NOW SERVING Psychedelic Culture

The Components of Council

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I want to say a few words about my new book, Talking Stick: Peacemaking as a Spiritual Path, from which the excerpt below has been taken. I know that some of you enjoyed my previous book on ayahuasca shamanism, Singing to the Plants: A Guide to Mestizo Shamanism in the Upper Amazon, so you should be aware that Talking Stick is completely different – in fact, completely different from all of my previous books.

My earlier books were all attempts to understand – to understand Tibetan Buddhist ritual meditation, or the power and beauty of the Classical Tibetan language, or the richness and depth of the healing culture of the Upper Amazon. Talking Stick is instead a call to action – to transcend the limitations of a hierarchical, punitive, and transactional culture; to reach into our deepest human need for right relationship; to speak honestly from our hearts and listen devoutly with our hearts; to walk through life carrying a talking stick.

There are, I think, three things that make Talking Stick different from other books on circle processes. The first is that it explicitly emphasizes the sacred nature of peacemaking. I  make it clear that sitting in circle together and passing the talking stick places us in a sacred space and sacred time – a sacred space of openhearted listening and honest speaking; a sacred time without agenda and without hierarchy, within which we sit patiently waiting for spirit to speak through each one of us.

The second is that Talking Stick then expands the lessons of the council circle into all areas of conflict and peacemaking, and explores how the model of the talking stick illuminates issues of anger, revenge, harm, forgiveness, reconciliation, and justice.

The third is that Talking Stick carries the idea of the talking stick explicitly into the shamanic realm. The ultimate goal is to hand the talking stick not only to one’s friends and family and coworkers, but also to strangers and ultimately to every person one encounters, whether that person is human or other-than-human – plants, animals, trees, rocks, stars, thunder. Our deepest need is to be in right relationship with each other and with the spirits with whom we sit – whether we know it or not – in a great talking circle. The call is to be fully human, to be unafraid, to walk the peace path with beauty all around us.


There are three simple things that make council special as a way of meeting together, making decisions, solving problems, dealing with conflicts, and building community:

Sitting in a circle

Beginning and ending with a ceremony

Using a talking stick


Sitting in a circle is the first of these. There are practical reasons for sitting in a circle. Everyone can see everyone else. No one is in front, and no one can hide in the back. But the circle is symbolic as well. The circle indicates the equality of all who sit together. There is no head of the table. Everyone’s voice carries as much weight as the voice of everyone else. Everyone is out front, equally accountable for their words.

The world is filled with circles. The sun is a circle; the moon becomes a circle over and over again—that is, in a cycle, a circle. For most of our history humans have lived, not in the square sharp-cornered containers in which we live now, but rather in circular houses, often explicitly homologized to a circular cosmos. The year and its seasons go in a circle. Our lives go in a circle. We all follow in the footsteps of our elders and teachers who have gone before us; I am getting old now, but I have grandchildren who are coming after me.

And the circle binds us to our ancestors. Whoever you are, wherever your people came from, whatever the color of your skin, your ancestors sat in a circle to meet together, make decisions, solve problems, deal with conflicts, and sing the songs and tell the stories that sustained and nurtured their communities.

Most important, sitting in a circle creates a special space—a safe space, what many indigenous people would call a sacred space. The council circle takes place in a special space that differs from our ordinary space. In the sacred space of council, it is possible to speak honestly without embarrassment; it is a place where confidences are kept; it is where decisions are made and peacemaking takes place. This is the space inside the circle, within which people listen to each other devoutly and give each other the courage to speak honestly from their hearts. This space is very different from the space outside the circle—a space where people interrupt each other, do not listen to each other, are rude to each other.

The next time you attend a meeting—a business meeting, for example, or a meeting of a community group—observe how people behave. People arrive with their opinions already formed and may carry with them notes of their ­talking points so that they do not forget to say something they think is important. People interrupt each other. People shift about impatiently while others are speaking. People do not pause after someone has finished speaking, to show that they are thinking about what that person has said. Instead, people start speaking immediately after someone has finished—indeed, not just when someone has finished, but even when someone simply pauses to take a breath or think about what to say next. The loudest or most aggressive talkers dominate the meeting; shy people may get no opportunity to speak at all.

That is how people act out there, outside the sacred circle. But inside the council circle, where we can all see each other, where we take turns speaking, we create a space that is filled with respect and receptivity for what everyone has to say. Inside this circle, we create a sacred space—a space that is safe for speaking, because it is a space for listening. Take a deep breath. Inside the circle, we are home.

