My tent, illuminated against an ethereal sky

In late September, nearly thirty men attended the annual Manifest East Camp at Ashlin Woods, Cambridgeshire. It was my second time attending the camp. Whereas, for the initial one I had felt genuine fear doing something so outside of my previous experience, returning was much easier. For one thing, it was a chance to resume contact with some of the friends I had made at last year’s camp. I was also, of course, more familiar with the site and the experience. It also helped that this year I had invested in a Bell Tent in which I could stand up in (I’m simply too old to be crawling about in a tiny tunnel of a tent).

Sunstar at Ashlin Woods

The weather was kind to us which always helps – but even when it rained heavily one evening, that was fine… the petrichor scent of the damp earth was wonderful – and, after all, we don’t melt or rust in the rain. I’m an urban person, so the pitch black nights and star-filled skies at the camp are always a revelation. One morning I took the opportunity to wake early and witness the sun rising to the east of the woods. I climbed up one of the old elm trees at the boundary of the woods, overlooking fields, and watched in a state of silent stillness as the shadows began to stretch in the rising golden light of the day. Perched on my branch, I shut my eyes and listened to the stirrings of nature within the woods. As well as listening to the world waking up, I was able to feel a glow of genuine peace within. Sometimes, removing ourselves from the day-to-day-ness of things can give space to journey inwardly.

At camp, I also love the opportunity to gather every morning for ‘Council’. This is where we sit for an hour in a circle with a ‘Talking Stick’ in the middle. There is no pressure or obligation to speak, but when moved to share some thoughts, the ‘speaker’ takes the stick from the centre and holds it whilst talking, addressing the centre of the circle, not any one individual. What is said within the circle, stays within the circle. Being a secular rationalist since I was eight years old I’m not someone who has embraced or encountered ‘ritual’ during my previous life experience. Indeed, the younger, less open-minded me, would’ve dismissed such things as Council as, ‘a load of old!!!’. However, talking within a circle governed by these agreements really does change the ‘conversation’. In my experience, it seems to encourage genuine listening and helps to create a setting where we feel empowered to be our authentic selves. It is a space away from the ‘day-to-day’ where I certainly found myself able to reflect on some things that really matter. We are, if we wish, welcome to be silent for the duration. What I have witnessed within these circles is a lot of beauty. I’m a ‘woke’ bloke who cries, cares, fails, fears, Loves, laughs, hurts, nurtures, creates – and I’m proud to be so. I know that I’m not alone in this and I see strength in a circle where men reveal their true complex being. We are also, if we wish, welcome to be silent for the duration. I want to live within an identity that expresses who I genuinely am – not some toxic suit of armour (like I was once trapped within as an outwardly fierce, but inwardly ‘lost’, teenager).

Food for thought… Space to grow

Built into the camp are lots of opportunities for men to share their skills and learn and try new things. For instance, I had a go at wood whittling for the first time; did some Trauma-Release Exercise and attended a ‘Death Cafe’ where we discussed grief, loss and gratitude. I also performed some of my poetry, watched a shaman dancing and laughed like a drain on many occasions. On the final full day I attended a guided visualisation meditation led by Josh, who was the youngest person in attendance. I haven’t known Josh long, but I was aware he has led these sessions before and I wanted to experience it myself. I’m so glad I did as he took us on a beautiful walk in our mind’s eye, where. among other things, we sat down for some warm soup (after which, of my own volition, I imagined a piece of the finest dark chocolate melting slowly in my mouth). Following the session, I was talking to Paul – another participant in this lush experience – and we were astonished to find were had both imagined the same flavoured soup and could even identify the specific ingredients… food for thought!

These are just a few impressions from Manifest. I’m so glad I felt the fear and did it anyway last year. The experience of the camp has been so key to me enhancing my growth mindset. If you are potentially interested in attending the camp next year and have any questions, please contact my colleague Andy Wood, who is the main organiser for this wonderful gathering. His email is andy@menscraft.org.uk

Author: Colin Howey – 2nd Nov 2023