There are three ways to approach the mystery of the divine.
The first practice is prayer. The second is meditation.
And the third, and most important, is conversation.
This section builds on the basic circle practice (see part 3.3). What is explained here might not make much sense if you have no personal experience with circle practice. All elements of the basic practice – framing, check-in, listening, talking piece – are still present, but they assume a more subtle form and deeper meaning. This is what allows the power of a simple practice like witnessing to spread so widely and deeply.
Practitioners of the Circle of Creation see the circle as the minimal, optimal structure needed to form the container for a truly generative space; a generative process of shared becoming and collective insighting (intentionally used as a verb, as we learned from Bonnitta Roy). When beginning circle practice, you learn to become present to your self and to the other participants. Over time your attention can go to the group as a whole. Like David Bohm, who noticed and wrote about the power of true dialogue over 25 years ago, we can reach the point where there is ‘sustained attention to the paradox itself’. This ties us back to chapter 5 where we stated that the new paradigm goes beyond paradoxes, beyond dialectics and beyond the habit of separation. In a Circle of Creation, the circle practice deepens, it has a different quality and consciousness. We not only see how so-called opposites are in reality interwoven and interrelated, we are also aware of and embody this realisation in many different ways.
When hosting a Collective Presencing process, there is no full-blown design (complete with timings) for the process/gathering/project/meeting. Instead, we have a process of preparation – which might be long or short, depending on the coherence of the collective sensing of the hosting team – and an alignment with the rhythm and timing of what is around us. Most of the preparation time is spent in an intense co-sensing of what will be the right guiding question for the gathering. Alongside the guiding question, the inquiry unfolds within the circle practice. The circle holds the space, provides the energetic container in which the potential can unfold and, eventually, be articulated. These two elements – the holding space (the womb-like energetic container) and the guiding question (straight like an arrow) – form the creative whole in which the gathering can unfold. Welcome to the generative possibilities of circle practice!
Speaking from Silence
Quote from participant:
I was noticing what my process is as I go into the silence (at the beginning of a conference call). I tend to start by connecting with self, and sometimes that takes up all the silence depending on how connected I am to my own experience. I start there, and then put my attention into the silence and the other individuals on the call and then somehow it goes above and around into whatever, however, it exists in my awareness of the collective. – Cari
The basic version of the check-in involves those present sharing what is on their minds, in order to become (more) present. When each of us hears what is present in others, we all get a sense of the whole. The check-in process, with each person feeling the permission and safety to bring in the fullness of who they are and to be held in that, always brings a slowing down, creating a really present space – which turns out to be a container that can hold a lot. This space forms the foundation from which the transition into the collective can be made: into a collective sensing and shared inquiry. The importance of the check-in is, in large part, the trust generated in self, in others and in the collective as a whole. Again and again we have come to realise how important a good check-in is for the energy in the circle. Sometimes it might take almost half a day of the gathering, but it is surely worthwhile!
Over time, people’s need to speak about what blocks their capacity to be present falls away. We noticed in our conference calls and gatherings that this kind of check-in got replaced with a deep, shared silence. We got used to being in ‘collective sensing mode’, aware of the collective field and the shared inquiry we were in. It became a newly emerging practice to start in this spontaneous shared silence and let the spoken check-in start whenever someone felt moved to do that. Nobody decides in advance how long this silence will be, it simply lasts until someone picks up a talking piece and starts sharing. The silence can be long; it centres us and brings us into this still place of non-judgment and connectedness. In a way, we start from the bottom of the U, not having to spend a lot of time opening our minds and hearts; we do that in the silence. We came to see that, after a longer silence, the spoken check-in would already bring together elements of the collective sensing – even if we didn’t think of it in that way at the time it was happening. Of course there might still be something preventing someone from being present, and the space is always open to share that.
