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Sacred Circles

Sacred Circles by Robin Carnes

some of my favourite excerpts…

In their compelling and wise book, The Feminine Face of God: The Unfolding of the Sacred in Women, Sherry Anderson and Patricia Hopkins write about the unique experience that women’s circles bring to women’s spiritual development. They describe women’s circles as “containers of emergence.” We love this image. Like a nest with fledglings at once hesitantly and boldly poking their heads out and venturing forth, women’s circles provide a safe place where each person can begin trying her wings. In this time of heavy work and home demands, financial pressures, media blasting, and violence, women need a place just to be and become. A place where there is nothing to prove. A place where things are quieter and where there is an opportunity to listen, to oneself and others, intently.

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essence, our spirit is what animates and quickens us, what makes us alive. Spirituality, then, in our view, is the practice of staying consciously connected with what makes us alive, with our own selves, with one another, and with the Great Other. Another aspect of spirituality is the part of us that strives to make existence meaningful. Are all these events and circumstances of our lives truly random and pointless, as agnostics and atheists would argue? Or is there some deeper design in our lives, in what happens to us, in our work, in our relationships? Knowing at the outset that we will never have all the answers, embark on our spiritual journeys in order to make sense of our lives.

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Ritual is the act of sanctifying action—even ordinary actions—so that it has meaning: I can light a candle because I need the light or because the candle represents the light I need. CHRISTINA BALDWIN, Life’s Companion

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So spiritual development is anything that deepens or broadens that sense of connection, anything that helps us to become clearer about our own individual way of channeling Spirit through us and onto the planet. When we grow spiritually we find meaning in what once looked like chaos. On the other hand, we may also find questions where we once thought we had things all figured out. In the book The Spiral Path, Chandra Patel states, “Spirituality is basically our relationship with reality.” Spiritual development,

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Manifesting a vision is not static and definitely not linear; rather, it is an organic process of adapting and changing as we interact with many unknowns. A seed planted in the ground automatically adjusts as it interacts with rocks, roots, poor growing conditions, infertile soil, and so on. This is the way of growth and manifestation. GAIL STRAUB AND DAVID GERSHON Empowerment

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Open with a few minutes of collective silence and stretching. As a way of entering the sanctuary of the circle, begin the meeting with a few moments of closed-eye silence. If you choose, you could also lead a few simple neck and head stretches and long, slow deep breaths. This helps people to become more aware of the present moment, letting go of other concerns of the day.

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We often use poetry; Rumi, Mary Oliver, Marge Piercy, and May Sarton are some of our favorites.

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I think women’s spirituality today at this time is like the life you find teeming in tidal pools in the shallows of the oceans. Once that life takes hold, the sea anemones and tiny crustaceans, the starfish and the plankton, find their own food and their own means of protection. They can sustain their own lives. But in the beginning, life in the pools is fragile and must be protected from just developing, just finding our way, and we need deep, quiet, safe places in which to do this. (Carol Callopy, in The Feminine Face of God, by Sherry Ruth Anderson and Patricia Hopkins)

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What in your life is calling you? When all the noise is silenced, the meetings adjourned, the lists laid aside, and the wild iris blooms by itself in the dark forest, what still pulls on your soul? In the silence between your heartbeats hides a summons.

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Do you hear it? Name it, if you must, or leave it forever nameless, but why pretend it is not there? TERMA COLLECTIVE, The Box

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Ask everyone to share her expectations of the meeting and her concerns about it. Ask everyone to choose some article of clothing or jewelry she is wearing and tell the group about its significance or meaning to her. Ask everyone to tell her full name and then describe the meaning of her name, her feelings about it, or any brief story about how she got the name.

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You might want to choose one of the following suggestions for this deeper sharing: Ask each person to describe how the spirit is calling her in her life. Ask each person to describe the call that brought her to this meeting. Ask each person to describe how she feeds herself spiritually. Ask everyone to describe one situation, author, piece of music, or place that helps her to feel centered.

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Here are a few more of our favorite warm-up themes: The Art of Listening Relationships with Animals Where Do You Call Home? Color and Its Effects Inspiration—What Inspires You? Music and Spirituality Fun—How Do You Have It? Hand and Foot Massage Night

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Ritual is the act of consciously opening ourselves to the presence of Spirit.

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The Art of Ritual, Renee Beck and Sydney Barbara Metrick identity five broad categories of ceremonies: (1) those that mark beginnings, such as entering into adolescence or the onset of menses; (2) those that mark endings, such as divorce, moving away, graduating from school; (3) those that are intended to invoke healing, for example, a laying-on-of-hands ceremony; (4) those that facilitate and honor merging, like marriage or friendship; and finally (5) those that mark cycles, such as equinox

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Ritual is a collective experience, repeated and sanctified. We perform it to remind ourselves and one another that we are not alone, that we sing in chorus. E. M. BRONER Honor and Ceremony in Women’s Rituals

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For ritual to be really effective we need to be clear about our intention and to state it at the outset. “This is a ritual to…” “We are conducting this ritual in order to…” It needn’t be a lofty purpose. Most anything we are doing, as long as its aim is for the highest good, can be ritualized.

