Circles of Women and Philosophical Practice (I)

Disclaimer: This article was first published in the academic journal Interdisciplinary Research in Counseling, Ethics and Philosophy and can be read here.

This article is based on the theoretical framework of Ramona Todor’s dissertation on the same topic: Women’s Circles and Philosophical Practice – Holding Space for Embodied, Immanent Wisdom, which explored potential bridges between two rather different approaches to cultivating wisdom – Circles of Women and Philosophical Practice (or Philosophical Counseling). The dissertation also contained a phenomenological analysis of three interviews with participants of women’s circles from Romania, and will comprise a further article on this topic published on our website.

ABSTRACT: In recent years, traditional approaches to education and development have been increasingly criticized as being predominantly oriented towards developing the mind, at the detriment of the other dimensions of human existence (i.e., body, emotion, intuition, imagination), which have been associated with secondary, less important, or feminine aspects. Such an approach understands and engages these other dimensions merely from a mental perspective, instead of allowing each dimension to develop in its own space and rhythm. This creates a bias referred to as cognicentrism. A case for the shift of cognicentric approaches towards an integrative interplay of the mind, body, emotion, imagination, and intuition is presented in this study. This shift is envisioned as happening by pursuing an embodied, immanent approach towards all dimensions of knowing in an integrative manner. As one of the steps towards this achievement, in the context of philosophical practice, the practice of Circles of Women (CWs) is presented and studied. CWs are presented as spaces where the practice is centred on embodiment and immanence, where the voice of the feminine can be heard, explored, and honoured – aspects perceived as lacking in the context of a traditional philosophical practice. Philosophical practice is presented as having a more accentuated presence on the mental, intellectual sphere, and so a more versed perspective upon matters of ethics and logic – aspects through which CWs could also potentially benefit. The direction and focus of this study is to advance the need for an embodied, immanent approach to philosophical practice, thus building bridges between already existing practices and communities while acknowledging differences and presenting possibilities of complementarity or reciprocal influence.

Key words: women circle, philosophical practice, cognicentrism, immanence, embodiment, feminine

Introduction

Looking at the world and at society through feminist/feminine, embodied, integrative, or immanent perspectives can bring to light some biases in mainstream approaches to education and knowledge that still remain largely unquestioned. Through these perspectives, the present paper deconstructs some fundamental assumptions found in significant parts of Western culture, Western philosophy, and consequently in Western philosophical practice. More precisely, reason, logic, intellect, mind, cognition –in the Western world they are seen as humanity’s most precious tools. This can be observed in traditional or mainstream educational systems’ curriculum and in what is considered knowledge or science (Thayer-Bacon, 2000). This can also be seen in how traditional or mainstream philosophical practices focus mainly on conceptual, logic-argumentative reasoning tools in order to define, assess and analyze concepts or hypotheses (Barrientos, 2018).

However, to hold that reason is inherently more important than other dimensions of the human experience – or tools of knowing – such as the body, emotion, intuition, and imagination, is arguably based on a constructed assumption at best, and on patriarchal systems of power and oppression at worst. Indeed, developing and refining reason has served an important element in the development of our society in terms of science, medicine, industry, technology, infrastructure, and many other aspects. As Ferrer (2003) and Romero and Albareda (2001), researchers and practitioners of the integrative and participatory approach suggest, in the context of the Western culture, “the inhibition of the primary dimensions of the person – somatic, instinctive, sexual, and certain aspects of the emotional – may have been actually necessary at certain juncture to allow the mergence and maturation of the values of the human heart and consciousness” (Ferrer, 2003, p. 22).

Nevertheless, we have arguably reached a place in our development as a society where the repression of these “other” dimensions or tools is not necessary anymore. Today’s challenges are significantly more related to sedentary lifestyles, alienation, depression, eating disorders, body dimorphic disorders, and the increase in perceived relational and sexual dysfunctions (Simons & Carey, 2001). In this context, reason and intellectual refinement are seen as unable to address the abovementioned challenges by themselves. Thus, reassessing the weight given to the mental dimension in our individual life and society becomes increasingly important, and distributing this weight towards each tool of knowing in an integrative manner becomes meaningful.

The purpose of this article is to explore the practice of CWs as a practice of philosophy. Philosophy is seen as an endeavor towards cultivating wisdom, where wisdom is understood as described by philosopher Ran Lahav (2001, p.8) in his article “Philosophical Counselling as a Quest for Wisdom”. This view is expanded later in this article. Furthermore, whether a state of wisdom can be achieved primarily by intellectual means is questioned. This article is part of the author’s dissertation thesis, and only the theoretical framework is included due to space limit. The dissertation also included a phenomenological study focusing specifically on women’s lived experiences in CWs with respect to the tools of knowing (mind, body, emotion, imagination, intuition), embodiment, and the feminine.

CWs have been chosen as a study topic because they consciously engage precisely with those dimensions traditionally regarded as impediments towards finding wisdom, truth or virtue in the context of philosophical practice. However, through a feminine/feminist, integrative, immanent or embodied perspective, these dimensions are seen as immanent sources of truth, knowledge, and wisdom.

For more clarify, some key terms used in this work are presented below.

Mind, Critical Thinking, Cognicentrism

Throughout this work, reason, mind, and intellect are referred to as those human faculties or tools of knowing which have been used for abstract inquiry, development of objective sciences, and the strive toward impartial knowledge and truth. In this framework, knowledge is assessed and valued using critical thinking, as traditionally defined by philosophers ranging from Plato and Aristotle to 20th century thinkers such as Bertrand Russell (1956), John Dewey (1997), Max Black (1946), or Robert Ennis (1962). Critical thinking, in their view, as interpreted by researcher and philosopher Barbara Thayer-Bacon (2000) in her book Transforming Critical Thinking – Thinking Constructively, is seen as a neutral, objective, and thus unbiased method of differentiating between truth and falsehood.

This view is based on two assumptions – 1) knowers can be separated from what is known, and 2) something is inherently either true or false, with no room in the middle. These assumptions have been comprehensively criticized by Thayer-Bacon (2000). In one of her starting arguments, she shows how in Meno’s Dialogues (Plato, 1943), the main character and philosopher Socrates, although claiming to not know the right answer to Meno’s question regarding what virtue is, still relies on an important yet hidden assumption. He assumes that there will be one true answer, a universal essence, shared by all forms of virtue. Western philosophy, which has been famously referred to as consisting “of a series of footnotes to Plato” by British philosopher A.N. Whitehead (1979, p.39), is heavily influenced by this assumption found in Plato, which “has come under great scrutiny by critical theorists, feminists, womanists, third world feminists, and postmodernists” (Thayer-Bacon, 2000, p.19).

Thayer-Bacon continues to walk us through the ways in which different ideologies impact the way we understand human experiences. Marx and neo-Marxists show the important role that social class plays in the experiences of people. Feminists bring attention to how ‘mankind’ does not equally represent people, but rather subsumes ‘women’ under the category of ‘men’. Radical feminists and queer theorists highlight the category of sexual orientation and gender identity, showing how even ‘woman’ as a category raises issues in erasing differences amongst people. Womanists and third world feminists find that white, middle-class feminist scholars define ‘women’ in such a way that differences of race, ethnicity, and social class are ignored. Postmodernists undergo the philosophical task of deconstructing what counts as knowledge. With all of this in mind, returning to Meno, he is no longer able to give an answer once he agrees to Socrates’ criteria for what counts as knowledge. In this way, Socrates silences Meno, in spite of claiming to not know the answer himself. Socrates has a theory of what counts as knowledge, and so, although he claims to not know the answer to Meno’s questions, he still determines what Meno can offer as evidence, and so what can count as right or wrong. Socrates’ theory is based, in logical terms, on the theory of non-contradiction and the law of the excluded middle, thus allowing for differences to exist, and thereby for difference from truth (or falsity).

