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The Millionth Circle: How to Change Ourselves and the World : The Essential Guide to Women's Circles

The Millionth Circle: How to Change Ourselves and the World : The Essential Guide to Women's Circles

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by Jean Shinoda Bolen MD

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A combination of vision and how-to, The Millionth Circle is the most activist work to date of Dr. Jean Shinoda Bolen, a writer, analyst, and teacher who has long been a leader in the women's empowerment movement. Written in poetic language that invites the readers to use intuition and draw upon their psychological and spiritual insights, The Millionth Circle will


A combination of vision and how-to, The Millionth Circle is the most activist work to date of Dr. Jean Shinoda Bolen, a writer, analyst, and teacher who has long been a leader in the women's empowerment movement. Written in poetic language that invites the readers to use intuition and draw upon their psychological and spiritual insights, The Millionth Circle will be the tool and inspiration women can use to create new circles or deepen and transform existing circles into vehicles of societal and psychospiritual change.

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Napra Review
Powerful stuff, simply presented.

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Red Wheel/Weiser
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The Millionth Circle

How to Change Ourselves and the World: The Essential Guide to Women's Circles


Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC

Copyright © 1999 Jean Shinoda Bolen, m.d.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-57324-176-2


Zen and the Art of Circle Maintenance

... in the circles where we face ourselves, we listen like a miracle, and I reclaim the song which is mine....

—Janice Mirikitani, Where Bodies Are Buried

Zen and the Art of Circle Maintenance

THIS IS AN unusually short book for what it proposes, which is nothing short of changing the world and bringing humanity into a post-patriarchal era. It is written for women, who will be the ones to do it, if it is to be done. Though interested men are certainly welcome to read it.

The Millionth Circle was written to inspire women to form women's circles that have a center, and for women whose current participation in them will now be seen in this larger context. It is my contribution to accelerating a process and a movement that has already begun. It depends upon a simple hypothesis, whose mechanism has been proposed and observed, and is one that can be intuitively and immediately grasped: When a critical number of people change how they think and behave, the culture does also, and a new era begins.

Once the principles are understood, the significance of women's circles can be appreciated as a revolutionary—evolutionary movement that is hidden in plain sight. It appears to be just women getting together and talking, but each woman and each circle is contributing to something grander.

The Millionth Circle intruded itself on me while I was writing another book. I was working on the manuscript of Goddesses in Older Women, about the archetypes in women over fifty—one of which is not a goddess at all, but the archetype of the circle—when I wrote four pages of double-spaced thought, which was a complete and whole visionary statement. It felt as if its purpose was not to become several pages in a thick book, but rather that it go out into the world by itself, as an idea whose time has come. Within days, this perception was validated. Isabel Allende had asked me for ideas for a keynote lecture, and I faxed those four pages to her. When she quoted from them, the audience of 2,000 interrupted the talk with spontaneous applause.

Then came chapters 3 through 9, the "How to" portion of this book. For years now, as I encouraged women to form circles, I wished for an instruction book, a Zen and the Art of Circle Maintenance, which this is. These chapters have the visual appearance of poetry, and the number of words is quite sparse for such an ambitious undertaking. The form came about when I serendipitously discovered the effect of using the centering feature instead of standard margins on my computer and, as a result, wrote a "How to" that drew images and words from the right side of my brain. I favored poetic rather than pedantic words, and then realized that the part of the reader's psyche that I wanted to engage speaks this language.

The perspective and insights in these chapters grew directly out of my own experience as a member of women's circles, going back to 1985. I've learned the most from two of these circles in particular. The circle that suffered a failure of trust and was abruptly dissolved taught me a great deal, maybe as much as the ongoing prayer/ meditation circle that I've been in for fourteen years. The second source of experience about circles came from leading women's wisdom workshops. Every workshop I led was centered around meeting together in a large circle; each woman participant also was in a leaderless small group. A third contributing experience, for contrast, was as a member of boards and committees. From this, I could see how different and almost mutually exclusive each form is: one fosters the psyche, trust, and authenticity, the other facilitates productivity, the effective use of power, and persona.

During these years of being either a member or a leader of women's circles, I thought about circles and how they worked. The Jungian analyst-psychiatrist in me saw both psychological depth and growth, and how circles got in trouble and what kept them trustworthy. The part of me that appreciates how beauty and truth are linked saw how ritual and ceremony tapped into the imagination and were a medium for creativity and spirituality.

Those of you who have been in women's consciousness-raising groups or women's support groups may find that The Millionth Circle touches a place in your heart as you recall your group and remember the circumstances. I think you will also find that the "How to" chapters will be a reminder of what you know from that time. You have wisdom from this experience to bring to any new circle.

