By Andy Jukes, Sacred Fire Shropshire
Sacred Fire Community Men’s Gatherings (Ukilái) are held once or twice a year, generally in a majestic, rugged and relatively remote setting. In this post, community member Andy Jukes writes about his experience at the March 2016 Ukilái held in Scotland. We hope Andy’s heartfelt share will inspire others to join future Men’s Retreats, as well as Men’s Fires when available in their region. Both offer critical support as part of Lifecycle Living–the natural, community-supported human journey from infancy to elderhood.
“There are no Scottish women. All the women you will see in Scotland have been imported. There are no indigenous Scottish women left. That is why Scottish men wear kilts — to remind them of the time when they had their own women. The trouble was the unique way in which the Scottish woman reproduced — you’ve heard of the scotch egg ….”
Why I chose to introduce myself to the American members of our party with such a ridiculous flight of fancy is a mystery. We were only twenty minutes into our journey together. We were traveling north out of Glasgow along the banks of Loch Lomond, which are indeed most “bonny,” heading for a little village on the shore of Loch Rannoch, which is very bonny too.
The four British members of the group had been on the road since early morning. We picked up the American threesome shortly after lunch. The afternoon sun was dipping in a clear blue sky and we were not going to reach our destination until early evening. So we had a few hours in which to start to get to know each other. Something compelled me to make a deadpan mistruth my first contribution to the group dynamic. I guess that I wanted to introduce an element of humour. After all, here we were, six men and a Sacred Fire Community elder and shaman crammed together in a minibus on our way to Ukilái, a gathering for men. I, for one, had no real idea what we were letting ourselves in for, but expectations were high. It could easily all prove be a bit intense. Being a man, I felt a need to lighten the mood so I offered my joke.
I need not have worried. The days that followed, guided by don David Wiley, our attending elder, were both intense and full of jokes and laughter. Light and heavy, all at the same time. I should have known as much. I am not unfamiliar with the Sacred Fire Community. I attend a local fire in Church Stretton, Shopshire, England when I can. I’ve been to healing camps and Grandfather Fires. I have begun the process of training to be a Firekeeper and am starting to get a handle on how Fire works. I know that Fire loves a good joke. And that Fire can be pretty intense too. I can’t give away a lot of what we did as it is part of the privacy that we agree to for the work. The agenda changes to fit the needs of particular group anyway. I can share the following elements that were central to my personal experience.
First and foremost, the group. We were a disparate bunch of individuals. Our ages ranged from the early thirties to seventy years old. We came from a range of socio-economic backgrounds and had hugely varying life experiences. We had been Buddhists, Taoists, Pagans, fathers, sons, geeks, foodies, druggies, thieves, businessmen, carpenters, teachers…I could go on and on. About all we had in common was that we were all men. And we were not always sure what that meant either. But I can honestly say that I have not enjoyed spending time with a group so much for a long time. It was a joy to be in the company of these fellows for five days although I am not normally much of a man’s man. I tend to prefer the company of women. Most of my life my closest friends have been female. So it was a surprise to me to feel so comfortable in an exclusively male environment. This was because there was a willingness to be honest and open and to admit weakness. There was an absence of male bravado. It was so refreshing to be able to be free to be broken, to admit to mistakes, to let go of pretending to be perfect. And to feel supported in doing so. This is greatly different from the more usual male competitiveness and pressure to prove oneself that seems to prevail in our societies. Thank you, Ukilái group.
Secondly, the environment we were in was selected particularly for our work together. Loch Rannoch and the surrounding hills are stunningly beautiful. Each day began with a 7 am hike around the loch. In silence. Just walking. For an hour. I loved that hour. In sunlight, mist and snow. We had a variety of weather–all perfect for what we needed. And though we spent an equal amount of time indoors, that early morning hike meant that we were always very conscious of the natural world. The noisy cock pheasant that lived in the grounds of the ex-schoolhouse that was our base made sure that we did not forget he was there. Deer regularly joined us on our walks outside. And overseeing it all was the fairy mountain, Schiehallion, a mighty cone of rock on whose flanks we sat in silent contemplation, whipped by icy winds, dumbstruck by the majesty of the place. Thank you, mountain.
We also did a lot of stuff that I wasn’t expecting. Okay, there was the normal request to set aside mobile phones for the duration. A media fast: I was used to that. Expected it. I didn’t expect that David would at times introduce movie media to illustrate issues, and that we therefore spent an evening watching a Brad Pitt movie. Another night we watched the best movie about a man in a car that I have ever seen. A third night featured a Tom Cruise sci-fi blockbuster. Turns out that Grandfather is a film buff. Who’d have guessed? And who’d have guessed that those films are still playing through my mind every day and that I am still drawing lessons from them? Thank you, Brad & Tom.
We also cooked, listened to music, lit fires, devised ways to make coffee without a coffee machine, went for walks, talked and listened. We did an awful lot of stuff. The days were very full. There was a lot of activity.
What we did not do was a lot of reflection or soul searching. There was an absence of navel gazing. We just got on and did stuff. Very male. Very effective. Just do stuff and leave time for the lessons to sink in. Don’t give too much time for the mind to get hold of things and start dissecting and doubting. Just do stuff and let the heart do the learning.
I was very aware that it takes an awful lot of skill to lead a course like that. To have the presence to hold the group, judge what they need next, keep feeding them the right thing at the right moment, keep up the intensity yet–at the same time–keep it light. We were fortunate to be in the care of a master. He held us all. Made us feel safe. Safe enough so that he could consistently challenge us. Push our boundaries. Expand our expectations. Thank you, David.
But of course, despite our best efforts, mind has a way of sneaking in, grabbing hold of a situation and tearing it apart with doubts. I recall a moment during our final morning hike when my mind got a hold: “What if this is all just bullshit? What if David is just a con man? What if you have just wasted a lot of time and money that you can ill afford? How have you been taken in by all this? Are you out of your mind?”
And then the cool breeze off the loch on my face, the warm sun on my back, the chatter of the birds in my ears and the green of the lichen hanging in the trees allowed me to get out of my mind and to feel the truth in my heart: these few days had been amazing. They had changed everything. And will continue to do so. They are priceless. If you have an opportunity to attend an Ukilái Men’s Gathering, I urge you to do so. I hope to see you there!
Andy Jukes is a Firekeeper in Training, and served as master of ceremonies at the UK Grandfather Fire in 2016. He lives in the beautiful countryside of Shropshire, a county which lies on the border between England and Wales and where little is what it first appears to be. He teaches t’ai chi and walks his dog.