Last night, for the first time, joy circle met in public, on the outdoor patio of a downtown restaurant. We were surrounded by tables of young hipsters (the men bearded, the women in cateye glasses and/or handmade purses), fairy lights, and fountains, the sky slowly darkening over the busy park opposite. We opened circle as we traditionally do, left hand palm up, right hand palm down, connecting palm to palm all around, breathing deeply together. I passed around the goddess cards and everyone selected an archetype to ponder while ordering bruschetta and wine and creme brulee. Continue reading
Category Archives: women’s joy circle
Women’s Joy Circle: Sacred Circles
I have been remiss in posting lately, and I apologize. Summer is gardening and long days at the stream picking mulberries and creating new herbal infusions and cordials and rosemary cakes and wonderful kombucha pickles, summer is leisurely visits with friends and watching the children catch fireflies. My laptop just doesn’t even begin to figure in.
This week has been full to overflowing with laughter, realizations, music, dance, and incredible food, courtesy of my adored friend Anja who has been visiting from New England. There is nobody like Anja. As a child she used to bike several miles to her school, collecting apples and pears from wild trees along the way, then joyfully handing them out in the city. When she was 15 she decided never to wear shoes, and went barefoot everywhere. She sewed skirts out of old scarves and traveled all over Europe collecting folk songs and studying herbal medicine. Now she leads circle dances, teaching ancient steps that peel away everything but the sense of sacred time. She uses laughter about as often as words to communicate.
She traveled down from new england to help us dance the summer solstice in. We gathered candles and torches and cakes and kombucha and scarves and guitars and packed them all into the car, merrily traveling toward the outdoor pavilion where the dance was to be held. Then the heavens opened. I mean it. It was as though someone had slashed a hole in the sky and instead of space, there was an ocean up there. The car was not driving, it was swimming along the road, and there was no airspace between raindrops. There was only water. Continue reading
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Women’s Joy Circle: Despair & Complaint
Last Saturday I sat in a circle of women at the home of a friend. We’d shared a bountiful and delectable meal, gathered around a cleansing fire, protected ourselves all around with candlelight and color and books and beauty. Yet when we sat to share and listen, there was such darkness there. So much sorrow and pain and terror, wrong turns and misunderstandings and fury. Our children were being put in danger, our elected representatives were trying to eliminate our basic rights, our voices were being silenced, and we were in PAIN. I had actually turned it over and over in my mind whether I should come to this circle or not, as I’d been in a bit of a funk myself and didn’t want to inflict my turbulent energy on others. Continue reading
Women’s Joy Circle: Do Not Disturb
For my half-birthday this year I sent out a letter to people I greatly respected, people who have known me through very diverse stages of my life, some dear old friends and some passing acquaintances. I asked them to bravely, honestly, share with me what they saw as my challenges. And I asked them to answer this question: if you could wave a wand and ‘fix’ me without ever having to worry about my knowing or being offended, what would you change?
I did this because I was in one of those troughs of experience in which I had finished up one phase and not yet discerned what was next, and I wanted to choose wisely. I wanted to step bravely into my strengths and shine a light on some of my weaknesses, to carve out new ways rather than following old comfortable paths.
Receiving the answers was terribly scary and difficult. Part of me desperately hoped for responses of “I wouldn’t fix a thing! Nope, you’re absolutely perfect as you are!” (even though I’d expressly forbidden anyone to answer that way.) But the curious, contemplative side of me wanted to know. It wanted those shadows aired. And I am so glad that my brave, wonderful friends responded to that side of me. Their bravery started this blog, because one response I heard over and over again was that I needed to share my writing. Continue reading
Women’s Joy Circle: Internal/External ways of knowing
In the normal course of things, writing comes to me like breathing. I do it without thinking. When I sit down to write an article or a post or a letter, I am more mindful of writing, just as I am more mindful of my breath during a yoga class or meditation. But it is still an involuntary process, flowing through me, requiring little of me.
