Circles for change: supporting ourselves and our ‘new stories’

One of the gates to the 'Original Garden' at Findhorn

One of the gates to the ‘Original Garden’ at Findhorn, Scotland, from which, over 50 years ago, came messages to remind humanity that life is sustained by conscious attending to others: that life is a sensitive co-creation between human-non-human, the seen-unseen.

Update: 2015 See  details about the Findhorn New Story Summit film here


Its been a couple of weeks since I returned from Findhorn. I’ve had to work on other things yet also felt the need to let time pass a little before reflecting on the week-long, rich, and intense meeting that was the ‘New Story’ Summit (‘new stories’ being those that might help create a vision of a more sustaining, ecological and equitable age). Others have given reflections that are very detailed and well worth reading; Richard Olivier’s review, as one of the co-organsing team, presents some of the ambitions and constraints, the successes and failures of hosting such a large summit that operated with emergent themes and processes. He also signposts three areas that may assist people going forward in sharing, growing their New Stories. It was an significant achievement to bring together over 330 people from across the world, to hold a space for diversity and common purpose, with all the challenges that this brings and I was very grateful to have taken part.

So there was a myriad of experiences and stories I heard; sustainable actions and works from across the world and detailed discussion about the idea of ‘story’ itself.  There was sharing, laughter, tensions, patience, impatience, creativity and confusion. There were unmet expectations when there wasn’t enough time for everyone to tell their ‘story’, even a mystery ‘provocative’ attack on the Summit process ‘offered’ by a few in the audience as a challenge to ‘old’ administrative frameworks, although this seemed ill-timed; causing upset and confusion to groups that were already self-organising and it contrasted the cooperative, participatory processes that were forming. Somehow though, the social facilitation skills that Findhorn has accumulated over the years meant all this variety could be accommodated.

The old meta-stories: industrialism, capitalism, human supremacism were well known to many attendees, but could the ‘seeds’ of ‘new story’ be formed from those present? If you are interested, the Findhorn Foundation has video recordings of some sessions of the Summit, on the continuing Summit Hub website here. For a small fee  you can view the  discussions, creative presentations of what a ‘new story’ may be composed of. I know I will be returning to the recordings to reflect more.

In my own work where I’m interested in transdisciplinary activities – ‘many ways of knowing’  to effect eco-social change, I was really struck by old and new rituals of ‘the circle’ that were evident and formed throughout the week (the format of the programme was left as ‘open’ as possible within the confines of managing a large group). This was mirrored in the circular ‘Universal Hall’ where all of us attending met, to some of the small self-organised workshops and home groups. There were very moving ‘circle rituals’ led by indigenous people to the more contemporary ‘way of council’ circle groups. These circular formations accommodated many perspectives and experiences – I heard some describe them as a form of ‘deep democracy’, others called it ‘sociocracy*’. It was never explicitly discussed at the Summit and many there seemed familiar with its intent and processes, particularly those involved in eco-villages and the facilitators from Findhorn who led the first few days. These circular formations seemed to effectively accommodate diversity, instil respect and offer participation to all those who attended, allowing some consideration to the non-human world too. Most importantly, these circle formations seemed to shift thinking from the emphasis on individualism that propels modern society to a collective ‘ecological’ wisdom that values all: the makers, the thinkers, the extroverts, the introverts, the activists, the healers, the business planners and the nonhuman, spiritual and ancestral realms too.

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‘Weaving the New Story’ – A ‘Way of Council’ circle form held towards the end of the New Story Summit. People were invited to come into the ‘circle’ to succinctly contribute or witness the following topics, in any form they wished – ‘seeking the essentials’, ‘what is not spoken’, ‘wildcard’, ‘bearing witness to nature and subtle realms’. Photo: Hege Saebjornsen

One of the most powerful ‘circle’ rituals I took part in was a new ‘Grief Ritual’ brought to the New Story Summit by indigenous north Americans. They were quickly supported in holding an enormous circle outside at Findhorn for interested Summit participants by other indigenous attendees from other parts of the world. From knowledge passed on from previous generations it was evident that some indigenous peoples have acquired deep awareness of the value and protocols of collective, cooperative rituals as an essential component of a functioning community. As mentioned, more contemporary forms of circle were held by the Findhorn organisers (see photo) and there was experienced facilitation in both ancient and modern forms: sensitivity, inclusiveness, acceptance and managing discord compassionately when it arose, invitations to witness or participate, attention given to our dependence on the earth – in essence, to learn from the ‘circle’. Perhaps this all sounds too alternative but I found myself more easily noticing collective concerns in these ‘circles’ than from individual presentations. The intention in being in the ‘circle’ was to be in the present moment, to actively take part. There was a stress on not overly relying on outside ideas or concepts whilst ‘in the circle’ but to acknowledge the knowledge and experiences of others. So it seemed to make way for transparency and participation, deeper learning and sharing. Circles, if led by skilled facilitators or elders can therefore foster new information gathering, experiential and emotional learning.

