For thousands of years, men’s lives were structured by rituals — rituals that helped them mark significant events, make sense of the world, and move from one phase of life to the next.
In our modern age, our lives are largely devoid of rituals, and my guest today says we’re worse off for it. His name is William Ayot, and he’s a poet, men’s group facilitator, ritual leader, and the author of Re-Enchanting the Forest: Meaningful Ritual in a Secular World. We begin our conversation discussing William’s introduction to the power of ritual, why rituals have declined in Western culture, and what makes a ritual, a ritual. We then discuss the history of the mythopoetic men’s movement kickstarted by Robert Bly and his book Iron John. William then unpacks why it’s important for men to undergo a rite of passage, why it’s never too late to participate in one, and how men can have multiple rites of passage over their lifetime. We discuss how to give your son a rite of passage as well. William also provides some ideas for daily rituals you can incorporate in your life to provide more meaning and enchantment to existence. We end our conversation with William’s advice on how to get started with a men’s group.
- Why has the practicing of rituals been in decline?
- How the modern brain has been hijacked by reason
- What makes a ritual, a ritual
- What is a ritual space?
- The three stages of a rite of passage
- The hero’s journey and ritual
- The communal nature of rituals
- Robert Bly’s cultural impact
- What is the role of ritual in a man’s life? What about rites of passage?
- Is it ever too late for a rite of passage?
- Where can men find groups to be a part of?
- What can fathers do with their sons? What age should you incorporate a rite of passage?
- The occasions that call for a rite of passage
- The power of smaller, daily rituals
- Why every man should give rituals a shot
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- How to Turn an Ordinary Routine Into a Spirit-Renewing Ritual
- AoM’s series on the nature and power of ritual
- The Power of Master Mind Groups
- How to Create Your Own Rites of Passage
- A Primer on the Philosophy of Nietzsche
- The Rites of Passage by Arnold van Gennep
- How the Hero’s Journey Can Help You Become a Better Man
- Exploring Archetypes With Jordan B. Peterson
- 12 Rules for Life With Jordan B. Peterson
- Iron John by Robert Bly
- A Man’s Need to Provide
- Joseph Campbell
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. For thousands of years, men’s lives were structured by rituals, rituals that helped them mark significant events, make sense of the world, and move from one phase of life to the next. In our modern age, our lives are largely devoid of rituals, and my guest today says we’re worse off for it. His name is William Ayot, and he’s a poet, men’s group facilitator, ritual leader, and author of Re-Enchanting The Forest: Meaningful Ritual in a Secular World.
We begin our conversation discussing William’s introduction to the power of ritual, why rituals have declined in western culture, and what makes a ritual a ritual. We then discuss the history of the mythopoetic men’s movement kick started by Robert Bly in his book Iron John. William then unpacks why it’s important for men to undergo a rite of passage, why it’s never too late to participate in one, and how men can have multiple rights of passage over their lifetime. We also discuss how to give your son a rite of passage. William also provides some ideas for daily rituals you can incorporate in your life to provide more meaning and enchantment to existence, and we end our conversation with William’s advice on how to get started with a men’s group.
William Ayot, welcome to the show.
William Ayot: Hello Brett. Good to hear your voice.
Brett McKay: Good to hear your voice. You wrote a book that I really enjoyed, Re-Enchanting the Forest: Meaningful Ritual in a Secular World. You are a poet. You have led rituals for men and for other people as well. And you’re making the case that, even though we live in a secular world, we need more rituals. What got you down the path… got started down the path of exploring the power of rituals in human life?
William Ayot: To be really frank and honest, I think it was necessity. I was in trouble, personally. I was about 30 years of age. I was isolated. I was cut off. I was hurting. And at a certain point I discovered that my past was even darker than I had pretended, and I joined a men’s group, and it turned my life around. We were doing ritual in that space, and it really changed everything. It was like discovering a new map of the world. And at that point, I think that I kind of altered the way I saw things in the world, and altered the way I saw myself, and that was a big experience.
Brett McKay: Before this experience with the men’s group and the rituals they did there, I mean what was your experience with ritual before? Was it just in the confines of church?
William Ayot: No. I’m not a churchman, though I come from a family of churchman oddly enough. But I had experienced ritual because I had been to an English boarding school. I’d been to national football matches. In the way that the Super Bowl is a ritual, the FA Cup final in the United Kingdom is a ritual. I was used to the ritualization of things, but I hadn’t really experienced deep healing rituals. I hadn’t experienced those sort of things, and it wasn’t until I got into a men’s group, which was literally a ritual men’s group, as defined in those days, that I began to realize that ritual served me and served a deeper part of me.
Brett McKay: There are still rituals today, even though we might not think of them as rituals. Like you said, a sports game is a ritual. There are civic rituals that every country has. But there aren’t the type of rituals that we… Like the healing, the transformative rituals that there used to be. Why has there been a decline of that sort of ritual, particularly in the west, and what do you think the consequences of that have been?
