Al Heystek, therapist with the Men’s Resource Center of West Michigan has appeared on several Revealing Men podcast segments. He’s spoken about sex addiction, men’s relationship with anger, and helping men recover from trauma. In this segment, Heystek and Randy Flood, psychotherapist, and Director of the Men’s Resource Center discuss how men’s support groups can cultivate men’s spirituality and the sacred masculine. How they can become sacred spaces; where men are encouraged to challenge narrow views of masculinity while recognizing and valuing more healthy masculinities—the sacred masculine within themselves and others. Excerpts from the conversation are below (edited for length and clarity). You can access the entire conversation on the Revealing Men podcast.
Finding a Healthy Spirituality
Flood: The interesting thing about Al is that before he became a licensed professional counselor, he was a minister and did some inner-city ministry earlier in his professional life. Then he decided he wanted to go into counseling. The thing that he and I have been talking about more recently is how in this world of specialization we do this bifurcation, put things in categories. It’s like, “oh, the ministers do this and the counselors do the counseling.” And that he’s realizing, later in his career, that the two go hand in hand, they support each other, and there’s an integration. And so, welcome, Al to talk about this and the work that you do.
Heystek: Absolutely. Good to be here and reflect on how important it is for people to develop a spiritual practice. I have an M.Div. [Master of Divinity]. I am a part of a denomination. I grew up in a Christian community. That experience really motivated me to go to seminary because I had a lot of questions about what I was growing up with. Which was basically a Dutch Calvinist, quite conservative experience, in the 60s. And the emphasis was really so much about “Here’s what you need to believe.”
It was like you gotta follow these rules, and you need to believe in this way, and if you don’t believe in this way, then there are consequences; there’s bad stuff that can happen. Needless to say, I spent a lot of time thinking about baseball during 45-minute sermons when I was growing up.
Flood: Otherwise, you would’ve been anxious the whole time. Wondering if you’re going to be okay! [Laughs.]
Heystek: I really wanted to get out of that, and I really didn’t understand then that this was really not very healthy spirituality or theology. (And many people have had those kinds of experiences. I’ve talked to people who are recovering evangelicals, or recovering Catholics, or recovering from something that they didn’t experience as being very positive.)
So, I went to seminary with a lot of questions. And, when I was completed with that, I think I was more comfortable with the questions. I still had a lot of questions, but I was more comfortable with it. And then began to see that there was a difference between religious beliefs, religious experience, and this whole notion of spirituality. And that began to really inform my thinking and my interactions with people.
When Religious Experience Produces Fear and Shame
Flood: I like how you said that you became more comfortable with the questions. I think it’s said that the opposite of faith is certainty or something like that. There are certain things in life that are certain. But, to the extent that us finite human beings can become more comfortable with our limitations and our questions, the more we are going to explore and have the desire to accumulate knowledge and to be okay with not knowing it all and having faith.
Heystek: If the answer to a problem is “Well, pray about it,” or “Read your Bible,” that all can be a helpful thing. But my experience was that a lot of what I grew up with was this shame producing, conditional, “This is what you need to do.” And fear and shame does not exactly encourage people to be open about what they’re experiencing.
The way I looked at it was based on what I experienced. I grew up with a lot of conditions in my religious community. Fortunately, my parents were not that strict, which was helpful for me. But I’ve talked to a lot of people who, when they experience a lot of conditions and really want to have more unconditional love. I think people are really longing for that kind of connection.
Pursuing Spirituality and the Sacred Masculine
Heystek: We talk with guys about trying to develop the sacred masculine. So, what’s that mean? I can read something we put together:
When we are blessed and loved then we experience the sacred. Masculinity becomes sacred when it is infused with the power of love and respect. Pursuing the sacred masculine is a process, a journey, transforming our often independent, isolated, in control, and invulnerable images of masculinity, and moving toward a vision of interdependence, connection, vulnerability, and love.
Flood: I like that. We came up with that, right?
Heystek: We did! [Flood: Laughs.] We came up with that.
Flood: We tried to bring that to churches to do consulting or some faith groups. We talked about some of these faith leaders, like Jesus and his example of connection, and community, and relationships. And what he modeled for us is unlike, sometimes, what we do as men.
Heystek: Right. The notion of spirituality apart from religion, I think, is just important for people to grasp and they’re not like on opposite ends of the poles necessarily. I mean, there are many religious communities that provide, like a container, like a structure to pursue spirituality and connection—some kind of connection with love and with the divine. The kind of definition that we’ve worked with with guys here is that spirituality is simply living in a spirit of love and respect for others and for myself. It’s not aligned with any sort of religious tract or institution.