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The purpose of this time is to enter into internal sacred space—to create the opportunity for each person to set aside her day, her family, and her urgent concerns and to connect within herself, to feel centered. It is a more subtle state we are seeking than the social one. We have entered into a receptive mode. We open ourselves to the wisdom, the help or the insight that we are seeking. We are going within.

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To survive we must begin to know sacredness. The pace which most of us lives prevents this. CHRYSTOS in This Bridge Called My Back, edited by Cherrie Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa

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Whether they are used in discussion, council-style sharing, artwork, or quiet reflection, these questions can be used by the leaders to prompt the group: What happened for you? Were you moved or indifferent? Did the ceremony elicit any strong emotion? What was it? Did you receive guidance and insight? Any visual images? Did you feel strengthened, or is it too soon to tell?

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As Barbara Ardinger states in A Woman’s Book of Rituals, when it is engaged in consciously, “instead of ruts, ritual can create paths.”

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Seeking Wisdom This ritual is one that Sally and Robin participated in at a women’s wilderness retreat at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico. It was conducted around a bonfire, but that is not a prerequisite! Each woman wrote on a piece of paper a question that she had been wrestling with,

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folded the paper, and placed it in a hat. One by one, each woman drew a question that someone else had posed and answered it without knowing who had asked it. Unexpected wisdom emerged from such randomness.

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We recommend Barbara Ardinger’s book, A Woman’s Book of Rituals and Celebrations; Barbara Walker’s book, Women’s Rituals; and Jennifer Louden’s books, The Woman’s Comfort Book and The Woman’s Retreat Book. Not only are they all fun to read, they will inspire your imagination to create ceremonies that fit your occasion and mood exactly.

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THEMES FOR STARTING GROUPS Childhood Religion: The Faith of Our Fathers Awakening into the Natural World Creativity as a Practice A Long Lineage: Our Spiritual Foremothers THEMES FOR MORE INTIMATE GROUPS Food, Glorious Food Our Mothers, Ourselves Beauty: Mirror, Mirror on the Wall New Paths to Power Giving Birth THEMES FOR LONG-TERM GROUPS Menstruation: The Bleeding Time Money: Making It and Spending It Menopause: The Wisdom Years Climaxes and Contradictions: Talking About Sex Death and Dying THEMES FOR ANY GROUP, ANYTIME The Seasons: Reconnecting to the Rhythms of the Earth Potpourris and Pajama Parties

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SUGGESTED ACTIVITIES Leave plenty of time to do council-style sharing about each person’s childhood experience of religion. Let people describe this in as much detail as they can. Explore the question of how each person’s current life is influenced by her religious upbringing. Conduct a journaling exercise in which everyone writes the gifts she received from her religious upbringing. Sharing with the whole group could occur at this point. Then have each person write down all the lessons she has had to unlearn, or is still in the process of unlearning, with regard to her religious upbringing. Again, people may want to share these insights with the group.

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GUIDING QUESTIONS How have you been separated from the natural world? What are your fears about being in nature?

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Time and again, our group has provided a setting for us to experience and discuss our longing for this sacred connection. You will find that even if your group is not working with a nature theme, meetings will include many reminders that we humans are part of a much larger living world. However, we do suggest that periodically you choose to focus explicitly on the natural world as a dimension of our spirituality.

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What keeps you inside? What was your family of origin’s connection to the natural world? How have you reconnected with nature? How does nature speak to you most powerfully? When do you feel most connected? As a child, did you ever witness or participate in cruelty to animals? How did that feel? How does it feel now? How do you think it influenced you?

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Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by Annie Dillard Desert Quartet: An Erotic Landscape, by Terry Tempest Williams Sisters of the Earth: Women’s Prose and Poetry about Nature, edited by Lorraine Anderson

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Find some pithy nature quotes, read one at a time to your group, and invite people to journal in a stream of consciousness in response to the quote. Then read your writing out loud to one another. Share your favorite poems about nature.

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ALTAR CRAFT Let your imagination run free: rocks, leaves, shells, dirt. Have all the natural elements on the altar: water, air, fire, and earth. Make a pretend campfire indoors. Toast marshmallows. Once our group rigged a tentlike structure with blankets and all crawled inside.

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We can’t recommend The Artist’s Way highly enough. In fact, many women’s groups have formed specifically for the purpose of working through The Artist’s Way material together.