William Ayot: That’s a good question. I think there’s been a hijack of the western mind. It’s been in place now and growing for the last hundreds of years, maybe thousands of years, I don’t know. There’s a constant move towards reason and detail and logic, at the expense of empathy and compassion and imagination. If you like it’s a shift from the right brain to the left brain, though I’m not altogether sure about that, but it appeals to the masculine, I do know that. I mean we like lists and clarity and measurement, nerdy stuff. It’s all good, but over time we lose contact with that other, wilder side of ourselves with the sensual and the imaginative part of us.
If that bit of us, if that’s the bit that loves ritual, and we separate from it, then at that point, the rituals we do begin to hollow out, and they have less meaning, and they become empty. Empty ceremonial. Is that making sense?
Brett McKay: That makes sense. This is something that Nietzsche talked about, about the Apollonian and the Dionysian.
William Ayot: Absolutely. And ritual is about is descent. It is about Dionysian descent, and we live in an Apollonian ascendant society. We want to get up there. And we like to get into the spiritual. We’re not so keen on getting into the soulful.
Brett McKay: What’s the difference between the two?
William Ayot: I think we are talking about Nietzsche’s Apollonian and Dionysian distinction. I think that there used to be ancient mysteries and what we might think of as the soul, the psyche. It needs to experience, it needs to feel, it needs to go down, if you like, whereas there is a quality in the human spirit that wants to rise up to… It wants cleanliness and intellectual rigor. It wants a view, it wants to see from above. And that’s not the case with the soul. I think that’s a distinction we can make, and certainly in men’s work and in the work that I have been doing over the last 30 years, I think that’s very true for me.
Brett McKay: Well before we get into talking about the type of rituals that you talk about in the book, let’s do some definitions here. We’re going to be Apollonian here for a second.
William Ayot: Good idea.
Brett McKay: What makes a ritual a ritual? Are there certain components that need to be in place?
William Ayot: Well, you enter a different space when you enter a ritual. You cross a threshold. Your psyche or your soul, let’s call it what we will, enters a different territory. Either a place, a physical location, a difference, or an imaginal territory, a sphere, a place where you can do ritual work. The ritual itself then gives your soul a message. There’s a distinction that says that a ritual is a symbolic action through which the soul or the psyche can receive and understand a message. The reality is the soul, and I’m using the word soul here, and you may choose to use the word psyche, Brett, but I’m using the word soul.
The soul is a bit like a chicken. It can’t count, it doesn’t do data, but it can and does operate in symbols. It sees pictures, and it understands pictures. For instance, I have a wedding ring on my finger here. When that ring was put on my finger, I understood that that was a symbol that meant my life had changed irrevocably and radically for life. If I were to take that ring off my finger, if I were to ritually take it off, then my life would change again. That’s what I mean by a ritual that actually touches the soul. The symbol touches the soul. Is that clear?
Brett McKay: That makes clear. So there needs to be a space that you go into. There could be some sort of tool or implementation, like a ring, and every other… In a church it could be like the Eucharist or the tools of the ritual.
William Ayot: There’s kind of a commonality to ritual around the world, which is… And of course, it’s the human rule of three, isn’t it? There’s a beginning, a middle and an end to a story. You start a joke, you tell the joke, you tell them you finished a joke. This is true in three act structure in movies. It’s true too in ritual. We have a beginning, a middle and an end. They’re all very significant, and they have very important roles to play within the ritual.
Brett McKay: It sounds like too an underlying thing for this all to happen, for this place to mean anything, the tools to mean anything, the action to mean anything, there has to be this underlying intent, correct?
William Ayot: Absolutely. You need an intention. In a way, the intention gives you a route map, a plan, but the intention is… You have to hold that very clearly in your mind, or I’d say in your heart too. You need to know why you are there, because that’s what anchors you in the reality at the same time as you’re entering into this mythical, mystical, misty space that can be ritual.
Brett McKay: In these ritual spaces, they don’t have to be a special building or a special room. Like you could possibly create one just in your closet, or if you just go outside, that can become a sacred space, a place where you could do a ritual.
William Ayot: I did rituals in rehab centers for years. I’ve done rituals in the most simple of places. In garages, in gardens, in sheds, in all sorts of different places. It’s about the space you create. It’s like an empty space, into which the extraordinary can come. It’s not about the bells and the whistles, it’s not about the building, though hey, isn’t it great to have a wonderful building? I remember walking around Westminster Abbey, and thinking, “This is like putting your fingers in the plug.” But you can do a ritual anywhere.
Brett McKay: Okay, so we’ve decided to define what a ritual is, there needs to be a place, a time set aside from the profane, I guess is what they would say. There’s tools that can be used, possibly but not necessarily. There is an action that you do that’s symbolic, that speaks to the psyche or the soul, and there has to be this underlying intent beneath that. That’s how you create the ritual. And you also said that a ritual’s like a story with a beginning, middle and end.
