From 1994 until 2012, the Women’s Well, based in Concord, Massachusetts, offered thousands of women the opportunity to participate in women’s circles of all kinds. In the first and second parts of this series, Anne Yeomans, a co-founder of the Women’s Well, and others who co-created the Women’s Well, shared about their experiences with the power and wisdom of the circle and the use of altars and ritual. (Part I and Part II). This third part, explains the guidelines that the Women’s Well developed for their circles. This post is adapted from the Women’s Well website at www.womenswell.org.
We often used the guidelines in our circles. Sometimes the facilitator or holder of the circle would speak of them and then place them around the circle on printed cards, to remind us of the quality of listening and speaking that we were trying to invite in.
These guidelines were originally drawn from the work of Tom Yeomans who developed a way of working in groups, called the Corona Process. It was an approach to group dialogue that came to him in a dream the night after attending a meeting with the great physicist David Bohn, who at the end of his life became interested in dialogue and world peace.
We spoke of the power of listening deeply to ourselves and to one another. When this is our orientation it helps everyone, and creates a climate of respect and safety. This kind of listening often supported women to find the courage to speak of experiences they had never told anyone before.
Often the holder of the circle would remind an individual or the whole group to breathe, and to slow down when she felt the circle dialogue needed more space for integration. We spoke often about how one of the ways we have managed uncomfortable feelings in our lives is by holding or shortening our breath. It was our hope that in the circle there would be enough safety for us to allow our full breathing again.
Honoring the truth of our experience
Women were encouraged to slow down, to come into their bodies, and pay attention to and honor the truth of their own experience in each moment. We spoke of how often women have discounted their experience, or judged it as not valuable or worth paying attention to. Sometimes in order to survive difficult or painful situations we have had to deaden ourselves so we didn’t even know what our experience was. (This might take the form of repression, becoming overly mental, or even going out of our bodies.) We wanted the circle to be a place where it was safe to speak one’s truth. We knew that it would be a gift to us all, and it truly was. As this kind of authentic speaking grew, it gave us all more courage.
We spoke of the speed of the culture, and of so many of our lives, and how so much of what we needed in order to more truly be ourselves was a safe place to slow down, to rest and to listen. The circle itself often provided that space.
The guideline to “go slow” was also used by the holder of the circle when something especially intense had happened, for example a disagreement between two circle members or an expression of intense feelings. At such a time the holder might say, let’s slow this down, and breathe, and let this energy spread through the room. It always made a difference and it reduced the potential for reactivity.
No blame (of self or others)
It was always a loving, accepting, and respectful climate we were trying to create in our circles. The reminder to keep an eye out for self blame or critical judgment of others was helpful in achieving that kind of acceptance and respect.
Women often spoke of how hard they were on themselves, realizing that they were often much kinder to others. We began to name this as the internalized critic, or perhaps we could call it the internalized patriarchy, which judges women and women’s experience as less than, or not valuable. As we created a circle of acceptance and respectful listening (no blame of self or others) we provided a powerful counterforce to that harsh inner voice.
Include the differences
We often noticed that at first women are so glad to be in circle with each other that they move quickly to a climate of harmony and balance. This feels wonderful at the beginning, but if it stays that way, what happens is that there begins to be a norm established that discourages individuality and difference. Eventually the circle will become less and less alive, it will lose energy and become flat, and some people may even leave. A healthy circle has room for differences; in fact, it welcomes and celebrates them.
Hold the intensity
This is one of the most important and least understood of the guidelines. It means that, when intense feelings or conflict are expressed, the circle needs to expand so it can hold this intense energy. This requires the holder of the circle to remind the group to breathe, to slow down, and to expand in order to hold the intensity of the new energy that is trying to be included.
In such a moment several of the guidelines are called for at once. Learning how to practice this guideline can make or break a circle. Sometimes holding the new can feel uncomfortable, but when a group of women learns to “hold the intensity” without going into reactivity, it can bring new vitality, aliveness, and insight. Without this capacity, deep wounds and schisms can arise. If this is unaddressed, it can become a serious crisis for a circle.
Just as we live in a speedy culture, we also live in a noisy culture. So to call for silence when the holder senses it is needed can really contribute to a safe circle where women can take the time to pay attention to their own experience, to integrate something intense that has just happened, or just to rest in the beauty of the sharing, or in the circle itself. The facilitator/holder is always paying attention to the energy of the circle, and over time, she will come to recognize and trust when silence is what is called for.
Again and again the invitation to the women gathered was to slow down and come into the present moment. As we have said earlier, we would often start with some kind of centering process that would help us become present to ourselves and to the circle.
Though often we spoke of the past and told each other stories from our lives, we always tried to be in touch with our experience in the present as we did this. This was a new practice for many, but it kept the sharing from just being “reporting” on something that had happened, and helped it to be fresh and alive. We saw that when even a few people spoke honestly and authentically it helped everyone, and as that happened the circle sharing always grew deeper.
Welcoming the unknown
There were always surprises. Always! Sometimes we handled them well, sometimes we didn’t. We knew that if our attitude was to welcome the unexpected, it would add to the richness of our learning together. Often it meant letting go of our carefully laid-out plans for what would happen, or how long something would take. We got better at doing this as we trusted the gifts these moments often brought.
Circle as teacher
This may have been the biggest learning of all. At first we came with our papers and our plans, and how we had done things in the past in groups. Slowly we began to really trust that the circle was the true teacher. We discovered that when group members learn how to listen deeply and to honor and speak the truth of their experience, there is a collective teaching and learning that emerges. We called this “the circle as teacher.” It comes when people slow down, pay attention and practice the guidelines and attitudes as written above. When we were able to do this, we all learned something new. We often would say, Let’s listen and see what the circle wants to teach us today. We would then set the context for what was being explored and pass the talking object. Deep learning and healing often occurred.
Enjoy the process
This guideline was a reminder to enjoy it all as we went along. It was particularly good for facilitators and group members who were trying hard to “do it right.” There was indeed so much to enjoy: the beauty of the circle, the beauty of women feeling safe enough and respected enough to speak their truth, the moments of laughter and release. The singing and dancing that sometimes suddenly emerged. The laughter which healed us all. Yes, there was so much to enjoy.
The Women’s Well, though officially closed, lives on in the hearts, minds, souls, and lives of all the women who participated in our circles. We are glad to be able to share with you our experiences of the circle, and hope you will use these learnings as you form your own circles. For more information on the Women’s Well, please go to http://www.womenswell.org.
Women’s Well’s first home was a center for holistic education in the Boston area, the Interface Foundation, where our original nine-month program, the Women’s Spirituality Program (WSP), was launched in 1994. The WSP included nine weekend workshops and weekly meetings, as well. This program was initially conceived of and designed by Susan Chiat, from Interface; Anne Yeomans, a psychotherapist and group facilitator; and Rose Thorne, a former director of Interface. Patricia Reis, a psychotherapist, teacher, and writer in Portland, Maine, also had considerable influence in shaping the original curriculum.