by Gabe Wollenburg
Published in the Winter 2009 issue
Authors Note: What follows is a description of one person's first experience with a three-day Sacred Fire Circle held September of 2009 at Circle Sanctuary in Wisconsin. It was my first experience in anything like it. Everyone's experience is different. What I experienced is not what my tribe-mates experienced, and is not what others have experienced at their own fire circles. We each walk the circle in our own way.
*Somewhere in the middle.*
I'm sitting on the air-bed in my recently purchased, too-small-for-two-people tent. It's about four hours before the third and final night of the Sacred Fire Circle, and I'm trying to get to sleep, but my brain and eyes are swirling in a warm hug of dancing lights and drum beats. It's a beautiful thing, I realize, to be able to see the floaty shapes and sprit-lights flashing and blinking when I close my eyes.
It almost seems a shame that the journey is coming to close tonight. Or is it just beginning? Or am I just exhausted? Probably all three. Probably neither.
I'm not worried. After the first two nights, I've gotten good at rolling with whatever comes. I rest until, bleary but energized at 11 p.m., I roust my wife, crawl out of the tiny tent, and see about pulling on the clothes I want to wear to the fire circle tonight.
Here's some advice for your first time at the fire circle. Bring sacred clothes. I don't mean bring ceremonial robes or a tunic that's been made from bolts of cloth weaved under a full moon. I mean, bring something you can wear at special times and during special moments. This will be important later. Use your clothes to make a barrier that you can erect when you go back to work on Tuesday morning. Trust me, you'll need it.
I offer that advice now, because I didn't heed it then. I have my favorite t-shirt and sweatshirt. These are comfortable clothes. These are clothes that make me happy. Perfectly good clothes to bring to Sacred Fire Circle.
Two days later I will be walking to my office, and I will be wearing the same shoes and vest I wore in the sacred space, and I will discover that I have not done a very good job of internalizing the energies I'd worked up the weekend past.
I will note, as I walk through the wooded lot toward my office, that I am sparking with energy. I will feel and connect with the flora and fauna of the office park. When I sit down on my computer, spirit energy will spurt from the meridians on my palms and when I touch the terminal in front of me, and it will spark. When I send a message to my wife, I will travel through my keyboard and across the network, and I will come up on the underside of her keyboard where I will touch the tips of her fingertips as they bounce across her keyboard.
"You need to power down," she will say. "You're going to burn up."
Maybe, I will say. And I will realize what was meant about "sacred clothes" and their roles at the Sacred Fire Circle.
But I get ahead of myself. Perhaps it's better to start at the beginning. It's hard to spot the beginning sometimes. Many believe spirit energy moves across time in a different way; many believe, for sprit energies, time is not necessarily linear. Spirit from the September circle will have had always been with us. This non-linear approach, however true and right and natural in a cosmic sense, has a rather malignant impact on the grammar of tense. And so therefore, perhaps the story should begin at the beginning--as it's a perfectly natural place for a story to start.
We told people we were going camping, which was an odd thing for my wife and me to do. As a convenient a way to explain why we needed a three-day baby-sitter for our four year-old, it also served as a touch point for me to wrap my head around. And here's why: I was going camping. There would be a fire, and I guess there would be some singing and dancing and drumming. If anybody suggested we take off our pants, we'd leave. That was the plan. Just like camping.
My wife and I had struck that deal. That's all I knew about the Sacred Fire Circle going into it. In many ways, that was enough.
Oh, and there was the list. I should probably tell you about the discussion email list.
A big part of the way this Sacred Fire Circle plans these events is over an e-mail list. Social interaction over the Internet is a thing of which I'm familiar. It was very heartening and reassuring to know that there was an electronic resource I could use to find out more.
I lurked on the list, reading but not really understanding the discussions on the list. And then comes a message that, I'm startled to realize, is written by someone I know. One of these circle-folk is a colleague of my father's. Suddenly, the world seemed very small.
That was scary. Somehow, I'd gotten myself signed up for a weekend of camping with a friend of my dad's. I started to panic. My garage door is falling down, my house is filthy, and I've got a ton of bookkeeping work to do, but instead we're going to dance around a fire and sing songs for three days this weekend. "Instead of getting any real work done," my monkey mind chatters. More about him in a minute.
