The Lineage of the Circle at Commonweal
by Kyra Epstein, Commonweal Communications
For more than 100,000 years, our ancestors have been sitting around fires—sharing food, sharing ritual, deliberating, grieving, healing, and celebrating. Circles are ancient; they offer a place in today’s world for a glimpse of the sacred that reaches back across time. Early on in Commonweal’s history, Co-Founder Michael Lerner and Rachel Naomi Remen, founder of the Healer’s Art and best-selling author of Kitchen Table Wisdom, realized the wisdom of the circle and brought it into the realm of healing. Participants in the Commonweal Cancer Help Program have been sitting in circles since the program began, more than 30 years ago. When used intentionally, the circle can become a sacred presence in and of itself, holding the participants as they listen, speak from the heart, grieve, and heal.
On the other side of the country, at roughly the same time that Michael and Rachel were working with cancer patients in Bolinas, Parker Palmer was also bringing people together in what became known as Circles of Trust. He founded the Center for Courage & Renewal in 1997 to help teachers “connect soul with role, rekindling their passion for educating the whole student.”
Healing Circles was conceived in January of 2014, when—after living seven years with a less-than-a-year cancer prognosis—Diana Lindsay, now co-director of Healing Circles Global, and her husband, Kelly, decided to give back to their community by starting a healing center. They met Michael Lerner the very next day, and they immediately agreed to work together. The project became known as Healing Circles.
Today, with a year of pandemic sheltering-in-place behind us, circle work has taken a new form and vitality in Commonweal’s Healing Circles programs. Diana reflects on the way circle work from many traditions came together to be Healing Circles.
“As Rachel Naomi Remen said, ‘we heal best in community,’” said Diana. “Rachel brought great insight into circle work, bringing the concept of ‘listening generously’ and from the heart—the idea that this kind of active listening gives others a place to heal. Michael Lerner brought the idea of ‘intentional healing,’ where the definition of healing is to make whole; that we heal on emotional and physical levels and that healing can continue right up until the time of death. Both Michael and Rachel have used these ideas for decades in circles in the context of cancer, and proved that the model works.”
“Kelly and I looked at the Cancer Help Program model, and we read Parker Palmer’s book A Hidden Wholeness,” she said. “We wanted to do this in a community, supporting anyone who asked, for one time or a lifetime. And we wanted to offer everything for free.”
That meant looking at volunteers to be circle leaders. How would that work? That’s when they were introduced to Christina Baldwin and Ann Linnea and their model: The Circle Way.
“Christina and Ann articulated several concepts that we believed could be safe in the context of volunteers. In their model, circles had ‘hosts’ and ‘guardians,’ instead of leaders. Instead, there was a ‘leader’ in every chair,” Diana said.
Healing Circles adopted the idea of circle hosts and guardians, as well as using and adding to agreements used by Circle Way participants. Today, participants in Healing Circles agree to the following:
We treat each other with kindness and respect.
We listen with compassion and curiosity.
We honor each other’s unique ways to healing and don’t presume to advise, fix, or save one another.
We hold all stories shared in the circle confidential.
We trust that each of us has the guidance we need within us, and we rely on the power of silence to access it.
The first of Commonweal’s Healing Circles formed in January 2015 in Langley, on Whidbey Island, and the program has grown steadily since then—with circles starting in other areas, including Healing Circles Houston. Last year, when we were all asked to shelter-in-place, Healing Circles Global moved on-line and has grown exponentially since then.
“We were living in a world that needed healing,” Diana said. “We started Healing Circles Global online, and it just took off in ways that aren’t possible in physical spaces. Future hosts get trained and get supported, while other people handle registration and administration,” she said.
Just this quarter, Healing Circles Global has hosted thousands of service hours. Training participants have come from 24 countries over five continents. In North America, people have come from 34 U.S. states and six Canadian provinces. Healing Circles are free, and open to all, with circles specifically for those impacted by cancer, chronic illness, or grief; those who are caregiving; those who are healing from injustice; those faced with death and dying; those who self-identify as LGBTQ; healthcare professionals; and all of us during these challenging times.
Find out more about the Healing Circles in our virtual event series: Widening Circles: The Healing Circles Lineage. The series is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to hear from the founders of leading circle organizations, including Christina Baldwin and Ann Linnea of The Circle Way, Parker Palmer of the Center for Courage and Renewal, Michael Lerner of Commonweal, Diana Lindsay of Healing Circles Global, and others. The series is a fundraiser for Healing Circles Global, which offers training and healing circles to participants from all over the world at no cost. Find out more and register on the Healing Circles website.