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What were you told as a child about your artistic ability? How did this affect you? What obstacles have you noticed to your creative expression? How do you define creativity? What have you told yourself about your creativity? How does your inner artist manifest herself? Another way of asking the same question is, Which activities give you the most pleasure? When are you the happiest? Where and how does your perfectionism show up? What have you always wanted to try and were afraid to? How are you learning to listen to yourself, to your deepest longings? What conditions, settings, or circumstances are the most conducive to your creativity?

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SUGGESTED ACTIVITIES Have women draw a representation of their bodies, drawing or coloring where they physically experience blockages in creativity. Share about these. Lead a guided visualization where each woman imagines herself in the throes of the creative experience. What is she doing? Where is she doing it? How does she feel? Make a group art piece and then destroy it, burn it, or bury it, like the Tibetan monks who sweep away their intricate colored sand mandalas after they have finished them. After a warm-up, do some gentle improvisational dancing. See what the group creates together. Have women bring in something they have made or written or sung for a creative, not

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Create a ritual where women share their creative blocks, writing them down on pieces of paper, then offering them to the fire. Do an exercise from The Artist’s Way or Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. Create a ritual to exorcise blocks to creativity. This one is based on The Artist’s Way. Have each person start by saying aloud something like “I am a brilliant creative artist.” Then have everyone write on a slip of paper the first negative thought that comes to mind in response to this affirmation. Repeat this ten to fifteen times. When everyone has made a list of all her negative self-criticisms, burn these lists together. You might want to read your lists aloud, all at the same time.

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ALTAR CRAFT Ask women to bring in objects they consider the fruits of their creativity. Each woman then places her objects on the altar and tells why she chose them. Or ask members to bring in their favorite beautiful object and ceremonially place it in the center.

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When you were growing up, who were your role models? Why? Did you have any models for spiritually evolved women? Did any appear in your actual lineage? Do you claim any spiritual foremothers now that you didn’t recognize as a child? If you could be in contact with any of your dead women ancestors for spiritual nurture, whom would you choose? How has this woman affected your life? Whom have you not yet claimed as a spiritual foremother? What stands in the way of claiming her?

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Introduce your spiritual foremothers to the group, and invent a ritual where you invite them into the circle. Share how you came to reconnect with their legacy. Tell one another stories of times you remember with your foremothers. Try to imagine what their lives would be like if they were alive today. What wise counsel would they be offering you? Share about your public role models (not in your biological family), such as historical figures. Women of different ages may have different public role models. Acknowledge and enjoy the generational differences. In what ways would you like to be regarded as a role model? Create a guided visualization where each person takes a question to someone in her spiritual lineage and receives wisdom. Show Donna Read’s film The Burning Times (available on video). Many of us may have had ancestors who were persecuted and killed for ostensibly practicing witchcraft but more probably because they threatened the patriarchal status quo. Conduct a ritual to remember those who have gone before and who have been forgotten (this might include the millions of women killed during the burning times).

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ALTAR CRAFT Make a shrine to your spiritual foremothers with pictures of them, gifts they may have given you, family Bibles, books. You might want to place underneath everything a shawl of theirs or an afghan a grandmother knitted. Or, place on the altar an object that symbolizes something for which you would like to be remembered.

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GUIDING QUESTIONS How would you characterize your relationship to food? How do you see food—as your friend or your enemy? Do you “eat to live” or “live to eat”? Do you use food to anesthetize yourself? How do you use or abuse food? How was food treated in your family of origin? How does food give you pleasure? Pain? What are you favorite foods, your comfort foods? Do you enjoy cooking? Is it a chore or a delight? What kind of food do you most enjoy cooking? What patterns have you noticed about your eating? How is food connected to your spirituality?

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Our Mothers, Ourselves If, like so many, your mothering was incomplete and your nurturing instinct underdeveloped, it is time to begin the task of creative healing. Our mother lack is a wound that happens by degrees: some are totally deprived and others only slightly hurt. But for all, the healing process involves becoming your own mother—really caring for yourself, recognizing and filling your own needs. GABRIELLE ROTH, Maps to Ecstasy

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We get along very well, veterans of a guerrilla war we never understood. JOAN DIDION Slouching Towards Bethlehem

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GUIDING QUESTIONS What was your relationship with your mother like when you were a child? How about your relationship with your mother as an adult? How do you see your mother’s traits and characteristics showing up in you? In your relationships? How do you feel about these similarities? How do you see your mother’s traits and characteristics showing up in how you mother?

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How do you feel about this? What do you most value about your mother? What do you most struggle with about your mother?