Plato envisioned critical thinking as a logical act, where logic is based on “the laws of non-contradiction and excluded middle, which force [the other participant in the dialogue] to reply and think into approved channels” (Thayer-Bacon, 2000, p.34). “Logical division […] prevents the discussion from being interrupted by contrary views or responses” (Thayer-Bacon, 2000, p.32). This way, logical division makes it possible for one party to be in complete control over the discussion. “The either/or questions that Socrates asks […] strictly limit the kind of answer Meno can give, […and] the price for deviation is ridicule” (Thayer-Bacon, 2000, p.33). Thayer-Bacon notes that if one attempts to speak on their own, they “can be accused of lack of rigor and lack of understanding of the categories of rational expression” (Thayer-Bacon, 2000, p.37). This creates power imbalances which are easily perpetuated in the context of mainstream philosophical practice today. Thayer-Bacon’s proposal is to embrace a socially constructed view of knowledge, “as something that is in process – always being constructed and reconstructed”, and only capable of being processed with the help of others, “because we are limited, fallible, contextual beings” (Thayer-Bacon, 2000, p.22). Adopting Thayer-Bacon’s insight, critical thinking, as it is traditionally understood, is seen as limited and biased, “in that vital tools of imagination, intuition and emotional feelings are diminished or ignored, while our reasoning tool is highlighted” (Thayer-Bacon, 2000, p.5). She shows how the other tools of knowing have been associated with women and indigenous peoples, in turn associated with less importance or inferiority in the pursuit of truth, knowledge, or wisdom.

The paradigm in which knowledge is predominantly associated with the mind has been referred to as cognicentrism (Ferrer, 2003). It has been shown to have its roots in the mind-body dualism usually accredited to Descartes (2008), but which has been traced back to Plato by philosopher J. Dewey (1997). In Plato’s The Republic (1943), Plato holds that our bodies are a hindrance to our knowing, depicting through his divided line model that the lower levels of the line correspond to lower levels of intelligence, which in turn correspond to our physical bodies. The higher levels of the line include truth and knowledge, which are associated by Plato with the mind (Dewey, 1997). Thayer-Bacon (2000) holds that “this mind-body dualism has followed us to the present day” (p.27).

Philosopher Michelle Maiese (2011) presents a further criticism against this mind-body split, this time in the fields of contemporary cognition theories, which, through this perspective, incorrectly hold that the central nervous system is solely sufficient and responsible for consciousness. Thus, she argues for the essentially embodied nature of human consciousness (Maiese, 2011, p.11). This embodiment thesis, in Maiese’s view, holds that “conscious minds are necessary biologically alive and completely embodied in all the vital systems and organs of our living bodies” (Maiese, 2011, p.2). In her view, “emotional consciousness is the place where the heart, the brain, and the rest of the living body all come together, and from which action, perception, and cognition originate” (Maiese, 2011, p.56). She argues that emotions are not explicitly cognitive in the sense portrayed by many popular theories of emotion; however, she thinks that emotion cannot be separated from cognition. In this light, the argument for an integrative, embodied view upon the human experience and the necessity of an integrative practice in philosophy starts to take shape.

Integrative, immanence and embodiment

An integrative philosophical practice is envisioned as a practice that engages into the immanent, embodied tools of knowing (body, emotion, intuition, imagination) without placing mental tools such as logic, reason and intellect on a pedestal (Thayer-Bacon, 2000, Ch.2). This means that although reason is ‘dethroned’ form being the most important tool of knowing, as it was traditionally held, its value remains acknowledged. In order to do this, space needs to be held for each tool of knowing to develop in its own dimension, in its own rhythm, using its own language to express itself. This is seen as opposed to a traditional approach in which the other tools of knowing are inquired into and understood through the perspective of the mind. Immanence refers to that aspect of knowledge or truth that is personal and deep, and emerges from within (Ferrer, 2003). It can be tapped into through intuition, introspection, and spiritual or contemplative practices such as prayer or meditation, and forms of art such as shamanic painting or intuitive dancing (Todor, 2021a).

Another problem that Ferrer (2003) discusses in his article is that because “not much attention is given to the maturation of the somatic, instinctive, sexual and emotional worlds, […] even spiritual leaders and teachers across traditions display an uneven development” (Ferrer, 2003, p.21). He exemplifies this uneven development through cases of practitioners who have high level cognitive and spiritual functioning, yet who experience dysfunctions at the interpersonal, emotional, or sexual behavior. Ferrer speaks of spiritual teachers and practitioners, but arguably the same could be said about philosophical practitioners.

Circles of Women

An overview based on existing literature

CWs are said to have existed across different cultures of the globe (Leidenfrost, 2012b; Longman, 2018), and they are known under diverse names, such as Red Tents, Circles of Women, and Moon Circles (Castro, 2020). According to Longman (2018), women’s circles are “women-only spaces that celebrate sisterhood and the ‘feminine’” (p.1), being “non-institutionalized, often monthly gatherings, for women to come together and relax, meditate, share stories, partake in rituals, heal, nourish, and empower themselves” (Longman, 2018, p.1). Her study shows how CWs offer a space to women from diverse backgrounds that is found to be lacking in the secular-liberal society, a space where women come to “’re/connect’ with each other, their bodies, their inner selves, and sometimes with the sacred”, transcending “boundaries between the religious, the spiritual, and the secular” (Longman, 2018, p.1). Castro (2020) in her study refers to Red Tents as “places of acceptance (of self and others)” (Castro, 2020, p.1) where repressed negative emotions and experiences can be shared, and where women can bond and witness each other outside of the roles they were playing in a patriarchal context.

In Longman’s perspective, CWs are seen as a response to “the perceived failure of neoliberal gender ideology to empower women and transform society within secular modernity” (Longman, 2018, p.2), providing a “refuge from contemporary existence” (Castro, 2020, p. 12). This refuge might be seen as allowing women to discover themselves, womanhood and femininity in a new light, from their own perspective and experience, and not as it has been defined by patriarchal societies. This allows them to question contemporary society, its challenges and their own circumstances from a new perspective, one which honors their personal truth and experience.

The aforementioned researchers address several concerns about CWs, holding that they could be expressive of harmful gender essentialism (Longman, 2018) or perpetuating “hegemonic power relations, systemic inequalities and privilege, particularly regarding biological essentialism and whiteness” (Castro, 2020, p.1).  Other concerns have been criticizing CWs as merely expressing neoliberal, individualist consumer values, referred to as the ‘neoliberal spiritual self’, topic raised by Longman and built upon by Castro.  Although CWs are usually accompanied by open statements regarding inclusivity and diversity of womanhood, in some cases with “explicit mentions of trans women and intersectionality” (Castro, 2020, p.4), another concern lies with the potentially predominant identification of participants as white, cis-gendered, and heterosexual, and their background regarding women’s feminist orientation, high educational level and socioeconomic class (Castro, 2020). In this light, hegemonic norms are considered likely to be reproduced and entrenched. A further criticism lies with the “neoliberal spiritual subject who unwittingly maintains the hegemonic status quo in a quest for personal growth” (Castro, 2020, p4). In this view, the individual is distracted from material and structural inequities, and any residual problems women experience are repackaged as “their individual responsibility” (Castro, 2020, p.5). Critics continue to argue that the practice of CWs is characterized by consumption and affluence, thus limiting access and strengthening contemporary capitalism (Carrette and King, 2005). Other critical views underpinning CWs under the wider umbrella of well-being sphere and self-help practices hold that they “reproduce normative femininities […] with a postfeminist version of the neo-liberal self” (Longman, 2018, p.4).

A further ‘red flag’, as Castro (2020) shows, revolves around the biological aspect of women in reference to “historical and contemporary threads of essentialism in different feminisms” (Castro, 2020, p13), by which womanhood is seen as strictly tied to the binary female sex assigned a birth. This view is based on assumptions regarding what constitutes a biological sex, which aren’t always clearly defined (Buttler, 1993), thus potentially leading to further assumptions about the universality of women’s physiological processes, since not all experiences of womanhood are related to breasts, wombs and menstruation (Castro, 2020, p.13).

Gill (2007) argues that the celebration of “women’s individual capacities to resist patriarchal scripts” accept without questioning neoliberal values while relying upon a “depoliticized mindset” (Gill, 2007, p.611), perpetuating political apathy. This is a common criticism addressed to holistic spiritualities (Finley, 1991).

These arguments lay the foundation for this work’s aim of building bridges between the practice of CWs and the practice of philosophy, seeing that there exists potential for mutual improvement. Traditional philosophical practice could benefit from the embodied, immanent approach from CWs, and CWs could benefit from the philosophical insights into political structures and issues of identity and privilege.

