Full Circle

31 10 2021

I have just completed a series of circle recovery retreats and I am in awe at the beauty of the human spirit. The ability to bear witness to our own pain and suffering and to offer this without fear of judgement or shame is one of the bravest steps we can take as human beings.

Every compassion circle I have facilitated over the past year has offered fresh insights into what makes us die as human beings and what makes us live. Being seen for who we are, being heard, being in the presence of horses who accept us without reservation. Being under the safe wing of a bell tent, laughing and crying under an ever changing sky with birds acknowledging our presence with their freedom. Mostly, though, what has helped is being with others who understand.

The work of compassion is not easy and not always predictable. Circles create their own identity and this is one of the most thrilling edges of the work. The container is simple. People are invited to speak from the heart and to witness others speaking from the heart. Be brief, share only what feels safe and resist the temptation to rehearse. Resist also the temptation to comment as people speak. Instead invite witnessing.

People have been telling stories around camp fires ever since they could communicate and the circle is an ancient practice that is still central to many native cultures. In Britain if you sit people in a circle of chairs and ask them to start sharing from the heart, most people would prefer to run screaming from the room.

In truth, I don’t truly know why compassion circles are different. I know only that I was educated extremely well by one of the masters of the art. Thank you Joe Provisor who has pioneered this work in the United States. I know also that this work of the heart is utterly compelling and asks me to look deeply at my own heart. In putting this work into my own community, I have been moved, humbled and inspired by the stories I have witnessed.

Speaking our truth to others requires courage, but also requires a willingness to let go of our usual stories about ourselves. These standard stories are old stereotypes that follow narrow scripts. They usually start with limited ideas and safe roles that we have either assigned to ourselves or have assigned to us by others. The role of the care-giver, the responsible one, the one who puts others first without thinking: is this a role I truly want to inhabit right now? The work of compassion teaches us to listen deeply to our own sorrow, to understand our own pain and suffering so that we might become equal to others. In contrast, a caretaker merely gives out.

My journey to compassion facilitation first began with Socratic Circles which invite deep philosophical enquiry into the nature of human identity. While I loved these circles, and learned so much from my students, both young and senior, I always longed for a more personal way to work with the raw material of life. I longed for a more open and creative container.

The beauty of the Compassion Circle is that it is flexible enough to hold any story offered to it. It is, I have come to see, also robust and strong enough to initiate the work of deep cleaning the wounds we all bear. In speaking we are healing what needs to come out into the clean air. In our last circle, we talked about the sludge and debris that collects around our hearts when we have suffered extreme pain and how the work of cleaning is so hard to do when we must live normal lives.

Thanks to the courage of the circle participants I see how normal, standardised life actually prevents healing because of the ways we are often educated by society. We are taught that our stories of suffering do not matter. We are taught that being successful, wealthy and normal matter more. We are taught to numb and bury our pain. Meanwhile our hearts are breaking. Our hearts are searching for the health they have been denied.

Being with horses has taught me that we can find health in natural, simple places. In poet and philosopher Mark Nepo’s words we can find solace in the great net of things that surrounds us in the living, breathing world. Once we take the exquisite risk to leap into authentic living, the world enfolds us in ways we would not expect. As we talked of celebration, I shall never forget the sound of hooves flying past the tent and the sight of Dragonfly, tail high, cantering up the field. I also shall not forget the deep sense of companionship and comradeship that can happen when people arrive with their true selves, unmasked, beautiful and free.

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