Circles of Grace: Tips on hosting meaningful conversations

circle of grace 2“We must come together in ways that respect the solitude of the soul, that avoid the unconscious violence we do when we try to save each other, that evoke our capacity to hold another life without dishonoring its mystery, never trying to coerce the other into meeting our own needs.” ― Parker J. Palmer, Let Your Life Speak

All around us, there is a hunger for belonging, a hunger for community, a hunger to be held in circles of grace where we can open our hearts and know that we will be treated tenderly and respectfully. Some of us have not yet awakened to that hunger, believing instead that we can go through life as independent, self-reliant souls. It’s there, though, hidden under the armour we’ve built up in our efforts to avoid being wounded.

To feed this hunger in the world, we need to create more places where people are fed. These are the places I call Circles of Grace.

A Circle of Grace is a place where people gather for meaningful conversation, for compassion, for support, for encouragement, and for growth. While in the circle, we do our best to extend grace to everyone there, including ourselves. We speak with openness and listen with intention. We make a commitment within the circle to be as authentic as we know how to be, and we welcome the same from others. We share, laugh, cry, grow, stretch, and tremble. Even when we disagree and conflict arises, we respond with compassion and open hearts and minds.

A Circle of Grace can be hosted as part of a retreat, it can be the frame for a weekly class (as I do with Creative Writing for Self-Discovery), it can be a way for your family to work through some difficult issues, it can be the way a community or church gathers regularly, and it can even be used in virtual gatherings (as I do with Openhearted Writing Circle).

How do you host a Circle of Grace? Here are some tips.

1. Create enough structure to hold the container, but enough flexibility to adapt to what wants to emerge. The best structure I know of can be found in PeerSpirit’s Circle Guidelines (which you can download for free). Sometimes it feels a little strange to bring structure into something that seems organic, but the structure helps you hold whatever is going on in the circle and helps you take conversation to a deeper place without falling into chaos. You can adapt the structure to what needs to happen in the space. For example, I always use a talking piece at the beginning of a gathering for check-in and at the end for check-out, so that each person has an opportunity to speak without interruption, and then I set it aside in between for less structured conversation.

2. Set guidelines and intentions so that everyone has a sense of their commitment while in circle. Guidelines help us feel more secure in the container because we know how to behave with each other and know what to expect from others. This is a sample of the guidelines and intentions I use when I host Openhearted Writing Circles:

  • This is a circle of grace. It is a safe space for all of us, and to make it so, we will treat each other with kindness and grace.
  • This is a confidential circle. Nothing that is shared here will leave the circle without the permission of the person speaking.
  • This is a sharing circle. Each of us will be invited and encouraged to share questions, wisdom, writing, etc. Nobody will be pushed to share if they don’t feel ready, but everyone will be invited.
  • This is a learning circle. We are all here to learn, and so no questions will be considered foolish and no wisdom shared will be silenced. We are all learners together, including the teacher.
  • This circle belongs to each of us. Each of us is individually and collectively responsible for how we interact, what we share, and what we get out of this time together.

3. Keep an open mind and suspend judgement. It is important that everyone in the circle feels safe and accepted. This doesn’t mean that any kind of behaviour is acceptable (the guidelines and intentions help with that), but it means that people can share their stories, hurts, and wounds without fearing that they are being judged. Sometimes that will be hard to do (e.g. when someone shares an opinion or worldview that is very different from your own and you’re pretty sure they’re wrong) but it is crucial to extending grace in a meaningful way.

4. Don’t try to fix anyone. As Parker Palmer mentions in the above quote, we need to “avoid the unconscious violence we do when we try to save each other”. When others share the struggles they are dealing with, it is human nature to want to help them resolve those struggles, but more often than not, they are sharing in order to feel heard rather than to be fixed. According to Brene Brown in Daring Greatly, these efforts to fix each other are our defenses against vulnerability. We are afraid to see too much vulnerability in each other and in ourselves, and so we try to rush past the brokenness to a place where we feel more comfortable and struggles are resolved. In a Circle of Grace, we welcome vulnerability and we offer support without trying to fix.

5. Encourage people to ask for what they need. While we don’t rush in to fix things for people, we are happy – as hosts and co-creators of the circle – to respond to their requests if they ask for hugs, advice, encouragement, or silence. Create a space where people learn to be comfortable asking for what they need. This will probably take time (most of us have been taught to stifle our needs and not to extend trust to each other too quickly), but it’s worth the investment.