Perhaps another reason why I’ve been drawn back to reflect on these circular social forms at the Summit was because of three news items I saw when I came back home. I read the shocking WWF Living Planet Index report that the Earth has lost half its wildlife in the time I have been alive; that the spread of the Ebola virus has been accentuated by rampant and almost total deforestation in West Africa in the last decade and that the new draft government programme for Irish forests 2014-2020 is still focusing on maintaining a supposedly ‘sustainable’ monoculture, clearfell industry at its core. To me, we have so many facts of what is wrong coming at us but at the same time many of us feel disengaged and powerless. The awareness, still growing, that there is a systemic crisis caused by industrial growth culture is hard to accept, even talk about with our friends and family, let alone act upon. In a large part, many of our contemporary cultural forms; our modern media, churches, political groups, art institutions, education systems, even democracy itself, are failing us in skills to engage with these profound and unprecedented challenges.

Journalist Jo Confino who attended the Findhorn Summit suggests it is now time to bring these deeply democratic ‘circle’ processes to mainstream audiences and other decision making processes. He also noted the indigenous Grief Ritual and comments that despite indigenous communities still suffering from the ‘immense impacts of past exploitation’ they still have a deep connection to the land and understand the power of circle ceremonies to create transformation (there were other circles during the week that also brought much learning, but this circle made room for emotional sharing and healing which is often difficult to engage with in modern life). He quotes Native North American Pat McCabe who led this extraordinary ritual;

She says: “Humanity has developed a very deep ability to push devastating information about the impacts of our actions into our subconscious and this is a danger. We are numbing ourselves to this life going out.

“Expressing grief has always been a cathartic experience and a re-balancing mechanism, and I believe it is a part of building the foundation for any new story we might want to tell.”

Interestingly, last week a colleague alerted me to a key sociological text on Loss and Change  by Peter Marris, first published in 1974. Others have mentioned, like eco-philosopher and workshop educator, Joanna Macy, that the most telling effect of the destructiveness of industrial culture to society will be an immense loss of meaning for many people. Like the indigenous elders sharing the Grief ritual, Marris’ findings describe the benefit of grieving processes towards building new continuities of meaning and purpose for people. The danger he believed, was people affected by loss, getting stuck in guilt, cynicism and despair. Rather, Marris observed change potential in the process of bereavement itself. His ideas are that if we can assist people to move through grief this helps facilitate change by re-formulating people’s identities, allowing them to see new purposes and more authentic ways of being.

Given the scientific evidence unfolding and lack of significant change in our current societal structures, there seems like there will be much confusion and grief in the coming decades. So an important part of what might constitute communities thriving in the future, may not only be in the adoption of ‘new stories’ of sustaining actions. It may lie in new social formations that can ‘hold’ inclusive spaces for ourselves and our evolving, co-creating stories.

PS Just as I finished writing this I noticed a 40 sec. interview from another participant at the New Story Summit, Nano Woo, from South Korea, who was also thinking along similar lines. She describes new social formations as those helping us develop ‘listening voices’ – beautiful!

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* Sociocracy forms I discovered in writing this post, have been developing slowly in the West over several hundred years. A visual artist who has been key in sharing such forms for contemporary situations, business, education, is visual artist, educator Sharon Villines. An in-depth resource can be found at http://www.sociocracy.info and in the book she co-authored We the People: Consenting to a Deeper Democracy, published in 2005.

– Also, more on ‘grief work’ : films, talks and workshops from a palliative care perspective, led by Canadian Stephen Jenkinson, are taking place in Canada, Wales, England and Ireland soon, see here

Many thanks to fellow New Story Summiteers who led the circle rituals or who I met and talked about ‘circles’:

Patricia McCabe (New Mexico), Vicki (‘Turquoise’ – New Mexico), Kahontineh, (USA), Puma (Peru), Kalanhi (Hawaii), Visolela (Namibia), Bonnie Mennell (Centre for Council Practice –The Ojai Foundation) (Vermont), Anna Bianchi -Way of Council (Bristol); Pip Bondy -Way of Council (Wales)

Also a special thanks to Chris Seeley who nominated me to attend the Summit, and her sharing with me her ‘artful’ action research work for appreciating the necessity of  ‘many ways of knowing’.

 

 

 

 

3 thoughts on “Circles for change: supporting ourselves and our ‘new stories’

    • Thanks Judy,

      Yes it was very special and lovely to be in one of your home countries! I learned such a lot and more things I wasn’t expecting and it was fine for the whole week too 🙂 You might want to follow the Findhorn New Story page on facebook, lots of other great stories there and you can add yours too to the Summit Hub website http://newstoryhub.com/

      Like

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