Thus, CWs are vulnerable of being seen as engaging into “cultural or radical feminist principles that in some contexts are seen as retrograde today” (Hollows, 2000, p.10). However, in CWs, “a complete women-centred culture is rejected, and a complete counter-culture based on identity politics for women is not promoted” (Hollows, 2000, p.10). In fact, femininity is re-evaluated in a more “nomadic, affective, and affirmative sense, where agency regarding gender identity and sexual difference emerges through explorative, imaginative, and experiential processes. Femininity is described both in reference to ‘traditional’ feminine characteristics, for example ‘softness’ and ‘gentleness’, and also in abstract, wider terms ranging from “experiencing through the senses, going inwards, receptivity, flowing instead of achieving, and organically connecting” (Hollows, 2000, p.10).

Womanhood, Feminine, Feminism

The term feminine appears mostly in the literature on CWs in the context of a conscious pursuit of rediscovering or returning to a forgotten or hidden feminine in patriarchal societies. Last century’s feminist and postmodern philosophers and thinkers have started to shed light upon the implications that patriarchal societies have been imposing on their people, and since then, feminist thought is said to have undergone four turns, known as ‘the four waves of feminism’ (Rampton ,2008; Rodak, 2020).

CWs are seen as belonging to the now-emerging fourth wave of feminism. One important characteristic of CWs as a fourth wave manifestation is that the insights and seeming contradictions of the previous waves of feminism are deconstructed and integrated.

According to Rampton (2008) and Rodak (2020), the first wave of feminism was known primarily for the women’s suffrage and achieving legal aspects of gender equality in the late 19th and first half of the 20th century.

During the late 1960s and 1970s, the second wave expanded to touch more areas of women’s lives such as politics, domesticity, work, family, and sexuality and opened the discussion about domestic violence and martial rape (Pierceson, 2016). Second-wave feminists placed themselves critically against the first wave’s fully essentialist perspective, noting that women have also been exploiting each other, and so questioned the first-wave opinion that being a woman is sufficient for being a feminist.

The third wave in the 1990s started to oppose itself to the very notion of femininity, which was seen as having been defined by men, and was considered sexist. During the third wave, women “internalized male supremacist values” (Rodak, 2020, p.121) and engaged into degenerative, competitive behaviour amongst each other. Having achieved the right to equal opportunities in the workplace, they entered the competitive corporate environments and started playing the game inherently designed by men, for men.

The fourth wave, starting to take shape in the 2010s, is now able to look back on these iterations and cultivate a more conscious feminine/feminist identity. It further deconstructs essentialist perspectives acknowledging the existence of non-traditional, non-hegemonic gender identities, sexual orientations and cultural backgrounds. Intersectional feminism and queer theory lay the foundations of these perspectives. Fourth wave feminists note that all people have been affected by patriarchal structures, including cis-gendered men, in that feminine aspects have been suppressed, oppressed, exploited or objectified in everyone alive, not just in women, creating an imbalance in social expectations and roles for everyone. The fourth wave is also characterized by a strong online presence and trans-national influence (Rodak, 2020).

The fight for women’s empowerment by demanding access to equal rights still is an important process towards a just society, taking place at a political level. However, there is great need for subjective, individual, embodied empowerment, too, which has to take place through individual, personal processes. Political and personal activism and empowerment should arguably take place at the same time, in the spirit of Carol Hanisch’s famous slogan – The Personal is Political, published in her 1969 essay under the same name (Hanisch, 2000). In CWs, empowerment starts with the personal, through the creation of ‘safe spaces’, where each woman can share, explore, and/or find her own truth, her own voice, her own inner strength rooted in her own experience of womanhood and femininity – and explore these experiences outside of patriarchal expectations and definitions. This, in turn, creates a different kind of collective experience, which, in turn, can influence the political level.

The Place of Women Circles in Philosophical Practice

A common definition of philosophical practice is increasingly difficult to be found and agreed upon amongst philosophical practitioners (Raabe, 2001). With this in mind, the practice of CWs will now be mapped amongst existing philosophical practices in order to explore the differences and the potential of complementarity between them. Oscar Brenifier’s Via Negativa, and Ran Lahav’s Deep Philosophy are used as references. As already pointed out by Barrientos (2018), the mainstream or traditional practice of philosophy uses a conceptual, logic-argumentative kind of reason in order to conceptualize, define, assess and analyze concepts or hypotheses. This prevailing philosophical tradition, although practiced through diverse methods, is based on: 1) examining arguments and justifications of counselees, 2) clarifying, analysing and defining important terms and concepts used, 3) exposing and assessing underlying assumptions and finding logical implications, 4) highlighting inconsistencies, and 5) exploring traditional theories of philosophy. According to Barrientos, this approach is considered anti-philosophical, because it narrows the ways in which reality can be seen and thus narrowing the broader scope of philosophy of cultivating wisdom in all its forms. Barrientos (2018) gives three examples of philosophical practitioners who engage into a practice of philosophy based on critical thinking – Brenifier, Lebon, and Kreimer’s. For this study’s purpose, Brenifier’s approach will be analyzed. According to Barrientos (2018), Brenifier’s approach to philosophical practice is based on three main activities: identify, problematize, conceptualize. He uses skills such as designing hypotheses, defining and contrasting ideas, and minding questions and answers, all based on critical thinking. Barrientos presents two models in philosophical practice outlined by Ran Lahav – the ‘Grand’ and ‘Small’ model. In this context, the philosophical practice based on critical thinking belongs to the small model, because it does not seek to transform the foundations of life (as would the grand model do), rather it addresses specific needs or difficulties and aims to fix problems, thus becoming a ‘normalizer’ and a ‘satisfaction-provider’ (Barrientos, 2018, p.2). In this regard, critical thinking seems to be more about smartness than about wisdom, which raises the question if this is indeed what the practice of philosophy seeks to be.

The negative way uses a process through which “the mental process tries to reach truth about its object through negation of what it is not” (Brenifier, 2006, p.29). In the practice of philosophy, as envisioned by Brenifier, there is a tradition concerned with the interruption of mental process and so obtaining silence, thus in this context philosophy is related more to an “ascetic conception of ‘being’” (Brenifier, 2006, p.29) than to a kind of science, aiming to show the absurdity of speech. He asserts that “knowledge is in itself immoral, for its pretensions and hypocrisy, its fundamental negligence of virtue, its disdain for the good, and moreover its ignorance of being, its absence of being” (Brenifier, 2006, p.33). In his view, the rational and moral speech is “merely the discourse of convenience and convention” (Brenifier, 2006, p.33). Up until this point, Brenifier’s depiction of the practice of Via Negativa seems to actually strengthen the arguments in favour of this paper’s values. However, at a closer look, in the context of this study’s purpose of holding space of embodied, immanent wisdom, some differences start to take shape.

 Inferring from the way in which Brienifier comments fragments from tales with the famous character Nasruddin, he approves of behaviours of teachers who let students “figure it out, because he trusts them, even though he treats them in an apparently ‘rude’ way, which can hurt their ‘feelings’” (Brenifier, 2006, p.41). In light of this study’s purpose of holding space for emotion, intuition, and the feminine, an approach to philosophical practice, which only ‘bullies’ the participants into realizations, is seen as limited, and could actually perpetuate misogynistic views, be insensitive to trauma-related experiences, and promote unhealthy student-teacher dynamics. Arguably, in the perspective taken in CWs, which is also backed by insights from person-centred approaches to therapy and counseling and positive psychology (Corey, 2014), individual ‘opinions’ shouldn’t be provoked or ridiculed, but honored. By trusting that if given the space to safely share these opinions, benefitting from the unconditional acceptance and listening of others, participants will come to deep realizations about their opinions, or rather, their inner truth and themselves, without the need to be bullied into these realizations.

Ran Lahav’s (2001) Deep Philosophy (DP), on the other hand, has more in common with the practice of CWs. In his view, “unlike in most psychotherapies, the counselling session focuses on philosophizing between the counsellor and counselee, while an open dialogue takes place within the session” (2001, p.8). Sharing the concerns raised throughout this paper, in his article, he views the life of the individual in contemporary Western culture as being “to a large extent, devoid of what can be called wisdom” (Lahav, 2001, p.8). In the book that he co-authored, “What is Deep Philosophy?” (Lahav et. al., 2018), he presents DP as a contemplative way of practicing philosophy, as a group practice. This contemplative method uses more tools than just abstract thinking, by tapping into “a deeper dimension of ourselves” (p.1). As part of the Western tradition, groups reflect on fundamental issues of life, however, unlike the “intellectual discourses of mainstream academic philosophy, in Deep Philosophy we reflect from our inner depth” (Lahav, 2001, p.8). While describing the structure of a DP session, Francesca D’Uva, another co-author of the book, shows how traditional academic philosophical discussions “are often discursive and analytic, not enough to satisfy our yearning for meaning. Discursive philosophy can only think ‘about’ reality and inspect it from a distance, like an external observer” (Lahav, 2001, p.23). DP seeks to build a bridge between theory and reality, and participants seek to ‘reconnect’ with their own reality by tapping into their inner depth (Lahav, 2001, p.24). Until now, the purpose and method of DP is similar with methods used in CWs, however, some differences can be observed in what is used as the object of inquiry or contemplation. In DP, mostly philosophical texts typical to the Western tradition are used, and a contemplative attitude towards them is cultivated in order to guide the mind towards going “beyond the words, into a deeper dimension from which the words themselves originate” (Lahav, 2001, p.25).