There are a number of ways to demarcate the separate and sacred nature of the council space. The council may be held in a special place—a grove of trees, by the bank of a river, on top of a large rock, in a cave. A number of classrooms that use council have a peace table in one corner. This special place for peacemaking might also have a way of marking the number of times that the place has seen friendships renewed and breaches healed—marks on a stick, a pile of stones—that makes the table into a place of power.

In a circle, too, the gaze of all the participants is naturally oriented not only toward whoever is speaking but also toward the center of the circle. The sacred nature of the circle can be enhanced by making an altar or council table at the center. Making the altar can be a rotating responsibility among the participants, or the altar can be made by those who are moved to do so on any particular occasion. Again, there are numerous variations. The altar can contain flowers, stones, fallen leaves, feathers, or branches that have been gathered before the council. An altar of special significance can be made by each participant placing in the center an object that has personal meaning—a photograph, key chain, pocket knife, memento—or that symbolizes the issues to be discussed at council.

Or again, if council is held outdoors in an appropriate place and especially for evening councils, the center can be marked by a fire—not the cooking fire, but a special and separate fire. There is something primal about sharing the warmth and light of a fire in the darkness. The glowing fire, the sense of safety, the intimacy and privacy of the darkness seem to lead people to share more of their secret selves than they might do in the harsher daylight. The fire represents a deep and centered place, the heart of everything, the unity for which the circle strives.

But most important is this. Any time you listen devoutly to another you have created a sacred space. The circle exists wherever people hold the intention of sitting in council together. Two people can be in council; you can be in council with yourself.


The second thing that makes council or circle special as a way of meeting together, making decisions, solving problems, ­dealing with conflicts, and building community is that it begins and ends with a ceremony. Just as sitting in a circle creates a special space, a safe space, a sacred space, the use of a ceremony creates a special kind of time—a special time, a safe time, a sacred time.

I often burn sage as part of the ceremony. I do this because it was the way I was taught, and I honor my teachers by using the ceremony they taught me. I also do this because I think that sage teaches several important lessons.

The sage bush is actually an unprepossessing little plant—scruffy looking, low to the ground, with twisted branches and plain leathery leaves. Yet after a rainstorm, you can smell the sage for miles across the desert. And many indigenous people of North America believe that the fragrant smoke of burning sage is healing, protective, and purifying. They bathe in the smoke of burning sage, by putting some on top of the hot rocks in the sweat lodge, or burning some in a bowl or shell and directing the smoke over their bodies with their hand or a feather.

Here is something about sage you may not know. When making a fire by rubbing sticks together, the pointed bottom of a vertical spindle fits into a notch on a flat baseboard. When the spindle is rotated very rapidly, whether between the hands or by using a bow, the resulting friction causes two things to happen: a fine powder rubs off into the notch, and that fine powder becomes hotter and hotter until it becomes a glowing ember. That ember is then transferred into a nest of kindling to start the fire. Although it takes some work to make a nice straight spindle, the wood of the sage bush makes a wonderful fire kit, producing both heat and an ignitable powder.

So here is this short, scruffy, unprepossessing bush, whose leaves not only produce a smoke that is healing, protective, and purifying, but whose wood also creates the fire that burns the leaves to make that healing, protective, and purifying smoke. And it does all this for free.

When I am the one charged with the opening ceremony, I like to recite this poem by neopagan and ecofeminist pioneer Starhawk:

If we have courage, we shall be healers

Like the sun we shall rise.

If we have courage, we shall be healers

Like the sun we shall rise.

We are alive as the earth is alive.

We have the power to live all our freedom.

I put some sage onto an abalone shell, light the sage, and bathe in its smoke. I say a few words of gratitude for the chance to gather together in council with others. I pass the shell to the person sitting on my left—clockwise, in the direction of the sun—and the shell, with the burning sage, makes its way around the circle. People can bathe in the smoke, using their hands to direct the smoke over their heads, onto their bodies, and over their shoulders, to cleanse away the burdens they might have brought into the council circle. They can simply smell the fragrance of the smoke, or smell it and think of the earth, who gives us the healing plants for free. They can just silently pass the shell on to the next person, or say some brief words. Some choose to say words from their own tradition; one woman, a devout Catholic, made the sign of the cross with the shell and its smoking sage.

Here, as always, there are many different ways. Some indigenous peoples believe that it is rude to blow on the burning sage with breath from your mouth, so that participants in a circle use a feather—often a sacred eagle feather—to move the smoke. Others believe that only an appropriate elder can touch a sacred feather, so the elder moves around the circle, bathing each participant with the smoke from the burning sage.

