Response to Heated Debate on Facebook

by Sean Wilkinson


During my recent travels leading Circling and receiving personal messages, there have been many concerned by some of the activity on our Fb forum. There has been a flurry of controversy, a few accusations, sincere attempts to bring understanding or depth and even some satire thrown in! The concern has been especially for the leaders and the level of personal scrutiny and sometimes significant, not clearly owned, aggression towards them. Further, there were strong reactions to how one-sided some of the views represented could be. I would like to respond to this with more perspective from my side, hugely supported by the other CE leaders. I want to do this aligned with the practice and attempting, the best I can, to stay open to what underlies this conflict and listening to the complexity and strong sensations that are being invoked. In this I want to honour the partial truths in the challenges that are coming, while being discerning and truthful about how I see their limitations and what my boundaries are for acceptable engagement.

In response to people’s concern, it is true that it has been difficult at times. This is sometimes because of thoughtful important questions and sometimes because of strong accusations that are often not diligently looking at the complexity of the situation. Further, what is most unacceptable for me to engage on issues of this matter is communication not grounded in curiosity and openness to explore. Of course, the leadership being challenged is a welcome part of the practice. However, in allowing the boundary of what is acceptable for us to be crossed we have spent a lot of time engaged in what is a seemingly impossible conflict. We do care considerably about the people involved and are grateful to be stimulated to go deeper into ourselves. This has lead to much work internally at CE and with our outside mentors. In the end this has been important and necessary learning. With this considered, the main realisation we are having is where we have fallen into a co-dependence in some relationships that have led to energy sapping activity that distracts us away from what most matters.

Right from the start, we are under no illusions that we have unconscious feelings, beliefs and behavior, some of this debate is rightly looking at this. I want to make it clear, that although it can be a difficult process, that I may struggle with sometimes, I am willing to explore in the right conditions. What is not acceptable for me is to be accused, psychoanalysed out of connection, to have past events brought up out of context and not see a care about impact and a willingness to hear my side of the story. What got pointed out to me by an important mentor is that if I allow the other to engage with me in a manner I would not expect from myself I am stepping into a co-dependence. This was humbling and deeply relieving. More on this later.

I want to emphasize to those that care about this community more information from behind the scenes. There is one pattern I especially want to outline. When we looked at the Fb statistics on our page, the vast majority of the main contributors to the activity are not leaders in our community. Not only are they not leading Circling or SL, they have very limited practice with us—mainly not having attended anything, sometimes only attending one online event. This is an organisational phenomenon that I have researched, which I feel is another perspective to add to the pot of this debate.

The research shows in a community that is thriving there is always a minority that are disgruntled with the leadership or the practice. This group of people are often more motivated to speak out and make more noise than the majority that are committed to deepening in the practice. One consequence of this is that in the process of the often stated motivation to speak up for minority voices, they are actually intimidating many others that don’t want to become targets of the same energy we have been receiving. At the same time, I do not want to unfairly give responsibility for our reactions to these protagonists, especially as their concerns for some voices not being included can be important. I also believe those that have been intimidated, to engage with these people in this debate, can look more deeply at themselves for what has held them back in this situation, if it is something deeply important to them. At the same time I imagine many were sensing the co-dependence that had them step back. I like the invitation to explore our reactions, watching not to excessively find where we are wrong, but sense into where our potential is pointing us.

I don’t want this forum to fall into a view that I believe can be crippling to truth: That every view is equally valid and should get equal attention. An example of this thinking can express in the idea that we should not restrict access to our forum, that we should allow every expression regardless of its merits. This is a myopic view; I believe it comes from something that is important—that every person deeply matters and has deep intrinsic worth. It can be hard to hold these two seemingly contradictory views together: that every view should not get equal attention even though every person has equal intrinsic worth. The view that everyone has an innocence and intrinsic worth has been a deep part of Circling and SL, and something we feel needs continual practice. However, we must hold the discernment around every view not being equally valid, which has also always been a part of the practice. This view is important to bring balance to this debate that has been heavily centred on how leaders can misuse their power. There is also a responsibility that everyone holds in the pursuit of good communication.

Someone who has little practice in our school of Circling and criticises what is happening is a lot different to someone who has practiced seriously for some years and has led their own community. Experience, practice and education matter. This doesn’t mean that people with experience and education don’t have limitations or blind spots. It also does not mean that someone with little experience and education doesn’t have something to add. They do, and they sometimes can bring wisdom that is fresh. However, if there is not a humility to an individual’s actual level of experience, their actions/leadership can create a lot of conflict and usually is mixed with a lot of shadow consciousness. And in the end it is usually they themselves that get the most hurt from this lack of humility. Again, if this is seen it does not feel wrong, but an opportunity to go into deeper authenticity.

