Appreciation for the Circle Way and Medicine Story

This is dedicated to Story Talbot, also known as Medicine Story, who passed away last July, at the ripe old age of 89. Story had dedicated his life to passing on what he called the old ways, traditions and understandings from North American tribes on how to live in harmony with the earth, oneself and each other.  It has taken a long time to gather myself to put down these words. Story’s influence on my life and thinking were so great, and his contribution to our development so profound that I just have to share my perspective.


It starting with a simple demonstration

My first encounter with Story was when he was at the Mundekulla retreat center, maybe 5-6 years back. I had found out that his mission was to teach “the old ways” -wisdom from his ancestors – to modern people. The first session was him telling stories from Native American Indians. One story, I subsequently found out he loved to tell a lot, was about when humans decided that if they have birth, they have to have death as well.

I remember feeling impatient and bored listening to him, but at the same time the realization grew that these stories had a healing function. Somehow the world made a little more sense after hearing them. I felt a little bit more secure and a little more OK with the fact I have to, too, pass on.

Lesson one: the circle and the tribe

The next day he offered a practical example of these old ways. It was this session that is still alive with me today,  and the one that gave the deepest insights.

You see, having looked into the peaking of oil production, the degradation of nature and the de-humanising effects of the modern economy on western people I was certain – I still am -that our civilisation is in for a collapse. I have been looking for ways to organise groups so they could be more resilient to that collapse. I got the answer from Story because native American Indians lived in harsh conditions with very little technology. The possibility of perishing – not just individuals but whole tribes – was ever present.

In our modern world the possibility we might not survive is hardly hanging over us. Even we who talk of peak oil, climate collapse, the need for resilience etc. leave the conversations and go out into the street where business as usual is all pervasive and the only things that we momentarily worry about are snippets of news or advertising.

He asked us all to form a circle and hold hands and then to look at each other. He told us how in his culture they did everything in the circle. The circle was their security, and everyone was welcomed into the circle with respect. It was respect – for one’s self, one’s ancestors, each other, nature and the circle itself that gave it strength.

As I looked at the others I realized I had not chosen them nor had they chosen me. We were here because of happenstance. No recruiting, no picking of teams. No books to read, no university researched strategies, no organisation to belong to.

This working with who you have and who you are is a tradition developed over centuries, and it IS highly developed and tuned. It is when you get close to it that you understand that. I found it rather amusing as I stood there, taking it all in, that my hitherto idea of ancient wisdom is guys dressed up dancing round the campfire.

Survival. Bob Dylan said when you ain’t got nothing you ain’t got nothing to lose. This is profound because then you have everything to gain.  I saw how these human beings really didn’t have much in the way of material comforts, but they found ways to have wonderful, rich, fulfilling lives. When you ain’t got nothing, if you are a human as long as you have breath, you still got something. The circle is a sophisticated piece of ancient social technology that meant you could survive,  thrive and live in happiness and spiritual growth even when you had little in the way of material things.

Lesson two – the circle got broke

Story said that way back in his own history there was some possibility that the circle did not arise in America but was brought by the early Vikings from Scandinavia. There are remnants of circle practice still around today in Scandinavian culture but you have to look really hard. I also learned that whilst the circle is a powerful social tool it can also be broken. Around 100 years ago the circle as the heart of native American Culture was broken – by booze, money, guns, violence and other stuff the settlers brought with them. Christianity broke the circle in Scandinavia I guess.

Lesson three -your role as tribe member

So my role as tribe member is to help everyone be on the top of their game. And their role is help me be on mine. That sounded really cool. How can I do that? It turns out that the best thing I do for anyone is to listen to them. Just listen, no judgement or advice offering. Just listen. We got the opportunity to speak of things we felt we were carrying from childhood experiences. By speaking about it and having someone listen, I could connect with whatever it was much easier. And by connecting with it I started the healing process.

And to recognise it, feel it, not run from it, is the start of healing. Wanting to run away is, I say this from personal experience, one of the root causes that gets us into addictions – even minor ones like for food and TV.