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SUGGESTED ACTIVITIES Draw a picture of you and your mother when you were a child. Share about it. Draw a picture of your feelings about this relationship. Share about it. Lead people on a guided fantasy about a perfect day with their mother. This day could take place either in current time or at a certain age in the past. What would you have for breakfast, what would you talk about, what would you do, how would you feel? Write or just visualize this perfect day with your mother. Is there anything you could do to bring this nurturing into your life now, either with your mother or just with yourself? Do a journaling exercise in which you ask people to write down, in no particular order or logic, everything they wish they had received from their mothers. The list might also include what they received that they wish they hadn’t. Share these lists with the group. Then ask each person to take the list of what she wanted to receive and consider that this is the list of what she needs to do to nurture herself. (This came from Revolution from Within, by Gloria Steinem.) Show a clip from a video of a mother and daughter, for example, Shirley MacLaine and Debra Winger in Terms of Endearment. Play a song about mothers, perhaps at the beginning of the meeting. We love the song “Place in My Heart,” by Sounds of Blackness.

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ALTAR CRAFT Swirl a soft cloth in the center of the circle. Have people bring in pictures of their mothers or of them with their mothers, and arrange the photos on the cloth. Arrange a matrioshka doll, the Russian doll where women are nested inside one another. Bring in symbols of maternity (pictures of mother animals, aprons, a warm bowl of custard).

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If you really want to open up a can of worms, and we usually do, introduce this issue! GUIDING QUESTIONS Do you think of yourself as beautiful? How has your definition of beauty evolved over the years? Do you feel that you are growing more or less beautiful? How does beauty relate to spirituality? When do you feel most beautiful or most ugly? What do men/women find beautiful? How important is beauty to you? What are your feelings about competing with other women in regard to looks? Have you ever done things to beat out another woman in the looks competition? What did you do? Why? How did you feel afterward? How do you think “lookism” affects your life?

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SUGGESTED ACTIVITIES Give one another facials or pedicures or manicures. Stage an inner beauty pageant. Bring in your favorite beauty implement for a show-and-tell. Conduct the “Blessing Way” ritual described in chapter 7. Ask women to come wearing no makeup, and share how that feels. Develop a guided meditation where women see themselves as beautiful as they could possibly imagine themselves being. What would that look like? Ask each woman to bring in a mirror she loves. Talk about some of the myths about beauty. Take Polaroid photos of one another. Draw your body—what you like and don’t like about yourself. Have a whole evening on just hair! Play Annie Lennox’s “Keep Young and Beautiful” on her Medusa CD. Its sarcasm hits the nail right on the beauty mark.

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People could bring objects that symbolize aspects of their own inner beauty, such as a big heart, to adorn the altar.

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Equally important to us is the “being” kind of power. For those of us who have a sense of what inner or intrinsic power looks like, this form of power is just as easy to detect as the “doing” variety. It may not involve making tons of money or running a big business. Rather, it might take the form of a woman who has developed the inner strength and clarity that allow her to trust her intuition. She has an internal guidance system that is not based solely on meeting others’ needs and expectations. She has achieved a kind of mastery over her mental and emotional states.

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GUIDING QUESTIONS What do you first think of when you hear the word power? Do you think of yourself as powerful? How would you describe your sense of power? When do you feel most powerful? What are you doing when you feel this way? Who is the most powerful person you know? Why? How do you feel when you are around him or her? How has your definition of power changed as you have grown older and wiser? What are your core negative beliefs about your ability to be powerful? How do you sabotage your own sense of power? With whom do you feel most powerful? Do you relate your personal sense of power to a higher power? In which realms do you feel most powerful? How successful have you been at translating your visions into reality? Do you think you are more powerful in the domain of “being” or “doing”? How are they interconnected in your life?

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Awakening Intuition, by Frances Vaughan

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SUGGESTED ACTIVITIES Create a guided meditation where you experience having power in your body, then draw your body with different colors and speak about your drawings. Tell stories about times when you have felt powerless and times when you have felt most powerful. Come dressed in the clothes you feel the most powerful wearing. Write a few wise sentences about power on a piece of paper, fold them up, and put them in a bowl. Then everyone take turns asking a question relating to herself and power. Draw a random response from the bowl. Silently meditate on the relevance and wisdom of the statement. Make up a fantasy about what you would do if you were the most powerful person in the world. Write this in your journal and share with the group. Bring in old magazines, cut out pictures and words, and make a collage of power for yourself or for the group altogether. Do a dance or movement that isolates each area of the body and lets that part lead. Notice which parts of the body feel most powerful and which feel weakest. Discuss.

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ALTAR CRAFT Make a collage of symbols of power ahead of time, and place it in the center of the room surrounded by candles. Have everyone bring in an object that symbolizes power for them. Place these together in the center, and have everyone share about the object as she places it on the altar.

