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  • teresamckee

Going in Circles

I realize it’s not unusual for me to start a podcast with, “I confess,” because I want to make it crystal clear that none of us are completely mindful or perfect, including those of us who train or write books or host podcasts. So, I confess that I’m in need of some refocusing and strengthening of my own mindfulness practices.

I’ve habituated much of what’s involved in being mindful, largely because so much of what I do for a living is related to mindfulness. Meditating, reflecting, reframing, considering a broader perspective, considering my impact on others and observing my own thoughts. And I think that’s part of the problem. It’s great to habituate a behavior you’re trying to grow or change because the brain doesn’t have to consciously work as hard at it, but I’m losing a little bit of my conscious connection to what it means to be mindful by teaching it to others and doing it automatically myself.

There are many strategies to take when we feel we’re just not fully connecting. Meditation retreats, an online class, a new book on a fresh practice. One approach is also to turn to groups. I’ve not been great about group work in the past, I assume because I work with groups every day, so when I attend to my own needs or growth, I prefer a solo approach, but it’s worth considering because studies indicate that group meditation results in the same health benefits as meditating individually, but there are some additional benefits, such as meeting like-minded people, gaining support and encouragement from peers in a group setting, and for some, increased motivation to meditate because of group expectations, you know, peer pressure. There is an added benefit reported by group meditators which is recognizing that we are not alone but connected.

The main downside of group meditation was having to drive somewhere to practice, but once the shutdowns started last year, many facilitators and teachers began increasing online environments. Being on Zoom almost every day, it took me awhile to really connect with participants in our workshops or group meditations online, but once I got the hang of it, I’ve found many benefits of groups coming together online. I just haven’t joined a group for myself, yet.

A potential client recently contacted me to see if I facilitated drum circles. I do not and certainly have no idea how to do one online, so I had to decline, but it got me thinking about circles as group activities. There are so many types of circles, like drum circles, reflective circles, prayer circles, book circles, listening circles and learning circles just to name a few. It made me wonder what the significance is of a circle.

One of my first thoughts was that we’re going in circles as the Delta variant of the pandemic has brought the virus back into front and center for most of us and it feels like we’re experiencing the beginning of a repeat of last year. I hope not, but it feels kind of like we’re stuck in an endless loop. But that grim thought aside, circles are actually pretty fascinating.

A circle is a whole made up of equally valuable parts. When you sit in a circle, you are part of a community of equals striving for knowledge, depth or meaning. In many times and cultures, the circle has been recognized as a sacred space. Anethea Francine, a workshop leader and ceremonialist, talks about the significance of the form:

"When we sit in a circle it reminds us that the point of reference is the middle, and the middle is both empty and full of everything. Everyone is equidistant from the middle so there is no sense of hierarchy. The point of reference changes as different people speak. It is a different kind of focusing and a different type of awareness about relationship to one another and to the whole when we sit in a circle."

Just as the circle mirrors equality, it’s also symbolic of how everything is connected. There is no beginning and no end. It reinforces the idea that when we gather to make connections, we strengthen each part as well as the whole community. And the work, like the shape of a circle, is ongoing. We’re on a journey and it is the traveling itself that is important, not the destination.

Dialogue circles are common in education, gatherings in which all participants sit in a circle facing each other to facilitate open, direct communication or in classrooms where children learn and take turns sharing. Dialogue circles provide a safe, supportive space where community members can talk about sensitive topics, work through differences, and build consensus.

Sitting in a circle helps us to fully see each other as equals, sharing meaning, creativity, and a common center. It starts with being grounded in our experience of what is, which is of course what mindful practice is, and being grounded in our feelings as well as in the things that are truly important to us. Circles provide us an opportunity to be honest, take risks, be vulnerable, allowing the vitality and emotion we feel to find its way into our voice when we speak. It is not uncommon to find ourselves saying things we have not said before or sometimes something we didn't even realize we thought or felt. Our westernized culture seldom embraces this kind of openness and honesty, so most of us need a safe space in order to speak from our hearts.

This is a different kind of gathering than most of us are used to. The focus is on dialogue, exploring and learning together, and not on getting things done or following an agenda.

Circles aren’t just for personal development. They’re empowering in business, too. According to a recent Canadian study, if people are sitting in a circle, they’re more apt to cooperate, while if they’re arranged into rows, they’ll become more independent and competitive.

Circles have appeared throughout history in mysterious ways that show them being regarded as highly spiritual shapes. Some examples include Stonehenge in England, Gobekli Tepe in Turkey, the chakra wheel in Hinduism, and the ancient Chinese symbol of the yin yang, among many others.

