Circles of Compasson and The Millionth Circle 
by Jean Shinoda Bolen, M.D.

*antidote: 1: a remedy to counteract the effects of poison. 2: something that relieves, prevents, or counteracts. ~ Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary

When women come together and make a commitment to each other to be in a circle with a spiritual center, they are creating a vessel of healing and transformation for themselves, and vehicle for change in their world. These are circles of compassion that can become incubators for personal and political change. An egalitarian circle with a spiritual center is a model most easily created by women, but is a form not limited to women. Circles with a sacred center are the means through which a third wave of feminism based upon spiritual equality and compassion can bring about an evolutionary change in human society which would end the conditions that foster terrorism.. The premise : A world that is safe for children will not breed terrorists; a world that is safe for women is a world where children are safe. For this to come about the principles of circle and hierarchy must come into balance, otherwise the acquistion of power over others prevails and no one can be safe.

In a world where acquring and exercising power is what matters, female children are not important, and male children are taught to dominate others or be dominated; they learn that one is either a strong winner or a weak loser, and that practicing dominance through ridicule, physical means, intimidation or acquisitions means you are respected. Boys who are unprotected from being bullied, grow into men for whom power or plans for vengeance are the antidotes to fear and humiliation. This is how patriarchy socializes its boys and men, and can make terrorists of them. The power to destroy which weapons and explosives provide then becomes the equalizer.

Circles as Vessels of Healing

A circle of women who trust each other becomes a sanctuary for its members; especially when women in them are able to talk of experiences in which they were terrorized by what was done do them or what they witnessed. A safe place to tell the truth is a healing space. An abused person is twice emotionally wounded : by what was done and by shame. Deep in the psyche of every abused or raped woman or child, there is shame and a sense of unworthiness and rejectability. This is made infinitely worse, when religion also calls them sinful. Every time that a woman musters the courage to speak and it proves to be safe, trust grows and her psyche gradually heals . A safe circle is a also place to express hope, intuitions, grief and anger, and are part of a healing process and first steps toward taking action as well.

These principles are recognized and utilized by Women for Women International, an organization of women working with women in refugee camps in Afganistan, Kosovo, Bosnia, Colombia, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan and Rwanda. Wherever there are wars and armed conflicts, women suffer horrors, are uncounted casualties and collateral damage, and are raped. Women are terrified and traumatized by the time they make it to a refugee camp, they have lost their homes, and been separated from family members, and arrive with nothing, benumbed by what they have gone through. Women for Women International begins by giving them a modest amount of money with no strings attached. Every woman can spend it on what she needs; often the first purchase is for menstrual pads or tampons that she otherwise would have to do without. The next step is to learn a skill that can become a means of livelihood; as they learn and become competent, self-esteen and hope for a future grows. The last component, which usually takes over a year is to be in a circle with other women refugees. These are circles where women hear stories they can identify with and tell their own. As each woman shares her own story, she helps herself and her listeners. A safe circle of women is a place where women find that shame and self-blame can give way to self-respect, while their new skills hold the promise of self-sufficiencty. They further helped by the knowledge that the women who teach thems skills or facilitate circles are women who were formerly refugees and now are paid employees of Women for Women International.

Invisible Power of Women's Circles

The intention to be in a circle with a spiritual center invites the invisible world of spirit or soul to be in the center of the circle and in the center of the psyche of each person in the circle. Through meditative silence or silent prayer, wisdom and peace enters. Circles foster both the ability to voice what matters and say out loud what is in the heart and mind, and an equally important ability, to listen with compassion. Circles evoke a sense of sisterhood, and also a feeling of being in a maternal space. There is a deep sense of being connected to one another, at an archetypal level.

It is this sister archetype and the mother archetype in women that make it possible for most women (but not all, because these are not the active archetypes in some women) to identify with other women across national, racial, and religious boundaries, without even meeting. It is the ability to feel an empathic connection that makes women able to imagine what it would be like to be on either side of the Israeli-Palestinian divide, or be a woman under the Taliban, a refugee or welfare mother in the United States or a vulnerable and abandoned child. It is a point of view that doesn't see war as something to be won, but as a cause of death and suffering for everyone, especially innocent women and children. Mothers are also concerned about their sons who become soldiers. Young men, often barely out of their teens and in ways, are boys to their mothers, who know that their lives, limbs, minds, and souls are in danger. A soldier is taught to kill which is also what a terrorist is taught. These are not lessons maternal women want their sons to learn.

