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Fire in the Belly – Sam Keen

August 17, 2015

FITBSam Keen was writing as he explored his identity at the age of 40. It seems we are always discovering who we are.

The author was brought up within the Southern fundamentalist-Christian tradition, which was a very monolithic culture with an unbroken mythology. So “I grew up as a “believer.” But there was one fly in the ointment: I had a very questioning mind. The more questions I asked, the more I disturbed people around me. The questions that disturbed people the most became the ones I most wanted to answer.” He says of fire in the Belly – it was an effort to look at gender and the problems that confront men in this society. It was an attempt to chronicle the spiritual — or, at least, the psychological — path that men have to travel to get rid of some of the disastrous ideas and feelings that go with being a man today. My society and my parents gave me a certain myth of maleness that I imbibed unconsciously from the time I was born. Now I have to demythologize that; I have to dig up that unconscious conditioning and decide how much of it is congruent with who I think I am, and how much of it has to be thrown away. I think a good therapist can help with that. As a matter of fact, a good therapist did help me. But there are some things that are part of the human condition, whether we are male or female. When we deal with spirituality, for instance, we’re dealing with something that doesn’t involve gender.

And that it grew out of your long-term experience in a men’s group. We’ve been getting together every Wednesday night for more than twenty years. It’s more than just a men’s group; it’s a community, in the sense that we’re relating to each other on a continuing basis. What’s most important is that we just show up for each other. Sometimes it’s an evening of complete hilarity, or it can be very serious. It’s not even that we all like each other. There are people in the group I wouldn’t particularly be with for an evening. But there is something valuable that happens when people just show up for each other. Our men’s group started out because two or three of us were having trouble with the women we were relating to (or, rather, not relating to). A few of us got together and each invited someone else, and pretty soon we had a group of eight or ten men. Over the years, we began to experience an intimacy with each other. We realized that there were a lot of things we had demanded of women, in terms of understanding us, that they couldn’t give, but that other men could give. And as we began to explore the kind of intimacy that friendship gave us, we found it relieved a lot of the pressure on our relationships with women. There are all kinds of intimacies that we need; sexual intimacy is only one. When we load too much onto it, we can destroy it.

Iron John represented a sort of backlash from feminism. This book is one of many in that time, though it feels somewhat dated now – that is not to say that there isn’t much that is good in it. (Sam Keen became known as a leader of the men’s movement. Men like Keen and poet Robert Bly offered far-ranging criticisms of the path to manhood in contemporary society, arguing that technology had driven men far from home to work, and that politics (and early iterations of political correctness) had made men, in Bly’s phrase, “unable to lift their swords.” Feminism, often offered as a solution, simply wasn’t effective in harnessing wild young male energy.

Yet even while preaching the virtues of manhood, Keen never repaired the breach with his own son. Gifford would watch his father mesmerize an audience at sold-out lectures, amazed that his father could connect with each person individually but could not give the same kind of attention to him. The struggle between the two men eventually came to a head during an argument outside a restaurant. Attempting reconciliation, Sam and Gif both wrote accounts of their personal histories and how those histories might have affected the other. To their credit, both men write with absolute honesty. Sam Keen does not excuse his bad behaviour. Gifford admits to his own mistakes, although he is clearly the victim of his father’s narcissism. The very act of writing these things has a healing affect: What son would not be moved by an account of how his father decided on what to name him, for example.)

The problem – he looks at a thesaurus: Men = army, battallion, brigade, force, gang, power, soldiers, troups – compiler could only think of men together in these terms. They sacrifice their individuality for sake of violence and domination. Why not brotherhood, guild, fraternity, friends, team members, comrades?

Learning to be a man – we are devoid of manly attention – before WW1, men spent 4 hours daily with their sons, before WW2 2 hours, after it, 20 mins

Tribal initiation involved listening to lots of stories about heroes. Now it’s repressed and perverted

Instead of initation into a tribe and rugged mountains, virgin forests, mountain lions, our youth is into drugs, gang membership. A New York newspaper described young men who went raping women joggers and beating other youths as ‘Wilding’. Also getting driving license, fast car racing, getting girl

Now we repress our fighting instincts and disown them. We call contras in Central America fighters against communism instead of confessing our desire to dominate. We call nuclear weapon a peacemaker.

