All week, I’ve been trying to write a piece about The Circle Way, but nearly every effort ends on the virtual cutting room floor.
How do you write about something that has radically altered the course of your life, that has changed nearly every relationship in your life, and that has brought you into the most authentic conversations you’ve ever experienced? How do you do justice to the kind of wisdom that is as ancient as humankind and still as fresh as the lilac buds bursting open in the Spring sun?
Next week I will have the privilege of being in circle with my friends and mentors, Christina Baldwin and Ann Linnea. The anticipation of that has me reflecting on the significance of circle in my life and I want to share some of those thoughts with you. I will try, despite my inability to write it as eloquently as I’d like…
Nearly fifteen years ago, I discovered Christina’s work and knew instantly that it would change my life. I was in a particularly hungry place in my life at the time, working in a toxic bureaucratic environment that was making me realize just how much I craved real connection in my work and life. I’d sat in too many leadership meetings where every word spoken came from a guarded place and I longed for authenticity. I devoured Calling the Circle: The First and Future Culture, and, though I didn’t entirely understand the circle or see clearly how I could adopt it into my life yet, I knew this was something I wanted with every fibre of my being.
I knew that the circle was the doorway into the authentic way I longed to live my life.
Sitting in my government office one day after reading her book, I promised myself that I would study with Christina some day. Ten years later, that intention was realized and I sat in circle with her, devouring everything she had to teach me. Now, five years later, circle has become embedded into all of my work and I have become part of the global network of circle hosts and teachers who will continue to spread circle practice as Christina and Ann transition into their roles as elders of the lineage. Be careful what you wish for!
In case you are curious about circle but (like me fifteen years ago) don’t fully understand how it can change things, here are two recent ways that I’ve used circle practice…
1. Circle in the classroom
When my students were in conflict about a group project a few weeks ago, I invited them to push the tables against the wall and move their chairs into circle. With a few simple guidelines, I taught them how to have conversation in circle, looking into each other’s eyes, remaining silent when someone else was holding the talking piece, and being as honest as they were comfortable being when it was their turn to talk. People opened up in ways they don’t normally in the classroom, we addressed the source of the conflict, and we were able to move in a new direction. The students were surprised the following week when, after a second circle session, I let them abandon the group project entirely, but I told them to see it as a learning opportunity rather than a failure. In the final round with the talking piece, we each shared something we’d learned from the process. Everyone walked away looking a little lighter than when we’d started because they’d been heard by each other and by me.
2. Weekly women’s circle
Ever since I joined Gather the Women four years ago, I’ve wanted to start a women’s circle, but until recently, the timing wasn’t quite right. Finally in January, I knew it was time. I sent out an invitation and around 15 women accepted the invitation. Since then, we have been meeting on a weekly basis and, though it’s not the same women each time (everyone is welcome), we always have deep and authentic conversations. The circle offers us something we are all hungry for – a place to share our personal stories, to peel away our masks, to be honest about our shame and fear, and to heal. With the help of a talking piece, we are each given the opportunity to share stories without interruption or advice. We come to the circle not to fix each other but to listen and be listened to.
Each circle has different energy and holds a different purpose, but there are some things that every circle I host or participate in have in common. Here are just a few of them:
1. Being intentional about the space changes the way the conversation unfolds. Have you ever sat in an office talking to a senior manager who stayed behind their desk the whole time? Consider how you felt during that interaction. Though it may have been subtle, the desk separated you, gave the other person the position of power, and probably kept you from being authentic or vulnerable. In the circle, we sit and look into each other’s eyes without barriers between us and without anyone sitting in a position of power and it changes the way we interact with and are present for each other.
2. Simple rituals (sitting in circle, placing something meaningful in the centre, using a talking piece, etc.) shift us out of our everyday, often mindless conversations into something that is more mindful and deep. I’ve seen this happen especially in university classrooms where I invite students away from the tables placed in rows (where some have their backs to others) and into a circle where they face each other. Instantly they are more present, less easily distracted, and more willing to open up to each other.
3. The talking piece invites us to listen more than we speak. When you are holding the talking piece, your story holds the place of honour. When someone else holds it, their story is the honoured one. This gives you both an opportunity to speak intentionally without interruption or advice and to listen with attention without needing to interject your own story or solutions into someone else’s story. In far too many of our conversations, we feel the need to fix people, critique them, or give them good advice, which often makes that person feel like they’re flawed or not as smart as you. In truth, the gift of being listened to is often more healing than any advice you could give.
4. The circle offers us an opportunity to share the burden of the stories we carry. During our Thursday evening women’s circle, a lot of intense, personal stories come up – stories of depression, abuse, grief, etc.. These are the kinds of stories that feel really heavy to hold if you’re trying to carry them alone, or if it’s just one friend is helping to hold them for another. When they’re shared into the container of the circle, however, nobody leaves the room carrying the story alone and nobody feels solely responsible for helping another carry them. In the process of sharing them, we begin to heal each other. As one of the women shared in the circle, we do not only have “a leader in every chair”, we have “a healer in every chair”.
5. People need to come to the circle when they’re ready for it. The intensity of the circle is too much for some people and they need to walk away. That’s okay. We have to trust them to know when they’re ready to be held in that way. When they walk away, I simply wish them a blessing and hope some day when they’re ready for it, they’ll find the right circle. I would rather wait for them to be ready then to try to impose something on them that feels unsafe at the time.
6. Circle is not always be easy. I have been in many incredible circles and they are always meaningful experiences, but sometimes they’re hard. Sometimes things come to the surface that people have kept hidden for a long time and that surfacing can be painful for the person sharing and/or wounding for the people listening. The circle can hold all of that, but only if it’s guarded well and only if the people involved take responsibility for “holding the rim” and staying with the process until something new begins to grow into the cracks that have formed.
There is much more to be said about circle than this post can hold. And there are also things that cannot be articulated and can only be experienced. I encourage you to find a way to experience it. In the future, I will be offering circle workshops, but in the meantime, I encourage you read The Circle Way and to check out what my mentors at PeerSpirit have to offer. If you are a woman, I also encourage you to consider joining Gather the Women and perhaps finding or starting a circle where you live. If you are in Winnipeg, you’re welcome to join our Thursday evening circle.
If you have questions you’d like me to address in future articles, either about The Circle Way or about other topics I write about, please feel free to ask (by comment or email). Even if I don’t get back to you right away, please know that I appreciate every piece of correspondence I receive. Once a month, I plan to write an article specifically addressing a question I receive.
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