Roq Gareau, an early board member, shares his experience as both host and participant in a men’s healing circle, guided by The Circle Way principles. Roq’s powerful narrative is brought to life with excerpts from his first and recently published book, Soulful Fellowship: Men, Meaning and Purpose.
The Strength inside Vulnerability – The Circle Way and Soulful Fellowship
I received my apprenticeship in circle with Christina Baldwin and Ann Linnea, starting with the PeerSprirt Circle Practicum, then serving for seven years on the board of directors with the Calling the Circle Foundation – the predecessor of The Circle Way. These days, I work mostly with circles of men in ritual-based men’s groups that focus on healing and initiation. At the centre of my practise is the intention to interrupt contemporary society’s overwhelming patterns of isolation and their undercurrents that can prevent us from growing up. This work is described in the book Soulful Fellowship: Men, Meaning and Purpose, which I co-authored with my friend and mentor, Dave Waugh.
I use the term ‘Soulful Fellowship’ for the community of practise that emerges when a group of humans spends time together in circle. There are common key outcomes in ongoing circle work that include, but are not limited to:
- Learning and teaching through storytelling
- Increasing levels of self-disclosure and vulnerability
- Expanding capacity to surface and deal with unresolved material and conflict
- Growing levels of trust, healing and collaboration
- A felt sense of belonging
Using excerpts from Soulful Fellowship, the following story describes how The Circle Way reveals these outcomes.
1. Learning and Teaching through Storytelling
Modernity has ruled out the sacred. We are looking to be whole in a space that stands divided. Our conditioning has us not seeing the sacred even when it’s staring us in the face. Circle is an old-world technology that allows us to excavate the interior of the self to take inventory of what does or does not belong to us, and what no longer serves.
Sharing the stories that pull at our heartstrings draw us out of the mundane dimensions of our lives into a dynamic transpersonal space where we make meaning together. By sharing the stories inside of us – those that ache and those that fan the embers – we cast a spoke into a wheel that moves us out of the ordinary into the sacred. I discovered this spoke in a men’s circle in the midst of my own ongoing crisis of belonging…
I woke up every weekday at 4:15 a.m. so that I could catch the first ferry into the city. My four-hour, daily commute almost inevitably started and ended in complete darkness – such a contrast to the perpetually-lit city where I worked in a job from which my heart was absent. Time’s sleepless erosion started to incrementally pull me out of the beliefs and comfort barriers within which I had fortified my limited but predictable life of acceptance.
During the summer of 2005, my five-year-old daughter got in the habit of waking up in the morning as I left the house. As I walked into the purple dawn, she would yell from the opened bedroom window, “Papa! Don’t go. I love you. Stay home.” On those heart-breaking mornings, with my daughter’s piercing pleas at my back, the neighbours’ horses would nicker softly as I passed. It was as though they were there to affirm the existence of the workhorse in me that laboured to be seen – a workhorse constrained by a harness of social approval.
One early September morning, the horses were not there, and my impoverished view of success lost its grip, just for a moment. I turned around and walked to my crying daughter in the window and held her until daylight overtook the night. I didn’t know if I would return to work. I didn’t leave my home island for six weeks straight. During that time, I had the following dream.
The Boy and the Tree
I live in a large hollowed out tree with two daughters. The floor of the house is the concentric growth rings of the tree. We are on the floor playing card games and eating snacks. I hear a small scratching sound at the door. I get up to make sure the door is latched shut. I see a dirty, long-haired, dark-skinned toddler in an oversized t-shirt carrying a soiled pillow out in the rain. I am disgusted with what I see. I turn around and return to the game. My older daughter asks me what it was. I answer, “It was nothing.”
We keep playing cards until we are interrupted by another sound at the door. My younger daughter is up and opening the door. I see the toddler climbing up the steps. I jump across the room and slam the door to keep the child out. I try to divert the attention back to the card game. My older daughter asks, “Who was that?” I answer, “No one important.”
I try to bring the focus back to the card game. My younger daughter asks, “What is that baby doing outside?” Meanwhile, the toddler has found a way into the house through a secret passage behind the fridge. The unkempt child is standing in front of us, silently hugging the dirty pillow. From my perspective on the ground, I can see that he is a boy. He smells of urine. A deep rage pulls me to my feet, and I begin to strangle the boy with both hands. My younger daughter immediately begins to cry. My older daughter yells, “Can't you see Papa? He’s you!”
I drop to my knees, and my hands fall to my side. I look directly into the boy's eyes. I recognize something, and I begin to cry. My daughters push the boy closer to me. We all lock into a single embrace. The room spins from the central growth ring on the floor into a blended smear of colour, light and darkness. I wake up sobbing.
2. Increasing Levels of Self-Disclosure and Vulnerability
In circle, we learn to be vulnerable together by sharing and witnessing intentional speaking that erupts from the rim and is gathered at the centre. Ann and Christina say that, "Intentional speaking is the practice of contributing stories and information that have heart and meaning or relevance to the situation. It comes from the patience of waiting for the moment when we really understand what to contribute and when receptivity is alive in the group." (The Circle Way, p.28) "The center provides a neutral space where diversity of thought, stories of sorrow and outrage and heartfulness, can be held and considered by all participants." (The Circle Way, p.22)
After hearing another man describe a dream of a lost child at the first men’s circle that I attended, I found the courage to share my dream. I’ve since come to realize that it’s a common experience for grown men to wake up one morning, sobbing at the dreamtime visitation of a helpless child or animal. Raised in and rewarded for dominance and emotional control, it’s unlikely that men will share this vulnerable dimension of themselves…
When the talking piece got to me, I could feel my heart rate quicken with an anxious fear that had me looking at the ground. I knew that I had to share my dream, but I was terrified. I figured if one man could share his dream without a backlash of judgement from the group, then maybe I could too. I shared the details as I remembered them: the card games on the concentric floor, the dirty, long-haired, dark-skinned toddler entering through the secret passage behind the fridge, the rage, the attempted murder, and the daughter’s plea to recognize my own displaced innocence.