This is part of a document I am creating for people who wish to use Pathfinder in women’s circles and classrooms. It will be available as a free downloadable pdf. To be notified of its release, sign up for my newsletter (on the top right of this page).

If you wish to learn more about hosting circles, I encourage you to read The Circle Way by Christina Baldwin and Ann Linnea of PeerSpirit, or A Hidden Wholeness by Parker Palmer.

She Who Sees

IMG_8628At my recent person retreat, I played with art supplies in the art room, and this piece of art emerged. What’s written below comes directly from the pages of my journal, intuitive and uncensored.

She Who Sees is Rising

It all started with the shrouded eyes, staring out at me from the front cover of a magazine. A woman hidden by a burka, and yet her eyes are watching. Seeing. Learning. Spying. Waiting.

She is silent now, shrouded by the patriarchy. Shrouded by those who are afraid of her power. She is hidden, draped in black, her sensuous curves too dangerous for the men who want her, who deny themselves her beauty. She is oppressed, beaten, raped, tortured, abused. She is mined for her resources, used for what she can offer. And then hidden, pushed aside.

They are afraid of her. She is too powerful. She is fierce and wild and untameable. She is a feral creature, gnashing her teeth at her captors. They fear her and so they trap her.

But from the bars of her cage, she is always watching. Waiting. Holding her strength in reserve for when she is ready. Waiting for the sisterhood to come of age alongside her. Waiting for the power to build up until the pressure valve erupts and she explodes into the world.

She is ready. Her sisterhood is gathering. Her captors are losing their power. They are wasting their strength, fighting each other and building their fragile empires.

She will rise. She will emerge like a phoenix from the flame. No cage will be able to hold her. No shroud will be able to hide her.

She will rise and take her rightful place. She will birth herself into the world. She will hold nothing back.

In her rising, she will silence the oppressors and then she will bandage their wounds. She will halt the destruction of the earth and then she will invite the destroyers to gather round the campfire.

She is fierce and she is a healer. She is powerful and compassionate. She will not hold back and she will offer a soft place to land. She will destroy and she will rebuild. She will fight and she will gather. She is a warrior and a lover. She is dangerous and she is safe. She is bold and she is humble.

She is rising. Her sisterhood rises with her. She will no longer be silent. She will no longer wait for her turn to speak. She will no longer watch her sons go to needless wars. She will no longer let her Mother be raped for her resources.

She is me. She is every woman. She is power. She is love. She is our future. She is our ancient lineage. She is our forests. She is our hearths. She is our food. She is our food. She is our hope. She is our beloved. She is rising.

We rise with her.

Letting go of an old story to make space for a new one

Letting go of an old story to make space for a new one

“Do not be afraid of the empty place. It is the source we must return to if we are to be free of the stories and habits that entrap us.” – Charles Eisenstein

I’ve been having a lot of internal dialogues lately, and one of the conversations sounds a lot like this:

Me 1:Mandala Discovery starts again on Saturday. Why aren’t you doing a better job of marketing it?”

Me 2: “I don’t know. I’m really struggling with marketing lately. Marketing language gets stuck in my throat.”

Me 1: “But you don’t have to be a traditional marketer to make this work. You just have to offer affiliate programs for past participants, buy Facebook ads, send out multiple reminders to your list, blah, blah, blah. Oh… And you have to be more clear about what they get for their investment. People don’t understand just how good Mandala Discovery is because your language is too vague.”

Me 2: “But… The trouble is, I can’t tell them exactly what they’ll get for their investment. Every journey through this will be different and they’ll each find what they need on the journey. I can’t tell them what need will be filled because I don’t know their unique needs.”

Me 1: “How do you think you’ll ever be a successful entrepreneur if you don’t learn to speak in clear marketing lingo? You’ve worked in PR for a long time – surely you know how to tell the story that will sell the product. ‘You want to get to Story B and you’re stuck at Story A? Buy this simple product and you’ll have guaranteed success.’”

Me 2: “That really doesn’t work for me. Nothing I sell fits into the ‘simple product’ category. I don’t offer simplicity. I offer complexity. I invite people into the ‘empty place’ (that Charles Eisenstein talks about in that quote at the top of this page). You can’t put that empty place on a sales page.”