In this debate some comments are extremely questionable in terms of the level of humility people are showing, and, thus, this is often accompanied by an unwillingness to own or look at potential shadow. Jung says ‘[one] must be convinced that [s]he throws a very long shadow before [s]he is willing to withdraw [their] emotionally-toned projections from their objects’ (Aion, 1959). Owning shadow is a complex process that often takes years to understand. I feel limited to go deeper into this here but one pointer that might help – if you believe you are justified in your view because of having good intentions it is highly likely you are defending unconscious feelings. The main invitation of the practice is when you feel righteous in your own perspective, feeling that you know clearly what is happening and what should be done, is to look closer at what you don’t know yet about others, the situation and, especially, yourself.

We have been criticised for asking people to take more ownership—something I don’t actually believe we have done as much as suggested. The partial truth in the criticism is it is not always good to correct people for their difficulty owning their experience as it can emphasise the difference in position or experience. It can also be unnecessary because you can feel the deeper parts of the other if you do not react to the unowned expression. Furthermore, it is often a much more powerful and honest engagement to find the motivation in oneself for asking someone else to take more ownership. Yet, the problem with what the perspective suggests – we should always try to understand the criticism coming towards us and honour the deeper feeling – is that our approach to Circling is about a trust in immediacy and authenticity. This means expecting leadership, or anyone else, to always hold people would go against a sincere engagement with each moment. It is also a potential trap of co-dependence. This is complex and we are not going to get it right every time. In the end, what is most important is it in the spirit of the practice to expect yourself to attempt to own your experience in every expression and at the same time go deeper in how we respond to those struggling to own their experience.

One of the main accusations to address in this debate is the one that people have been hurt, or traumatised, in Circling. This is a very important issue, which deserves an arena of deep mutual respect. We work very seriously looking at this potential in our leadership, and don’t underestimate the depth of pain some people experience in the practice. Circling and Surrendered Leadership can be profound practices that ask us to question our sense of reality and our constructed identities, to expand our boundaries for what we have thought and felt is possible on multiple levels — personally and collectively. This is not a painless process, but it is often a liberating and empowering one. It often allows for a realisation of our responsibility and powerful feedback about how we have been engaging with life. This growth is also not linear — and anyone who is practicing seriously has been through periods of darkness and light. It is also a practice where many find a home, and for that reason it seems that many people here are very impacted by these discussions in different ways. This is where we hope to bring more balance to the way this discussion has been framed thus far.

In terms of the accusations, this is where it feel the forum’s activity has potentially given the strongest one sided view. In the 6 years we have been leading, reaching 1000’s of people, there is actually a very, very low number reporting that they feel harmed by the practice (so far less than 0.5%). It is also very difficult to accurately understand what is happening in most of these case. This is my main challenge to accusations that believe it is a cut and dry case. How do we decide: what is traumatised; what is trigger; what is victimization; what is negligence; what is innocent exploration unable to deal with the complexity; what is a lack in ethics; what is a more complex ethics being attacked, what is arrogance hiding under a conceptual tower. Also, and more sensitively, is it easy to discern: what is genuine need desperate to be finally seen; what is projection and an internal chaos that will never be met or satisfied if continually engaged in conflict; what is an important message that needs integrating; what is a projection that until owned is aiming at revenge on the leadership for past hurt; what is leadership using power to make up for past hurt etc… To explore this complexity needs a commitment to conscious connection, otherwise it is impossible and unlikely to lead to much good for any side.

Those recently stating that they have heard of many cases of trauma, on closer inspection did not actually have any evidence of this outside a particular group that is forming around this issue. What is evident here, so far (and I definitely need continued reliable information), that these reports of trauma are coming from this very small group that have typically been more involved in the practice. These people have often had leadership involvement or aspirations with CE or other organisations in Circling. This means the dynamics are more complex and motivations on both sides on these issues usually need more presence to reveal. I for sure feel a lot of unknown around what is actually happening in these connections and continue to look. I do know I feel some anger when told by others speaking ‘on behalf’ of these people, suggesting they have a thorough understanding when most of them have not even heard a little of our side on these issues.

Thus, all the feedback we have received so far is coming from cases that are more complex than has been presented. We are still open to an appropriate arena to explore with these people and to hear their hurt. We care deeply that they feel pain in regards to our leadership and still wish for some way to meet this. Our boundary is only that this is explored with an openness to the deeper complexity. When I feel deeper into the dynamic it seems there are polarities working us all that are bigger than any individual. For example, the need/longing for connection and harmony, on one side, with the need/longing for autonomy and self dignity on the other. One perspective I am playing with is where it seems I got stuck on the side of finding deeper connection, when really wanting freedom, and the other side, in an expression of autonomy and dignity is really wanting safe connection. I must strongly emphasize this is an attempt at naming an underlying polarity and would need deeper exploration to substantiate. What is important is that if we are acting out one side of the polarity it is likely we will be in conflict and not in contact with the felt sense underneath.