Historical Power of Women's Circles

Circles are the means through which women have improved the situation for women. In the United States, the Women's Suffragete movement began in the mid-nineteenth century, with a circle of five women friends. It was resisted by male authority that said it was unnatural for women to vote and condemned from the pulpit as against God's will. The Women's Suffragete movement led to women getting the vote, but the movement also resulted in the right of women to own property and their own wages. The next advances came through the Women's Movement, which grew out of consciousness raising groups and women working effectively together for political, legal, social and economic changes which have been revolutionary in impact.

Women have never been given rights, nor have they used violence to get them. They have made demands, worked together, and broke through resistance to change by peaceful means. Women's movements are grassroots, they are not financed from above, and grow through the invisible and nonhierarchal network of women's friendships and the ability of women to bond with each other through the medium of conversation and then to have an influence on men and institutions.

Women in circles have raised each others' awareness of what needs to be changed in society as well as in personal situations. The ringing theme in the '70's, the decade of the women's movement, "the personal is political" grew from women telling their personal stories to each other in consciousness raising groups, and finding that personal problems and economic, social and political inequality were related. Women made changes in their personal lives and made huge egalitarian changes in American society through the rapid proliferation of small groups of women and ideas that became a movement.

The invisible power of women's circles on the women in them grows out of the power that people have on one another, which is extraordinary. Self-esteem, accomplishments, development of talent, has to do with whether we have been listened to and valued, loved for ourselves, encouraged and supported, helped along--or not. When there is psychological or practical support to make to make a significant change, change is more likely to happen. That others believe in us or have the same perspective we have has a powerful and invisible effect. In circles, we become role models for each other, what one woman has done or is doing becomes possible for us. The power to resist "who do you think you are?!" criticism or disbelief from outside sources, comes from being in a circle with likeminded others. It allows women to keep on course in the face of ridicule or opposition.

The Hundredth Monkey

An idea whose time has come depends upon a critical number of people embracing a new way of thinking, feeling, or perceiving. Once that critical number is reached, what had been resisted becomes accepted. What was once unthinkable, and is then adopted by more and more people reaches a critical mass, and then becomes a commonly held standard of belief or behaviour.

When an idea is ridiculed, especially when men discount the possibility and label it as illogical as well, a story to hold onto while continuing to work on bringing about a change is a powerful inspiration. That concerned citizens could be effective in ending the nuclear arms race between the United States and Russia was a ridiculed idea, for example, and yet people began to try and the movement grew, inspired by the idea of a critical mass examplified by the story of "The Hundreth Monkey" written by Ken Keyes and spread by word of mouth. Predicated on the intuitively grasped morphic field theory, postulated by theoretical biologist Rupert Sheldrake, it told the story of how new behavior initiated by a young female monkey spread through her colony and then was observed by scientists to now be done in all other monkey colonies on separated islands, without any means of direct influence. "The hundredth monkey" was the one who became the critical number, after which all monkeys now did this new thing because every member of the same species is connected to the same morphic field.

The story enabled anti-nuclear activists to believe that what they were doing was making a difference in the absence of visible change : for there to be a hundredth monkey, there had to be a sixteenth, a twenty-third, a seventy-fifth, and a ninety-ninth. What happened historically was that after years of effort with little or no visible effect, the Berlin Wall came down and anti-nuclear proliferation treaties were signed. The cold war ended and the nuclear race between the two superpowers was over.

The Millionth Circle

The title and visionary promise of The Millionth Circle : How to Change Ourselves and The World, was inspired by the story and premise of "The Hundredth Monkey." The book envisioned a movement based on a proliferation of women's circles with a spiritual center that would bring about a transformation of global consciousness. On a national level, we have seen major social changes come about through the civil rights movement, the women's movement, and the gay rights movement. Each started with small groups of activists, each was influenced by and built upon the movements which immediately preceded them and all had to do with social justice : equality is the common denominator of these movements and is the experience that being in a circle provides. While each of these movements focused on bringing about social justice by ending outer oppression, they also all saw the need to undo the internalized oppression which prejudice creates. There was an inner work element to all of these movements, most of which was done in groups in which it was safe for people to tell their stories, reveal pain and vulnerability, and express and move through grief and anger, which was another common denominator that continues in this circle movement.

