My first circle: A series focused on self-care

This month we feature a wonderful “how to” story about offering a “real” circle to the community. Karen Doyle Buckwalter had many years’ experience applying a component of The Circle Way here and there in her work, but after participating in an online class, she was ready to jump in and plan and host the “real thing”!

My First Circle: A Series Focused on Self-Care

I had been using aspects of Circle in my professional life for a number of years since Mary Koloroutis, a nurse and author of the books Relationship Based Care and See Me As A Person, first introduced me to The Circle Way. I incorporated the components of check-in and check-out, listening with attention and speaking intention within meetings I facilitated and in supervision groups I led for therapists. The more exposure I had to The Circle Way via books, videos, and The Circle Way Facebook page the more I felt drawn to call some Circles putting together all that Circle teaches rather than just adding a few components. After taking a 4-week online Circle course with Amanda Fenton and Tenneson Woolf I became further inspired to try out a “real” Circle!

With this intention, my next step became to determine where to do such Circles and what would be the topic. Given my background as a psychotherapist, I decided to host Circle gatherings focused on Self-Care, and then:

  1. I wrote a one-page description of myself and my background, of the Circle Way, and the types of Circles I was offering to host.
  2. I considered local businesses and professionals who might be interested in allowing me to use their space to host Circle meetings on the topic of “Setting Intention for Self-Care”. I contacted my massage therapist who also offers yoga classes in her space, a local hot yoga studio where they also offer some different kinds of gatherings, and my local YMCA. I sent my one-page information sheet together with some general information about the Circle Way to a contact person at each location.

The yoga studios were receptive, however the YMCA offered me space to host a series of 90- minute Circles on three consecutive Saturday afternoons during the month of March. While the YMCA created a flyer and did most of the promotion, I used social media and distributed the flyer to folks I thought might be interested.

Prior to the first meeting, I visited the YMCA to check out the space as I’ve learned it’s always better, if possible, to see the space you are going to using before the actual event. I’d be using the YMCA’s chapel - perfect for hosting a Circle! There was even a small round table I could use for the Circle’s center!

Then I learned nine people had signed up for the Circle, twice as many as I had expected, even though it was a free program. This substantial interest readied me to design and prepare for the series:

1.     I made a tote bag for my “traveling Circle kit” and included:

  • A mandala tablecloth
  • Twinkle lights, a candle and matches
  • A singing bowl and a chime
  • Notes cards and a pencil case filled with pens
  • A few bottles of essential oils
  • A clip board and a 3-ring notebook with Circle information
  • A Circle supply checklist (not related to content)

2.     Using the Circle Planning Sheet resource from the online circle class, I planned each session, one at a time, sensing in after each Circle what would be useful in the next one.

3.     I went to each Circle meeting at least 30 minutes early to arrange the room, review my plan, and center and focus myself for hosting this Circle. I wanted to avoid scrambling around to get things ready as people were arriving.

What happened in the actual Circles?

Circle 1

Karen centre cropped.png

Three people arrived for the first Circle meeting. While I’d expected a couple more, this smaller group didn’t deter from the Circle’s richness. As people arrived, I played music from my phone and invited them to settle into their chairs. Using my own words, I shared the Circle agreements, principles, practices and forms of council to familiarize people with the practice and use of the talking piece. I would review these components at the beginning of each Circle meeting. My start point was reading aloud excerpts from Brianna West’s article, This is What Self-Care Really Is, with this key statement serving as the foundation for this series:

“True self-care is not salt baths and chocolate cake, it is making the choice to build a life you don’t need to regularly escape from.”

As my goal for this first Circle was to invite people to simply begin thinking about Self-Care in a more intentional way, I chose not to focus on self-care plans. The first question I posed was “What are three things you are grateful for?” Then they met with a partner to consider “What do you need in your life right now to thrive?” At the end of the Circle I asked for volunteers to bring something to share for our start point and end point for the next meeting. I received each person’s cell phone number to send a group text reminder about the upcoming sessions and offer a word of encouragement about self-care.

Circle 2

Again, arriving early, as I prepared the room, I was struck with how the simple moving of chairs and carefully placing items in a center on a table completely changes the feel of the space, even before sitting in circle with people.

For this second meeting I wanted to go a bit deeper so one of my questions was: “What part of you is calling out for healing right now?” I also asked, “What brings you joy?” Responses included: planting flowers, helping someone, white puffy clouds, summer, reupholstering pillows and making them pretty again, cats, hugs, walking dogs, and a job well-done. I recorded their responses to create a “word cloud” to pass out at our final meeting. As closure to this circle, I asked people to bring something representing personal self-care to the final meeting.

Circle 3

For our final Circle, I wanted each person to have a remembrance of their time in Circle. So, in addition to the “word cloud” I created from the previous circle, I laminated a Self-Care wheel for each to take away.

As this was the last circle, I asked “What was most meaningful for you about our Circle and what will you take with you?” to help each person reflect on, speak aloud, and integrate the experience.  Responses included:

  • I felt affirmed that others struggle with this.
  • It expanded by view of what self-care is.
  • I learned to be brave enough to ask for help.
  • Surprisingly, I learned to be less self-centered and more other-centered.

I also asked, “What would you tell others about what Circle is?” and I heard:

  • A place where they ask good questions!
  • A group that feels safe and comfortable.
  • It’s a wonderful experience! You listen to others and you listen to yourself.
  • You feel less alone in the world.
  • Here we can be weak as human beings.
  • It’s like an intimate group of friends where you are really talking, and people are really listening.

Final thoughts:

I learned the importance of flexibility (not a natural trait of mine!). For example, one participant had brought her children to play at the YMCA while she was in the circle and they would interrupt several times each week. I decided we just needed to go with the flow, although it’s certainly something I might need to address differently in another type of circle. Also, there was not time for all the questions I had prepared. Responding to what was unfolding in the Circle meant sometimes scrapping part of my plan or asking a question that wasn’t part of my original design.

I also learned that designing each circle takes quite a bit of time. I have a list of Circle questions and I would sit down with that list and my planning sheet and just ponder for a while. I would reflect on what had happened in the previous Circle and consider my goals for the next Circle. Eventually the design for the next Circle would come together but it would take a while of just being still.

And of surprise to me was that I was contacted by another YMCA to offer this series, and was invited to write of my experience here for The Circle Way newsletter. But I think the biggest thing I learned was that hosting a Circle was like baking a cake. The ingredients by themselves are just that, ingredients. But when you mix them all together and bake them at just the right time and temperature, you get something totally different! The props (bells, center items, etc) and the Circle components are the ingredients. Putting them all together in the right way with intention, in the right physical space, the Circle takes on a life of its own. With its own energy, in ways more powerful than you could have imagined, the Circle creates something totally different from what you started with.


Karen Doyle Buckwalter, licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist, is Director of Program Strategy at Chaddock, a multi-service agency providing a range of residential, educational, and community-based services for youth, birth through age 21, and their families.  With a career dedicated to deepening connections and communication in groups, couples and families, she has used circle components in seminars, group therapy, family therapy, supervision groups and in various social service agency meetings.  Most recently she has felt led to offer The Circle Way outside her workplace, within her community, focusing on self-care and other wellness issues, cultivating gratitude, women’s empowerment, motherhood and building connection and friendship.