Repression leads to fight and flight instincts, clogging adrenalin in arteries, stress, we are cut off from neck down and die from heart attacks.

Many men said despite horrors in wartime that was the only time they felt really alive.

Only 3% live off soil to feed other 97% – cut off.

The symbol of power is a chair – indoors, up a high rise block. Success equals drab clothes – grey suits

The army protects us so we prove self in sexual conquest – locker room talks never boast of how much pleasure they gave women but of how quick she was seduced &c. ‘Make love’ is a productivity language

We need to change.

A Zen comment on Christianity: ‘God against man, man against man, man against woman, man against nature. Very strange religion.

The two most important questions are : Where am I going? Who is going with me? We get them the wrong way round.

We need to wake up to who we are. This will mean living with questions – better than a triple heart bypass and no self-doubt.

Animals act without question, humans hesitate and think.

Boys are told not to cry so men must learn to weep and lose emotional numbness and remoteness from feelings. We need to regain the sense of touch- real men do not touch, hence fear of gays yet enjoyment of the rugby scrum. Vietnam men said they feared being called coward more than death.

We need to be prodigal son and go home. Go further, deeper inward and realise when we get nearer the core just how much of what we thought was our self is really other people’s masks.

We need solitude to do this and it requires the same commitment as any other relationship.

Far from being threats to family life, gays are needed to enhance it. At present, men so scared of buddy-ness that they fall in love with woman who represents their suppressed anima and cling to her in a claustrophobic relationship. She is more his mother than partner.

The body needs to change – deep breathing, massage. Have a ehicle for your passion – one cause, e.g. CND, not lots of committees. Express feelings. Practice art of loving (even masturbation) Join a men’s group and go camping &c.

Most radical – there is no such thing as masculinity

At the end Keen offers “Travel Tips for Pilgrims” for those who want to take an inventory of their personal story alone or in the company of friends. There are questions, exercises, and projects on recovering your personal history of manhood; warfare, conquest and competition; power and other values; work, money and vocation; sex, love and intimacy; feelings and emotions; changing the male body; cultivating solitude; ritual


A man must go on a quest to discover the sacred fire in the sanctuary of his own belly. To ignite the flame in his heart, to fuel the blaze in the hearth, to rekindle his ardor for the earth.

expectations, initiation, values, tradition

At some point you must go on a quest to find out what is important to you, who you are- independent of all outside influences.

I am not happy with who I have been up to now. eg: stealing, lying, cheating, swearing, selfishness, using people

what is wrong with me? 2) What if I were healed, actualized, whole? (living in integrity & up to my potential) 3) how do I get there

Freud: A negation is as good as an affirmation… hmmm

Life is not about scoring with women. (at least not evolved life)

1) Where am I going 2) Who will go with me

Unconscious bonding to women- we try to conquer, control, them. We react to them because we are vulnerable to them. So much of our identity comes from them. Out of touch with own feelings when in reactive mode.

The chains that bind most tightly are the invisible ones & those we refuse to acknowledge (ie we are in denial)

So we must separate from women.

Only after leaving can you return and re-unite.

Baby gets feedback from mom & dad. Smile= I am good. Frown = bad. ROM software.

Chap 1

Role model of real man was play sports, drink a lot of beer, screw a lot of girls, make a lot of money.

Every serious thinker must ask 3 questions: 1) What is wrong with us 2) What would we be like if nothing was holding us back, if we maximized our potential 3) How do we move towards that condition?

Old concept of “manhood” is changing. Now we are expected to be sensitive, successful businessmen, good lovers, good fathers. But we are criticized for being too controlling, too immature, too insecure, too horny, etc.

We can no longer base our self-esteem on what others (such as our parents & society) want us to be. We must find out for each of our selves what makes us happy, satisfied, what gives us meaning in life. We must do this apart from our relationship to women. Only after we “find ourselves” & our true mission in life can we have a good relationship with a woman.**


In Introduction (first 2 chapters)– Man cannot find himself without separating from women.

In Rites of Manhood–The new traditional rites of men: war, work, and sex alienate and emotionally impoverish men.

In Taking Measure of Man–Our roles are defined by our vocations and how we fit into the world. Example: I am an accountant, or I am a police officer, or I am a professor.

