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Circling in Peru: An Experiential Preview of Relational Practice

(this post originally written to share about the Integral European Conference, a global gathering of scholar-practitioners coming together to consider to envision a more integral European continent. My heartiest regards and thanks to the IEC and the amazing work they’ve done).

It’s Tuesday night in Cusco, Peru, and I’m sitting in a white plastic chair in the second story of a University administrative building with twenty-two locals, two assistants and two organizers. The fluorescent light glares off the white tile floor, and the sound echoes. We’re gathered here for an introduction to Circling, but things are getting heated and the crowd seems to be turning against me.

Two seats to my left the dean of the department, wearing a suit and a tie, sits in quiet reflection. A few minutes ago I interrupted him in the middle of a prayer.

I loathed the way he was speaking for everyone… I barked at him—“I respect you but I cannot stand this. When you speak your fancy words about Unity and our inherent Divinity I feel spiteful… ” he interrupted me and tried to pray away my challenge, smiling, unconsciously neglecting my perspective because he was afraid of conflict.

I cut him off.

“When you speak, I feel utterly empty. I’m lonely and full of pain. And I imagine you feel the same way.” The rest of the group chimed in and started to share how his words were impacting them: frustration, annoyance, anger, fear.

It was a painful, beautiful moment of self-awareness when this dean stepped out of his subjective reality and started to see it as an object in a much larger system. It stopped him, and he realized how disconnected he’d been from his heart and his body.

02For me it was a moment of transcendence: transcending my habit of avoiding conflict, of wanting to be liked, of pretending like my motivation for staying quiet was care (instead of self-preservation). I stepped into the vulnerability of not-knowing anything about where this kind of heart felt confrontation would take us—potentially revealing more about dark shadows in my leadership than revealing what (I assumed) was wrong with this chaste dean.

Indeed—now that the group has broken the social norm of politeness, of respecting authority by keeping your mouth shut, they’re ganging up on me.

They’re mad. They’re confused. They’re demanding a lesson. A man in jeans and a striped Polo yells at me from the other side of the Circle. “You came all the way from Texas to teach us something. I don’t want to listen to this crap from everyone else. Why are you just sitting there?”

They’re mad, but I’m getting lonely. Every time they ask my colleagues and I for insight I feel more and more lonely. I feel my body sinking and I let myself slouch in my chair. My face is quivering and I want to cry. I feel powerless—in this moment, it seems impossible for me to teach them the lesson I want to teach. I’m thinking to myself, “I’m embodying it… and they’re missing it.”

Was I using loneliness and hopelessness to avoid contact? Was I avoiding the pain of potentially being rejected? Was I subtly manipulating them, like the dear readers of this story, to prove a particular point? (almost certainly yes)

Back in the stark light of the Cusco Circling introduction, I feel even more lonely, and hopeless. The feeling of hopelessness is the only thing I can share audibly… the words croak on the way out of my throat.

I feel inadequate. They’re trying to cheer me up now, but it pushes me further into isolation. I sink even deeper into the hard, smooth plastic of the chair.

“Why don’t you sit up so you aren’t so weak?” The black haired woman on my left asks, looking up from her phone.

“Weak? With all of you trying to change me, challenging our way of being, and me staying with it, I feel quite strong.” I respond. This momentary flash of passionate anger belies my loneliness. And I’ve sat up more fully.

Then a fifty-year old woman with a crooked smile starts to see what’s happening: I’m demanding nothing; I’m taking full responsibility for what’s occurring in my world (or at least attempting to). I’m not trying to defend the practice. I’m letting each person’s share move me and give me useful feedback.

17I’m surrendered to the truth of the moment, and I’m trusting that this interaction, and the collective intelligence of us being together—even if I “fail” by all traditional accounts—is revealing an important and beautiful truth far more meaningful than anything I could dream up in my limited perspective.

Yet here I was, assuming they were missing me and that they needed to learn to “be with” what is. Wasn’t I still subtly blaming them, instead of taking responsibility for my reality? Wasn’t I unconsciously assuming that I wasn’t perfectly acceptable as I was, needing to prove myself and my value as someone with embodied wisdom (and therefore assuming that I wasn’t enough)? Looking back now, I can see more clearly the source of my feelings of inadequacy, and I don’t have to spend so much energy hiding that from the world.

This woman with a crooked smile starts to share her experience, and I don’t feel so alone in my loneliness anymore. It’s nice to feel someone with me.

My assistants feel the same. They’re asking the participants to go deeper with their reactions. “How is it to feel this way?” We’re getting guidance to be with them in their world—in their yearning for truth, for understanding, for skills they can take home. “What has you reacting the way you are?” “What’s it like to show up tonight wanting to fix a problem and not getting a straight answer?” These simple questions require us to turn into the unconscious discomfort driving our decisions, rather than letting our habitual pattern of avoiding discomfort drive us. These questions require all of us to get intimate with what’s occurring.

Soon others are sharing what they’re learning.  “It’s not about following the Catholic or Andean rules, it’s about speaking from your heart,” one young mother says, her son bouncing on her knee.

“I’m realizing how much I try to control others in conversation,” a muscly man shares. “I never knew how closed off to other points of view I was,” a third calls out.

They’re learning to make their own lessons from what’s occurring, and I’m starting to light up. These wouldn’t have been the lessons I’d teach. I’d probably sound like the suit-wearing dean, trying to talk about the power of inter-subjectivity or the tetra-arising and tetra-evolving of each moment. They’d be tweeting about Adele’s new song instead of learning about triple-loop learning and Constructive Developmental Theory.

My timer quacks and it is now time to move from the big group of 27 people into three smaller groups; to move from a surrender meditation to a concentration meditation.

Ironically, I’m now ready to give them their lesson. I wipe the tears from my face, and begin to share from my heart:

“When you were trying to fix my loneliness, I think that’s how you treat your own loneliness. I think you get mad at that part of you. That whenever you feel something you don’t want to feel, you assume you’re broken and you try to fix yourself. You can’t love in others what you don’t love in yourself.

“What I want to teach… is not a skill or a technique, but a way of being—A way of being aware of the relationships that already exist with everyone and everything. A way of being willing to stay open and present and inquire more deeply into your assumptions about what’s true. A way of getting ever more intimate with yourself through presence.

“Why? So that you can learn from anyone, at any moment, and everyone gets to be your teacher. So that you’re changing and growing and evolving in every single moment, so you can see that your lesson is always what’s right in front of your face.

So you can be more in touch with the aliveness that’s always here. So you can trust the boldness to act when your heart is touched by another human.”

16This feels good to say. I take a sip from my water bottle and feel a new quality of connection with the group; one of intimacy and shared experience. People are nodding their heads.  I’m shocked to see lot of people smiling. I exhale, and lovingly squeeze my friend Philip’s shoulder. I’m always willing to welcome the full range of human experience, but it sure is nice to feel good.

This is what Circling is… today. It is different every time, but it is always paradoxical, always a pursuit of truth, always connected, always revealing something unique and valuable to each participant, if they’re willing to let themselves and their understanding of the world be changed by the process.

This is the way of interacting that Alanja and I will be sharing at the IEC this year, and we’ll love to meet you there.