Lyn Dundas, New South Wales Regional Meeting
It was more than ten years ago that the first Circle at Wahroonga was held. lt was begun and facilitated by our Friend lan Hughes, who had worked with Learning Circles at universities and wanted to see how they might be adapted to the Quaker setting. I had spent three months at Pendle Hill, the Quaker Centre in Philadelphia, experiencing living in a community where spiritual nurture, growth and learning were central, and on my return, I longed for a deeper experience of sharing and community within my Meeting. For me, the Circle has become that space of deep spiritual nourishment and community, through our focussed sharing, deep listening and prayerful holding of one another. Parker Palmer’s Circles of Trust have also contributed to our evolving vision and practice.
ln the university setting, the focus is on individual learning and research projects; for Quakers, the “project itself becomes a background and an anchor upon which to base our own personal growth, together with a deeper understanding of others”. “The experience of sharing transcends the importance of the projects themselves.” Though the project titles give focus and direction, what very often becomes most important is the journey: the people we meet along the way, the conversations we have, what we pay attention to – in our daily, ordinary, lived moments, we find the extraordinary, and our spiritual teachers and lessons.
Some Projects over the years:
- The art of mindful walking through the Old Testament
- Creator, creation and creativity
- Peace, within and without
- Speaking truth to power
- Care of the earth
- History of the early Seeker movement
- Practising presence
- Exploring death and dying
- Seeking simplicity
- Living in my 80’s and finding my writing voice
We meet once a month after Meeting for Worship, for about 3 hours (with short breaks for the sharing of food.) At the beginning of each year we invite anyone interested to come and experience how a Circle “works”. We then ask participants to commit for the year. To help develop trust and depth, the Circle becomes a closed group for that year. Numbers have varied over the years, from 6 to13 participants. Eight or nine is the ideal maximum number. The heart of the Circle is the round-table individual sharing by each person in turn, and the deep, attentive, prayerful, active listening that accompanies and supports each person in following the promptings of the spirit or their inner light.
We use a structure of set questions (see below) and a set time – usually 15 minutes per person. Within this structure, the transformative power of “being listened into being” happens. “Reflecting and writing on my project each month is healing in itself – but speaking it out loud to others and being listened to with attentiveness and support and love is very powerful and empowering”. “l experience an energy, a spirit in the Circle that is quite palpable and life-giving, binding, flowing and evolutionary – moving me into deeper faith and hope and love”. “l have experienced a profound sense of love, community, trust, growing and learning through being part of the Circle”.
Questions for Reflection :
- What is the title or one-line description of my project?
- What did I intend to do?
- What did I actually do?
- What did I observe or experience?
- What did I or might I learn from this? – reflections on the experiences
- What do I intend to do in the following month?
- What help can the Circle give me now?
We find acceptance, trust and courage as we share what is important, meaningful, exciting, challenging, dark, confusing, mysterious, passionate and joyful in our lives. We come to know each other “in the things that are eternal”. Often a word, words or a personal story will resonate strongly with our own experience, and connect us to each other and to the spirit that gives life to all. “There is an echo of my own story in everyone’s story, which increased a deep sense of recognition, tenderness and compassion”.
Some of us bring pain, loss, health concerns and unresolved issues into the Circle. For some, reconciling and balancing the busyness that comes with being involved in all that we love doing, and the desire for simplification, is a continuing struggle. This and other struggles offer opportunities for deep listening within, to discern what love and faithfulness might require of us. We also recognise and honour our gifts, and times of wonder, clarity, conviction, energy, laughter and sweetness. ln the Circle we practise waiting, in love and in silence, holding all that is being shared in that sacred space.
We appreciate the opportunity to set intentions each month and reflect on the past month’s experiences. Looking back like this, and especially over the whole year, we can see growth that is not always apparent at the time. “This year I experienced a real sense of progress, though the black dog of self-doubt still sniffs around regularly.”
“Being accountable to the group has been most important.” However, most often the help that the Circle provides is in “just listening” – no judgment, no rescuing, no advising – but loving, supportive, attentive, trusting presence. In turn, we feel “blessed” and “privileged” to be able to accompany others in their journeys. Having an encouraging and supportive spiritual community has helped some people to try new things, be courageous, take detours, extend themselves, be more faithful to a calling. “l have been touched by your loving support as I transitioned into a new way of being.” “l feel ‘held’ and encouraged by the Circle”. “l doubt whether I would be able to do this work without the Circle”. “l feel a little braver in speaking my truth”. “l feel less alone in my concerns, thoughts and actions”.
I am blessed to have some very dear Friends, whose deep spiritual friendship over many years I value greatly. I am also blessed to have had opportunities for personal “retreats” through the generosity of Friends. These have fed my spirit. But the Circle “nourishes my need for belonging and connection”. The Circle is the place where both individual and community are valued and tended. “The dynamics of the group was amazing. We started with our own individual quests, and through sharing, the energy built to where I recognised our SAME journey.”
Like Rufus Jones, “l pin my hopes to quiet processes and small circles, in which vital and transforming events take place.”
 Quotations are participants’ own words, unless otherwise attributed.