Lately this has not been so. It’s been a tumultuous few weeks: last week I traveled to Indiana with my parents and children to visit our family matriarch, a powerful woman of 95 years who ran a dairy farm alone after her husband dropped dead, leaving her with three small boys and pregnant with a fourth. From all accounts, Grandma’s early life was pretty joyless: an unhappy marriage followed by an even unhappier widowhood, constant struggle with poverty and endless hard work, a tornado that destroyed her entire town, hopes for a second marriage that were cruelly dashed, an unsupportive and judgmental extended family and church community.
As an adult, I can see all of this. Yet as a child, my experience of Grandma was her ever-present gravelly chuckle, her bustling busy-ness as she baked and crocheted and painted, utter delight in her work as a hairdresser and in her family. Grandma always sent buckets of presents for Christmas, and her house was full of art and candy. Her hair was always perfectly curled and colored, her eyes were always sparkling. She gave me my first “permanent” when I was 12 years old, treating me as a co-conspirator in my endeavor to be beautiful despite the disapproval of my staunchly anti-chemical-hair-enhancement parents (the heathens!) Continue reading
Women’s Joy Circle: First Response
Last week my children decided to stay in Meeting with me. (Meeting is the Quaker form of worship, and it consists of an hour or so of silence. There is no planned music or ministry, though anyone who feels led to speak may do so.) Normally, my children sit with me for ten minutes or so, then leave with the other children for their own program. On this day, who knows why, they wanted to stay.
There followed the most interesting 40 minutes of mental acrobatics in my life.
My goal was to maintain the settled silence. I therefore could not use any of my normal methods of guiding my children—talking, explaining, separating, demonstrating, disciplining. They, as 8 and 4 year olds, were wriggly and interested and had things to say and places to go. At one point my 8 year old reached up around my neck and removed my necklace, uttering in a harsh whisper “this is MINE.” He then proceeded to put it around his own neck.
I had a very strong immediate reaction of anger. The first response that went through my head was to take the necklace away and talk to him about the rudeness of his action. But it was Meeting for Worship. I knew that to do so would set off an emotional (read: LOUD) reaction from him, and we would seriously disturb everyone else. So I sat there and simmered. The second response that occurred to me was to walk him out of the Meeting room and talk with him about proper etiquette in Meeting. But again, our leaving would cause a disturbance as well as a probable upset for my 4-year old, and it would sort of defeat the purpose of explaining Meeting etiquette if, to do so, I had to violate it.
We sat there, and third and fourth and fifth responses ran through my mind, none of which I could act upon. And then, as the silence gathered, between adjustments to small wandering feet and hands that kept making their ways onto various parts of my body, the responses deepened. Now, rather than being knee-jerk emotional reactions to the stimulus, they were considered and heartfelt responses. I thought about the ways in which my son’s belief in his ownership of the necklace was justified. I thought about the deep roots of my angry response, why it was that I felt so violated. I thought about how my daily interactions with my son can so often devolve into stimulus/response, almost scripted interchanges.
By the end of Meeting I had decided to act upon my 347th response, which was to have a long talk with my son about the kind of human being I hoped he would grow up to be. And that’s what I did. All the way home, walking and gathering flowers, we talked about what a good man is, both in his view and mine. I really listened to him. He really listened to me. I told him that reaching into a woman’s space like that and taking what he wanted really disturbed me, and I told him why. It was an amazing conversation. It could never have happened had I followed my first response.
First responders are emergency workers. They are trained to act swiftly and decisively in emergency situations. In these circumstances, going with the first response is highly recommended. But how often are we in emergency, life-or-death situations? I know that for many of us, the stress of daily life triggers fight-or-flight responses from our nervous system far more often than is necessary, with terrible consequences to our health. Might this be true for our mental experience as well? Might it be true that going with our reflexive, knee-jerk first response in nearly every situation is harmful to our mental and emotional health?
