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The Alchemy of Men in Wilderness: The Heart Warrior

By Chris “Deer” Ponzi, Lead LifeWays Guide

This is the second part in the article series, read part I in our previous blog post.

Note to Readers: these subjects are vast and complex, many books can and have been written on the subjects. These articles only hope to offer a taste of a greater conversation and are oriented towards male-identifying youth and adults.

Mathew Fox writes that “the warrior is in touch with his heart–the joy, the sadness, the expansiveness of it . . . the warrior, unlike the soldier, is a lover. The warrior is so much in touch with his heart that he can give it to the world” (1).

The word “warrior” conjures all kinds of images for us dwelling in techno-centric western culture. Our cultural warriors are often versions of “shoot-em-up” action heroes, literal superheroes, soldiers, and medieval sword-and-ax-wielding bloody-bearded men. Their warrior-stories generally follow a shallow arc of the Hero's Journey articulated by Joseph Campell (2): the would-be hero or anti-hero kills or conquers uncomplicated bad guys, villains, monsters, and enemies–usually to save a woman and/or the entire world. At some point in the story, there is a setback or fumble that leads to potential calamity, but is ultimately resolved by the heroic exploits of the warrior and his band. By the conclusion, they may have earned a romance and/or obtained a kind of royalty, treasure, or even godhood. Certainly they are almost always hailed as heroes or revered marytrs.

Rinse and repeat.

This now universal warrior-story arc is very much mingled with messages of what it means to be a “real man” today. For example, values of honor, courage, strength and loyalty are inextricably embedded in the archetype of Soldier. In the absence of traditional male initiation rites, many young men sign up to become soldiers in the hopes of embodying the Warrior in the images they’ve been fed; hoping the institution will make them “into a man” because there are no longer any communal rites at home that support them in what that really means. For example, someone close to me who was in an elite special forces of a particular military branch confirmed for me, after he completed his decade-long service, that a big reason why he joined in the first place was something akin to needing “male initiation.” While he honored much of his service, he was ultimately jaded and disappointed by much of what he experienced.

Those once nature-based community rites have been supplanted by impersonal institutions with a multiplicity of motives other than the healthy maturation of the next generation.This speaks sad truth for inner-city and gang-affiliated youth (populations I have worked with): many of these youth have absent, incarcerated, oppressive, or negligent father-figures and thus form their own bands of immature hierarchical families of pseudo-fathers that prize violent masculine aggression. They often have rituals and initiations of their own, almost all of them rooted in extreme violence. This makes sense given that sacred rites are programmed into our psychic DNA by hundreds of thousands of years of human history.

Let’s be clear: instinctual male aggression exists for a reason and it needs an outlet. Not only does aggression need an outlet, it needs guidance towards why that aggression exists and how it can be useful to that individual and their community. In the absence of older, caring, initiated males, institutions with self-serving motives will guide impressionable male aggression and hunger for initiation for their own aims.

Sports and sports teams, as one example, can be a mature healthy outlet for aggression, but so much of our culture idealizes sport stars to the point of godhood that the institution of professional sports as a whole has transformed into one of self-aggrandizement, fame, and money– not life-affirming values for our culture.

This article does not seek to point blame or criticism on any specific male-centric institution, but wishes to highlight a familiar thread operating in most of them: the oppression of male emotions other than anger, ambition, or lust. More simply: male + many emotions= bad. Conscious or unconscious, emotional repression has become an effective strategy, even an essential ingredient, for dehumanizing ourselves and the more-than-human world. Many of you have heard this stereotype and have even made some attempts to crack that huge dam of tears called “boy’s don’t cry.”

That dam-crack must go deeper.

One of the few male archetypes in our culture often allowed to express emotions is the “Lover.” Certainly we have all watched wooing male heartthrobs who don’t like to pick fights but rather flowers for their romance. Look closely beneath the surface though, and you’ll see similarities to the modern Soldier-story arc: a man conquering all odds to eventually conquer the affections of the idealized One, often with a challenge from another seemingly stronger male or circumstances that seek to defeat him. The boy or man in such stories is culturally sanctioned, even idealized for expressing emotions for the sake of romantic conquest. Similar to Soldier, there is a whole liturgy of messages around how to conquer the game of romance, often using derivatives of the language of violence to explain it. Think of a modern derivative of the Lover archetype: “the player.” One who knows how to “play the game,” that game which is ultimately not love, authenticity, or connection to the heart, but the conquest of sex and glory.

What’s my scratch with all this itch? That we need to return to and revise our Warrior-Lover archetypes. Into what? “Warriors of the Heart.”

“The warrior is in touch with his heart.” To be in touch with one’s heart, to be a true Lover, is not just about individual affection, but the capacity to expand our love to all beings, including Earth Herself and ourselves. A true warrior is a true lover who understands that emotions are a vital force, and that to be in-tune with them is an essential capacity for self-power and self-mastery. If emotions are suppressed, they retreat into the sewer system of the psyche and fester . . . and fester . . . and fester, until they turn toxic.

“Toxic masculinity” is sprouted from seeds of the suppressed emotional psyches of millions of males.

Warriors of the Heart, however, learn the skill of rooting in their hearts–their emotions and intuition, to name a few chambers–in order to make healthy decisions and express their power from a place of life-serving values. While that power can definitely find physical expression in life-affirming and protecting ways, it will most often be actualized in our interpersonal relationships and the energy motivating our actions that move our world.

So how do we get there? There are my paths to take, but one essential to them all is the Alchemy of Wilderness.

Photo by Felipe Tapia Nordenflycht (@Felipesh) of LifeWays students and Guide Brian backpacking in the San Juan National Forest summer of 23'

Wilderness is the most potent expression of true Heart-Warrior energy. Mature wild animals do not haphazardly waste their precious energy, but utilize all their gifts, strength, and skills to serve themselves and their family, only making that risky hunt or fighting that battle when they are absolutely sure that they must. A well-rooted, mature tree, has a vast reciprocal root-network that exchanges nutrients with all sorts of organisms in the forest, and when storms arise, their deep interconnected roots can weather the thunder and wind while offering shelter to their creature-kin.

Some readers might understandably feel the urge to point out so-called “alpha” behavior in animal communities, which has become an archetype in itself for validating human aggression. Certainly, such aggression exists, but the so-called dominant “Alpha Male” concept popularized by beliefs about wolf society has long been disproven. The now-antiquated theory was founded upon biologists observing behavior from wolves in zoos with no previous history with each other, who were haphazardly placed into artificial communities with scarce resources, which led to hyper-aggressive behavior for those resources. However, biologists have now observed natural wolves in the wild for decades now, and have seen that wolf packs are primarily families, and that most perceived aggression towards each other is a form of teaching/parenting by the elder wolves towards the younger (3).

“The warrior is so much in touch with his heart that he can give it to the world.” Like a tree’s roots, the tendrils of our own human hearts must be rooted in the soil of our spirits and the waters of our emotions/intuitions in order to grow strong. How can we, as maturing male humans in a mad modern world, ensure that our young are protected and guided to see the strength of their hearts matured? We live that question here at LifeWays, and are doing our best to humbly offer mentorship and guidance in training Wild Heart-Warriors.

We will continue to wander deeper still into the Alchemy of Wilderness and the Wild-Heart Warrior, in our final third article.

Work with a LifeWays Guide Mentor, visit here.

Join a Wild Heart Warrior Weekend

  1. Mathew Fox, The Hidden Spirituality of Men. (pg. 78)

  2. Joseph Campell, Hero With A Thousand Faces.

  3. Article in The Scientific American:,duels%20for%20supremacy%20are%20rare.

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