Below are a couple of comments from myself and other elders over the years:
Many ask us about the roots of council and we first and foremost acknowledge our ancestors who gathered around the first fires sharing stories… The spirit of council is found everywhere in natural land and seascapes, in the stone circles of earth-cherishing traditions, in the ancient ruins of Greece, in the governance and circle-of-life teachings of First Nation peoples. If we stop and listen long enough we can feel it in our very own bones. We encourage each person to search and discover their roots, their ancestors, their own authentic voice and call to council. At the same time we honor those indigenous peoples who have carried the circle ways throughout their histories, thru genocide and oppression over so many years. We share in the grief; we ask for forgiveness for our part; we work to be part of the healing and reconciliation as we remember our common ground. We explore the roots and seeds of councils in our own families, ancestors, and land. We encourage and join others to do so in their lands and cultures—and these stories are arising more and more as time goes on — Ho o pono pono practices of the Hawaiians, the sacredness of all life, a worldview within indigenous earth-cherishing traditions, the First Nation peoples teaching us, asking us to respect the circle of all our relations. When will “we”, western civilization truly listen? We, council carriers, are simply doing our part to re-learn, to remember, to invite this strongly as one essential part towards the human species evolving on our planet.
As we acknowledge the spirit of council throughout ancient traditions, we also celebrate the circle ever emerging in modern culture, through the civil rights movement, the women’s and men’s movements, the ways to be heard during protest actions on our streets. The import of listening to all voices continues in high demand. Council was and is a gift offered to us by the elders of many cultures; It has grown thru sitting in nature, sitting with the children, as well as adults and elders, races, cultures and creeds. It is up to all of us to share it in as many re-generative, respectful ways as we can – in ways that may include exchange of resources and gifts.
“The Way of Council” is really “a” way of council as it emerged through the Ojai Foundation, primarily/originally by Jack Zimmerman and Gigi Coyle, and contributed to profoundly by Founder Joan Halifax and other TOF elders (Marlow Hotchkiss, Leon Berg and Lola Rae Long), along with many children, the land itself, and every event, program, and ceremony at Ojai during the formative years. The Way of Council and its growth as a practice, emerged through council itself, as well as years of sitting and working with First Nation Peoples, spiritual teachers, healers and visionaries from different cultures, who we were blessed to know. It is a practice, a path, with specific intentions and guidelines, and with different forms of circle practice. New forms of spirals and webs have emerged in recent years. These ways of witnessing and deep listening arose from asking:“What serves?” We adapted what is often known as the “talking stick or staff”, to also be a “listening piece” for all who are holding it.
When trying to understand often sensitive and nuanced issues of what’s culturally appropriate here in our “melting pot” American society, I find it helpful to make a distinction between human nature and cultural expressions. Between what is archetypal and universal, found everywhere around the world, and what is unique and distinctive to a specific culture. Think of the archetype as the “what,” or content, and culture as the “how,” or form and style of expression.
Take council for example…. All cultures deal with the archetypal situations of people sitting in circles, sharing stories as a means of cultural transmission, of group or collective decision-making, and of communal prayer. Even more important seems to be the growing call to listen to each other and finding collective practices in which all voices and gifts are valued… These are harder to find these days, especially regarding women, youth and children. How a people develop these practices reveals the values and style of their culture. Such cultural identities need to be honored.
The English Colonialists who established the first European settlements on this continent brought with them the centuries-old British parliamentary practice of a shouting match as the norm for the highest governmental decision-making process. Talking over one another, pulling rank, insulting your opponent, literally out-shouting everyone else in the room. This unruliness gave rise to an official with a big mallet who had the job to call “time out” whenever things got out of hand. In the late 1700s, when Franklin, Jefferson, Adams, and company, were gathering in back rooms to plan the American revolution and to establish a new democratic republic, they had a printed copy of the Constitution of the League of the Iroquois in front of them. Moreover, they repeatedly invited Iroquois chiefs as representatives and consultants, to participate in their meetings for drafting a new constitution for the fledgling republic. The Iroquois literally and generously offered many suggestions and traditions to these radical white revolutionaries for consideration. One such suggestion, and ultimately fully adopted by our young nation, was the Iroquois council practice of one person speaking at a time while everyone else listened deeply, and ideally from the heart. This practice helped to mid-wife the birth of America!
Since then, we have made the practice our own as a nation. We‘ve embodied it in our culture, given it its own unique cultural expression. It is the norm almost everywhere in local, state and national assemblies. And it was an offering, freely and generously shared by native elders. These are considerations worth noting when adopting another culture’s practices.
Likewise, in the early days at the Ojai Foundation, many elders and teachers came to the Land… First Nation Peoples from many lands and cultures in the exploration of peaceful regenerative culture. Our founder, Joan Halifax, invited many to sit in circle together, some together cross-culturally for the first time. She, as well as Jack and Gigi, were not new to circles and yet together, we all deepened with the teachings from many traditions around the circle of life. We learned of our common roots and celebrated our differences, practicing old and new ways of listening to each other and to the whole.
The spirit of council is fortunately everywhere. We are not looking to usurp others’ traditions. We do share our “metis” (mixed-blood) lineage, and respect tradition as we encounter them. Every time we share council, we honor those who have gone before and how we each came to the practice. We honor the gifts and teachings we received from elders, from the children, from nature, from the land itself and from ceremony. We honor them by taking them to heart, by making them our own, and by passing them on as we were taught – in the spirit of give-away with which they were received. We seek, through our work and through the ways of council, to be part of the healing, the grieving for our own nation’s genocide, and to live with respect and in support of those who came before, those here now and those who will come. We encourage all who enter the practice of council to know their roots, their ancestors, their people, their work, and to find their unique way in this practice in the great council of life.
I remember sitting in circle out in the woods when I was a child, talking with everything surrounding me. I remember bringing special objects to first grade and passing one around for all to hold in “show and tell”… I remember how only then did my peers listen with the ears and heart of my grandmother. I remember praying with tobacco as a teenager, because the plant told me to use it in prayer to turn into my fear of cancer; I remember fasting in the wilderness and thinking that the connection and sense of belonging we long for as human beings is quite similar; what we learn in a relational world with nature tends toward common ground; similar feelings arise, similar healings emerge, and council ways are available to all of us if and we open and listen.
My discovery over the past 40 years has been a coming together of both ancient and new ways, whether sitting within a co-existence project in Israel or with a family exploring reconciliation… The spirit and intention of council always holds steady… healing, communicating, learning, leading through the wisdom of the whole, growing in trust with the sacredness of all life.
I remember having the sense of “coming home” during my first council in the wilderness. It was as if my very beingness knew the practice and honored the devout listening that council inspires.
I remember many councils, over the years, with native people, who were so grateful to participate in council at the Foundation. It is a forever memory, familiar, sometimes forgotten, recreated and remembered. I wonder how far back we would have to go to ask permission? Who could claim listening and speaking in a circle? We honor and are grateful to our teachers, and acknowledge the lineages and the teachings within the process itself. At some point, you become it and it is part of you, belongs to you.
“Whatever life you wear, it will become you.” E.E. Cummings.