According to, the circle was celebrated as a mystical and spiritual shape by humans earlier than we originally thought, through evidence of the aforementioned Gobekli Tepe, a temple built in Turkey estimated to having been built around 9,000 B.C. This was the earliest discovered religious or sacred building constructed for purely spiritual purposes, and it is structured in the shape of a circle.

In Zen Buddhism, the most well-known symbol of a circle is the enso, a circle drawn in one or two brushstrokes that is used to express “a moment when the mind is free to let the body create.” It represents enlightenment, the void, and the cycle of the universe.

In Zen Buddhist teachings, the circle symbolizes the heart sutra, which states that “form is empty, and emptiness is form.” The circle represents that at the root of all things is emptiness, yet, emptiness does not mean nothing. It means releasing attachment to your perceptions and ideas and experiencing reality with an open mind as the key to enlightenment.

In essence, the circle represents seeing reality as it really is, not what you believe or anticipate it to be. When you release your attachments and expectations of life, there are limitless potentials of what life can be, as is the nature of a circle.

In Christianity, the circle represents eternity and sacred union. A circle has been referenced many times in the Bible as the shape of heaven, and as the beginning and ending of time. The circle also appears frequently in Christian text as a crown on the head, a halo over the head of an angel or saint. It represents holiness and perfection. And you may recognize it as the frequently used symbol of a ring when two people are joined together in marriage.

The circle also plays a role in many Native American beliefs and traditions and is the basis for many modern-day circle group practices.

As I was exploring group options to sort of reboot my mindfulness practice and had all of this information on circles, my initial thought was to look into this once the pandemic numbers calm down again. But then I started thinking about Zoom and some similarities popped into my head. There is no hierarchy on Zoom, just as in a circle. People’s boxes randomly move around based on their speaking during a Zoom session and unless someone puts a title next to their name, there are no identifiers related to role or supposed importance. Hmmmm.

Zoom can also be a safe space to share, as long as the discussion is well-facilitated, and participants all agree to hold safe space for each other. If a live circle is at least temporarily not an option, maybe an online circle could work.

Cue Omar Brownson, a guest on our program over a year ago when he launched his Gthx gratitude app. A true guru of gratitude, Omar has partnered with Belinda Liu in creating online gratitude circles. Gratitude and mindfulness have much in common, as both require being present to the moment, to what is right now. A gratitude practice is in some ways a different perspective on mindfulness.

Called Gratitude Blooming, they’ve created an online community that uses cards depicting different flowers on each that refer to a word and a reflective prompt. The cards were created by artist Arlene Kim Suda and are available as an actual card deck, but for the online circles, an electronic deck is on screen and a participant draws one at a time for the group to reflect on and then discuss, if they wish.

I appreciated the association of this practice with nature. I had recently set an intention to get more in touch with nature again, having spent several weeks sitting too long at my computer each day, and the beauty and richness of nature is one of the most effective methods for getting grounded, getting in touch with ourselves and reconnecting to the magnificence of the world around us. Omar and Belinda introduced me to a way to connect nature with a group circle and I feel motivated to start practicing.

The best way to learn is experientially, so I joined Omar and Belinda in a small gratitude circle to see how this works. Following a meditation to get grounded and centered, it’s a matter of selecting a card and having all participants reflect on it, noticing what comes up for them, and then sharing their thoughts and feelings. It was a very interesting experience and an excellent reminder for me that I need to carve out more time for inner reflection, but that it is also very enriching to share these types of experiences with others.

We’ll have Omar on the podcast soon to talk more about gratitude practices and the circle gatherings, but in the meantime, you can find more information at

Life is cyclical, which of course could be another circle, and it’s normal for us to experience the range of full consciousness to mindlessness as these cycles ebb and flow. If you’re in an ebbing period, recognizing it as such is mindful, even if you’re feeling bored with it or tired of constantly working at it. Noticing our thoughts and feelings is still a mindful act and provides us with an opportunity to choose our next steps.

My next step is to get reenergized and find new methods for raising my own consciousness as well as new strategies for teaching others. As I reflect on the past year and a half from where I am now, I have much to be grateful for, so focusing on my gratitude practice may be just the ticket to rejuvenating my mindfulness practice and getting back into flow.

All of us have much to be grateful for, even if it is for hard lessons learned lately. I hope you can allow your gratitude to bloom in the coming days and mindfully pause and reflect on what comes up for you. And whether you feel moved to join an in-person group, an online group, or practice in private, any form of meditation benefits your mental and physical well-being. Invest some time in yourself because you’re truly worth it.

Until next time. We can live better lives and create a better world. All it takes to get started is a mindful moment.

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