The circle’s magic for building student resiliency

In this month’s story, Michele describes how the skilled application of The Circle Way in a month-long resiliency class for undergraduate students, brings kindness, connection and well-being.

The Circle’s Magic for Building Student Resiliency

The simple act of being completely attentive and present to another person is an act of love, and it fosters unshakeable well-being.
— Sharon Saltzberg

I teach at a small liberal arts college in Minnesota where the academic year consists of a four-month fall semester, a one-month January term, and a four-month spring semester.

I’ve integrated circle practices into a number of my classes for almost 20 years, but I really want to focus on a one-month January term course I’ve taught for the past three years.

The class is Bouncing Forward: Resiliency Practices for College and Beyond. Using the structure and guidelines of The Circle Way, the class introduces students to the tools, concepts and principles of resilience offered by current research in Positive Psychology and Mind-Body Medicine.

I truly believe in and value the

content material, but it’s the

magic of the circle that

provides the most

transformative power.

First year students receive priority when registering for January term courses which means that most of the 20 to 24 students who enroll are 18 or 19 years old, and at the midway point of their first year in college. The gender balance tips generously toward women (about two thirds of the class).  Beyond that, most students have very little in common. Some are drawn to the course because they are dealing with significant trauma in their lives, others struggle with day-to-day anxiety, and yet others are simply there because the topic fascinates them. They think it may help them to live their best lives. All commit to spending three hours a day, five days a week, for four weeks, together.

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Class begins at 9 am with a mindful movement session. By shared agreement, everyone enters the studio in silence. One by one they position their mats along the rim of a large circle, and what follows is a gentle yoga class. The word “yoga” comes from the Sanskrit word yuj, which means “to yoke” but may be more appropriately translated as “to unite.” In a student world filled with a constant influx of information, and abundant anxiety about the future, it’s an invitation to settle into the present moment - to unite movement, breath and awareness.  The gentle movement relaxes bodies while the guided imagery and focus on the breath helps to restore and energize everyone.

After a break from 9:50 – 10:30, we gather, in circle, for a two-hour session that may include breakout sessions into smaller groups but always begins and ends in the circle.

This class is about resiliency. We can talk about it as either a capacity to overcome adverse experiences, or as a set of skills necessary to navigate a difficult time. We can also think of it as the ability to adapt well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy and significant or cumulative sources of stress. We may not all define resiliency in the same way but there’s general agreement that more and more college students arrive at college ill-equipped to deal with the stress and demands placed upon them.

I developed this course after having taught college and university students for more than 35 years, witnessing so many bright and capable students crumble under the academic and social demands.

The more I studied the science

of resiliency, the more I saw a

natural synergistic connection

to The Circle Way.

Dr. Maria Sirois, one of the foremost thought leaders in the field of resiliency, has identified four drivers of resiliency: mindfulness, connection, skills and practices, and courage.

  1. Mindfulness

Mindfulness is foundational to both resiliency, and circle practice.  

Back in the late 60’s and early 70’s Jon Kabat-Zinn was working on a PhD in Molecular Biology when a visiting Zen Missionary introduced him to meditation. He went on to study with other meditation teachers, and in 1979, recruited a group of chronically ill patients who weren’t responding well to traditional treatment. He then set them up to participate in an 8-week stress reduction program, which is now known as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction or MBSR.

Kabat-Zinn defined mindfulness as “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment.”

For me, he could have been describing the sense of attention and intention I feel when sitting in circle.

Psychologist Diana Fosha states, “The roots of resilience are to be found in the felt sense of being held in the mind and heart of an empathic, attuned, and self-possessed other.” It’s here that the experience of circle amplifies and supports resiliency, and this is part of the magic that fascinates me. It’s the profound experience of being held in the minds and hearts of every person on the rim.

2.    Connection

Research shows that those of us who have a greater sense of connection, have greater resilience, greater happiness, and greater sense of thriving. Brené Brown defines connection “as the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.”

I have witnessed this particular magic many times but perhaps nowhere as clearly as in the gratitude circle we hold at the end of our class.