At women’s joy circle on Monday, we explored this idea. We spent a lot of time in yoga, warming and opening our bodies with deep, conscious breathing. Then we gathered in a circle and talked about first responses. We talked about how many of our interchanges are scripted: “Good morning!” “Good morning.” “How did you sleep?” “Fine.” “How was your day?” “Great.” “Have a good one!” “You too.” We talked about how easy it is to fall into these patterns of exchange and never really communicate at all. And then we did this exercise:
Number a sheet of paper from 1 to 15. Your partner asks “How are you today?” Write down your first response. Again, your partner asks “How are you today?” Write down your second response. Continue until all fifteen spaces are filled.
This gets reaaaaally interesting right around response #8. Authentic communication starts to break through. In the circle, we shared some of our favorite responses and got everything from “filled with light and love!” to “incredibly sad” to “did you have a favorite umbrella as a child?”
Pairing off, we practiced communication beyond first response. Each partner responded to the questions and comments of their counterpart in a normal dialogue, with the caveat that no first responses could be used. No one spoke until the third or fourth response had presented itself.
We had an odd number of women, so I sat out and listened. What fascinated me most was how incredibly interesting the conversations became, within the space of just a few minutes. There was a lot more silence than occurs in a normal conversation too, as people considered their responses.
We closed with rose petal tea and cookies and brags and dancing. Everyone had a difficult time leaving. True communication does that to people! Many of us decided to practice using third, fourth, fifth responses in the kind of pat conversations that occur with cashiers or bus drivers or other parents at school, and to see what happens. Here’s mine from yesterday morning:
Parent of child in my child’s class: Good morning!
Me: I know that it could be, but I’m feeling off today.
Parent: What happened?
Me: I don’t think anything happened. I think I’m frustrated with myself for not following through with promises I’ve made.
Parent: what sort of promises?
Me: Promises to myself, mostly, about how I want to spend my time.
Parent: You know, I do that too. I’ve been wanting to go berry picking for several days now, and I keep getting caught in other stuff, and I’m going to miss the window of opportunity.
Me: want to go berry picking today?
Parent: great idea! let’s bring the kids and do it this afternoon!
We had an incredible time. It was so much better than “good morning/good morning/see you later/goodbye.”
Women’s Joy Circle: Healing
I’ve been thinking a lot about healing lately. I am taking 7Song’s Herbal First Aid class remotely, and dawnings of understanding about the body’s capacity to heal are beginning to break through. To heal the body, I’ve learned, you clear away anything that might be interfering with the body, and then allow it to heal itself. The antimicrobial and sedative and carminative herbs we prescribe do not, per se, heal the body. They relieve symptoms, help deal with invaders and optimize healing conditions, yes–but it is the body that heals.
And since we are beings of mind/body/spirit…not just one or the other, but all, always…it is also so with healing the spirit. Heartbreak and grief and emotional exhaustion can’t be “fixed”. Healing is not something you add to your routine like a bandaid. Healing, for the heart, is just as it is for the body. You remove everything that is impeding it. It is already there.
I think about this in terms of my young motherhood. There was little sleep, there was screaming and crying and utter exhaustion, there were ceaseless cycles of not-having-enough-hands, there were impossible gordian knots of chaos that seemed interminable. And then, suddenly, about a year ago, I realized that this part was over. I’m still not sure when it happened, but somehow, at some point, my children learned to bathe and feed and dress themselves, and to walk around without impaling themselves on butterknives or hurling themselves over cliffs, and there were, all at once, moments of serenity between the gordian knots of chaos. I did not have to learn that serenity. It was always there, simply waiting for its chance to emerge.
And I believe this is the human condition. It is interesting to think of God/Goddess/Spirit/Tao/Universal Intelligence as a young mother, marshaling the growth of this immature, spirited baby species, utterly exhausted by us. It pleases me to think of it this way because then I can believe that our evolution is not meant to be a slow, steady progression toward “good” and “right” and “balance”—because, if it were, there is no evidence that we are progressing at all! Perhaps it is instead this chaos of fits and starts—exhaustion and misery and impossible complication—and then, suddenly, moments of clarity and peace, of deep understanding and beauty. And then the swan dive back into the chaos. (Because I don’t for a moment imagine I’m out of the woods. Teenage years start in T minus 5 x 365 x 24 hours). If this is so, then there is hope for us. There have been these moments of deep beauty and understanding and there will be again, the chaos of war and genocide and genetic engineering and sex trafficking notwithstanding. We don’t inch toward perfection. Perfection is already there, and from time to time we manage to peel away the outer circumstances concealing it.