I would be remiss not to mention three problems with burning sage indoors in an institutional setting such as a classroom. First, there is a remote but real possibility of setting off a smoke detector, activating the classroom sprinkler system, and triggering an automatic call to the fire department. This has never happened to me, but it has happened to someone I know, to her great embarrassment. Second, we need to be alert to the possible presence of people with allergies or asthma who might react to breathing the smoke in an enclosed space. The third problem was unexpected. We were burning sage before council during my university class in restorative justice when the campus police burst in, saying that they had received complaints that people were smoking marijuana in the classroom. It took a few minutes to get that one straightened out.

I have seen a wide variety of opening ceremonies used, from the simple to the elaborate. If a community meets regularly in council, ceremonies appropriate to that community will grow spontaneously and organically. Simply saying to another person who is familiar with council, Hey, let’s circle up on this, is a commitment to take the time to listen to the other devoutly and to speak honestly to the other from the heart. The ceremony can be simply lighting a candle. Words can be spoken, either formalized or spontaneous, ranging from We are now in council to more elaborate invocations. The words can be spoken by one of the participants, or by everyone together. If the council is held with the same participants on a regular basis—for example, each morning, or once a week—the participants may take turns beginning the council or creating opening ceremonies. In one school community, the students took turns bringing in and reading poems that were meaningful to them.

Be creative with your ceremonies. Think of all the ways you can symbolize the passage from ordinary into sacred time—crossing a threshold, lighting a candle, circling clockwise, drumming, washing your hands, putting on special clothes, saying words of gratitude, bathing in sage smoke, and many more. Along with ceremony, this sense of a special and sacred time can be enhanced by coordinating council with a special and sacred time of the day, such as sunrise or sunset, or seasonally at solstice or equinox, or on the night when the Evening Star first becomes visible.

Ceremonies can range from the quick and simple to the elaborate and formalized. When people are accustomed to council, it is not unusual to hear someone say: An issue has come up. Let’s circle up for a minute and deal with it. In one middle school class that uses council on a regular basis, students had been formed into four-person teams to work on a project. One group had been quarrelsome and unproductive, and the teacher was delighted to hear one of the students spontaneously say: We’re not getting anywhere. We need to go get the stick.

There is a delicate balance between creating a sense of formality, solemnity, and tradition, on the one hand, and spontaneity, creativity, and openheartedness on the other. I was in a circle once with such an elaborate opening ceremony that the young apprentice doing the ceremony was continually interrupted by audible whispers from her mentor about sections of the ceremony she had forgotten or not done quite right. This was not a good model for spontaneity of expression or for an openhearted acceptance of what comes from the heart.

Some writers have proposed lengthy ceremonial statements to be used by each participant when passing the talking stick to the next speaker—for example, Do you love yourself enough to speak and listen with your heart to your co-hearts in this circle? If so, can you tell us . . . ? Some participants may have difficulty memorizing such formulas and may wind up spending a lot of time trying to get the formula straight in their minds, and worrying they will mess it up, rather than listening with their hearts to the person speaking on their right.

The purpose of any ceremony—simple or elaborate—is to show that the time of council is different from ordinary time. Just as sitting in circle creates a sacred space, the opening ceremony creates a sacred time. Out there we are in a hurry; out there we have an agenda, things to do, electronic devices with an alarm function. Out there we are interested in getting things done, achieving an outcome, creating a product. But in sacred time there is no rush; there is nothing particular to be accomplished; we are in no hurry. We are immersed in pure process.

In the sacred time of council, created by the ceremony, there is no need to follow an agenda, make a decision, formulate a plan, come up with a solution, craft an agreement. Sacred time is not linear but rather is circular. In sacred time, things recur but perhaps each time in a different light. Spirit cannot be rushed or scheduled. In sacred time, the circle waits patiently for spirit to speak. Being in sacred time with others teaches us these two lessons:

How to be comfortable with silence. It is important to let people gather their thoughts or wait for spirit to speak through them or just pause between sentences. If you are in the sacred time of council, there is no hurry to get anywhere in particular. We can listen devoutly to the silence just as we would listen to someone speaking. Simply sharing sacred time with another person builds and deepens relationships.

How to be comfortable with talking. Not everyone gets right to the point or to what you think the point should be. Sometimes people need to talk their way toward their truth. Sometimes people are thinking out loud. Sometimes people are just building rapport, getting comfortable, testing the waters. There is no rush because, in sacred time, there is nowhere you need to get to.

A social worker came to an Indian reservation intending to help build a mental health clinic. She was told that she would accomplish nothing without the approval of a certain elder who was held in great respect by the community. So late one afternoon she went to the elder’s house, bringing an appropriate gift of tobacco. When she knocked on the door, the elder’s wife told the social worker that her husband was out back. The social worker went into the backyard and saw the elder sitting in a lawn chair, looking out over the hills. She offered him the tobacco, which he accepted silently, gesturing toward a lawn chair next to his. For the next hour and a half, the social worker sat silently next to the elder as they both watched the sun slowly set behind the hills. When the sun had set completely, the elder turned toward the social worker and said, “I think we will be able to work together.”