Telling personal stories and reliance on higher power are the basic principles of Alcoholics Anonymous and other recovery groups, which is another major movement that is grassroots, egalitarian, worldwide, and calls upon spiritual sources of empowerment. Here one begins by admitting being powerless and facing the need to change. In the process of understanding the roots of addictive behavior, the recovery movement provided insights into dysfunctional relationships : the alcoholic and and enabler as dominator and codependent. This analysis easily carried over to patriarchal relationships, which are based on hierarchy in which the needs and opinions of those with more power silence or intimidate those with less. The opposite of hierarchy is circle.

The Millionth Circle Initiative

The Millionth Circle inspired several women who met at the World Parliament of Religions in South Africa in 2000 and in Geneva several months later, to form an all volunteer organization in 2001 called the Millionth Circle Initiative. Its intentions are to seed, nurture, and connect women's circles, to bring the circle process into United Nations accredited non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the 5th UN World Conference on Women, and to be a means through which women's circles become aware of being part of a larger movement to shift consciousness in the world. The Millionth Circle Initiative held gatherings in Europe, the British Isles, Canada, the United States, Central and South America, and is affiliated with the Women's World Summit Foundation (, a United Nations NGO in Geneva that sponsors trainings in circles of compassion and established November 2 on the United Nations calendar as The World Day of Circles of Compassion as part of the Millionth Circle Movement.

When it became known that United Nations did not intend to hold a 5th UN World Conference, members of the Millionth Circle Initiative began an effort to have it in Salvador, Brazil. Previous to this, the UN World Conferences had been held each decade, in Mexico City, Copenhagen, Nairobi, and Beijing. If an international women's conference materializes, it will occur in 2012 at the earliest, with an expected attendance of over one hundred thousand women from all over the world who could further the the vision : "A proliferation of circles with a spiritual center becomes a worldwide healing force by bringing feminine values of relationship, nurturing, and interdependency into a global culture in which hierarchy, conflict and competition, power over others and exploitation of the earth's resources are dominant values. Our aim is to celebrate the millionth circle as an idea whose time has come."

The Feminine Principle and the Millionth Circle

So far it has been predominantly women who have grasped the idea of the millionth circle, with support from men who are in men's circles or in circles of men and women. While the feminine principle is potentially present in the psyches of both women and men, through a combination of gender and culture it is women who most personify relatedness and have compassion for vulnerability, who can compromise and work together, and be concerned for peace and security. One reason for this is that women react to stress (fear, anxiety, pressure) differently than men do. Men respond with a physiological "fight or flight" response with an increase in adrenaline that is enhanced by testosterone. This makes it likely that they will either become more aggressive or withdrawn. In contrast, women react to stress with a "tend and befriend" reaction which is supported by an increase in oxytocin, the maternal bonding hormone that is enhanced by estrogen. Oxytocin influences women to react to stressful circumstances by tending children and gathering with other women, instead of girding to fight or flee. This landmark study was done at UCLA after women researchers noticed that the women who worked in the lab reacted differently to stress than their male colleagues. The women came in, cleaned the lab, had coffee and talked, while the men holed up on their own (or took flight). Knowing the effects of the combination of adrenaline and testosterone, we could logically speculate that the men would also be more irritable, which contributes to hair-trigger tempers, road rage and hostility.

From this research, we can surmise that women have a physiological advantage when the goal is to bring about peace rather than wage war. Women on both sides of a conflict can communicate and find common ground in their concern for the safety and well-being of women and children.

The Millionth Circle was written for women because of my conviction that it is up to women to bring this principle of relatedness and interdependency as opposed to acquisition of power and dominance which are the foundations of patriarchy into the planetary and global consciousness through circles everywhere. While the millionth circle and all that it implies came into my mind as an original idea, it clearly is emerging in the collective--which is to say, that when a people are on the threshold of potential change, variations of the same idea come into the mind of many individuals, some of whom can articulate it which furthers its dissemination, but the idea also will spread because of this collective readiness on hearing.

UN Resolution on "Women, Peace, and Security"

The most significant recognition that women's wisdom and therefore a millionth circle movement is timely as well as needed was the passage of the UN Resolution 1325 on "Women, Peace, and Security" on October 31, 2000. In it, the member nations of the United Nations agreed in principle that women be represented at all levels when peace and security issues are involved : from the most visible peace conference table, to looking out for the safety of women and children during all phases from prevention of conflict to reconstruction afterwards. Like principles stated in the Declaration of Independence preceding the American Revolution, UN Resolution 1325 is a revolutionary idea that has yet to be manifested.

