Let the Circle Lead
“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.” ~ Black Elk
A circle has no leader. It shows us what we must follow.
A circle is a primal wholeness. The social and spiritual architecture of the circle is simple, non-hierarchical and natural. It replicates an eternity that flows through the arc of time, and the web of connections that hold all of life. A circle is a fractal of the totality of life expressing all of the directions, and all the phases and faces of existence: birthing, growth, maturation and death. To pray and listen in a circle repeatedly, regularly over the arc of time is to recognize the eternal and transpersonal aspects of every person’s struggles, joys, growth, and desires. It is to come to know and feel the mirror that each person’s experience offers for my own, and to receive these sacred mirrors as a continuous invitation to more coherent participation in the life of my tribe. It is to feel myself in others and others in me and so to move with greater empathy, respect and compassion. The circle is life speaking with life – a feedback loop for living harmony.
When I sit in circle, I am a member, a listener, a co-equal part of the Collective prayer. When I sit in circle, before the altar of All of My Relations, I am witnessed by my community, my elders and by spirit. I am seen, and I see. If I am falling apart, I am held. If I am strong, I am part of the collective strength. If I have courage, it is because I am reflected by my tribe as one who is willing to show up, both in pleasure and in pain, in struggle and in grace. If I soften and open, it is because I am reminded that the heart is home, and that the path of embrace is the one that leads us all to greatest grace. My life is elevated because I experience it through the mirror of the whole. My life makes sense, not because I am “special”, but because the particular ways in which I feel, give, grieve, create, and gather serves to the One Great Life.
About two years ago, I started going to a Chanupa (Pipe) and Wachuma (Sacred Andean Plant Medicine) Ceremonies with George Grey Eagle Bertelstien, an elder living in Berkeley, CA who has held pipe ceremonies and medicine ceremonies for over 25 years. George is the steward and space holder for our circle, he does not lead in the way we commonly think of leadership in the West. He would not call himself “a leader.” Rather, he is a dedicated follower of the ways of ceremony, a listener to the medicine who has given everything in the calling and the vision to steward life in this way. He is a servant. As one who has given everything, we trust him. We take his lead. We follow. And, we, too, show up to serve the circle. As elder, he defines the space, sets the boundaries, shares the teachings, opens the heart. His stewardship is clear, unwavering, intensely loving and immensely disciplined, yet it arises though a deeply feminine surrender to his own prayer. He is in dialogue with all of life as the medicine. His eldership is the closest model I have to the way I now choose to live and lead in the world. I am choosing to lead through a deepening listening to life, to my creator and to the circle, the sacred hoop of all of my relations.
In the circle, I pray to my creator – not the impersonal god of books and institutions, but my personal creator who I can talk to, who listens, and who “speaks” with me through everything – through my body, my emotions, my friends, my family, my community, the water, the buffalo skull, the eagle feather, the song of the rising sun – everything. With the sacrament of tobacco and the power of my voice, I pray. Through the prayer, I meet the unknown, I open my heart, and I set a clear trajectory of intent for my life. Through the prayer, I gain clarity beyond words that I carry daily into work and relationships. In this way, the prayer continues to unfold as my life, and again, I meet my life and continue the prayer. It is a circle.
In Pipe Ceremony, we pray in this way: we give gratitude; we ask for what we most want; we ask for help. Then we get quiet and listen. Our listening to each other makes us transparent as it amplifies and harmonizes the prayer. Then we smoke the prayer, passing the sacred pipe from heart to heart, surrendering outcomes to the divine intelligence that governs All.
Praying in this way has shown me that we human beings all want the same things, all feel the same pains, all struggle in the same ways. We all suffer pain and loss, we all revel in victory, abundance and success, we all want a good life for our selves and the people we love, we all crave intimacy, connection, direction and meaning. We are all deepening our capacity to be with the unknown and the difficult, and to soften and open to life, even as we get clearer and stronger in creating our deepest heart desires. We all fall down, and are ever growing in courage, strength, surrender and discernment. Sitting in circle teaches all of this. It invites immense compassion and empathy. And, it supports participation because everyone has a unique place and everyone is the same. We see again and again the mirror that no one is perfect, yet our commitment and right effort bring great gifts into our own lives and to the world. We say, “Bless your life.” These words elevate both the sacred and the profane – the “life-y-ness” of our lives.
The circle has taught me to get humble. “Getting humble” means setting down indignance, entitlement, judgment, importance and smallness. It means surrendering ego defenses, taking ideas, opinions and preferences less personally, and literally becoming more naked to what Spirit asks. “Getting humble” means to cease the endless human vanity of thinking that I have all the answers. It means setting down rage or frustration at life or at God and instead practicing trusting, asking and allowing. “Getting humble” means to take the corrections that life offers, in the form of suffering or disharmony, and to find a new prayer for greater grace. “Getting humble” means not rejecting what is. The prayer is always to embrace what is and to thank it. This gratitude is the gateway to transformation. It is through this authentic “thank you” that I am empowered to stand in the blessing, the bigness and the beauty of my life.
