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Calling the Circle

Calling the Circle: The First and Future Culture by Christina Baldwin

Here are a few of my notes…

There is no one but us. There is no one to send, nor a clean hand nor a pure heart on the face of the earth, nor in the earth, but only us, a generation comforting ourselves with the notion that we have come at an awkward time, that our innocent fathers are all dead —as if innocence had ever been— and our children busy and troubled, and we ourselves unfit, not yet ready, having each of us chosen wrongly, made a false start, failed, yielded to impulse and the tangled comfort of pleasures, and grown exhausted, unable to seek the thread, weak, and involved. But there is no one but us. There never has been. ANNIE DILLARD, Holy the Firm

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As Mary Catherine Bateson says, “Any place we stop to rest must also serve as the platform from which we leave.”

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At a lecture in the mid-1980s, a participant asked psychologist and author M. Scott Peck what he considered to be the most significant source of social change in the twentieth century. He replied, without hesitation, “Alcoholics Anonymous, because it introduced the idea that people could help themselves.” His surety of comment fascinated me, and I began to study the origins of the Twelve Step movement. What I found was the circle.

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“We’re missing pieces, we’re missing pieces” ran like a chant in my mind all the days of that week, “but what?” I had to stop trying to act as though I knew what I was doing. I tried instead to look at camp as though I knew nothing, assumed nothing. “If I’d just landed here from Venus, what would I see?” I asked myself.

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We were trying to put the circle into place without first creating a commonly understood context so that the circle could actually function.

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Context prepares us to consider new ideas.

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Riding context is like riding the surf: We are swept up and moved along by forces that we ourselves have not called but which set the pace and support us on the journey.

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By now I knew: A circle is not just a meeting with the chairs rearranged. A circle is a way of doing things differently than we have become accustomed to. The circle is a return to our original form of community as well as a leap forward to create a new form of community.

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And so I began calling the circle our First Culture.

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We came into circle because the fire led us there.

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Both symbols live within us: We carry the circle and the triangle.

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By hosting a meeting in a circle, Carol and John are challenging five thousand years of enculturation by saying: “Here is another way. Here power will be shared, opened up, dealt with differently, so that we may find a new way of being together.” When Carol lights a candle in the middle of a meeting and John calls for a minute of silence, when Bev Ebble articulates her frustration, when Arlene finishes her thoughts, when Tom sees the correlation between what’s happening at work and what’s going on at his children’s school, consciousness shifts and liberation begins. When we call the circle into the midst of Second Culture, we create a new amalgam of the past and present—a Third Culture.

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For the circle to hold steady, there needs to be an understood authority that resides within the circle, a source that all members petition for counsel. If this authority is retained and personified by any person, the circle turns into a triangle: Someone becomes the chief, the leader, the guru, the boss, while others become the followers, the workers, the compliant or rebellious subservients.

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What is essential, for the center to hold, is that you and I understand how to make an authentic spiritual gesture.

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We cannot imbue the center of the circle with the strength to hold us unless we know how to shift our perception of where power lies, and how power is to be utilized between ourselves.

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There is a “wobble” that always occurs in human relationships.

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Somé’s prayer for us in the industrialized world is that we slow down enough to find the indigenous person within, to go in search of this archetypal figure residing in our collective unconscious and draw out his/her forgotten, but retrievable, wisdom.

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I have friends who meditate an hour a day, and friends who sing in the church choir, and friends who walk the labyrinth. I don’t think it matters what we choose as the ritual with which we hold on to the center of our lives, only that we choose something that honors Spirit and has meaning for us, and that we do it consistently.

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Alone on the lake, removed from all the machinery of modern life, totally responsible for her physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual survival, Ann entered into direct connection with the Sacred.

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Community. Somewhere, there are people to whom we can speak with passion without having the words catch in our throats. Somewhere a circle of hands will open to receive us, eyes will light up as we enter, voices will celebrate with us whenever we come into our own power. Community means strength that joins our strength to do the work that needs to be done. Arms to hold us when we falter. A circle of healing. A circle of friends. Someplace where we can be free. STARHAWK, Dreaming the Dark

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People rush into business and faculty and committee meetings (and sometimes even to the family dinner table) still talking on cellular phones or responding to beepers; they carry on side conversations that create alliances and rifts right in the faces of those being excluded; they gossip about the organization, its leaders, or members who are absent. People glance at the agenda, slap papers out on the table, go get coffee, leave and return, leave and return, until nobody’s sure who is present or not. Finally someone looks at his watch and commands, “Let’s get this ball rolling.” And the free-for-all begins. This is disrespectful group process, even if it is the current social norm.

