How our sameness leaves us blind: a reflection on diversity and inclusion

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In one of my favourite childhood photos, I’m sitting on the couch with a row of dolls lined up on my lap. Unfortunately, that photo was lost when my mom moved away from the farm after dad died, so it exists only in my memory now. The way my memory serves me, though, each of those dolls has a different skin colour, hair colour, and/or cultural attire. Only one of those dolls has blonde hair and blue eyes like me.

That’s the way I like to think of myself – from a young age choosing to surround myself with difference, with diversity. It’s not always true (in much of my life I have been surrounded by too much sameness), but it’s my ideal image of myself.

I thought of that photo recently when a viral video depicted two young white girls reacting in disappointment and disgust when they received black dolls as Christmas gifts. What’s most disturbing about that video is the way the adults giggle about and invite their reaction and the very fact that some adult thought it was funny enough to share online. Clearly their behaviour is a learned behaviour. Raised in another environment, those girls would likely have been delighted by the gift.

I have been disturbed lately by sameness and the way those girls’ actions too closely reflect our own. I see it in my own life and I see it in the world around me. We gravitate toward what is comfortable and safe, what looks and sounds like us, and so we end up in places, in conversations, and in friendships where there is a clear insider and a clear outsider. In doing so, we marginalize the people who don’t fit in. Without even knowing it, we toss aside the black dolls just as those young girls did.

Most of us are good people, so we don’t do it intentionally, but good people make mistakes when we don’t pay attention. Good people make mistakes when we see the world only through our own lenses.

Marginalized people get hurt by a lot of good people who “didn’t mean to hurt anyone”. 

Let me be perfectly clear that I include myself in this critique. I like to be comfortable as much as the next person, and so I too often find myself in places and in relationships where the people in the room largely fall into the same racial, gender, and socio-economic categories as I do.

But we miss out on SO MUCH when we don’t listen to the voices of people who are different from us. We miss out on SO MUCH when we don’t challenge our own comfort levels and dare to stretch ourselves beyond what feels safe. We miss out on SO MUCH when we toss aside the beautiful black dolls.

When everyone in the room looks the same, someone’s left outside. Sometimes that’s okay (when we’re at a family gathering, or when we’ve come together for healing or empowerment, for example), but often it’s not.

Over the festive season, I participated in two spiritual gatherings. The first one (which I’ve written about before) was a small gathering in a hospital sanctuary, where people of diverse faiths each lit a candle and talked about what light means in their spiritual tradition. At that one, the room was full of diversity of every kind. Not only were there at least nine faith groups represented in those who lit candles (most of whom were people of colour from various parts of the world), but there were hospital patients in wheelchairs and people of all walks of life, with varying degrees of health, socio-economic status, and physical ability.

I left that gathering feeling energized and connected to God/dess.

The other gathering I attended was on Christmas Eve, in Florida where my family was vacationing. This was a traditional Christian service that was fairly similar to what I grew up with. Though the setting was very different (this was a large posh church with theatre-style seating, while I grew up in a tiny and poor country church with old wooden pews), the language was largely the same. There was some comfort in that sameness – I knew the Christmas carols and had heard the Christmas story hundreds of times. It was a perfectly lovely service, with great singing and good story-telling on the pastor’s part. One story he shared was quite moving – about how a large endowment to the church had been split up among church-goers who were told to go out and do some act of kindness in the community.

Unlike the gathering in the hospital sanctuary, there was very little diversity in the room. In a room filled with more than a thousand people, I saw only three people of colour and could see evidence of very little socio-economic diversity. Among the visible leadership, there was even less diversity. The only people who spoke or served communion were older white men. Either you received God’s teachings and God’s body and blood from an older white man, or you didn’t receive it at all.

I left that gathering feeling weary and disconnected from God/dess.

I have no doubt that the church-goers and their leaders are good people doing good work in their community. They don’t mean to exclude anyone, and there’s a good chance they have well-meaning conversations about how to increase their diversity and how to reach out to people who are different from them. I know many good people like them, and in many ways, I am one of them – good people trying to do good things.

But good people hurt other people by living their good, comfortable lives and ignoring their own privilege and narrow views of the world. 