CWs do not use philosophical texts in order to tap into this deeper dimension, but the participant’s own person, their own life experiences, their truth, voice, emotions, body, and intuition in themselves. In DP, while reading the texts, participants try not to analyze or criticize them, ”but rather to resonate with the voices of the text, as well as with the voices of our fellow contemplator, in a polyphonic and contemplative dialogue that takes place within the group” (Lahav, 2001, p.24). Similarly, in CWs, participants try not to criticize or analyze what the other participants are sharing, but rather to resonate with their voices and with their truth.

Lahav outlines the skeleton of a Deep Philosophy session, which, although flexible, remains similar and consists of “a centring exercise, an exercise for understanding of the text, contemplative activity, a quiet exercise, closure, and meta-conversation” (Lahav, 2001, p.25). Different kinds of sessions are presented, including “sessions focused on contemplation, sessions focused on understanding the text, sessions focused on sharing personal experiences, and voicing sessions, each containing the basic elements of contemplation, understanding, and sharing of personal experiences. Participants are asked not to talk ‘about’ their experience, […], but rather ‘from’ their experience, as if the words are emerging from the experience while it is happening” (p.32).

Similarly, CWs also share a flexible structure, presented as found in materials from the Global Sisterhood course about CWs (Global Sisterhood circle facilitator course, 2020): 1) Opening and ‘presencing’ (meditation, or centering exercise); 2) Welcome and introductions; 3) Practice/ritual and sharing experience; 4) Intention setting; 5) Meditation; 6) Closing shares and closing. In CWs, a technique called ‘breakthrough-centred sharing’ and sharing while speaking in first person is employed. Participants are invited to share about their own direct experiences, emotions and states in the present moment, avoiding theoretical dialogue and polemics. This way, participants cultivate vulnerability when sharing about their inner worlds, while at the same time remaining centred in their internal, immanent wisdom, and optionally asking for understanding or insights from the group (Global Sisterhood circle facilitator course, 2020).

This immanent, personal experience is celebrated in CWs by allowing it to be ‘seen and heard’ by the other participants through active listening, act which is seen as being therapeutic and liberating in itself. Most circles use the ‘talking stick’ as a form of mediating conversation, so that everyone can have the change to speak and be heard without interruptions (Longman, 2018, p.6). The principle behind talking stick circles is that in turn, a stick is passed to each person (or they can take the stick if they want), and while having the stick, they have the space to ‘bring in’ or share and express what they want, or ‘what is alive in them now’ (Longman, 2018, p.6), without any pressure, meaning that silence is also welcome.

Another key-element in CWs is the co-creation of the practice as a ‘safe-space’. A safe space is nurtured by “[refraining] from giving advice or judgment after one speaks – act which is referred to as ‘holding space’ for another” (Longman, 2018, p.7). CWs are practiced as egalitarian spaces in essence, where there is “respect for the opinion, expression, experience, wisdom, and knowledge of all, regardless of age, education, or background” (Longman, 2018, p.7). In such spaces, nothing has to be done, achieved, or performed, and participants can take a break from ‘doing’ and explore purely ‘being’ in the here and now (Todor, 2021b). These spaces usually contain moments of rest and relaxation, achieved through “simply breathing and slowing down […] what many interviewees perceived as the hectic, high-pressured, and exhausting lives of many women today” (Longman, 2018, p.7). The interviewees in Longman’s study claimed that in circle, “you can ‘be yourself’, and ‘let down masks’; ‘you don’t have to impress and compete with others’, but can simply be ‘seen, acknowledged, nourished and loved’” (Longman, 2018, p.7). By doing this, the space is opened up so that the often repressed dimensions of somatic experience, emotion, intuition, and imagination can come to light. Sensitive topics such as sexuality, menstruation, pain, pleasure, pregnancy, birth, loss of pregnancy, personal identity, feminine spirituality are amongst the common topics in CWs, as described in the author’s dissertation (Todor, 2021a).

Conclusions

Due to the potentially fruitful space between philosophical practice and circles of women, the space is opened for further research. As already argued, the practice of philosophy could find inspiration in the embodied, immanent approach found in CWs, and CWs could benefit from philosophical insights regarding political perspectives and issues of identity and privilege. It is worth mentioning that similar circles exist also for men, and also in non-gendered or ‘mixed’ constellations.

CWs are safe spaces for self-exploration, deep human connection, and engagement with aspects that are largely still hidden or taboo in our society, where women’s raw life experiences can be witnessed. Through the creation of safe spaces and the focus on individual, embodied, immanent experience, CWs create a rare to find space in which subjectivity, the voice of the feminine, and women’s experiences can be expressed and celebrated without being judged, criticized, or attempted to be ‘fixed’ according to norms imposed by patriarchal societies. By witnessing and being witnessed through these processed, participants can observe their own internal judgments that might include internalized misogyny, manifested as unconscious judgments towards oneself or other women. They can engage with the largely repressed somatic, instinctual, sexual or sensual dimensions, which are likely to remain hidden, avoided, or merely observed through an exclusively cognitive approach.

Thus, the case for a more integrative, embodied, immanent and feminine approach to the practice of philosophy is made, and CWs are presented as a practice where the traditionally left out tools of knowing of body, intuition, imagination, and emotion are intentionally engaged with and honored, together with feminine/feminist insights and perspectives. The scope of this paper was also to propose a potential bridge between traditional philosophical practice and the practice of CWs, while recognizing that these approaches can potentially complement each other.

References

Barrientos-Ratrojo, J. (2018). Why critical thinking is not enough in philosophical practice?, CECAPFi, Mexico City.

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Castro, M. (2020). Introducing the Red Tent: A discursive and critically hopeful exploration of women’s circles in a neoliberal postfeminist context. Sociological Research Online, 25(3): 386–404.

Carrette, J. & King, R. (2005). Selling spirituality: The silent takeover of religion. London; New York: Routledge.

Corey, G. (2014). Theory and practice of group counseling (9th ed.). Boston: CENGAGE Learning Custom Publishing.

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Finley, N. J. (1991). Political activism and feminist spirituality. Sociological analysis, 52(4): 349–362.

Gill, R .(2007). Postfeminist media culture: Elements of a sensibility. European Journal of Cultural Studies, 10(2): 147–166.

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Hanisch, C., (2000). The Personal is Political. In: B. A. Crow, ed., Radical Feminism: A Documentary Reader, NYU Press, pp.113-116.

Hollows, Joanne. (2000). Feminism, Femininity and Popular Culture. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

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Longman, C. (2018). Women’s circles and the rise of the new feminine: Reclaiming sisterhood, spirituality, and wellbeing. Religions, 9(1): 1–17.

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Rodak, L. (2020). Sisterhood and the 4th wave of feminism: An analysis of circles of women in Poland, Oñati Socio-Legal Series, 10(1S): 116S–134S.

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Women’s Circles – An introduction based on existing literature

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ABSTRACT

This article explores several writings from the still scarce existing literature on the topic of Circles of Women (CWs), addressing both descriptive introductory elements and critical attitudes and shortcomings. Most insights are drawn from Chia Longman’s (2018) article “Women’s circles and the rise of the New Feminine – Reclaiming Sisterhood, Spirituality and Wellbeing”, while my perspective or interpretation as a researcher, participant and young facilitator in the world of CWs is sometimes shared.
 

Key words: women’s circles, fourth wave feminism, spirituality, post-secularism, neoliberalism

Women’s Circles, circles of women, women’s temples, moon circles, or Red Tents are spaces where women from diverse backgrounds gather to celebrate sisterhood and the ‘feminine’ (Longman, 2018). In her 2018 article, the author Chia Longman defines women’s circles as “non-institutionalized, often monthly gatherings, for women to come together and relax, meditate, share stories, partake in rituals, heal, nourish, and empower themselves” (p.1). These spaces offer women from diverse backgrounds a space that they find lacking in the secular-liberal society – a space where they can “’re/connect’ with each other, their bodies, their inner selves, and sometimes with the sacred” (p.1).