What struck me was the simplicity of it all. No professionals, no couches, no drugs, just two people, and less than 40 minutes. I came to think of the evolution of technology. In the west, our technology gets more and more atom-using and more and more complicated. This approach was really one of minimizing the number of atoms and maximising results using the power we humans carry with us.

Lesson four: appreciation

The next lesson I learned from Story was one of appreciation and the expression of appreciation. The thing about appreciation and gratitude is that it gets you in the right space where you can access your wisdom and intuition better. When the tribe meets, they always start with a prayer of gratitude and appreciation. It is lovely, too, that they do not lay any religion on you. What we cannot see but somehow feel might be there is the “great mystery” and is appreciated as just that. Who needs answers when enjoying the mystery is better?

I had a similar  sort of realisation myself when I was in the middle of co-founding an eco-village and the stress was getting to me: what is the best way to build houses, make food, gather energy, what do the experts say, what does research tell us … and then I realised that the first people – my forefathers – didn’t have any of that. And they were successful because I am here.

They looked around and said; “Right! What have we got?” “What can we do with what we have?”.I guess they went from what seemed, or felt right or looked to work. What a way to live! From a feeling of appreciation – for each other, for nature, for what they were doing together.

Lesson five: open listening

The next lesson was about expression but actually more important is listening. If you get listening you get expression. If you listen to someone without judgement, let them talk, let them express, help them open up, then it helps them – and it helps you. You can take turns. One expresses and the other listens. I heard that way back when Australia was opened as a prison colony Australian Aborigines were surprised when they met British people for the first time  because they didn’t listen to each other.

What I liked about Medicine Story is the way he could explain all this with a few homely words  and a quick demonstration so we could try it for ourselves. No lecturing, just gentle stories and explanations and modelling. This is part of my admiration for him. Anyone who has tried to impart this kind of knowledge will tell you how hard it is in the modern world. People have a hard time getting it. And keeping it. Many who went to his camps and experienced the power of the Circle Way did not practice it afterwards. Not always for want of trying. Like in our ecovillage experiment, we who were introducing the circle way were met with suspicion, lack of seriousness, impatience, told that we were taking time from “real work” despite the obvious fact that the circle was laying important foundations for the survival of the project.

Lesson six – the holder of the circle space

But Medicine Story kept at it. He held the space. I think he held the space despite most people, even people interested in the circle, not really being there in a way that they wanted to integrate it into their lives – they were just enjoying the escape.  He found ways to explain it to westerners, he wrote books, he told stories and demonstrated and pulled us all into the circle from where we were.

Lesson seven – the circle way camps

Circle Way camps were – still are – wonderful ways to get to know the circle and a wonderful way to get reminded of the circle. Camps are cheap because you can be outside, bring your kids, maybe make your own food, help each other out to keep costs down. Being outside you get a chance to rekindle your connection with nature.

Mornings at the camp started with thanksgiving ceremony – of appreciation of everything. Deeper than any religion I know of, is the native relationship with the almighty. It is a mystery and we appreciate the mystery. You can never know, only appreciate the mystery. The ceremony ends with giving thanks for this mystery and sets you up better to appreciate the magic the day will bring.

Lesson eight – we do it all for the children

The circle is for all ages – so circle way camps welcome children. We experimented with playing a few games in the big morning circle amid having the children lead the adults in games. I watched in amusement as a six-year old bemused commanded 50 adults into a game. I also saw how the children slowly grew to appreciate the adults around them, and the attention they got on their own terms.

Story explained that everything the tribe does is oriented to the children. Humans are the only species where the young are helpless a long time. They need to learn from adults a long time, so everything is oriented to their upbringing. That upbringing guarantees the survival of the tribe, and survival of the elders when they need physical help from the young ones.

Free to do what they liked, kids would sit with their parents in the circle., feel safe and then find other kids to go play with, keeping their parents in site.

It turns out that many people come back to circle way camps the next year because their children insist on it.

Another insight just about children- the human child spends a greater percentage of their life to get to adulthood compared to other animals. The meaning is that it takes them longer to learn, because our survival is through our ability to learn. So providing children the opportunity to learn is the main task of adults.