William Ayot: Yes, there are stages, phases, call it what you will. This guy called van Gennip, who wrote a book on rites of passage, started off a whole process of study, and he would say that there were three stages to a rite of passage. A separation, an ordeal, and a return. Now in our secular world, words like ordeal can become a little bit over larded and overloaded if you know what I mean, so in my work I tend to think of separation, transformation and return. Ceremonially we can do all sorts of things, but a decent ritual needs those three distinct phases, stages.
You can do it going up in an elevator. It’s not about time. You can do it going up, as I said, in an elevator if you want, but as long as you go somewhere different in the landscape of your mind, you have separated, you’ve made a change. Then something transformational can happen, and you need to return. That’s very often the bit in rituals that we forget actually, is the return. We need to ground ourselves, we need to come back to the here and now. I think of it as ritual hygiene. We need to take care around that because otherwise, we can kind of get lost in that lovely ritual space, that liminal space that we talk about, and we can wander around in that for years.
Brett McKay: Well you gave a good example of this that I’ve experienced personally. Like a concert is a ritual in a way, right? There’s a space where you set aside to play music, and you listen and then… You have this transformative experience possibly, but then it just ends. That’s the feeling you’re talking about, like not returning. You just end it, and then you just walk out, and you feel kind of like, “Whoa, what just happened?”
William Ayot: Absolutely. And that’s why so many people find it so hard to leave a good concert, because they’re plugged in, and no one said, “Oh, by the way, guys, it’s over now. Thank you very much, so long, and thanks for all the fish.” They’ve not had the closure that they need to be able to get back into the world, because the concept is very often a magical experience. It’s an experience of the other, whatever we care to call it. But at that point, we are fully committed to that, and that’s quite difficult. So we need something that clearly says, “Thank you very much indeed,” which is why in theater, you used to have the lights coming up or a curtain being drawn. It’s a closure. It’s, “Thank you very much, we’re done now.”
Brett McKay: I want to point out too that this story, or these phases of ritual you pointed out, this is also something that Joseph Campbell talks about in his book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, The Hero’s Journey.
William Ayot: And The Hero’s Journey is in itself a classic rite of passage. It is a journey of descent, so it’s Dionysian. You go into an underworld. You meet guides and strangers, and you fight battles and you discover a treasure, and then you are changed by the experience, and then you come back over the threshold, and you bring your treasure back to the world. That’s a pretty simplistic view of it, but that’s a very similar journey. And Joseph Campbell, in his wisdom, saw this recurring again and again and again in mythologies around the world. I would say that it also happens in rituals around the world, but then I would.
Brett McKay: I mean it does sound like a ritual is essentially you are acting out this archetypal story of a hero’s journey.
William Ayot: I think these were the mysteries of old. We talk of the Eleusinian mysteries. We talk of ancient mystery rites. I think these rituals, these often, I imagine them to be, initiatory rituals, I think they were… They followed a prescribed route, and certainly the rituals I know in the indigenous world tend to follow a route map and a pattern, and they are all about descent and ordeal, and some of them are true ordeals, and to return and to come back, and then to reenter society. In certain rituals in Africa, when you have been through an initiatory ritual, you return to society with a different name. You are that different.
Brett McKay: Let’s talk about another component of rituals, is the communal aspect of it. Do you need a community to have a ritual, or can you do it by yourself, or is it like… The community part make rituals more powerful?
William Ayot: I think we’re ritual making animals, aren’t we? I mean there are good reported stories of chimpanzees creating communal rituals. It’s not a thing confined to humankind. But we are in community ritualistic. I think that community makes for better rituals in many aspects. I think it makes for deeper, more powerful rituals. Certainly, the notion of the village as a basis for a ritual is very powerful, and the gathering together.
Sometimes these communities can be instant communities. I mean a men’s gathering is an instant community of men from all over the world, but it forms a community of like mind and interest, and at that point, the rituals deepen. Of course, this is the important thing in this work of descent, is that you can create depth through creating trust, through creating levels of understanding, and that’s what gives rituals added power. You can certainly do a ritual on your own, and it can be transformational. But you’re starting out to do ritual, if you’re wanting to explore the notion of ritual, I don’t think you can really do any better than finding yourself a ritual men’s group and sitting in a circle with men and working out what works and what doesn’t work in ritual space.
Brett McKay: Well let’s talk about this men’s work that you’ve been talking about. That’s how you got your start. You joined a men’s group and you started taking part in ritual. You talk a bit about Robert Bly. Now some of our listeners might remember Robert Bly. They’re old enough to remember he wrote Iron John. He really kick started this mythopoetic men’s movement in the ’80s and ’90s. I think a lot of younger listeners might not know about him and the cultural impact he had. Talk a little bit about Robert Bly was trying to do with Iron John and the other stuff he was doing.