The previous chapter ended with “I need you, because of us.” What is needed from us is that we share our stories and our vulnerabilities. Some participants experienced an inner back-and-forth about whether or not to bring their ‘personal stuff’ into the conversation, because now it needed to be ‘for the sake of the collective’ and they wanted ‘to get it right’. Clearly, such thoughts don’t spring up from an inner silence! For some it seems hard to fully understand that the simple act of sharing our personal stories is a service to both the collective and the inquiry. Our story, our experience, our sensing, and our sudden insights are all ways of offering our gifts to the circle. This can only happen when we follow our own flow and listen within to what is emerging, what needs to be shared into the collective. Too often we still think that what we experience is only personal and private. We don’t realise that our circle, this collective being, is woven like a fabric. If we fail to bring in our unique contribution, then something is missing in the overall weave and we either don’t see the whole pattern or the fabric will not be as strong. If I hold back – for whatever reason – then the collective insight will not emerge. If one of the atoms holds back, the molecule cannot be formed! Each one of us is important for the collective, because we are part of it, right here and right now. Sharing our unique gift, from our soul’s purpose, is a precondition for the circle to reach a level of generative capacity where the new can really emerge – that one unique thing that only this group of people can do right now, and right here. The collective calling needs each of us in our total presence and fullness to come through.
So the need we just evoked – “I need you, because of us” – is not a failing or a weakness, or whatever other judgement we might lay on it. Rather, it is a deeper understanding of the interrelatedness and interwovenness that we are in the world. So often we still tend to think we are not related in any way. We live under the assumption that “I can manage my own problems and finances, have my own house, and have everything on my own.” While we might believe that we can exist in separation, this is simply not true. Participating fully in a collective inquiry means placing yourself in this relational field, somewhere in between you and me, me and us and all of life.
The practice and group culture that grew out of Women Moving the Edge is a massive invitation to sail as close as possible to your inner impulses – including your needs; because this is each one’s contribution to the whole. Through this practice, acknowledgment, recognition and acceptance come quite naturally, almost as a byproduct, but so touchingly and life-affirmingly. Because it is about wisdom and life, we each need to stay true to our uniqueness and share from that space, both giving and receiving, our selves and each other. The reception generates the next unfolding. At the very minimal level it is about receiving gifts from the others. We need something from each other in order to co-create.
It is good to remember that no conversation ever goes in a straight line, much less so a collective inquiry as practiced in Collective Presencing. We do not try to answer the question in the middle of our inquiry by thinking about it. Rather, we tell our own stories and share our impulses, our knowledge and half-baked insights. Through the connections and segways, and through reflecting on it all, we arrive at new insights related with the question. As we continue to practice, we deepen into the awareness that the details of our lives, the stories that touch us, our recent insights, are all elements of larger patterns. The boundary between the individual and the collective starts to blur.
In any good check-in process, people experience being listened to and being witnessed. This practice of witnessing is also key on the wider scale; we each witness in full attention and presence – not just each other, but together we also listen the group’s unique purpose into disclosure. Yet further out, we learn to discern the spark of life, all through the personal stories and individual insights that we offer. We tend to forget that the group, the collective, the wider ‘we’ cannot speak for itself. This is why each of us needs to raise our voice in our own turn, otherwise there can be no listening for the bigger whole. There can be no listening without speakers. So, then, first individuals enter the circle and use the practice for themselves. When that is accomplished, once each person feels held and able to bring in their voice, then the space can hold the collective as a ‘we’.
At this stage in the circle practice the talking piece assumes a different meaning than it has in the basic practice. No longer a tool that signals who is speaking and who is listening, a device that slows the conversation down, now we invite people to pick up the talking piece from the middle when they feel moved to speak. We are especially invited to speak when our minds are not yet quite clear about what it is we are going to say, but the urge to share is present. After sharing, the talking piece is placed back in the middle.
In general, in the deeper circle practice there is more silence. This silence is not just an absence of talking, it has the quality of a shared stillness, a shared presence. We have often wondered what happens in this shared silence. What are we doing/being/becoming? There is surely depth in a shared, collective and conscious silence – as if we are touching something beneath the phenomena, beneath the words. A deep intimacy can be experienced in those moments. We reach a place beyond language as we sense together into what we are holding. This reminds me of a certain definition according to which, in grounding, we bring the rate of electrical activity of the heart into resonance with the EMG of the Earth. Maybe a shared silence brings resonance between us and with the potential we are inquiring into? The Circle of Seven talks about ‘charging the container’, stating that “the silence is deference to a larger pattern of life unfolding.”