And so it goes, on and on, with Me 1 trying to be more financially successful and Me 2 trying to be more authentic.

Me 2 usually wins, but Me 1 is stuck in some old stories about worthiness and conventional wisdom, and so the dialogue continues.

Last week, I had a series of a-ha moments that have helped me clarify my work even further. First of all, I was working with the leadership team of a local organization that was going through a major transition. When I did individual coaching with each of the people involved, I realized that the stories they were each living in were not in alignment with the direction the organization was heading. In the group conversation I hosted, these stories started coming out, and they realized that the true story that was emerging was very different from what they’d thought was needed. Embracing this true story meant that they would have to release something that was very important for all of them, and possibly even close the doors of the business. This came with a lot of grief that they will have to work through in the coming months. I was reminded, as I held the container for their stories to emerge, that part of my work is to help people and organizations navigate this difficult journey of grief and change in an authentic way.

The work I deeply believe in is not a simple step from Story A to Story B – it’s the releasing of Story A, living in the complexity and grief of that loss, and then being in the empty place where Story B can begin to emerge.

A similar thing happened in my coaching work recently. A client had hired me for three sessions, and in the first session a few months ago, she was trying to decide what her true work was and whether she should leave her job or change jobs to step into something new that felt more purposeful. Finally, however, in the third session, she admitted what she really wanted. “I don’t really want to have a purpose right now. I just want to BE for awhile. I don’t want to DO. I just want to give myself permission to SIT.”

And so, instead of giving her ten easy steps on how to move from story A to story B, we worked on what that empty place would look like and how she could give herself permission to be in it, spending time in play and stillness. She’s now got plans to go away on a personal retreat and to spend time creating a quilt that has no planned outcome, design, or recipient.

Again and again, as I do this work, I hear the longing in people’s hearts for real transformation. In the longing is the assumption (or desperate hope, or outside pressure of family and friends) that they can find a simple fix that will help them move from Story A to Story B. That’s what the marketers have been telling us for years, and so that’s what we want to believe. “Buy this car and you’ll finally feel good about yourself. Use this skin cream and you’ll never age. Take this course and your confidence will grow. Sign up for these coaching sessions and you’ll magically be ready to step into your bigness.

But when I go deeper with my clients, they recognize that their authentic journeys have nothing to do with the easy steps the marketers want to sell them. Real transformation doesn’t work that way. Real transformation is much more complex and nuanced, and doesn’t fit into bullet points.

transformation diagram
As the illustration suggests, we all want the bullet points that will help us take a direct path from Story A to Story B. But the truth is, the bullet points short circuit the change and Story B doesn’t really have an opportunity to grow out of it.

If we really want Story B to emerge, we have to be willing to let go of Story A, take the winding journey through the labyrinth, and wait for Story B to emerge naturally.

There are three stages to the labyrinth journey. When we journey inward, we release. When we cross the threshold and stand at the centre, we receive. When we journey outward, we return. But we don’t return to Story A. We take what we have received at the centre, we allow ourselves to be transformed, and we follow where the path is leading to Story B.

It’s easy to sell the bullet point, but it’s much harder to sell the labyrinth.

Nobody wants to step into complexity and messiness. Nobody wants to feel lost and confused.

We want short cuts through the grief and emptiness that comes when we let go of Story A, and so we go shopping, we overeat, we sign up for courses, and we try to bury our fear in staying busy. Instead of sitting still at the centre of the labyrinth, we rush to find our new purpose.

Instead of releasing and stepping into trust, we hang on tightly to stories that no longer serve us.

Instead of risking the pain of growth, we try to fool ourselves with the ten easy steps to a better life.

In The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible, Charles Eisenstein talks about The Story of Separation that the world has been living in. That’s a story that keeps us locked in a financial economy that demands growth and the pillaging of the earth for the resources that feed that growth. It’s a story that has us living as separate, self-sufficient individuals instead of in community. It’s a story that requires a greater and greater investment in military actions that help us protect our resources and our self-sufficiency.

The new story that the world is longing for is a Story of Connection. It’s a story that brings us back to a healthy relationship with each other and the earth. It’s a story of trust and compassion, community and spirituality.

As the diagram shows above, we won’t get to the Story of Connection until we are ready to release the Story of Separation, step into the centre of the labyrinth, and receive the new thing that wants to be born in each of us.