William Ayot: Well he was a poet, a very fine poet, and a brilliant translator. If you ever see any of his books lying around in second-hand bins and bookshops and bookshelves, give them a try. They are really good, solid pieces of work, and his translations are extraordinary.
We’re now talking over 30 years ago, 35 years ago, he started traveling around America and around the world eventually, giving poetry readings and opening up discussions. He’s one of those guys who just likes to talk to people. He likes to hear. He really likes the feedback that he gets. What he was beginning to perceive was that men, young men, in America, were very often naïve as he would put them. They liked to be liked. They were kind of soft and kind of up in their heads and willing to please, and a little bit afraid of their own fierceness and their own energy. And he began to look at that, and he began to think in terms of grounding these young men.
Basically what he was seeing, and if we return to Nietzsche, he was seeing the Apollonian in young men in the generations below him, and he wanted to bring back the Dionysian aspect to help them to get through to a more mature and aligned and well, without putting words in his mouth, I’d say a more powerful, mature masculinity. He did that for some years. He wrote I Am John, in which he used story, and later in the workshops he did, he used poetry to address the issues that were coming up. Fierceness, wildness. The issues that we have around our fathers. The issues we have around war. The deeper issues in men’s lives. He would use a poem, almost surgically, to drop into a subject, open it up, and at that point, men could begin to experience their anger, their grief, their deeper feelings.
That’s what he was really good at. He was very brave, he was very imaginative. He brought a lot of teachers out with him, and signed up with a lot of guys and traveled the world, and did some remarkable work in his time. He also began to hook up with indigenous teachers, with guys from west Africa and Guatemala, men from indigenous cultures who brought a tribal sensibility with them. That’s when I kind of really perked up, and I began to see the huge possibilities of ritual in that. But he was a great lover of ritual.
Brett McKay: You can still see his influence today amongst men’s groups.
William Ayot: Oh, huge.
Brett McKay: A lot of men’s groups, they focus on the archetypal ideas of masculinity. Well, Robert Bly was doing that 35 years ago.
William Ayot: Absolutely. Also, we must remember that he teamed up with people like James Hillman. We’re talking about great thinkers here. They’re not weekend workshop guys in that sense. These are people who are deep thinkers who have really made the journey and returned with their own gold, which they were sharing with us as men. Michael Meade, James Hillman, Robert Moore, Malidoma Some, Martin Prechtel, John Lee. These guys, they were really giving a gift, and they transformed the lives of many men.
Brett McKay: You can still see it today. I think it’s interesting, this Jordan Peterson phenomenon that’s going on right now. Say what you want about it, but he’s tapping into that same thing that Robert Bly tapped into 35 years ago.
William Ayot: I think he is. Whether you go for it or whether you don’t, he’s re-begun the debate. He’s kind of got people interested. Suddenly words like stoicism and rigor are back on the agenda in a way that they haven’t been for a while.
Brett McKay: Let’s talk about the role of ritual in a man’s life. Robert Bly, he saw that men were lacking a fierceness. They felt maybe lost. They were naïve. Do you think it’s because of a lack of a ritual, like a rite of passage that men, particularly men in the west, lack?
William Ayot: I think so. I think we’ve lost our natural, and I’m using the word tribal here, but we’ve lost our natural tribal rituals of initiation for young men. We tend not to go down that path anymore, and because of that, as young men, we self-initiate. We kind of fall in love with death in a little bit of a way. We go stealing motorcars and we do extreme sports and we get ourselves into fights and so on and so forth as a way of experiencing our manhood. Now the reality is, no one can give you your manhood. You have to take it. But at the same time, that needs to be done in a safe space, where you can be tested, where you can be met by other men, where you can learn about other men as you’re going through a deep initiatory process. That’s what we don’t have anymore, and I think that’s a real loss in our culture.
Brett McKay: I’ve heard people say that we’ve replaced rites of passage in a man’s life with rites of achievement. It’s like you get the job-
William Ayot: That’s . . . yes.
Brett McKay: You get the girl, you get the money.
William Ayot: That’s absolutely true.
Brett McKay: But it’s not fulfilling. There’s no beginning to it, there’s no end. You’re not grounded, so you’re always left like wanting more.
William Ayot: When we think of achievement, once again, we think of rising up, don’t we? We think of getting up there, getting to the top of the greasy pole, climbing to the top of the pyramid. That is what we think of when we think of achievement. It’s very competitive. What we tend to lose sight of in that is that we’re going up into our head at the same time. We’re not connecting with our body. What Bly was giving us, what those sort of people weer saying, was that there was an understanding that these were messages to be embodied.
I have a memory of introducing of Robert Bly once in an event in England, southern England, and I said to him, “Well, what do you want me to say about you?” He said, “Uh, just describe me as some kind of animal.” I said, “Okay,” so I stood up and I said, “Well this is Robert Bly and he’s a bit like a bear,” at which point this voice behind me said, “What do you mean a bear?” He was in his body. That was it. He embodied his thinking, his ideas. He was fully present in his life. He was totally authentic. That’s what he was giving us. He was giving us access to that in ourselves. Many of us, by going up into our heads, by becoming heady and intellectual, we are avoiding our bodies, but we’re also avoiding our feelings.