Speaking in a circle, especially at the beginning, can evoke feelings of discomfort, with heart palpitations and sweats, and an inner dialogue telling us ‘don’t do it!’, or ‘what will happen?’, or ‘will I look stupid?’ These tensions fall away when you speak only from an inner silence, when you are moved from a deeper place. Your impulse to share does not come from any ideas or emotions, notions of performing, making a certain impression or whatever habit has us speak a lot in everyday situations. In the Circle of Creation it is different. In the silence, our bodies are learning to embody life as it presents itself to us. Often, speaking from silence means that our analytical mind has no clue what is going to be spoken. For the mind, this can feel quite daunting. (See section 4.4 on Sourcing)
There is an unmistakable, sometimes physical urge to speak that we can learn to notice and start to trust. A story, a sensation, an idea comes up in us, and we don’t know why, but we just trust that and speak it. When later we look back at our conversations, we see that often, when contributions come from that place, they feel right and are insightful. And yet we only see that in retrospect, we don’t see it up front.
Quote from participant:
I only speak when I am physically moved to speak – an unmistakable urge that I completely trust. A story presents itself and I don’t know why and I trust that. Is this a universal phenomenon that is not often recognised? When I look back at our conversations, I see how incredibly right and insightful and apposite people’s interventions are. S. in our circle in Feb.; she kept wondering what this has to do with her cats and that took us to the next level of understanding – totally out of nowhere. That is something we could name, invoke, and consciously practice. Trust the inner impulses that come from a place of rightness, even if we don’t understand where they come from. – Helen
Sometimes we call this ‘listening to and speaking from the middle’. The purpose of this practice is not to convey something to the other people in the circle, but to place your contribution in the middle, alongside the other parts. This is different than the conversations we are used to, where we reply, we agree, we disagree, and so on. Here we listen from an inner silence that allows us to pick up clues and hunches from more subtle realms; it is an active listening for what is present in the subtle sensing of the middle of the circle or the potential that we are inquiring into. It can help to physically look to the middle, not addressing others when we speak, not looking at them when they are sharing. So we are not talking ‘to’ each other as we are to do in a normal exchange, but are building our conversation pieces on each other so that a truly generative space becomes present.
As explained before, the intention of the gathering is translated into a guiding question, which can be seen as this ‘middle’ we listen for and speak to. Perhaps the question is the surface manifestation of something deeper that we are really gathering around, this potential that is not yet manifest. Articulating the real guiding question(s) is an art in itself, because it needs to come from the highest possible awareness. Better still, it comes from a collective Felt Sense – “from this place we interpret as origin” as Bonnie would say – felt this time by the whole team, instead of one person. It can be seen as a seed that falls into a container of presence and will start to germinate insights. Holding a question is like staying with the implicit that lives somewhere between all of us – somewhere in this middle. It is a potential that we like to see, touch, describe. And in the touching, in the connection and articulation, both we and the potential are changed.
However much time we spend in preparation to find and articulate the guiding question, this does not mean that the conversation that unfolds in the circle moves in a linear fashion or that the question is all that is talked about. That is not what happens in the spontaneous life of a circle. While circle practice is the basic methodology, other activities can arise when there is a shared urge for something other than sitting – going for a walk, meditating, drawing to get new insights, singing to raise spirits, dancing to become more free and flexible. Participants often lose their conscious connection with the question, but in retrospect we see the coherence and can notice how seemingly odd comments still relate to the question and the potential it pointed to.
Over time, I have been amazed by the power of the question when it is held in this open way. We have noticed through our different gatherings that these questions keep working in us. Pieces of insights show up later, after the gathering too. It humbles me and prompts me to be very careful about how we name and articulate these questions. This explains why it can take so long to get it ‘right’. It is a practice that calls for subtle alignment – it can’t be rushed or forced.
The purpose of this ‘deeper’ circle practice is not the same as that of the basic version. We might say that, in a Circle of Presence, part of the purpose is to become deeply authentic – something that implies, among other things, a lot of individual development. The other part of the purpose is gaining awareness of interrelatedness, because we want to access the collective wisdom that is present. (In Scharmer’s terms: it is a movement from levels 1 and 2 to level 3 – what he calls emphatic listening and conversation.)