We circled up on Monday and shared, as usual, first our names and then one word to describe ourselves at this moment. I am always amazed by the articulations: overjoyed. frazzled. overcome. happy. grieving. in my center. nervous. giving it a shot. healing. frantic. healing.
Using the word “healing” as a focal point, we settled in for a long, slow yoga practice. We noticed what parts of our bodies responded to the word “healing” and what emotions it elicited. We did a lot of cyclical movement, hip circles and knee circles and shoulder circles and circles of the head and ribs. We checked in with our center by doing cat/cows in forearm plank position. We spent long moments in child’s pose, compressing the third eye, scanning the body for areas of tightness and coldness and pain, using the breath to melt them down and open. Yoga is wonderful for asking the questions of the body that a good herbalist would ask of the patient. What is going on in the body? Does this hurt? Do you feel cold or warm? What moves easily? What feels stuck? I love my yoga practice for reliably peeling away one of the layers between me and healing, that layer of disconnection with my body.
Then we ate some of the 756 leftover scones from the herbal high tea (slight miscalculation. Sorry Molly) and sipped tea while I discussed the next exercise. I like to call it “The Two-Year-Old.” You sit facing your partner and ask them “What hurts?” and they answer. When their words slow or stop, you ask “Why?” They answer again, and you continue to ask “Why?” for five minutes. Have a pillow ready so that if they try to punch you in the face you can protect yourself. I’m kind of kidding, a little. But kind of not.
Then you ask your partner: “What do you want?” and allow them to answer. When their words slow or stop, ask “Why?” and continue as before. Go for five minutes. Then switch and have your partner ask you both questions.
Getting to “Why” is fascinating for so many reasons. For one thing, you get to discover what makes you angry—usually just past that point of anger and annoyance is a very interesting insight. For another, you get to discover the similarities between what you most want in this world and what has most hurt you. You get to see that what you really want is inextricably tied in with what needs healing in you, because what hurts us in the world, what feels painful or isolating or deeply wrong, is what we are strongly called to fix or make right. I have found that my deepest pleasures in life have been the moments when I can prevent someone from being wounded in the ways I was wounded, or create circumstances that bring joy and connection where I once felt alone or isolated. I know that this is my work, and my healing process. As I peel away the layers of misunderstanding and pain and rote behavior that keep me hurting, I heal both myself and my world. Not by “fixing” anything. Just by revealing the beauty that was already there.
I feel another “Permaculture and Parenting” article coming on, about removing limiting factors. I so love this principle, that the perfect ecosystem is already there if you just set it up, get out of the way, and let it thrive. That miracles happen in Zone Zero and Zone Five. That you always leave a little wilderness as example and seedbank. That the chaos is part of it all.
- Nora Yelles-Young: Healing Ancient Wounds. 20 Steps to Clearing and Healing (goldenageofgaia.com)
- Inner Healing: Your Body is the Tool (omtimes.com)
- Your body wants to heal – but will you let it? (inspiredoc.com)
- Freedom to Heal (americankabuki.blogspot.com)
- Healing (kirstio.wordpress.com)
Women’s Joy Circle: relationship
Here in North Carolina it has been raining nonstop for close to two weeks. Long walks of exploration through newly roaring creekbeds and exciting leaf-boat journeys down gutters aside, it gets depressing. When we assembled last night for joy circle, I could feel it in the room. We were all out-of-sorts.
I have learned through hard experience that when I am facing turbulent or charged or discombobulated energy, the only way out is through. I can’t pretend it’s not there or fake it until I make it or put on a glossy mask and act as though I’m utterly self-possessed. I have to jump into the messy emotions and the fear and the not-knowing until things change.