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Power consists to a large extent in deciding what stories will be told. CAROLYN HEILBRUN

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Give everyone a hunk of clay, and have her sculpt what is gestating in her, what she is about to give birth to, or what she is currently birthing. Share about the sculpture. Put on some music without any words, and guide people in moving their bodies through the various stages of giving birth—conception, a growing idea or fetus, labor, and delivery. Give people lots of room to interpret this experience as they will. Share about the movement experience with the group. ALTAR CRAFT Bring for the altar anything bursting—ripe fruit, round objects, orbs, moons, Venus of Willendorf, pictures of Mother Earth, shells, angels.

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What is gestating in you at this time?

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Why would we ever want to talk about something so crass as money with our special spiritual friends, in our lovely serene circle? There are plenty of reasons! First of all, we need to start deprogramming ourselves from our negative beliefs and feelings about money. A woman who is walking around with a wallet full of maxed-out credit cards is probably in trouble. She will not be able to feel grateful, she will be feeling desperate. Couple this with an underlying mentality focused on scarcity, which tells us that we can’t ever have what we really want.

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Money is something we choose to trade our life energy for. VICKI ROBIN AND JOE DOMINGUEZ Your Money or Your Life

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GUIDING QUESTIONS Start by free-associating with the word money. What was your family’s economic status? Did your family talk about money freely and openly, or was it a taboo topic? What is “enough” money for you? Do you and your partner share similar values about money? Do you spend more than you earn? Do you save? How? How are finances handled in your home today? Do you have hang-ups about making and spending money? How much of your time do you spend thinking about making or spending money?

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Your Money or Your Life, by Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez

Downshifting: Reinventing Success on a Slower Track, by Amy Saltzman

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SUGGESTED ACTIVITIES Draw a road map of your life to this point, with key personal economic milestones on it (for example, when you got a raise, bought a car, filed taxes for the first time, got a social security card, took your first job). Brainstorm a list of questions that you have about money. Find out if someone in the group has the expertise to answer any of them. If so, break into small groups for a little teach-in.

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Do a guided visualization, imagining what your life would belike if you were really poor or if you were really rich. What do the different lifestyles look like? Are there similarities? Make a list of the ways you sabotage yourself financially. Share the list. Pick one or two ways, and commit to the group to stop doing them. Talk about the degree to which you feel financially secure. Share steps you have taken to feel more secure. Do a group meditation: going around in a circle, imagine each woman fully competent and confident in handling her finances. Make up a lottery. Have someone win a million dollars. Give her monopoly money. Ask what she would spend it on.

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ALTAR CRAFT (A sense of humor is important here!) Bring in all different kinds of currency, checkbooks, tax forms, passbook savings accounts, stock certificates, and so forth. Arrange it all in a big heap in the center of the floor. Or have each woman place something in the middle that indicates how she feels good about her finances. Arrange a collection of your or your children’s piggy banks.

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READINGS Women of the Fourteenth Moon, an anthology of readings about menopause, edited by Dena Taylor Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom, by Christiane Northrup, M.D. Getting Over Getting Older, by Letty Cottin Pogrebin Dr. Susan Love’s Hormone Book

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Death and Dying Intermittency—an impossible lesson for human beings to learn. How can one learn to live through the ebb tides of one’s existence? How can one learn to take the trough of the wave? It is easier to understand here on the beach where the breathlessly still ebb-tides reveal another life below the level which mortals usually reach. In this crystalline moment of suspense, one has a sudden revelation of the secret kingdom at the bottom of the sea. ANNE MORROW LINDBERGH, Gift from the Sea

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GUIDING QUESTIONS Have you ever seen a dead person or been with a dying one? What was that like? What do you think dying is like? What are you most afraid of about death? How does this affect you? How do you protect yourself from thinking about death? What do you think happens after death? What are your beliefs about heaven and hell, reincarnation? What losses are you still grieving?

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SUGGESTED ACTIVITIES Write a make-believe obituary for yourself. Share obituaries with one another. Share about your ideal memorial service or the funeral arrangements you would like to have made for yourself. Do a guided meditation, and visualize your own death. Share information about living wills and other advance medical directives. Imagine a future incarnation, or share about a past one. Share about taking care of a dying person. Sing a gospel song.

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ALTAR CRAFT Read up on Egyptian funerary arrangements, where people are buried with their favorite objects. Ask people to bring in an object that they would like to have buried with them. Have people share about these objects as they are placing them on the altar. Or, people might bring in pictures of loved ones who have died, making an ancestral shrine as the Vietnamese do.

