It is not an exaggeration to say that circles have profoundly influenced the course of my life. My first experience with a circle was in the 70’s when I was living in Rome. I’d recently been to London where I’d seen a street billboard outside St. James Church in Piccadilly advertising an introductory talk on Attitudinal Healing and on impuIse I’d gone in. The talk was given by Geoff Freed and was based on the book Love is Letting go of Fear by Gerry Jampolsky (which was, in turn, based on The Course of Miracles). The ideas spoke directly to my heart and I wanted to learn more so I asked Geoff whether he’d give a weekend workshop in Rome if I could organize a group to pay his expenses. That was the beginning of Geoff’s annual visit to Rome and the beginning of my love of circles.
What I first noticed about circles is the immediate sacred space they create. Sitting in a circle and being able to see everyone present gives a sense of almost over-exposure and yet the talk quickly becomes intimate. I noticed my husband’s pleasure in sharing his feelings–quietly, seriously, sincerely–and how much we all benefitted from speaking and listening to each other in this way. Those early circles were exciting, euphoric even–what we shared in the circle deepened our relationships in a way seldom possible in ordinary life. And though the challenge of bringing the same attention into our lives remained, somehow the memory of our experiences in the circle gave us a new reference point.
The next circle of significance for me was in Spain. Some years previously, a group of friends and I had started a community arts centre in the rural south and an English visitor offered to lead a sweat lodge for us. He took us through a month-long programme: daily preparatory meditations, cleansing fasts and a 24-hour nature quest which included collecting stones and reeds for the lodge which we built ourselves. The final ritual began late in the afternoon and ended at sunrise the next day and the sharings in the dark heat of that circle gave us a new respect not only for each other and ourselves but for traditional cultures and their relationship to the earth. Perhaps more than anything, we felt humbled by what we had experienced together. Again, although the ongoing challenge was to retain the heightened sense of connectedness we’d felt, our expanded awareness slowly began filtering through to our daily choices.
A few months later, at the same project, a German visitor offered to facilitate the building of a Native American Medicine Wheel on the land. This was a circle of a different kind and increased our connection to the elements. Somehow the mental belief or non-belief in a particular viewpoint or lifestyle seemed less important than the simple physical experience of quietly sitting on special stones in the sun or in the moonlight and reflecting on specific aspects of our lives. After our experience with this circle, turning to nature for deeper introspection and guidance became a resource we could consciously access.
Another circle which made a lasting impression on me was the Talking Stick which we began to use to think together or deal with disputes. The stick (or any object) is passed around the circle and only the person who holds the stick can talk. The Talking Stick changed the quality of our conversation and helped us address our challenges together.
These experiences seem to have paved the way for what followed: some years later, having been introduced to Marshall Rosenberg’s NonViolent Communication and its linking of feelings to unmet needs, I participated in a week of Non Violent Communication circles: fifty people in a double-row circle around Marshall and what he called the ‘hot spot’: a chair for whoever wanted to role-play their ‘intractable’ conflict situation so that he could show how, by paying attention to feelings and needs, conflict can be dismantled non-violently. Emboldened by the NVC message, I started to facilitate my own circles: practice groups in which we worked through the exercises together, supporting one another in slowly demolishing our unconscious thinking patterns. These groups led me to the Alternatives to Violence Project with which NVC dovetails perfectly. The AVP circles usually consist of about twenty people with at least two facilitators in two-three day workshops of experiential exercises and games aimed at changing how we respond to conflict. Having started as an intervention for prison violence in the USA in the early 1970s, AVP has grown into a dynamic, intercultural worldwide network of ongoing circles in more than sixty countries. In South Africa, my home country and where I live now, nothing is more needed than creative ways of dealing with conflict and, because AVP workshops are particularly effective in uniting communities, here I am–all these years later-still being humbled by the power of the circle.
However, participating in an online circle is new for me. I don’t even use Facebook much, but already I am benefitting from the shared resources such as Griet’s wonderful page, Circles of Wisdom. So I am looking forward to seeing how we can create a similarly intimate and significant online spaces in this Gathering of Friends circle.