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Natural Awakenings Sarasota / Manatee / Charlotte

Circles of Healing: The Power of Gathering in Community

Nov 30, 2021 09:30AM ● By Linda Sechrist
Group of people sitting in circle holding hands


Had the intellectual achievements of human culture evolved during a revolution based on living systems in the natural world rather than one of rapid industrial growth and resource consumption, we might be experiencing interconnectedness instead of divisiveness during this time of social and ecological crisis. 

A nature-focused revolution embracing humans as an integral part of the Earth’s natural systems would have instilled a deeper understanding of the wonders of the human body as a living system imbued with inner intelligence, as well as the intelligence of the non-human living world. This perspective, held by Native Americans, would have helped to create sustainable human communities that flourish by connecting, collaborating, cooperating and communicating. 

With such approaches as wisdom circles, story circles, power of eight intention circles, support groups, prayer circles and dialogue circles exploring conflict solutions, Western minds are just beginning to comprehend how small-community experiences of fellowship and communion can assuage feelings of separation and isolation, and create inner experiences of wholeness and belonging.

Mentoring Each Other

Although not always sharing a common geographical location, small communities formed around common interests and shared values enable emotional healing. The ManKind Project (MKP), which describes itself as a “men’s community for the 21st century,” has more than 1,000 peer-facilitated groups in 22 countries in which men mentor each other through their life passages. 

“In our MKP communities, there’s a sense of shared commitment and the shared values of accountability, authenticity, compassion, generosity, integrity, respect, leadership and multicultural awareness, along with a shared vision pointing us in the direction we want to go together,” says Boysen Hodgson, MKP-USA communications director. “While MKP’s mission statement informs our work, in New Warrior Adventure training, each man creates a personal mission statement. Mine is, ‘I transform culture by designing change, building bridges and co-creating space for connection.’” 

According to Hodgson, when a man shares how he hears his inner voice for the first time along with his story in another man’s story, he becomes aware of his interior capacities and cultivates internal and external listening skills. By sharing personal stories, men experience epiphanies that can result in connections and bonding. 

Douglas Bonar, a 35-year veteran of mental health counseling and owner of A Center for Wellness, in Pinellas Park, Florida, has been facilitating men’s groups for 22 years. Men and occasionally women that have been court-ordered to undergo counseling with Bonar for 29 weeks after their incarceration learn the value of growing together in community. “I initiate the uninitiated who’ve never heard about the powerful impacts of respectful, attentive listening without judgement, giving/receiving feedback and support, and learning about successes and failures in the company of community,” says Bonar. “Actively engaging the minds, hearts and energy of people participating in community makes experiencing emotional healing possible. Feeling truly heard and deeply listened to and comprehending life from a multisensory human perception and a sense of oneness can lead to understanding that we are never alone, the universe is alive—conscious, intelligent and compassionate.” 

More about progress than perfection, Bonar’s unique Roots and Wings Way of Wholeness approach to healing in community tills the soil of an inner world and plants seeds via the introduction of guidelines for creating authentic power, spiritual growth, levels of consciousness, coherence, the realization of one’s true self as more than an enculturated personality, the Noetic experience of oneness, humans as energetic beings, emotions as energy in motion and a coherent energetic field that the HeartMath Institute notes creates synchronization, or entrainment, between the heart and mind, as well as a sense of unity. 

Sharing Sacred Space

Jean Shinoda Bolen, a Jungian psychiatrist, activist and author of Moving Toward the Millionth Circle: Energizing the Global Women’s Movement, encourages everyone to follow a path with soul and take on a personal assignment that contributes to change, while relying on the support of circle communities of like-minded individuals. “Fundamental principles applicable to any group include creating sacred space, listening with compassion and for wisdom, speaking from the heart and personal experience, inviting silence and reflection when needed, taking responsibility for your experience and your impact on the circle, keeping the confidence of the circle and making decisions when needed by consensus,” says Bolen, whose active events include a prayer circle and another with women she has been together with since the 1980s.

“The more frequently a circle meets to fully witness one another’s life stories, including all the changes and crises, a growing trust and heart connection occurs and a coherent energy field is created,” says Bolen. At the beginning of her circle gatherings, upon hearing the tone of a Tibetan bowl, she says, everyone immediately drops into coherence; a state of connectedness in which the whole is greater than the sum of the individual parts.

Cultivating Deep Listening

As the host of New Dimensions, a nationally syndicated radio program that addresses cultural shifts, Justine Willis Toms has deeply explored interconnectedness with some of the greatest minds on the planet, including the Dalai Lama and physicist David Bohm. Referring to her circle communities as “friends of the heart,” she enthuses, “When I am deeply listening to another or speaking authentically aloud in a circle of trust, I get to hear myself in a way that I don’t if I’m only listening to what is in my head.” 

Recalling a tumultuous time in her life, Toms relates a profound healing experience that occurred in a circle community in which she and her husband had been participating since the 1980s. “This particular circle usually gathers for an entire weekend. On one, I arrived in deep distress—so much so that on Friday I began pouring out my fears, anxiety, blame and judgements. I raged through the night and didn’t stop until after breakfast on Saturday, when I felt complete, totally heard, emotionally healed and revived.” 

From a sense of peace and clarity, Toms knew that healing occurred because of the circle’s capacity for deep listening. “We know and trust the true genius that each of us is, and we know how to not be afraid for each other when life is in a rollercoaster cycle and we’re at the bottom, but don’t want to pull the brake because we’ll never have the momentum to go back up. This is the power of a circle of friends of the heart who love you,” says Toms, who shares a favorite African saying, “‘A friend is someone who knows your song and sings it to you when you have forgotten it.  Those who love you are not fooled by the mistakes you’ve made or the dark images you hold about yourself. They remember your beauty when you feel ugly, your wholeness when you are broken, your innocence when you’re feeling guilty and your purpose when you are confused.’” 

Connecting through Common Emotions

Physician Jennifer Phelps, owner of Phelps MD Integrative Medicine, in Redding, Connecticut, is a trained facilitator of small groups who has worked in communities traumatized by natural disasters and human-caused catastrophes in her role as a faculty member of the Center for Mind-Body Medicine, in Washington, D.C. “Where individuals listen to the grief and loss of others, emotional healing can be quite profound. Sharing stories in community, we learn we’re not alone and isolated, but rather related and connected in our human emotions,” says Phelps, adding that in groups of fewer than six people cohesiveness dissipates, leaving only conversation and cross-talk. 

The process of human and community development unfolds from within each person, relationship and community. According to Cate Montana, of Kula, Hawaii, author of The E-Word: Ego, Enlightenment & Other Essentials, awakening to the illusion of separation, which can happen in community, sparks healing. “The persona of an individual as only a body and mind is the big sleep,” advises Montana, whose life work has been about waking people up to the truth of their essential spiritual nature and giving them tools for a more fulfilling life.

Having experiences of fellowship and communion with like-minded people can make it possible to observe and understand how ego and mind function, and to become aware of crippling social programming which fragments, separates and divides us. Experiencing a sense of wholeness in such an environment allows for healing naturally on many levels.

Linda Sechrist is Natural Awakenings’ senior staff writer.

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