Flood: Yeah, but you’ve had guys say to you—I know I’ve had guys say to me—that this feels like church, or this feels like it should be. In that, when we gather in groups and they are able to talk openly about their human struggles and the mistakes they’ve made, and they do it in a vulnerable way and they receive the blessing of other men and the compassion—not that they bless them for their misbehavior, but they bless them as a human being—that has value, and then that inspires them to be better men and that becomes a spiritual practice. You can psychologize it and call it certain kinds of things in a psychological nomenclature. But, in a way, it is a way of ministering and providing a safe space for people to be seen and heard.
Heystek: So, there can be churches today that do encourage that kind of vulnerability and are able to provide grace and acceptance to people. Certainly, there are many, I believe, that don’t do that.
And so, this connection about suffering and really the spirituality—rich, to me, rich spirituality, honest spirituality—has to do with the connection between suffering and love. I can share with you my suffering if I trust that you’re not going to judge me or shame me and that you’ll listen to me.
That kind of vulnerability opens up a, to me, like a spiritual connection. What is actually spirituality? It’s based on the word “spirit.” “Ruach” in Hebrew is like the energy, the force, the spirit, the breath that holds everything together. Most people are familiar with Star Wars. [Flood: Laughs.] Well, that’s really a movie about community and about dealing with the world which can be evil and difficult and trusting in something bigger than you. Getting out of yourself and being more interdependent.
Escaping the Binds of Secular Masculinity
Flood: So how does it play out in groups? You’ve talked about the sacred masculine which, in some ways, we’re trying to teach in this re-socialization process and so, how does traditional or the secular masculinity, as we call it, inhibit a healthy spirituality? Or inhibit people being willing to share?
Heystek: Yeah, well it goes way back to when I first started here. I think in the couple of years after I was here, William Pollack, who was a Harvard psychologist, came to town. [He] talked about his book Real Boys and about research where infant boys were shown to be as or more emotionally expressive at like four-months-old as girls. They were very emotionally expressive. But by the time they’re five- or six-years-old that changes and here we go. It’s like they become less likely to go to their parents, less likely to go to their teachers when they’re distressed. They start learning this “boy code,” which shuts down this vulnerability. This “I don’t want to be girly.” “I don’t want to be that.” “I’ve gotta be tough and in control.” And that is a challenge.
But when men start to see or experience someone else in front of them who is being vulnerable that really is a powerful thing. When I’m talking with guys about developing a spiritual practice, it’s like, “hey, part of this is having someone in your life, developing an inner circle where you can be real and connect with others.”
The Healing That Comes with Vulnerability
Flood: So, traditional masculinity then is more about hiding. More about being invulnerable, projecting power, projecting “I’m okay” or “I got this.” [Heystek: “Right.”] Where this sacred masculinity, as I’m hearing us talk, is this courage to let you see me and let you hear me. [Heystek: “Right.”] And there’s a risk involved because some people might judge you, some people might reject you and not understand or appreciate your problem. That’s the sacredness of providing these circles where people can have some level of safety to begin this journey of reaching out and speaking.
Heystek: We don’t push men to be vulnerable all over the place. Guys already know, “I guess at work or with this person or these people I’ve gotta be cautious about what I say.” But, when given the opportunity to be real, many men welcome the possibility even though it’s not easy to do.
Flood: It’s very freeing. That’s what guys will say when we tell them that. I had this guy one time that had some sexual trauma. He was like “I’d rather you tell me I have to cut off my finger than go into a group and talk about what happened to me.” And, he did! And, again, that is the way that we know, the best way, to treat shame is to bring it out of the dark, take it out of where we’re hiding it, and bring it into a safe circle, which is a very sacred experience.
The Sacred Act of Listening with Grace
Heystek: Guys will be very reluctant, especially in the beginning, to come into a group because they’re afraid they’re going to be put on the spot. And we say, “Hey, ya know, you take your time. Really, your job is just to come in and listen.” It’s really important to be able to be honest about what your problem is, and to open it up to other people. That’s a very important part of being in counseling and sharing and being in a support group. But, what I found, professionally and personally, is that the real deal is listening to other men, listening to other men’s struggles.
Flood: And that practice is therapeutic in and of itself.
