One of my favourite days of 2022 – celebrating the life and work of Robert Bly
As I reflect on this year, one of days I enjoyed most in 2022 was Monday August 1st. I was sitting under a beautiful oak tree with 24 other people, mostly men in their 60’s, but some partners and a daughter, on a beautiful day in the garden of Richard Olivier’s family home near Steyning in Sussex, feeling truly blessed.
We were celebrating the life of American poet and author Robert Bly, who died in November 2021 aged 94. Robert had led the way and by writing his own poetry and prose, but also translated many other poets into English. I was particularly impacted by the men’s retreats he co-led in the UK mainly in the early 90’s.
In the early 1990’s Robert’s prose book Iron John had become an international best-seller and he came to the UK many times to speak and run retreats for men to help us access our true mature masculinity. The image of wild men drumming in the woods is etched upon many people’s psyches.
Richard Olivier was one of the organisers of those events, and I attended many of them, which Robert co-ran with psychologist James Hillman, story tellers Michael Meade and Martine Prechtel and African shaman and teacher Malidoma Some.
I hosted Robert at the Alternatives programme at St. James’s in Piccadilly during one of his visits, introducing him in front of an audience of around 700 people. I think it was nerve wracking for us both.
As we talked about Robert at the gathering, we shared memories and talked about his gifts, insights, and how challenging he could be, a common theme seemed to emerge:
Robert had helped many of us remember we had a soul. He did this by sharing his own soul, his heart, his fierceness and vulnerabilities, and through his own poetry, and through stories and the poems he translated. I had been in a fairly successful but fairly soulless corporate career in IT sales and marketing, and had been trying to dismiss my own longing for soul and deeper meaning in life than money and success. The work Robert facilitated helped me validate the necessity for meaning through engagement with my own soul.
I remember the first time I heard him recite Clay Jug by Kabir, my spine tingled, it had a massive impact on me:
“Inside this clay jug there are canyons and pine mountains,
and the maker of canyons and pine mountains!
All seven oceans are inside, and hundreds of millions of stars.
The acid that tests gold is there, and the one who judges jewels.
And the music from the strings no one touches,
and the source of all water.
If you want the truth, I will tell you the truth:
Friend, listen: the God whom I love is inside.”
—Kabir (translated by Robert Bly)
I had grown up Methodist with a belief in an external, remote God. When I heard those words, “The God whom I love is inside,” something viscerally awoke in me. It seemed kind of heretical to claim God could be within me, but it was also immensely exciting.
One of my powerful memories of the retreats was an occasion when Robert, Michael and James set up a hut one evening, and then those of us attending took it turn to go into the hut. The “Elders”, then spent a few moments giving each of us a blessing. This validation of our innate and unconditional worth, of who we were, was powerful for me. So many of us men believe our worth and value has to earned, achieved and deserved.
Several of us remarked how pivotal Robert and those events had been to us. Robert had either awakened or reawakened a spark in so many of us and that spark had grown into finding and sharing our gifts more widely.
One of my favourites books is The Little Book On The Human Shadow by Robert, a wonderfully accessible understanding idea of the human shadow, which are the disowned aspects of ourselves that can ruin our lives and the lives of those around us when we don’t acknowledge them and integrate them. Robert embodied and encouraged us to embody a spirituality based on accepting our humanness, our shadow and our wounds, not just staring at the light, but integrating the darkness in us too. He helped us become more aware of, to understand and learn how to navigate our deepest feelings, with room in our hearts for the pains and the joys of existence.
Looking around the circle, many of us had gone on to blossom and succeed: as actors, speakers, authors, theatre directors, therapists, musicians, coaches and guides, and founders of projects to help troubled youth.
Then someone made a remark that shook many of us. He said, “Do you realise that thirty years ago, Robert was the age that we are now when he was our inspiration, father figure and mentor? We are now the Elders. How shall we handle that?”
There was a new conversation emerging, one that wanted to exist and be had and will be carried on beyond that particular day.
I left the day full and grateful and curious to explore how else I might be a mature and wiser elder, and a source of inspiration in this often-parched world, and how we might do that together.
Thank you, Robert Bly, for being a wise elder, an inspiration and an awakener to me, and for you generously sharing your gifts with the world and awakening the gifts within so many other people.