And this is not a domain that’s exclusive to a conservative Christian church by any means. It happens in all kinds of settings.

Recently I was looking at an online advertisement for a women’s leadership summit – the kind of event I’d normally be drawn to, where leadership is seen through a feminine lens and there’s a comfort level with talk of the feminine divine and women’s power. But there was something about it that left me feeling sad, and I realized it was because of the sameness of the images on the speakers’ list. All of them were white women between the ages of 30 and 50 who looked like they’d stepped out of the pages of a yoga magazine.

Just what the patriarchy has for so long done to them, the organizers of this online summer were, (inadvertently of course) doing to others – marginalizing the voices of those who don’t fit. I’m sure these women would have all been horrified by the video of the young white girls tossing aside the black dolls, but in a way, the result was the same.

Sameness. Comfort. Marginalization. Barriers. Disconnection.

What do we do about it? That’s a big conversation and it needs the voices of many people who see the world differently from me.

I can only offer my own perspective from where I stand.

We start by noticing. We start by paying attention – looking around the room to see who’s sitting with us, checking our social media feed to see who we’re conversing with, noticing the books we read and the voices we listen to, paying attention to who has a voice at our gatherings. Because if we’re not listening to the stories of people who are different, if we’re not sitting and having conversations with them, we’ll always be stuck in this same place.

I loved Gloria Steinem’s recent book, My Life on the Road, largely because she shares so many stories about how she was influenced and changed by the people she met on the road. Much of her wisdom came not from people who look like her, but from black people, indigenous people, bikers, and farmers. She is the woman she is today because all of these people’s stories have been woven into her own.

I’m here to challenge us all to live more like that. Let’s be the kind of people who listen to stories and wisdom of people who look, think, and live differently from us. Let’s read books from other parts of the world and written by people of other races and classes. Let’s have more conversations with people who don’t share our political views or our socio-economic status.

I’ve created a list of books written by people who’ve lead very different lives from mine that I want to read and I’m working my way through them. Some I’ve read recently and recommend are Wab Kinew’s The Reason You Walk, Rosanna Deerchild’s Calling Down the Sky, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah. I encourage you to build your own list.

I’ve also signed up for a course called “How to Embrace Diversity to Improve your Business” being offered by Desiree Adaway and Ericka Hines. Quite frankly, there is still too much sameness in the kind of clientele I attract and I want to see what I can do to change that. I know that Desiree and Ericka will challenge me and hold me accountable, and though it may be uncomfortable sometimes, I’ll do my best to stretch myself.

What else can we do to shift the status quo? Good people, I look forward to hearing from you.

My journey to The Circle Way

I am delighted to share with you the launch of a new website that I have been part of building in 2015. The Circle Way now has its own home on the web.

I first discovered The Circle Way fifteen years ago, when I was working as Director of Communication at a large federal lab. I’d been in leadership positions in the federal government for 5 years, and I was feeling burnt out, discouraged, and hungry for something new. I was sure there must be a better way of doing leadership than the toxic, disconnected, hierarchical patterns I was witnessing, but I didn’t have enough experience, knowledge, or confidence to trust my own intuitive sense. I went searching for a guide who would help me navigate my way.

When I stumbled on the website of Christina Baldwin and Ann Linnea, it was like someone had lit a candle in the darkness for me. They were the guides I’d been looking for.

I remember that moment, sitting in my lonely office perched at the top of a long ramp that separated the management team from the scientists in the lab. Discovering that there were people talking about exactly the kind of leadership and community-building that I had a vague sense about but didn’t yet know how to articulate was life-changing. My body trembled with a sense of awakening and calling that felt ancient and primal. I wasn’t just being called to something, I was being called back to something.  I didn’t know how the circle would become part of my life, but I knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that it would.

The path that finally led me to the rim of the circle was long and somewhat circuitous and often I wondered whether the calling I’d felt was true or just an apparition emerging out of my loneliness. After giving birth to my third and final daughter, I was so restless in a job that didn’t fit me that I could barely stand going to work each morning. It hurt to know that there was something better waiting for me but not know how I would get to that place.

