When I arrived at Commonweal a little more than five years ago, it was a new world for me. I learned about environmental health, permaculture, and integrative medicine. I learned new ways of naming familiar things such as soul-work, generous listening, and healing circles. I experienced a new way of making meaning of the world around me.
My first experience at Commonweal, three months after I arrived, was attending the February 2014 Cancer Help Program. The week was transformative. There are not many moments in life where you can point to a specific week and know that it is where life’s course shifted direction. It gave me a deep understanding of why Commonweal is what it is—how an organization can have a soul that has kindness, generosity, and commitment at its core. And then, in some emergent way, that soul permeates into the work with teens, nature, healing, justice, and the environment.
My first instinct was to try and bring the experience of CCHP to more than just the 48 wonderful people that were blessed with a CCHP experience annually. There are always more people that want to come to Commonweal than we have the capacity to host. We do six retreats a year, which is all that is humanly possible for the amazing staff that work at the retreats.
So I was trying to figure out how we might grow CCHP to allow more people to have this experience. Since I came to Commonweal from an educational organization, I used the organizational tools that I had at my fingertips. I will figure out best practices of each of the areas of work—nutrition, exercise, relaxation, group support, integrative medicine, and “the Commonweal way.” This last item – “the Commonweal way” – was code for the unique quality that turns these retreats from didactic to soul work. Arlene Allsman, CCHP program coordinator and I met with Rebecca Katz and articulated the key components of the nutrition section, we met with Jnani Chapman to talk about integrative medicine, and we met with Kate Holcombe to talk about exercise and relaxation. In each case, we were able to identify best practices, instructional goals and time frame. It was an amazingly productive process. We were on a roll.
Then we asked Michael Lerner, Waz Thomas, and Jenepher Stowell to work with us on “the Commonweal Way.” We all gathered in my office for what I thought would be a two-hour meeting to articulate the best practices, the instructional strategies, and time framework. I framed the question and waited. There was a long silence. Out of respect for my elders, I waited… and waited. But nothing seemed to emerge. I tried asking leading questions. “What does the Commonweal Way mean? How does it appear over the week? What does staff need to know to make this happen?” All these questions were not resonating with them. It seemed there was no way to articulate what is intangible, that which is only an experience and not a theory, that which is learned, not through studying or reading, but through being.
So what is this intangible, ineffable thing, this “Commonweal Way?”
It seems you can’t teach it. You can’t put it in a list of best practices. But it does seem to be something you can make way for. Something you can allow to arise of its own accord. It has to do with how sacred space is held, how judgment is kept at bay, how silence is respected, how ego makes room for humility.
So even though I can’t exactly define the Commonweal way, to quote Justice Stewart, “I know it when I see it.” And, in Healing Circles, I think we all see it.
Healing Circles is not a classroom in which there are teachers and students, experts and novices. It is a learning community. The only requirements are to bring one’s soul and commitment and creativity to the work. These prerequisites might be stimulated by experiences like cancer or grief, but everyone has them, whether they are easily accessible or hidden for the time being.
We see these qualities of soul, commitment, and creativity emerge as new people join the team. There is never a moment in which we intentionally instruct team members how to be, just as we don’t instruct participants how to be. We just trust that, by being in the presence of the work, inspired by colleagues who have been at this for years, there will be some kind of transmission that will awaken the Commonweal way of being.
Which is why, when we think about adding new members to the staff, or when we invite people in hopes of creating another team to lead additional retreats, or when we are approached by a new friend or partner that would like to bring retreats for people with cancer to their community, all we can offer is to invite them to join the Cancer Help Program team for a week. We know that most of their questions and hesitations will be addressed by the end of the week.
The work is not miraculous. In the words of Torah, “It is not in heaven. It is in your words and in your heart already.” It is intentional. It is from the heart. It is truly a humble place of being that creates the container. There is no magic potion that makes this work work, though after going through the experience, only magic can explain what happens.
For me, Healing Circles has been that course in magic. Not big, showy, parting-the-sea miracles. But a course in how to heal in a way that feels deep, soulful, and lasting. The healing that happens when people, inspired by each other, come together to share experiences, learnings, pragmatic tools, and rituals, with a touch of music and a walk to the sea thrown in.
Healing Circles started more than five years ago. The community expanded when Michael, inspired by his new connection to Whidbey Island, decided to visit Callanish and Harmony Hill. The re-discovery of peers who are doing the same work, yet in their own ways, inspired the idea of convening a learning community, one that brings us together to learn from and experience with each other, one that can share ways to the more tangible parts of healing as well as what we might call now “The Healing Circles Way.” The Healing Circles Way is also a way of making meaning, of forming identity. There is a thirst and need for meaning in times of illness, physical challenges, and grief.
But something else is happening. Over the last five years, I have met many people, most of them in their 20s and 30s, who are feeling that thirst. In some cases, it is triggered by eco-grief. The loss of the planet, the darkening of their futures, the fear of fires, drought, fascism, and climate change. These young people come to Commonweal through our different programs including the Regenerative Design Institute, Power of Hope, and our gatherings series.
They come from all parts of the country. They are often young people who leave their parents’ communities, so they don’t have a geographic connection to a place. They leave their high schools and peer groups. They don’t have their home faith communities, and they often find themselves in communities of sameness, at least in terms of age and class, though often other demographics as well. In those circles, the sources of meaning, the inspiration for purpose, the moments that inspire values, morals, and ethics, as well as the containers of grief, loss, and illness, are not as accessible. One’s purpose, the coming together of wisdom, heart, and service, is out of balance. Maybe some of the work that we are doing here this week will ripple out and create a small shift where it is needed.
As we experience these next few days of our Healing Circles community, our focus is on the people we work with: often people with cancer and people in grief. I am also going to be thinking about how this technology, this “Healing Circles Way” might be a teaching for teenagers living with violence and racism in urban settings, millennials dealing with eco-grief and loss of meaning, or stressed communities in the rural part of the country.
Our healing circles are expanding geographically as well as within our own communities. There is now a five-day Cancer Help retreat at the French monastery in Ein Karem in Jerusalem. We have colleagues who are exploring ways to share some of the “way” with teenagers with serious illnesses as well as with their caregivers and parents. The waves are reaching new shores, too. Commonweal is involved in a new initiative funded by the Fetzer Institute in Kalamazoo that is seeking to strengthen retreat centers in North America. This initiative recognizes that the physical places are essential space that hold movements and transformation. These retreat centers, all over the United States and Canada, are looking for new ways to network, collaborate and share programs like Healing Circles and the Cancer Help Program.
We are in a moment in which healing is critical for our survival. Not only healing the political world, but the many vectors that threaten our existence on this planet. This is the immense work ahead of us. But we have the tools. We have the “Healing Circles Way,” the “Commonweal Way.” Gentle tools whose impact ripples outward. Never doubt that when we heal locally, we inspire globally.