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Men's Sacred Circles: What are they and why do we need them?

Kirk Akahoshi is psychotherapist, life coach, public speaker and founder of the Men's Collective. In this interview, Kirk shares more about his journey, leading him to the work he's doing now, including hosting a Men's Sacred Circle at The Center in San Francisco. He also shines a light on the issue of masculinity in America and what men can do to embrace and redefine their unique role in the world.

Men's Sacred Circles: What are they and why do we need them?

After graduating with a social sciences major and feeling lost on where to go next, Kirk quickly launched himself into a plethora of job opportunities, both in America and abroad. From teaching English in Japan to selling women's shoes at Macy's in San Francisco to breaking up fights at a juvenile hall residence facility, Kirk has had innumerable life experiences, which built up his empathy storehouses and helped him understand the unique situation his clients may face. Meanwhile, through the challenges and successes Kirk faced, he has learned more about what it means to be a man in the world today.

Over the years, Kirk has spent significant time exploring his identity - both as a man and as a Japanese American. Growing up in the 80s, Asian men were often portrayed as effeminate and non-sexual with accents (i.e. Long Duck Dong in Sixteen Candles, Mr. Miyagi in Karate Kid, the movie Gung Ho). His three years working and living in Japan in his early twenties helped him embrace parts of himself that had yet remained hidden. His journey towards understanding his Japanese heritage was also catalyst to help understand his own masculinity.


You mention that it was a vision quest which ultimately led you to New York. Can you describe what a vision quest is and what led you to take that step?

At first, I didn't have enough money to move to New York. So I was at a job doing cold calling (and sucking at it) when I said to my mom "I know I'm going to be let go soon."

She was so great. She said to me, "Why don't you do another vision quest?"

If you're not familiar with a vision quest, it's a Native American rite of passage. In modern times, it can be a venerable process to help a person figure out their next steps in life. Unfortunately, the applications were already closed for the next one available. But the person on the phone said to me, "You sound really enthusiastic. If you get your application in today, we'll look at it."

The next day, I went into work and my manager pulled me aside and said "We have to let you go." However it turns out the money I got for the last week and and a half of work was, serendipitously, the same amount of what I needed for my vision quest.

After 10 days in Death Valley, with four days of fasting and solitude, I got the direction I needed-to finish my vision quest in New York.

What was the ultimate turning point for you in your career?

I landed a job working as a research assistant for NYU Pediatric Infectious Diseases. Again, I was passionate about it, and it let me live in New York. But I also found that everyone around me - whether it was friends, colleagues or acquaintances - would tell me things they had NEVER told anyone else. So, that was the turning point: I was done traveling and soul searching and knew that it was time for me to pursue psychology on a professional level.

I then applied to a small private graduate school in Palo Alto, which started my trajectory in becoming a therapist and life coach. And to think it all started out with with a quarter life crisis. Now, I"m helping people on their journey because I understand how long it can take to figure things out.

My experiences help me relate to my clients. I know what it's like to be fired. I know what it's like to work part-time for little money. I know what it's like to climb the ladder while still believing, "There is something special out there for me."

Can you delve into the work you do surrounding masculinity?

Several years ago, I went to a men's retreat in Virginia which included Native American council work. There were about 40 guys sitting in a circle, being really vulnerable and expressing themselves in a way I had never seen before.

I remember thinking to myself right then and there, "I haven't seen his happen on this large of a scale in California. That's what I want to do."

So I set out to create my own circle utilizing Native American council work, grounding it within my experience and knowledge of group therapy, and weaving in some of my own style. While I do circles for both men and women, my focus has shifted towards men because I believe there's a lack of this type of connecting amongst men.

Imagine someone has never been to a sacred circle. Can you describe what it might look or feel like to them?

First, we sit in a circle with a table in the middle, and a speaking stick. I ask people to bring a sacred object - anything that is meaningful to them. It can be jewelry, a photo, family heirloom, or any item that has personal significance. We set that object on the table to create an altar, which immediately adds a deeper level of intimacy and engagement.

Then, I discuss the guidelines: Everyone speaks one at a time, popcorn style. When you're moved to speak, you pick up the stick and speak. Also, I invite the guys to speak something truthful, not planned. The point is to be able to say one's truth and be seen and heard without interruption or correction. Just to be there and do that is potent enough.


Men's Sacred Circles: What are they and why do we need them?

What is the added benefit of the open circle format compared to a planned presentation?

I have done planned topics before. But with this type of circle, there is no fixing, no debating, no correcting, no saving and no helping. This does something very different for men. You see, men are fixers. So, if you can't fix, you have to listen differently. It changes the whole dynamic.

I have guys come up after the circle and tell me, "It was so nice to just say what I needed to say." or "I just wanted to be heard." It creates this really powerful experience for everyone. Just listening can have a healing, powerful effect all on its own. I've also been really blessed to see the vulnerable issues guys bring up with people they have NEVER met before. Issues such as understanding their own sexuality, getting fired, going through a divorce or experiencing a recent death.


What IS masculinity in 2019? And why do you think we have such a hard time understanding the topic?

During the feminist movement of the 70s and 80s, the poet Robert Bly wrote a book on masculinity called Iron John: A Book About Men.

What I learned from Bly is that men lost a lot of their understanding of masculinity when fathers started leaving the house to go to work. It was a father loss.

Before that time, when fathers worked in the home, their sons would automatically pick up what it meant to be a man. They would see it in front of them every day. However, when the father was gone from the home, the connection was lost. And so was the understanding of manhood and masculinity.

The father was just a sliver of the man he was before. He might have been tired or grumpy. Or, the son just didn't see enough of what he did every day. Also, if there was a bad relationship between father and mother, the boy may be subjected to his mother's negative view of the father and be praised for traits that were opposite of his father.

In the media, men have historically been portrayed showing very little emotions except for anger. Therefore, there haven't been a lot of role models for the diverse expressions of being a man. One of the purposes of the men's circle is to expose men to the variety of masculinity.

How do you encourage men in your circles to share what they learned? Can this understanding of masculinity be "spread" so to speak?

Absolutely. I'm encouraging them to just dip their toe in. Put out a small vulnerable conversation here and there and see how their friends are going to take it. Since there have been hundreds of guys who have come to my circles, I know the desire is out there.

But because our culture does not allow or encourage male vulnerability, we just don't have these conversations. Instead, men hide their insecurities. They replace them with and bravado, confidence or "this is what you do" kind of advice giving.

We become fixers because we can't deal with others having problems. We have a very limited view of masculinity today. So, I'm trying to expose that and bring out more of what it really is.