I want to be part of that Story of Connection, and that is why I will never sell you what you don’t need, or try to convince you that anything I offer will provide you with an easy solution.

I won’t get rich doing this work, but that’s not one of my values anyway. Getting rich would simply help me hang onto that Story of Separation.

What I would much rather do is invite you to let go of the stories that no longer serve you and step into the labyrinth with me.

I can’t promise you that it will be easy or that the path will be smooth. From personal experience, I know that transformation is rarely easy or smooth. There will be grief, you will have to step into the shadows, and there will be moments when you’ll feel completely lost. Some days, in fact, you will probably regret that you accepted my invitation to step onto this journey.

In the end, though, it will be worth it. The new story will be more beautiful than anything you’ve had to release. You will gradually find your way into your authentic heart, and that is the most beautiful place that you can live. Along the journey you will find other pilgrims who are also finding their way through the grief and shadows, and you will discover that being in community is much better than living a self-sufficient life.

If this is a place you’d like to go, then I invite you to start with Mandala Discovery. You’ll receive 30 prompts that will guide you through a labyrinthian journey into your own heart.

If you want to go even deeper, consider one-on-one coaching and/or a journey through Lead with Your Wild Heart.

p.s. In my desire to live in the gift economy, I look for ways to support people that doesn’t involve financial transactions. If you are interested in any of my programs and do not have sufficient financial resources, please contact me to see if we can work something else out.

Some instructions before you write

journal on rockYesterday I hosted an Openhearted Writing Circle. It was beautiful. When people dare to come together to explore and share their raw and courageous stories, magic happens.

Before they started to write, I gave them these simple suggestions. I give them to you, too, in case you  want to be an openhearted writer.

  • Be in love. Write from a deep source of love that wants to flow through you. You are not writing for a critic, you are writing for love. Dare to be in that love.
  • Be courageous. Dare to dive deeper into your own truth than you ever have before. Dare to say those things that make you tremble.
  • Be honest. There is no point in watered-down truth. If you are lost in a dangerous sea of sadness that threatens to drown you, and you say simply “I’m a little sad”, you’re not telling the whole truth.
  • Be authentic. Nobody wants Hemingway’s stories coming out of your pen. Only YOUR stories can come out of your pen, and your stories are as unique and valuable as Hemingway’s, even if they’re never published and are meant simply for your own healing.
  • Be messy. You don’t have to get it right the first time. Or even the second. Let yourself get messy and spill all that you have onto a page. There will be time to polish later, but to start with, get it all out there without editing what wants to flow. The most beautiful gems show up when you make the least attempt to edit yourself.
  • Be kind to yourself. Silence the inner critic and simply let yourself write. You are not seeking perfection, you are simply seeking a gateway into your truth.
  • Be passionate. Dare to show the fullness of your emotion – your love, hate, fear, strength, anger, etc. – on the page. Dare to shout “YES!” to the world through your writing. Dare to live out loud.
  • Be generous. Give it ALL to the page (and to your reader), not just a token. If there’s wisdom that wants to flow out of you right now, don’t save it for another day – let it flow. Be intentional about living in the gift economy, where we serve each other instead of seeking a “return on every investment”. You have gained wisdom in your years on the earth and others need it, so share it.
  • Be patient. “If good ideas do not come at once, or for a long time, do not be troubled at all. Wait for them. Put down the little ideas however insignificant they are. But do not feel, any more, guilty about idleness and solitude.” – Brenda Ueland
  • Be trusting. There are stories in you that want to be told – trust the muse to help you tell them. Trust yourself to have the right words and the right creativity.
  • Be shameless. The greatest barrier for people telling truthful, raw stories is often the shame that we feel about that story. “What will people think if they know this about me?” But that keeps us from really connecting and helping other people through our stories.

 

That thing you love to do? It is not trivial.

mandala making 2I see more and more women (and some men) who are finding their way back to the things they love to do – painting, dancing, writing, hosting, horseback riding, hiking, taking pictures, acting, etc.

I work with a lot of these people, in my coaching and workshop facilitation, and I love to see the delight in their eyes when they talk about what they truly love to do. Some, for example, sit in my Creative Writing for Self-discovery circle and talk about how writing poetry feels like a homecoming – like something they’ve been longing for but didn’t know they were missing. Others start playing with mandalas and can’t believe how much joy it brings them to hold pencil crayons in their hands again.

