Calling the Circle
Awakening—Where We Are Now
I come from the middle. I grew up in Indiana and Minnesota, in the matrix of two families: descended from my mother’s line of Scandinavian farmers and my father’s line of Scotch-Irish-English tinkers, beekeepers, and preachers. I spent the first twenty years of my adult life living in the middle of the country, in the middle of the middle class. This sense of personal placement is important because it is the rootedness of middle ground I bring to my own awakening—and to the work of the circle I present in this book.
On the suburban edge of Minneapolis, where I lived most of four decades, the air is still breathable, trees grow, and children cluster brightly on street corners to wait for the school bus. From this center place, throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, I ventured out across the continent to teach but always returned to rest in the lake-studded city with its drastic seasons. Here I was surrounded by the moderate people who collectively represent the “American dream” of a decent and comfortable life. It teaches us much, this life in the middle, whether in Missouri, Minnesota, or Manitoba; downtown Chicago, London, Frankfurt, Cape Town, or Sydney; farms in Kansas or Sweden, vineyards in Spain or Israel. While taking on the cultural flavors of a thousand different surroundings, the stability of middle-class existence has become the dominant model of modern life worldwide. This is the vision we have been taught to aspire to, the scene that shows up in countless variations on television, in movies, and in books to reinforce the collective fantasy about what is desirable and achievable. It is this fantasy that is falling apart.
As we grapple with the awareness that our personal lives cannot be separated from the life of our times, we are forced to reconsider the assumptions, expectations, and values that have guided our lives thus far. One by one by one by one, something happens that shakes us into awareness.
When one vision falls, another vision rises. This is not usually a sudden switch, but a long process of the old paradigm fading away—struggling with itself to let go, subverting new forces, becoming reactionary and rigid exactly because the inevitable is obvious. We are losing our way of life; and we need to lose it, in order not to lose life itself.
Our awakenings come in many guises—some surprise life has up its sleeve—and bang, we are shifted out of personal or cultural sleep. Trying to describe this phenomenon once to a friend, I remember saying, “I’ve been lifted up, given a brisk shaking by huge unseen hands, and set firmly down again. Everything around me looks the same, but everything inside me will never be the same again. And then somebody casually asks, ‘Hi, how are you?’ and I don’t know what to say.”
And so the fading of what-is-established gives rise to what-is-possible. The new vision starts to come into focus—struggling with itself to shift from dream to reality, tangential, experiential, a vulnerable and determined seed. We are claiming a more aware way of life; we need our awareness in order to save life itself.
Questions flood us: How will we live through this much change? How will our children and grandchildren live? From what sources will we draw our values? What will have meaning? What will offer stability? How will we take care of ourselves, our loved ones, and all the world’s strangers? How will we care for the planet that sustains us? Is everything all right?
As our vision of what constitutes successful living shifts from acquisition to accountability, we seek social and spiritual forms that help us address these questions. It is the premise—and the promise—of this book that gathering in peer-led, spirit-centered circles provides such a community forum.
We are living in the middle of an experiment in how to be human. Since around 1970, with the rise of popular psychology, millions of people have gone through some form of awakening to consciousness. Tumbled along with everything else that is happening in the culture and in our personal lives, there is this added ingredient: consciousness. Throughout human history there have always been lone visionaries, but never before has the call to awaken been heeded by so many ordinary people.
In a decade-long series of studies, Paul H. Ray, a research sociologist, has identified three main worldviews that act as dynamic subcultures in the United States: three different worlds of meaning and valuing.1 The first worldview is held by Traditionalists, or Heart-landers, who believe we can correct the ills of the modern age by returning to small-town, religious America, corresponding to the period 1890-1930. The second worldview, held by 47 percent of Americans, is that of Modernists, who idealize capitalism, technology, materialism, and science. The third worldview is held by Trans-modernists, also called Cultural Creatives, who push the edge of social-psychological-spiritual movements.
While I personally identify with the Transmodernists, the circle as it will be presented throughout this book can be applied within all three worldviews. The central example concerns a group that is certainly Modernist in its view, and many short examples show the circle in Traditionalist settings, being used to uphold the values of the middle ground from which I come.
Though Ray’s study was conducted in the United States, the roots of these subcultures arise from European history and can be seen in other Western nations as well. The amazing statistic in this study is that 24 percent of the American population identifies itself as Trans-modernist. We’re talking about forty-four million mostly middle-class, highly educated people, about 60 percent women, 40 percent men. Cultural Creatives tend to be savvy idealists who consume in an ecologically sound manner, support diversity and self-actualization, and are determined to integrate their personal experience with an optimistic view of the future. As Ray points out, the basic question Trans-modernists ask is, “Having reinvented ourselves, how can we reinvent “society?”
