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Sitting in Circle: Enhance Your Life and Change the World

Apr 29, 2011 11:42PM ● By Kathleen Rude

Photo: Jeremy Vranich

Where do you go when you’re feeling stressed, out of sorts, confused or in need of some real support and understanding?

Many women choose to gather with other women on a regular basis and sit “in circle.” The purpose of the circle is not to fix, solve or even give advice to someone. Rather, it is a safe place for a woman to speak her truth, listen to others and learn a great deal about herself.

“I find sitting in circle both a grounding and an energizing experience,” says Pat Slawniak, who attends a monthly women’s circle in Glenview. “When the diversity of our ages, lifestyles and experiences come together, the circle generates a unique energy—all its own—that each participant can take away with her to meet the challenges of the next month. I never leave the circle unmoved.”

Sitting in circle was probably one of the first ways that humans met and shared. Gathering around a fire to drum, sing, dance, tell stories, solve problems and share life was a common experience for ancient peoples of all ethnic and racial backgrounds.

Over the last 20 years, sitting in circle has evolved into an experience that embraces various guidelines and practices designed to create equality, community and safety. Key aspects include each person speaking only from personal experience while others listen without “cross-talk” or comment. Participants soon realize that everyone has a bit of truth to share that resonates with others in the circle. (See “Circle Principles” in this section.)

“I have been attending a women’s circle for over a year now and still find each circle to be incredibly inspiring, thought-provoking and, yes, even life-changing,” says Anne Hoffman, from Northbrook. “The circles provide a safe, sacred space for all types of women to share thoughts, stories and energies, to learn from one another and from oneself, and, most importantly, to not be judged.”

Gather the Women, Save the World

Sitting in circle is not unique to women, but a woman’s chemistry does predispose her to seek community in times of stress. In a landmark 2000 UCLA study, researchers found that women do not respond to stress in the same “fight or flight” way that men do. Instead, they produce the hormone oxytocin that encourages them to gather together and tend to children and other loved ones. The more they focus on these activities, the more oxytocin is released, which buffers the fight-or-flight response and brings a sense of calm. Women instinctively organize and care for others in difficult times and, in the process, reduce their stress significantly.

The power of this response inspired Jean Shinoda Bolen, a Jungian analyst, professor, author and women’s activist, to recognize the influence that women’s circles can have, not only for personal healing, but for the transformation of the global society as well. In her book, Urgent Message from Mother: Gather the Women, Save the World, Bolen writes, “There is empathetic support, problem solving, and stress relief in women’s conversations. . . . Women’s talk leads to symmetrical connections, rather than hierarchical ones, and consensus building, both of which are needed for cooperation and collaboration. . . . Women’s talk needs to be recognized as a positive force—a means and method of bonding and understanding each other and other people—that humanity needs to be able to take a next step toward planetary community.”

To that end, Bolen has established The Millionth Circle movement, which is dedicated to (1) seeding and nurturing circles in order to cultivate equality, sustainable livelihoods, preservation of the earth and peace for all, and (2) connecting circles so they may know themselves as a part of a larger movement to shift consciousness in the world.

The use of circles in all kinds of venues, from self-help and 12-step programs to community organizing and spiritual practice, continues to grow and provides benefits to women and men alike. To learn more about creating circles, visit WisdomCircle.org and MillionthCircle.org.


Kathleen Rude is a shamanic practitioner, environmentalist and author dedicated to creating a sustainable world and healthy people through our profound relationship to the Earth and to all things. She facilitates a monthly full-moon circle, “MoonLight: A Women’s Wisdom Circle,” at Be Optimal Holistic Health Center, in Glenview. For more information, visit GaiaWisdom.org.

Circle Principles
from MillionthCircle.org

The following are suggested guidelines for a women’s circle:
Create sacred space. This includes physically preparing a space to accommodate the participants in a circle, usually with a centerpiece or altar.
Listen with compassion and for wisdom. This includes listening without an agenda, suspending judgment, being curious and finding the underlying meaning in others’ statements. Also, it is listening for wisdom as it comes through each participant.
Speak from your heart and experience. Speak one at a time. This includes saying what is true for you and speaking to the center of the circle, not to another individual. We offer our experience and feelings, not our advice, to the circle. Also, we speak one at a time and use a talking piece when needed, such as a stick or other symbolic object, to ensure that all are heard.
Invite silence and reflection when needed, in you and in the circle. This includes listening to our own inner guidance before speaking. Also, we request silence and reflection in the circle when we feel it is needed.
Take responsibility for your experience and your impact on the circle. This includes demonstrating self-respect and self-restraint. We thus ensure that our contribution adds to the positive experience of all in the circle.
Keep the confidence of the circle. What is spoken in the circle stays in the circle to help ensure a safe environment for sharing our experiences and feelings.
Make decisions, when needed, by consensus. Should a circle need to make a decision, it is generally desirable to come to a consensus.