Circle Thoughts

Morning!A couple of days ago I found myself engaged in a conversation about the differences in perception and values that define Indigenous cultures and colonial culture. The conversation was focused on attitudes towards community and the land, the presence of the ancestors and spirits, and centrality of oral history. Then someone suggested the main difference was our relationship to the circle. That set me to thinking.

Last weekend the host of the local folk music show played Joni Mitchel’s “Circle Game.” It had been a while since I had last listened to the song, and I found myself singing along. When the idea of circles entered our discussion that song rose to my attention. There’s a line in the story/song that exemplifies the Western attitude towards the circle: “We can only look back from where we came, and go round and round and round in the circle game.”

Western culture tells stories about a linear progression called “history.” History moves eternally from lesser to greater, taking on the form of something akin to Social Darwinism. In a linear view of life, the circle game becomes as sort of hell.

Indigenous cultures tend to imagine history as circular. Our stories are complex and multi-centered. In them, we return to where we’ve been, changed and, hopefully,wizened. It is not just that we may return to childhood in old age. Rather, we understand childhood in and through old age, and look forward to rebirth, if not in this world, another. Everything returns.

My father missed my mom and his family, and like many elders, in his last days eagerly anticipated being reunited with them. For Indigenous people the work of family and community does not stop with death. Rather, family, across untold generations, remain engaged with the living. They visit us in dreams and visions, intervening in our lives. For some who are gifted in that way of knowing and perceiving, they are a constant presence. You see, life is an immense circle, and we cycle through our lives, in this life and, potentially, in many others. The ancestors are always present, as are the generations to come, and we are both. Complex, eh?

There are enormous values differences implicit in these two world views. A linear worldview allows a throw away culture: what is behind is left behind. I recently saw a series of brief ads for mindfulness training that echoed this view. One said something to the effect that, “Once settled, that which troubled us no longer reappears.” On one hand this is a truism. Yet, from an Indigenous point of view it is also inaccurate. Experiences return to us, are revisited, as opportunities to understand our lives in a new light, as gifts of wisdom. Nothing is left behind, as everything remains in the present and will return, in some form, in the future. The lesson of history is simply that everything returns. Even the mastodon and passenger pigeon remain in the Dreaming. They are gone from the world we now inhabit, but not from All-That-Is. They will return, although perhaps in a new form.

This is not an excuse for extinction. All beings are like us; they seek to live. Only Hubris tells us we are more important than others, whether persons or species. Perhaps over immense periods of time we will experience life through the eyes of innumerable species. Yet, with each incarnation we will hold tenaciously to life. We are all life forms and ALL LIFE  IS SACRED.

The circle teaches us that we are each a part of the ALL. That story and the knowledge and wisdom that grows from it are our heritage. We hold it dear.


8 thoughts on “Circle Thoughts

  1. Thank you for this. Your post gives rise to me the following thought ….. I often hear that the idea of “seven generations” refers to the next seven generations. I once read something (I wish I could remember where!) that in considering seven generations, we, ourselves are the middle generation and we look back three generations and ahead three generations. What comes to mind by reading your post is that thinking ahead seven generations feels more circular.

    1. Deb, It is good to live in a way to assure the needs of seven generations out. It is also good to remember we are the 7th generation for those now long past. Both views are holy, in that they place us in the great circle of life.

  2. yes; thanks for extrapolating these differences. i’m often troubled by this western perspective, “A linear worldview allows a throw away culture: what is behind is left behind.” – in the circular view, what is thrown away can be seen in its entire lifecycle, which becomes a closed-loop. what is “thrown-away” isn’t seen as trash, but can be like leftover vegetable pieces or egg shells that are thrown into the compost in order to make rich humus to feed vegetables, flowers ~ nourishment & beauty…. trash and things we want to leave behind don’t go “to away” as there is no “away” for them to go. i, as a “westerner” seek to remember this & practice it in my life… i’ve seen dumps & the madnesses of the “away” culture. it may be easy for people who live with systems to take care of garbage, but the garbage is catching up with us… “away” is a lot more effective if it’s found in our own back yard for us to be more intimate with it 🙂

  3. I have often said that observing nature, our own life spans, and the world around us-how the universe ‘works’-gives us the impression that time is cyclical rather than linear. Not sure how many people came on board with my suggestion though!

    1. Andy, these ideas have certainly been around -Wordsworth and the Lake Poets come to mind. I think it’s still different for Indigenous people – somehow just the way the universe is. Odd how these ideas are downplayed or ignored in contemporary culture.

  4. There is so much that I love about this post, that I’m having trouble processing my thoughts enough to make a coherent comment.


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