*The start of it all.*
At that point, there is one thing in which I take solace. Having been at the Circle Sanctuary a handful of times prior, I know that the land there is rich and deep. I know that, no matter what happens, I will have the luxury of spending a good weekend in a special, magical place with my wonderful wife, and we will be together. That's good enough. I quiet my monkey mind chatter for the time being.
Arrived on Friday afternoon and newly unpacked, my wife and I head to the welcome area to sign in and let people know we're there, and the next thing I know, I'm being hugged by a bear of a man and not sure what to do about it. I slough off his hug; I stand away from him when he greets me. I am ashamed, in retrospect, of that behavior, but I'm not beating myself up over it. I didn't have the context yet. How could I know what I was in for?
As my wife and I tucked in after the first night's discussion group-- think of it as something of a Sacred Fire Circle immersion briefing-- she turned to me and asked, "Doesn't it seem exciting to know that we're about to take part in something that human beings have been doing for thousands of years?"
I had no idea.
*The fire is lit.*
The man with whom I was previously acquainted, my dad's friend, performed the opening ritual. He spoke of stardust, and healing. His words and his passion bridged the world I knew and the world I was about to enter. With his powerful words, this man asked the spirits for healing, called for healing energies for now and for the past. I was immediately taken by his strong and powerful voice, a puff of pyrotechnics, and the heart and soul of the tribes-folk around him.
It was then that I realized this was not a non-participatory event. I was here. I was involved. And I would be engaged. I had come to this place, this moment in my life, because it was the right place at the right time. And it was my turn to grow. This tribe, and specifically, this man, (this amazing man who I knew of, but never really saw before,) was someone I could trust.
I carry a Louise Hay quote with me. It sits on my altar, and was given to me by my therapist, who I love dearly: "I open my consciousness to the expansion of life. There is plenty of space for me to grow and change." It is written on a worn and crumpled notepad. My therapist explained, writing at the top of the note, that clinging to old belief patters doesn't give me mental space for creating a firm foundation. I was thinking of this talisman much of my first night in the circle while I stood and held space. I was building a foundation. Raising my energies. Watching and meditating. Expanding my life. There is plenty of space for me to grow and change.
And so there was.
A strange thing happened.
By the third night, I was circling. I was walking on the outermost ring, inside the circle. I tried to walk purposefully, watching the fire. watching the members of the tribe, watching the fire. Meditating. And then the monkey voice inside my head, the self-hater, started shouting at me. My monkey mind told me I was a fraud and a fake, and I was just getting in the way of the people who need and believe in the Sacred Fire Circle.
There had been talk the night previous about the self-hater's voice. This circle had named that voice "the monkey mind" and many of the tribes-folk had spent the second and third nights metaphorically flinging that voice into the fire.
I hang on to my monkey. Even today. I need my monkey. Monkey is not just the self-hater. He's also the chatterer, the socially acceptable one. He is the healthy dose of fear and respect that I need to function in day-to-day society. Monkey might be a jerk, but he's wise, powerful and clever. Monkey is part of me. I could never cast him away.
But I don't need him when I'm in the Sacred Fire Circle. The fire circle is an incredibly safe place, where unconditional love flows freely. This gives you space and time to burn -- or kiss -- your monkeys.
By walking in the circle in the farthest path from the fire, I was staying safe. I was afraid of the fire. I was guarding myself from really getting into the fire's trace. I was doing what I've always done. The monkey mind was right.
I took a cue from one of the tribe leaders (that's probably not a title they'd like to me to use, but it would be dishonest to say that there aren't strong personalities and voices in the Sacred Fire Circle tribe that lead and guide) and I looked up and saw the faces of all those who were holding the space for me as I walked the circle.
I see the shaman, the wizard, the ranger, the monk, the trickster, the healer, and the bard... all these great people who were there giving me a great gift. They are freely, willingly, channeling their healing energies into this circle, as a gift without expectation of reward. How could I not take that energy and do something wonderful with it? My attention lands on the face of my dad's friend-- I call him my friend now-- and I feel safe and inspired.
"Don't," shouts my monkey mind. "Don't! You're not going to do it right, you're going to get hurt, or you're going to hurt someone you love! You don't know how to control your power and you're going to hurt someone you love, you big lummox."