I finally left the government a few years later and started working for a non-profit that worked internationally. I loved my work there and I learned a lot, but I still kept feeling like there was something missing. I took as many leadership and community-building courses as I could, and I talked to a lot of experts and teachers, but nothing helped me tap into the longing that I’d felt when I’d first discovered The Circle Way. To be honest, I still had such a vague sense of what it was and how much it would change my work that I never worked up the courage to ask for funding or time off to attend a training session.

I didn’t fully understand it, but I knew I wanted deeper relationships, more meaningful conversations, and more intentional collaboration and nothing else satisfied that craving.

In October 2010, I quit my non-profit job and launched my own business. Three weeks after leaving my job, and ten years after setting an intention to study with her, I traveled to Ontario to attend my first circle workshop with Christina Baldwin. It was as life-changing as I’d hoped it would be. The first thing I told Christina, in our opening circle, was that her words had lit a candle in the darkness for me ten years earlier. Her eyes filled with tears.

The workshop was so powerful for me that I felt like I was always either trembling or on the verge of tears. There’s something about satisfying a ten year longing (and an even more ancient ache) that can’t easily be put into words.

I came home from that workshop determined that I would become an ambassador of The Circle Way. I started incorporating it into everything I did. I held workshops and retreats in circle, I invited my university students to move their desks against the wall and join me in the circle, and I began to teach my online courses in virtual circles. Even in my coaching sessions, there are elements of the circle in the way I hold the space for people’s emergence.

The year after attending Christina’s workshop, I became part of Gather the Women, and I discovered how powerful it is to be part of a global network of circles. Last year, I invited a number of women in Winnipeg to join me in circle, and we’ve been meeting weekly ever since. This circle of women has become a lifeline for me.

In 2014, I had the pleasure of joining Christina and Ann and a circle of 25 other Circle Way practitioners in a 4 day gathering in which we worked to develop the framework for a new iteration of the work. After much discernment, Ann and Christina had decided that it was time to entrust the next generation of practitioners and teachers with this piece of their work. They prepared to step into their new role as elders and we prepared to pick up the torch and carry the light forward.

In May of 2015, Amanda Fenton and I joined Ann and Christina on Whidbey Island for three days of intense work. Together, we built the new website that would house this next generation of The Circle Way.

The work we did together was some of the most beautiful and meaningful collaborative work I’ve ever been part of, largely because it was done with such careful intention and such deep love. That was exactly what I’d been longing for years earlier when I’d felt so disconnected in my government position. The circle was not only what we were writing about and creating, it was the container for how we worked. Just as we do with any circle gathering, we started and ended each day with a check-in and check-out, we placed what was sacred to our gathering at the centre, and together we held the rim of the container that held our purpose. (And this, I believe, can become a container for the work done at any kind of business, non-profit, community organization, or government.)

It’s hard to express just how meaningful it was to work alongside my mentors for those three day and to be trusted as a partner with them in the work. This is what the circle does, though – it teaches us to honour each person on the rim as a leader and valuable contributor. It teaches us to speak with intention and listen with attention. In that circle, each of us was able to do our best work because we were being seen and heard, we were being trusted, and we were each taking responsibility for holding a shared purpose.

If you’re curious about The Circle Way, I invite you to start your own journey to the circle by exploring the new website. You’ll find lots of useful information and resources and you’ll also find learning opportunities and teachers/practitioners. While you’re there, sign up for the newsletter.

Though the details haven’t yet been worked out, I hope to work with some of my colleagues in offering a circle practicum in 2016. If you work for an organization or community group and would like to introduce The Circle Way as a new way of working, meeting, and being in conversation with each other, I’d be delighted to talk to you about what might be possible.

An unresolved story that I don’t know how to tell

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There’s a piece of my story in this unfolding year that I have had a hard time writing about. I still don’t know quite what to say, but I also don’t want to pretend that it’s not going on or that I’m trying to keep it a secret.

This summer, my twenty-two year marriage unraveled and my husband and I are now separated.

That’s the simple version. The more complex version is the part that’s difficult to talk about, because it is not my story alone and I am determined never to write anything that might hurt anyone I care about. My husband, my daughters and I are all fumbling our way through this, trying not to hurt each other, trying to heal from past wounds, and trying to emerge stronger and wiser.

