We need more gatherings of people in spirit. Our planet needs it, too. If you have wanted to start one but don’t know the first thing about it, maybe I can help you out. I’ve made this little guide here to help you out. This should also help members of existing circles be more present to circle dynamics and possibly solve some ongoing issues.
So let’s dive in, eh?
What is a circle?
A spiritual circle is a place for people to come together in spirit. The purpose and structure of the circle can be one or many of the following:
- A study group: to further research common interests.
- A supportive group: to talk about each other’s lives.
- A practice group: to practice spiritual methods everyone has learned.
- A transformational place between time and space create for healing works.
- A place to take turns teaching.
- A place for community and friendship.
A circle is not a class.
It’s important to not confuse a class with a circle, or vice-versa. A class is when people come to learn another person’s Way. There is typically no discussion on agenda or content. A circle may have agreed upon sessions where one person is teaching but overall decisions are usually made by more than one person.
Structure of a Circle
This section is about things that need to be decided before the circle ever meets – at least temporarily. It can be done in discussion in the first meeting or the organizers can decide ahead of time based on what they want to offer.
In my experience, it is the political groups that are hungry and willing to talk about power dynamics and group structure for hours on end. In spiritual circles, I have noticed that many people don’t want to bother with the logistics of setting up and maintaining a circle. They lead busy lives and consider it a big deal to just be able to attend in order to get the soul food they need.
So someone has to figure this stuff out.
The most effective way to answer these questions -and the way that takes the most time- is to poll everyone individually to get a feel for what the community needs. This not only helps create a group people want to invest in, but the polling process makes people feel important – and builds relationships. When you poll a community, have a list of questions. Believe me, if they are open ended questions, give example of the kinds of answers you are looking for or no one will respond at all:
– How often will it meet, where and for how long?
– Is the group led or facilitated by one person or is that task shared?
– Who decides what the activities will be? Can they be vetoed?
– Is there a fee? Where does the money go? This needs to be transparent.
– Who is responsible for sending out reminders and keep a list of members?
– Does the group have a prerequisite? Will it assist people to meet that pre-requisite?
– Does this group require a certain level of commitment?
– Is it ok to come late or leave early?
– Is it a closed group or open group? (Closed groups tend to go deeper and have a higher level of expected commitment.)
– How deep will the work go? Are the people involved ready for deep work? (You do not want to lose people by pushing them outside their comfort zone.)
What makes a spiritual circle work
Here are some crucial elements that are needed to make a spiritual circle work.
Clarity on what the circle’s purpose and method is.
This might seem obvious but no one wants to carve out their valuable time after work to drive across town for a journey session and find that their shamanic circle is hosting a presentation on druidic practices. What if that journey was really needed?
Integrity in using the structure that was set up for the group
A clear power structure is clear flow of power in the group. It creates a safe place for people to work on themselves, share and take risks. They can engage and so will more likely get behind it. A clear power structure makes the circle strong. It prevents miscommunication, unnecessary conflicts or just bad feelings over power and communication. People go and people come. The structure stays the same. Formal power structures that are designed to promote power-sharing will prevent informal misuse of power.
Changing the structure together if it is impeding what the group wants to do.
It’s not uncommon to spend a bunch of time coming up with the perfect structure and then trying it out to find that emotional or spiritual forces keep bending the group in another direction. Honor this and follow the heart and spirit of the group.
Awareness and honoring of the group as its own spiritual/emotional entity
Every circle has it’s own spirit, whether its members tap into it or not. It can be a beautiful guiding force and a temperature taker when issues start bubbling up from the sacred shadows. Sometimes, conflict can be avoided by taking a wider perspective, including this over-arching presence.
Tending to the group’s health.
Letting issues slide again and again only builds up frustration and sometimes resentment. As a leader, when you are able to address uncomfortable energies that no one else is talking about in a calm and strong, loving way, you are giving people permission to speak. You are also modeling healthy behavior for those that have no idea how to act.
