I wake at 4:30 AM from a dream in which a film crew is taking down the Europe “set”— dismantling canvas facades of the streets of Brussels, Paris, Frankfurt, and Amsterdam, carefully putting the architecture into storage.
Ann and I have just come home from three weeks teaching circle practice within the European Commission, the Art of Hosting and community leadership groups, and German consultant network. The dream seems to be my mind’s way of letting go of “there” and getting “here,” though those are concepts that blur in the midst of our current teaching schedule. “Here” is wherever the circle is, wherever people sit down and gather around a question and a form that fosters speaking and listening from heart-integrated space.
While I watch the film crew in my mind dismantle the cityscape, I am remembering the people of this trip and the delights and challenges of language and culture in the global circle.
Working first in Brussels, with internal facilitators at the European Commission, and then with a broader group, we often had people from 8 or 9 countries in the room, each of us filtering our learning and conversation through the common language of English. Because English is the official tongue of the European Commission, and Belgium is a country with two resident languages and now thousands of people working at the EC, those who came to the Circle Intensive expressed gratitude that we could learn together and hear each other’s stories.
We detoured by Paris—just to enjoy ourselves a few days and to visit Ann’s cousin and her husband—and Paris shone in the late summer weather. Then we went off to Oberusel, a small town outside of Frankfurt, Germany, where we spent a week at the Akademie Gesundes Leben (School for Healthy Living). It was our second visit to this very pleasant retreat and conference centre, and the second time we have worked with Matthias zur Bonsen and Jutta Herzog who called in a group of 20 German and Swiss consultants—all native German speakers—except us.
When we checked in with the first round of talking piece at the beginning of our 4.5 day practicum, two things were obvious: one, that we had a marvelous, competent, sophisticated group of facilitators with a broad range of experience hosting circle and other collaborative processes; two, that we had about 1/3 of the group not very facile in English, and another 1/3 managing, and the final 1/3 able to offer some translation, at least to speak the essence of what was being said from English to German or German to English.
Forty years ago, Ann took German in college, as it was a standard in her botany major. She can still read and spell at a rudimentary level, but not speak. Forty-two years ago, I lived in southern Germany with an American professor and his family serving as research assistant to him and au pair to their children and picking up enough aural German to get around the village, shop at the local stores, trade a few pleasantries. Very slowly, and clearly, we spoke to their waiting faces. “It is wonderful that every one of you is here. We are honored at your courage and trust to enter this learning time. We will work together with the challenges of the language.”
That night my mind swirled for hours in a verbal jigsaw puzzle, piecing together every bit of German phrasing I could recall from the life of my 24-year-old self. And somewhere pre-dawn I realized that even if I recalled my entire vocabulary, it wouldn’t help. Knowing how to ask the vegetable stall frau, “How much costs the cauliflower?” is not useful when trying to explain the subtleties of circle energetics, the teamwork between host and guardian, the creative responses to shadow—all topics that deeply inform the practicum.
What we needed—and what we created—was an energetic field within the orb of the circle that helped us have insight and learning in whatever language that could occur. We simultaneously struggled with the challenges of the language, and bypassed language with a sense of direct transmission that was awesome. The practicum became “tri-lingual”—German, English, and energetic.
Ann and I taught in English, corralling our vocabulary into a narrow bandwidth that honored the sophistication in the room (we didn’t want to sound simplistic, to ourselves or others). People listened, helped each other with translation as needed, and when we turned the group into small practice Circles, World Café, and Open Space, Ann and I stayed out of the process so everyone could dive into learning in German. These small sessions were dynamic, thought provoking, hugely insightful. And we didn’t understand a word that was said.
On the third night of the practicum, once we are deep into the process of learning and experience, we traditionally hold an evening Story Council. The lights are low, the guardian rings the bell after every speaking, and the talking piece goes around three times. The purpose is to experience directly the power of story when it is offered in the listening container of circle and community. This night, half the stories were in German, half in English. Ann and I didn’t understand all that was said, and neither did some of the others. And it only intensified the sense of “ultimate reliance is on wholeness,” our third principle of PeerSpirit Circle.
Weeks later, we are still processing this experience: the balance of holding space and letting go of managing content, the chance to practice our belief that “the wisdom is in the room,” and our work is to help unleash it. We hear that the participants in this work, both the Belgian and the German sessions, are remaining in deep dialogue, supporting one another in opportunities to use what they learned. We move on in our autumn schedule with a profound sense of ongoing harvest.