I share it, though, because sometimes people turn to me for expertise on what it means to hold space for people, and I don’t want to pretend that I have figured out everything there is to know about keeping relationships healthy. Like you, I falter sometimes, and I fail people, and I make decisions that might be hard for people to understand. I am still very much on a learning journey.

Early this year, after I wrote the post that went viral, about what it means to hold space for other people, what became more and more clear to me was something I’d woken up to about five years earlier. My husband and I no longer knew how to hold space for each other. We’ve tried and tried, but repeatedly we’ve failed. For my part, I spent too much time judging him and thinking I needed to rescue or fix him, and for his part, he no longer understood me and had no idea how to support the kind of work I was doing or the changes I was undergoing as a result.

For a long time, I tried to tell myself that it didn’t matter that we were in such different places – that I was in this marriage for the long haul and that my daughters were better off with us together – but I could only fool myself for so long. We were hurting each other in our failure, and, after repeated attempts at marriage counselling, it finally became clear to me that we were not doing our daughters any favours by staying in this broken place.

There is much that remains unresolved in this story and I continue to learn from it as I navigate this new path. I stumble sometimes, and then I fall into grace and am given a hand up to get back up on my feet again.

And that is where I will leave this story, in an unresolved place where there is still healing to be done and forgiveness to be offered. I am learning, despite much impatience and struggle, to stay in the unresolved places until what’s meant to emerge can find its own way and time to unfold.

When we see brokenness, our tendency (based in a childish desire for the world to be clean and orderly, black and white) is to rush in to fix it, to find a solution, and to put it back the way it once was. But the invitation of a deepening spirituality is to allow it to remain unresolved, to ask ourselves why we are uncomfortable with it being unresolved, and to consider that perhaps something new wants to grow in its own sweet time without the limitations of “the way things used to be”.

As a writer and teacher, I feel pressure sometimes, on my blog and on social media, to only share a story when it has a complete ending. If I share it when it is still in the unresolved stage, too many people will rush in with advice, solutions, or judgement, responding to their own need to see it fixed in a way that makes sense to them, and then I will feel defeated, inadequate, and not fully heard.

What I most value (and this is why I spend so much time in circles) is to be heard, to be valued, and to be supported in whatever stage of the messiness I am in. This, I believe, is what all of us truly want. Because the best path out of the messiness is rarely the quick fix that first rushes to mind.

I invite you then, to pause for a moment before you respond to my unresolved story or anyone else’s. In your pausing, listen first for what that person most wants from you. And then listen for what is unresolved in your own life that might make someone else’s messy story feel uncomfortable. Because when we sit in the messiness together, we grow truly beautiful and lasting things. That’s what it means to hold space for each other.

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.” – Rilke

Thank you for holding space for me in my unresolved place.

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Moving beyond “us and them”

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A few weeks ago, I wrote about the importance of finding your tribe – people who love you just the way you are and who cheer you on as you do courageous things.

Tribe-building is important and valuable, but it only takes you part way down the path to an openhearted life.

This week, I’ve been contemplating what we should do with the people outside of our tribes.

It’s cozy and warm inside a tribe, and the people are supportive and non-threatening, so it’s tempting to simply hide there and close off from the rest of the world. When you’re hurting, that might be the right thing to do for awhile – to protect yourself until you have healed enough to step outside of the circle.

But the problem with staying there too long is that it creates a world of “us and them”. When you stay too close to your own tribe, it becomes easier and easier to justify your own choices and opinions and more and more difficult to understand people who think differently from you. Before long, you’ve become suspicious of everyone outside of your tribe, and when their actions threaten your way of life, you do whatever it takes to protect yourself. Fear breeds in a closed-off life.

Last week, I knew it was time to challenge myself to step outside my tribe. I’d been playing it safe too much lately, so when I saw a Facebook posting for an open house at the local mosque, I decided that was a good place to start. I shared the information with friends, but chose not to bring anyone with me. Bringing friends with me into unfamiliar territory makes me less open to conversations with people who are different from me and I didn’t want that – I wanted to go in with an open, unguarded heart. That’s one of the reasons I’ve learned to love solo traveling – it’s scary at first, but it opens me to a whole world of new opportunities and friendships that don’t happen as naturally when I’m hiding behind the safety of a group.

