Updated: Dec 17, 2021
The power of the world always works in circles.--Black Elk*
I'm a layperson. Yet, I have what I call a home monastery. Truthfully, in the almost forty years since I took my vows in that monastery, I've only returned a handful of times. Yet each time, it feels like home. It doesn't change, yet it does.
All those years, and long before me, the monastery and the routines don't appear to have altered one whit. Monasteries operate on rigid schedules leaving, of course, the opportunity for some bit of flexibility if needs arise. But, from my first visit to the last, the monastic wheel turned in the same direction at precisely the same speed. This predictable sameness is reassuring, comforting even, secluded from the twisting, turning, and jostling of non-monastic life.
Individually monks change. Older ones pass on. Younger ones replace them. The monks in mid-life age between visits. But, identical robes, shaved heads, and standard routines also convey a sense of unchanging.
A most heartening aspect of monastic life is the full completion of routine tasks that make up every day. I see them; actually, I feel them, as circles. Each job or set of related tasks begun and completed is a complete rotation, after which one begins another cycle. Thus, one rises, straightens one's bed, and attends to one's morning ablutions. The first circle is completed. Morning service and meditation from start to end is the next rotation.
One of my favorite circles is mealtime. In Buddhist monastic lore and routine, the cook and the preparation of food are highly significant. For the monk or guest, the formal mealtime circle begins with a prayer recitation and the delivery of the meal's courses. Then, there is a final prayer. Wiping off the table and rinsing dishes and utensils, placing them where they belong completes the circle. Monastic circles are forms of continuous meditation.
In contrast, imagine someone who very often does not complete their circles. One example is retrieving the mail. The mail may be opened and read, or not. But then one is distracted into beginning another task. As a result, the letters and flyers are dropped wherever. Consequently, piles of old mail are strewn about the house. Bills get lost, letters unread, clutter everywhere.
With meal preparation and consumption, it's much the same. The litter of cans or jars, vegetable trimmings, eggshells, open bottles of oil, uncapped spices, and more remain on the kitchen counter, or in the sink, for an undetermined length of time. The used dishes and utensils may also end up left on the dining table or on the floor in the living room. In short, it becomes an ever-larger mess. It requires more time and effort to clean up. Or worse, someone else is forced to clean it up to use the space and the tools.
Please forgive me for strolling rather than sprinting to my point, which is, although we are not monastics, we can learn and benefit from their examples.
Indeed, our daily lives are circles within circles. Like nesting dolls, each rests inside another from the smallest to the largest. Our smallest circle is our self. We are the center, the navel of our existence. Circles of family and friends, acquaintances, colleagues, and all that exists are ever-larger circles that encompass ourselves. Ultimately, the largest circle we experience in this human existence is our journey from birth to death.
"The Universe is circles within circles, and everything is one circle, and all the circles are connected to each other. Each family is a circle, and those family circles connect together and make a community, and the community makes its circle where it lives on the Earth. It (the community) cares for that part (of the Earth) but cares for it as a circle - which is to say in a cooperative and egalitarian way, where everybody is cared for, and everybody is respected."--Black Elk*
A circle has no edges, no angles, no stops, no redirections. No beginning or end; it's continuous. From our human point of view, the circle expands or contracts with our arbitrary notions of start and finish, which are precisely the same point along its continuous arc.
Ideally, our vision of circles, whatever their diameter, is perfectly round. A circle's edge is always equidistant from its center point. However, a more realistic view is a continuous line that twists and turns. It wobbles, sometimes nearer to its center or further from it. This image reflects the twists and turns, the wobbles of our daily journey through life to death. Some spiritual traditions see successive unimpeded rotations as experiencing existence after existence, ad infinitum.
In some spiritual traditions, Infinitum is finite. Our spirit is drawn irresistibly to the center. Or, we descend into something, someplace, experienceable but indescribable.
"I was standing on the highest mountain of them all, and round about beneath me was the
whole hoop of the world. And while I stood there, I saw more than I can tell, and I understood more than I saw; for I was seeing in a sacred manner the shapes of all things in the spirit, and the shape of all shapes as they must live together like one being. And I saw that the sacred hoop of my people was one of many hoops that made one circle, wide as daylight and as starlight, and in the center grew one mighty flowering tree to shelter all children of one mother and one father. And I saw that it was holy."--Black Elk*
The path to this kind of revelation begins with the smallest circles. Retrieve the mail, discard the unnecessary, put the necessary where its following process begins. Small circle completed.
Prepare food and discard the unnecessary immediately. Eat. Return pots, pans, dishes, and utensils to the dishwasher or into the sink to be washed, ultimately to the cupboard. Wipe the counter. Small circle completed.
Awareness of and attention to our small circles, our small processes is a spiritual practice. Some may call it mindfulness. However, these efforts also teach worldly practicality that may help us lead more orderly, peaceful lives. Practically, completing our small circles, we learn to better negotiate the ever-larger ones.
Will we always complete our circles perfectly? No. Even monastics err now and then, and such focus is their vocation! But, we can strive to do our best.
**"Black Elk Speaks." Book by John Gneisenau Neihardt, 1932. Neihardt was an American poet and writer who relates the story of Black Elk, an Oglala Lakota medicine man. Black Elk spoke in Lakota and Black Elk's son, Ben Black Elk, translated his father's words into English. Neihardt made notes during these talks, which he later used as the basis for his book.