In A Primer for Now and Future Heroes–finding our heroic virtues

In Men and Women Coming Together–Reconciliation of m&w

“Dad, where have you been, I never knew you.”

Chap 2

“There are two questions everyman must ask. The first is where I going. The second is who will go with me. If you ever get those in the wrong order, you are in trouble.”

Remember the 4 or 5 f’s? find ’em, feel em, f’ em & forget ’em

It is a woman’s world. Basically, almost everything we are taught to do is for the benefit of a woman, whether our mother or our girlfriend, etc. We spent the vast majority of our time as infants and children with our mothers. [likely that our earliest memories are of time with our mother. Me-laying with head on her ankle.]

We spend all our energy, time and $$ trying to “control, avoid, conquer, screw, and demean women because we are so vulnerable to them and the mysterious power they have over us.

“The average man spends a lifetime denying, defending against, trying to control, and reacting to the power of women.

She is the judge that pronounces us guilty or innocent (or saved). She warms us, comforts us or rejects us. She has mythic power over us. p 15

We need to look at women individually, not as members of a class.

In the first stage of our relationship with women we look at them as either virgins or whores. In the second stage we must leave them and find & live in the man’s world. In the third stage we can reunite.

We spend the vast majority of our time with the mother when we are young. Mothers are elevated to an unreal, goddess like status in our eyes.

While young if our mother smiles, we feel loved and good. If she is angry or frowns, we feel shitty. So we spend all our lives trying to get a positive reaction from women. We react to them.

Her body is our first information system. If she is warm and sensuous and loves to hold us, we learn that the world is warm and trustworthy and safe. If she is tense and unhappy (or strikes us) we learn that the world is fearful and filled with nameless dangers.

“Imagine that long ago your mother wrote and inserted the software disk the pre-programmed your life. She etched the script for your life, inserted a philosophy-of-life program, on the blank pages of your mind. This set of instructions remains in the archaic layers of your psyche and continues to shape your perceptions and feelings well into adulthood. The language in which she wrote is as cryptic and difficult to decipher as ancient hieroglyphics, and yet to break the spell she has woven you must learn to decipher these early messages and bring the wordless information and misinformation into the light of consciousness.”

We will perform for all women as we did for our mothers, fearing displeasure, courting approval.

Freud said first major crisis in a boy’s life was severing his attachment to his mother and identifying with his father.

He estimates that prior to WWI men spent 4 hours a day with children, now it is 20 minutes.

“The Don Juan male constantly tries to prove his potency by seduction and conquest. The more violent man who is obsessed with pornography or rape is compelled to demean and take revenge of women in order to deny her power over him.”

Either way, of course they are still running our lives. Since the more we feel the need to fight something the more power we feel it has over us.

Or we find them irresistible in a mystical, magical way. We need them for our inspiration our motivation, our self-worth.

We can’t be comfortable in intimacy with women because we have never been comfortable in being distant from them.

We would and do sell our souls for her approval.

To become a man, a son must first become a prodigal, leave home and travel solo into a far country.

To love a woman we must first leave women behind. i.e. we must first find the answer to the question of where are we going.

Chap 3

Ancient Cultures had 1) Separation, 2) Initiation 3) Reincorporation

Separation: Breaking bond between mother/son. Wound. (To remind them they belong to the tribe. Are not individuals.) Warlike act to prove courage, strength. Learns to deny his feminine side.

Initiation: Learn old myths, stories, traditions, chants, ceremonies, dances, trades. Spiritual, technical, social skills.

Reincorporation: Often given a badge, some piece of clothing, a sword. Then they are a “man”. They can marry, father, fight, work.

Good part was that people had a sense of identity, certainty, security. Bad news was loss of individuality, freedom. There was no adolescence. No carefree time. Adolescence is a modern invention.

Good also was that it was stable. Bad was that it did not allow for adjustment to change. Things do change and we must adapt. To adapt we must be open to learn new ways. He says that our current lack of models, tradition and customs, may actually be the key to our strength. (Since we are forced to/able to examine our lives and make our own determination of what is called for)

I see even more clearly how too much tradition and culture can be so counter productive. How difficult it is to change the things which are unhealthy, like blind obedience to rules and religion.]