Talking Stick

The third thing that makes council or circle special as a way of meeting together, making decisions, solving problems, dealing with conflicts, and building community is the talking stick. The rule of the talking stick is simple: Whoever holds the stick gets to speak, and everyone else listens. The stick is passed around the circle, and each person holds it in turn.

My practice has always been to pass the stick around the circle clockwise. I do that because that is the direction the sun travels from rising to setting, at least in the northern hemisphere, and that is the way I was taught. Other people may pass the stick in a counterclockwise direction, or sometimes one way and sometimes the other. As with many things, there is no one way to do it.

The rule of the talking stick is simple, but that does not mean it is easy. In fact, the rule is quite difficult to follow, because we have been systematically taught in our culture not to listen to each other.

My talking stick is a rawhide rattle that I made and decorated myself. I have carried that rattle with me on my vision quests in the desert, in order to call the spirits. One day I had the rattle with me when some people asked me to help them sit in council together, and we used the rattle as our talking stick. We had a wonderful and deeply openhearted circle, and I started to use the rattle in every circle I could. That talking stick has now been held by thousands of people, all of whom had the courage to hold that stick and speak honestly from their hearts. As a result, all that courage has passed into the stick, and the stick is now very powerful.

The talking stick can be anything—a stick, a rock, a statue, a feather, a ballpoint pen, a fork picked up off the table. Some people use the term talking piece instead of talking stick to reflect the fact that what is passed around the circle does not need to be a stick at all. The stick can be specially made and decorated, an object which is personal or sacred or symbolic, simple or elaborate, or it can be expedient—a rock picked up on the spur of the moment, a coffee cup, a key ring. The purpose of council is to create a safe space in which people can simply talk honestly and sincerely with each other. The talking stick is a way of providing some of that safety; a participant can speak without being interrupted or argued with. Indeed, the talking stick can supply courage to the shy and steadiness to the flighty; it symbolizes the responsibility of speech, the courage of the true speaker, the importance of truth.

When a group of people meet in council on a regular basis they may decide to have a stick they make together and keep in a special place. For example, a class in school may make their own communal talking stick, with everyone ­contributing something to its decoration—a bead, a feather, a piece of an old baby blanket kept for many years. In fact, taking down such a stick from its special place may be part of the ceremony that is used to open a council session; or two people, finding themselves in apparent conflict, may both go to the special place and take down the stick together, in order to symbolize their entry into the sacred space and time of circle. This can be the briefest of opening ceremonies: Hey, we’re not getting anywhere. Let’s go get the stick.

Sometimes there is no specially made stick available, and the stick is something used spontaneously. I was once eating dinner with my wife, a Montessori directress and consultant, who has used council regularly in her classroom and in her school. She was telling me about her day, and I was, I confess, not paying attention very well. Suddenly, she stopped speaking, looked at me, and slapped her hand on the table. “Dammit, Steve,” she said, “you are not listening devoutly with your heart!” I immediately picked up a fork, handed it to her, and that became our talking stick.

The talking stick is miraculous. As a practical matter, the stick creates order. People cannot interrupt each other or try to shout over each other. People have to wait their turn, no matter how strongly they feel about what was just said. The talking stick empowers the shy and deferential to speak and keeps the loud and overbearing from dominating the discussion. The fact that people must wait for the stick to travel around the circle means that they cannot react immediately to something they disagree with. Instead they must first listen to what other people have to say, which often frames the statement in new and enlightening ways. The stick discourages personal confrontation and encourages group process.

But more than that is involved. The process of passing the stick is deeply and profoundly human. The stick taps into a primal way of being together. I have seen people stroke the stick as they spoke or hold it next to their hearts, as if gathering courage from it. People use as talking sticks things that are deeply meaningful to them personally. One of my friends uses the decorated staff he carries as a road chief in the Native American Church; another uses a small Buddha statue carved from green jade. I urge you to find or make your own talking stick, and carry it with you. Treat it with respect, bathe it in the smoke of sage; keep it on your home altar if you have one. Have it blessed; give it power. Create a ceremony to transform a decorated stick into a talking stick.

In fact, the stick does not have to be visible at all; you can carry with you an invisible talking stick. We will talk about that later.


Talking Stick by Stephan V. Beyer © 2016 Bear & Company. Printed with permission from the publisher Inner Traditions International.



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