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The seasons are powerful metaphors. As practitioners of women’s spirituality, we find meaning and beauty in the seasonal turn. The spring is a time to celebrate new beginnings; in summer we harvest the fruits of our efforts; the fall is a time for letting go and releasing; and in winter we go within to rest, conserve our energy, and replenish our reserves.

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We like to weave the seasons into almost all our meetings. For example, a recent August meeting was arranged around this time of abundance. The purpose of the evening was to reconnect with one another after summer vacations and to bid farewell to two members who were moving away. The altar held a colorful display of garden produce, harvested minutes before the meeting. And the guiding question was, “What is your summer’s harvest?”

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Winter is the inner season. Where are your favorite places and ways to hibernate? Share those with the group. Drink hot chocolate together in front of the fire. Create gifts of the heart for one another. Read poetry by candlelight. Decorate the altar with evergreen boughs. Make up a ritual to celebrate Santa Lucia, the beloved saint/goddess who comes into houses wearing a crown of candles. Prepare a celebration for the return of the light.

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Sweep leaves together, make a big pile, and bury yourselves in them. Remember what it felt like to be a kid in the fall. Did you look forward to going back to school, or did you dread it? How does the leaving of the light affect you?

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We are of the earth, made of the same stuff; there is no other, no division between us and “lower” or “higher” forms of being. ESTELLA LAUDER Women as Mythmakers

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And spring…is this not everyone’s favorite season? What is being born within you? Where are the shoots of new growth? Come wearing—what else?—green. Read the poems of Hildegard of Bingen, the twelfth-century abbess, composer, artist, herbalist, and visionary. She wrote about the greening of the world and defined sin as being “dried up.” Conduct a planting ritual; actually plant some seeds together and articulate what each seed symbolizes in your life. What do you want to grow? Dye Easter eggs. Make a Passover seder. Create an altar with palm fronds and eggs, daffodils and forsythia.

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Sometimes, especially in the summer when our ranks dwindle and no one volunteers to be the mother, we have a potpourri of a group, a kind of show-and-tell of meaningful objects, questions, ideas, and stories—whatever we want to bring in to the group. This gives us the chance to revel in our diversity. These evenings are hardly structured at all, but they develop a cohesive, flowing quality. It’s wonderful to lay out these different threads. By the end of the evening, we have woven them all together, and we haven’t even been trying. We recommend this kind of a spontaneous evening at least once a year. This is also one of the only times that we recommend giving each person a prespecified time limit for sharing.

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As with any organic system, your group will definitely experience ebbs and flows of its energy over time. Just because you have all signed on “till death do you part” (or for a year or six months) does not mean that every group meeting will be scintillating and every topic one that you are just dying to delve into. The first meeting or two can be like love at first sight; everyone may be madly excited about everyone else. But as in any other relationship, once the honeymoon is over and the hormones die down, people will start getting on one another’s nerves. This does not mean that divorce is imminent, just that it’s time for a little work on the relationship.

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It will also take awareness on the part of everyone to keep your group healthy. What do we mean by a healthy group? The definition we propose is this: A healthy group is one that nurtures the growth of all of its members.

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What stands in my way of communicating with the people in this group? Can I let these things go?

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The need to heal, convert, fix, or solve comes into play when we believe we are acting out of the goodness of our hearts and want to help. We see someone with a problem we have been through, and our natural tendency is to explain how we solved it for ourselves. But even though we think we are being loving, usually the need to heal, convert, fix, or solve comes from the need to make ourselves feel better. We are uncomfortable with the pain someone else is experiencing, maybe because it hits a raw nerve in us. We want to quell the anguish, so we step in as healer and helper.

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“I, Maria, am a divine being, lovable and totally adequate. This adequacy and lovableness have nothing to do with my education, my wealth, my worldly success. I was born with it.”

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Community is the garden where miracles grow.

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I believe ordinary Council itself becomes an inner process. In a way each person there is alone, looking into the reflections of herself in the stories, reactions, personalities, and spirits of the other people in the circle. It’s like sitting in a circle of mirrors and seeing yourself reflected either directly by people giving you personal feedback, or indirectly by associating with the stories and experiences other people are sharing…So, ordinary Council triggers the inner work because it’s an outer manifestation of the collectiveness of Self. JACK ZIMMERMAN Dream Network Journal

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We must ask ourselves the same questions: Who am I? Why am I here? What is important to me?

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Pseudocommunity Is the group in its early stages? Are relationships cordial but superficial? Do people generally avoid self-disclosure? Do people respond to controversial statements with silence? Do people voice strong opinions and/or feelings? Is there any open conflict? Chaos

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Does the group seem to focus on people’s differences? Is there a lot of tension and struggle? Do some people appear to be trying to convince others of their positions? Emptiness Are people actively engaged in the process of examining and relinquishing their own blocks to communication and intimacy, for example, expectations, prejudice, fears, need for control? Is there a sense of parts of the group dying? Community Are differences viewed as assets rather than liabilities? Is there a sense of inclusion? Do people feel known and safe?