I have traveled in predominately Muslim parts of the world and have always been warmly received, so I knew that the open house would be a pleasant experience. It turned out to be even more pleasant than I’d expected.

IMG_3089First there was Mariam, a young university student who served as tour guide to me and a small group of strangers. Mariam’s easy smile and warm personality made us all feel instantly comfortable. She lead us through the gym to the prayer room and told us why she’s happy that the women pray in a separate area from the men. “I want to be close to God when I pray, not distracted by who might be looking at me or bumping into me.” Before the tour was over, Mariam hugged me twice and I felt like I’d made a new friend.

Then there was the grinning young man at the table by the sign that read “your name in Arabic”. His name now escapes me, but I can tell you he never stopped smiling through our whole conversation and was one of the friendliest young men I’ve met in a long time. He told me, while he wrote my name, that he’d learned some of his Arabic from cartoons. Growing up in Ontario, he’d preferred Arabic cartoons to Barney or Sesame Street.

At the “free henna” table, I met Saadia, who moved here from Pakistan three years ago because she and her husband wanted to give their children a better chance at a good education. Her husband is a doctor who’s still trying to cross all of the hurdles that will allow him to practice in Canada. Before our conversation was over, Saadia had given me her phone number in case I ever want to invite her to my home to give me and my friends hennas.

What struck me, as I left the mosque, was how much grace and courage it takes, when your people have become the object of racism, fear, and oppression, to open your hearts, homes, and gathering places to strangers. Instead of hiding within the safety of their own tribe and justifying their need for protection and safety from others, the local Muslim community threw their doors and hearts open wide and said “let’s be friends. We are not afraid of you – please don’t be afraid of us.”

I experienced the same grace and courage among the Indigenous people of our community last Spring after we were named the “most racist city in Canada”. Instead of retreating into the safety of their tribes, they welcomed many of us into openhearted healing circles. Instead of being angry, they taught us that reconciliation starts with forgiveness and the courage to risk friendships across tribal lines.

I will be forever grateful to Rosanna, who invited me to co-host a series of meaningful conversations with her, to Leonard who handed me a drum and welcomed me to play in honour of Mother Earth’s heartbeat, to Gramma Shingoose who gave me a stone shaped like a heart and shared the story of her healing journey after a childhood in residential school, to Brian who welcomed me into the sweat lodge, and to many others who opened their hearts and reached across the artificial divide between Indigenous and settler.

The more I’ve had the privilege of building friendships with openhearted people whose world looks different from mine, the bigger, more beautiful, and less fearful my life has become.

This week, I’ve read Gloria Steinem’s memoir, My Life on The Road and there is so much in it that resonates with the way I choose to live my life. It’s a beautiful reflection of how her life has been changed by the people she has encountered while on the road. “Taking to the road – by which I mean letting the road take you – changed who I thought I was. The road is messy in the way that real life is messy. It leads us out of denial and into reality, out of theory and into practice, out of caution and into action, out of statistics and into stories – in short, out of our heads and into our hearts. It’s right up there with life-threatening emergencies and truly mutual sex as a way of being fully alive in the present.”

Another quote speaks to how much broader her thinking has become because of her encounters on the road. “What we’ve been told about this country is way too limited by generalities, sound bites, and even the supposedly enlightened idea that there are two sides to every question. In fact, many questions have three or seven or a dozen sides. Sometimes I think the only real division into two is between people who divide everything into two and those who don’t.

We don’t have to spend as much time traveling as Gloria Steinem does in order to live this way – we simply have to open our hearts to the people and experiences in our own communities that have the potential to stretch and change us and lead us past a life with only two sides. Sometimes a conversation with the next door neighbour is enough to help us see the world through more open eyes.

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p.s. Would you consider supporting our fundraiser to sponsor a Syrian refugee family?