Longman explores how CWs are sometimes seen as an indicative of the strong presence that women have in the subjective well-being culture, comprised of elements ranging from spiritual endeavors such as Yoga and Tantra, to more secular personal growth activities. Critics often correlate CWs as being “merely expressive of  [a] neo-liberal individualist consumer culture or retrograde gender essentialism” (p.1), aspect which will be explored in more detail later on and in following articles and commentaries. Aware of this criticism, Longman’s article argues that in spite of this, CWs can be seen as “sites of sisterhood, solidarity, and dissent, cultivating a new type of femininity” (p.1), sometimes referred to as ‘conscious femininity’. The author shows how in CWs, femininity and sisterhood are practiced in new ways – ways that transcend boundaries between the spiritual, the religious, and the secular. Circles are presented as exemplifying “women’s post-secular agency and subjectivity” (p.1) and as spaces allowing women can explore, share and celebrate themselves.

Most often, circles are held with the occasion of the new moon, a way of honoring a cyclical way of living and the symbolic connection between the lunar calendar and the menstruation cycle. Women-only circles, although rooted in the practice of the circle as a “recurrent format within the context of therapy, and ceremonial and community gathering (e.g., taking circles, family circles, dance circles, prayer circles, drumming circles…)” (p.2), are usually traced back to the feminist spiritual movement of the 1970s and can be encountered in gatherings and rituals within Goddess and Pagan movements (Longman, 2018).

Such circles are found to be especially appealing to women due to their non-linear and non-hierarchical nature, where the ancestral, the ancient, and the cross-cultural aspects of human experience are emphasized and welcomed. Some researchers pin them under the broader umbrella of fourth wave feminism, characterized through trans-national values and a strong online presence. To better understand this, the four waves of feminism are shortly presented in the following paragraphs.

1st wave feminism was fully essentialist, in the sense that women united with other women to feel stronger, while referencing themselves to the position of men and emphasizing being equal to them. Feminism (and sisterhood amongst women, in this sense) was understood as “a common front to compete with men”, and what feminists have in common is “a shared experience of oppression caused by male patriarchy” (Rodak, 2020, p.120S). According to this approach, a proper feminist had to be female. The women’s suffrage movement and their fight for the right to vote during the late 19th century primarily characterize this wave. However, as noted by second-wave feminist and beyond, this movement largely excluded and discriminated against women of color (Delao, 2021).

During 2nd wave feminism, roughly between the 1960s and 1990s, non-hierarchical relations between women start to become important. Realizing the oppression and exploitation of women by other women, questions regarding what it really means to be a feminist start to arise (Rodak, 2020). Issues such as pay equality, reproductive rights, female sexuality, and domestic violence are addressed during this wave. A common feature between the first two waves is that most of these goals were achieved through legislation. Still, although efforts were made to address racial injustice, race and class remained less important than gender equality. Thus, “disparities between white women and white men narrowed, but the inequity between women of color and white men or even between women of color and white women remained the same” (Delao, 2021).

During the 3rd wave of feminism, which emerged from the 1990s, the influence that the patriarchal society has had on women and sisterhood is noted. bell hooks is often quoted as representing the values of this wave, and claims that “femininity, as defined by men, is sexist” (Rodak, 2020 quoting hooks, 1986). From this perspective, women have internalized male supremacist values, such as degenerative, competitive behavior, and were competing with each other, ending up perpetuating the very behavior feminism initially set up against. The third wave “challenged female heteronormativity, sought to redefine femininity and celebrate differences across race, class, and sexual orientations” (Delao, 2021). Sometimes, the word ‘feminism’ is rejected altogether, as are many of the stereotypes enforcing a feminine ideal. ‘Intersectionality’ started to develop here, term coined to “describe how race, class, gender, and other individual characteristics ‘intersect’ with one another and overlap” (Delao, 2021). hooks holds a critical position towards sisterhood, emphasizing [this is my interpretation] that it should not be taken for granted that sisters are identical ideologically or in terms of background and needs, nor even similar. “In order to revitalize sisterhood, differences amongst women should be confronted. To achieve this goal, female consciousness should be transformed” (Rodak, 2020 quoting hooks, 1986).

4th wave feminism is new and still emerging, being still difficult to define, especially scientifically, despite enjoying a high reach in the media and social networks (Rodak, 2020). It can, however, be defined through its anti-essentialist approach including all people, regardless of gender, in the discourse of feminism and sisterhood. In this light, the question transforms from “what women or individuals of all genders have in common, [to] what the conditions to build the bonds between each other are, taking into account the diversity of the members of the group” (Rodak, 2020). The 4th wave is characterized by “action-based viral campaigns, protests, and movements like #MeToo, advancing from the fringes of society into the headlines of our everyday news. […] It has also been characterized as “queer, sex-positive, trans-inclusive, body-positive, and digitally driven” (Delao, 2021), seeking to continue deconstructing gender norms. White male supremacy is mainly confronted, and it is believed that “there is no feminism without an understanding of comprehensive justice that deconstructs systems of power and includes emphasis on racial justice as well as examinations of class, disability, and other issues” (Delao, 2021). Online environments play a crucial role in spreading ideas and bringing together individuals which otherwise would probably not have met.

Returning to the topic of CWs, the possibilities offered by online environments have enabled the women’s circle movement to expand to a broad trans-national audience (Longman, 2018). Longman has empirically researched CWs in Belgium, the Netherlands, and Germany, noting that at the time of her writing very few empirical studies have been done on CWs. She found that the circles were mostly autonomous or loosely affiliated or inspired by transnational circle movements (some examples are The Red Tent or Global Sisterhood).

The circles that she studied do not promote “any particular feminist and/or religious movement or spiritual tradition” (Longman, 2018, p.2). Nevertheless, they do contain features that in common perception and scholarly literature are considered spiritual – “meditation, bodywork, presence of altars, oracle cards, blessings, and sometimes references to the divine or sacred feminine or goddesses” (p.2). However, when the author interviewed CWs participants, they shared that they saw spirituality more as a “personal issue, rather than a pre-requisite of the circle ethos and experience” (p.2). The term ‘spirituality’, although lacking an academic consensus regarding its meaning, is used by Longman to differentiate from established religious practices, as seen in “‘spiritualities of the self’, ‘holistic spiritualities’, and/or ‘Mind Body Spirit’ (MBS) practices” (p.2). The term ‘subjective well-being culture’ is used with the purpose of including what is “referred to as the more secular (non-religious, worldly, or immanent) character of some of the circles […] studied” (p.2). The term ‘post-secular’ is used to describe the “paradoxical present-day condition in which currents of ongoing secularization and religious revival, of disenchantment and re-enchantment, seem to co-exist” (p.2). It also employs the deep entanglements between the religious, the spiritual, and the secular, bringing into light how they can only exist in relation to one another and are therefore influenced by one another.

Through a feminist perspective upon the religious, the spiritual, and the secular, employing a gendered nature in the secular narrative, it becomes visible how the religious realm has assigned an inferior position to the ‘feminine’ – term used here to refer to the private, the emotional, the irrational, the bodily, immanent spheres – as opposed to the ‘masculine’ realms of reason, mind, rationality, transcendence and other Enlightenment ideals (Longman, 2018 quoting Jakobsen and Pellegrini, 2008; Graham, 2012; Aune et al., 2008). Through CWs, women are reclaiming these relegated spheres of the feminine as important, valuable, therapeutic, nurturing, and/or sacred. In this light, Longman argues that CWs are seen as a response to the “perceived failure of (neo-) liberal gender ideology to empower women and transform society within secular modernity” (p.2). This means that from this perspective, women’s empowerment, although visible, has only occurred within a man’s world, where women were allowed to play the ‘game’ design by men for men – where the so-called masculine principles (competition, efficiency, and linearity) are praised and desired for financial, political, and economical success, while feminine principles (such as cooperation, care, cyclicality) are still inferior, invisible, or simply unfruitful in this context. Thus, for the ‘new feminine’ cultivated through women’s circles, achieving success as a woman in a man’s world is not seen as fulfilling, desirable, or enough for creating a world where both masculine and feminine principles are honored and remunerated. To achieve such a world, given the patriarchal history and Euro-Western privilege furthering a masculine structure and benefiting white, cis-gendered men above all other identities (Thayer-Bacon, 2000), a conscious effort in holding space for feminine or non-hegemonic structures is necessary in order to create balance. This statement is not meant as derogatory towards these men, since patriarchy in the context of women circles is understood as hurting not only women and non-traditional gender identities or sexual orientations, but men too. This is because every being is seen as possessing both feminine and a masculine aspects, so if only half of these aspects are valued, imbalances are created on both the individual and collective sphere for everyone involved (Global Sisterhood post, 2020).