With all these above points considered, I want to share more of my personal journey. I have been through a soul searching process. I have touched places of vulnerability around my leadership. One of the main themes being the questioning of how my unconscious may have been impacting my leadership and how this may have affected others. I feel firm that this is far from a new inquiry, SL and Circling is a paradigm fundamentally dealing with leadership and (un)consciousness. At the same time, I was certainly given access to some raw energy, and complex perspectives from this whole debate. As shown above, mostly through good feedback from those close to me, a tendency of turning inwards on myself from the criticism that actually should be energy going into boundaries. I have seen both sides; I’ve seen places where I felt I needed to reach out to people whom I felt my past actions may have hurt or confused. I have also seen where I allow myself to be harmed and continue to find the grain of truth in the other to the detriment of my own integrity. The deepest pain in this is where I have been a bad example to others in allowing co-dependent connection and allowed it to persist in our shared community space.

In terms of maintaining good boundaries, I want to make it clear that the recent activity on Fb can give a distorted view of what is actually happening in the world. My concern is that it gives the idea of a massive conflict and a picture of a lot of antagonism. The reality for us is that there is a lot to be happy and optimistic about. This is not to exclude the sometimes deep uncertainty and difficulty these debates point to. At the same time, we are growing steadily in both size and depth. This growth feels most significant internally within the practice community. It seems clear we are maturing, for example; more discerning and open in connection, developing our attunement to ourselves and others, deepening our self trust and compassion, including more of our raw experience and letting go of responsibility that is not true to come into a deeper responsibility. We are also grappling deeply with issues of power, sexuality and trauma within a post-conventional frame. This is being reflected in the fact that we are gaining more recognition and more leaders in our field are making an impact externally in the world.

For example, within CE we have brought in closer some excellent leaders—including sharing a great deal more responsibility and financial risk with them. As an example, four facilitators (Marysia, Blas, Valerie and Ellen) are newly leading weekends under the CE brand—the first time we’ve expanded like this since Jordan joined the company over three years ago. As a team we are continually becoming more intimate and aligned—where we would get feedback on posts like this from each other in the past, now we have a core team of eight sharing in the inquiry. Our workshops are growing and I believe deepening in grounding, clarity and openness, which the overwhelming majority of feedback confirms. Our SAS trainings are not only growing in number but also in diversity (practitioners from a wider variety of professions, in more widespread communities) and societal integration (with around ⅔ of the participants now coming to integrate the deeper truths Circling points to into their work rather than learning Circling for itself).

This growth seems especially due to our developing team, a dedicated community of serious practitioners, a culture of training in other practice modalities and the leadership working with excellent mentors (some of whom are considered world leaders in the fields around the topics addressed in this post). Just this week we have completed our first workshop in Esalen, one of America’s most important retreat centre’s and they have invited us back to give more extended trainings. We have also worked with AI specialists in Silicon Valley; are presenting at the European Integral Conference; have new communities growing; are being invited into more businesses, including Microsoft; invited to be the backbone of two major festivals (in the Netherlands and Texas), worked with one of the top global Philanthropy organizations, and in talks with a volunteering organisation working with Cancer patients interested in what we bring.

As good as this has been, I also want to share that my personal journey has put me in contact with the reality that external growth is not always a good indicator of internal maturity. It is easy to be driven and hardworking in a way that looks like something deeper is happening. In our leadership and the health of the organisation I continue to vulnerably look at the truth of what is authentic development and what is driven ambition, especially looking at our humility and connection to what most matters (I may say more on this in a future post). In line with this, one of the things we are most passionate about directing our attention to, rather than on Fb controversy, is working more closely with up and coming committed and talented leaders that want to bring either Circling or their form of the underlying ethos.

I hope this brings deeper perspective of the view from within CE. I hope in naming some of these dynamics we can start to navigate them in touch with the underlying immediacy and with support from the principles of the practice. This has always been the structure of the forum. I especially encourage people to go deeper to see where they may allow co-dependence in their Circling. This is not to abandon our commitment and skill to being with others, but it is bringing stronger leadership in what our true boundaries are. We are looking deeply at the whole structure of this forum and most likely will transition away from Facebook. It feels misaligned with our values and a distraction from the deep explorations we want to be engaged in as a practice community. At the same time, we are grateful for the aliveness, heart and intelligence many of you brought in the debate.