Getting to humility is not always easy. In August, I was hosting the VISION Soul Quest Ceremony I do in Mount Shasta every summer. For the first time, George and many of my medicine family had come to support the ceremony. I felt intensely honored and humbled by their presence, willingness and collective wisdom. But, I was a mess – completely stressed out, feeling terrified of doing the wrong thing, of mis-stepping, or of in any way dishonoring or upsetting my medicine family or any of the participants in the quest itself. I felt like I was going to do “it” wrong – meaning everything and anything. My inner perfectionist was literally wreaking havoc on my inner compass. The whole situation was a perfect storm of triggers for my deepest control patterns and ego defenses. The people I most love and respect had showed up to support me and to learn from me, and I could not bring myself to surrender to the circle of our co-creation. George, of course, noticed this, and jokingly said to me, “honey, you just try to make a bad prayer.” My inner spin continued.
Once the questers were on the mountain, those of us holding space entered into a second cycle of medicine ceremony. When my turn came to pray, I said to George, “I don’t know what to pray for. It’s not that I need to be right, I just want to stop making myself wrong.” He chuckled and said, “Oh, that’s a good prayer. That’s the prayer to not be an ass-hole.” What he meant was that, the more you try to do it right, the more you generally do it wrong. There is no “right,” there is just the profound and total act of showing up. When we show up to create big ceremony, a big prayer, part of us is convinced that it is “us” leading the ceremony. This part competes with the part that is actually surrendered to the ceremony, so we make ourselves and others crazy. “Not being an ass-hole” means letting go of thinking we are (or need to be) in charge.
Then he said, “Let me show you a trick. Get down on your knees.” He had me kneel on the ground and place my hands behind my head. Then he put a cup of medicine in my hands and told me to carry it over my head without spilling a drop – a simple, total gesture. “The only way you can do that is to be a human being. Breathe. Be a human being.” I followed, crying, breathing, praying with every aspect of my being to release, to let go of the tyrant of my own perfectionist. I prayed to surrender my striving to be enough or to “get it right.” I asked for the simple poise and trust to relax and be a human being. Then I drank the medicine, letting it fill me, letting all of my emotions release, and trusting the prayer.
It worked. Something huge and subtle shifted in me that day. When the questers returned, I was able to receive them with an open heart and a quite mind. I was able to carry out the rest of the ceremony as listener, a leader yet an equal member. I was more able to simply be a human doing her part for the life of the tribe.
And, if any of us wanted or needed any kind of affirmation that we had genuinely given our prayer in service to the one great life, we received it from the spirits of the land in the form of an extraordinary omen. At the completion of the ceremony, an Eagle and a Condor soared together, magically, over our heads. It felt as though they were showing us, doubtlessly, that we had married our hearts, bodies and minds through our prayers, that our prayer were heard, and that we had genuinely surrendered ourselves to spirit.
The shifts continue to deepen. I am now more able notice the part of me that generates answers (so that I can feel safe) and to restrain that part so that I can listen more fully to how to serve the situation at hand. I have learned to pause and ask for help with every situation in my life: big, little and in between. In doing this, I have discovered a well of connection, surrender and of faith where I can flow with the changes and also rest. Rather than immediately seeking an answer or solution in any situation, I tend to exhale into trust first, then ask what is in highest good.
I am experiencing renewed collaboration and passionate co-creation in my work. I have initiated a community-wide conversation with all 60 Dancing Freedom Facilitators about how we can collectively create our brand to reflect each person’s unique leadership contribution, thus shaping a unified circle of embodied change-agents all serving the same purpose of embodied awakening within an immense diversity of communities. We are literally creating Dancing Freedom as a reflection of the whole circle of teachers. It is an experiment where leadership is emergent through the shared heart, mind and practice of my community, not through me as the founder of the school. This fluidity is being supported by an increasing coherence in the way I hold the role of founder (elder) with lightness and clear authority. It is trustworthy because I trust myself. I hold the anchor, and I welcome true participation from everyone. This is the wisdom of the circle in action in my life.
George’s guidance and these traditional ceremonies and ways of prayer have changed everything. I live in the circle of life. I have learned how to be in a daily conversation with My Creator and with all things – animals, elements, directions… everything – as animate, power-filled Relations that I am here to serve. I have learned to engage every aspect of my life as prayer. And, I am beginning to see the world with medicine eyes, hear the world with a medicine heart and act in the world as “a medicine person” – one who lives transparently and who navigates from a constant dialogue with spirit and with the life principle itself. These ceremonies are teaching me how to lead through listening, to be authentic and simple in all of my relationships, and to love and serve with a humble and grateful heart. They reveal to me again and again that the Power of the World flows in a circle, and that the best I can do to “lead” is to shape myself as a servant to that Power.