Spirituality, Wellbeing and Agency

According to Longman’s (2018) analysis of recent literature on the topic, in much of secular feminism, “religion was seen as an impediment to women’s liberation” (p.3). However, today, in what is referred to as ‘the post-secular turn in feminism’ (Braidotti, 2008), “the assumption that religion would simply always be oppressive to women, and the axiom that secularization accompanies gender equality and sexual liberty, are increasingly called into question” (Longman, 2018, p.3 quoting Butler, 2008; Scott, 2009). On the spiritual side, however, drawing on an analysis of the empirical research done on women’s spirituality in the West, Longman (2018) shows how “longer established counter-cultural and new religious movements and spiritualities such as Wicca, Goddess spirituality, Neo-paganism, and New Age might offer women empowerment lacking in more traditional, patriarchal, and institutionalized religious traditions. [… These movements] might promote gender quality, hold a more positive view towards the female body, and engage in validations of ‘feminine’ values related to practices of healing, care and female solidarity” (p.3, quoting Crowley 2011; Eller 1995; Puttick 1997; Rountree 2004; Salomonsen 2002; Fedele 2012; Fedele and Knibbe 2013; Sointu and Woodhead 2008).

However, criticism towards these movements stresses that in practice, they might not lead to the desired change against gender hierarchies, since “gender and power relations are complex, entangled within their social context and cannot be reduced to a dualistic model of female dominating or female empowering” (Longman, 2018, p.3 quoting Fedele and Knibbe, 2013). Longman, however, views CWs as “a separate phenomenon from these longer-standing movements, communities, and traditions” (p.4). CWs also seem to be more ‘post-secular’ in nature, and can be aligned with “the much broader realm of women’s agency within subjective well-being culture” (p.4). Regarding this topic, social and cultural theorists hold “a far more critical view of the well-being sphere and self-help culture’s tendency to reproduce normative femininities and what it sees as its complicity with a postfeminist version of the neo-liberal self (Longman, 2018, p.4 quoting Salmenniemi and Adamson 2015; Hochschild 1994; Kenny and Bell 2014; Blackman 2004).

The emergence of spirituality and well-being movements for women has been attributed to a ‘subjective turn’ from traditional religion towards “an immanent, reflexive, and expressive selfhood and personal empowerment in a post-traditional society” (Longman, 2018, p.4 quoting Heelas et al. 2005; Houtman and Aupers 2007). This view is contrasted by more critical takes, which see a “rise of the spiritual marketplace which is seen to represent ‘secular consumer culture’” (Longman, 2018, p.4 quoting Lau 2000; Carette and King 2005). A broader critical literature inspired by Foucault extends against the broader sphere of well-being, touching “the realms of popular psychology, self-help, therapy, life-coaching, and personal growth”, depicting these “‘technologies of the self’ as the product of a form of neo-liberal and secular governmentality that forecloses political critique and social change” (p.4 quoting Rose 1998, Wood 2007). Other critics of ‘therapy culture’ and ‘wellness industry’ challenge the way “the new moral imperative towards body and/or mind is directed at the cultivation and management of the happier, healthier, entrepreneurial, and even ‘narcissistic self’, where individual responsibility and self-expression are morphed with the mindset of a free-market economist, and are hence suited to, rather than disruptive of, the demands of neo-liberalism and late-capitalism” (Longman, 2018 quoting Cederström and Spicer 2015).

These debates are relevant from a feminist and gendered perspective. Longman asks: “Do spaces such as women’s circles offer alternative experiences of the self, body, and spirituality that challenge dominant representations of the female – commodified and sexualized – body? Or, conversely, are these ‘new’ femininities perhaps more expressive of a postfeminist neo-liberal governmentality of consumer culture in which individuals are falsely construed [or interpreted] as self-interested economic actors with agency and control over their lives? (quoting Gill and Scharff 2013; Phipps 2014). In her article, she sets out to explore how the femininities cultivated through CWs can be critically analyzed and assessed.

The organizational structure of women’s circles

Through her field study that took place between 2014 and 2017, Longman (2018, p.6) found the following information about the way CWs take place by participating in 20 women’s circles.

Outer structure: Most circles take place in the evening, often around the new moon, and last for about 2.5h. Some circles are self-directed without any affiliation or leadership, while others are offered by women who are involved in other well-being or spiritual practices such as workshops, retreats, yoga, or festivals on a regular basis. Participants usually come in numbers ranging between 6-12 women; however, this number can be smaller or larger. Location-wise, they happen in places ranging from a woman’s home (living room, spare room, attic or barn converted into a ‘temple’) to rented spaces usually use for activities such as yoga, workshops, dance and even in the open air. Before a circle starts, cushion are places in a circle often surrounding an altar in the middle, where flowers, oracle cards, small statues, candles or other decorative or ritual objects can be placed. These objects might also be used to decorate the room, together with shawls and drapes. Incense might be burned and delicate music might be played to create a soft, welcoming atmosphere.

Inner structure: Most circles start with a few welcoming words from the host, after which each participant introduces themselves and/or shares their intention for being present, or something about how they are feeling. One circle facilitator explained how women circles or Red Tents are an ancient phenomenon found in many cultures around the globe. Although nothing extraordinary takes place, “it gives women renewed energy, as it offers a form of support for women to be able to cope better with daily life in a ‘man’s world’. Activities serving as the body of a CW include sharing based on proposed themes (which can include more specific “‘women’s topics’ such as birth, menstruation, sexuality, motherhood, and sisterhood”, or more general topics such as “‘making yourself visible, vulnerability, shame, thankfulness, letting go, the ‘power of the heart’, how to actualize yourself, how to make time and space for yourself within relationships, family, and work, etc.” (p.6). Other activities can be guided meditations or visualizations, “which are referred to as ‘grounding’ or ‘re/connecting with your bodily self and the earth’” (p.6). Activities can also be spontaneous and include personal stories, or craftwork and art such as dancing, singing, chanting, or drumming usually guided by a common theme, ritual, or meditation. Most circles used the ‘talking stick’ as a form of mediating conversation, so that everyone can have the change to speak and be heard without interruptions. The principle behind talking stick circles is that in turn, a stick is passed to each person (or they can take the stick if they want), and while having the stick, they have the space to ‘bring in’ or share and express what they want, or ‘what is alive in them now’ (p.6) without any pressure, meaning that silence is also welcome. A noteworthy remark is that excepting the circles that have been started amongst friends or acquaintances, most participants who attend start out as strangers to each other, and usually interact with each other only inside their circle bond.

Safe Spaces

To create what is referred to as a ‘safe space’, first and foremost, “that which is told in the circle must stay in the circle” (Longman, 2018, p.7). Another element nurturing a safe space is “to refrain from giving advice or judgment after one speaks – act which is referred to as ‘holding space’ for another” (p.7). “The circle is seen as an essentially egalitarian space, where there is respect for the opinion, expression, experience, wisdom, and knowledge of all, regardless of age, education, or background” (p.7). During a circle, nothing has to be done, achieved, or performed. They are space where participants can take a break from ‘doing’ and explore purely ‘being’ in the here and now. They are usually contain moments of rest and relaxation, achieved through “simply breathing and slowing down […] what many interviewees perceived as the hectic, high-pressured, and exhausting lives of many women today” (p.7). In the circle, the interviewees claimed that “you can ‘be yourself’, and ‘let down masks’; ‘you don’t have to impress and compete with others’, but can simply be ‘seen, acknowledged, nourished and loved’” (p.7).

The New Feminine?

In this section of her article, Longman (2018) analyzes the women who are attending women circles and how they experience themselves, womanhood, femininity throughout their lives and careers.