By contrast, in this deeper circle practice we seek to reach the next level, level 4 as described by Otto Scharmer, the level of generative listening and conversation. This generative capacity is not something that can be switched on or off, it is only through ongoing practice that it can be mastered, one step at a time. I understand this generative level as being aligned with all of life. For our normal identity, this seems strange, even frightening, because it can only happen when we give up the boundaries that we habitually identify with, which always plunges us into the space of not-knowing or not-knowing-yet. But it is only our habitual way of knowing that now finds itself in uncharted territory. This does not mean that there is nothing to know in that territory, or that there is nothing to find our ground in or on.
Deeper circle practice will definitely contain more moments of silence, more sharing of what has never been spoken before, more relying on very subtle inner nudges, more things we have never done or seen before, more articulation of new insights. It is not only being thoroughly conscious of being alive, but an embodied awareness that life is always evolving and always moving through us and all that is around. Accordingly, my idea and experience of myself and this group I am in is also changing profoundly: boundaries blur in this expanding and embodied understanding of what life – and our inquiry – is really about.
The biggest hurdle to reaching this generative space is perhaps the requirement to give up seeking to control the outcome. This might be a stiff challenge to our ingrained habits of discussion and debate – it is even a challenge when we are attached to empathy being the main quality present. No attachment means no attachment at all. This feels like a peaceful emptiness, all the while remaining engaged with the others and with the inquiry. Sometimes ‘no attachment’ means saying nothing at all, while staying present and not closing down our selves or the conversational field – leaving the conversation simmering, not letting its potential collapse with judgment or help or remarks of any kind. When we are all able to hold the conversation open in this way, a limpid clarity can arise. By not seeking to control the outcome, we open up the huge potential of emergence. By keeping our sensing open, we might see and understand what transpires of its own accord, what insights, joy and radiance life is offering through us. (see also next part 7.4 Collective Sourcing)
Articulating subtle knowing
To access the generative space together we need to train some abilities that will support this. First, there is the ability to be aware of the deeper, inner or subtle knowing; then there is the ability to articulate this knowing. The first might be a more ‘feminine’ competence, the latter a more ‘masculine’ one. The real challenge lies in combining these two. Our Western-trained minds and bodies are not well prepared to do this with ease.
Being in a Circle of Creation provides a context in which to train these muscles, as we start experimenting together. The circle gives the space to try out speaking from and being in that deeper knowing. What usually starts off as a tiny voice in the back of our mind is given space and now invited to be shared. The pace of deep listening and shared silence creates a container that enlivens all the senses to inform this knowing and exercise senses other than those which have our preference. This leads us to an embodied sense of learning and knowing, and we learn to speak from a place that is not downloading (unconscious) beliefs and ideas that we had beforehand, but is coming from a place closer to source or origin. The more we experiment and dwell in this space together, the more easily we are able to access it.
Learning the skill of articulating embodied knowing is not like learning a new language – the words we already have in our vocabulary are good enough – it is more about overcoming the habit of not speaking it; we are not used to voicing anything that has not first been processed by our habituated mind. We need to learn, and claim, that this tacit knowing is valuable in its own right, alongside all the analytical and conceptual knowing, whilst still discerning what makes sense in the context at hand and what does not. Accessing and articulating the collective felt sense is a skill like any other, that can be developed by practicing it.
Disturbance as Invitation
It is part of common circle practice to embrace disturbance. Disturbances, if held in a conscious way, make us aware of unconscious boundaries we are holding or of blocking energy in the movement of the widening field: the proverbial stranger who comes in, a perspective we don’t like, judgements about what others are saying, or other unconscious shadow elements we hold. Integrating the disturbance requires us to widen our perception, widen our perspectives, widen our holding space, maybe even reword our guiding question! It is always an invitation to open wider – either the mind or the heart or the will – perhaps even all three.
