The Three Core Disciplines of a Samurai Brotherhood Men’s Group

Introduction

I wrote this post because I often encounter the question, “What exactly should we do in our meetings?” This comes up, explicitly or implicitly, just about every week when my co-captain Chad and I, along with our lieutenant Xiva, plan the Nighthawks meeting.

We go back and forth on questions like these. Should we do father shares? What result would that produce for the men? How about doing the King Chair? Which would be better this week? And let’s do a grapple after the break to get the men into their bodies, wake them up for the second half of the meeting. And so on….

Lurking in the weeds as we sort this out are these more general questions:

What is a men’s group?

What are we doing in our groups that produces the results we get?

What helps us improve the results, and what does not?

Phil Mistlberger has been clear about the first question, up to a point. He has repeatedly said that a Samurai Brotherhood squad is not a therapy group and it is not a spiritual group. It is a men’s group.

I agree, based on my experience of all three. The next step is to sort out what a men’s group is. We need to develop a generally accepted conceptual structure, or model, that would help us think more clearly about how the men in such a group produce the results we see, and how to make the most of that.

I spent a long time doing men’s work without having a coherent answer to these questions. I started in 1986 with the Sterling Men’s Weekend. While with Sterling I created, and for 5 years ran, an annual event we called the Grunt, in which 60 – 80 men spent a summer long weekend on projects such as building hiking trails for the Western Canada Wilderness Committee. I attended men’s conferences run by Robert Bly and Michael Mead, did the ManKind Project initiatory workshop, and for 32 years have usually been a member of a men’s team or a men’s support group, including one associated with Warrior Sage. I also did several Landmark programs, a spiritual development program called the Evolutionary Collective, and several others workshops with mixed audiences of men and women, and have been on several mixed support groups.

Despite these many years of involvement in men’s work, it is only since I joined the Samurai Brotherhood that the question of how a successful men’s group actually works has come into focus for me. I suspect that is mainly because men’s work is part of an emerging cultural frontier, and emergence takes place out ahead of our capacity for explicit, conscious understanding. We start doing something new, and it is only after we have been doing it for a while that we develop the ability to describe it. As we learn to describe what we are already doing we increase our ability to manage and improve it deliberately. That is what motivated me to write this article.  I want to know why the Brotherhood is so much better than the other men’s work I have done so that I can help us intervene competently to make it even better. It’s more disciplined, more competent, more powerful than other men’s work I have done, so, how does that actually take place? Whatever that is, I want us to get better at it, cultivate it skilfully it and preserve its best characteristics as we grow.

In this article I suggest a general model I believe can help us align on a coherent, practical understanding of what a men’s group is.

As you read this, I ask that you consider 3 questions, along with the others you have.

How would this model make it easier for you to plan and lead meetings, improve the quality of your squad?

How would this model help us recognize what we have in common while also leaving captains and squads a free hand to develop their own distinctive squad sub-cultures and characters?

How would this model provide a framework for useful debate about the culture, policies and public communication of the Samurai Brotherhood as it rapidly grows?

In my experience a model is most effective when people hold it a bit loosely, rather than treating it as a rigid template. That happens when people use the model in open discussions of what to do. My intention in writing this is to make such discussions more effective.

What are we doing that produces the results we get?

I joined the Samurai Brotherhood at the October 2017 open house because of something striking about the captains standing at the front of the room.

One after another they told us how much their lives had improved as a result of their being on Brotherhood squads and growing as leaders of the Brotherhood. I was impressed with the improvements they reported, but even more by the energy these men radiated, standing there before us. They were obviously thriving – at a time when many men are withering – and that thriving energy enrolled me.  

Since then I have seen this energy emerge among the men of my squad, the Nighthawks, and I have experienced it myself. We’re thriving as a squad and each of us is more alive. I am more alive.

Given what I had witnessed as a member of the Brotherhood and other men’s groups I wanted to know what is working here so we can cultivate it skilfully it and preserve it as we grow. I began to ask these questions:

How is it that a man joins the Samurai Brotherhood, spends two years on a squad, and winds up with a life so much better than the one he had when he started?

More specifically, what are we doing that produces the results we get? What helps us improve the results, and what does not?”

