Discover more from Something to Say with Abigail Bergstrom
The Power of Women's Circles
What They Are and How to Hold One
The idea of humans gathering around the fire pit is tale as old as time, and yet the circle format is still employed every single day. Quakers hold their meetings in circles; children are educated in circles, gathering on the floor to learn their ABCs; AA meetings are held in circles; and notice too then the next time your family are in crisis how you naturally congregate in a circle to create a setting where difficult matters can be deconstructed. A circle is a closed line that divides the plane into two regions: the exterior and the interior. There are those who are in and those who aren’t. And when you’re on the inside of that protected space – metaphorically or not – something special can happen.
I first became interested in women’s circles when researching for my novel, I wanted to explore them as an environment for self-recovery, an avenue for healing. The first one I ever attempted was with my sisters. We met for a spa weekend in West Wales, I think swimming, eating warm welsh cakes and taking a break from doom scrolling was on their agenda, not the “woo woo” bag of crystals I whipped from my pocket and suggest we place at the centre of the table before divulging our repressed psychological innards. I was perhaps a tad overzealous. And they reluctant, if not suspicious. What did I want them to say? And was there really a need to construct such a formal temenos? But it was undoubtedly a healing experience for all of us; we created a space to voice things that previously we’d felt we could not say. Worse even, things we’d not been conscious of ourselves until we formed a container to put them in.
Such a gathering is ancient and transcends many cultures, the purpose of women’s circles is plentiful: spiritual practices; menstruation traditions; to enhance support; as lunar calendar celebrations, the list goes on. They span and are sacred to many religions, practised since the 5th and 6th centuries, from Native American tribes to Wiccan paganism, Christianity, Judaism and so on. But it’s probably fair to say they fell out of favour in Western culture, this lack of coming together as women is linked to a detachment from feminine power in a patriarchy that has revered masculine traits and ways of being and is seeking – now more than ever - to repress and control women and their bodies.
I am also part of an international women’s circle organised by the psychotherapist and mentor, Fiona Arrigo, which I’ve been joining virtually for over a year now. We meet monthly on a Saturday, and I’ll level with you: getting my arse there isn’t always easy. I’ll groan at my alarm clock and crash my head back into the pillow with a burning reluctance, eventually forcing unwilling limbs into the closest available clothing. Tired and wishing I’d just taken the morning to rest, once I show up we talk, meditate, sometimes we do Qigong, other times we put music on and dance our arses off. (Yes, I can hear myself). The idea was at first terrifying to me too, and I can’t yet bring myself to shake about on screen, instead opting for a relatively fearless jig with my camera off. But watching those much braver women dance about fills me with an abundance of joy that’s hard to put to words, yet I want to try and share a piece of it with you here. A women’s circle after all is a place for transparency, in the eyes of other women we can’t hide. And it always ends up being the most restorative part of my weekend.
It feels important to mention that hanging out in a large group of women is far from my ideal set-up. The thought actually makes my colon convulse. I’ve had complicated experiences within this dynamic (I think many of us have). Perhaps for me it started with the bullying I experienced at school – teenage girls can be the cruellest – and it can still be daunting to be in a room full of adult women to this day. There’s a whole other newsletter in unpicking the reasons why – the internalised misogyny marking other women out as the competition in a world that tells us space is finite might be a good place to start. The women I meet with in my circle are from all over the world, and be it substance-abuse recovery, going through a divorce, battling with the process of writing a book or even just feeling lonely – our problems, very much like our physical selves, at first seem miles apart. And yet, and yet, the conversation always leads to a synchronicity that surprises me. At the root of our struggle is a bridge. At the bottom of our narratives a collective feeling, and even though it shape shifts within us too quickly to name, in these circles we’re able to connect through it. I think the feeling is imbedded in our suppression, attached to a mutual pain from suffering and restriction that’s been so regularly and readily inflicted.
The circle establishes a very different style of communication: much unlike a rectangular board meeting, it assigns value to every individual equally and moves us into a safe non-hierarchical set-up in which everyone present has the opportunity to speak without interruption. A women’s circle isn’t just a physical thing, I find it helpful to think of it as an emotional or psychological space. A circle is a temenos, which is the Greek word for a sacred precinct. Or if psychology is more your thing, temenos was one of Carl Jung’s favourite expressions and related to the magic circle which acted as a safe space for psychological work to take place.
I have carried out women’s circles with close friends too, on a Tuesday night in lieu of bookclub or the more classic dinner party format. And I’ve discovered things about them that I’ve never seen or noticed before. It has stimulated the deepest self-compassion whilst also making me more considerate of those around me. After all, we’re all going through something almost all of the time. Women have been socialised to be caregivers, it’s ingrained in us as daughter, friend, wife, mother and yet caring for ourselves falls to the bottom of the pile. Wait, is it even in the pile? Maybe, coming together with other women is exactly what we need to nourish and replenish ourselves, to access a mode of rest we otherwise struggle to allow for. Maybe we can find some encouragement in a political and social climate that keeps knocking us to our knees. Maybe it will remind us that we deserve to be intact and not slowly and continuously broken down by the problematic narratives and often dangerous realities that surround us.
You might like to have a go at creating your own little temenos, if so, instinct is the real guide but respect and confidentiality are essential. You can find lots of information about this online, but here are some quick-fire ideas to get you going:
1. Suggest it to those you think might be interested and don’t be embarrassed – most people are on the market for true connection.
2. You can hold the circle in all different kinds of spaces – in your living room, sat on a blanket in the garden, around the kitchen table. But a private setting is best.
3. Set an intention, start by holding hands (don’t cringe, stay with me) and state why you wanted to bring these women together: to connect; to share how you’re all feeling; to check in with one another in a more considered way etc.
4. Let go of hands and take it in turns to speak, each individual should have their moment to talk into the circle for as long as they need. No interruptions! No reassurances, or words of encouragement. And if the person needs to let some emotions out, let them, don’t limit them by comforting or soothing (at least not until the end of the ceremony).
5. You will know when a person is done talking and then the next person can start. When everyone has had their turn, you can open the circle out into group conversation and dialogue.
6. Don’t worry if you feel like you have nothing to say! You might just be surprised by what comes out when you allow yourself the space.
With what we’re facing at the moment creating space for ourselves as women is more invaluable than ever. But equally I see no reason why these circles need to be limited to women only and think they can offer a lot of people community and support.
If you do try your own circle, please let me know how it goes and share in the comments below.
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