If some participants in the circle can gently and lovingly hold presence for any kind of resistance or disturbance, crafting new connections in the invisible matrix of life, shifting and lifting the veil of unconsciousness, then resistance in others begins to lessen, to soften, even becoming a field of love that holds receptivity and collaboration. The whole that we are able to see and embrace now extends to what wasn’t possible before, in much the same way that science has stretched its horizons ever wider, towards the beginning of the universe and its vast scales in time and space, as well as embracing the infinitely small quantum world.
There is a lot of underlying disturbance in the world – in our daily lives too – asking us to be present to and hold more and more. We have noticed that when groups come together to exchange and sense into what is happening, all participants are drawn into a huge open heart. Opening for the stranger, for the other perspective, creates a deeper connection – one that people are really longing for and that has a resonant feel and vibration. Opening the heart also releases the pain, allowing us to realise how intimately pain is connected to joy and love.
A major element in systemic constellation work is listening or looking for what is missing in the system. When we notice in the circle that we aren’t on track, that the conversation isn’t generative, that there is no co-creation, that we aren’t building on what is unfolding, then looking for the disturbance – or what we are missing – might be a way to get back to the generative space.
Embracing the disturbance is also about welcoming the stranger into the circle. For us, in Women Moving the Edge, this showed up in the form of different participants for each gathering. It was not just an in-crowd – participants from previous gatherings – who returned. We always had new people. ‘Disturbance’ and ‘strangers’ are an invitation to embrace more of the whole. We realised over time that these newcomers brought in the diversity needed to move along in co-creative ways and prevented us from getting stuck in our own little group-think. At one point, I became a little cautious about the old crew wanting to repeat their experiences. I wanted us to be on the next edge, which might be totally different to where we had been before. A disturbance can also speak through timing or place that are not ‘right’; much more about this in the next chapter.
There is a distinction to be made, though, between embracing disturbance and being sucked into the emotional realm. Stories about wounding and trauma are sometimes not only shared, but even dumped in the middle of the circle with an unconscious and implicit expectation that others will solve it. People can go through tough times and are sometimes in sore need of healing. In a Circle of Creation, we do not react to the story, we stay away from our own habitual ways of acting. Neither saving nor empathising, we hold the story and the pain in the attentive silence of the group. The sharing is witnessed with respect, but only the part of the story that relates to the inquiry and holds a collective meaning will be integrated into the unfolding insight.
The power and practice of witnessing allows an individual to step seamlessly into a functioning collective, and a collective to seamlessly embrace the new and be transformed by the embracing. With each embrace, the old collective dies and the new is born. The witnessing is of everything – the inner and outer, the individual and the collective, human and all of nature. Part of the practice is to speak that which is witnessed, and to witness that which is spoken. Part of the practice is to speak what is witnessed as it is experienced – in joy or in rage, in sorrow or fear or indifference. The emotional charge is part of the meal, to be digested by the collective body. The more the collective body can metabolise, the broader the range of its possible responses to that which transpires in the greater whole.
Participating in the web of life
Excerpt from blog post:
Being in conversation about this, listening ever more deeply to what was arising in the middle of our circle, I suddenly reached a level of these subtle layers that I hadn’t reached before. I saw in my mind’s eye a huge web, a kind of irregular woven fabric that was torn and broken in many, many places. It looked like a woolen fabric eaten by moths, no pattern to discover and holed in many places. I realised that this was the archetypal energy level of connectedness and collectives. These holes where made by fragmented thoughts, over and over again. Thoughts about me! Me! Me! About separation, silos and fragmentation. All such thoughts influenced this energetic level, which was starting to die off and decompose.
As I took in this image, I realised why we need to gather in circles, over and over again, because it is such collectives that can heal this fabric of being a collective, of being in connection with all of humanity, all of earth and all of nature – maybe all of the universe. In that moment I understood the deep meaning of the web of life, I understood the many stories, myths and fairy tales about weaving, knitting, mending, stitching… all images about restoring the connective tissue in the greater web of life.
Coming together, as a collective for the sake of darning the energetic fabric of the collective and keeping it strong; that is probably what circles have done through the ages, consciously or not. This is what we need to do now, too. Even as fully individuated individuals, we need to do this now. These circles, these collectives are not about conformity and all being the same; they are collectives of fully conscious unique beings bringing their intention and attention together for the sake of the whole of life. We have a role to play in bringing forward that collective potential.