Loved, Connected, Alive: an interview with Dan Mahle

As a Whidbey Institute staff member, Dan Mahle strives to coordinate programs which create connection, spark dialogue, and invite authenticity, compassion, and wholeness. I spoke with him recently about his work as facilitator/writer at Wholehearted Masculine, and the ways in which that informs and is informed by his work here.

Marnie: How were you first drawn into your wholehearted masculine work?

Dan: In 2013, I participated in a V-Day rally, Eve Ensler’s One Billion Rising Revolution, to end violence and abuse against women and girls. A number of women dear to me have experienced physical or sexual abuse or violence. Men, too, but especially women. That goes against what I feel is right. As a man, I’m asking the questions, “what is leading to this culture of violence? Why is this normalized? Why is this so common? What are men doing to build something different, to explore new masculinities which have power with rather than power over women and other men?” We need to work to affirm everyone’s basic humanity, worth, value, respect, and dignity, including our own. I was outraged to see this culture of misogyny, violence, and objectification of women and girls.

How has your personal experience of masculinity changed?

Back then, I was pissed off that I had gotten so numb. I didn’t cry for almost 10 years. I forgot how to cry. I didn’t even know how to go there, because of all the ”training” i had had in what it means to be a real man. I thought we needed to detach from our hearts, emotions, and bodies, except as machines in service to our minds. I was disconnected, I was angry, and I wanted to feel. That’s what life is about, and that’s what I’ve been exploring over the past three years, through men’s work and in other ways. I’m allowing myself to get vulnerable, to start feeling again, and to break through that cycle of numbness. I’m coming back into my heart and my body, reclaiming my life force, and no longer living like a robot.

How did you move into your facilitation and writing work?

A big part of my calling, my work in the world, is to share vulnerably and transparently about the lessons that I’m learning. It’s not just about me. In everything I’m learning I’m seeing that it’s not just my own personal problems—I’m exploring the challenges of humanity and the challenges of being a man. I’m seeing that all the learning and healing that I’m doing personally can be offered as a gift in service to other men and other people who are longing to walk a different path in the world.

Can you tell me about how you’re sharing this work?

In addition to writing, I’ve been piloting workshops in Seattle. Transcend the Man-Box, held last weekend, was an exploration of new masculinity for men and males, inviting us to step into our authentic power. I also co-facilitate a gender equity workshop, called Together We Rise: Exploring Gender Equity, Love, and Collective Liberation.It’s for people of all different gender expressions who want to look at what are we told that we need to be, based on the way we’re identified in terms of our gender, and contrasting that with what feels deeply authentic to us. Who are we really, beneath all of these expectations? How do we break down the barriers that keep us caught in these constructed gender norms? How do we embody something different that allows more of who we are to be expressed in the world? Questioning everything, choosing what we love, letting the rest fall away, and filling the new space with something beautiful, authentic, and whole.

Has this work informed how you show up here at the Whidbey Institute, or the inverse?

Yes, definitely. It all starts with the notion of intersubjectivity: it all comes back to Thomas Berry’s quote on “the universe [as] a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects.” What I see in the world is that we learn to objectify ourselves, to objectify one another, and to objectify the earth. That’s why we turn a blind eye to the incredible destruction and pain that we are each a part of perpetuating. When we shift our orientation to a place of intersubjectivity, where we have a reverence and a wonder for all life, curiosity for all people, compassion for ourselves, then a culture of healing, and of love, is possible.

My work at the Whidbey Institute deeply informs my workshops and my writing from that perspective. It’s all about humanizing ourselves and each other—about breaking down barriers to connection with self and with others,  and about taking healthy risks. Getting vulnerable, in conscious ways, allows us to push our edges, grow, and expand who we know ourselves to be. In that process, we relate to others, relate to Earth, and relate to all life with deeper compassion and interest. My work with Wholehearted Masculine informs my work at the Institute as well.

There’s something very fundamental about healing between the feminine and masculine, or healing between women and men. Inside of anything is everything. Our experiences as gendered beings in the world is at the root of both so much hurt and so much joy in our lives. It’s a place of extraordinary possibility for healing & reconciliation, for exploring new ways of being, and for finding wholeness in ourselves.

How does the work in a men’s group differ from a mixed-gender gathering?

I know that men’s work, alone, is not enough. Men gathering with men, women gathering with women, non gender-conforming individuals gathering in those spaces . . . it’s not enough. Ultimately we need to all gather together. But in order to do that, we need to gather in our own spaces as well. Some of what we each experience is so painful, so triggering, that we need to feel a level of safety in order to share our stories that may only come through separating out from the larger community. In that space of safety, I can practice being vulnerable. This not about me learning how to be a man, first and foremost. This is about me learning who I am as a human being. My learning about myself as a man is in service to that deeper exploration of myself as a human being. Men’s work and looking at masculine energy is a gateway into looking at the fullness of who I am and beginning to express that with more compassion, ease, and effortlessness.

How is gender tied to identity?

Exploring gender can be part of anyone’s personal development process, a way of understanding oneself more fully. There’s so much beauty to be discovered in the process of connecting deeply to those energies in ourselves and allowing them space to be expressed, moving through the fear of what will someone think. “Is this OK?” Everything tells us who we should be. Instead, we could try saying, “I have the opportunity to write a new story. All of the wisdom and all the ingredients are already in me. It’s just a matter of removing the barriers to my authentic expression.” It’s not a big mental task to figure out who we are and why we’re here. It’s just a matter of getting out of our own way and allowing ourselves the space to express all of what is within us, not just some of what is within us. We can learn to invite that for others as well . . . to hold space for authentic expression, no matter how “unusual” or “countercultural” or “normal” it might be. There’s a spectrum between expressing what’s expected of us and rebelling against it. Our true and authentic expression, of our gender identity, for instance, is somewhere along that spectrum for each of us in each moment. Rather than rushing to one side or the other, we need to integrate. Fitting in can be stifling, and rebelling and taking a stand for what you’re not can fall short of fully authentic as well.  Find yourself along that axis, in a place that feels deeply truthful to who you are. That is life work that is worth living for.

What’s shifted for you over these three years? 

I spend time trying to breathe and connect to my body. I’m working on not being in my head all the time. It’s really challenging. I’m learning about emotions: what I’m feeling, how feelings arise. Sometimes I can tell I’m feeling something but can’t name it, can’t express it. And then a moment comes when I can say, “feeling sad right now, wow!” Noticing, in itself, is really healing.

Men’s work has been really important—just sitting with a group of guys, and not just talking about sports or politics, but actually talking about our feelings . . . our stories of fear or of joy or of sadness or grief. Just having that visceral sense that we’re not alone, which really helps to counteract the cultural norm of the man as island who doesn’t need anybody. This intense individuality is what we’ve expected from men in our culture—from a lot of women, too, but especially from men. And guess what? It’s not healthy.

Men’s work is powerful because it allows us to see that we’re not alone in our pain or our struggle. We can trust other men. That’s a big one for a lot of people. We can learn from one another’s struggles and mistakes, and not have to make them all ourselves.We can realize that most of us really care for women and children and are deeply outraged by violence and harm, but think we’re alone in that. Through men’s work we come to recognize how vulnerably and imperfectly human we are. There’s a part of each of us who just wants to love and be loved, like any other being. To be courageous and strong enough to share that piece of ourselves? That’s beautiful. It’s incredible when that can happen. That’s the kind of work that I want to be a part of offering in my life.

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