Critical Mass

Two mechanisms to do with critical mass explain how new behaviour can come about through the millionth circle. Rupert Sheldrakes' Morphic Field theory provides one explanation. Sheldrake is a biologist, who describes how morphic fields and morphic resonance respond to a new behaviour which then appears natural or instinctual, once a critical number of a species adopts it. Every species has its own morphic field, through which all members of the species are influenced and in turn affect. The collective unconscious which Jung named and described is the morphic field for homo sapiens. In Sheldrake's theory, as the millionth circle movement grows through the formation of new circles, it will draw upon the energy or patterns of similar present or past circle movements, which could include Alcoholics Anonymous. Sheldrake's model suggests that each new circle will draw from all the circles in existence before it, and that the more circles there are, the easier it is for still more to form, which increases the momentum as a movement grows, until a critical mass tips the scales and changes how we act.

Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point, contributes a second model of how an idea can spread and take hold based on epidemics. The name given to that one dramatic moment in a epidemic when everything appears to change all at once is the "tipping point" or the moment of the critical mass. His thesis is that social epidemics behave similiarly with the appearance of sudden change, and that like its disease equivalent, it takes a small percentage of the population to bring it about. Epidemics depend upon the people who transmit infectious agents, the infectious agent itself, and the environment. Social epidemics work in the same way, with it mattering who spreads the idea, that it takes hold, and the receptivity of the environment or context. Using Gladstone's criteria, for there to be a millionth circle tipping point, the idea has to be spread by three types of people, some who are enthusiastic and energetic, are widely known and held in high regard by their peers, by others whose knowledge is valued and who pass on information about the millionth circle with the sole purpose of wanting to help others, and by still others who sell the idea and overcome resistance, All types need to believe that change and transformation is possible through circles, and want to make a difference through what they are doing to further the goal of reaching a critical mass.

When a virus spreads through a population it doubles and doubles again. Geometric progression is responsible for the suddenness in which something can manifest. Gladstone's theoretical example of geometric progression is mind-boggling: if you have a large piece of paper and fold it over once, and then take that folded paper and fold it over again, and then could do this again and again, until the original paper were refolded fifty times, the height of the stack would reach to the sun; if you could then fold it once more, it would reach to the sun and back.

When an idea spreads by geometric progression through the population, it becomes irrestible. As Victor Hugo observed, there is nothing so powerful as an idea whose time has come.

Spirituality, Religion and Equality

Male dominance is justified and supported by patriarchal monotheistic religions, the more fundamentalist the religion, the more oppressive they are to women. Men made in the image of a male god, speaking through his prophets and priests, or led by divinely appointed kings or divinely supported leaders is the premise upon which power and status rests. Religious leaders have had the last word on what constitutes faith and morals, and the power to enforce them.

Women's circles with a spiritual center will move women away from religious dogma that devalues them and submission to male authority. The right to define one's own spiritual experience can come from being in a women's circle where it is safe to speak about personal mystical and sacred experience and be believed. For women to discover that they are inherently spiritual is to feel divinity within, which is a source of meaning and mattering.

Humanity is inherently spiritual and in awe of the beauty, abundance, and power of creation. The most sacred moments are often not defined as such because religions have had a claim on the word "sacred." At the heart of most of the world's religions are the real "fundamentals" of spirituality : an awe of a divinity to which we are related and variations of the Golden Rule : To treat others as you would want them to treat you. Women in increasing numbers are bringing their insights, experiences, and relationship values into patriarchal institutions, including organized religion. The idea of a sacred feminine or a feminine aspect of divinity, of Mother-Father God, or god/goddess is emerging into religious consciousness to be embraced, resisted, or condemned.

The fundamentals of spirituality connect us rather than separate us. Women meeting in circles with a spiritual center are in a sacred space, are practicing and developing compassion when they listen, and are deepening themselves. The more circles there are, the easier others can form. At the same time, each circle adds to collective human consciousness. Each one is one more on the way toward the metaphoric millionth circle and the end of patriarchy.

The Premise and the Promise of the Millionth Circle

Start with women's circles,
each one like a pebble thrown in a pond.

The effect on women in them,
and the effect women in them have,
send out concentric rings of influence.

Remember history?
Remember how one age ends and another begins?
The Age of Faith,
The Age of Reason,
The Reformation,
The Renaissance.

What "was and always will be" in one age,
Is outmoded, superceded, revised in the next.

When a critical mass--
the hundredth monkey, or the millionth circle--
tips the scales, a new era will be ushered in
and patriarchy will be over.

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