My focus is on the meaning of women's circles and their formation and maintenance because women as a gender have a natural talent for them. The circle is an archetypal form that feels familiar to the psyches of most women. It's personal and egalitarian. When the circle is taken into the workplace or community by women—often modified to be acceptable and unthreatening to men, who usually don't find this a natural form for them—it enhances collaborative undertakings and brings people who work together emotionally closer and in a less hierarchical relationship to one another.

Women whose previous experience with women's groups has left a bitter taste may need to revisit that old experience, with the perspectives here as a guide, before venturing into a new women's circle. The chapters on "A Circle Needs to Be Safe" and "A Circle in Trouble" may be especially helpful, and offer guiding principles for healthy circles, as well.

I hope that you will read chapters 3 through 9, which have the appearance of poems, as if they were, and that you will muse about what I have to say. Then your own insights and intuition will be evoked, amplifying their meaning. Poetry uses metaphors and analogies, draws from the symbolic level of the psyche, and is the language of the soul. Poetic imagery is also compressed information. Less can lead to more, if my words draw out what you and a circle of women together have as collective wisdom.

From what I have heard and observed, I believe that many women yearn to belong to a women's circle. If you are inspired to form a circle or deepen one, then this little book will be a boon to you, and to the circle that is formed or influenced by you. You will also be contributing to an evolutionary change in human culture—because your circle will be one more circle on the way toward "the millionth circle."


How to Change the World

The Millionth Circle

There is nothing as powerful as an idea whose time has come.

—Victor Hugo

Feminism catches fire when it draws upon its inherent spirituality. When it does not, it is just one more form of politics, and politics never fed our deepest hungers.

—Carol Lee Flinders, At the Root of This Longing

How to Change the World

The Millionth Circle

"THE HUNDREDTH MONKEY" is a story that inspired antinuclear activists to keep on keeping on, when the commonsense view was that the nuclear arms race could not be stopped. The story and its moral was taken to heart as an allegorical tale based upon theoretical biologist Rupert Sheldrake's Morphic Field Theory: namely, that a change in the behavior of a species occurs when a critical mass—the exact number needed—is reached. When that happens, the behavior or habits of the entire species changes. The most widely read version of the tale was written by Ken Keyes, Jr., which I retell as follows:

Off the shore of Japan, scientists had been studying monkey colonies on many separate islands for over thirty years. In order to keep track of the monkeys, they would lure them out of the trees by dropping sweet potatoes on the beach. The monkeys came to enjoy this free lunch, and were in plain sight where they could be observed. One day, an eighteen-month-old female monkey named Imo started to wash her sweet potato in the sea before eating it. I imagine that it tasted better without the grit and sand or pesticides, or maybe it even was slightly salty and that was good. Imo showed her playmates and her mother how to do this, her friends showed their mothers, and gradually more and more monkeys began to wash their sweet potatoes instead of eating them grit and all. At first, only the female adults who imitated their children learned, but gradually others did also.

One day, the scientists observed all that all the monkeys on that particular island washed their sweet potatoes before eating them. Although this was significant, what was even more fascinating was that this change in monkey behavior did not take place only on this one island. Suddenly, the monkeys on all the other islands were now washing their sweet potatoes as well—despite the fact that monkey colonies on the different islands had no direct contact with each other.

"The hundredth monkey" was the hypothesized anonymous monkey that tipped the scales for the species: the one whose change in behavior meant that all monkeys would from then on wash their sweet potatoes before eating them. As an allegory, The Hundredth Monkey holds the promise that when a critical number of people change their attitude or behavior, culture at large will change. What used to be unthinkable is done by some, and then many; once a critical number of people make that shift, it becomes what we do and how we are as human beings. Someone has to be a thirty-seventh monkey, and a sixty-third, and a ninety-ninth, before there is the hundredth monkey—and no one knows how close we are or how far away that hundredth monkey is until suddenly, we are there.

If you have ever walked a labyrinth, the journey is like this. You walk and walk, following a path that turns and changes directions over and over. You have no way of knowing how far it is to the center, until suddenly you are there. Once at the center—a symbolic place of insight and wisdom—you stay as long as you wish. Then it is time to take that knowledge or experience out into the world. And once again, you walk and walk the labyrinthine path, not knowing how close or far you are from the place you will emerge. Until you take that one last turn, and suddenly, you are out.

Like Imo and Her Friends

For human culture to change—for there to be a hundredth monkey—there has to be a human equivalent of Imo and her friends. For patriarchy to become balanced by the discerning wisdom and compassion that are associated with the feminine aspects of humanity, and by the indigenous wisdom and relatedness to all living things and to the planet, that shift will come in this hundredth-monkey way. I believe that this will happen when there are a critical number of women's circles: for patriarchy to change, there has to be a millionth circle. That's because what the world needs now is an infusion of the kind of wisdom women have and the form of the circle itself is an embodiment of that wisdom. Marshall McLuhan's famous expression, "The medium is the message," greatly applies to women's circles: a circle is nonhierarchical—this is what equality is like. This is how a culture behaves when it listens and learns from everyone in it.