To help us on our way he produced the book – the joy of caring for children.

Lesson nine – the child in you

And he put a new spin on it. It takes a child to raise a village. He pointed out that caring for children is so important in human evolution that children are important for each adult’s own continued spiritual growth. So that’s why it’s a joy to take care of children. It is built in as a win-win. I think Story alluded to the great instructions, things that are built in, when we do what we love we are taking care of ourselves, each other and the planet. Again, this is something that got broken way back so we no longer do what we love or love what we do.

In a couple of camps we tested this out by organising play days. Play day is where the kids get to decide the games and run the show. The adults are just helpers. Actually, the adults showed an amazing amount of willingness to help by acting stupid, much to the amusement of the kids. Play day had a serious side for adults who not only got to let their hair down but also to reflect on their own childhood and play and their favourite experiences.

As we said earlier: it’s never too late to have a happy childhood.

Story’s own Story

Story wasn’t always a teacher of native traditions. He was on Broadway, son of a mixed marriage, his father had rejected  the old ways. Story loved the stage and I think saw himself there for the rest of his life. Until the Vietnam war. Something changed him. He asked his father to teach him the old ways. His  father refused but put him in touch with his grandfather, who decided to give Story everything if he promised to pass it all on.

Story often talked of his own children, his divorce from their mother and his regrets about not being a better father after learning the old ways later in life. I know how he often expressed happiness at seeing his son be a good father to his grandchildren.

This is a story many guys bear, young and foolish, we bring up our children best we can only to find wisdom later in life when it is too late to give them the love and attention and appreciation they need.

And to understand that we didn’t get that attention either.

Those in the circle will survive and thrive depending on the others in the circle. What I need to do to be able help others is to be in the top of my game. I help myself when I  help others be on the top of their game.

Medicine story out of the blue turned to me and said that he believed in what I was trying to do and would support me in anyway he could. I thought at first he was demonstrating something but I realised afterwards that he meant it. How many people do you have in your life that say things like that and mean it?  I have a nagging regret that I never found a way to use his support.

Competition is a joke – literally

The power of the circle comes when you  put competition aside (not friendly races or silly games, that can be encouraged) and look to how you can support each other. Listening is a good start. You can listen so well that you can help people heal the childhood traumas they were carrying and holding them back. As Story said “it’s never too late to have a happy childhood”. He had to overcome his own father walking out on the family, being raised by a single parent.

Anyway. Come the evening the camps had an open stage and we were delighted by the range of entertainment people could put on. Story was always up to stand once again in the limelight and recite Shakespeare or sing a Gilbert and Sullivan song or play the harmonica.

Behind it all I sensed Story was fragile. Holding the space for the circle takes a lot of emotional energy. He leaned, literally sometimes, on his wife Ellika and the volunteers around him. Ellika played a role of supporting him with love and practical arrangements as old age caught up on him. In fact, I believe Ellika’s support was crucial, holding the space of the circle in a world where the circle is broken is a tough job that no-one can do on their own. A man and a woman together possess enough of the energy needed.

I saw him once walking towards a meeting and asked him: “ May I join you?”. “Why, Am I coming apart?” Was the reply. Another blast from Broadway – his comedy duo stage act.  I realised that travelling as he did, meeting all those people, a sense of humour was a great asset.

Story’s legacy

As we approach the great unravelling, maybe the end of the industrial capitalist world as we know it, it is hard to describe the importance of what Story has done. His teaching of the Circle Way, and the many people he touched has spread and that knowledge is waiting to be discovered by many more. The magic, wisdom and resilience of the circle. Passed onto us from our forefathers. This is profound yet  simple social technology for surviving. We may have to use it sooner than we think. Or we could just try it and enjoy it.

With my deepest gratitude and admiration for Medicine Story who developed ways of teaching the circle way and found the courage to hold the space of the circle long enough for some of us to “get it”.

In memorium Francis Story Talbot, born July 17, 1929, died July 21, 2018

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