Universal dichotomies in circles
There are certain areas of tension that come up in all community groups, whether they are spiritual, political or any kind of group that tries to accomplish things together. Knowing what they are enables us to not be surprised, to not be emotional when they pop up and to troubleshoot around them.
Spiritual activity vs. Social time
It is natural for people to crave community. So if there is not a space designed to meet this need, there will likely be times when the spiritual work is not getting done. One solution can be an optional early time before circle when people can hang out and catch up. Another idea is to have regular social get-togethers outside of sacred time.
Spiritual activity vs. circle business
The business of running a circle can be handled by a few people, done in email discussion or in the circle itself. If there is not a place for it, the business will find it’s way into an activity unplanned. This can be difficult for those that are badly needing spiritual work, so it is good to figure out how to handle this.
Personal sharing vs. Energetic workings
If the group has agreed upon longer check-ins, then that is healthy for the group. If the group is supposed to be about spiritual work, then long stories tend to drag the energy out. Each circle has it’s own needs so it is good to make a decision together and stick to it, unless it seems that decision does not reflect the desire of most people in the group.
Mundane conversation vs. Reverence in sacred space
When doing things like raising energy, sending blessings, doing shamanic journey there are a few different philosophies out there on how to maintain sacred space. If this is not agreed upon there may be times when someone is upset. More serious magical practitioners desire perfect focus and minimum energy leaks. Native cultures honor community as sacred in their circles so there might be food passed around, children running in circles and even gossip shared as the spiritual work blends together with all.
Structure vs. Mystery
Structure is good for safety, common expectation and mutual intention but there will always be circumstances where the best thing to do is to throw out the structure and punt. Thoughtful flexibility in this area can be very helpful. When this is done, make it clear to everyone what is going on so there are no surprises.
I’m sorry but all-inclusiveness is just too idealistic. I went through the 90’s during the Gulf War I protest and tried complete consensus with all-inclusiveness and I tell ya, some people are not ready for group work. It does not mean that they are bad people. It only means that the level of problems some people are dealing with makes them unable to focus on others. We cannot function as a group if we are consistently working on or fielding one person’s issues. There is a time for circle and there is a time for private therapy.
If a group’s energies are drained by people too needy to function collectively, they will not find the group a healing environment, nor will anyone else. – Starhawk
Being in Circle: Staying present to power flow
What is Power? Power is a word that can be as scary as money or love to some people. Power is the ability to make change, to move energy, to influence people, to create, to destroy, to heal, to impact. Some power is not ours or something that we should try to hold on to. It is something that moves through us. It is something we borrow and then return to the earth with respect.
We also have personal power, some more than others. It is important to never forget that a lot of power is still parceled out by societal factors like gender, race, education or financial status. There are also people with high levels of charisma. Access to information is power.
Power is not bad. It is just power, the ability to make change. In order for it to be useful it’s flow needs to be clear and balanced, so we need to learn to watch power move in a circle. A good way to do this is to consider the group itself as an entity with a soul that can be tended to. When you are listening to one person speak, try to develop and ear to the entire group, even though only one person is speaking. There is a whole world of information there.
What are some power structures?
As Starhawk teaches us, there is power-over, power-within and power-with. The first power we work towards is power-within. This makes our power-with in circle so exciting! Vibrant! Creative! Power-over might work in a class where one person has agreed to maintain structure. There is also a style where there is one decision-maker but decisions are based on input from everyone in the circle. This might work well for circle that meets on a frequent basis and include members that are too busy to take part in the business of running it.
Formal Power and Informal Power
Often there are people in the group who are natural leaders, who people respect and listen to. These people may or may not have official positions. This is totally natural, however we try to keep the informal and formal power structures to match as closely as possible. We don’t want someone to single-handedly sway a group even though it is formally supposed to be using a process that invites all opinions. We also don’t want to shut down a natural leader or someone with a lot of wisdom just because what they have to offer is very strong. Some very wise people may not want a position of leadership but they still should be able to contribute, even if their views are consistently popular.
