To me, women’s circles are an essential part of our spirituality. We not only support one another in circle, but what happens in circles – whether formal planned circles for hundreds or quiet conversations between two or three over tea – is so often how spiritual transformations happen. It may be a chance word or idea, or the experience of being listened to, a shared transcendent moment, or something else that happens to be just what is needed at that second. It is the connections between us that light the fires of inspiration and encourage the emergence of our best souls.
I believe it has always been so. In caves are indications of Paleolithic people engaging in spiritual practices together and among the oldest paintings and sculptures in the caves are images of women. Pictures of women doing religious dancing and other activities together abound throughout the ancient world. This importance of spiritual community among women also extends to other spheres. Women, in particular, seem to have always formed circles to work in, whether a quilting bee or jointly raising children or tilling a field. When women worked in family groups and lived in the same village all their lives, being part of lifelong circles would seem to be easy and make life easier, too.
As with humans, so it has been shown to also be true with other animals. Researchers have found that female animals who form close friendships with other female animals live longer, have better immune systems, and more successfully raise their children. This is true whether the animals are elephants, monkeys, mice and horses. Female animals watch out for each other’s young, groom each other (sort of like beauty salons in the wild), share food (potlucks!), protect one another, and do many of those things that human women do for one another. Sisterhood, not competition and violence, is the real Law of Nature and how life continues generation to generation.
As I have grown older, I have come to see myself less as one individual than as the center of a web of circles that make up my life and through which I touch and am touched by women from all over the world. I have my family circle of my sister, her mother-in-law, her sister-in-law, my cousin and other family members. I have a social group I have been chatting with for seven years. I have close work colleagues with whom I have lunch several times a year. I have women I have come to know through actual circles at a women’s spirituality organization I have been part of for more than a decade.
I have been thinking about my circles lately because they seem to be breaking up all around me. In the past three months, two of the ten or so members of my social group have died. I just learned that the women’s spirituality organization is closing its space and will have no more circle events there after this summer. I have spent much of the past few weeks feeling heartbroken at these losses.
I have come to realize how much harder it is to create and hold onto circles now than it was in the past. We switch jobs and move on or to another part of the country. Families are spread over the globe rather than living their whole lives within a mile or two. We are so busy with work and child responsibilities that we no longer have the time to spend over a cup of coffee around the kitchen table that even our mothers did. I think of all the years I did not spend enough time with other women who are now gone or who have scattered and I am deeply sad and regretful.
So, I wonder: how can we create and sustain circles in the 21st century? Part of the answer is embracing technology, I do believe. While I may see women in the neighborhood less than my mother or grandmother, I can now become friends and chat everyday with women across the world. In fact, my social group that has shared births, deaths, celebrations, illnesses, recipes, book recommendations, photos and vacation stories for seven years exists entirely online. Members live on other continents and have lives very different from mine, yet we meet almost daily and share the most essential aspects of our lives. These relationships – whether on messageboards, social media, or elsewhere — are not the same as meeting face to face every day but they are circles nonetheless with their own advantages.
Another way is to acknowledge and appreciate circles that may take place across time and space, beyond our usual concept of a circle as being a meeting of women at one particular location at a specific moment. The very first women’s spirituality circle event I attended was a healing circle with perhaps 30 women all chanting and meditating. At the end of the circle, the holder told us that the circle had been created and would always exist, that we need only remember and we would be part of a living entity. I have gone back in my mind many times to that evening and I do believe that what she said is true. When I think of that circle, I can feel it form around me.
Also, as family members and now my two friends have died, I have come to realize that love truly is eternal, that death is not an end, but a transformation. If I expand what I think of as a circle, I realize that I am still a part of many circles I thought had long ago died with those who were in them with me. Whatever one may believe about the afterlife, the love that made the circles does not disappear. I have also been part of circles that sent healing to women of the past and I do believe that they received our good energy and wishes.
Finally, I do believe that as long as we walk on the Earth, we are not without a circle. The Earth herself, as well as all her creatures that walk, fly, and swim on her are part of our circle. I have trees outside my house that are very old and stretch their branches into a canopy over our roof. When I stand in the middle of them, I feel the same sense of protection, caring, and inspiration that I do in circle.
Expanding our vision of the women’s circle is not only good for us, it is essential, I believe for other women and even our chances of having a real global future. When I bring the deep connection that I feel in circles to women across the world whose lives and plights are brought to me over the airwaves and internet, it is impossible to not want to help in a very personal way. At the same time, I benefit from hearing the wisdom in their stories of courage and faith. Truly, every woman anywhere in the world is part of my larger circle. What affects her makes a difference in my life and whatever I do to make the lives of other women better creates a real spiritual benefit in mine because of how we are connected.
It is the same with the Earth. If we go beyond our scientific knowledge of climate change to a profound sense of sisterhood with the great creative soul of the planet we live on, we know what we need to do and can do it. Perhaps this is what is missing from the movements for social justice and environmental sanity when they seem to be moving too slowly – the same sense of sisterhood we feel when the woman sitting next to us tells us a traumatic memory she is sharing for the first time. If only everyone directed the same sense of sisterhood towards women we will never know and the planet on whom our lives depend.
We modern women are in the center of many, many circles if we will only see them. When I feel as if my circles are breaking up, I have only to look around me, to look up at the sky, to go inside my own mind and remember all the women I have known and who have loved me and who I have loved over my lifetime to find my true circles.
The next time you feel spiritually weary and in need of a circle that our 21st century world cannot produce, remember all the many circles of which you are a part at every moment. Think of yourself as the center stillpoint of millions of circles all spinning around you, sending you the love and guidance you need. Send that love and guidance back through all those circles in a never-ending pulse. Give thanks that our circles are always with us.