Field Notes on Circle

There were 25 of us. Gathered together to start Healthier Healthcare Systems: Daring to Create Together What the Needed New Can Be. I had the sense that we were pioneers. It was what my co-hosts Steve Ryman, Kathy Jourdain, Marc Parnes and I welcomed. I would come to learn much more about that over the next three days together.

This post is mostly about deeper learning on circle. And about deep appreciation of what happens underneath the process. Learnings that started for me 13 years ago with Christina Baldwin and Ann Linnea of PeerSpirit. It does have a field notes quality to me. I want to give words to some experience that I’m trying to make sense of. I want to offer it out to others as invitation to notice if this matches up with other experiences.

This was the opening circle for this event, a three day residential gathering. After some general welcome and context setting for why and how we could be together, Kathy and Steve hosted a circle with questions that many of us have used often. Who are you? Why did you choose to come here? The tone was an invitation to speak personally (the professional “who you are” was to follow in a different round). It was also tagged with “really” to invite a depth. Who are you, really? Why did you come here, really? We has 75 minutes for this round.

The circle was great. Suffice it to say just that. I could feel the overall sense of people arriving. I could see people begin to speak longer and more openly as the circle continued. They way it seems to often happen. I see it as a space of arriving. Hearing voice. Offering voice. Sharing story. Beginning to share questions. Beginning to weave together, feel the on-switch of together. There is also something important about the freedom that people feel in this space. I hear the words — “this is a safe place…there is trust here.” These and other expressions that show a difference between what we are doing now and our regular forms of meeting.

What is really going on here? What is this opening? These are the questions I sit with as I watch the circle. It’s not just people talking. It’s not just people listening, even listening deeply. Here is some of my learning from this time, that builds on many circles from many events.

  1. Circle Activates an Identity of the Whole — “Activates” is an important word to me. It references an energetic quality that feels already present, but just not turned on yet. To sit in circle is to turn on the awareness of “we” as a group. It no longer is an individual in the group or a collection of individuals. It is an awareness of the entity that is the group together. None of that is perfect. I get this. But even the taste of a wholeness identity is what I believe really lights people up. It will often be expressed as an appreciation for friendship. Or for the experience of belonging that is present. I always see the group as its own living entity. Circle starts to make that accessible to the “individuals” in the room.
  2. Circle Weaves the Web to Invite Further Connection — This one feels more simple. It is particularly relevant for multi-day gatherings, but I believe is true for one hour meetings also. In circle, often people will share things that seem to blur the line between professional and personal. Many are accustomed (or required) to keeping these distinctly separate. But to share bits of personal life that matter to us — this invites something to come back to over lunch or other times of connection. Some of it is hobbies and things that people like to do. Some of it is family. Some of it is grief or loss. The circle helps invite this, particularly when there is an activation of the whole.
  3. Circle Bridges Professional and Personal — In this circle, like I’ve seen in many others, there were tears. Often those tears are a bit of a surprise for the individual. There is apology for them. I have the sense that the apology comes from the habit of separating the personal from the professional in a way that is no longer useful. The hunger in human beings seems to be toward a greater wholeness, as has been emphasized in many spiritual and philosophical traditions. The tears, to me, are a cracking open to that long yearned-for union. To a welcome of being in full humanity together, even in the name of doing our work.
  4. Circle Surprises People with Depth — This is related to all of the above. People often express feeling very fed by the experience of the circle. And of being humbled by seeing what is in the room. It seems that many of our organizing forms remove us from the depth that we can feel with each other. I don’t believe they are intended to do so. But they do. They remove us from the brilliance that we can feel and be with each other. The “humbled” expressions are to me the beginnings of people feeling the “we” of the group. Or the “field” of the group. Whenever I hear the expressions of surprise and appreciation for depth that people are experiencing– even just the beginnings of them — I know that the circle is doing what it can for those of us that are gathered.

One of my good friends and colleagues at this event, Christy Lee-Engel, offered a David Whyte poem in this circle. It includes the line, “everything is awaiting you.” It seems like a lovely fit to accentuate these learnings on circle.

With thanks to all of the group for contributing to the atmosphere that made this learning available. With wishes for the wholeness to grow and serve.


(After Derek Mahon)

Your great mistake is to act the drama
as if you were alone.  As if life
were a progressive and cunning crime
with no witness to the tiny hidden
transgressions.  To feel abandoned is to deny
the intimacy of your surroundings.  Surely,
even you, at times, have felt the grand array;
the swelling presence, and the chorus, crowding
out your solo voice.  You must note
the way the soap dish enables you,
or the window latch grants you freedom.
Alertness is the hidden discipline of familiarity.
The stairs are your mentor of things
to come, the doors have always been there
to frighten you and invite you,
and the tiny speaker in the phone
is your dream-ladder to divinity.

Put down the weight of your aloneness and ease into
the conversation.  The kettle is singing
even as it pours you a drink, the cooking pots
have left their arrogant aloofness and
seen the good in you at last.  All the birds
and creatures of the world are unutterably
themselves.  Everything is waiting for you.

~ David Whyte ~

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