In more ways than one, women talk in circles: conversation takes a spiral shape in its subjective exploration of every subject. Listening, witnessing, role modeling, reacting, deepening, mirroring, laughing, crying, grieving, drawing upon experience, and sharing the wisdom of experience, women in circles support each other and discover themselves, through talk. Circles of women supporting each other, healing circles, wisdom circles, soul sister circles, circles of wisewomen, of clan mothers, of grandmothers. Circles of crones, circles of pre-crones, lifetime circles and ad hoc circles, even circles of women in cyberspace and the business place, circles are forming everywhere. It's "Imo and her friends" getting together in circles, and learning how to be in one.

The more circles there are, the easier it is for new circles to form; this is how morphic fields work. Each circle is a regeneration of the archetypal shape and form that draws from every woman's circle that ever was, and each circle in turn adds to the field of archetypal energy that will make it easier for the next circle. Morphic fields and archetypes behave as if they have an invisible pre-existence outside of space and time, become instantly accessible to us when we align ourselves with that form, and are expressed in our thoughts, feelings, dreams, and actions. The circle is much more than the experience of this generation, a sacred circle especially.

See One, Do One, Teach One

See one, do one, teach one. When I was in medical school, this was the medical student mantra. This is how doctors learned procedures, an apprenticeship model of hands-on experience. Circle experiences are much the same, though it may be that the first circle you see is in your mind's eye and imagination. Then you might join a woman's circle or form one. Being in a circle is a learning and growing experience that draws upon the wisdom and experience, commitment, and courage of each one in it. Circles go through stages and changes, flourish or flounder, heal or hurt its members, and may be a transient experience or a lifetime one. Just as relationship skills carry over into circles, there is a vice versa; the circle experience can have a radically positive effect on relationships outside the circle, because it can provide a model—a place to practice honest and caring communication, until this is what you do and expect from others in your life. In this way, it can lead you to change the patriarchal structure of your relationships. As we begin to change our personal relationships, that change spreads. It's like throwing pebbles in a pond; each one has an impact and an effect, with concentric rings of change rippling out and affecting other relationships.

Changing Yourself and Your Share of the Patriarchy

If you suppress or put a lid on how you feel, minimize or deny what you see, or don't say what you want, and nobody in your life seems to notice, a circle is an egalitarian learning place. Just by being there. A circle that is trustworthy has a spiritual center and a respect for boundaries. It is a powerful transformer of the women in it. Circles also function as support groups; if you want to change something in your life or in yourself, it's a home base from which to go out and try. In a patriarchal climate, a circle of equals can be like an island of free speech and laughter. It makes us conscious of the contrast, through which we become aware of what we do to perpetuate the status quo, and how we might change it.

Every important relationship is a universe of two. Even though there are only two people in it, you are either in a circle or a hierarchy. If there is an unspoken assumption that you will defer or be subordinate and accept the other's judgment or choices in place of your own—you are living in a patriarchy of two. It is your particular share of the patriarchy, which can change if you do.

From One Circle to the Millionth Circle

Being in one circle leads to being in others. In the same way that colonists in ancient Greece took coals from the fire in the center of the round hearth, from the home temple, with which to light the fire in the new temple, and a new bride took fire from her mother's hearth to light the fire in her new home, anyone who has been in a sacred circle can take that spirit—and that archetype and morphic field—into a new circle, or another part of her life.

You might move and form a new circle. Or not move, and start a second circle. You might speak of your circle to a friend, and be the inspiration for her to start a new women's circle. Or you may read this book, and decide that you want a circle to be in. The propagation of circles can, in this way, resemble the spread of strawberry plants: they throw out runners that put down roots and become new plants, until there is a field of them.

Women's circles form one at a time. Each circle expands the experience of being in one to more women. Each woman in every circle who is changed by it takes this experience into her world of relationships. Until, on one fine day, a new circle will form, and it will be the millionth circle—the one that tips the scales—and brings us into the post-patriarchal human era.


Casting the Circle

Who, What, Where, When?

Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness, concerning all acts of initiative (and creation). The moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves, too. A whole stream of events issues from the decision.

Whatever you can do or dream you can, Begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. Begin it now.

—W. H. Murray, The Scottish Himalayan Expedition usually attributed to Goethe

Excerpted from The Millionth Circle by JEAN SHINODA BOLEN. Copyright © 1999 Jean Shinoda Bolen, m.d.. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Jean Shinoda Bolen, M.D. is a psychiatrist, Jungian analyst in private practice, Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the University of California Medical Center, and an internationally known lecturer. She is the author of many books including Crones Don't Whine and The Millionth Circle, which was published in 1999 and spawned a whole new way for women to become activists from their local circle.

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