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In our experience three types of underlying problems occur most frequently in women’s circles and in groups. They are unclear or unagreed-upon group focus, people not taking responsibility for getting their needs met, and unbalanced power dynamics.

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Talk about the conflict in the most appropriate setting. Conflict can be addressed in the group or outside of it. If the issue is one that seems to involve most people in the group, then it’s best to raise it in a meeting. If the conflict is between just two or three people, it probably makes sense to talk about it outside.

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Use “I” statements. When you are ready to talk, voice your concerns with “I” statements. “I feel hurt.” “I feel angry.” Saying “I” makes it clear that you take responsibility for your feelings. You are not attacking or judging, you are expressing your reactions to whatever happened. You don’t want to raise the other person’s defenses any higher than they already are.

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invalidate your feelings. Contrary to what we learned as children, feelings are never right or wrong, they just are. Stating feelings is a deceptively simple method of getting the cards on the table. Unfortunately, many of us are unable to perceive what we are actually feeling in the midst of the feelings. Instead, the feelings are suppressed under a whole lot of “shoulds” and “ought tos.”

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Ask yourself, “Whom does this person represent for me?” If you are really mad at someone, if you are seething, if you are just sure that person is wrong and you are right, you are triggered. That is, “re-stimulated.” How often do we say to ourselves, “I know it is not that big of a deal, but I just can’t let go of it”? The person you are angry with probably did something that is triggering an old, emotionally painful pattern in you, and you are not even conscious of it.

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self-assessment. We set aside a whole evening for this process. One of the most valuable aspects of this session was hearing people share about the group’s effects on their lives.

Annual Group Self-Assessment Questionnaire

Start by choosing four or five of these questions:

What has been the best thing, for you, about being in the group? Why? What aspects of the way the group operates (activities, specific incidents, logistics, dynamics) do not work well for you? Why? Would you have set up the group differently from the start? If so, how? What has been most challenging for you about being in the group? Why? What has been the most painful thing about being in the group? Why? What has been the most nurturing and supportive thing about being in the group? What positive or negative reactions have you had to group dynamics? Do you perceive factions, or subgroups, within the group, and how does that feel to you? Is the group especially dependent upon a certain person or persons for ideas, leadership, resources, permission? How has being in the group affected your life? What conflicts do you see existing in the group? How do you see these conflicts being addressed, if at all? What about the power issues in the group? Are you comfortable with the way that power is distributed? What is your sense of the trust level in the group? Is it deep or not? Why? Do you have needs or interests that are not being met by your participation in the group that you would like to have met? What are they? Where would you like to see the group go in the next six months? The next year? Should we adjust or change the focus? To what extent has the group been accepting of differences and able to draw on the special gifts of each member? If not already stated, is there any way you would like the group to change in the next year?

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We like to mail the questions out ahead of time so that people will be able to think about them before they come to the meeting.

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So when people leave a group, it is worth paying attention. Departures are a chance for conscious closure.

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Our last home remedy for groups (and for life in general) is to celebrate together and to do it often.

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We keep tackling the hard jobs, keep working on problems, and keep the attention on what hasn’t happened yet. Instead, celebrate things. Celebrate that it is June. Celebrate a person’s new job. Celebrate a new baby, a new home, a birthday, your breasts, any passage, large or small. Celebrating is an acknowledging of what is good and right and wonderful. It puts our attention on what we have accomplished, what windfalls have happened, and what is just right.

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How, you might wonder, can we celebrate all these things and still get to the heart of the meeting? Well, try “quickie” celebrations. Do it fast and with flair. It took only five minutes for us to do our topless “breast appreciation” ritual to celebrate the end of Sandra’s radiation treatments and the health of our breasts. But it is something none of us will never forget! One group we know actually ends each meeting by having each person recount all the miracles, big and small, that have occurred in her life since the last meeting. We want to adopt this ourselves.

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There is no one but us. There is no one to send, nor a clean hand, nor a pure heart on the face of the earth, nor in the earth, but only us, a generation comforting ourselves with the notion that we have come at an awkward time, that our innocent fathers are all dead—as if innocence had ever been—and our children busy and troubled, and we ourselves unfit, not yet ready, having each of us chosen wrongly, made a false start, failed, yielded to impulse and the tangled comfort of pleasures, and grown exhausted, unable to seek the thread, weak and involved. But there is no one but us. There never has been. ANNIE DILLARD, Holy the Firm

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The Feminine Face of God, by Sherry Ruth Anderson and Patricia Hopkins. New York: Bantam Books, 1991. Our favorite book on all the different manifestations of women’s spirituality, with richly detailed stories from some wonderful role models.