So I threw what I had planned out the window. Next week is our herbal high tea, and there was loads of planning to be done, but none of us were in a “planning” kind of space. I took some deep breaths and did a quick internal scan of what had been coming up again and again this week. And what emerged was relationship. Disintegrating relationships, or painful confrontations, or loneliness, or longing, or miscommunication. So many friends had been calling to talk about this, so many articles and conversations and books had turned up to shed light on it. We would explore relationship tonight.
We started with some very slow, deep hip openers. All of us store emotional tension in our hips, but for women especially the practice of hip-opening stretches like thread-the-needle or pigeon can be very intense and cathartic. We warmed up with cat-and-cow and slow vinyasa, then took our time in pigeon, using the breath to expand on the inhale and fall down on the exhale, compressing the third eye on our doubled fists or the floor. From this place of release we slowly resumed a seated position and went through a guided meditation.
In the meditation I asked everyone to identify a pattern in their relationships that has caused pain. It could be a pattern of abandonment, or betrayal, or loneliness, or a sense of unworthiness…any painful experience that seems to repeat from lover to lover or friend to friend.
When we think of these patterns it hurts. We followed the pain within, to the place in the body it seemed to originate. There, in the body, we stayed, feeling the pain, noticing the sensation it caused. I asked: if this feeling had a voice, what would it be saying to you? What is its message?
I could see the messages on faces lit by flickering candlelight: you’re impossible to love. you’re not good enough. you try too hard. you don’t try enough.
I asked everyone to identify the age of this voice. Was it a little girl speaking? A teenager? A grown woman? And I asked each woman to return for a moment to her breath, to her own power and centeredness. From this place of adult self-assurance, I asked each woman to extend her love and power to that voice, to contradict the message that caused such pain, to envelop it in love and warmth and safety.
And then I asked for each woman to conjure up within her body the feeling of being loved. The feeling of being adored, cherished, cared for. I asked for each woman to draw this feeling through her body with the breath, filling each cell with that sensation of warmth and bliss. I asked each woman to imagine her ideal mate sitting before her, regarding her with complete love and acceptance, and to notice how that felt.
I put a paper and pen in front of each woman and, still in a space of candlelit silence, asked that they write down how it felt to be loved this way, what thoughts and resistances emerged from this feeling. I asked them to write who they were within this relationship of love, how they walked when they were loved this way, how they spoke, what changed in their lives, what they let go of, what they learned.
Some women had to leave the room, overcome by trying to imagine a love like this. We are a circle of strong, self-assured women who juggle very meaningful work, studies, care of others, and personal evolution, and yet through each of us runs this fault line of self-acceptance. We have difficulty creating for ourselves what we effortlessly give to others each and every day. I never fail to be blindsided by this paradox.
When we gathered again over tea and lavender scones, the energy was subdued. We had touched on something deep and vulnerable. I talked a little about vulnerability, how it is the only way into communication, how the high gloss of self-sufficiency repels every attempt at connection. I know a lot about this. That doesn’t make it any easier. I spoke about ways to use what we had learned: taking what we’ve written and using it to create a sense of expansiveness and love in our own lives, now, making the changes for ourselves that we sensed would happen only when we were loved.
Finally, I gave in to the quiet and turned on the music. We danced, and outside the rain poured down and lightning flashed in quick illumination of our bodies letting this out, this unutterable paradox of strength and vulnerability, self-assurance and self-doubt. This feels very important to me. I think that the unraveling of this question will have a bearing on questions of environmental damage and social injustice and right living and mental health. I know that our self-relationship has a bearing on our relationship with everything and everyone. I don’t know how yet. But I am beginning to be clear on the question.
Women’s Joy Circle: Setting Boundaries
Last night’s circle was a bit of a departure; after all of the opening up and radiant joy and discussion of desires we’d been doing, it seemed time to talk about boundaries and safety. “Setting boundaries” is such a slippery concept; it seems too abstract to be of much use. So we talked in terms of our energetic fields.
I prefer the term ‘energetic field’ to ‘aura’ because fewer people get all shifty-eyed and back away from me when I say it. Come on, it makes sense that we have an energetic field. The electromagnetic energy of the brain and heart are scientifically quantifiable. This field is our first defense, both immunologically and psychologically. When we are aware of the boundaries of our field, when it is clean and clear, we can feel infringements upon it and deal with them. When we are unaware of our boundaries, or our fields are low due to illness, unhappiness, or stress, we are easily affected by others’ germs, criticisms, and demands.