Conflict and Tension
Oh wow, I get all excited when conflict starts to arise in a circle! Conflict is a sign of a healthy community. Conflict is natural. Conflict is going to happen if people are being real with each other.
Tension is a good thing. It means something is coming. It means there is something we are not looking at. There is an opportunity to growth, which is going to bring the whole circle to a new place.
As M. Scott Peck says, there are 4 Stages of Community: Pseudo-community, Chaos, Silence, Community. First everyone gets together and they are all excited. It’s a honeymoon. A dream come true! Then, if people stick around long enough, chaos comes rolling in and everyone gets blown out and challenged. After this, silence. People are thinking, ‘What the heck?” If the individuals are brave enough to come back and be honest about what happened, they reunite in a new way, working through and learning from their problems. This last stage is community.
Oh boy. We are human. I guess we haven’t worked it all out yet.
OK, now that you know what you need to know about circle dynamics, let focus on you as a leader. Your role is unique. Your actions are being watched by everyone and your love is contagious.
Be extremely aware of your own power as a facilitator. We live in a hierarchical culture where people give leaders power and hang off of their every word. Just by unconscious habit. Especially if you are a white man, so be careful. The words of a person in a position of leadership carry more weight than anyone else, even if that is not their intention or desire. It can be too easy to crack a joke and hurt someone’s feelings. Do not take this on as a weight to be a perfect person. Just be aware. Sometimes it is a relief to everyone else if you insist on being yourself. It give them permission to be imperfect too. So.. be imperfect in a healthy way. 😉
Sometimes being a good leader means to be silent in order to give room for others to express themselves. Staring at the floor can be helpful when circle members forget to address the entire group when they speak. You will find yourself having to be insistent on not receiving everyone’s attention. When planning spiritual ceremony, I have been successful at getting all the ideas on the floor but when it comes time to weave them together, sometimes I have to leave the room. I say, “I’ll be over in the kitchen. Someone come get me when you have a plan. Then I will contribute my part.” The moment I leave the room, they are rockin’ and having a good time. Or they are struggling, in which case I keep walking and let them struggle. I cannot help another person find their strength by telling them to find their strength.
Here are things that a facilitator can do to support the health of a circle
- Keeping track of where you are in the conversation or in the energy work.
- Providing and asking for clarity when it is needed.
- Model the behavior that you are looking for. Everyone learns through example. We are not all perfect but try.
- Defend the health of the group over the needs of one individual. Clearly there are exceptions but overall, if someone cannot include the groups’ needs along with their own, the circle may not be the place for them. If there is a conflict between two people, the easiest way to diffuse it is to refuse to deal with personal issues and to ask how the issue at hand fits into the work of the circle. If it does not, then those people need to take it outside.
- If the energy feels dead or tense, address it. You might not want to be the one to name the issue but you can ask “how does it feel in here right now?” and encourage others to speak up. This is a great teaching opportunity, allowing others to find their way.
- Outside the Circle – Be All Ears: Ask people how it went. If you want an honest answer, don’t give your views before you hear a reply. Outside the circle you may hear things that people don’t feel comfortable saying in a group. Heck, your opinion may not matter at all because as an organizer, your opinion is highly shaped by listening to the experiences around you. You are listening for what is needed to serve your community best.
- Thank and Compliment People on their Contributions: Everyone wants to feel appreciated, even if they are volunteering for the hundredth time. Some people have gifts they are not aware of so a simple compliment can not only make someone’s day but affirm their sense of self. Do not forget this, ever. Not being thanked can feel pretty yucky, especially if the event was stressful.
OK, you got it? Go out, make circles happen and have fun! Don’t be surprised if you don’t get a lot of help right away but over time as people get to know each other, things may change. There is great joy and great reward in serving your community in this way. Let me know how it goes and write in if you run into any trouble.