 

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Go ahead and take it personally

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“I’m trying not to take it personally, but…” Those are the opening words to many stories I hear from my coaching clients. They’re usually sharing something that has been spiralling through their mind – something that caused a wound, brought up fear, or blocked them from doing something they really wanted to do. They’re not only taking it personally, they’re carrying shame that they can’t simply brush it off.

My response to them is always the same.

Go ahead and take it personally.

Allow yourself to feel the hurt. Allow yourself to cry. Allow yourself to be angry, fearful, frustrated, sad, wounded, etc. Don’t shut down the feelings because of some ancient script that’s telling you that you’re weak if you take things personally.

Do not be ashamed of being a big-hearted, big-feeling person.

I’m not suggesting you should get stuck there, but that’s a good place to start. Healing starts in a heart that’s open, a heart that’s not afraid to feel, a heart that doesn’t try to stuff things away.

I often takes things personally. And I am no longer ashamed of that fact.

As my work becomes more and more public, I occasionally (though thankfully not frequently), get emails criticizing something I’ve said or done or not said or not done on my blog, in my courses, etc.. I used to tell myself “brush it off – this comes with the territory”. But that kind of self-talk was never helpful. I realized that, in trying to stuff the wound away, I was short-circuiting my ability to grow and learn from the wound.

When we bury the wound, we deny it the opportunity to teach us something.

Now, when an email or comment wounds me, the first thing I do is step away from the computer and find a cozy place where I can feel what I need to feel. I might make myself a cup of tea, wrap myself in my favourite blanket or prayer shawl, or head out to the woods where the trees don’t judge me for crying.

The second thing I do is to grab my journal. Journal writing (and mandala-journaling) has always been my way of processing the world. I sit down, and start writing all of the feelings – the hurt, the shame, the anger, the unworthiness, etc.. I don’t censor myself. I just let the pain show up on the page. Sometimes that’s all I need. The simple act of releasing it onto the page can be enough to shift how I feel about it.

If I need more work on it, I let my pen expand my heart as I stretch myself beyond the pain into the learning. I ask myself a few questions and try to answer them as honestly as possible:

  1. Why is this triggering me? What old stories is it bringing up? (ie. Do I have stories of unworthiness, failure, shame, etc.?)
  2. What is the deeper healing this wound is inviting me to?
  3. What truth, even though it’s painful, do I need to receive from what’s been said and what do I need to change as a result?
  4. Which parts of what’s been said do I need to let go of, recognizing that whatever’s been said is rooted in the other person’s stories, fears, etc.?
  5. What new stories and new courage might this experience help me step into?

If things still feel unresolved after the journaling, walking, tea-drinking, crying, etc., I consult a trusted friend who will hold space for me while I talk my way through it. The right friend will help me gain perspective on it by asking good questions and offering other ways of interpreting it. She/he will never judge me for feeling the way I feel. (The ones who do make us feel judged are not the right friends to trust at that time.)

After I’ve done my personal work and talked with a friend, I do some discernment about what kind of response is required of me. My response usually depends on the relationship. 

If it’s someone with whom I have an ongoing relationship that I want to maintain, I will invest time and energy in trying to engage in a meaningful conversation that will help us both move past this wound. I try to be as honest as possible in admitting how it made me feel (and maybe why it made me feel that way), receiving what I think is valuable in the criticism, and then expressing which part I don’t think is mine to carry forward (releasing, not blaming). I might also ask them to further explain their perspective, if I need deeper understanding.

I love what Brene Brown says in Rising Strong about engaging someone in a conversation after you’ve felt wounded by them. Instead of laying blame, she starts with “the story I’m making up is…” In other words, “I admit to interpreting this through the lens of my own past hurts, self-esteem, etc., and I want to give you a chance to offer a different story if I misinterpreted.”

If the email that hurt me is from a stranger with whom I have no relationship, I decide whether it’s worth it or not to invest in a reply. (Some people are simply complainers or trolls who have earned no right to that amount of my energy.) If it’s worth investing in, I usually respond with a much shorter email (remembering that I don’t have to over-explain myself), expressing gratitude for whatever I gained in the exchange and releasing what isn’t mine to carry. I may or may not invite them to engage further, depending on how much it’s worth to me.