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“Thank you,” I said. “This is what we mean—the circle is social energy contained. The interpersonal structure of PeerSpirit is the glass; you and I are the water. The purpose of the principles, practices, and agreements is to provide a respectful social practice so we can decide what to do. Once the water—our energy—is contained, we can drink it, heat it or freeze it, wash in it, make a pot of coffee, make soup, but without the glass, all we have is a wet spot on the rug.”

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Three principles serve as the foundation of PeerSpirit experience: rotating leadership sharing responsibility relying on Spirit

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In PeerSpirit, we commonly use three forms of council: talking piece, conversation, and silence. These are introduced briefly here, and are illustrated in depth in the following chapters.

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Talking piece council teaches us to trust the process, to not carry on when we have nothing to say, and to have the courage to take our turn when a contribution wells up inside us. It is acceptable to take brief notes to remind ourselves of what we want to speak about or questions we want to add, but the most powerful use of the talking piece is to hold it silently a few seconds, settle into our own breath and body, and see what comes forward as our piece of the contribution. In many settings, the most immediate gift of talking piece council is how it slows us down.

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Artifacts identified as talking pieces have been found in many First Culture excavations, I can only conclude that the desire to interrupt each other is as ancient as council itself—and so is the desire to be heard without interruption.

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To combine the quickened responsiveness of conversation with freedom from interruption, use a talking piece that lends itself to being tossed around the group. A Koosh ball, a sock, a balloon, a paper airplane, or other small object can energize a tired council and bring levity into a conversation while still observing helpful council forms.

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There is a simple ritual for silence that seems to work almost universally. Take three breaths: one to let go of whatever energy charge was commanding us; one to touch the still mind; and one to ask, “What would Thou have me do?”—or, if that language is too formally spiritual, simply to ask, “What?”

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To be of use to the circle, both on the interpersonal and spiritual levels, we need to be centered within ourselves. Native tradition refers to this as “being able to sit within one’s own hoop.”

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Our ability to pay attention to each other in whatever form of council we find ourselves is largely dependent on three practices: speaking with intention listening with attention self-monitoring our impact and contributions

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The group uses a digital kitchen timer, granting each person a minute to check in, and passing on the unusual talking piece when it rings. The group also finds this quick round very helpful when gathering every person’s response to an idea or proposal.

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A circle is strengthened by strong, supportive dyads. Various exercises that pair up members of the group and invite them to take turns speaking and listening to each other help build cohesiveness as we come to know each other better. Such pairing experiences give us good practice in intentional speaking and attentive listening.

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The following generic circle agreements are listed here so that they can be read all in one piece.

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Often circles vote by using a “thumbs-up,” “thumbs-sideways,” or “thumbs-down” signal on decisions and actions that require approval. Thumbs-up signals agreement. Thumbs-sideways indicates that someone has further questions to raise, encouraging ongoing dialogue that can have an impact on the decision that emerges. Thumbs-down is used to indicate disapproval but may not necessarily block an action. A person can give a thumbs-down to state, “I don’t support this action, but the group may proceed if it chooses.” This needs to be clarified conversationally.

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Then, usually rotating on a meeting-by-meeting basis, one person volunteers to serve in the guardian role. The guardian has the group’s permission to interrupt and intercede in group process for the purpose of calling the circle back to center, to task, or to respectful practice, or suggesting a needed break.

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Most of the time, most of us arrive at the beginning of circle full of confused and scattered energies accumulated from the pace of Second Culture life. We are counting on the circle to center us, slow us down, and help us be present. We should not be surprised if our landing in the intimate lap of circle is often a little rough.

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Accurately reading energetics is a highly intuitive function, and therefore it can be highly inaccurate, skewed by the preconceptions in our own minds.

