On two mornings a month this spring, a group of seven has gotten together in the home of Patrick McClintock and Marilyn Goldberg to talk about what sadness, heartache, or sorrow they feel is keeping them from living life to the fullest. “It’s a safe, nonjudgmental place where you can unpack all your grief and loss,” explained McClintock. He and his wife Marilyn are holding the first living-room healing circle on the Hill.
“I am amazed at how therapeutic it is to be able to talk and have others really listen,” said Jennifer Casey Cabot, co-founder of the circle. “It’s also very therapeutic to listen to others. Usually you don’t hear anything but good and often superficial conversation in a social setting. This is very real.”
A few years ago, when McClintock developed cancer, his journey of healing and cure took him to California where he participated in a residential healing circle at Commonweal, an organization created 40 years ago whose mission is helping people heal themselves and heal the earth. McClintock, now cancer-free, decided he wanted to be trained in this kind of healing process.
Instead of focusing on a cancer diagnosis, the co-founders wanted a broader emphasis. “We have a welcoming environment in our home for anyone who wants to unburden themselves from whatever they feel is holding them back,” said McClintock. Most everyone has experienced a loss of some kind. It can be loss of a job, a loved one, a pet, a home, your health, a relationship or a friend. It is also a hospitable space for caregivers.
What Is a Healing Circle?
Healing circles have been around for a long time and are used for many purposes. They are deeply rooted in the traditional practices of indigenous peoples. They are elements of Native-American spirituality and have been used for recovery from alcoholism in aboriginal communities. They have been used for reconciliation in the criminal justice system and are often called peacemaker circles.
At Commonweal, healing circles were born out of the desire to expand the circle of conversation to a larger group of patients with cancer and caregivers, serving more people and empowering others to serve as well. The goal is to provide training, resources, and conversation that help people find meaning and community in life with cancer, strengthen health and healing practices, navigate medical and integrative cancer therapies, and face suffering, death, and dying.
“Healing circles help us step out of ordinary time into a safe and accepting environment in which to explore our healing,” said Michael Lerner, Commonweal’s founder. “With open minds we explore together ways of deepening our capacity to heal, alleviating our suffering and finding meaning in both challenge and joy.” Lerner added, “If it touches the heart and guides you on your path, it is a healing circle. It leads you to deep, intentional healing.”
But what is deep intentional healing? “It’s a sense at some level that both your feelings and your mind have been touched,” explained McClintock. For example, falling in love is deep healing, according to Lerner. If you’re in love, your world looks different in a profound way. It’s a step out of ordinary time.
“The practices and agenda of each Capitol Hill healing circle are designed to cultivate awareness,” said Goldberg. “Listening is the greatest gift you can give to another human being.” Participants meet for two and a half hours, every two weeks, for 10 weeks. Group agreements and practices that include confidentiality, trust, kindness, and respect toward all are read at the beginning of each meeting. “We also honor each other’s unique ways to healing and don’t presume to advise or fix or try to save each other.”
Circle members practice active listening. They commit, each session, to refrain from forming their own contributions while a circle member is speaking. Intentional listening goes hand-in-hand with intentional speaking, which requires trust that whatever you are meant to say will come out.
Each session has an agenda that the co-founders create. “We start with poetry, then a short meditation. We are thinking about starting with some music. The arts are so healing. We’ve also done some journaling,” said Cabot. “Time flies by. Two and a half hours is hardly enough.”
Sessions include lots of silence (a way of deepening thoughtfulness or redirecting the course of discussion), reflection, and ritual. For example, Cabot said that at one session McClintock asked members to choose a beautiful stone from a bowl. “We took the stone, held it and thought about what we wanted to focus upon. At the end of the session we put the stones into water.” At another circle, members were asked to bring an object that represents the meaning of healing. Members were then asked to talk about why they brought the object.
The healing circle on Capitol Hill is in its infancy. A new one will be forming this month. There is no charge to participate. All are welcome. All you need is a commitment to come with an open heart and an eagerness to learn. As Lerner said, “With open hearts, we access our own inner guidance to understand where the greatest healing – in mind, body and spirit – can occur.”
Pattie Cinelli is a holistic fitness professional who has been personal training and teaching yoga, Pilates, and core fitness to students and clients for more than 25 years. She is a journalist who specializes in writing stories that give readers a choice about which path they choose to stay healthy. To contact Pattie email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.