She found that “a substantial number of [her] interviewees who became involved in well-being culture had been professionally active in demanding and/or competitive careers. Some had suffered burnouts and opted out of their former jobs; others had become increasingly frustrated or disillusioned with the neo-liberal ethos in the workplace that stresses competitiveness, shallowness, individualism, rationality, profit, and gain” (p.7). She notes that such traits were often associated with ‘masculinity’. Many women shared that they developed a strong masculine side during their lives and careers (often related with patriarchal values and living in ‘a man’s world’), but found that something was missing. By attending or facilitating spaces where the feminine can be consciously cultivated, they claim to have connected to a part of themselves that was hidden or hurting.

Analytically, Longman (2018) notes that “despite of its centrality in the social constructionist approach to gender, the concept of ‘femininity’ remains somewhat under-theorized” (p.7 quoting Gill and Scharff, 2013). As noted somewhere above, “second-wave feminists saw constructions of femininity as the grounds for women’s oppression” (p.7). From this perspective, females were seen as having been “socialized into feminine behavior and values ‘associated with passivity, submissiveness and dependency’” (p.7). Because of this, during this wave a rejection of feminine identities was propagated as “crucial in producing a feminist identity and consciousness” (p.7 quoting Hollows, 2000, p.10). In this context, “female empowerment sits uneasily with dominant constructions of femininity that have positioned women as ‘other’, ‘irrational, over-sensitive, destined to be wife and mother’, and associated with ‘the body, sex, and sin’” (p.7 quoting Braidotti, 1994, p.235). Longman notes that this negative view of femininity is still dominant in feminist activism and thought, and more positive approaches to second-wave feminism have come to be recently referred to as postfeminism. This kind of radical, cultural feminist thought is often seen as having “re-inscribed stereotypical femininity by simply reversing the values traditionally accorded to gender differences” (p.7). My interpretation of this statement is that by rejecting feminine identities in order “to achieve the autonomy, individuality, and subjectivity that has historically only been accorded to men” (p.7), the proponents of this view accept and reinforce misogynistic values oppressing feminine aspects while cultivating masculine ones. This kind of thought often seen in second-wave feminism has been accused of “biological essentialism” by perpetuating the idea of a ‘unique female nature’, and it is often viewed as exclusionary in it disregard for racial, ethnic, and class differences” (p.8 quoting Alcoff, 1988; Bulgeon, 2011; Rudy 2001) [I would add here sexual orientation and gender identity].

Recently, ‘femininity’ has enjoyed fresh attention regarding the way women (mostly white and middle class) have been represented in popular literature, media, beauty, and body politics, this time influenced by a ‘postfeminist sensibility’. These studies show how “global consumer capitalism and neo-liberalism has incited the emergence of ‘empowered’ female subjectivities’ as ‘entrepreneurs of the self’” (p.8). The worry is that “although these ‘new femininities’ might have displaced earlier constructions of femininity highlighting women’s mothering and caring roles, and they might offer women today more individual agency, freedom, and pleasure, they are also disciplinary in their emphasis on consumerism and self-laboring, and often reproduce dominant forms of (hetero-)sexual attractiveness” (p.8). From today’s gender theory’s perspective, both the regulative and the potentially empowering elements of these representations can be noted. However, Ulrike Dahl (p.36) remarks in her recent work on queer femininity that  “to date, feminist theory still has trouble with the question of femininity” (Longman, 2018, p.8 quoting Dahl, 2017, p.26).

In the next article on the topic, women’s circles will be analyzed in terms of gender identity and intersectional feminism.

 References

Delao, M. (2021). A brief look at the four waves o feminism. The Humanist website       https://thehumanist.com/commentary/a-brief-look-at-the-four-waves-of-feminism/#:~:text=The%20different%20movements%E2%80%94often%20termed,rights%2C%20and%20social%20justice%20movements. (accessed on 22.11.2021)

Global Sisterhood quote from December 8, 2020             https://www.facebook.com/globalsisterhoodmovement/photos/a.322124868183343/1212872615775226 (accessed on May 14th 2021)

Longman, C. (2018). Women’s circles and the rise of the new feminine: Reclaiming sisterhood, spirituality, and wellbeing. Religions 9(1): 1–17.

Rodak, L. (2020) “Sisterhood and the 4th wave of feminism: An analysis of circles of women in Poland”, Oñati Socio-Legal Series, 10(1S), p. 116S–134S. https://www.opo.iisj.net/index.php/osls/article/view/1305 (cccessed: June 24th 2021).

Thayer-Bacon, B. (2000). Transforming critical thinking: Thinking constructively. Teachers College Press, Columbia University

Image source: https://www.melaniefrome.com/new-moon-womens-circles/

Psychedelics are powerful tools for transformation that come with integration challenges

  1. Introduction

The post below is a brief summary of the research conducted by our colleague Victor as part of his MSc dissertation on the transformative effects and integration challenges of psychedelic experiences looking at the Romanian population.

Psychedelic experiences involve users ingesting a psychedelic substance and undergoing an experience where altered states of consciousness, intense emotions, and even mystical experiences are common.

Image above, LSD in blotter form

Scientists have recently begun to understand how psychedelics affect us, especially our brain, and how such a seemingly short experience (between 6-12 hours usually) can have lasting implications as reported by healthline.com (https://www.healthline.com/health-news/psychedelic-drugs-mood-benefits).

One could write an entire article and still not correctly explain the above. However, sometimes a picture speaks more than 1000 words; hence this image of brain interconnectivity on psilocybin (active ingredient in magic mushrooms) compared to placebo can help illuminate these effects further:

Image credit to the Beckley Foundation

In this short blog post, I will be reporting the principal elements and findings of the research I did on the transformative effects and integration challenges of psychedelic experiences for the Romanian population. 

The research topic is close to my heart as I underwent powerful transformative experiences with psychedelics; however also had difficulties in integrating the insights and the experience into daily life, especially in Romania. My own experiences, coupled with the lack of empirical research on psychedelic experiences in Romania, determined me to undergo a mixed-method research project as part of my MSc dissertation.

The objective of my research was to determine what fosters transformation during and after a psychedelic experience, what these transformations are, and what potential integration challenges arise. 

  • Method

Due to limited mixed-method (research combining qualitative and quantitative methods) research in psychedelic this research was done with six in-depth interviews with participants to which a nationwide survey was added that received 39 responses, thus combining qualitative and quantitative approaches. Inspiration for the quantitative element came from one of the landmark studies on transformative effects of psychedelic experiences performed by Ronald Griffiths at John Hopkins, particularly in the form of the Persistent Effects Questionnaire (PEQ).  

For those interested in finding out more about that study, here is a link to a recent podcast with Griffiths on the psychology of psychedelics together with Jordan Peterson (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NGIP-3Q-p_s&ab_channel=JordanBPeterson). The qualitative data analysis of the interview scripts was done in accordance to Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA).

  • The main results in a nutshell  

Below you can glance at the main findings of this study together with some quotes from the participants that illustrate these results:

  1. Changes in self-perception and understanding of self and world as a result of the psychedelic experience seem to be the triggers for the actual transformations in the participants’ lives.
  1. Transformations can be seen as lasting positive changes in attitude and behavior that span a wide range from embodied, emotional, and spiritual to interpersonal transformations.
  1. There were both personal as well as interpersonal and cultural challenges to the integration process.
  • Implications of results

It is essential to understand what these findings mean and what implications they have. Firstly, when someone experiences what they believe to be their actual death or some very intense hardship, or when they have a profound realization on the nature of being, this tends to leave a powerful imprint on them. This imprint sticks beyond the experience and triggers a process of actual transformation in their lives. 

Getting a glimpse of the psychedelic “innerverse” can have profound transformative implications – image represents person looking at Alex Grey art piece

Secondly, it is interesting to notice a multitude of transformations. However, the most profound changes reported by all participants were related to spiritual transformation, especially opening up to spirituality. Another fundamental shift relates to the interpersonal realm and especially how participants sought deeper and more meaningful relationships with others after the experience. This opens up the possibility for psychedelics to be doorways for people to discover meaning in their lives, something much needed in our society today as highlighted by Psychology Today https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-meaningful-life/201707/the-crisis-meaning

Thirdly, the psychedelic experience may well be a viable seed of transformation. However, the integration of the experience into daily life is the nourishing soil needed for enduring development. The integration process, sustained by different integration practices such as yoga and meditation comes with its challenges. Some of the challenges are personal, such as having difficulties in balancing inner and outer work, as some of the participants struggled with more mundane activities and placed more emphasis on inner work. Other challenges are interpersonal and cultural and relate to stigma, communication challenges and struggle for acceptance.

