When the bells ring – the power of the pause

This month’s circle tale introduces us to Peace Circle, a “hybrid” of The Circle Way emerging from one practitioner’s unique set of life experiences, professional training, and gifts. Please read along as Shirley Lynn Martin shares her story of lessons learned when the bell is rung in circle.

Peace Circle:  When the Bells Ring – The Power of the Pause

As we offer our stories into circle, we feel a deeper pulse gently begin to stir within our hearts.  

The Night’s Unfolding…

As co-founder and host of the Peace Circle method of circle practice, this evening I start by sharing a memory of my father and a love I sense which still flows forty years after his death. For some, this Peace Circle is their first experience of an intentional container and they express surprise by the story their own heart yearns to share. It isn't the story their 'everyday self' prepared to tell, the one that risks nothing. The stories surfacing here invite people into their own vulnerability. As the talking piece is passed, story by story the sacred mystery of circle becomes palpable in our hearts.  

Little did I know this night that the woman sitting on my immediate right had lost her father within the past year. She had come for the first time with her friend who was sitting to her right. Though tears were leaking, she was holding her breath, trying to keep the tears inside. Her friend finishes sharing, surprised, she said, by what is welling up in her heart. Now passing our talking piece, the rose crystal heart, to the left, the woman beside me begins to share about the loss of her father. She stops speaking. Still holding the heart, the tears flow now, even though she visibly is struggling with her vulnerability.  We all sit in silence with her, allowing the mystery to unfold for her.

Suddenly, her friend gets up, reaches for and rings the bells. I turn and notice this woman beside me quickly gathering herself, shutting down what is gently flowing. Inside, I am scrambling to know what to do. She is still holding the talking piece, and before I know how to respond, once again her friend rings the bells. Now the woman beside me wipes away the last tears and takes in a breath and hands me the rose heart stone. I return it to her and tell her she may finish whatever is left for her to say or offer into the circle’s centre. She says she is done and hands me the stone. I am floundering for how to respond. The stone heart is passed. The woman to my left now shares her insight: how amazing it is that we opened and closed the round with stories of fathers who died.  

We continue with another round of circle. Most share an insight important to them. However, the woman on my right, beside me, again passes the stone to me, saying nothing more the rest of the evening.

This experience has become a profound learning moment for me in hosting Peace Circles.

Our Insight into Shadow…

Though my partner, Karen, and I have designed our “hybrid” Peace Circle approach attending to the foundational principles, components, guidelines and roles of both The Circle Way and our training in the Peace Keeping Circle methodology, and we explain this and the use of the bells, talking piece, the circle’s centre, the roles of keeper each time we gather in circle, that night shadow emerged. That night the bell’s invitation to pause and reach into stillness became the silencing of a circle member by her friend’s gesture of help. And while I sense that her friend acted only from the belief she was helping, it was an experience which warranted deep reflection and debriefing with my partner. I was struck again by the power of what seconds can do to disrupt or heal.

How Research Informs…

Jill Bolte Taylor, the neuroscientist who wrote My Stoke of Insight (2008) in which she describes the onset of her own cerebral stroke and recovery, coined the 90 Second Rule as “Once triggered, the chemical released by my brain surges through my body and I have a physiological experience. Within 90 seconds from the initial trigger, the chemical component of my anger has completely dissipated from my blood and my automatic response is over. If, however, I remain angry after those 90 seconds have passed, then it is because I have chosen to let that circuit continue to run.” In other words, emotions last for less than 90 seconds.

Applied to our circle that evening, 90 seconds of pure, uninterrupted expression of grief in the safe container of circle would have provided a healing experience for the woman sitting on my right.

Rick Hanson, neuroscience and mindfulness-based psychologist, writes that it takes about 30 seconds of true awareness and allowing a positive experience to anchor into the brain’s neural pathways, sinking beneath the false self-defenses and learned expressions of pain or hurt. He emphasizes that taking these 30 seconds to acknowledge, feel and pay attention to the experience of someone being kind to us, or telling us we did something of great value for another, is a powerful way to build an inner resourcefulness in the face of these “dreaded experiences” written upon our brain. As we build these inner resources to use in the face of “what we dread” (usually originating in childhood), we can then begin to risk sharing our authenticity and vulnerability, and to follow our initial impulse to share who we are and what we feel. We can become bold to risk experiencing the “dread” to discover its inherent gold.

That night, what I observed was that the bells – which for the first and only time had been placed in the circle’s centre inviting “the leader in every chair” to take ownership, and were not held by either me or my co-host, Karen - intended to be used to honour and respect the space for feelings to release, became an instrument of silencing. Rescuing others from their deep feelings or wounds – our shadow need to protect ourselves from our own discomforts and inner truths - never facilitates healing.  

Moving Forward…

Karen and I decided that going forward we would provide an example of how or where people can call for the bells, including when doing so would contradict our other mutually agreed upon guidelines for creating a safe and sacred space.

We remembered the importance of one of us holding the bells, serving as guardian or keeper of the circle’s safe and respectful space for healing.

Applying the findings from brain research by giving people 30-90 seconds for whatever purpose is needed has been a significant growing for us as hosts, keepers and members. It has opened the space for deepened trust and transformation in other Peace Circles.

The bells ring.


We pause 30-90 seconds and reach for stillness.

The bells ring again and we resume.  

Our world is changed.

Namaste, Shirley Lynn Martin

Shirley Lynn Martin creates sacred space helping us develop collective wisdom to best create a culture of peace and right relationship in every area of our lives. Partnering with Karen McCarthy, she has designed PEACE CIRCLES, a hybrid of her work with The Circle Way and Peace Keeping Circles. With twenty years’ experience as a Soul Coach, Reiki Master-Teacher, whole life therapist and ordained Reverend, PEACE CIRCLES has become the means for bringing together Shirley’s professional training, passion, purpose and wisdom together with that of those who join her in circle. Grateful for her diverse formal and informal training circle practice, Shirley Lynn honours her teachers Kay Pranis, Christina Baldwin, Ann Linnea and Miriam Zachariah.