Meaningful Rituals: Council

Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be publishing several posts on meaningful rituals. Please read the initial post on rituals before reading the specific ideas for ways to incorporate a ritual into your ceremony. Although these are written for women getting married, they can be adapted or modified for men and for other transitions, like becoming a parent.

Council is an ancient tradition of storytelling and emotional sharing that facilitates conflict resolution, community building, and rites of passage. At its core, it is a practice of deep listening and sharing from the heart. Its roots can be traced to the League of the Iroquois and to the Native Americans of the Plains and Southwestern Pueblos. Modern Quaker meetings also employ the principles of council. Due to the pioneering work of Jack Zimmerman and the Ojai Foundation, the practice has been implemented in schools across the country to help guide children through the rite of passage of adolescence. Zimmerman has been instrumental in opening this practice to a wider public while preserving the integrity and simplicity of the process. As he writes in The Way of Council (1996, p. 5):

Our aim has always been to practice a form of council that honors the spirit of the ancient ceremonies without the pretense of being traditional. We believe that the many forms of council belong to all people who gather in the circle to embrace the challenge of listening and speaking of the heart.

There are four intentions of council:

1.  Speak from the heart.

2. Listen from the heart.

3. Be of “lean expression,” or distill your story to its essence (especially if you are in a large group).

4. Be spontaneous (don’t rehearse what you are going to say while someone else is speaking).

In terms of utilizing council as part of a bridal shower, bachelor party, or baby shower, the possibilities are endless. The basic format is to sit in a circle with a simple altar in the center. You can place candles and meaningful objects on the altar. You then select an object to use as a talking piece, state a topic or question, and place the talking piece in the center to be picked up by the first who feels called to begin. The talking piece is passed clockwise, and each person then speaks on the topic, telling a story or sharing a thought or blessing. If you’re not ready to speak when you receive the talking stick, you always have the option to pass. When the piece has traveled once around the circle, those who passed are given an opportunity to speak. (While the basics are simple, the practice is an art. I encourage anyone who is interesting in deepening their understanding of the implications of council to read Zimmerman’s book.)

For those who have never practiced council, it is best understood by example. I include Victoria’s telling of her wedding shower, as excerpted from The Conscious Bride (Paul, 2000, p. 43–46), as an effective model of the use of council.

 

We were a little nervous about the ritual because, while I’m open to ceremony and being honest in a group, but some of the girls are a little more reserved. We didn’t know if it would work. We sat in a circle, some on the couch, some in chairs, lit candles, invoked a small prayer, and began. . .  We used a red velvet scrunchy that my mom made for me as the talking stick! It was neat because of course everyone held it as they talked so it got charged with all that energy. I remember and feel all my girlfriends every time I wear it.

The first question was: What are your thoughts and views on marriage? . . . Everyone spoke one at a time. It was great for me to hear all the different perspectives on marriage and check my own assumptions against them. . . . Everyone came from their unique perspective and gave their reflections. We don’t think about what marriage means to us until we’re about to get married, so it was great for everyone to explore the topic. It was something we kept coming back to all weekend—in the pool and hot tub, on hikes. It was so good for me to explore it to that degree with all my girlfriends.

The second question was: Does anyone have any fears about how their relationship with me might change after the wedding? This was an important question because it honored my friends and gave them the space to talk about their feelings. Once the real wedding frenzy began there would be no room for their fears, feelings, wants, and needs to be expressed. I wanted to know if they were afraid of losing me or something changing. And people spoke! . . . They wanted to feel like they could have their own relationship with me separate from my husband at times. I expressed that I wanted that too but that I also wanted them to be open, especially in the beginning, that when I came to visit I might have my husband with me. I wanted them to connect with me in his presence as much as they could, and connect with him.

[They also grieved their] old attachments to who I had always been and who I had been to them. People were crying. It was very emotional. I could feel that on some level they were letting go of these attachments. I didn’t know why we were crying exactly. There was a lot of sadness there, and so much love. . . .

The third question was: How had my love affected them? This could be seen as a setup to give me my praises, but it felt appropriate. Here I was, devoting myself to love through marriage, and it was neat to hear how my love had affected them. It was nice to know, before leaping into this lifelong commitment of marriage, that I had some skills at loving. This part just blew me away. I felt completely humbled by the end, and still do when I think about it. One friend said I had taught her about her feelings; another said I had taught her about love; another said I had taught her about stability and commitment. Everyone said such profound, beautiful, impactful things.

The ritual was three hours long. We were all exhausted. If you look at the pictures of the shower everyone had red noses and red eyes from crying. We didn’t drink a drop of alcohol. There wasn’t a stripper on board. If there was a stripper it was the stripping of protection. If there was revealing it was the revealing of truth and love. The ritual was intense and profound, so special and truthful. . . .

The next morning we had breakfast, took hikes, and swam. We kept returning to the topics that we had discussed the night before but in a more casual way. And then it was over. We all said good-bye and drove back to the city. The next time we would be together was on the wedding weekend. But I felt so fed by the bridal shower weekend that I could feel them with me for the next two months. When I think back on my wedding time I feel like all my friends were around me even through they were thousands of miles away.

Much of the beauty in the practice of council is that through telling one’s own story we can help others gain comfort and clarity along their life path. As women prepare for marriage, they often talk about feeling alone with their feelings. Creating a circle of council can help alleviate this loneliness as women gather together to weave a circle of honesty and compassion around the bride. As Victoria shared, it also provides a space for girlfriends, sisters, and mothers to share their fears and offer their blessings. The community of women is thus strengthened, not torn apart by unnecessary arguing due to displaced emotions. Council serves all in a gentle, honest way, and helps prepare the bride for her transition from singlehood to marriage.