One particular circle story stands out. Alexander (not his real name) was a delightful young man with a ready smile. He was also neuroatypical - easily agitated and very concerned with doing things the “right” way. Every day he arrived about 20 minutes prior to class to ensure he could sit in the same spot. He was quick with many questions and often seemed physically anxious and stressed. In fact, when his anxiety overwhelmed him, he would make his hands into fists and rock.

On the last day of class, as we passed the talking piece, students had a chance to express gratitude to each person who silently held the talking piece. Alexander was noticeably anxious, rocking and breathing very intentionally as he tried to calm himself. As the talking piece came to him, he muttered, “oh boy, oh boy” and then held the piece while looking at the floor.

And then, my beautiful students poured love all over him. They told him they so appreciated getting to know him, they appreciated how he helped them fold their yoga blankets the right way, and they loved when he greeted them in German when they saw him outside of class. As student after student affirmed that they saw, appreciated and accepted him, I watched his anxiety melt. And as he passed the talking piece, he sat a little taller.

 In 2001, Fred Rogers was invited to give the commencement address at Marquette University, where he said “I believe that appreciation is a holy thing, that when we look for what's best in the person we happen to be with at the moment, we're doing what God does. So, in loving and appreciating our neighbor, we're participating witness something truly sacred.” In each gratitude circle I have ever participated, I believe I witness something truly sacred.

3.    Skills and Practices

Sirois identifies some specific tools and practices that increase our capacity for resiliency and these make up the third driver. Among them:

  • —  Developing a mindfulness practice

  • —  Practicing the Pause

  • —  Knowing and leveraging your strengths

  • —  Finding and nourishing meaningful relationships

  • —  Taking care of your body (Sleep, Nourishment, Exercise)

  • —  Taking care of your mind (Recognize Negative Thought Patterns, practice Self- Compassion)

“We agree to pause at a signal when we feel the need to pause.” Experiencing this agreement while in circle gives students the opportunity to embody this practice. The practice of taking a “mindful pause” - allowing ourselves to process what is going on in a given moment, and then choosing our response - is crucial to making wise choices. As Sirois says, “Wisdom is the keystone for resilience.”

4.    Courage

Any positive change in our lives requires vulnerability and taking risks. I particularly remember when one student modeled this kind of courage. Jordan (not her real name) seemed to be a bit of loner. She was quiet, quirky and did not conform to 21st Century conventions like owning a cell phone or participating in social media. Her interests ranged from geology to music to inventing languages.

A wonderful listener, she demonstrated genuine interest in classmates. One day during a routine check-out Jordan decided to summon her courage and ask for what she needed. She explained to the class that the hardest thing for her about being at college was eating meals alone in the cafeteria, and she really needed to not to feel so alone. That day’s guardian rang the bell and we paused. A moment later the guardian rang the bell for a second time and the other students in the class stepped up and offered what they could.

“What time do you like to eat breakfast? I will meet you for breakfast.” Within a matter of moments, individuals and small groups had committed to meeting Jordan for multiple meals throughout the week. And that day, in that moment, something in the entire class shifted.   

The guideline of “Ask for What You Need and Offer What You Can” became a lifeline for one person in the circle, and amplified the level of confidence and trust in the entire process for all on the rim.  

As a choreographer and as teacher, I constantly search for the form that supports the delivery of the content. The Circle Way provides such a supportive structure for students to integrate the resiliency content in a very personal way.  

For most people the idea of January in Minnesota doesn’t conjure up warm feelings. But for me, the month of January is packed full of memories of sitting in circle, taking risks, being brave and growing more resilient. Together.

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Michele Rusinko is a teacher, choreographer, dancer, writer, engaged citizen and passionate life-long learner. She has taught at Gustavus Adolphus College, in St. Peter, Minnesota, since 1988, and served as chair of the Department of Theatre and Dance for over half those years. She received her B.A. from St. Olaf College and M.F.A. from Arizona State University. Her current research explores the intersections between her experience teaching dance and somatic science; her scholarship in the psychology of resiliency; and an embodied understanding of human dignity. She holds a certificate in Positive Psychology from the Wholebeing Institute and is currently developing an undergraduate curriculum in the science of resiliency as grounded in the field of Positive Psychology (the scientific study of human flourishing). Michele also brings experience in designing and hosting circle-based processes for groups who want to meet and work together in a more collaborative way.