In my study of the martial arts, and in the study of tracking and wilderness survival, I learned the importance of presence. When you are alert to the world around you, engaged with your surroundings, you are difficult to victimize. We practiced presence by pairing off and facing our partner, gazing into their eyes without speaking for five minutes.
Though this crowd is so freaking evolved that they hardly batted an eyelash, when I first encountered this exercise I found it a hellish experience. It was really hard to be looked at. My face felt funny. I kept wanting to engage the interest of the other person, to make looking at me a more interesting experience. But slowly I learned to bring my focus away from myself and onto the other person, and to simply be present with them rather than trying to control their experience of me.
Observing another person with such focus is a pretty rare thing to do socially. We spend a lot of time in our own heads, evaluating the impact we are having on the others around us, guessing at their judgments of us, obsessing over the same old thought patterns that tend to preoccupy us. Rarely do we fully engage in observing. Yet observation is critical not only to our survival, but to our happiness. It is when we are fully engaged with the world, taking it all in, stretching all of our senses to savor what is spread before us, that we experience joy. It is also, not coincidentally, when we are most alert to the intentions of others and whether or not they are beneficial to us.
I have two exercises I practice regularly to hone my ability to observe. One is the kundalini exercise known as “the woodchopper” (I’m sure it has a fancy sanskrit name but I don’t know it.) I try to do this exercise every morning, setting an intention and then using it clear away any blocks.
Stand with feet shoulder width apart, a slight bend in the knees. Hold your arms out straight in front of you , palms facing inward. Then turn your right palm outward so that the thumb points down. Bring it under your left hand and across, bringing the palm of the right hand to the back of the left hand, clasping it with the thumb. Now, on the inhale, raise your interlocked arms straight overhead. Exhale forcefully and bring them down to chest height, as though chopping wood. Inhale and lift them again. Do this, following your breath, for three minutes. (I can actually feel the space around me come alive after this exercise, and I am far less likely to take any crap from anyone on the days that I do it!)
The second exercise is a mental one. I have noticed that when I stop observing, it is often because my mind has slipped into a pattern of thought negative enough to distract me from the real sensory world all around me. Generally, for me, these thoughts are about money, but in the past they’ve been about relationship, or self-image. We all have certain default thought patterns our brains like to worry over. Once you’ve identified yours, stop yourself the next time it plays. Just stop. Then make a conscious effort to interrupt it. For example, if I am thinking “how will I pay the bills this month, I’m afraid to look at my balance” I can shift that to “Isn’t it amazing that I am never hungry? I am always surrounded by plenty of fresh, wonderful food. And my business has been doing so well lately. It grows every month. And I was just awarded a fellowship that will pay half of my tuition. ” (HOORAY! I still can’t quite believe it!)
This exercise does a couple of things: first, it trains us to be aware of our own thoughts so that we can snap out of them and be more engaged with the world around us; second, it gives us a line of defense against people who read our preoccupations and use them to manipulate us. Criticism always hurts most when it is directed at something we don’t like about ourselves. When someone can discern what it is we are struggling with, it can become a tremendous source of power for them. But if we are aware of our own vulnerabilities and are actively working with them, we no longer give over power to those who would use them to leverage us.
We closed with a round of brags, gratitudes, and desires. It is much easier to notice infringements of your boundaries when you know what your boundaries are! Stating your desires is a very effective way to jumpstart this process.
Most people see a radiant, fully alive woman, and are inspired to come more alive themselves. There are, unfortunately, others who see her and try to take what she has by force. We don’t have to allow this, however subtle or overt it may be. We can define what is allowed in our energetic field, notice when these boundaries are being breached, and take action to defend ourselves. In fact we have a responsibility to do so. In the words of Martin Luther King Jr’s spiritual advisor Howard Thurman, “what this world needs is people who have come alive.”