How Important is the Circle?

How important is the circle in an Open Space Event? The circle is “opened” and I wonder what that means? Was it once closed? What is it opened to?

Jay Smith describes a circle opened by Alan Stevens in glowing terms:

“Alan walks into the circle, doesn’t say a word, just starts pacing in a circle.  Amazing, within a few short minutes everyone stopped talking and started focusing on Alan… Once the room was quiet Alan kicked it off. “

He goes on to say: “the opening circle is where everything is explained, the 4 principles and the 1 law and generally sets the tone for how the rest of the open space is going to flow, communicating schedules, needed resources, closing circle, etc.” (Source here.)

Karen Greaves adds this: “It all starts with the opening circle. Everyone sits in a circle, so that they can see every other participant. The circle is powerful. It reminds us that we are all equal. The facilitator sets the scene and introduces the over arching theme for the open space.” (Source here.)

Here it would seem the participants sit in a circle and focus “in”, to a central point, held or stewarded (not owned I hope!) by the facilitator.

The circle form is a balanced form, a complete symmetry,  symbolic of community, and thus an equality for all involved. No one has a different status as we sit together, in equal positions. We gaze inwards. Often there are cards or small post-its in the centre, and when the facilitator steps out, everyone transitions into the Market Place. Often here, the circle breaks, because the timetable is usually up a wall, somewhere outside the circle. So the circle physically opens a “doorway” to the timetable, usually when the Market Place opens.

Some facilitators have really tried to make the opening circle sacred, drawing on native and ancient traditions, walking in certain directions, bigging up the principles through an almost ritualistic voice, and using such items as Tibetan gongs and bells. (I’ll leave that to them, and offer a slightly different perspective in a moment).

As Michael Herman and Shipla Jain describe: ”

It’s common practice to “Open the Space” by ringing a small set of tibetan templebells
whose unique chiming gently and effectively pierces every conversation, even if the
group is several hundred strong. This immediately invites and focuses everyone’s
attention on the person with the bells, who is standing with another person who nearly
everyone in the room knows, or knows of.” (Source here.)

Without doubt, the circle is a good place for a community to meet. It has a long track record in different cultures, going way back. Even whole villages have been built as circles around a central meeting point. We sit around the fire. We circle dance, and planets even circle the Sun. Full circle is a symbol for resolution, for connection, for wholeness. So, why not have an opening circle?

Jack Martin Leith offers another perspective on the circle: “Participants sit in a circle or concentric circles. The facilitator states the focal question (e.g. What are the issues and opportunities facing pig farmers?) and outlines the Open Space principles and process.” (Source here.). So here, we have a circle of people who look centrally towards a focal point, which is the question that brought them all restlessly here. A common ground question becomes a kind of trigger for the circle to then open up to different sessions that explore that question.

I want to suggest that the  more fundamental opening circle at an Open Space, isn’t the physical one. It is an archetypal one, a spiritual one. When a group come together in free intention to explore and seek emergence, they look to each other, and the place in the middle of that gaze is the place of potential. This singularity creates and engenders the circle. And people feel it. The physical formation of a circle helps the invocation of that more  metaphysical circle. The people do not form the circle. It is the potential that calls forth a circle of people.

A group can physically sit in a circle and yet the more profound circle may be absent. Often you can then feel irritation arise, people talk over each other, there are void-like silences as opposed to the calm silences of waiting and deliberation. It isn’t enough to sit in a circle. A higher circle must come into being as well.

The ritual sacred-ising of some opening circles by some facilitators are designed to collectively tune everyone in to the deeper or perhaps, “higher” circle that is vital for hidden potential to emerge. Too often though the facilitator becomes the centre of the circle and, when he or she tries to step away, their shadow remains, in the way.

In a very fractured community, a strong circle form in the physical realm can be quick healing. But it some cases it can become a kind of over-clinical distraction. I use intuition and let the needs of the situation express themselves through me.  Sometimes the “higher circle” is already strongly present in a group that is physically not very in touch with each other. Here they share a common sense of restlessnessness, profound, yet not well formed with little rapport between each other in the room. At a recent arts based meeting, I sensed a lot of individuals and small groups meeting with their own specific issues and agendas but they all shared a deep and common sense of striving and struggle and wish to find common ground. The circle hovered clearly above the space, and all were part of it. Yet to put them in a neat circle would have distracted from that gaze. So, in a square shaped theatre space, we made a circle, but a bit of a messy one, a bit squarish. The slight mess was a humble acknowledgement, an acceptance of where we actually were. I trusted the higher circle, I could feel it there quite clearly.

As the market place opened, I noticed a few people making a few adjustments to where they were sitting and, without any intervention from me, the circle became a bit more circular, though it never found its perfect form. The Open Space that emerged  over the day was profound and valuable to the participants.

The circle is a powerful form – physical and archetypal. It takes on different forms, different versions of itself in physical reality. Sometimes it varies a little. Sometimes the higher circle requires less focus on the lower one. Sometimes the higher one is invoked through a perfect physical one. But sometimes not.

It should never be dogmatic.


Back to the Open Space Realm

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