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Before the first meeting, three preparatory steps are helpful: setting intention, gathering feedback, and envisioning the group.

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Intention is the statement of a circle’s purpose. Setting intention begins by asking: “What is this circle about? Why am I calling it? What do I want?”

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May I suggest we take turns each speaking to our vision of this church, listening to each other without interruption?”

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For Demetria, paying attention to synergy meant listing people she thought would be interested in the circle, people she wanted to develop a close relationship with, and people she thought would mix well with each other. She drew a spiderweb on a big sheet of paper, putting women’s names and little biographical thoughts about them at the web’s connecting points:

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As people work through their initial awkwardness with the form—remembering not to cross-talk when the talking piece is used,

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The greatest trust is built when we get through the bumpy, scary, risky, and vulnerable aspects of circling. We don’t know what we’re made of until a circle has faced a problem, resolved a conflict, gotten several members through a crisis. Actual conflict resolution, since it’s so seldom practiced, may be nerve-racking as we develop confidence and learn to say our truth, but after a while, the empowerment is positively exhilarating.

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“I pulled off the road to a little resort by a lake, woke up the owners, rented a cabin, and called my wife to say we wouldn’t be home for a while. Then BJ and I held council. I mean, I pulled out the stops—told BJ everything I’d ever thought about my dad and what I thought went wrong between us, and gave him the chance to say the same about me. We passed a rock back and forth between us until that sucker was hot. No interrupting, no justifications. Then I drove BJ back to school, helped him get reinstated, and got back to town at midnight on Sunday.

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In appreciation council, the talking piece works in the opposite manner of its usual use: the person holding the piece is silent and the rest of the circle has the opportunity to offer heartfelt appreciation to the holder of the piece. It is useful to begin these statements saying something like: “What I honor and respect about you is…” “What touches me about you is…” “What I love about you is…” Dennie also has suggestions on what not to do: Avoid superlatives (“You’re the best…”) Avoid comparisons (“I’m not…”; “You are…”; “I wish I could…”) Avoid referring to first impressions of another person or his/her work (“At first I wasn’t sure you knew what you were doing, but then…”) Avoid talking about yourself while appreciating someone else (“Your story reminds me of the time I…”) Avoid interpreting his/her experience (“I see that you have worked through…and now you are…”)

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Appreciation council works well as an opening ritual at the beginning of staff or committee meetings by asking each person to articulate one thing they love (or appreciate) about their school, church, or company. The question challenges us to keep remembering why we work or volunteer where we do, and is especially useful to set a positive container around a council that may hold difficult moments.

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This is the dimension that differentiates PeerSpirit circling from other forms of group management: It can contain the concerns of the heart and help us express them in ways appropriate to the setting.

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“I lit a candle in the center of the table, without explanation. I held up my talking piece and explained the rules: Whoever held the stick could speak without interruption until he or she was finished and would then lay the stick down in the center of the table. Whoever wanted to speak next could pick it up. Interrupting would not be tolerated. Both would have the chance to tell their story completely and to respond to anything the other person had said. We would talk as long as necessary.

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The second contribution of PeerSpirit is the belief that people are by their essence capable of self-governance, and that by adopting the basic principles, practices, and agreements, each person in the circle assumes accountability for his/her own behavior and shares responsibility for the well-being and accomplishment of the entire group.

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Experience is not always a comfortable teacher.

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There is a church congregation I know of (the pastor participated in one of our Circle Practicums) where factions had developed and the pastor felt isolated, watching this fracturing from the pulpit, not able to help. One Sunday she announced, “The vision I think we share is that of a faith community. We aren’t fulfilling that vision particularly well, and I think my standing up here every week isn’t helping. So I’m coming down into the circle. I invite us to reconvene as the early Christians did, to believe that the Christ Light will work through each of us if we come into spiritual council.” That afternoon they held a circle of eighty parishioners, with one talking piece and the commitment to listen to every voice in the community. One of the women on the church board served as guardian, providing space for silence, prayer, and bathroom breaks. They were able to experience refuge, even in the midst of dissension and difficulty. The church is now doing fine.

