Sam Keen

"The Rites of Man" — a continued reading from Fire in the Belly: On Being a Man by Sam Keen is now
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“Modern Day Job” by John Larsen

Act I: Separation. The cultural task of turning a boy into a man begins by the disruption of the primal bond between mother and son. In infancy he and she have been one flesh. But at some point, usually near the onset of puberty, the boy child will be rudely stolen from the encompassing maternal arms, ready or not, and thrust into the virile society of men. In many tribes, the men kidnap the boys and take them to live in the men's clubhouse where they are subject to hazing, discipline, and teachings of the elders. “Modern Day Job” by John Larsen

Some form of painful ordeal inevitably accompanies and dramatizes the separation from the world of WOMAN. The list of minor and major tortures imposed upon initiates reads like a page from the fantasy life of de Sade and includes: lip piercing, scarification, filing or knocking out of teeth, scourgings, finger sacrifices, removal of a testicle, bitings, burnings, eating of disgusting foods, being tied on an ant hill, subincision of the penis, solitary confinement, exile in the wilderness for long periods, sleeping naked on winter nights, etc. Often a boy was sent out into the forest to kill a dangerous animal or an enemy to prove his courage. Among the Plains Indians,«fasting, vigils, and sometimes psychedelic drugs were used to induce an altered state of consciousness and a personal vision.

As a general rule, the more a tribe or nation practices warfare the harsher its rites of initiation for boys. In such cultures, the main purpose of the initiation rites for males is to turn civilian boys into military men. The life of a man is the life of a warrior. To be a man one must be able to bear suffering without complaint, to kill, to die. Some tribes, in their effort to create manly virtues, amputate the nipples, since only women should have breasts. The neophyte warrior learns to disdain woman's ways, to reject the sensuous knowledge of the body he learned kinesthetically from his mother, and to deny all that is "feminine" and soft in himself.

Why this connection between masculinity and pain? We can see the logic that underlies such ordeals if we look closely at the typical "primitive" ritual of circumcision. For reasons that are deeply unconscious—or mythic—the male elders of the tribe ordain that boys must bear a scar throughout life to remind them that they are required to sacrifice their bodies to the will of the tribe. To be a man is to leave behind the world of women-nature-flesh-sensuality-pleasure and submit one's will and body to the world of men-culture-power-duty. The implicit message given to a boy when he is circumcised, whether the ritual is performed when he is seven days old or at puberty, is that your body henceforth belongs to the tribe and not merely to yourself.

If we are to understand the male psyche, decipher the baffling male obsession with violence, break the unconscious sadomasochistic game that binds men and women together in erotic combat, and end the habit of war, we must understand the original wound, the scar, around which masculine character has traditionally been constructed.

The rite of circumcision is widely though not universally practiced, but it is the best symbol of the process by which boys are turned into men. That so primitive and brutal a rite continues to be practiced nearly automatically in modern times when most medical evidence indicates that it is unnecessary, painful, and dangerous suggests that circumcision remains a mythic act whose real significance is stubbornly buried in the unconscious. That men and women who supposedly love their sons refuse to examine and stop this barbaric practice strongly suggests that something powerfully strange is going on here that is obscured by a conspiracy of silence. We do not want to look at the cruelty that is systematically inflicted on men or the wound that is deemed a necessary price of manhood.

Imagine, if you dare, that you are small enough to rest complete within your mother's arms, so sensitive that every nerve ending of your flesh reaches out to the unknown world, eager as lips to receive the bounties of the breast. Then, suddenly, you are seized by male giants, taken from your mother's arms (but with her consent), and held down by force. The tender skin covering your penis is cut off (whether by a stone knife or surgical blade is a matter of small difference). Feel the violation of your flesh, your being. (Do not allow yourself the comforting lie that circumcision isn't that painful, the wound heals quickly, and the pain is soon forgotten.) What indelible message about the meaning of manhood would be carved on your body, encoded within the scar tissue of your symbolic wound?