Forty-four million people contemplating the connection between personal growth and social change sets loose an amazing force in the United States, and the impact of these numbers keeps multiplying, country by country, throughout Western culture. This is a force way beyond the “hundredth monkey.” We are a global subculture based on consciousness. We do not know what long-term influence our consciousness will have on the species—but it is certainly shaking things up, speeding up the rate of change, and generating tremendous social and spiritual tensions. It is my greatest hope for the circle that it can provide a forum for bringing these tensions into dialogue.
A basic definition of consciousness is the mind’s capacity to observe the self in reality and to be thoughtful about our actions. I remember the day I really “got” consciousness. I remember it because I was twenty-four years old.
It was early spring of 1970, the year Ray cites for the inception of Transmodernism, and I was living in England, working part time and actively seeking something for which I had no words. I wandered around London, especially the Soho district, the focal point of the counterculture. There was a head shop I hung around, soaking up the atmosphere, the incense, and many cups of jasmine tea. I was still a not-very-worldly, drug-free onlooker to most of the hippie scene. One day in the midst of a small group conversation, a man leaned toward me and said, “I have a message for you. What you seek you will find in the Chalice Gardens at Glastonbury.” Before I could question him, he was gone.
Two days later I took the train to Bath and the autobus over to Glastonbury. I visited the abbey where Guinevere and Arthur are buried and wandered around the town looking for gardens, growing increasingly frantic. Here I was at the beginning of my quest, and whatever I was looking for, I couldn’t find it. Missing the signals I was sure were all around me, I felt stupid, alone, and misled. “What am I doing here?” I kept asking. “Who is trying to guide me? What do you want?” No insight or answers came.
The Chalice Gardens turned out to be a large cemetery outside town. In early April, the green hillsides were spotted with gravestones and daffodils. I came upon a small, empty chapel. Thumbing through a Bible on the altar, I closed my eyes, let the book fall open wherever it willed. My finger came to rest on Isaiah 55:12: “Ye shall go out with joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.”
Suddenly I was crying. I lay down on a long cart at the back of the chapel (only later did I realize it was a casket cart) and tried to calm myself as best I could. Taking long, slow breaths, I recited the phrase over and over: “I shall go out with joy … I shall go out with joy.”
I must have napped briefly. When I woke, the sun, which had been obscured by clouds all day, was flooding through the chapel window, the beam of light moving up my body in the waning of the afternoon. Warmth. I lay there accepting the caress. When the light reached my head, something changed: The light seemed to enter my mind—to turn my whole being to light. I was, literally and metaphorically, illumined. A capacity opened in my mind that allowed me to observe myself as I never had before.
Many people can tell stories about coming awake—a click in the mind that enables us to witness ourselves in the midst of our own actions. In consciousness, the larger Self and the smaller self become aware that they are accompanying each other. The ego has a consultant, an inner voice of guidance: the Soul’s voice joins the journey.
Consciousness is not a steady state for most of us, not an uninterrupted ascent of growth. We awaken, fall back, awaken more fully; go through periods of intense insight; plead for a little status quo to rest within. As Mary Catherine Bateson says, “Any place we stop to rest must also serve as the platform from which we leave.”2 Yet, with all the erratic uncertainties of growth, we continue to experience an arousal of collective mind.
Thirty years down the line, we discover we’re a quarter of the population of our countries. Though many of us aren’t quite sure how to direct this force beyond our personal lives, we hang on the precipice of awareness, unable to fall back, unsure how to go forward.
Over and over again I hear people express their longing to know what to do, how to apply personal consciousness to the world in some helpful way. I believe we can apply consciousness to heal the world—and we already are. Great power lies within us. What has been missing is the mechanism for organizing this power. I believe this mechanism of empowerment and action is the circle.
The kind of circle this book addresses is a council of ordinary people who convene to create a sacred space and from that space accomplish a specific task, supporting each other in the process. Because it has a sense of containment, the circle has a beginning, middle, and end that are framed through simple rituals appropriate to the group and setting. The circle has a shared, verbalized intention so that everyone knows why they are gathered. The circle self-governs and corrects its course through the adoption of commonsense agreements of behavior. And when confusion arises, or the way is momentarily lost, everyone agrees to fall into reflective silence, refocus on the group’s highest purpose, and follow protocols for problem solving that reestablish trust and cohesion. In such a circle leadership rotates, responsibility is shared, and the group comes to rely deeply on spirit.