Brett McKay: Let’s say there’s a man who’s listening to this, and they missed out on a rite of passage. Say they’re in their 30s and 40s. Is it too late for them to experience a rite of passage, or is that something they could do today?
William Ayot: Not at all, not in the least. I think I did my first true rite of passage… I’d have been getting on for 40, if not over 40. It’s not about your physical age. It’s about your psychic readiness. It’s about your willingness to undergo a transformational experience. Now many men who go through such a rite of passage can go through a rite of passage at the age of 20 and they don’t actually do it because they’re in their head or they don’t want to engage with it. That’s fine.
But usually by the age of 40, many men now have had their… Their life experiences has given them enough pain and enough grief and enough doubt about themselves, as men, to really need to make some kind of a change. Those are the kind of men that we used to meet. It’s not about age. It’s about has life knocked you about a bit, and are you ready? That’s the way it used to work. And I think that age has actually come down with issues around pornography and globalization and work and things like the #MeToo movement and things like climate change.
We are under pressure in a different sort of a way, and to balance all that with the need to provide, because that hasn’t gone anyway. So the age old need to provide, and also to balance that with the need to be the new sensitive man that we hear about. That’s a stretch, and at that point men are under enough pressure to want to gather with other men and have a good looksy, and the best way to do that is through ritual.
Brett McKay: And what does that ritual look like? I mean I imagine it’s going to be different depending on the group that you’re a part of your cultural background, but in general, what is that going to look like?
William Ayot: Very often it’s about meeting, I don’t know, up to 100, 200, 300 strangers. So immediately you have that male question of, “Uh oh, is this going to come off? Have I done the right thing coming here?” Then you spend some time getting to know other men. Small groups, hanging out with men over dinner, whatever that might be. And you begin to build a level of trust.
You then get to the feelings, sometimes around anger and irritations that need to be expressed before you can all go into a ritual space, and that’s the bit that brings out the creativity, that brings out the need to really, really undergo something. Men see that they’re building something together, this process, and that they go through it, usually with someone who’s got enough wisdom, I suppose, to say, “Well, other men have gone down this path before. It is okay. You’re going to get a stretch, but it is okay.”
Brett McKay: I imagine for a lot of these young guys, or men, the same problem that Bly saw 35 years ago, this naivety, this lack of fierceness, probably a lot that transformative work they’re doing is like getting in touch with that fierceness within them.
William Ayot: Yes. And also, it’s not just the fierceness, Brett. Sometimes it’s the empathy and the compassion. Sometimes, what can be stunning for a man is to stand in a circle of men feeling vulnerable, feeling exposed, feeling open, and to experience the tenderness of men. That’s not often talked about. And that was a salutary lesson for me, that I went into the hole, I went into my grief, I went into my deepest pain, and there were men, strangers, who supported me and helped me through that. That was astonishing. I didn’t expect that. I didn’t think I had the right to expect that. My past had set me up not to receive. Does that make sense?
Brett McKay: Yeah, that makes sense.
William Ayot: And receive that kind of tenderness, that kind of care and nurture. Something I’d always put into the feminine pigeonhole, something I’d always denied in myself and denied in other men. To actually receive that kind of empathy, that kind of tenderness, the kind of stuff that you see on a battlefield after the battle, the kind of stuff that you see when boxers put their arms around each other after a fight. That kind of intimacy, that kind of understanding of each other, that’s often the case, and it’s not…
There is the fierceness, there is the search for kind of a deeper masculinity, but there’s also the search and the discovery that it’s layered. There are more things than just that kind of aggression. There’s assertion, but it’s something else too.
Brett McKay: I imagine one of the goals of the ritual is to integrate all those different parts.
William Ayot: Absolutely. And to come away feeling a sense of belonging and wholeness and connection. At its best, that’s what a ritual gives you. You actually feel, in a sense, bigger. It’s a bit like you’re a snake sloughing off a skin. Well, if you don’t slough off the skin you can’t grow. Like a lobster. If you don’t lose the shell you can’t grow. That’s a bit what it feels like. You feel a little bit raw, a little bit edgy, but you know you are growing. You know that something immense has happened, and at its best, that’s what happens in those kind of rituals.
Brett McKay: And where can men go to find groups that do things like this?
William Ayot: Oh, I think they’re around. I mean you can see them in most cities, rural areas. You can put out feelers and just say, “I’m really interested in joining a men’s group.” And of course, if there isn’t one, you can form one. That’s what happened with me. I was at a workshop, a seminar, with a guy called John Lee, who’d come over to England. He did the classic thing. He said, “There’s a guy down here at the front of the room wants to start up a men’s group. I would suggest that any man in the room who is not in the men’s group should come down here and join this man.”