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Projection happens when we put onto others the parts of ourselves we do not claim (“You’re so important to this group, I’m just a beginner”) or the parts we do not want to claim (“Joe is so judgmental—I can’t stand how he labels people”).

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We lay projection over our reactions if we add a judgment that makes another person a good or bad human being based on the way s/he is behaving. So if I think or say, “Mary drives me nuts! She’s so self-centered, making everybody listen to her so long,” then I’m projecting. I make her less than myself; I assume my experience is the same as other people’s experience.

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Projection may also be positive. If I think or say, “Mary’s storytelling is so lyrical, like listening to poetry. I could never talk like that,” then I make her more than myself; I make her be “the poetic one,” and diminish my own abilities to speak metaphorically.

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In Dreaming the Dark, Starhawk’s groundbreaking work on the circle and spiritual activism, she identifies ten common personas that people often assume around the rim. She calls these lone wolf, orphan, gimme shelter, filler, princess, clown, cute kid, self-hater, rock of Gibraltar, and star.2

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Personifying archetypal energies is an ancient and ingenious way to shift projection into consciousness and give it a voice in the circle. In native tradition, as it is carried by the EHAMA Institute in California, the council circle is represented as an eight-pointed Medicine Wheel.3 Each person sitting in council is trained to hold a specific perspective. Together the council speaks as a whole to any issue that requires wisdom and decision making. Each of the directions offers a perspective such as freedom and creativity, present condition and appreciation, power and danger, maintenance and balance, interrelatedness and timing, clarity and action, and integrity and vitality.

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We become our authentic selves by handling our own shadow material, instead of insisting, “It’s not me!” At some point in our lives, we enter a process of sorting the shadow and discover that what we have disowned is not so horrible. If we bring these contents into the light and practice living consciously with them, we experience many rewards, and the tension that had been bound within the psyche is transformed into an abiding peacefulness with the self. We learn to see and accept and hold ourselves accountable.

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If we refuse life’s invitations toward consciousness and continue to deny the shadow, our impact on other people becomes increasingly destructive. We become a dangerous influence in our circles. We cannot enter the protocol and share responsibility in problem solving if we are stuck proving our innocence.

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A few circles ago, there was a woman present whom I experienced as demanding a lot of attention from the group. As she spoke her needs throughout the first day of a week together, I got more and more agitated—she seemed (to me) to take longer and longer, to require more time, and every time she asked me something I winced inside. By the end of the afternoon I knew I had to intervene—with myself—to clear up my projections and to examine what piece of my shadow she was carrying. I went for a walk before supper and had a chat within my mind. I called home my annoyance, called home my own abandoned insecurities, called in compassion until I could visualize this woman in a new light. Instead of withdrawing from her, mentally or physically, I stepped toward her, extending five minutes of attention at supper, a special attempt to say good night, a moment to ask her how her day had been.

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When you and I come into council and have the courage to ask, “Where is my negative side at this moment?” or “Where is the cast of the shadow in this interaction?” we restructure how we see interpersonal relationships, in the circle, and in the wider world.

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PeerSpirit structure is a safety net. When walking the high ropes, a safety net does not prevent us from falling, but it gives us a place to land.

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However, within some people, it seems that the actual experience of being contained within circle triggers the need to break these bonds. They experience interpersonal containment as confining, threatening their identity. As the sustenance of the circle builds around them, they do not seem able to tolerate deepening emotional intimacy or energetic connection. They become psychologically and; or physically agitated and activate intense defense mechanisms to “protect” their core self from the threat of this bonding energy. Instead of experiencing the connective web of the circle as a safety net, they experience it as a fishing net and thrash wildly to escape. They are compelled to act out against the health of the group.

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When I’m in a circle that is in trouble, one of the first things I notice in myself is that I start ruminating over a particular moment or interaction, sensing there is more to it I don’t understand. I can’t seem to let it go. Or I find that one person seems to be consuming all my energy, both in the circle and as I think back on the circle.

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Once we’ve admitted our own agitation, our first job is to deal with our own dissonance in as healthy a way as possible for us. We need to get ourselves clear. In the middle of long circle sessions or seminars, during stretch breaks, meals, or free time, instead of using that time to keep chatting socially we may go outside, go for walks, go into silence, and listen carefully to the internal monologue, looking for clues.