Loss of community. Male loyalty has shifted from tribe, community to the corporation, to their profession. Fathers are at work, at the bar, bowling or playing golf. (sph) Grandfathers (if alive as we get older before having children) are retired in retirement communities.

Every recent generation tries redefine itself. Yet many of the most basic assumptions remain intact. For example: the myth that all people are created equal; The two party system; democracy; “Justice” system; Educational system.

“The consensus reality is as invisible to us as water is to a fish”

“The task of any individual who wants to be free is to demythologize and demystify the authority or myth that has unconsciously informed his or her life. We gain personal authority and find our unique sense of self only when we learn to distinguish between our own story–our autobiographical truths–and the official myths that have previously governed our minds, feelings and actions. This begins when we ask: “What story have I been living? What myth has captivated me?” It ends only when we tell our own story, and authorize our own life rather than accept the official view of things.”

importance of knowing own feelings. Must know selves intimately to shatter myths about what is best for us]

Chap 4.

The army will make a man out of you. Military teaches us to obey first above all else. (Just like religion) To be tough. Not to be a wuss, pussy. To be willing to die for your country. To follow orders. To solve problems by physical violence.

The psyche, per Freud, is like a miniature nation that is organized to guard against threats real or imagined.

The weapons are the defense mechanisms which naturally lead us to deny, repress unpleasant realities out of our consciousness.

They work best when they censor awareness of the actual situation of the self. IE major denial! They foster illusions and keep unpleasant realities out of consciousness.

Here are Freud’s defense mechanisms:

Repression: Exclusion of a painful idea and its associated feelings from consciousness

Isolation: Splitting off of appropriate feelings from ideas. (like alienation)

Reaction formation: Replacing an unacceptable drive with its opposite.

Displacement: Directing an unacceptable wish away from its original to a less threatening object

Projection: Attributing an unacceptable idea to someone else

Denial: Stubbornly trying to remain unaware of a painful reality

Rationalization: Using reason to disguise one’s unconscious motives. p 41

It is not aggression that causes heart attacks. It is aggression mixed with hostility. We have a hard time separating aggression and anger. p 42

[aggression is primary, anger is secondary]

“Warrior psyche”/mentality–

Asks how rather than why.

-Has little time for contemplation, appreciation, and enjoyment. It is emphasizes discipline, strategy and how to win.

We feel alive when we are fighting something/someone.

Negative mentality. Fear. Paranoid.

Black/white thinking. For us or against us. Kill or be killed. “The more intense the conflict the more we oversimplify things”

Repression of fear, guilt, compassion.

Obsession with rank, hierarchy-limits responsibility, independent thought. Control, order.

Degrading of the feminine-women are to service the warriors

Chap 5

Economic Man:

Work has become our worth. Material things. White collar. No finished product. $2,500 Rolex 15.95 Timex. good questionnaire about work on p. 56

“We have abandoned & abdicated our power to define happiness for ourselves.”

Competition. Price wars. Takeover battles.

Live by the clock. Wear the uniform. Desensitize yourself. Avoid moral issues. Focus on the legal, not the just. [M 98 or the healthy & good for survival of self & species]

Nemesis=any idea, habit, virtue stubbornly held to turns to a destructive vice.

We forgot to ask, what is worth doing?

First wife: Would you be willing to be less efficient? ? still haunts me, he says.

Chap 6 sex. Chap 7. Measuring Man

who are the historical & current men we admire? Chap 8 History Hunter, planter, warrior,

Homo Sapien: Socrates: Esteemed friend, citizen of Athens, the greatest city in the world, so outstanding in both intelligence and power, aren’t you ashamed to care so much to make all the money you can, and to advance your reputation and prestige–while for truth and wisdom and the improvement of your soul you have no care or worry?

Dionysus, Prophetic, as image of god, as power: political, sexual, physical, financial, fire, positive thinking.

Desire to be omnipotent. Feel manhood only when are making things happen, controlling events, women, things. I did therefore I am.

The voyage towards omnipotence is destined to shipwreck on the rocks of finitude.

Anything carried to excess bears the seeds of its own destruction.

Techno man. Tech. turning against us.