It is possible to interpret the cruelty involved in rites of passage as expressing the unconscious resentment of the fathers against the sons. But more likely the pain inflicted served as a sacrament—an outward and visible sign of an inward change that transforms boys into men. To create a social body requires a sacrifice of our individual desires. The pain of the ordeal, the hazings, and the insults were designed to break down individuality and replace personal identity with the imprint of the tribe. From the beginnings of recorded human history to the present day the most important tacit instruction boys receive about manhood is: Masculinity requires a wounding of the body, a sacrifice of the natural endowment of sensuality and sexuality. A man is fashioned by a process of subtraction, decision, abstraction, being severed from the "natural" world of WOMAN. We gain manhood by the willingness to bear the mutilation imposed on us by the ruling elders.

'WOMAN as Erotic-Spiritual Power' (excerpt) Fire in the Belly: On Being a Man by Sam Keen is now
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Venus Verticordia
Venus Verticordia” by Dantte Gabriel Rossetti

The third aspect of WOMAN is as an irresistible erotic-spiritual force. She is the magnet, and men the iron filings that lie within her field.

It is difficult to give this aspect of WOMAN a familiar name because Western mythology, philosophy, and psychology have never acknowledged its reality. Once, men and women assumed that the goddess controlled all things that flow and ebb—the waxing and waning moon, the rise and fall of tide and
phallus. But ever since God became Father, and men have considered themselves the lords over nature (and women), we have defined man as active and WOMAN as reactive. Consequently, we have never developed a language that does justice to WOMAN'S erotic-spiritual power.

In Eastern mythology, notions of gender are reversed. The female principle is seen as active and the male as responsive. Among human beings, lions, and other members of the animal kingdom, the female of the species sends out her invitations on the wind and commands the male's response. He may think he initiates, but her sexual perfumes (pheromones) and inspiring image influence him to action. She is the primer mover, the divine eros, whose power draws him to her. As Joseph Campbell points out,3 the term Shakti in Hindu mythology names the energy or active power of a male divinity that is embodied in his spouse. "Every wife is her husband's Shakti and every beloved woman her lover's. Beatrice was Dante's. Carried further still: The word connotes female spiritual power in general, as manifest, for instance, in the radiance of beauty, or on the elemental level in the sheer power of the female sex to work effects on the male."

To detect this important aspect of men's experience of WOMAN that our language or philosophy of gender does not name or honor, we have to look at the angelic and demonic extremes of men's sexuality—the ways in which WOMAN figures in the imaginations of artists and rapists.

For many creative men WOMAN is the muse and inspiration for their work. She possesses a semi-divine power to call forth their creativity. Without her inspiration they cannot paint, write, or manage. She is the anima, the spirit and soul of a man. Without her a man is only will and intellect and blind force.

At the opposite end of the spectrum the rapist confesses the same experience of the irresistible erotic power of WOMAN. His defense is inevitably: "She tempted me. She wanted it. She seduced me." For a moment, put aside the correct response to such deluded excuses, which is that it is not the victim's fault, and consider the raw unconscious experience of WOMAN that underlies rape no less than the inspiration of the artist. In both cases, she is experienced as the active, initiatory power.

When we consider how most "civilized" men have repressed their experience of the power of WOMAN as goddess, mother, and erotic-spiritual motivator, it is easy to understand the reasons that lie in back of the history of men's cruelty to women. We fear, therefore deny, therefore demean, therefore (try to) control the power of WOMAN. There is no need here to rehearse the routine insults and gynocidal hatreds of men toward women. Mary Daly, Susan Griffin, and other feminist thinkers have traced this painful history in brilliant and convincing fashion.

As men we need to recollect our experience, reown our repressed knowledge of the power of WOMAN, and cease establishing our manhood in reactionary ways. If we do not, we will continue to be workers desperately trying to produce trinkets that will equal WOMAN'S creativity, macho men who confuse swagger with independence, studs who anxiously perform for Mother's eyes hoping to win enough applause to satisfy a fragile ego, warriors and rapists who do violence to a feminine power they cannot control and therefore fear.

So long as we define ourselves by our reactions to unconscious images of WOMAN we remain in exile from the true mystery and power of manhood.

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As bio-mythic, storytelling animals, we inevitably construct a linguistic frame around objects, events, and emotions. Language is our glory and our downfall, our greatest freedom and our maximum-security prison. Before we know it, the gossamer words we have spun to capture our fleeting experience harden into rigid beliefs that block the flow of passing moments and new meanings.

Our most hallowed languages and symbols—the religious and political terms that encode the dominant myths of our culture—establish a tyrannical hold on our minds, emotions, and imaginations. Before we know it, our unthinking allegiance to the God who blesses "democracy," "capitalism," and "freedom" becomes a rationale for forcing our way of life on others, whom we define as "enemies" when they resist. Unknowingly, our spirits become colonized by the voices and values of officials, authorities, and pundits.

Once the spin doctors, advertisers, propagandists, and religious authorities lay claim to language, the sacred connection between word and truth is severed. The common trust upon which all civil society depends—the understanding that we will tell the truth and abide by our word—is destroyed. When systematic lying, dissimulation, and secrecy become a way of life, the public ceases
to expect the truth from government officials and cynicism blossoms.

Every institution and profession—religious or secular— has its lingo. It is the nature of professions and organizations to invent special languages that are understood by insiders but are otherwise opaque; to be a professional is to speak in code. For the uninitiated, reading a political policy brief, a theological text, a legal document, a medical diagnosis, or a journal article on structuralism is like deciphering code. It is not uncommon for professionals of all kinds—lawyers, politicians, businesspeople, pastors, and priests—to use obfuscation, complexity, and mystification to claim knowledge—and thereby power—unavailable to the layperson.
In the beginning of the Christian era it was said that spirit became flesh. But then Spirit became Word (logos), and words became sacrament, which in turn became the basis for the church. The farther Christianity moved from its original event, the more powerfully theology established its dominion over the living spirit. The creed makers performed a reverse miracle: They turned wine into water.

How can we break the spell of religious language, wake up from the hypnosis of god jargon, and escape from the gravitational pull of the political ideologies implicit in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam?

The first antidote for the prostitution of language is voluntary chastity. Just say no. Paul Tillich, the Protestant theologian, said that the great words—faith, hope, love, grace, sin, and salvation—sometimes become so trivialized and degraded that we need to cease using them for a generation. We need to declare a moratorium on old, hallowed, and overused words: a linguistic fast.

Mystics within the great religious traditions have always cautioned against becoming too comfortable with language describing G-d. Judaism prohibited naming G-d altogether. What theologians called the via negativa suggests that we remain most faithful to the ultimate mystery when we remember what G-d is not. The One we try to capture in our names and definitions remains, as Martin Luther said, a hidden G-d.

One way to recover the original meaning and power of religion is to adopt the radical discipline of linguistic asceticism. Put yourself on an austere verbal fast: slim down; clean house. During the month of Ramadan, good Muslims do not eat between dawn and dusk. Abstaining from our habitual patterns of eating and speaking sharpens the appetite and the tongue.

Stop using the tattered language, outworn creeds, and tired metaphors that were once vital but now belong in museums of ancient beliefs. Abandon archaic notions that no longer speak to our condition. The primitive idea that we can be purified by the blood sacrifice of an animal, or a savior who vicariously atones for our sins, makes no more sense to the modern mind than a three-level universe with heaven above and hell below.

What would happen if churches, synagogues, and mosques underwent a time of verbal fasting, when they put their old stories and traditional religious languages on hiatus? At first things would probably get worse. People wouldn't know how to talk about religious matters. But gradually congregations would begin to experiment with new metaphors and create a new poetry of faith by sharing stories and by helping one another discover fresh expressions of their perennial fears and hopes.

Years ago, when I first took my own advice, I made a list of religious, political, and psychological words I habitually used and forced myself to give them up: neurosis, paranoia, salvation, justification by faith, grace, sin, estrangement, mysticism, spirituality, faith, hope, vocation, et cetera. (I told my children I would put one dollar in a box every time I slipped—a costly agreement.) I stopped praying, stopped reading religious literature, and stopped going to church. Insofar as I was able, I allowed the old words to be replaced by silence.

At first, I became anxious. The silence was painfully awkward. Stripped of familiar language, the God I had known disappeared from the horizon of my life, leaving me feeling naked and vulnerable. Without this God, my basic values and core sense of identity were thrown into question.

Gradually, the silence took on a different valence. God was replaced by G-d. The threatening emptiness turned into sweet anticipation, like that of a lover waiting quietly for the object of her desire to appear. The fear I had experienced suddenly appeared baseless, even comical. How, I wondered, had I fallen prey to the absurd belief that the One with Ten Thousand Names could only exist within my limited religious vocabulary? It seemed unlikely that the Unknowable One would starve to death if I neglected to make the old burnt offerings.

(It would be interesting to see what would happen within corporations if, for one hundred days, it was forbidden to talk about profits, losses, stockholders, competition, or market share. Some workers might wonder out loud if what they were doing with fifty or sixty hours a week truly reflected how they wished to spend their fleeting years. Others might wonder whether the product being promoted was ecologically viable, or if their contribution to a global economy was likely to benefit those on the planet who needed it most, or whether we might choose to measure the success of our society by gross national happiness [as they do in Bhutan], rather than by gross national product.)

"In the Absence of God/Dwelling the Presence of the Sacred" (Excerpt) by Sam Keen is now
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"Sacred Mountains" Marina Petro

At first the path leading to an oasis is nearly imperceptible. A slight veering away from the arid landscape and the painful disciplines of self-examination, doubt, and asceticism. A turning toward the promise of transformation— the redolence of green fields and flowering trees coming from a yet-unseen wellspring of life.
The transformation that begins in the desert occurs in the inner spiritual landscape and does not immediately alter the facts of our quotidian existence. A wide variety of metaphors have been used to describe the experience.
It is as if:

the darkness becomes luminous;
we are surprised by joy;
anxiety gives way to courage;
we are healed of our dis-ease;
we are fully alive although we are still destined to die;
our defense mechanisms are disarmed, and we dare
to be vulnerable in a dangerous world; we regain an innocent eye; we are born again; a chrysalis is emerging from the cocoon.

These metaphors of awakening, enlightenment, and metamorphosis point to momentary peak experiences of transcendence. But William James warned us that, while it is notoriously easy to have religious experiences, it is difficult to create a religious life. So, before considering how we craft a religious life by re-owning our elemental emotions, learning to speak in poetic ways about G-d, and practicing justice, we turn our attention to those largely fleeting experiences in which we have premonitions that we are encompassed within a sacred web th; includes all sentient beings. These minor oases are memories of Edenic moments of childhood; a sudden fee of being quickened or enthusiastic (possessed by a god); momentary epiphanies and visions.


I remember a time when my world was magical and every moment was charged with a sense of the numinous. Twice upon a time, long ago and far away, I inhabited a garden of innocent delight and sacred pleasure. Before my fall into Presbyterian religion and modern profanity I lived in a seamless world, with no clear boundaries between time and eternity, self and other, sacred and profane. I was six years old and there was only Now and Forever.

I remember staring into the mirror, seeing the stranger's eyes of my reflected self and asking, "Who are you? Where have you come from? Why are you here?" I knew even then that I, the knower, could never be known to myself.

I remember sitting on my father's lap, secure forever, beyond the realm of death, feeling the vibrations of his rich baritone voice singing "Danny Boy," keeping time with the beat of my heart.

I remember lying on my back outdoors on moonlit summer evenings, watching the endless drift of cloud castles, formed solely for my amusement.

I remember waking on dark nights when the chorus of cicadas was suddenly interrupted by ominous rustling sounds in the backyard. Bears? Burglars? (As it turned out, it was only the insomniac next door, Mr. Traylor, wandering in quest of elusive sleep.)

I remember rearranging rocks in small creeks to produce an elaborate symphony of water music—babble, ripple, gurgle, whoosh.

I remember perfectly ordinary mornings when everything seemed charged with anticipation, a kind of pervasive Christmas spirit, as if some extraordinary surprise awaited me around every shrub and tree.

"Life's Moral Paradox" (excerpt) In the Absence of God—Dwelling in the Place of the Sacred by Sam Keen is now
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To experience our lifescape as sacred also creates a moral paradox. How can we both revere and use the world? Whatever is seen as sacred is, at least in principle, inviolate. It ought to be hallowed, venerated as an end rather than a means. But clearly this is not always possible. If I am to survive the winter, my glorious, molten aspen may need to be harvested for firewood, and I may need to kill one of the graceful deer who so delight me during warmer months. Among traditional hunters and gatherers, the game animal upon which they depended for food was believed to have sacrificed itself during a successful hunt. The Bushmen of South Africa performed a ritual dance reenacting the kill and thanking the eland for its life. They believed that through this sacrament their prey returned to earth to sustain the herd.

In premodern times, shedding blood through hunting and warfare was considered a tragic necessity, requiring repentance and purification. The modern worldview tries-to resolve the moral paradox by turning everything in the nonhuman world into an object, to be utilized as we wish. But once we disenchant the rivers, forests, soil, and air, we end up destroying the network of life upon which we depend.

The proper task of religion is to remind us that, in spite of the tragic aspect of life that must feed on other life in order to survive, we should tread reverently on the earth and be compassionate to all sentient beings. We may not be able to speak convincingly about the transcendent God of traditional religion or of a kingdom of heaven beyond history, but we are not left without witnesses to the sacred. The Logos, the Word, the Divine Hologram that informs the cosmos—all things great and small—is still spoken in sparrow song, wind sigh, and leaf fall. An electron is a single letter, an atom a complex word, a molecule a sentence, and a mockingbird an entire epistle in the great ongoing saga. The ocean still whispers the song that originated with the big bang. Listen to the longing in your heart for love and justice, and you may hear the sacred word. To live in a reverential manner is not to surrender to authority, scripture, or institution but to create an autobiography in which we tell the stories of the unique epiphanies that have informed our lives.

No-thing in the world is sacred.
Every-thing is:
wonderful, not miraculous,
awe-full, not lawless,
graceful, not capricious,
sacramental, not supernatural,
abounding in epiphanies,
lacking any final revelation
of a divine purpose or plan.


"The Never Ending Journey (excerpt) In the Absence of God—Dwelling in the Place of the Sacred by Sam Keen is now
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“Never Ending Journey” by Marianna G. Mills

In the Absence of God: Dwelling in the Presence of the Sacred
by Sam Keen

In the desert nothing is exactly what it seems. A distant lake shimmers for a moment, promising relief and refreshment, but as you draw closer it vanishes. Sandstorms obscure the sun and cause the unwary traveler to walk in circles. Springs and oases that were once verdant dry up and disappear beneath the shifting sands. To live in the desert is to become part of an unending quest for water and wild game. To join any new quest we must challenge the values and concerns that have governed our lives to this time. Freud got it slightly wrong. True, many of us suffer from the thorn in the flesh of childhood wounds, but we suffer more frequently from a void, from what hasn't happened to us, from what we haven't found as a result of the questions we haven't asked.

Questioning is not something we do but something we are—an elemental force. Were you to dissect my brain, you would find that the neurochemical circuitry, the complex strands of cells that make up my brain and my mind, are as individual as my fingerprints. But beyond the wetware, what makes me Sam Keen rather than Rupert Murdoch are the questions that shape my life. Instead of spending each day asking myself how I could acquire more news media, I wonder about the vagaries of the experience of the sacred and the shape of future religion.

Nothing shapes our lives so much as the questions we ask, refuse to ask, or never dream of asking. Our minds, bodies, feelings, and relationships are literally informed by our questions. The defining essence of an individual is his or her quest print. The men and women who made an enduring mark in history, for better and for worse, ignored the accepted worldviews, values, and myths of their time and chose to pursue their own answers to their deepest questions.

Here's a random sample:

How can we put an end to suffering?—Buddha
What is eternal and unchanging?—Plato
What is the will of God?—Jesus Of what may I be certain?—Descartes
How is a falling apple like a rising moon?—Sir Isaac Newton -
Why were men born free but are everywhere in chains?—Karl Marx
What is the meaning of dreams?—Sigmund Freud
How can we create a master race?—Adolf Hitler
Does God play dice with the universe?—Albert Einstein
How is a woman unlike a man?—Betty Friedan

The questions we habitually ask determine whether we will be superficial or profound, acceptors of the status quo or searchers, creators of the peace between nations or the cause of its destruction. They reflect our values, needs, circumstances, and situation. It is the courage to ponder the great mythic questions that gives depth to human life. These queries form antibodies that protect us from the diseases of orthodoxy and ideology, although sometimes they lead us to create new pseudo religions, such as fascism or communism. But so long as we return again and again to the great unanswerable questions, we will never wander far from the endless sky and quickening winds of the spirit.

