Bethel lawyer Dennis McDonough says the people around him – including his wife and people he works with – notice a change in him when he returns from his all-male retreats, which are filled with meditation and primal screaming.
The 58-year-old lawyer has been attending the retreats – which he will only say are held in a small coastal town in New England – for the past 20 or so years. He goes twice a year.
“There is a core of us who attend every retreat, and I keep in touch with some by e-mail. There are no rules or mandatory meetings, but each retreat has someone who holds talks approximately five times over three days, and usually they are centered around a spiritual topic,” said McDonough, who practices criminal law, real estate and civil litigation.
“My wife encourages my attendance because she can see how it keeps me centered and the lingering serenity,” said McDonough, who lives in Easton.
He said the “primal screaming” is a way of “hurling tension into the universe, thus allowing it to dissipate.” McDonough said the other men who attend the retreat come from all walks of life. “Actually, Idid the screaming with two other guys regularly, a corporate executive and a retired businessman,” he said.
Most of McDonough’s time at the retreats is spent alone, either thinking or walking. He said he engages in “listening to the silence, a practice I began when I was much younger and before I ever heard the word meditation.”
For years, even as a child, McDonough engaged in the meditation-like activities because he has Tourette’s syndrome, a disorder marked by nervous tics and, in some people, the involuntary shouting of sounds and words. Relaxation techniques, including exercise and meditation, are often used by people with Tourette’s to relieve the stress that may aggravate tics.
In hindsight, McDonough believes he began meditating around the age of 7 years old, although at the time he thought of it as just thinking. “I would sit still, alone, for periods of time and try to see if I could actually have no thoughts going on in my head.”
Much has been learned about Tourette’s in recent years. But McDonough said his problems went undiagnosed until he was 23. He said that every guidance counselor he ever had, even in law school, told him he could never be a trial lawyer because of his disorder. “But through my meditative exercises I knew, intuitively, that they were wrong,” McDonough said. “I firmly believe that that knowledge came by way of listening to the silence.”
Two decades ago, he learned of the all-male retreats.
“One discussion that I will always remember occurred 20 years ago at my first retreat when I met a man who looked like Luca Brasi from the first ‘Godfather’ movie,” McDonough recalled.
He said the man was “huge, barrel-chested and looked mean as a snake.”
“He started talking about prior rageful acts such as almost killing someone with his fists and then, without a blink, goes into a lengthy discourse on how he learned to use acts of love and compassion to defuse situations in his life, even vocalizing to someone that he loved them as a human as a way of helping that other person,” said McDonough.
“I guess what I am saying is that the individual interplay between the men is not what most people would expect of 45 men hanging out together for a weekend,” he said. “Most people would be surprised at the openness and depth of the discussions.”
When he returns, he said, his paralegals always mention that he seems different. And, in fact, McDonough said he uses the mediation techniques to help him at work.
“I have developed a certain technique that I utilize during trials that aids me in retaining focus and is really useful during difficult parts of the trial and in reducing the manifestation of the Tourette symptoms,” he said.
McDonough is looking forward to the next retreat, which is this spring.
“There are untold benefits from engaging with other men at a depth not usually experienced in my typical daily routine,” he said. “Other than those six days [per year], my world is a wonderful mix of all sorts of people. But the days I spend at the retreat have taught me a lot about being male.”