The Millionth Circle

How to Change Ourselves and the World

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There is nothing as powerful as an idea whose time has come.

Feminism catches fire when it draws upon its inherent spirituality.When it does not, it is just one more form of politics, and politics never fed our deepest hungers.
-Carol Lee Flinders,
At the Root of This Longing


'The Hundredth Monkey' is a story that inspired antinuclear activists to keep on keeping on, when the commonsense view was that the nuclear arms race could not be stopped. The story and its moral was taken to heart as an allegorical tale based upon theoretical biologist Rupert Sheldrake's Morphic Field Theory: namely, that a change in the behavior of a species occurs when a critical mass-the exact number needed-is reached. When that happens, the behavior or habits of the entire species changes. The most widely read version of the tale was written by Ken Keyes, Jr., which I retell as follows:

Off the shore of Japan, scientists had been studying monkey colonies on many separate islands for over thirty years. In order to keep track of the monkeys, they would lure them out of the trees by dropping sweet potatoes on the beach. The monkeys came to enjoy this free lunch, and were in plain sight where they could be observed. One day, an eighteen-month-old female monkey named Imo started to wash her sweet potato in the sea before eating it. I imagine that it tasted better without the grit and sand or pesticides, or maybe it even was slightly salty and that was good. Imo showed her playmates and her mother how to do this, her friends showed their mothers, and gradually more and more monkeys began to wash their sweet potatoes instead of eating them grit and all. At first, only the female adults who imitated their children learned, but gradually others did also.

One day, the scientists observed all that all the monkeys on that particular island washed their sweet potatoes before eating them. Although this was significant, what was even more fascinating was that this change in monkey behavior did not take place only on this one island. Suddenly, the monkeys on all the other islands were now washing their sweet potatoes as well-despite the fact that monkey colonies on the different islands had no direct contact with each other.

'The hundredth monkey' was the hypothesized anonymous monkey that tipped the scales for the species: the one whose change in behavior meant that all monkeys would from then on wash their sweet potatoes before eating them. As an allegory, The Hundredth Monkey holds the promise that when a critical number of people change their attitude or behavior, culture at large will change. What used to be unthinkable is done by some, and then many; once a critical number of people make that shift, it becomes what we do and how we are as human beings. Someone has to be a thirty-seventh monkey, and a sixty-third, and a ninety-ninth, before there is the hundredth monkey-and no one knows how close we are or how far away that hundredth monkey is until suddenly, we are there.

If you have ever walked a labyrinth, the journey is like this. You walk and walk, following a path that turns and changes directions over and over. You have no way of knowing how far it is to the center, until suddenly you are there. Once at the center-a symbolic place of insight and wisdom-you stay as long as you wish. Then it is time to take that knowledge or experience out into the world. And once again, you walk and walk the labyrinthine path, not knowing how close or far you are from the place you will emerge. Until you take that one last turn, and suddenly, you are out.

Like Imo and Her Friends

For human culture to change-for there to be a hundredth monkey-there has to be a human equivalent of Imo and her friends. For patriarchy to become balanced by the discerning wisdom and compassion that are associated with the feminine aspects of humanity, and by the indigenous wisdom and relatedness to all living things and to the planet, that shift will come in this hundredth-monkey way. I believe that this will happen when there are a critical number of women's circles: for patriarchy to change, there has to be a millionth circle. That's because what the world needs now is an infusion of the kind of wisdom women have and the form of the circle itself is an embodiment of that wisdom. Marshall McLuhan's famous expression, 'The medium is the message,' greatly applies to women's circles: a circle is nonhierarchical-this is what equality is like. This is how a culture behaves when it listens and learns from everyone in it.

In more ways than one, women talk in circles: conversation takes a spiral shape in its subjective exploration of every subject. Listening, witnessing, role modeling, reacting, deepening, mirroring, laughing, crying, grieving, drawing upon experience, and sharing the wisdom of experience, women in circles support each other and discover themselves, through talk. Circles of women supporting each other, healing circles, wisdom circles, soul sister circles, circles of wisewomen, of clan mothers, of grandmothers. Circles of crones, circles of pre-crones, lifetime circles and ad hoc circles, even circles of women in cyberspace and the business place, circles are forming everywhere. It's 'Imo and her friends' getting together in circles, and learning how to be in one.

The more circles there are, the easier it is for new circles to form; this is how morphic fields work. Each circle is a regeneration of the archetypal shape and form that draws from every woman's circle that ever was, and each circle in turn adds to the field of archetypal energy that will make it easier for the next circle. Morphic fields and archetypes behave as if they have an invisible pre-existence outside of space and time, become instantly accessible to us when we align ourselves with that form, and are expressed in our thoughts, feelings, dreams, and actions. The circle is much more than the experience of this generation, a sacred circle especially.

See One, Do One, Teach One

See one, do one, teach one. When I was in medical school, this was the medical student mantra. This is how doctors learned procedures, an apprenticeship model of hands-on experience. Circle experiences are much the same, though it may be that the first circle you see is in your mind's eye and imagination. Then you might join a woman's circle or form one. Being in a circle is a learning and growing experience that draws upon the wisdom and experience, commitment, and courage of each one in it. Circles go through stages and changes, flourish or flounder, heal or hurt its members, and may be a transient experience or a lifetime one. Just as relationship skills carry over into circles, there is a vice versa; the circle experience can have a radically positive effect on relationships outside the circle, because it can provide a model-a place to practice honest and caring communication, until this is what you do and expect from others in your life. In this way, it can lead you to change the patriarchal structure of your relationships. As we begin to change our personal relationships, that change spreads. It's like throwing pebbles in a pond; each one has an impact and an effect, with concentric rings of change rippling out and affecting other relationships.

Changing Yourself and
Your Share of the Patriarchy

If you suppress or put a lid on how you feel, minimize or deny what you see, or don't say what you want, and nobody in your life seems to notice, a circle is an egalitarian learning place. Just by being there. A circle that is trustworthy has a spiritual center and a respect for boundaries. It is a powerful transformer of the women in it. Circles also function as support groups; if you want to change something in your life or in yourself, it's a home base from which to go out and try. In a patriarchal climate, a circle of equals can be like an island of free speech and laughter. It makes us conscious of the contrast, through which we become aware of what we do to perpetuate the status quo, and how we might change it.

Every important relationship is a universe of two. Even though there are only two people in it, you are either in a circle or a hierarchy. If there is an unspoken assumption that you will defer or be subordinate and accept the other's judgment or choices in place of your own-you are living in a patriarchy of two. It is your particular share of the patriarchy, which can change if you do.

From One Circle
to the Millionth Circle

Being in one circle leads to being in others. In the same way that colonists in ancient Greece took coals from the fire in the center of the round hearth, from the home temple, with which to light the fire in the new temple, and a new bride took fire from her mother's hearth to light the fire in her new home, anyone who has been in a sacred circle can take that spirit-and that archetype and morphic field-into a new circle, or another part of her life.

You might move and form a new circle. Or not move, and start a second circle. You might speak of your circle to a friend, and be the inspiration for her to start a new women's circle. Or you may read this book, and decide that you want a circle to be in. The propagation of circles can, in this way, resemble the spread of strawberry plants: they throw out runners that put down roots and become new plants, until there is a field of them.

Women's circles form one at a time. Each circle expands the experience of being in one to more women. Each woman in every circle who is changed by it takes this experience into her world of relationships. Until, on one fine day, a new circle will form, and it will be the millionth circle-the one that tips the scales-and brings us into the post-patriarchal human era.