Excerpt from The Sacred Ego: Making Peace with Ourselves and Our World by Jalaja Bonheim, Ph.D.
Whether we realize it or not, every circle we form today links us back to the first peoples who ever gathered around the warming flames of a fire. We know circles in our blood and bones. Our familiarity with them is not just ancient, it’s instinctual—for any activity a species performs for millennia becomes part of its nature.
To this day, most indigenous peoples honor the circle as a sacred medicine that can treat physical ailments, cure emotional problems, restore mental health and connect us with the Divine. The Navaho use sacred circles in their healing rituals. Australian Aboriginals draw circles to invoke the womb of creation. Tibetan monks paint elaborate mandalas, circular maps of the cosmos, while Hindus meditate on round diagrams called yantras. And when the Sioux chief Black Elk was asked to explain his culture to the white race, the circle was the first thing he mentioned:
You have noticed that everything an Indian does is in a circle. And that is because the Power of the World always works in circles, and everything tries to be round.… This knowledge came to us from the outer worlds with our religion. Everything the Power of the World does is done in a circle. The sky is round, and I have heard that the earth is round like a ball, and so are all the stars. The wind, in its greatest power, whirls. Birds make their nests in circles, for theirs is the same religion as ours.
As Black Elk emphasizes, the circle, far more than a mere geometric form, is a key to understanding the cosmos. By aligning ourselves with its teachings, we, who have fallen out of harmony with nature, can find our path back to wholeness.
“You know the way,” the circle tells us, “because wholeness is what you are.” And in our circles, we realize it’s true: we do indeed know the way.
Our present day ego is plagued with anxiety and fear. In part, this has to do with the insane speed and stressfulness of modern life. We constantly whip ourselves into action and rarely rest deeply. Moreover, we know that, despite our numbers, our own species is as much endangered as any other.
Most of the time, we live in denial of this fact. Nonetheless we know that our situation is precarious, and this awareness infuses our lives with a latent, often unacknowledged sense of insecurity. In addition, we may be dealing with personal sources of anxiety such as divorce, illness or financial stress.
What shall we do with all this anxiety? Where can we go with it? Many people respond by having a drink, or two, or three. Some lose themselves in television or video games. Others go shopping. But in the circle, we realize we have another option: We can connect.
There are four forms of connection that Circlework facilitates. First, it invites us to connect with ourselves. Held in the compassionate embrace of the circle, we discover we are in fact capable of staying present with ourselves, of listening and paying attention to the rich world that lies within us.
Second, Circlework encourages us to connect with others in ways that are honest, authentic and intimate and that heal the pain of loneliness.
Third, Circlework teaches us to hear the unspoken messages of the circle itself. In the ancient language of sacred geometry, it assures us that we have not fallen off the map that we are securely held in the circle of life, that there is a place for us, and that we are and will always be connected to the center of our own being.
Last but not least, the circle connects us with Spirit ―or, if you prefer, with Life, with Love, with Being. Beliefs have nothing to do with this experience, nor can words capture it. Something deep within us that closes down amidst the rush and tumble of daily life now begins to unfurl. This sense of expansion brings relief, gratitude, wonder and awe. Instead of merely hearing the deafening voice of our ego-mind, we now begin to hear the quiet voice of wisdom. Guidance appears, clarity emerges and peace returns to our inner world.
In a love-infused circle, you can feel layers of tension and fear melting away that you didn’t even know you were holding. At last, you can just be you. You don’t have to pretend, or try to measure up or compete. There’s nothing to achieve, nothing to accomplish, nothing to figure out. You can give your mind permission to rest. You can just let yourself be, without trying to improve or change yourself.
Our world is insanely competitive, and when people first come to the circle, the fear of not measuring up often hangs around their shoulders like a leaden mantle. “Are they going to like me? Will I be accepted, included, loved?” As soon as we enter the circle, our inner judge kicks in and tried to assess our position within the group.
Yet in the embrace of the circle, our fears tend to quickly dissolve as we experience our own inner beauty and our value. Each face begins to glow as if lit from within, and we realize how ludicrous the very idea of comparison was. We are so different and so utterly unique. How can one compare the sun and the moon? How can one compare the beauty of a babbling brook to that of a majestic mountain range? Each one of us is a priceless gift to the world.
Paradoxically, this space of non-doing and non-striving is the womb of true transformation. It happens effortlessly and organically here, the same way flowers blossoms, not because you are trying to make it happen, but because you are finally getting out of your own way. Sensing an opening, your soul begins to wake up and reveal itself. Your heart and ego begin to communicate, to negotiate, to argue and fight and dance and make love, until out of that lovemaking, something new is born. You leave the circle changed, renewed, reborn, with an open heart. And for an hour or a day or a week, you continue to think with your heart.
Then, you may begin to slip back into old habits. Your mind starts spinning out of control. Belief addictions get triggered. You get overwhelmed by worry or shame or judgment. This is perfectly normal. Circlework is after all not a one-time fix but rather an ongoing practice. And because it’s a practice that goes against the grain of mainstream society, we need the support and encouragement of a community.
And yet, lasting change does occur. The first time we come to the circle, a seed is planted in us, and every time we return, we water and nurture that seed until it grows into a tall tree with strong roots. Then, wherever we go, the circle goes with us.
©2015 Jalaja Bonheim
The Sacred Ego: Making Peace with Ourselves and Our World
(This title will be released on July 28, 2015, published by North Atlantic Press)