Doing this kind of work when I feel wounded isn’t easy, but it’s necessary if I want to continue to grow and be in healthy relationships with people. 

The best thing is that each time I do the work, it heals me a little more and makes me stronger for the next time I face something that has the potential to wound me. Some of the things that wounded me ten years ago no longer have that kind of power over me because I did the work to heal them. And some of the things that wound me now will no longer have power over me in ten years. That’s what doing my personal work healing is all about. It’s never over – it just goes deeper.

“You can’t get to courage without walking through vulnerability. You can choose comfort or you can choose courage. You can’t choose both. Courage is uncomfortable. That is why it’s rare. Being courageous is more important to me, as a value, than succeeding.” ~ Brené Brown

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What happens when you find your tribe?

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There was a time in my life when I was really lonely. If you had been an observer watching my life, you probably wouldn’t have seen much evidence of the loneliness. I was a busy mom with great kids, I had a good job with co-workers who were easy to work with, and I had a few friends and family members around to socialize with, so it didn’t look like a lonely life. But I was lonely nonetheless. (Which leads me to believe that many people who appear to have “put-together” lives are lonely under the surface.)

A full-time career plus small kids is not a lifestyle that leaves a lot of room for friendships. Plus, some of my friends were still single and childless, so we no longer had much in common or were available at the same times. And, even though there were people in my life who cared about me, I wasn’t finding people who wanted to talk about the kinds of things I wanted to talk about.

Together with my family, I went looking for community, and eventually we found it in a lovely small church where people were authentic and progressive. We were well cared for in that community, and people showed up to support some of the most difficult times in our lives. It was really good for quite a few years… but then one day it started to feel like it wasn’t quite enough. Even though there was authenticity there, I wasn’t finding the opportunities I longed for to talk about the things that were becoming increasingly important to me. Nobody was talking about the Feminine Divine, for example, and only a few people seemed to have the same curiosity I had around how our faith journeys might be positively impacted by other faith perspectives. I was curious about Buddhist meditation, for example, and wanted to explore more of an Indigenous approach to spirituality.

Though I found community, and developed some beautiful friendships there, I was still searching for my tribe – people who understood the kinds of questions I was asking and were as eager as I was to have deep and meaningful conversations about the quests we were on. (It’s worth noting here, that I don’t use the words community and tribe interchangeably. You can find one without finding the other.)

I spent a lot of time searching for the kinds of writers and thinkers who were talking about what I was longing to talk about, and my bookshelves were soon full, but that still didn’t feed my ongoing quest for conversation and connection. That was in the days before social media, and all of those people I found who seemed like kindred spirits were far away from where I lived and had only static websites where there was little opportunity for interaction.

When I started blogging a dozen years ago, I started connecting with other bloggers who had similar curiosities, and those connections deepened with the growth of social media, but I still wanted more face-to-face connections.

Things started to shift quite radically five and a half years ago, when I was on the verge of quitting my non-profit job and jumping into self-employment. Though I’d been to lots of conferences and retreats where I found people to connect with, the first time I really arrived somewhere and felt almost instantly that I had found my tribe was the Summer Institute of Authentic Leadership in Action. These people were speaking my language, inviting the kinds of questions that were burning in my heart, encouraging vulnerability and curiosity, and creating safe spaces for deep and honest conversation. I started crying shortly after I arrived – I was so overwhelmed that I’d found what I was looking for.

Since then, I have found the same thing in a few places and my tribe continues to grow. After years of reading her work, I finally had the opportunity to be in retreat with Christina Baldwin, and since then have become deeply connected with her and Ann Linnea and others who are practitioners of The Circle Way. I have also found those connections in the community involved with The Art of Hosting. And, more recently, I have found my tribe within Gather the Women Global Matrix, an organization that exists for the sole purpose of supporting women’s circles around the world.

What makes these gatherings more conducive to tribe-building than the many other places I looked? In my experience, it’s the circle that changes things. All of these gatherings have, at their essence, a circle way of gathering, where you don’t just sit in rows and listen to speakers on a stage, you gather in circles where all voices are heard and real connections are made.