So I went down there and there were six or seven guys down there, and we formed a men’s group, and it was absolutely fantastic. It was a gift, a huge gift to me. At some point, we looked at each other and said, “Who was the man down the front of the room?” John had just done a nice thing. I think he just said, “Well here’s the guy.” And we all came down and we were all that man. There was no one man saying, “I want a men’s group.”
So my sense is that we can all get together with other men. You can put an advert online. You can email your friends. Email people in the expectation that a high proportion of them will say no, or, “We’re too busy,” or, “This is woo woo,” or, “This is rubbish.” However, there will be men who are in the same space, and say, “Yeah, I want to do that now.” Then there’s a lot of stuff to read. There’s a lot of stuff to work with. And there are workshops and all sorts of things and people out there still.
Brett McKay: As I was reading this book, particularly the section on rites of passage… I have a son, he’s eight. He’s getting pretty close to adolescence, and I’ve been thinking about, “Is there something that I can do to add a rite of passage, create one for him?” Because we have some in our own faith, but I always something just like… It’s a family one. What can fathers do? What would a rite of passage look like for their son? What age should they do it? It doesn’t have to be… A lot of guys who listen to this, they’re going to follow this exactly to the tee. But I think more I’m looking for just general ideas of what a rite of passage for a young boy really would like?
William Ayot: Well I think it has to be triggered by the boy. By that I mean there’s a point at which a boy starts paying attention, and he’s clearly engaging sexually at some level. He’s looking at girls or whatever he’s doing, and he’s out there, he’s looking around. At that point, in traditional cultures, regardless of orientation and sexuality, the boy would be oiked out of the family home and taken off to the initiation part. That’s something that fathers can do for their boys.
However, and I’m going to maybe be a bit heretical here, I don’t think fathers should ever initiate their boys. I don’t think they should initiate their sons. Now, they might be present when he returns for the last part of the ritual, but they shouldn’t be there initiating him, because it’s about a separation, remember, and I said we need to separate. At that point, it’s about developing the trust with the men, creating the group of men whom you can all trust to initiate each others’ boys.
There’s some great work being done through people like Michael Meade, and over in this country, things like Band of Brothers and those sort of outfits, where they’ve worked with troubled youth, and that’s the kind of stuff where you can really work with youth to give them the challenges they need. If a boy is looking over his shoulder at his dad the whole time… “How’s dad reacting? How’s dad taking this?” Maybe he doesn’t say what he needs to say because dad’s in the room. That’s why I think dad needs to step out momentarily to give the boy his chance, and then to meet him when he comes back in and says, “I can see there’s something different now,” and then give a blessing.
Is that making sense?
Brett McKay: Yeah, that makes sense. Let’s say you have that group of men that you trust and willing to do a rite of passage for your son, what would that rite of passage look like? Is it just like go out to nature. I mean what is that?
William Ayot: I think you need to gather more than once. You need the boys to see the men and to size them up, and also to size each other up incidentally. But the boys need to hear the men kind of modeling manhood. They need to see what it’s like to be a man, and they need to hear what it’s like to be a man, to be brought to your knees or punched on the nose or betrayed or lost, all the things that we achieve as men. Not to have that inflicted upon them. I’ve heard of groups in America where they shame their boys ritually so that they know just how bad it can be out there. Well if anyone does that in a room to boys, they’ve got the wrong idea. That’s not what kids need. They need something that is going to help them to stand up, and basically shaming them doesn’t do it.
You need to have the sense of a community, that the boys are a part of a community. Then you can possibly go away and set up this separation that I’m talking about. You set up a special event, and that’s when you begin to really bring your creativity to bear. You study rites of passage. You study people like Michael Meade or those kind of folks, and you see what they’re offering, and you see the kind of things that can be done for boys. You give them a challenge. You give them a journey, if you like. It’s almost like recreating Joseph Campbell’s descent into the underworld. You give them tasks, you give them challenges, you give them those kind of things.
Remember, they’re young, so they’re not necessarily going to be doing much of the expressive work. They’re going to be so full of testosterone that they’re not really going to be able to weep in the way that a 45-year-old man would weep in an initiatory process. But any youth is going to be able to respond in the moment to any kind of a challenge like that. And when they rise to it, they need to be seen to rise to it, and they need to be given either a skill or a means to get through the world, or a route map, a sense of what the world is.
Now the group of men can show what the world is like. They can give the boy a route map. But once he begins to express himself and he shows that he has some skill, some gift. Maybe he sings a song, maybe he’s a bit of a tearaway and he’s got some other skill. That needs to be named and blessed and brought out into the open, and that’s the bit that he takes home. That’s the thing that is seen by the group, and that is the thing that is blessed. Is that making sense?