Each Day a New Beginning: Daily Meditations for Women, by Anonymous. Center City, MN: Hazelden, 1982. Full of wisdom and compassion. Will inspire you to put your own needs first.

The Essential Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1995. Robin’s all-time favorite poet and right up there for Sally, too, Rumi captures the mysticism, playfulness, paradox, irony, and the divine in the everyday. There are poems for just about every mood and occasion

Daughters of Copper Woman, by Anne Cameron. Vancouver, BC: Press Gang, 1981. Now a classic, this tale will initiate you into the ways of wise women. We read excerpts from this at one of our very first meetings.

Holy the Firm, by Annie Dillard. New York: Harper & Row, 1977. Achingly beautiful writing as Dillard observes moths immolating themselves in candle flame, the sun rising over the eastern Cascades, and other happenings from her little cabin. All of her books are wonderful.

Earth Prayers, edited by Elizabeth Roberts and Elias Amidon. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991. Three hundred sixty-five prayers, poems, and invocations from around the world. This lovely, well-organized compendium lets you find a prayer for the equinox or a saint’s day or a benediction for your animals

Life Prayers: 365 Prayers, Blessings, and Affirmations to Celebrate the Human Journey, another gift from Elizabeth Roberts and Elias Amidon. San Francisco:

Cries of the Spirit, edited by Marilyn Sewell. Boston: Beacon Press, 1991. A treasure. Wonderful well-edited collection of poems by all of our great women poets.

An Unspoken Hunger, by Terry Tempest Williams. New York: Pantheon, 1994. Williams is one of our finest living nature writers. Her prose is even better read aloud. We read these essays to each other by flashlight on a wilderness retreat, fairly hugging ourselves with delight.

Altars Made Easy: A Complete Guide to Creating Your Own Sacred Space, by Peg Streep. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1997.

The Chalice and the Blade, by Riane Eisler. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1987. One of the pivotal works that reframes our entire understanding of culture, especially in formulating the “dominator” and “partnership” models and how they have emerged throughout history and prehistory.

Creating Circles of Power and Magic: A Woman’s Guide to Sacred Community, by Caitlin Libera. Freedom, CA: Crossing Press, 1994. This book, in the pagan/Wiccan tradition, tells the story of a particular group, describes its processes and rituals, and asks thought-provoking questions to help readers in creating their own circles.

The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Great Goddess, by Starhawk. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1979. Complete with exercises, meditations, spells, and charms, this classic has given women access to secrets long suppressed.

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, by Anne Lamott. New York: Pantheon Books, 1994. Anyone can love and learn from this hilarious, touching book on doing what you love. We can never

Maps to Ecstasy: Teachings of an Urban Shaman, by Gabrielle Roth. San Rafael, CA: New World Library, 1989. This freeing and provocative book was written by a master movement shaman. You don’t have to be a dancer, just have a body, to benefit from it.

Ancient Mother, On Wings of Song and Robbie Gass. A full women’s choir singing ancient and modern love songs to Her.

Enya, all her records. Airy, watery, floaty music by a contemporary Celtic queen

Garden of Ecstasy, Kay Gardner. A pioneer composer and performer of women’s music.

Skeleton Woman, Flesh and Bone. These wonderful musicians, including Peter Kater, David Darling, and Chris White, weave a spell using a Clarissa Pinkola Estés story. No lyrics, just deep feeling.

Sea Peace, Georgia Kelly. Transcendental harp.

Wa Le La, Rita Coolidge, Laura Satterfield, and Priscilla Coolidge. Haunting blend of Native American

Native Wisdom: World Music of the Spirit, various artists. A wonderful international collection with some great drumming cuts.

New Beginnings, Tracy Chapman. “I’m Ready” is one of the most delicious songs of initiation we’ve ever heard

Yeha Noha, Sacred Spirits. Native American music with a new age and rock spin.

When I Was a Boy, Jane Siberry. Hard to describe, this woman is out there! Her song “Calling All Angels,” sung with k. d. lang, is tremendous. Mystical, funny, and warm, with a few hard edges; take a listen.

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Goddess Remembered, The Burning Times, and Full Moon, Donna Read. National Film Board of Canada. 1-800-542-2164 to order. The Canadian filmmaker Donna Read has made a brilliant and inspiring trilogy of hour-long films. Full Circle draws on the customs, rites, and knowledge of the past to envision a sustainable future where domination is replaced with respect. At the center of all these films is a reverence for the earth. The Burning Times is an in-depth look at the witch hunts that swept Europe just a few hundred years ago. The film advances the theory that widespread violence against women and the neglect of our environment today can be traced back to those times.

 

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