From 1994 until 2012, the Women’s Well, 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 the second of 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 how altars and ritual furthered the sacred inner and outer work of the circle. The first part of the series discussed the power of women’s circles. This post is adapted from the Women’s Well website at www.womenswell.org.
At the Women’s Well there was always an altar at the center of the circle. It became a place of great creativity, and meaning. Some women were uncomfortable with the use of the word altar. The Deep River groups, created by Abby Seixas, came up with the word “hearth” as an alternative. By whatever name it was called, a beautiful and conscious creation at the center became essential to informing the sacred space of the circle.
In working with altars, we were tapping into something very deep in all of us. When we talked about it together we realized that many of us already had sacred corners in our homes. We had places where, without thinking much about it or calling it anything special, we had put objects of beauty around, natural objects like stones or feathers, or something else that felt sacred to us. We also realized that many of us had been making centerpieces on our dinner tables for years, without considering that this too was altar making.
Some of the women remembered that their mothers did this, too, as they set the table each night. We saw that the impulse to make altars was deep in the unconscious of women, and that in many ways we were reclaiming this ability, as we were reclaiming so much of ourselves that had been lost. As we made these sacred ways conscious, we could use them more intentionally in our own lives. It also meant that we were better able to protect the sacred from ridicule, shame, or trivialization.
Altar making and the transforming of physical space into sacred space was one of the many strengths of women that had been buried in the male-dominated, secular, and materialistic society that we had all grown up in. In such a culture these gifts had been so undervalued or made invisible that we had lost sight of them ourselves. With the support of each other we were changing that.
Ritual was a part of the work of reclaiming that went on in the circle. Twentieth-century America was, as someone once said, “ritual poor.” For many of us, exploring the power of ritual was very new, and unfamiliar.
When we entered the room, often the altar was set up already with candles lit. We put our bags and coats to the side, and at first sat without speaking, just taking in the altar and the feeling in the room. Margo Adler, one of the teachers in the Women’s Spirituality Program said, “An altar is something that, when you behold it, it brings you back to yourself.” And so it often did, and in the presence of the altar, and in the quiet of the room, we were able to leave behind the stresses of the day and just settle in.
Then would come the time of “opening the circle.” Whoever was facilitating or “holding” would open the circle in some kind of ritual way. Some people opened with a song, or a bell or chime, or a period of silence. Others opened with the frame drum, and prayers to the four directions. Often there would be a brief guided meditation to support women in letting go of tensions and becoming present to themselves, and to the circle. After that there would be what we called a check-in, a time when we would pass a “talking object” around the circle and each woman in turn could speak briefly about herself and her experience, particularly about what was currently moving strongly in her life.
The use of a talking object was a practice that came from indigenous cultures. It was traditionally called a “talking stick” and was usually a beautiful piece of wood, often carved and decorated with beads, feathers, or other small objects from nature. In our women’s circles we sometimes used a talking bowl or other sacred object from the altar. The talking object was passed from person to person. Whoever held it had an opportunity to speak or be silent. People were encouraged not to plan their speaking ahead of time, but to be present to themselves in the moment, and let the words come from there. It was always an option to hold the talking object in silence and not to speak in words. There was no rush and no cross-talk or commenting on what was said.
After the check-in there might be some kind of teaching, or a question offered for participants to reflect on, or a creative activity related to a theme we were exploring.
The circle would also close in some kind of ritual way. We didn’t just casually drift away from each other, but took time to really mark the ending, by something as simple as holding hands, or blowing out the candles. Singing, chanting, the ringing of a bell, or taking a moment of silence together might also be used.
In the next part of the series, we will explore in more detail the essential guidelines in our circles. For more information, please go to http://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.