Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Men's group moves past the John Wayne approach


Express Staff Writer

A gathering of men (from left, back row): Jerry Hutchins, Neil Bradshaw, Cameron Cooper, Jonathan Chen, Chris Estrem, Cary Iverson. Front row, Bill Demun, Jim Munenos, Taylor Phillips, Wade Port, Hart Gibson. Photo by David N. Seelig

About 50 men gather each Monday evening in the Wood River Valley to discuss the personal, and perhaps the archetypal, issues that have faced men for ages. They come to share stories and to learn from one another. They come to work—not on their careers, but on themselves.

Last week 14 men finished an eight-week introductory course in "men's work" aimed at establishing clarity, emotional honesty and personal accountability in their lives. Their initiation marks the beginning of what for many has been a path of self-discovery within a brotherhood of mutual support and understanding.

"For me the group provides a venue to explore my horizons," said builder and backcountry ski guide Gary Ashurst. "It is a place to mirror my thoughts with those of other men. Without this it is easy to get stuck in a particular thought process."

"There is no president, no dues to pay and no secret handshakes," said Jim Mulenos of the Wood River Valley Men's Group he helped to establish in 2003 after returning from a Mankind Project weekend workshop.

Mankind Project is a nonprofit, educational and training organization for men in the U.S. as well as in several other countries.

"Men come to the meetings to be 100 percent themselves for a period of time," Mulenos said. "A lot of this is about finding out where 'I' end and where another person begins."

So why are there no women allowed in the men's group?

"My instinct tells me that what moves my life forward has to do with challenge and risk," said Mulenos. "It started for me with jumping off the barn as a kid and throwing rocks at one another. Women might be this way also. I don't know."

During the eight-week process, men are encouraged to use "I" statements to own their own "core feelings:" mad, sad, glad and afraid. The emphasis is on sorting out what Mulenos describes as "dated judgments and feelings" that can lead to psychological projections that in turn can lead to confusion in mens' personal and professional lives.

"It's a place where I can break my isolation and my dependency on my wife and children to carry my loads," Mulenos said.

The eight-week initiation brings men through a process of discovery and unlearning, outlining distinctly male psychological issues and dilemmas that have existed since before the modern industrial era.

The emphasis of what Mulenos and his colleagues call "men's work" is on emotional truth rather than rational thinking. The participatory workshops brought by participants to weekly men's group meetings can be provocative and personally transforming. Men are encouraged to set goals and to push limits.

"The ultimate goal of this kind of work is to find a purpose in our lives," said Mulenos, who placed a personal ad in the Idaho Mountain Express five years ago inviting men to join a support group. Four men showed up, including Blaine County School District executive Jerry Hutchins and pilot David Wilkinson.

"To me it's all about building relationships through personal growth," Hutchins said. "By building better, clearer relationships I am contributing to and building a better community."

As more men join the Wood River Valley Men's Group, new ideas are floated for workshops and weekly meeting topics. Ketchum landscaper Cameron Cooper brought his experience with Council Circle Foundation to the group. Travis Scott brought a background in Somato Respiratory Integration therapy.

Last year Cooper and artist John Cassia spearheaded a mentoring program for young men at risk in the valley after attending meetings with the Community Drug Coalition. The program was an offshoot of their experience within the men's group over the past few years.

Cooper and Cassia developed a mentor-training program based on many of the principles and practices learned in the men's group's weekly meetings.

"We found that having a healthy, adult, non-family member as a role model was one of the most effective means of keeping youth out of trouble," Cooper said.

Eighteen men and one woman have gone through the mentor training program. Eight of them meet every other Wednesday with six kids at the YMCA and at The Hub at the Community Campus in Hailey to rock-climb, play basketball, make music and discuss personal issues. The YMCA provides the group with free day passes.

The men gather at homes, at churches and sometimes along the Big Wood River.

"We are not therapists. We don't do anything but throw spaghetti at the wall and see what sticks," Mulenos said.

He said that out of 65 men who have taken the eight-week course, 48 are actively involved and attend two meetings in north and south valley locations on Monday nights.

"The groups are purposefully put at the beginning of the week to contrast with Monday Night Football," he said. "In order to do this we have to break down the John Wayne stereotype we grew up with. If we are doing it right, everyone feels safe. Anonymity is important, because some men prefer to make changes in their lives privately."

Men's group members range in age from their mid-20s to mid-80s and come from all walks of life.

"Oftentimes younger men have not picked up the baggage yet in life that they need to work through," said Mulenos. "On the other hand a lot of our fathers and grandfathers, our elders, have been lost to us in this society. We need to find some way to bring then back into our lives."

One 55-year-old initiate from the eight-week introduction who chose to remain anonymous came to the group after being referred to Mulenos by a psychologist.

"My wife and I were in therapy and I came to realize that I needed a group of men to show me how to be a man," he said. "I met a great bunch of guys and found out that the power of community means a lot. It's neat to listen and know that other people are going through what you are going through and that it's a good journey."

For more information call Jim Mulenos at 720-5433 or Cameron Cooper at 726-6026

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