The integration process and practices act as a nourishing soil for lasting transformation

  • Conclusion and future research opportunities

Ultimately, the findings of this study need to be taken with due consideration to the relatively small sample and scope of the dissertation project. However, the results, especially in relation to the transformative effects, seem to be in line with other studies in the scientific literature as portrayed by Stanislas Grof.

More so, empirical research on this topic has not been attempted in Romania, my study covering a significant gap in the national literature. I had powerful and largely positive experiences with psychedelics, hence I must admit my bias on the topic. Some of the limitations of this study, besides my bias, would include the fact that participants with poor mental health were excluded from the study, something that could bring a positivity bias together with the observation that it is sometimes challenging to separate transformations that came directly out of the psychedelic experience and those that arose from a multitude of other factors. 

To address some of the limitations and explore possible cultural differences in greater depth, a future piece of research could be a mixed-method cross-cultural study looking at whether or not there are significant cross-cultural differences in integration challenges. 

As seen in the image below, psychedelic research is becoming ever more popular and I would say that the results of my research warrant even more research into psychedelics, especially using mixed-method research.

Image credit to the Beckley Foundation

Further recommended reading and resources:

Grof, Stanislav (2019). The Way of the Psychonaut Volume One: Encyclopedia for Inner Journeys. Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies

Griffiths, R. R., Richards, W. A., McCann, U., & Jesse, R. (2006). Psilocybin can occasion mystical-type experiences having substantial and sustained personal meaning and spiritual significance. Psychopharmacology, 187(3), 268-283.

Sessa, B. (2012). The psychedelic renaissance: Reassessing the role of psychedelic drugs in 21st century psychiatry and society. Muswell Hill Press.

Link to Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS): https://maps.org/

Link to psychedelic experience integration workshops: https://mind-foundation.org/academy/beyond-experience/ Link to an excellent documentary about psychedelics and their potential: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fi66wFfOC-4&ab_channel=WorldScienceFestival

For more details on the results and methodology of this research project please get in touch with victor@quantumcivilization.com 🙂

Integrative practice research project in Romania

Our co-founder Victor recently secured a grant as part of the Conscious Community Project initiated by the Alef Trust. With the grant money, the plan is to organize an integrative practice research project with participants from the local community starting around October this year. More information regarding the project can be found in this article: https://thefield.aleftrust.org/integrative-practice-research-project-in-romania/

As Quantum Civilization is one of the key partners for this project, we will communicate more details soon :


In an integral age, scientists should themselves be mystics whilst mystics should know science

The debate around cognitive neuroscience and mysticism was bound to become ever more interesting by the day as more and more scientists and mystics alike become aware of the opportunities each side presents. Not until relatively recently did these two seemingly opposite modes of being meet, however nowadays even parts of the general public are aware of the regular official discussions between scientists and Buddhists (mainly promoted by the Dalai Lama) as outlined by Evan Thompson and initiated by Francesco Varela.

This discussion can off course due to the depths of the fields involved run for very long, what I wish to focus on for this forum is the need for an integral non-dual approach for the mystics and scientists of the present and future. It is not that mysticism should be viewed as a partner to neuroscience or the other way around, it is more that each mode of being, that of the mystic and that of the scientist, are in and of themselves important structures and features of the development of consciousness in human form and should be each practiced and cherished to their own accord. Off course, what “to their own accord” means is a complex issue, as a reference Ken Wilber provides a detailed model of the potential of each approach in his book “The Religion of Tomorrow”.

Mystics should learn more about the intersubjective and interobjective gross realm (the world of matter, laws of physics, technology and so on) in order to reach more of the world out there with their illuminating insights and literally become one with more or even everything. Inspired by Wilber, D.P. Brown and others, I am of the belief that it is not enough nowadays to just have inner knowledge without intersubjectively and interobjectively engaging and understanding the “world out there”.

Likewise, neuroscientists should themselves be, to a given extent, mystics and practice inner transformation for otherwise they would not know themselves subjectively, something crucial in my mind and from the point of view of the world’s great contemplative traditions. If you separate ontology from epistemology, if the neuroscientist separates his research and understanding of himself, the only thing that can come out in the end is a fractured product, with something essential missing. What is needed is, in Jorge Ferrer’s words, a “participatory vision”.

Let us not forget that the injunctive ritual and approach that makes up the mystic’s lifestyle and existence is not something we should do in order to become more relaxed, better at whatever else we are doing etc.; it is in essence a soteriological pursuit, a quest for liberation and discovery, in and of itself more than worthy of standing alone.

In conclusion, it is my belief that we can have an even richer world if the two meet, but not in the sense of cherry picking what fits our own understanding of each but actually for us to understand each side and embody its core principles.  This would off course ultimately also re-invigorate a ‘science of the sacred’ as the scientists would be once again in direct experiential contact with the sacred and the sacred will embrace the structure of science.

 

Wilber Ken, The Religion of Tomorrow: A Vision for the Future of the Great Traditions, 2017 Shambala Publications

Wilber Ken, Quantum Questions: Mystical Writings of the World’s Great Physicists, 2001, Shambala

Daniel P Brown, “Sacred Sundays Talk”, 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0swudgvmBbk&feature=youtu.be&fbclid=IwAR27Ke8y4uOM29jXaaXvYqZQ6GJPAF-3skzpUevLb-h7NekbTHoiLuWe3LU

Evan Thompson, Waking, Dreaming, Being, Columbia University Press, 2014

Jorge Ferrer, Jacob Sherman, The participatory turn: spirituality, mysticism, religious studies, State University of New York Press, 2008

Our vantage points influence our beliefs, which shape the theory of consciousness we will subscribe to


Click aici pentru a citi în română

Lancaster (2004) presents 4 different levels of approaches to consciousness, the neurophysiological, cognitive and neuropsychological, psychodynamic and spiritual/mystical. I find it very useful and scientific to have such an overview of the ways we can and do approach consciousness.

Whilst Lancaster accurately points out to the different approaches to consciousness, I think that the larger academic community and cosmopolitan world around us somehow has an inherent drive or bias to have a “winner” approach or a best approach whilst not acknowledging the benefits multiple approaches might bring in their own right context and their inherent beliefs and how these shape such outcomes (Baruss 2008). It is my belief that limiting ourselves to choosing only one or two of these approaches as valid, or ourselves being biased by only one or two leaves a lot out that we are missing. I subscribe to Wilber’s (2017) notion that reality is tetra-enacted across the individual-subjective, individual-objective, collective-subjective, collective-objective, hence I think that we can gain a lot from understanding consciousness from all the approaches presented, not leaving any out and not completely ignoring consequentialism by focusing which approach maps out to which part of consciousness that it is trying to explain.

 It appears quite clear, at least from my point of view, that none of the approaches on its own does justice to all there is in consciousness. One could argue that a spiritual/mystical non-dual realization is in the end all there ultimately IS to consciousness and reality ( I can think of Ramana Maharashis koan: “Everything that is not in deep dreamless sleep is not real”) however one cannot help but remain even slightly consequentialist and see that such a profound realization can help one understand a lot but might do little to better our understanding in relative reality, the messy life we lead day by day where some other approaches might have more pertinent solutions in store for us and for our understanding of consciousness.

In the end I do agree in a simple way with the statement that beliefs about reality fundamentally affect our theory of consciousness, however I want to stress that the source and form of these beliefs can be quite accurately mapped by using Wilber’s structure state model of reality (2017). For example, an individual at a rational structure of development (rational as basis, I agree that they overlap and are not rigid categories) and largely gross waking state will have very little chance to form genuine transcendent beliefs about reality as he simply did not gather the “evidence” needed to form such beliefs, the necessary evidence being first-hand direct experience of the subtle, causal, witness or non-dual states. His beliefs are shaped by his experience in structure and states (Vantage Point), whilst his theory of consciousness is ultimately affected by that.

Keep in mind that this is just a short post on a complex topic and until we will manage to release more in depth research in these areas, do email me at victor@quantumcivilization if you would like to disucss this topic in greater detail.

References:

Ken Wilber, (2017), The Religion of Tomorrow, Shambala, First Edition

Barušs, I. (2008). Beliefs about consciousness and reality: Clarification of the confusion concerning consciousness. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 15(10–11), 277–292.

Cottrell, B. (2015). Only one mind: An artist’s exploration of consciousness. Explore: The Journal of Science and Healing11(2), 127–135. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.explore.2014.12.002

Lancaster, B. L. (2004). Approaches to Consciousness: The Marriage of Science and Mysticism. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan