Working in Circles by Kate Brunner

Kate close up at Llyn MorwynionRight now, I spend a great deal of time operating in circles. I think in circles, move in circles, dance, draw, & breathe in circles. I create new circles, consider what I can do to sustain existing ones, and now here I am– writing in circles, too.

This is not a process mainstream First World culture values. We want results. We want to start at Point A and get to Point B as fast as possible with quantifiable results. Keep it clean. Yes. No. Black. White. This end or that of whatever polarity spectrum is in question. Measurable gain or loss. The End. But couldn’t we work in other ways? Aren’t some of us already working those ways? How long have women, in particular, been engaged in this circular dance?

The short answer? Centuries.

We take the word “mandala” from the Sanskrit language and apply it cross culturally now when we talk about sacred or meditative circular designs. We use it to describe rose windows in medieval European cathedrals, Medicine Wheels of Indigenous North American traditions, megalithic standing stones in Celtic landscapes, symbolism in Aboriginal Australian art, Tibetan sand paintings, Carl Jung’s daily sketching, & the reemergence of the Labyrinth as a ritual tool. But what does this word mean, really?

Women Sitting Around Campfire- Bush Tucker by June Sultan

Women Sitting Around Campfire- Bush Tucker
by June Sultan

Suggestions vary from the simplest translation (mandala = circle) to more complex suggestions. Perhaps “manda” means essence and combining this root word with “la” or container, creates a word that suggests a mandala is a container for the essence of something. This meaning is reflected in the Tibetan Buddhist use of sand mandalas as containers for Divine resonance. Carl Jung suggested they were representations of the unconscious- a container for the essence of the unrealized Self. Artist & author, Susanne Fincher, calls them “magic circles” filled with personal spiritual potential.

Sometimes, though, I forget the nature of mandalaic magic. I get caught up in trying to produce a measurable, linear result. I get angry and frustrated when I feel like all I am doing is spinning. When I feel like there is just so much ugliness in the world and I long for the most direct route to making the largest possible positive difference right now- right this very minute. This, however, is not within my power at this time. Neither is it, I suspect, the way of the All. The Great Work is not linear. It requires us to spin; to work in circles.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the suffragettes made use of working in circles. So did the consciousness raising groups of the 1960s & 70s. So does today’s Red Tent Movement. Indigenous women know this energetic well- sitting in council. Western Women’s Mysteries Traditions dance within magic circles. Heck, so does my local book club- which is composed of strong women who can take the themes of the month’s literary selection and weave their way through an examination of everything from small life experiences to giant global challenges. If I look closely, feel closely, re-attune myself to circular work, I can begin to re-establish my faith it in. It is not speedy, instantaneously productive work. But it is sacred movement in its own right. It fills the magic container with the essence of the kind of world we are striving for together.

Circle Workings by K. Brunner (colored pencil on paper)

Circle Workings by K. Brunner (colored pencil on paper)

This lunar cycle, the Sisterhood of Avalon is working with Arianrhod, who I consider to be the Queen of Mandalaic Magic. She comes to us at all full lunar eclipses- Moons of Cycle. She is my Great Teacher in Her Spiral Castle. She reminds me of the importance of spinning in circles- of dancing with the Silver Wheel, of the Spindle’s ability to craft a strong, yet supple thread, of the essence of learning these circular lessons.

Women work in circles. We always have and always will. We leave traces of mandalaic movements in our wake, still detectable today for those who go looking in myth, in art, in the landscape, in sacred spaces and more. And as difficult as it may be in many moments, we will produce more of the essence of the world we long for if we work with the rhythms of Creation’s Mandala, than if we struggle against them.

During this lunar cycle Arianrhod challenges me to experience what happens when we build these magic circles, these containers and begin to fill them with our chosen essences of change? When we create living mandalas among us? How can you and I answer the charge to create, sustain, & expand circles of powerful women? For in the revolution of every spinning circle, sustainable change will be born.


Kate Brunner is a writer, healer, ritualist, & member of The Sisterhood of Avalon, studying at the Avalonian Thealogical Seminary. She is an American expat, living in Queensland, Australia and homeschooling her children, with the world as their classroom. Before motherhood, Kate earned a Bachelor of Arts from Tulane University, while studying Economics, International Relations, & Religion. She served four years as a logistics officer in the US Army, after which, Kate became a doula and holistic birth educator.  She is a regular contributor to The Sisterhood of Avalon’s online journal, The Tor Stone and is active in the Red Tent Movement. Kate volunteered in Houston as a presenter for monthly Red Tents and semi-annual women’s retreats before relocating overseas. She enjoys international travel, perfecting her cooking, reading great books, & having fascinating conversations with friends, old or new.

Categories: Activism, Community, General, Goddess, Relationships, Sacred Space, Women and Community

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12 replies

  1. Kate – two things came to mind as I was reading your post – which was lovely, of course. The first thing was my evening plans last night. Yesterday evening I was with three other women, one of whom is finishing a masters program this year and wanted to talk to the rest of us about questions she has as she discerns whether or not to pursue a phd. I felt proud of us as we partner with one another in support and share our collective wisdom with each other. We were a circle of women in mutual support. On the way home, as I crossed the BU bridge that goes over the Charles River between Cambridge and Boston, I got to see the moon in her all her splendor. It was one day after the full moon, but she was just radiant and breathtaking still! I was grateful for our circling.

    The second thing raised in my mind by your post is from your last line – For in the revolution of every spinning circle, sustainable change will be born – I can’t remember the last time the word revolution actually conjured “revolving” in my mind. Whenever I think about revolution I think about dramatic change – a whole overturning – of which our world is in great need, of course! But what is this connection between revolving, circular movement, turning over, and over-turning, dramatic, wide-reaching change?! I never think of these two thing as coming from the same etymological root…why, is this? What is this connection? I’m fascinated now!!


    • My understanding is that the original Latin word was primarily associated with the movement of celestial bodies and used mostly by astronomers– so it’s interesting that you mention your moment of connection with the moon while on the way home from your circle work! From there, it crossed into astrology and this is where the link occurred between the motion of the heavens & the idea of radical change. Astrologers began using it in the context of planetary energies acting as catalysts for drastic, sudden change affecting the fortunes of their clients- like monarchs, generals, & other power players.

      Our modern political usage is actually very, very young. English political application of “revolution” really only emerged with the overthrow of the Stuarts in late 17th century England. After that, of course, came the American & French Revolutions and later the Russian Revolution. And so on, and so forth. And with that, history & politics cemented the modern definition of revolution.

      I think we often consider political revolution to be sudden & dramatic. But I question whether that’s really accurate. So many small, quite, gradual, cyclical things happen first that build the spiral that leads to the actions we apply that political revolution label to.


  2. Love this imagery, and your art! When I started to read this, all I could see was our “inland hwy” – a very straight and fast road from point A to point B, and all stops in between. It’s so boring! I live on an island … where is everyone going so fast? It also lacks the quality of wisdom illustrated by the “women sitting around the campfire” which speaks to my spirit and fills me with delight.

    Having moved from a town of 20,000 to a city of 85,000 I am so noticing a difference. Things here are so “frantic”, so superficial. But – in little surrounding circles are people who appreciate the value of thoughtful slowness, and every once in a while, our paths cross.


  3. I love your expression, “creating living mandalas”. Beautiful. Also, thank you for sharing your art with us. Your painting reminded me of a snowflake- not a ‘living’ mandala, more like a ‘natural’ mandala, but built upon many individual ice fragments to create something unique and gorgeous.


  4. Thank you for your post, Kate, and for your pondering Xochitl. Remembering revolution is a circle. So elemental–literally. What are we call doing right now, together. Circling the sun.


    • Yes! When we take the time to observe ourselves, we can begin to understand all the circles we are always moving in, the ways in which we inhabit the mandala, and where those movements connect. Circling the sun, spinning with the earth, moving through the rhythm of our days, cycling air through our bodies, and more!


  5. Enjoyed your journey with circles, thanks Kate. Mandalas are always fascinating — I saw one recently, for the first time, with a Cretan labyrinth in the center. The Zen lotus flower could be a mandala too. There are endless variations in Google images.


    • Absolutely! Once you start to cultivate your awareness of them, you can suddenly “see” mandalas everywhere. I’ve had the privilege of witnessing the entire sand mandala ritual process in the Tibetan tradition- from creation through to dissolution- at Woodford Folk Festival. Between that experience and working with a local artist friend of mine on several mandala land art & community art projects, my connection to the essence of the mandala has deepened a great deal.


  6. Thanks Kate for this wonderful post and everyone else’s thoughts on circling and mandalas. Arianrhod is one of my favorite Celtic Goddesses who touched me deeply when I was working on Her paintings. What a perfect name for Her – “Queen of Mandala Magic” – She who collects the souls of the dead in Her Silver Wheel and nourishes them in Her spinning castle while they await their rebirth.


  7. And don’t forget circle dances which were probably initiated by women and which go back at least to the early Neolithic.


  8. Years ago in anger and frustration, Naomi Goldenberg and I fantasized interviiewing a man for position at a feminist university. One of the questions we imagined asking was, “Can you think in circles?” “Women,” we continued, “have learned linear thinking and this is not a bad thing, but there is another way. Can you think in circles too?”


  9. When I was teaching at San Jose State, I had a class in a classroom with about 50 individual desks–the ones with the up and down writing table on one arm. In my class we used to put them in a large circle. One day I received a call from the Dean advising me not to leave the chairs in a circle, because the professor with the next class had complained that he “could not control his class when the chairs were in a circle.”

    Yup, this is true story!


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