Brett McKay: That does make sense. Another I think point that you made in the book, we talked about this earlier, is that even though you may hight have gone through a rite of passage from boyhood to manhood, that doesn’t have to be the only rite of passage you go through. There are other parts of your life, transitory periods, where another rite of passage would be useful. Say you’re moving from middle age to elderhood. That might call for a rite of passage.
William Ayot: Absolutely. I think there are innumerable rites of passage. I mean there’s a new job, a new location. There’s moving from one level of status to another, if you like, in our culture. There’s also the move from being single to marriage to moving into fatherhood to moving into old age. I underwent a ritual which was given to me in the far north of Sweden, up by the Arctic Circle, by some Sami people, who basically re-birthed me into old age. Nice. I didn’t realize it had happened until I got home really, but it was a very powerful ritual and it has set me up for my latter years. I’m 66, and it kicked off a whole series of explorations. It feels like I’ve been undergoing that kind of an initiation over the last two, three years now.
Brett McKay: We’ve talked about some transformative rituals, particularly the rite of passage, because I think a lot of men are keyed into that. But you talk about in the book, there are rituals that you can do on a daily basis that are small. First of all, what are those type of rituals, and what do you think the benefit of doing something like that is?
William Ayot: Well there are rituals that can appear really crazy. I mean we can ritualize anything. By doing it more than once, in a sense, we are ritualizing it. As a writer, I used to have a ritual of every day sharpening every pencil and putting it back in the pot, which was really interesting because I’d already started writing on a laptop, but that was my ritual. What it did was it concentrated my mind. It got me to pay attention and to focus. Those are little rituals we can give ourselves.
For me, it doesn’t have to be a big event, but by repeating little things, by paying attention, by seeing things, by opening up… In my case, I used blot, which is a little gifty, a little sacrifice. That’s a Scandinavian word, blot, that originally means blood, sacrifice. But that’s a little gift. I carry little gifties around with me, little beads or stones, that I can just give in gratitude for my day, I can give in gratitude for the place where I’m going. What it does is it brings my attention down to those things around me. It gets me out of my head, it gets me connected. I think those are very important.
We don’t all meditate. I’m not a great meditator for instance. I like doing Tai chi, and I like Qigong and I like those kind of things, things that involve some kind of activity. But I’m not so good at sitting on my butt and meditating. So these things give me a way of entering into the world in a slightly different way. Of course, in doing that, I move from my intense focus, and I think we all have that these days, kind of like a concentration on doing things, doing them right, doing the next thing, and I move to a softer focus where things can come in from the edge of my vision, new ideas, new thoughts, in my case a new poem. Something comes in those moments. And that’s what a little momentary ritual on a daily basis can give.
Brett McKay: The blot, that was new to me. When you say sacrifice, you give the little gifts that you… Sometimes you just bury it in the ground. That’s what you do, right?
William Ayot: Yeah, absolutely.
Brett McKay: I thought that was kind of cool.
William Ayot: “Thank you. Thank you for this.” Sometimes I will do it in honor of whatever it is I think that has happened in this place. I will leave a little pebble or a stone in a forest. Very often just press it. And then when I walk away from it, it’s none of my business. But I will leave it there honoring what has happened there. Now I live in a country that is layered upon layered upon layered with thousands of years of history. I’m lucky. I live in Wales, just on border with England, and there, I have enough history.
But every now and again I’ll go for a walk, and I’ll get a sense of something, and I’ll make a little gift in honor of those men and women who lived their lives, who’ve worked the land, who’ve hunted here, who have fought and died here, who have… Whatever that might be. In an imaginal way, I will honor them. It’s almost like an ancestral thing. Is that making sense?
Brett McKay: Yeah, that makes sense.
William Ayot: At that point, I am connecting with a greater whole. Now, I also choose to honor nature. My view of a creator, of a God, is not of a creator. It’s of creation. I like to be a part of that. My way of connecting with that is by giving a gift, by making the connection, in exactly the same way as in a church you put some money in a plate. It’s no different really, but it does open up a more direct, and it gives me an opportunity to speak. I think there’s something very important in speaking out loud. I don’t have any embarrassment now about speaking out loud when I do a private ritual. Speaking that brings you present. Your persona, your sound, is very important.
Brett McKay: I think for a lot of people who are listening to this, I think they’re probably intrigued by rituals. But at the same time, they’re afraid to pull the trigger on it because it feels weird or it’s woo woo. What do you say to those guys? Make the case. Make the hard sell for giving rituals a try. How is it going to improve their life or maybe change their life? Let’s do the hard sell.
William Ayot: Hard sell, oh gosh.
Brett McKay: That’s not very ritual-like. You’re not supposed to do the hard-
William Ayot: It’s interesting. When you talk about the fear, the fear of the woo woo and the weird and the strange and all that stuff, I think that’s part of it. I think that’s part of what we’re talking about in this drift towards the rational and the logical. What it means, if we are afraid of that weirdness, then we tend to cover it up with something else. We tend to shame it or put it down or say, “Oh, well it’s just a load of rubbish.” But in actual fact, it’s good to go with the fear. Poet William Stafford used to talk about, “There’s a fear out there. That’s your life. Go with it. Explore it.”
