Encountering the Stranger

by Sean Wilkinson

The Furnace

On the last day of the festival this year we created ‘The Furnace’. It was a workshop based on an ancient Mesopotamian ritual where the leaders are taken from the city and asked to answer for where they did not live up to their ideals. Inspired by this notion, John, Jordan and I sat in the middle of a Circle open to feedback; for three hours!

As the name suggests the process was intense. I loved the sense of vulnerability and action packed nature of the Circle. I loved coming together in service of more truth and accountability. I loved the group navigating many perspectives and feeling states simultaneously. At the same time, deeper inside I knew that I had not been able to fully receive the gift that was being reflected to me.

For this gift to become clear time has been necessary.

The struggle to hear

After the festival I kept returning to the criticism about how we welcome newcomers into the community.

At the time I struggled with the feedback.

I felt the pain of not being seen. I felt protective around how much I have already contributed to bringing people into Circling and Surrendered Leadership (SL for short).

The feedback kept whispering to me.

I was reacting as if the feedback threatened our vision of the practice, and the unique transmission of Surrendered Leadership. I felt how much capacity it often takes to consistently transmit our practice while it is not being honoured or understood. However, with hindsight, I see the courage and passion that the participants of this Furnace Circle brought to question how we welcome newcomers.

Insight into my own limitation

Since the festival I have gained insight that helps me see the vulnerability that was having me protect myself.

The feedback pointed me towards an unknown, a place I might meet a new dragon. This means a place that both challenges me and shows me my limitations.

At the same time, this has encouraged me to look at what it truly means to encounter newcomers as they come to try our practice.

Facing the dragon

It was Jordan Peterson’s Biblical Lecture Series that helped me understand the dragon I was avoiding in the feedback. These lectures have inspired me in how to understand deep structures in being and the unknown.

Peterson has created a modern psychological understanding of the biblical narrative. In one lecture he talks about Abraham and how God had instructed him to welcome strangers into his house. In Peterson’s perspective God represents all of reality, the essential being that includes all we know, and all that is beyond our knowing. Abraham is then a symbol of someone who through wise action has become attuned to this essential being. This attunement is symbolised by him being able to hear God’s voice. From this perspective the biblical story is pointing us towards a deep wisdom in the structure of being that tells us to welcome strangers.

This ancient wisdom makes a deep impression on me and wakes me up to how I can never know the full transcendent potential in a stranger; or the hidden dangers. The stranger comes from a complete unknown. It is easier to keep them at a distance, to stay slightly guarded or suspicious. It is also easier to stay in my own circle that I know shares my moral outlook.

This story of Abraham parallels the feedback we received in the festival on how we welcome newcomers.

Sacrificing the known

It takes a real sacrifice to let go of the known—the comfort of being with those you are at home with—and invite in a stranger. Now consider giving them the same hospitality you would give your best friend or family.

In the biblical story Abraham shows the highest sacrifice by killing his best calf to feed strangers. God (reality or being) rewards him with divine gifts for his ability to give himself in this way.

This metaphor hit me. I was not giving my best calf to the strangers in this festival. And I certainly don’t give my best calf to strangers in my life in general. This has humbled me into seeing how I have been turning away from being, that in the moments I choose my own comfort over greeting those I have yet to meet, I am becoming less attuned to reality and the gifts it brings me.

Am I willing to sacrifice?

I am so at home with the people whom I know share the same morals or principles. This is understandable‚ it is amazing what happens in these connections.

However, I shy away from a full encounter with many newcomers/strangers, and I often am not able to sacrifice my favourite calf to welcome them in.

This sacrifice of the calf could symbolise some of the time I can spend with those that have most nourished me in the past.

The Real Challenge of the First Encounter

It takes a significant sacrifice to do what Abraham did. The real challenge of a first encounter becomes more clear as we look deeper into it. A stranger is a potent mirror: maybe they will reject me, maybe they will not understand or judge my values, and worse still maybe the conversation will be trivial and awkward.

This last point—that the connection could be trivial—doesn’t sound such a risk at first glance. I actually think it is huge.

When you know what is possible in connection (even intuitively), it feels painful to walk away with only superficial contact. It is already worth it to share a heartwarming story, a smile, or the simple interest to know each other better. However, this is only the beginning of the potential. A meeting can be a portal to the transcendent, a confrontation of souls, a dance with archetypes, a touching of a raw human togetherness, or the realisation of shared purpose and possibilities to trade creativity.

When all this is possible falling into an awkward, polite, unmet moment is a real tragedy.

This realisation can sting even more when we see how many moments in our lives we have missed opportunities to be transformed by an encounter with a stranger.

Avoiding real contact?

I believe the significance of meeting someone, plus the chances of missing the mark, makes real contact easy to avoid.

Instead of meeting it head on I can project my own inadequacy on their inability to understand what I am about.

This projection is actually only creating more turning away, meekness and distance from my own yearning soul.

Daring to meet strangers

This new insight leads me to a new calling: to step into the unfamiliar, to notice my fear, my arrogance, my seeking comfort and dare to meet strangers in all walks of life.

This means showing up with the shopkeeper, the person asking for money on the street, the taxi driver.

This means leaning with fullness towards those willing to come and try Circling and Surrendered Leadership.

In our practice community I can sense new creative structures, led by committed leaders, supporting newcomers to experience what is dear to us.

But these new structures are only meaningful to me if they are truly from the heart; if they touch a deeper layer in us about what it really means to encounter a new human being.

This is what inspires me as I step into the infinite possibilities of encountering those I am yet to meet.


  1. I love reading this! I feel more inspired to dare stepping into the unknown with new people.

  2. wow, what an bold transforming step to look into these dragons of fear that show up in simple meetings between people and how we avoid them. Circling has done so much for me and yet I know I have a perpetual journey in self discovery. This slaying of your best calf was something that I wont forget soon. Without this context of circling, the best calf seems to me like it is some sort of attachment or arrogance. I feel inspired after reading this to meet strangers and slay some sheep, but maybe I will stay the same.

  3. Thanks for sharing this, Sean. From having read your article I’m left with a sense of vulnerability and excitement – and a feeling of expansion that I would also call love. What I imagine you will feel as what you describe unfolds. I’m also inspired to take a deeper look at my own life to see where I avoid letting go of the known in order to stay safe. xxx

  4. Hey Sean, I like your article.

    It raises the question in me whether you need to always bring yourself so fully to strangers. Maybe also : is it what you want?

    I am working a lot with personal boundaries at the moment and actual learning that I don’t have to open up so much to everyone, because often my space is invaded in some way.

    Also, maybe I don’t always want it. Not because of some fear, but that from a deeper place I truly want something else.

    When I feel into where you are I imagine that maybe your energy field is more steady so you can go into more meetings without having to worry about being invaded.

    Second, I imagine that in your calling of bringing the Circling practice to the world, that in that space meeting the strangers more fully might be what you truly want.

  5. I admire your courage to face the new dragon:-). Love this writing, thank you.

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