An excerpt from Talking Stick: Peacemaking as a Spiritual Path
Three simple things make council special as a way of meeting together, making decisions, solving problems, dealing with conflicts, and building community: Sitting in a circle; beginning and ending with a ceremony; and using a talking stick.
Sitting in a circle is the first of these. There are practical reasons for sitting in a circle. Everyone can see everyone else. No one is in front, and no one can hide in the back. But the circle is symbolic, as well. The circle indicates the equality of all who sit together. There is no head of the table. Everyone’s voice carries as much weight as the voice of everyone else. Everyone is out front, equally accountable for their words.
The world is filled with circles. The sun is a circle; the moon becomes a circle over and over again — that is, in a cycle, a circle. For most of our history, humans have lived, not in the square sharp-cornered containers in which we live now, but rather in circular houses, often explicitly homologized to a circular cosmos. The year and its seasons go in a circle. Our lives go in a circle. We all follow in the footsteps of our elders and teachers who have gone before us; I am getting old now, but I have grandchildren who are coming after me.
And the circle binds us to our ancestors. Whoever you are, wherever your people came from, whatever the color of your skin, your ancestors sat in a circle to meet together, make decisions, solve problems, deal with conflicts, and sing the songs and tell the stories that sustained and nurtured their communities.
Most important, sitting in a circle creates a special space — a safe space, what many indigenous people would call a sacred space. The council circle takes place in a special space that differs from our ordinary space. In the sacred space of council, it is possible to speak honestly without embarrassment; it is a place where confidences are kept; it is where decisions are made and peacemaking takes place. This is the space inside the circle, within which people listen to each other devoutly and give each other the courage to speak honestly from their hearts. This space is very different from the space outside the circle — a space where people interrupt each other, do not listen to each other, are rude to each other.
The next time you attend a meeting — a business meeting, for example — observe how people behave. People arrive with their opinions already formed, and may carry with them notes of their talking points, so that they do not forget to say something they think is important. People interrupt each other. People shift about impatiently while others are speaking.
People do not pause after someone has finished speaking, to show that they are thinking about what that person has said. Instead, people start speaking immediately after someone has finished — indeed, not just when someone has finished, but even when someone simply pauses to take a breath or think about what to say next. The loudest or most aggressive talkers dominate the meeting; shy people may get no opportunity to speak at all.
That is how people act out there, outside the sacred circle. But inside the council circle, where we can all see each other, where we take turns speaking, we create a space that is filled with respect and receptivity for what everyone has to say. Inside this circle, we create a sacred space — a space that is safe for speaking, because it is a space for listening. Take a deep breath. Inside the circle, we are home.
There are a number of ways to demarcate the separate and sacred nature of the council space. The council may be held in a special place — a grove of trees, by the bank of a river, on top of a large rock, in a cave. A number of classrooms that use council have a peace table in one corner. This special place for peacemaking might also have a way of marking the number of times that the place has seen friendships renewed and breaches healed — marks on a stick, a pile of stones — that makes the table into a place of power.
In a circle, too, the gaze of all the participants is naturally oriented not only toward whoever is speaking but also toward the center of the circle. The sacred nature of the circle can be enhanced by making an altar or council table at the center. Making the altar can be a rotating responsibility among the participants, or the altar can be made by those who are moved to do so on any particular occasion. Again, there are numerous variations. The altar can contain flowers, stones, fallen leaves, feathers, or branches that have been gathered before the council. An altar of special significance can be made by each participant placing in the center an object that has personal meaning or that symbolizes the issues to be discussed at council.
Or, again, if council is held outdoors and especially for evening councils, the center can be marked by a fire — not the cooking fire, but a special and separate fire. There is something primal about sharing the warmth and light of a fire in the darkness. The glowing fire, the sense of safety, the intimacy and privacy of the darkness seem to lead people to share more of their secret selves than they might do in the harsher daylight. The fire represents a deep and centered place, the heart of everything, the unity for which the circle strives.
But most important is this: Any time you listen devoutly to another, you have created a sacred space. The circle exists wherever people hold the intention of sitting in council together. Two people can be in council; you can be in council with yourself.