We are, as a society, just beginning to explore men’s inner lives, so how men’s transformation actually works is a bit of a cultural mystery. It’s natural, in a situation like this, to fall back on existing models in order to understand what’s going on, like group therapy and spiritual development. But, as Phil Mistlberger has stated clearly and repeatedly, a Samurai Brotherhood squad is not a therapy group, and it’s not spiritual group. It’s a men’s group.

And a men’s group is……exactly what?

I didn’t have an answer until recently.

The penny drops

The penny dropped during the September 2018 Open House.

I was standing in front of the audience with the other captains while one of them spoke of the way his life had changed since he joined the Brotherhood. In the crowd I saw 80 men sitting absolutely still, listening with unequivocal intensity. Only 2 or 3 looked down, which made the complete concentration of the rest more evident. There was no whispering, there were no side conversations.  

That’s when it occurred to me – that’s what this is. That’s what I notice at our squad meetings: men listening with this intensity while one of their brothers is trying to tell the truth about his life.

What if it’s that simple? What if the transformation of men’s lives emerges from that kind of connection between one man speaking his truth and the others in the group listening?

That got me started.

The three core disciplines of a men’s group

I’ve reflected on this experience for the last few months, working on a unifying idea that would help us pull the pieces together. I wanted that idea to be as literal and concrete as possible, and to carry as little baggage from existing models and theories as possible.

I reached the conclusion that there are three core disciplines:

Men speaking the truth about their lives

Men listening for each other’s truth and witnessing it

Men creating the disciplined container of a Samurai Brotherhood squad, within the larger container of the Brotherhood as a whole

Learning and applying these disciplines generates the life of a Samurai Brotherhood squad and causes the men to thrive.

These three core disciplines are central to therapy and spiritual development as well as to men’s work. However, in each of these fields people do somewhat different things in order to carry out the three core disciplines. Stripping men’s work down to these core disciplines provides a framework that helps us to think about what we do, the actions, processes, beliefs and nuances that work particularly well in men’s groups. I have made some suggestions about what these are, summarized in the diagram below. (Design credit: Jason Chau)

There may be better ways to articulate the sub-disciplines, so let’s treat this list as a starting point for discussion.

The specific, actionable sub-disciplines we practice in the Samurai Brotherhood


Speaking the truth

Exploration

Exploring, finding your way, learning to speak the truth about your life, stumbling from time to time

Experience

Speaking in the first person, using “I” statements

Talking about specifics, what is actually going on or as happened, rather than generalizations, theories, lectures or other forms of bypassing

Boundaries

Asking for what you want; for instance: Just listen / I want feedback / I want advice

Pushing back when you are full, when men are “piling on”, when men are giving advice when they would serve you better by listening and asking questions


Listening for the Truth

Presence

Staying present while a man struggles with telling the truth; more specifically,

Intervening in your thoughts when you realize you have gotten wrapped up in your own inner conversation and are responding in your own mind to the man who is speaking rather than following what he is saying, and turning your attention back to him

Recognizing and letting go of the feelings and thoughts the man’s testimony triggers in you and focusing back on him

Recognizing that your desire to give advice is often a bypassing technique that enables you to avoid the discomfort that witnessing man’s testimony triggers in you

Looking below the surface, awareness of the shadow forces in life

Inquiry

Asking open ended questions to draw the man out and avoiding questions that lead to a yes/no answer

Ask: What do you need from us?

Mirror / summarize what he said, then ask: Did I get that right?

When confused, ask for clarification: Please clarify that

When a man seems to have made his point, ask: Are you full?

Discussions that help men understand and practice inquiry better  

Fire

Calling bullshit, demanding authenticity: get on with it / you’re wandering / you’re avoiding something. Sooner or later your squad mates will tell you that you are blissfully unaware of something important that is blindingly obvious to them, that one of your most cherished beliefs is nonsense, or that you are just generally full of shit tonight.

Insisting the man be accountable for taking action and producing concrete results in his life, requiring him to think through what is going on and what he should do about it so that he becomes progressively more competent. There is much more to a Samurai Brotherhood men’s group than expressing your feelings, which is not an end in itself.

Net: establishing the right kind of safety for a man’s growth. This is not the kind of “safe space” found on university campuses today, complete with soothing music and puppies to play with in case someone says something you don’t want to hear. It is one in which a man is free to explore the truth of his life without fear of moral judgement yet knows that his brothers will tell him when they think he is missing something or fooling himself, thereby exposing himself and others to danger.