Almost always, though, I see that delight in their eyes fade when I ask them “why don’t you do more of it?” They stammer a reply that sounds remarkably similar to all of the other excuses I’ve heard (I’m too busy, it makes me feel guilty, my partner makes fun of me, I can’t take the time away from my kids, etc.). And when they come back a week later, they sheepishly say “I wanted to do the homework, but couldn’t find the time.”

The bottom line is that they have been fed a lie that what they love to do is trivial. It’s the thing you do only if you have time after all of the important things are done. It’s just a hobby, so shouldn’t be taken as seriously as washing the dishes or crunching numbers at the accounting office you work at.

I have struggled with this lie in my own work too. Sure I teach transformational workshops online and off, but it’s not really that important, is it? It’s just stuff people do on the fringes of their lives – it doesn’t fit in the “mainstream” where people are doing real work. Even though I believe in it deeply and know it can transform people and communities, I have trouble marketing my work in the corporate world, because… well… won’t people make fun of me for trying to sell something so trivial in a serious environment?

Mandala journaling? That’s fine for people with time on their hands, but don’t try to get a serious corporate executive to colour in a circle. It’s far too trivial for someone with an important job title. Gathering in circle? Oh that’s just for women who aren’t doing the big, important work in the world. It’s not going to fly in places where people are having tough conversations and changing the world.

But it’s all a lie, and I know that. It’s the lie the patriarchy has been telling us for hundreds of years to keep us silent and to keep us from changing the accepted structures and heirarchy. It’s a lie we’ve been fed again and again, since childhood, and we don’t know how to change it because we’ve received so many wounds over it, we’ve learned to hide our hearts and keep our deepest loves secret.

Imagine if we could rise out of the shame and the fear and truly believe in what we love to do.

Imagine if we could convince governments to move their chairs into circles and have real conversations instead of the polarizing shouting they do at each other from across the room. Imagine if business meetings started with some quiet journaling or mandala-making. Imagine if there was daily dancing in the corporate offices downtown. Imagine if the heads of corporations and governments had to go on vision quests or self-discovery retreats before they could be trusted to lead.

It’s hard to imagine, isn’t it? Your first thought, like mine, was probably “oh, it would never work”. But what if every time we heard that voice of resistance in ourselves, we recognized it as the voice of the patriarchy trying to silence us, and we challenged it instead of accepting it?

A few weeks ago, I co-facilitated a weekend stakeholder consultation for a national association of city planners. Because we knew it would be a difficult conversation, we encouraged them to use circle to ensure that everyone was heard. There was some reluctance to our recommendation, but fortunately we had an ally on the planning committee, and so we went ahead with it. The circle transformed the way they gathered. People made positive contributions throughout the weekend because they felt heard. Important decisions were made AND people felt valued and hopeful.

The circle is NOT too trivial for people who are making important business decisions. In fact, I think it’s imperative.

A few years ago, I was facilitating a team planning retreat for a non-profit, and I invited everyone to start with some simple yoga poses, and then we played with modeling clay and tried to envision our future through clay. Halfway through, one of the people in the room said, “but when are we going to do the real work?” He was anxious to get to the strategic planning we needed to do. I didn’t say much, but when we were finished, we looked at each other’s clay creations and saw a great deal of vision for where the team needed to move. “Oh, I get it,” said the person who had resisted. “This IS the real work.” Yes, it is. We saw more vision emerge from the pieces of clay than we would have in a traditional brainstorming session.

Art-making and yoga are NOT too trivial for people doing world-changing work. In fact, I think it’s imperative.

It’s taken me years to stop believing the lie (and it still creeps in now and then), but I believe that the world is crying out for us to do this work. It’s transformational for EVERYONE, not just the people with time on their hands after the real work is done.

It starts by changing us individually, and with that as a base, it can change governments, change international relationships, change the way we treat our earth, and change our communities.

I believe it’s imperative. The world needs this kind of change. And it will have to start with a healing of our collective wound and a new belief that this is worthy work we are doing.

If you are on the path to the work you love, or you want to step onto that path, consider a journey through Pathfinder.

If you want to practice openhearted writing, consider joining a small, intimate virtual circle on Friday, February 14th.

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