Heystek: Some guys say, “I don’t know. I’m pretty shy. I don’t want to really come in and talk about this stuff.” I’ll say “that’s perfect! That’s perfect because mostly what you’re gonna get from this is listening to other men.” And there’s something about listening to the stories. It’s about a shared story. It’s not about… here are the rules… here’s what you have to do. No, it’s a shared story.
The Experiential Nature of Spirituality
Heystek: And spirituality is … so much about it is experiential. I can’t tell somebody else what the meaning of something needs to be for them. I can’t tell somebody else what’s gonna work for them. They need to discover that for themselves. And many people, come in already with some kind of practices that they’ve figured out that work for them.
A lot of guys really love the whole notion of getting outside, being in the natural world. There’s something very freeing about that. Being out in the woods or on a river is like, “Gosh, there’s no judgment here! There’s no shame here. There is beauty here. There is this knowledge that something is bigger than me and I get out of myself and all of my worries and troubles.” Guys learn that they can bike, run, mountain bike, get outside. And, to me, that’s all good spiritual work because it helps me get in touch with love, and acceptance, and freedom.
Flood: Connection to something bigger! And to be able to feel connected to other people in a group setting is also very, very healing for men.
Heystek: It’s interesting for me—theologically trained, been a part of a church—the notion that I like the best— “higher power” is okay. AA [Alcoholics Anonymous] came up with that, so that everybody can be included. They didn’t want people to not feel included—the notion of the “great mystery”, I’ve always liked that sort of notion. People can have whatever it is for them that helps them to access love, respect. Whether it’s woodworking, whether it’s writing poetry, whether it’s working, being artistic, music, getting in touch with that creative side.
Creating a Supportive Community is not only Therapeutic, it’s Spiritual
Heystek: There are many religious communities that are very supportive and very helpful to men’s recovery. I think that is also really, really valuable. But I think—for men, especially when we know how much isolation—isolation, and shame— are so powerful for men—connections with others, relationships, relationships with other men, are really vital to our ongoing health; becoming more interdependent.
It’s really a focus on being a part of a community. So, as I have understood myself as more interdependent, not so doggedly independent about my life, I’ve been more at peace.
I don’t encourage guys to give up their independence. It’s like, hey, there’s lots of things you can be independent about. Your work, there’s a lot of things you don’t necessarily need to ask for help about. But, this whole notion of community and connection with other men, you need other men.
Flood: Yeah. It’s a cross-training. You’re not losing your ability to be independent. It’s more of how do you develop this social intelligence or emotional intelligence to be able to be curious about what’s inside of you and be able to share it and be curious about the inner life of others and be able to hear and empathize with them. And so, it’s a cross-training; it’s a completion of our humanity.
Heystek: Yeah. I think it was about 25 years ago, this guy that I knew invited me to a prayer breakfast and it was like a wink and a nod type of thing. It wasn’t truly a prayer breakfast—but it came out of that sort of idea and he was part of a church—what it actually was was a few guys that got together for breakfast once a week and just talked about life, just talked about what was going on, ya know? People having a conversation and how much of a spiritual thing that really is.
Flood: That everything is a prayer. I mean conversations we have with each other can be a form of prayer.
Heystek: Yeah. Exactly!
Journeying Together Toward the Sacred
Flood: Well, I value and appreciate the work that you do here. I’ve learned from you and you say that you’ve learned from me on occasion, too, I think. I think our collegial relationship and the work you’ve done with hundreds of men here has just been so valuable. And I love how you’ve been able to bridge your expertise and interest in the spirituality and the psychology and bring them into an integration.
Heystek: I tell guys we’re all on the same journey. Nobody’s arrived at having this task of loving ourselves and being respectful to ourselves and others, nobody has that, has a corner on that. And the only way to keep on that path is to keep working at it. So, being a part of the community here, having our relationship, relationship with Otha, and others here is all a part of our trying to model out a masculinity that’s a shared story. How much I’ve learned from men who come here with their courage to face difficulties, their courage to step into their pain about a marriage, about their children, about some trauma that they experienced, and yeah, they’re longing for unconditional love and some aspect of healing.
Spirituality and the Sacred Masculine
Al Heystek and Randy Flood are not in the business of pushing religion, but they believe in the value of spiritual practices for men and providing a safe space for sharing and listening to one another’s stories. If you’re looking for such a space or you’re interested in learning more about developing the sacred masculine, please free to contact the Men’s Resource Center online or call us at (616) 456-1178. In addition, if you have questions about this segment, ideas for a topic, or would like to be a guest on the Revealing Men podcast, let us know.