 

Creating the Disciplined Container

Commitments

Pay on time, arrive on time, complete on time, attend all meetings

Be accountable for producing results in your outer life

Learn and improve, make real changes in your life

Community

The Samurai Brotherhood is an organization and as such it contributes a great deal to the success of the squads and the men in them. Some of these contributions tangible, or at least visible, such as structure, processes, behavior, explicit values and standards, while others are intangible or implicit, such as the emotional quality of relationships, and unspoken shared values.

Founding values

Initiative, autonomy, exploration, effectiveness in the world, leadership

Captain’s role and Captain’s Council meetings

Accountability, guidance, development

Codes

14 Point Code of the Samurai Brotherhood

Captain’s Code

Discussion of the codes to get better at applying and living them

Community events

Retreats

Parties, joint events with Sisterhood

Respect

Staying present while a man while a man tells his truth

Loyalty to the for the practices and codes of the Samurai Brotherhood, to your squad and the men in it

Respect for masculinity and masculine values

Learning is a vital element of each of these disciplines.

No man joins a Samurai Brotherhood squad knowing how to do all the things listed above. No man ever completely masters them. In effect, the core disciplines are:

Learning to tell the truth,

Learning to listen for the truth, and

Learning to create the disciplined container. When a man stops learning through his participation in a squad he should move on, or at least step away for a quarter or more. If a squad stops learning it effectively dies and should reinvent itself or disband.

Concreteness and accuracy are essential warrior qualities.

I have focused here mainly on tangible, visible matters because they provide a good practical starting point for answering the question, “What are we doing that that produces the results we see?”

I’ve learned this from my consulting-coaching work with business executives. I am repeatedly struck by how often experienced business people literally do not know what they are doing that is producing the results they get. This is part of the human condition – we run on autopilot a lot – and so making the implicit explicit has been an essential part of helping my clients excel when they are stepping up as leaders, leading turnarounds or leading explosive growth.  

Using this model to guide your squad

Here are some guidelines for practicing the three core disciplines.

In general, treat this as an inquiry. Ask yourselves: do the specific actions we take, the processes we use, the judgement calls we make help us behave in accordance with these three disciplines?

More specifically, try things out, see what happens, and assess the outcomes by asking these questions:

Does this make us better at telling the truth about our lives?

Does this make us better at listening for each other’s truth?

Does this help us build a better container for telling and listening for the truth?  

Resist the urge to embellish. Keep this work simple and elegant. When you are thinking of adding something to improve your meetings respect this principle:

Anything you add must make your use of the core disciplines more effective. Otherwise let it go.

Caveat

Participating in a Brotherhood squad has therapeutic effects, but it is not a substitute for professional therapy. A man may need specialized help for matters his squad mates have no experience of nor training for helping with. Being on a squad may help him identify his need for other help, but squad members, and particularly captains, have to insist that the man go elsewhere for that help. The man can continue as a member of the squad unless his issues are damaging it.  

Participating in a Brotherhood squad also enables a man to develop what gives meaning to his life, but a Brotherhood squad is not a spiritual group. If a man wants to go down a spiritual path he must do that work separately from his participation in his squad.

To be clear, a man is free to do whatever personal work he wants outside of his involvement with the Samurai Brotherhood. This independence of thought and action is a fundamental value of the Samurai Brotherhood.

Brotherhood and respect

I believe the three core disciplines, as articulated above, provide us with a good model for understanding the transformative power of participating in a Samurai Brotherhood squad, but there is one more thing to include beyond the disciplines themselves.

This is the generative power that emerges when we apply the three core disciplines consistently for an extended time. I believe this generative power is brotherhood itself, an elusive dimension or quality of relating among men that emerges in a disciplined, purposeful squad.

Something about the container we create in the Samurai Brotherhood, the way we speak and listen, and the masculine qualities we are encouraged to bring to our conversations, generates brotherhood. This emergent quality, brotherhood, is what causes men to go beyond doing well to actually thriving.

