Three Space: The Smoking Circle, a Tribal Heritage

The principles of three-space, the union and communion of a group, family, or society can be understood by visualizing the phenomenon called by certain “New World” tribes the ‘Circle of Smoke.’ North and South American Indians, Eskimos, and many African nations convened the circle when making substantive decisions of war or peace or movement. So did the counsels of the European elders. So did some of the dynasties of ancient Asia. Sometimes representatives of each family, clan, or tribe would sit around their circles; sometimes the most powerful and/or wisest would meet; sometimes, as with the Quakers, the entire village would gather.

Modern parallels to this concept can be found everywhere in the American government — in the President’s cabinet, the Supreme Court, and both houses of the Legislature. It is notable, however, that a certain characteristic polarization has crept in, in the division of the body politic into opposing parties, (separated by aisles and referred to by colors), the hierarchy implied by the designations Chief Justice and Speaker of the House, the incomplete circle of the Legislature and distended circle of the oval office.

The procedures of the smoking circle are illustrative. First they follow rigorously prescribed rituals. These begin even before the meeting with a traditional call. This might entail a relay system of some sort like picking up the beat of a drum, echoing a particular horn or duplicating a smoking signal pattern. The meeting is prepared for by customary and culturally specific arrangement. In the case of stationary tribes the meeting is held in a ‘place of power’ reserved for such occasions and sanctified to discourage trivial or manipulative use. To convene the counsel and before anyone addresses the topic at hand, the gods are invoked — perhaps by a moment of silent meditation, the ritual lighting of a fire, the passing of a hallowed pipe or a collective chant, prayer or song.

The appeal of ritual is designed to remind the participants of the traditional values and long held beliefs by which the group is grounded, the maintenance of which has helped it survive and prosper. Whatever decisions are to be made must align with these trans-generational truths or the continuity of the group in any substantive sense is forfeit. Thus the circle is an appropriate shape and a reminder of the overriding consideration of continuance, not only for present persons but between those no longer living and those not yet alive. The Godhead in the broad sense of the word is the tribes image of transcendent truth.

At the moment of the gathering, there is to be a decision by the collective. It will not be made by one individual nor by an oligarchy. For most groups, despite the presence of the high chief, all who sit in the circle are equally worthy of being heard. The honored one here serves as a facilitator of discussion and is responsible for maintaining decorum and with it the customary courtesy shown to each and all.

If the circle is thought of as the one, the all, the nothing but, so each person reflects one facet of that whole. The deliberations are not to be dialectic; they aim to be consensual. The purpose is to seek a cohesive center, that is, a decision which somehow synergizes the wisdom of each member and is in that sense broader and deeper than any individual perspective could be. To achieve this end, each person must be free to express his or her vision not according to some prescribed political stance, but in keeping with the peculiarity of his life, talent and understanding. To continuity and continuance is added the aim of unity and consensus, the latter with its literal meaning, to sense with and to feel with.

The counsel would not have been convened had there not been some pressing need to consider a change in response to the conditions of the time and circumstances. But the counsel must reach for conceptions of broader scope than might be remembered in the urgency of the moment. It must consider what will be sacrificed if specific changes are agreed to. It advises caution. (Curiously the American congress makes so many new laws and subtracts so many others, it builds bureaucracy, while discounting the benefits of continuity. “States Rights” can become obstructions, leaving the Supreme Court to decide if the traditional values of the society have been violated, often after years of delay. They may also provide experimental alternatives to try out new treatments of persistent and unresolved problems. Here the Court can justify whether to allow the variances or even rule that the time has come to accept the change as being closer in context to what we need to match the broader meaning of the the original intent.

The Yin circle encourages individuals to listen to each other and not be so immersed in personal passion as not to be able to hear the wisdom of other members. It keeps in mind all that the tribe has survived by remaining together and warns that differences in vision must not lead to factionalism. A house divided cannot stand as Lincoln put it.

To reject traditional values altogether is to reject God, that is, to reject the best of what has gone before. But it may be that the time has come for some serious modifications. Today when we speak of individual rights, we no longer make reference to skin color, gender, property ownership, sexual preference, or (soon i hope) country of origin.

Smoke is a particularly apt symbol for potential transformation. Fire transforms matter permanently; in this sense it too is magical. Smoke bridges the gap between earthbound doings and the spiritual and so serves as a connection to the cosmos from where we came. Fire also means clarity. It makes it possible to see in the darkness and in that way protects.

When the decision is finalized an attempt is made to bring about closure. Hopefully all participants will leave the circle with a sense of having been actively involved in the process and with an understanding of the merits of the pervasive conclusion. With this in mind each gives consent. Often there is a final ritual, such as a last passing of the pipe, re-emphasizing the unity of the group with the implication that this to-gather-ness is more vital even than the decision of the moment. In some cases, like the smoke signal of the College of Cardinals, it announces the successful outcome of the deliberations and publicly declares the action agreed upon, perhaps by beating the drums of war, or the public signing of a treaty.

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