Women’s Well Series ( 1 of 3)
From the most ancient times, women have gathered in circles to transform themselves, their communities and nations, and the world. Today, when millions of women are finding their voices, when they are joining with other women to advocate for and demand what is needed for a just, peaceful, sustainable planet, when a revitalized women’s movement is being reborn, women’s circles are needed more than ever. For almost 20 years, the Women’s Well organization, a non-profit based in Concord, Massachusetts, offered thousands of women the opportunity to participate in women’s circles of all kinds. Here, in their own words in this three-part series, Anne Yeomans, a co-founder of the Women’s Well, and others who co-created the Women’s Well, share with you the power and wisdom of the circle.
We imagine that all of you reading this series may have felt some longing for a woman-honoring space, a place to rest, to feel seen and recognized, to listen, to learn. We also imagine that you, like many of us, may have had a long and challenging journey through a male-dominated world where women’s experience and wisdom have been neither valued nor acknowledged. We know that when this happens it can lead to feelings of disorientation, isolation, and doubt of one’s inherent worth.
The Women’s Well was an organization whose primary focus was the healing and empowerment of women and girls, and the reclaiming of the sacred feminine through the power of the circle. It offered programs from 1994 to 2012, focusing on questions central to women’s spirituality, such as: What do women experience as sacred? How do they know it and honor it? How do they bring it forth?
Essential to the work of the Women’s Well was the principle of the circle, a non-hierarchical form where all points on the circumference are equally valued. The circle provided sacred space for women to connect deeply with themselves and with each other using story, ritual, and the creative arts as central means of exploration.
A circle creates sacred space; this is the basis of its power. As ritual, it acknowledges the availability of wisdom and help from something beyond our human dimension. It is a way of consciously asking grace to enter. For this to happen, sacred space needs to be clearly established in each circle. This can be done in many different ways – using ritual, creating altars, offering blessings or readings, guided or silent meditation, chanting and singing, sacred play, movement or dancing.
At the Women’s Well, we welcomed each woman’s unique way of acknowledging the sacredness of our endeavors.
We saw the circle as a safe and strong container for empowerment. Sitting in circle, each person is equidistant from the center; energy is distributed equally. Council format, an ancient tool used by native peoples and others, acknowledges this principle. In council, a talking object is passed, giving each woman a space in which to speak without interruption. Every voice is invited, given attention and respect.
Council practice involves learning to be present to ourselves and others. We don’t plan what we are going to say, but try to let speech emerge from the truth of the moment. It also involves deep listening, cultivating an ability to truly hear, to acknowledge without judgment, and to resist offering quick fixes. Council process values silence and recognizes each person’s right to pass without speaking.
We always held confidential what was said within the sacred circle. This commitment to confidentiality supported deep and honest sharing. As women and girls began to feel safe enough to speak honestly, they came to know and trust each other more deeply. As the truth of their lives was spoken, women learned that their narratives were valuable and they began to listen to and trust their own inner wisdom.
At the Women’s Well we always considered the circle a “held space.” Although each member contributed to the group’s character, mood and direction, one or more women took the responsibility for establishing the parameters, monitoring the energy, inviting the deep speaking and deep listening, and encouraging trust, honesty, and authenticity to grow. We called these women the “holders of the circle.” These women were leaders, but not in the hierarchical sense. Power-with is a movement, a relationship, a fluid and changing balance, and responsive leadership wields power-with in ways that foster growth for all. The goal was to help each woman in the circle, including facilitators, to rest in her own balanced power.
In the second part of the series, we discuss the use of altars and rituals in our circles. For more information, go to www.womenswell.org.
Women’s Well’s first home was a center for holistic education in the Boston area, the Interface Foundation, where our original nine-month program, the Women’s Spirituality Program (WSP), was launched in 1994. The WSP included nine weekend workshops and weekly meetings, as well. This program was initially conceived of and designed by Susan Chiat, from Interface; Anne Yeomans, a psychotherapist and group facilitator; and Rose Thorne, a former director of Interface. Patricia Reis, a psychotherapist, teacher, and writer in Portland, Maine, also had considerable influence in shaping the original curriculum.