I further believe that the emergence of brotherhood is highly sensitive to respect. Respect is the essential quality of brotherhood. The three core disciplines, as practiced in the Samurai Brotherhood, help men show a kind of healthy, masculine respect for each other that I have seldom seen outside of good quality men’s work.

Here are some of the characteristics of this kind of respect:

  • Highly competent focus on personal development accompanied by accountability for producing concrete results in the world
  • Support for masculinity and masculine values
  • Respectful conversation that provides the vehicle for constructively challenging each other, which leads to accountability, competence and success
  • Including women in ways that hold both men and women as responsible adults

We are defining a form of brotherhood that works for today’s men. It is emerging to replace the old cultural practices men followed in establishing boundaries and engaging with each other. I will explore the origins, requirements, benefits, and shadow of brotherhood in a separate article.

Trust, love and caring

Trust is earned, love develops, and while one man may experience your “caring” as a gift another may find it to be an imposition. All three are visible and necessary qualities of an established, successful men’s group, and you can bring intention to them. But they are not disciplines. Somewhat like happiness, they emerge during the course of life and are best approached indirectly. Human beings are born with the capacity to have these kinds of experiences and when we practice the disciplines we cultivate relationships and a container that help them emerge.

Explaining the Samurai Brotherhood to non-members

Whether you are inviting a man to an open house, or are talking with someone curious about the Brotherhood, the three core disciplines provide you with a simple, straightforward way to explain what we do in our squad meetings. You could say something like this:

Our work basically has three parts. Each man is learning to tell the truth about his life, the other men in his squad are learning to listen for that truth, and all of us are learning how to create a good container for those conversations. We find that this, on its own, improves our lives.  

The person you are speaking with may press you further, asking what you are doing that is specific to a men’s group. If that happens, you can refer to the Samurai Brotherhood Code, and refer again to our consistent observation that when men meet in our squads their lives start to better.

Summary / Conclusion / Next steps

I have been active in men’s workshops and men’s groups for 32 years and our work in the Samurai Brotherhood is the best I have seen so far. I want to know what makes it so, and I think by writing so I wrote this post to help me understand what we are doing that produces the results we get. I am publishing it in the hope that it will be useful to you as well.  

I have built a model that will help us think coherently about what we are doing that produces the results we have been getting. The model is based on 3 core disciplines, each of which is broken down into 3 major sub-disciplines:

Men speaking the Truth about their lives

Exploration / Experience / Boundaries

Men listening for the Truth

Presence / Inquiry / Fire

Men creating the disciplined container of a Samurai Brotherhood squad, within the larger container of the Brotherhood as a whole

Commitments / Community / Respect

The core disciplines provide structure, the sub-disciplines provide traction. Practicing these disciplines consistently over time generates brotherhood and brotherhood is what causes men to truly thrive.

In writing this I have tried to be as nuts and bolts as possible, to describe what’s already in place in the Brotherhood. Some of what’s in the Brotherhood comes from the 30-odd years of men’s work developed elsewhere, some was added by Phil when he founded the Brotherhood, and some by the men who joined him. The purpose here is to identify what works particularly well for men’s groups and it does not matter to me whether or not some it also works well in therapy, in spiritual development, in mixed groups or in woman’s groups. If it works, use it.

I intend this model to help us think through subtle matters, make better decisions, have more coherent discussions about the Brotherhood. If you do use it, please hold it loosely, not as dogma.    

In practical terms, consider asking these 3 questions:

How would this model make it easier for you to plan and lead meetings, improve the quality of your squad?

How would this model help us recognize what we have in common while also leaving captains and squads a free hand to develop their own distinctive squad sub-cultures and characters?

How would this model provide a framework for useful conversations about the culture, policies and public communication of the Samurai Brotherhood as it rapidly grows?

This model is one piece in a larger, longer conversation. You may have a different view of what the core disciplines are, or of how to act on them.

Let’s discuss this.

 

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1 Comment. Leave new

  • Avatar
    Stuart Loewen
    June 7, 2019 8:56 pm

    Thanks for this Doug. Seems to me you’ve articulated the core of what we do well.

    I also like your sidebars on not giving answers in feedback but asking open questions inviting insight on a “Share” from the one sharing. In self and squad observation I find good insightful questions of the one sharing to be far, far more effective in supporting that Brother than the self-centered answer provising.

    Thanks for contributing this

    Reply

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