Lightbulb. This is it; my core fear. Thank you, monkey.
I lean in to the fire, and I take the monkey's words, and, kissing him, I toss that bundle of words into the fire. Now I walk the inner ring.
*The inner ring*
I'm circling tight. I don't remember if there was drumming or chanting. I am traveling now. I no longer know where I am. I'm lost in the swirl. I realize what I'd been missing. I know what I was looking for. It wasn't something I was in search of, but rather, it was something that wasn't there. It's not what I feel; it's what I don't feel. I don't feel my ancestors.
Where are my ancestors? Where are the ancient people of my bloodline? Circling, circling. Where are my grandfather and grandmother, who died when I was young? Circling, circling. Where is my paternal line, the great Germans who came to this land and built a home for themselves? Where are my ancestors? Where are my people?
I am crying now, as I walk the circle. Tears roll out of my eyes, drip from my cheeks and blend with the peat as I walk, swirling faster and faster. Fire blends with peat, which melts with the chanting and signing and the drumming and the shake of my rattle. The sky swirls and the sparks from the fire meld with the stars which become the glint of the fire reflected in my tears. In a whirl, I shoot from the inner circle like a meteor, streaking a sparkling tail of sky fire behind me.
I find myself at the foot of the ancestor altar.
*Where are my ancestors?*
I stand at the foot of the ancestor's altar, shaking a little rattle. I look at the top of ancestor's gate and the sky behind it. Tears slide down my face, and I am wallowing now: I do not know where I come from. I do not know my people. I do not have a history. Why don't I have someone to take care of me? Why won't someone help me?
The last bit sticks in my throat. It catches in my head and my mind and it brings me back to the fire circle. I become aware of my surroundings. "Why won't someone help me?" is not my voice. I don't know who needs help, but it's not me.
Why won't someone help me? At my feet I find a fellow tribeswoman, she is fallen into the ancestor's altar, and she is retching and vomiting. She is face down in the grass and peat, and she is in a bad place. Was it her voice?
The woman is being tended to by another tribeswoman, an energy worker; I will call her the cleric. I didn't realize it, but I'd been holding space for the two of them. I watch in amazement as the cleric pulls the negative energies from the fallen woman's body, scooping it in large, gooey handfuls from the woman's core and tossing it to the ground. I hold space. I shake my rattle. I think good and happy thoughts. I cultivate my own healing energies, for both the woman in the alter and for myself. My heart feels warm as I watch and shake and hold. It is like a hug. It is like a security blanket. It is a terrifying, but happy moment.
I ask the cleric how I got there. I don't remember the time between coming to the alter and finding the sick woman at my feet. The cleric tells me I followed the woman. We both came shooting over to the ancestor's alter at the same time. I followed right behind and I stood over her, she says.
The cleric was watching us from a resting spot behind the ancestor's gate on the comet trail. "I came to help after I saw you come out here," she says.
"You mean I came out here and found her here," my monkey corrects.
"No," she says. You followed her. I saw you from behind the ancestor's altar."
I am too amazed to say anything.
*The sun rises on the third day*
Shortly thereafter, and an eternity from then, the sun begins to rise. When the sun rises over the Sacred Fire Circle, the sky turns blue and the ridge to the west starts to roll in on the valley nestling the Circle Sanctuary. On the first morning, it looked to me like a storm cloud. On the third, it looked to me like a blanket.
The Sacred Fire Circle closes with a snaking, winding ceremony wherein each tribe member looks another in the eye and tells them that they will always love them, asking them to remember that love. As I wind my way down the sea of faces I will never forget, I look deeply into each tribe member's eyes and tried to see each one of their hearts. I have been moved. I feel a quake in my core. A deep love, powerful and emotive, roiled in my belly. Tears well in my eyes, and I become unable to sing, but I try anyway. My heart and voice quaver.
Finally, I come to the shaman. My friend. My dad's friend. My tribe brother. I give him an enormous hug, and whisper thank you into his ear, and I call him by his first name. But I'm not just thanking him. I am thanking the tribe through him. I am thanking the circle, and I am thanking the ancestors. And I am thanking the spirit. I am thanking the earth. I am thanking the creator, and the energies, and the stations, and the elements. I am thanking God. And I am not alone. I am not alone.
I am not alone.