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.
-Victor Hugo

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.

aady
7/25/2008 1:57:38 AM

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