And if we don't?
If I don't ask, "What are my gifts?" and "What is my vocation?" I may spend my life working at a job that has little or no meaning for me. If I don't ask myself, "Am I willing to kill the designated enemies of my government?" I may join the military, and possibly be placed in a combat situation where my only choice is to kill or be killed. If I don't ask, "Should I compromise my values to serve the interests of my employer?" I am more likely to tailor my personality to what is demanded for advancement. If I do not ask, "Who am I? What is my story?" I am more likely to be informed by the myths, scripts, and stereotypes of my culture. If I don't ask, "What do I believe about G-d and the ultimate purpose of life?" I am more likely to live unconsciously, within either a profane ideology or an uncritical religious orthodoxy.

To be authentically religious is not to affirm any one creed or to have unwavering faith in a transcendent God. It is to be passionately concerned with the meaning of existence, and to linger with questions of origin, destination, and purpose, not because they are answerable but because we are swept up by our cultural myths when we cease to ask these questions.

These perennial, unanswerable questions send us forth on a philosophical quest that lasts a lifetime:

Origins: Why is there something rather than nothing? What is the origin of life? Of my life?
Destination: What is the end toward which history and my life are moving? Who or what is the moving force?
Death: For what may I hope when I die? Is there life after death? Immortality of the soul? Resurrection of the body? Reincarnation? Complete annihilation?
Identity: Who am I? How do I become that unique self that fulfills my destiny? How do I win my freedom from biological necessity and from the myth my culture has imposed over my body, mind, and spirit?
Vocation: Does my life have meaning? If so, what is it? How do I contribute to life beyond my own?
Community: Who are my people? With whom do I belong? Do I have enemies? If so, who are
Authority: Who is in charge? Who is the author of my story? What are the rules? What am I obligated to do? Why?
Path of life: What is the map of life—the stages along the way? How should I conduct myself as a child, an adolescent, an adult, and an elder?
Evil: Why is there evil? Why do the good suffer and the evil prosper sometimes? Or vice versa? Is there ultimate justice? What can I do to reduce the power of evil?

Dis-ease: What is wrong with me? With human beings? Why does dis-ease exist? Pain? Why are we self-destructive sometimes?
Healing: What is wholeness, health? What nostrums, medicines, means of healing are available? Who can help, who can heal?
G-d: Are we alone in the universe? Is there a supra-human caring intelligence?
In the beginning, the prodigal son was comfortable in the household of his father. He accepted and practiced the ancient faith. But one day his spirit was disturbed by questions neither he nor his elders could answer. Leaving home on a quest for answers, he wandered in the desert and in the distant land of the skeptics and flesh-pots. Often on cold nights among strangers, he longed to return to the warmth and security of home and put aside his doubts. But his questions would not be silenced. They resounded in his mind like the beat of a great drum in a vast emptiness.
In time, haunted and exhausted by finding no path that led back to the innocent land in which he had once lived, he fell into despair and decided to abandon his quest. But some impulse encouraged him to keep going, and gradually he resigned himself to being an anxious pilgrim on a road whose destination he did not
know. Then, one night in a foreign land, he realized with the clarity of a star falling in a moonless sky that his agonizing questions had become his treasure, his joy, and his guide to a never-ending adventure in a desert, an oasis, and a wondrous world that had become his home.


"The God-Shaped Vacuum" (Prologue from) In the Absence of God — Sam Keen


"Radical Questions for Critical Times" by Sam Keen (


[Part 2] ------> "The High Price of Success" (excerpt) FIRE IN THE BELLY: ON BEING A MAN by Sam Keen


[Part 1] ------> "The High Price of Success" (excerpt) FIRE IN THE BELLY: ON BEING A MAN by Sam Keen