My story marked the end of that round of sharing. When I raised my gaze, the only man that I dared to look at was the man across the circle who had shared his dream. I was touched and humbled to be met by his eyes that held an unapologetic look of compassion and burgeoned with tears that ran down his face. He asked the group, “How many of you know what it feels like to want to smother your shame?” All the men raised their hands. Another man said, “It’s hard to forgive what you’ve considered to be unforgivable.”
3. Expanding Capacity to Surface and Deal with Unresolved Material and Conflict
Ann and Christina talk about the archetypal energies of circle that are awakened in us when we take our seat on the rim. That enough can elicit a different type of conversation. "Circle signals a much higher degree of participation and a greater sense of exposure." (The Circle Way, p.21) Put that together with the intention of your circle, the quality of hosting, the agreements, and how the participants show up, and you have conditions that support this outcome.
My dream was my psyche’s invitation to acknowledge an unlived life and let my guilt perish instead of my innocence. I understood this for the first time in that container of trusting men…
Recognizing and exposing my denial of a meaningful and soulful life became an invitation to step within the boundaries of a circle of dignity. The men’s group was an unexpected community that helped shorten the distance between me and the strength inside my vulnerability. My sharing and listening granted me access to poverty-stricken districts of my inner world and membership to a council of soul friends. Hungers of the soul are fed under the shelter of belonging. Fellowship began to restore my own estrangement from my nature. Repressed authenticity has its own innocent loyalty and stealth. The banished self remains waiting to be integrated. The soul remains faithful and alert.
4. Growing Levels of Trust, Healing and Collaboration
After sharing my dream, the guardian flipped the 1-minute timer at the centre of the circle. We all breathed and reflected, slowing our heart rates as we watched the grains of sand pass through the tiny hourglass. "The guardian has the group's permission to intercede in group process for the purpose of calling the circle back to center." (The Circle Way, p.29) [Note: In The Circle Way, a tingsha bell is more commonly used by the guardian - the timer is simply an adaptation to this role/practice.]
A person in the circle asked me, “Why do you think the boy came into the house from behind the fridge?” Feeling seen and not judged by the group, I went on to explain how I have always had a complex relationship with food. I use food to feel better, to manipulate situations and to exert a sense of control when life gets too chaotic. This substitution started in my early childhood when the connection between my parents was unravelling
The person who asked the question went on to say, “Food is matter, and matter comes from the Latin Mater, which is also the root word for mother.” The man who had shared his dream said, “Yeah, that little guy just wanted to know that he mattered.” It’s when we are afraid that we don’t matter that compensatory measures come into play. Addictions are pain and fear management systems – usually a defence against feelings that we already feel. Beneath the compulsion always resides a genuine wish – usually for connection or belonging.
You can't get to the gift without going through the wound. The psyche is cunning; it knows that our concealed woundedness and hidden soulfulness co-occupy the same defended landscape. "One of the gifts of circle is to slow us down and provide a place to stop and listen, to take a breath and consider the fullness of what we want to say to each other." (The Circle Way, p.19)
5. A Felt Sense of Belonging
Tending to circle space creates the conditions for the experience of belonging. Perhaps that when all is said and done, this is THE gift of circle – belonging. "Once you're in circle, you're there, participating in wholeness." (The Circle Way, p.x)
My fellow dreamer hit the nail on the head when he said that my orphaned child needed to know that he mattered.
This owning and sharing of our wounds and vulnerabilities is tremendously valuable and generous. Layers of increasing self-revelation in a circle of belonging have a way of melting flash-frozen internal landscapes. There wasn’t a dry eye in the room after the next round of the talking piece. A grief containing sadness and outrage, well expressed by men, feeds a lineage of absent fathers and lost sons, making the hardened hearts of these men more pliable and more available to the people in their lives.
An awful price can be paid for superficial cohesion and stability in life – one that deprives the immensity, diversity and deeper longing of the soul. The shallowness of reduced identity makes an orphan of the complexity of soulful innocence. We learn to block access to wildness, banish otherness and destroy vulnerability that we don't understand. It often requires the curiosity and wonder of the child to become reacquainted with the refugees of the inner world.
Despite adopted beliefs and deported innocence, a deep longing for self-discovery remains housed within the growth rings of the self. Special blessings and healing reunions remain locked away in a circle of belonging in the softwood forest of the heart.
We are restlessly moved by our longing for belonging, which is complex because it arises in the context of a society that reinforces isolation. We aim to return to a community that will see the complexity we carry as a blessing. In circle, we are provided with opportunities for course corrections of past diversions and misplacements. To know fellowship is to come into relationship with a circle of belonging.
Circle is "about remembering something basic to human nature - the desire to cooperate and participate in conversations in which we can speak and listen fully...[and support] what needs to be done." (The Circle Way, p.xiii)
Roq Gareau has trained and facilitated groups for 20 years and has co-facilitated men’s retreats for ten years. He has a keen ability to help folks have those difficult conversations they would rather avoid but know they have to get to if things are to improve. Roq is a Global Colleague of The Circle Way and Director of CentreSpoke Consulting. Soulful Fellowship is Roq’s first book. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Soulful Fellowship is a vulnerable and honest, intergenerational dialogue between soulful friends who are part of a fellowship of men. It is written for anyone who wants to live with meaning and purpose, and particularly for men who have lost their spark for life.