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Get Over It!

A Men's Movement Pioneer Calls for the End to "The Gender Game"

An interview with Sam Keen
by Craig Hamilton


Sam Keen

"The idea of total liberation is a bad and very destructive idea," the gruff voice on the other end of the line announced, adding, "One of the things I frankly don't like about your magazine is the holding up of these people who are supposedly 'in the absolute' and totally liberated." While our commitment to investigative journalism often finds us in unexpected territory, I had to admit that this was a new one. Not five minutes into what was scheduled to be a one-and-a-half-hour interview, and already our magazine and the very aspiration on which it is built were under fire. Fortunately, I thought to myself, I hadn't called Sam Keen to ask him about his views on enlightenment. And having discovered firsthand that he was not a man to mince his words, I was all the more eager to ask this modern-day master of myth—one of the most influential figures in today's burgeoning men's spirituality movement—our questions on the role and influence of gender in spiritual life.

Our introduction to Keen's work had come only a few months before when, while beginning our research into gender and spirituality, we picked up his book Fire in the Belly: On Being a Man. A rich, almost lyrical blending of autobiographical anecdote and psychological theory, the book—which in the early nineties had served as a rallying point for thousands of men bent on breaking free of the culture's male mythos—soon had us under its spell. For several weeks, our basement sauna was transformed into a private sweat lodge of sorts, as the male members of our editorial team gathered there by evening with our spiritual teacher to read aloud Keen's riveting analysis of the social and cultural influences that have molded the psyche of late twentieth-century man. Having each managed to miss out on all but the broadest strokes of the men's movement, we found our own experience often powerfully illuminated by Keen's detailed tour through the rites of war, work and sex—the three arenas he feels have come to define our conceptions of what it means to be a man in today's world.

Using his own pilgrimage as a template, in the book Keen also goes to some length to outline what he sees as the way ahead for modern men. Not content with the popular men's movement mantras, "embracing our feminine side" or "unleashing the wild man within," he points somewhere between these two extremes to a redirecting of "the fierce warrior energies . . . that men have honed for centuries . . . toward the creation of a more hopeful and careful future." In his "new vision of manhood," he leaves little room for the endless self-centered probing that many associate with "men's work," calling instead for a new breed of heroic, passionate and "virile" men to rise up and take responsibility for confronting the ecological and social crises of our times.

By his own description, Keen is a "philosopher of the sacred." Hailing from the likes of Harvard and Princeton, with a string of advanced degrees in philosophy and theology, he has authored over a dozen books and has for years been a prominent figure in the American human potential movement. It was through his experiences leading workshops at Esalen Institute, as a contributing editor for Psychology Today, and as cofounder of a men's group called SPERM (Society for the Protection and Encouragement of Righteous Manhood) that he began to formulate many of the ideas that would fill the pages of his books.

In the larger body of his work, Keen informed me, Fire in the Belly is perhaps best characterized as his answer to the psychological dilemmas of modern man and, as such, is not in itself focused primarily on the spiritual dimension of life. It was only in his 1994 book Hymns to an Unknown God that Keen attempted to chart the waters of the spiritual quest—a journey he sees as common to both sexes—which only can begin after the psychological "wounds of gender" have been healed. Describing the book, he writes: "[It] is a map of the path we travel together, when the questions of masculinity and femininity, male and female roles, have been left far behind." Keen's approach to spirituality, along with Jungian analysis and many body-centered "transpersonal" therapies, does not count itself among those spiritual paths aiming for final enlightenment, but falls instead under the broad umbrella of what has come to be called "sacred psychology." Attempting to bring the individualistic ideals of Western humanism into a spiritual context, Keen and other authorities in this increasingly popular school of thought point to a life of meaning found not in surrendering to a God greater than oneself, nor in an effort to slay the ego through the renunciation of self-centered impulses, but through a personal confrontation with one's own existential questions and a reckoning with the shadow-world of one's unconscious. Keen writes: "My quest . . . is driven primarily by a personal-existential need to discover how I fit within the scheme of things, not by a . . . need to understand how human beings fit within the cosmos. . . . The dignity and meaning of my life involve the discovery and creation of my way, my truth, my destiny." Although some traditional enlightenment teachings do find expression in Keen's work, the ultimate goal of spiritual life as he defines it is not the dissolution of the separate sense of self, but the empowering of it.

During the course of our conversation last spring, Keen related some of the details of his own personal struggle first to prove his manhood and later to shed the rigid notions of masculinity in which he found himself bound. Having spent the better part of his life going against his own deeply sensitive nature, he recounted, it was only when a therapist pointed out to him that his "manliness is [his] sensitivity" that he was able to begin to make his own "journey beyond gender."

Having heard Keen's description of this pivotal moment in his search, it struck me as perhaps slightly ironic that his phone manner seemed to fall somewhere on the spectrum between John Wayne and General Patton. In the course of our conversation, Keen made it clear that he does not suffer fools—or opposing viewpoints—gladly, as he forthrightly shared his informed and often scathing critique of everything from radical feminism to Jungian psychology to the very men's movement which gave him his fame.

And while I can't deny that I was still glad I wasn't interviewing him about enlightenment, there was nonetheless something about the straightforwardness, and even boldness, with which he spoke that I couldn't help but appreciate. For one meets few people who have lived their questions as Keen has. And his thinking on many of the central themes surrounding our inquiry into gender and spirituality showed not only an unusual clarity and precision but a passionate conviction and a refreshing depth and breadth of hard-earned common sense.


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