Last week, I attended my fourth annual gathering of Gather the Women. Fifty-four women from seven countries gathered in a beautiful, lush, green retreat space in Florida. We laughed, cried, danced, sang, made art, created ritual, hugged (a lot), dressed as funny non-human characters, had ceremonies, and most of all, we talked. In small circles and large ones, around breakfast tables and under the trees, we talked and talked and talked. We talked about our heartbreaks, our families, our spirituality, our discomfort, and our strength. We talked about sex and gender and human rights and wine and food and our bodies and the earth and the animals and the Goddess and the government(s).

We talked about real things that matter. Rarely did we talk about diets or fashion or shopping (though we didn’t judge anyone if they wanted to) and nobody cared if we wore make-up or if our skin sagged.

We talked and we loved. We loved each other and we loved the trees and we loved the pelicans in the sky and we loved the dolphin and sea otter playing in the cove.

That’s what it’s like to find your tribe. That’s what it’s like to show up in a place where people are authentic and kind and openhearted – where they sit in circle and look each other in the eye. That’s what it’s like when fifty-four women show up to hold space for each other.

When you find your tribe, and they accept you for who you are and believe you are capable of greatness, it can change your life.

Because it’s become so important to me, I continue to grow this tribe, drawing in anyone who dares to be real and flawed and openhearted. Last night, after flying home just the day before, I gathered with my local women’s circle and the same things that happened in Florida happened there. We laughed and cried and opened our hearts. We created safe space for each other by honouring each other and not judging.

Here’s what happens when you find your tribe:

  • you feel truly seen in a way that you’ve rarely been seen before
  • you find safety and you learn how to create it for others
  • you learn to be vulnerable because you’re finally in a place where your mistakes are not being judged
  • you dare to speak of the longing of your heart and you invite others to do the same
  • you grow, because you know that the people in your tribe are cheering for you
  • you learn to take risks in looking into your own shadow and the group’s shadow
  • you want everyone else to know how good it is, so you start growing your tribe the best you can

Because nobody’s perfect, no tribe is perfect. As I’ve said in the past, shadow will inevitably show up wherever people gather. Sometimes there is conflict or jealousy or frustration. That’s all part of what it means to be real and to let people see you for who you really are. Also, as you change and grow, sometimes you outgrow a tribe and realize it’s time to find/build another.

Just as I said last week about how it can take a really long time to tell your truth, it can also take a really long time to find and/or grow your tribe. Sometimes, in my long lonely years, I feared it would never happen for me. There were a few false starts during that time, and each failure sent me into despair. But each time, I rose up once again, more and more determined to find the kinds of places I could be vulnerable and openhearted. Now that it’s happened, I feel incredibly lucky and want to spread the love to everyone I meet. (Yes, that includes you, even if I’ve only met you virtually. My tribe is all-inclusive.)

If you have not yet found your tribe, take heart and don’t give up. Hold onto your intention and it will surely happen for you some day. (And, from now on, even if we have never met, you can consider me part of your tribe.)

Here are a few tips for finding your tribe:

  • If you are interested in women’s circles, join Gather the Women and either find a women’s circle in your own region or gather some friends to start talking about creating one (Gather the Women provides resources to help with that.)
  • Go to the kinds of workshops, retreats, and learning events where people gather in circle and where authenticity is at the heart. The Circle Way is one of those (note: we are very close to launching a new website that will be a useful resource), as are The Art of Hosting and Authentic Leadership in Action. (All of these are international networks.) Another event I’ve had the pleasure of attending and which has been a great tribe-building place is Patti Digh’s Life is a Verb Camp.
  • Be intentional about the kinds of conversations you have. When you begin to be openhearted and you speak out loud your desires to connect with people in more authentic ways, you will eventually find others who have similar longings. (Note: This doesn’t happen with everyone, and you will likely face some rejection, but over time you will learn to discern which people are the most open to these conversations.)
  • Find other resources, books, communities, etc. that inspire you. Some are listed on recommended reading list. Another organization for women’s circles (which I know less about) is the Millionth Circle, based on Jean Shinoda Bolen’s books.

I wish you well as you seek your tribe.

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