further bifurcation and estrangement?
Years later, Robert elaborated upon this approach in co-ed conferences he held with Jungian analyst Marion Woodman. In those retreats, men and women were first separated from each other to do their own work during the day. Later, they could listen to each other from a space of greater understanding and compassion.
CH: So is it that men must relate to the conscious masculine, and women to the conscious feminine? Don’t we all (men and women) have to integrate both our masculine and feminine?
SJ: Ultimately, yes—through traversing a sacred path and embracing the spiritual practices of Mindfulness we naturally tend to integrate the masculine and the feminine. That is what is really happening during the pursuit of personal transformation.
In our community, we say men become “elders” after 55. Men will experience their own male menopause changes. We help men understand more about what this means for them and to be better equipped to deal with their relationships as their wives age and undergo menopause. In our culture, everything’s disposable – you can turn around in the blink of an eye and get a new wife – ‘trade her in’ for a younger one. Many men are not prepared to be with women after they’ve had children and are entering their “crone” years.
What we’re constantly addressing is a pervasive sense of loss and longing, a profound longing we all carry inside. Many times, it becomes distorted and men get themselves into trouble from this unrequited healthy longing, unacknowledged or expressed.
CH: Is there a kind of unique acknowledgement that only men can give to each other, to address this longing?
SJ: Men have a need to be admired and to be recognized by other men— because men lack a blessing. When a father sends his son out into the world without a blessing, the son goes out as a prince, but without the capacity to be a king. The prince needs to be ordained. Where does the man find the blessing? I have met older men, men of accomplishment in the established industries of Hollywood, who sit with me and tell me they’re still a boy. When they admire someone, they want to be recognized by that person. They want to be beholden in the eyes of the beloved. Whether it’s through sports, or the auto show, or even a strip club, it’s about sharing an experience. There’s something we have in common—that even though we’re different, we can look around at each other, and recognize that we’re bonded in brotherhood.
At the same time, there’s a lot of polarization amongst men in the world. How do we unite enough to make a difference? That is the purpose of my work. Because civilization as we know it is at risk. So we’re reaching out to men, and helping them find their true destinies. To realize what it means to be a good man—to be the change they want to see in the world—to discover their personal significance and to live life fully and completely.