Self-made man. Teddy Roosevelt. Boy Scout. But all external-facade.

Psychological man. Freud. subconscious. Product of family.

Postmodern: consumer, materialist, trend follower, quick fix, lack of moral guideposts, (but this could be good), paradoxical counterproductivity,

Who thinks the answer is in religion

Discussion of types of power

“Be prepared for complete reversal”

Crisis or something like it starts journey

somewhere he says part of wisdom is admitting ignorance and searching for knowledge (I think he  he got this from Socrates)


When men who have spent their formative years in extroverted action first turn inward toward the unknown territory of the soul, they soon reach the desert — the vast nothingness. Before rebirth comes the painful awareness that we have long been dead. Before feeling comes the dreadful knowledge that we have been anaesthetized and are numb.’

Men have all been culturally designed with conquest, killing, or dying in mind. Even sissies. Early in life a boy learns that he must be prepared to fight or be called a sissy, a girl. Many of the creative men I know were sissies. They were too sensitive, too compassionate, to fight. And most of them grew up feeling they were somehow inferior and flunked the manhood test. I suspect many writers are still showing the bullies on the block that the pen is mightier than the sword. The test shaped us, whether we passed or flunked. We are all war-wounded.

“There are two questions a man must ask himself: The first is ‘Where am I going?’ and the second is ‘Who will go with me?’

If you ever get these questions in the wrong order you are in trouble.”

“Good men and good women have fire in the belly. We are fierce. Don’t mess with us if you’re looking for someone who will always be ‘nice’ to you. Nice gets you a C+ in life. We don’t always smile, talk in a soft voice, or engage in indiscriminate hugs. In the loving struggle between the sexes we thrust and parry.”

“Burnout is nature’s way of telling you, you’ve been going through the motions your soul has departed; you’re a zombie, a member of the walking dead, a sleepwalker. False optimism is like administrating stimulants to an exhausted nervous system.”

“There is no easy formula for determining right and wrong livelihood, but it is essential to keep the question alive. To return the sense of dignity and honor to manhood, we have to stop pretending that we can make a living at something that is trivial or destructive and still have sense of legitimate self-worth. A society in which vocation and job are separated for most people gradually creates an economy that is often devoid of spirit, one that frequently fills our pocketbooks at the cost of emptying our souls.”

value aggression above all other virtues, and you will produce a character type whose most readily expressed emotion will be anger. Condition a woman (or a man) to value submission above all other attitudes and you will produce a character type whose most readily expressed emotion will be sadness.”
“First and foremost, the vocation of now and future men is to become gentle and earthy… The dispassionate, postmodern, cool man is the antithesis of the phallic male—no passion, no standing forth, no risk, no eros, no drive to survive and enrich history. Nor is the ‘new age’ man who is self-absorbed in his own feelings and committed to ‘personal growth’ a candidate for heroism. It is an illusion to believe that the virility that men have lost can be recovered by anything except a new vocational passion.”

Where men find their identity in this day and age, talking about the confusion that’s come with the evolution of society through the last century.

The unwritten rules of today’s corporate lifestyle (don’t make moral judgements, stay indoors, live by the clock, wear a uniform and conform, etc…)

How negative emotions are often a symptom of “living sombody else’s life, marching to a drumbeat that doesn’t syncopate with your personal body rhythms, playing a role you didn’t create, living a script written by an alien authority”

The man’s ego ideals about himself versus shadow beliefs (believing you’re strong, unconsciously doubting yourself, etc…)

Self acceptance as “a man gains acceptance of the multiplicity of his being”.

“There is no way we can recover a secure sense of manhood without rediscovering the bonds that unite us to other… A man without a friend, a family, or a community is an abstraction on the way to becoming a heartless functionary.”

“The starting point for thinking about the mystery of gender, for cherishing the ineradicable differences between the sexes, for celebrating the coming together of the opposites, is the procreation of a child.”

“A feminist vision demands sexual, artistic, economic, and political equality (Military?) It further demands that men assume an equal share in the private sphere – the creation of hearth and the rearing of children.”

A man must go on a quest / to discover the sacred fire / in the sanctuary of his own belly / to ignite the flame in his heart / to fuel the blaze in the hearth / to rekindle his ardor for the earth

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