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It is extremely helpful to begin the process of sorting by writing about the circle in the third person. Any of the following sentence stems will get us started shifting perspective: “I see a circle where…”; “In this circle is a wo/man who…” (this is us we’re writing about; first “know thyself”). If we are having specific reactions to a specific person, we may explore those by writing: “If I were (so-and-so) I would be feeling…thinking…sensing…behaving…”

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There are many questions that help in this sorting process; we may choose whatever fits and start taking inventory. How have I been pulled off center? What’s my body telling me? What’s my mind telling my body? Where do I experience these energies coming from? How am I contributing to them? What am I avoiding in the circle? How am I going passive instead of active? What am I afraid of? (What’s the worst-case scenario?) How will I take care of myself if all this comes to pass? What other options do I have for myself? for the circle? Is my compassion intact—for myself, for others, for the process of dealing with this? Where have I lived this before? Whose shadow work is this? And how do I do my own piece with integrity? Who does this person remind me of? Am I seeing this situation through a filter of past memory? of judgment? of fear?

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The piece that is coming forward through someone else is there because it is matched in the circle, and it is seeking completion/release. So as I explore and articulate what “they are doing” or “how they are being” that is agitating to me, I need to hold up a mirror to myself and see the complementary piece that I am (or someone else in the group is) holding for them.

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If we take the circle as our teacher, then we take these moments and this difficult person as our teacher. We are being offered a learning together: not me/her-or-him, not us/them. However this learning shakes out, we can take responsibility only for our piece of the puzzle.

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If others approach us, we may talk briefly of our own feelings without talking about someone else. “Some energy drain is happening for me,” I might say; “I’m working to clarify it, and then I intend to bring it up in council.”

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I’d like to know how other people are feeling and thinking about how we are functioning.”

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“No,” I say to a woman in Chicago who looks at me searchingly, “sometimes the circle cannot hold,” and without her speaking a word of her story, I see in her eyes the haunting she carries from a women’s group that shattered. “Thank you,” she responds, “I just needed to know,” and quietly she begins to cry.

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However, energy is not separated neatly into our preconceived notions of light or dark, good or bad, helpful or hindering. For Spirit to enter the circle, a threshold must be created and a door left ajar. The more we are conscious of this, the more readily we can work with what enters. Over this threshold, along with Spirit, comes the shadow, comes confusion, comes narcissism in all its subtle disguises. On the rim of the circle, our obligation to energy is to learn to stay awake, to practice discernment in the minute-by-minute shifts that break and/or sustain the weave.

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In her energy work, Kathleen Bjorkman-Wilson teaches people to respectfully separate from the collective field by silently calling to mind everyone who has been in a circle and stating three differences between themselves and the other. For example, Kathleen has blue eyes; Kathleen is shorter than I am; Kathleen lives in Idaho. These differences do not imply connection or rejection: They are neutral, observable. Yet simply stating them re-creates energetic boundaries and sends everybody “home” so that the field of the group can be fully released. Kathleen has taught us to add this to the ritual of closing at the end of a session, a seminar, or during breaks when energy is intense and people need to come back in with clarity.

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The primary classes in the local school system are being taught through the Tribes program, where children work in “tribal circles” of five to six students, with five to six tribes per classroom. The program, designed by California educator Jeanne Gibbs in 1978, is used in thousands of schools across the United States and Canada. The purpose of Tribes is to give each child a tangible sense of belonging and accountability among peers. The circles foster higher achievement levels and make students and teachers coresponsible for their learning. Tribes functions with four basic agreements: attentive listening; no put-downs; right to pass (the talking piece); and confidentiality.

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In the middle of a circle meeting, voting may be done by instituting a thumb signal. Thumbs-up—:“I’m for it, ready to support and do it.” Thumbs-down—“I’m against it. I don’t think this is the right way for us to go.” Thumbs-sideways—“I have a question that needs addressing or a comment I need to add before I can decide.”

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Zimmerman, Jack, and Virginia Coyle. The Way of Council (Las Vegas: Bramble Books, 1996). This book provides a method for training both professionals and nonprofessionals in basic communication skills using the council model. It’s an excellent contribution to the field.

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