Now that’s an interesting notion, and of course that’s what you can do in rituals, because you kind of unzip a little bit when you get into a ritual space, and that’s a very, very important thing. It helps you to enter into the deeper feelings that very often we don’t go to. I call it gas work, which is grief, anger and shame. These three, in men they seem to be inextricably linked much of the time. We feel very angry, but we wrap it in shame, or we feel very sad but we wrap that in anger, so that we don’t have to feel sad and we don’t have to feel the grief. In a ritual space, you do feel those things with other men, and that’s a very potent mix.
It cleans house for you. It really does clean house. If you’re in any way addicted, if you’ve got a difficulty… Most of us, at some point or another, start ritualizing our entry into addictions with either drink, drugs, sex, food, whatever it is. We have a ritual way of doing it. Well, there’s a ritual way of coming out of it. We can give ourselves rituals to come out of the underworld of that addiction, of that behavior, whatever it is. These are really powerful tools that have at our disposal, and if we share them with other men, if we have other men to witness us, to see us in our, let’s call it our unzipped state, you can really do some good.
You’re also preparing for the future, to mark the difference between the past and all its shadow, all its difficulty, all its unhappiness, and a clearer, healthier future. That’s when you come out. That’s when you can receive the blessing, that’s when you can really get the benefit of a ritual. So it can actually do an awful lot of good for you.
Brett McKay: Well what you describe, it sounds kind of like therapy but without going to the doctor, because I mean therapy, even if you go to a traditional therapy, it’s sort of a ritual. There’s a space you go into. There’s this person who’s guiding you through things in your life.
William Ayot: It’s therapy without the talk very often. It’s therapy by doing. It’s a ritual action in a therapeutic space. Now the reality is there was ritual for millennia before there were ever therapists. What is it James Hillman used to say? We’ve had 100 years of psychotherapy and the world’s getting worse. But that was a way of actually having a good look at what therapy and the journey into therapy gave you. Ritual does that, but it does it without the intellectual stimulus that can take months and years to get to the point. Many of us, we go into therapy. On day one, we have a good cry. Then we kind of hide ourselves for months. Well, in a ritual, you tend not to hide. You can. You can finesse it. But you know you’re only treating yourself.
Brett McKay: Therapy sounds like it’s Apollonian. It’s a very high level-
William Ayot: It can be. It certainly can be. There are some great body therapies out there. There are some great body-related therapies that touch the soul, that really touch the soul, through the senses, through the body, through kind of like a reflective space. Things like [inaudible 00:48:30], those kind of things, really solid body therapies. Those, I think, are fantastic. And of course, we mix and match these days, don’t we? We do a bit of this. We do a bit of alternative stuff. We do a bit of therapy. Maybe you join a 12 step fellowship or a piece of recovery work. All these things, they can support each other like the different legs of a stool so that we don’t fall over.
Brett McKay: Well William, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about your work?
William Ayot: I’ve enjoyed it immensely, I have to say. Well, I’ve got a sad little website which is williamayot.com, and there… If you want to go and have a look, there’s a place where you can sign up and express an interest in the kind of work that I’m doing. We’re currently thinking about a second ongoing group training people here in the UK. But also, I’m thinking about setting up an online training seminars around the ideas of ritual. If you want to go and sign up there, I think it asks you where you might be coming from. By that, I mean what country you’re living in. Then we can get back to you and ask a little bit more about that. There is the book, of course, which is Re-Enchanting The Forest: Meaningful Ritual in a Secular World. That’s available on Amazon and other outlets.
Let’s just not make it all about me. You can get in touch with other men. There’s a lot of stuff out there. I think that once we feel the call, and it is a call… It might be through my work, but it might just be that the idea of ritual brings you in contact with other men. That’s really worth it. On my website, I’ve also got a questionnaire for men which I’m setting up, which will be giving me the material and the information to check out many things. I’m writing a new book for and about men in the wake of globalization and climate change and feminism and the internet, how that has changed our lives. I want to hear from men, so anyone who wants to sign up to that questionnaire would be very welcome. That’s about it.
Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well William, thanks so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
William Ayot: Great. It’s been really good. Thank you very much, Brett.
Brett McKay: My guest today was William Ayot. He’s the author of the book, Re-Enchanting The Forest. It’s available on Amazon.com. You can find more information about his work at his website, williamayot.com. Also, check out our show notes at aom.is/ritual, where you can find links to resources, where you can delve deeper into this topic.
Well that wraps up another addition of the AOM podcast. Check out our website, artofmanliness.com, where you can find our podcast archive. There’s over 500 episodes there. We’ve also written thousands of articles over the years on things like rituals and the power of rituals and how to incorporate rituals in your life. But also we have things on personal finance, how to be a better husband, better father, physical fitness. You name it, we’ve got it.
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