December 17, 2013

Circle Leadership. ~ Camilla Sanderson

Before moving to our log cabin here in the woods of New Hampshire, I lived and worked in Manhattan for 20 years.

I had direct experience with toxic corporate hierarchical leadership, which was mainly dominated by men. It is a seductive power structure that entraps women as well, and I was part of it.

What a joy it has been for me to recently discover Circle Leadership as an alternative to the traditional patriarchal hierarchies that seem to be crumbling around us.

When a working and learning circle of people is kept clean and healthy, it is possible to experience profound healing, love, communication, connection and peace, as a direct effect of Circle Leadership.

Now in my second year of an interfaith seminary program, I sit in a sacred circle with my classmates and teacher, each of us taking turns to talk while holding a small angel statue, similar to the idea of the Native American talking stick. Every person in the circle feels heard and held in the sacred space.

This practice is an especially great exercise for me, as I have a tendency to interrupt people before they’ve finished speaking. Tongue-in-cheek, I call this “active listening” as I rationalize that my interruptions show that I’m paying attention. I do also recognize though, that interrupting doesn’t always serve the purpose of other people feeling truly, deeply heard.

At our first class Rev. Stephanie shared the Principles of Holding a Circle:

Principles of Holding a Circle

Small Group or Yourself (In Class, on the Internet, Working on Your Own)

Patience with the Unfolding

Deep Listening

Enjoy the Process

Go Slow

Include—Celebrate and Honor Differences

Breathe—Hold the Intensity.

You are being breathed by your Beloved.

Stay in the Present Moment

Allow Silence

(Do I want to jump in and fix it, make it better?)

No Commentary or Advice for Others!*

*Instead, Share the Truth of Your Experience.


  • Practicing inclusion, not agreement.
  • None of us are broken, so we don’t need fixing. We’re all human beings on the path.
  • The shadow is not the problem, it’s the gift.
  • Embracing our humanity as the portal to our divinity.
  • Own your muck. And like the Lotus Flower, by our roots being with our muck, we blossom not in spite of, but because of.
  • We are here to share our gifts on the table; let other people decide what they will pick up.

To keep the circle clean and healthy, we acknowledge that we all have our muck, and like the lotus flower, we blossom not in spite of, but because of that muck. In acknowledging that we all have our muck, we can more easily be aware of not projecting our own muck onto someone else. If someone else irritates me, it’s my issue. The other person is who they are.

The fact that someone else is ‘pushing my buttons’ or ‘triggering me,’ is a reflection of me not owning my own muck. It’s nothing to do with the other person, and it stops me from having an expectation that the other person should change.

How refreshing it is for each of us to be responsible for our own muck. And to blossom not in spite of, but because of.

Rev. Stephanie has a gift for listening and reflecting back the essence of what she heard from each person in the circle, which is a skill we’re all cultivating in circle leadership. Every person in the circle feels heard, and held whole.

We practice loving deeply but not personally, which means that I’m not responsible for ‘fixing’ anything for anyone else. We’re practicing being there for another person and deeply listening. It’s a privilege to sit with others in a circle this way.

What an epiphany it was for me to learn to share the truth of my experience, rather than giving advice. By simply sharing the truth of my experience, putting it on the table, and allowing others to choose what they will pick up, it allows freedom for the speaker and the listener. I’m not saying “here’s my advice, you should take it.” I’m simply sharing the truth of my experience, and then I practice detachment from the outcome.

Now in my second year of seminary class, I recently attended an Interfaith Peace Panel discussion featuring a Christian, who talked about sin (to be fair, sin was just one topic amongst others, but I am fascinated with the Christian obsession with sin); a Neo Pagan who discussed love, will, wisdom and not recognizing an outside spiritual authority; and a Buddhist who made me want to go and read Thich Nhat Hanh’s The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching: Transforming Suffering into Peace, Joy and Liberation.

I learned that Christian Scientists were founded by Mary Baker Eddy who wrote Science and Health, with Key to the Scriptures. I’m planning to investigate this further, as I thought this sounded similar to the ideas of “Mental Causes for Physical Illness and the Metaphysical Way to Overcome Them” as discussed in Louise Hay’s Heal Your Body book.

Heal Your Body is a book that I have loved since I was a kid and would pour through my mother’s copy. Heal Your Body is a small blue book that has been in print since 1987, and it lists possible mental causes and/or thought patterns for many physical illnesses, and suggests new thought patterns that may help heal the physical illnesses.

As an adult I’m often reluctant to admit my love for this book, as people tend to scoff at it—“How can thought patterns affect our health?” Happily though, in our recent history, Western medicine is at last acknowledging the fact that our thoughts affect our stress levels, and hence our thoughts affect our health. Hence also the increased awareness of the benefits of mindfulness based meditation.

Another speaker at the interfaith Peace Panel resonated deeply with me. The fifth speaker was a wise elder. An 85-year-old Native American Indian called Medicine Story or Manitonquat, who spoke about the Circle Way (I bought his book.).

What struck me most about Medicine Story’s talk was how he described using circle leadership with inmates in prison with whom he was working, and how it provided effective conflict resolution in a high stress situation.

He described one example of when a couple of inmates were missing from his class. When he asked where they were, he was told that they were outside about to fight to settle a dispute. He quickly persuaded another inmate to bring them back to class, and upon their successful return, he had them all sit in a circle. He reported to us that by ensuring each inmate felt deeply heard by every person in the circle, the conflict that had been brewing simply dissipated. The prisoners were in awe.

The principle of circle leadership is appealing to me. It feels like an alternative to the crumbling patriarchal hierarchies I witness in education, medicine, politics and religion. Can we find a way for humanity to work together in a deeply and fundamentally healthy way, without the abuses of power we see every day in the news?

What I want to know is if it is possible to transform our toxic hierarchical leadership structures into healthier circle leadership structures.

Circle leadership lights me up. And I notice that it lights up every person in my circle too.

There is an old Chinese proverb that says:

“When there is light in the soul, there is beauty in the person.

When there is beauty in the person, there is harmony in the home.

When there is harmony in the home, there is honor in the nation.

When there is honor in the nation, there is peace in the world.”

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Assistant Editor: Karissa Kneeland/Editor: Bryonie Wise

Photo: Jared Giese at deviantart.com

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