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  • Nathan Riley, MD

Permission to Emote?

Updated: May 18




My wife and I returned to Burning Man in August of 2019, our second trip to Black Rock City (BRC). This time around, we were pregnant with our first child, which forced our agenda slightly askew. Instead of the typical Burner activities that first come to mind, late nights and long bike rides became formidable, which forced us to slow down. Through our volunteer work at Zendo, which provides peer support to individuals struggling with challenging psychedelic or other emotional experiences, we met a sex therapist who recommended that we attend a workshop appropriately named "Emote-A-Thon" and that would be taking place at the end of the week.


We showed up that morning on our bikes and headed inside a tent comprised of translucent red tapestries, the floors speckled with Persian rugs. Sixty individuals were permitted to participate in a journey to the depths of the human emotional experience, half of whom identified as masculine energy-dominant, the other thirty as feminine-energy dominant. The masculine hopefuls were culled through one simple qualification: are you willing to provide a safe space for the Feminine to emote? Say not a word - simply hold space while they take five minutes to tell you how they are feeling.


Seemed simple enough. I was a strong man, with abs of steel, and a beard fashioned in the likes of Odin himself. I split wood for fun. I just did a thousand push-ups...you probably heard me counting. I know how to change the oil in my car. I was dusty, dirty, stinky: I was a burner.


Holding space? Piece of cake.


One of the leaders of this session led the thirty individuals who identified as masculine energy-dominant - and also happened to identify as men - outside the tent, while the thirty individuals who identified as feminine energy-dominant - and also happened to identify as women - remained inside. This first phase was a priming phase, meant to encourage all sixty participants to channel the pain, jealousy, happiness, and anger that we are expected to repress in the "default world", the term that Burning Man enthusiasts use to refer to society outside of BRC.

In this priming session, thirty strong men were taught to approach the three hours to come

with "tender heart and fierce balls", an embrace conceptually illustrated through the Māori Haka. The Haka is often mistaken as a means to intimidate opponents on the rugby pitch, but this ceremonial dance permits a discharge of improvised emoting while holding the heart and spirit open to accepting the emotional challenges of the most engaging human experiences: war, love, birth, and death. The dance reflects the struggle between light and darkness. As I'm not Māori and did not grow up with this tradition, I can not speculate further on historical or cultural significance of this ceremonial dance, but when performed with gusto, the Haka feels simultaneously vulnerable and powerful.


We learned a piece of the Haka and were paired up with total strangers, men who took off time from their executive jobs to come to BRC. Men who were used to challenging themselves. Men who were overachievers, yet always looking to improve themselves. Men teeming with masculine energy who saw the value in their cosmic yin-and-yang symbiosis with the Feminine. Tender heart; fierce balls, indeed.


We took turns performing these movements inches from our partner's face. The recipient was instructed to maintain an open body position and to simply accept these emotions, which, for many men, are managed alone, bottled deep down inside. Men in many cultures are taught to be stoic, to suffer in silence, to not burden others with our feelings, and we have obeyed for generations, pushing trauma deep within in the name of appearing tough. On this morning, we all experienced the collective discharging of these emotions. The pain of losing our fathers. The pain of rejection in our youth. The pain of feeling inadequate as partners, sons, fathers, and friends. It was challenging and invigorating. Holding space is by no means easy, yet with it came genuine connection with my new band of brothers.


After these brief exercises, which left many men including yours truly sobbing like babies, we joined our feminine counterparts back inside the tent. To the tune of ethereal humming, thirty macho men filed in, silent and waiting. I recall a palpable heaviness in the air. This was going to be very uncomfortable. I realized that, in being trained to guard our vulnerabilities tooth and nail, a lifetime of man-training also lacked the modeling of holding space for the emotions of others.


Over the three hours to follow, there wasn't a dry eye in the room. Women were invited to step to the center from their seated positions to identify a man from the crowd (all standing) to hold space for them. At times, the men were forewarned that things might get physical. They might be punched, pushed, or kicked. This didn't phase the masculine warriors who were bred to be prepared physically and who had just been primed emotionally and spiritually to sit with another person's pain.


One woman grieved the death of her husband: "I was not ready for you to go".


Another woman expressed the pain she carries having been forced to raise a child on her own after she left the violent home that she shared with the child's alcoholic father.


Yet another woman raged out against the uncle and grandfather who had molested her throughout her adolescence. She pounded the grand with her fists, tearing her clothing to shreds as she kicked and punched the peaceful warriors that held space for her. As she knelt there, naked and screaming, these men crouched down with her and absorbed her pain.


I was called into the circle as a space holder by a woman who lives with a chronic disease that required her to have multiple surgeries and hospitalizations. She didn't know that I was a doctor in the default world, yet to her I represented the hospital system and society at large for their mistreatment of women. She spent her five minutes expressing to me the rage she carries forth as the result of being made to feel dirty, disgusting, and unworthy of love due to her disease. She raised her voice. She berated me. She forced me to feel the collective pain that women are forced to carry. Then she honored me before seating herself back among her sisters who braced their vulnerable companion, strengthening her resolve to open her heart to healing. I likewise honored her before blending back in with my brothers. I remember feeling their hands on my back, adding needed support to the physical musculature that I had spent years crafting but could not serve me in my own vulnerable state.


After three hours, many of us felt whole, maybe for the first time. Clearly the Feminine needed the Masculine; the Masculine needed the feminine. Indeed, one female participant, emoting to a man serving as a proxy for her rapist, argued on behalf of the benefit of a true balance of the Masculine and the Feminine. She pleaded for us to help her feel safe again in parking garages late at night, and, more importantly, to help her feel safe enough to open herself to the healing powers of the Masculine.


The session was a reckoning. Trauma exists for both the Masculine and the Feminine, and the only way out is to openly accept that our society has a great deal of healing on the horizon if we are to continue coexisting in this physical realm. We need to be confident and strong in our willingness to recognize trauma and sit with our collective pain. Men play an especially important role in meeting the needs of those who need healing. The Feminine needs strong individuals to stand up, firmly grounded in their truth. Individuals who can accept failure, who can admit wrongdoings, who are dedicated to changing things for the better. Individuals who are strong enough to hold space and empathize with the pain and trauma of others are required if we truly hope to heal from our past.


You have my permission to emote.

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