by Lynnaea Lumbard, Ph.D.
There are four basic guidelines for participating in council:
1) Listen from the heart
2) Speak from the heart.
3) Be spontaneous.
4) Be lean.
I put Listen from the heart first, for most of council and most of any real communication is about listening. The point is to listen fully to each person, staying present for what he or she is saying and not rehearsing what you are going to say. This has its own magic, for when you listen from your heart, it is like opening your arms and receiving the other person. They know it and feel it and something comes forward from them that wouldn’t otherwise. They unfold as deeper, more thoughtful, and more concerned people in front of your eyes. When you listen from your heart, you hear what’s going on underneath their words and it becomes increasingly difficult to judge them.
Speaking from the heart asks us to pause, slow down, breathe, and tune into our deeper self. We drop into our vulnerability and our truth, letting our souls do the talking and not just our heads or our reactions. Speaking from the heart could be a guideline for any utterance, at any time, anywhere. I use it as a mantra, continually reminding myself that my intention is to speak from my heart.
Being spontaneous is another way of saying, “you don’t have to rehearse to be yourself.” People are infinitely more interested in hearing our real, authentic feelings and thoughts than what we think we should say or have planned to say. Letting go of our “performers” and just being direct and honest with whatever comes up takes us into soul relationship with our listeners. We all long for places where we can just tell the truth without having to look good.
Being lean means saying what is essential, what needs to be said. Sometimes we need to say a lot, but we all have been in situations where someone in a circle loses consciousness of the others and rambles on and on. Less is often more. Lean is important whether we are in a dyadic council with our partner working on the issues of relationship or in a group sharing our responses to an event. It implies that you have listened to what else has been said and only need to say what has not been said. Your piece adds to a whole that emerges from everyone. One of the great mysteries of council is that the whole, when everyone has said their small piece, is infinitely more magical and beautiful than the sum of its parts might imply.
These four guidelines, coupled with offering a dedication to the council and insisting that only the person who has the talking piece can talk, create a sacred structure that transforms ordinary conversation into very different kind of dialogue which carries the quality of a soul communion. Suddenly one feels safe to speak the deeper truths. Everything is changed by these simple adjustments to our speaking with each other. It is amazing that something so simple could work so well.
Yet it does. I so trust the process of council that whenever I want to deepen the connection or open into a soul dialogue with someone or a group, I call for a council. This has taken me into some interesting situations and through some difficult territories, yet always the result is more understanding, more compassion, more love, and more connection with others. Ultimately, I come away from any council in awe of what fabulous, intricate, delicate beings we are and the power we have to learn and grow with and from one another.
I now open and close all workshops with a council. An opening council is almost always about where each individual is in their lives at the moment. I have come to learn that wherever it is, if you speak it, it will move and you will become more present and attuned to the whole. What unfolds through every one’s participation is always richer, truer, and more beautiful than I could have imagined. Even when someone brings up very difficult material for the group to deal with, someone later in the council will offer a completely different perspective that resolves the issue. The knowledge that everyone will be heard allows each individual to relax and be present. Even when you yourself are carrying the difficult material, just getting to speak your few words moves your energy and you can get on with what’s next.
An ending council helps integrate any group experience by allowing the learnings to be named. There is a satisfaction that comes from this naming that completes the energy of a group and lets it be released. In our Vision Fast work, where we take people out into the desert for 11-day wilderness quests, council is an essential part of incorporating the quest into daily life. Our being able to speak our stories makes them more real to us. Deep listening to another person’s story helps us understand our own experiences more deeply. A particularly moving ending council found me in a wooded clearing near a Hill Tribe village in Northern Thailand, after a 24-hour solo in the forest. Buddhist monks, American seekers, and activists from all over the world spoke their experiences in council at the end of a ten-day bearing witness walk. Whatever the depth and beauty of our own journey, it was magnified exponentially with every other person’s experience. A solidarity occurred across racial, ethnic, religious, national, and gender lines that remains to this day one of my most inspiring examples of hope for the human race.
Another inspiration of hope is arising out of a Los Angeles pilot project that introduced council in a middle school eleven years ago. Based on a nineteen year old program begun at Crossroads School, council is proving effective in creating respectful and honoring communication amongst kids from diverse and often hostile backgrounds. There are now well over 3000 elementary, middle, and high school students experiencing council on a weekly basis throughout Los Angeles, with additional programs well underway in Boulder, Colorado and other cities. Imagine being in the seventh grade and learning to speak to your peers about what was really concerning you in your life?
My most profound council experience happened last October at the first meeting of the International Wilderness Guides Council, held in Germany. In the center of a circle of 120 guides from all over the world, dedicated to restoring wilderness rites of passage, we held country councils. Ten people from each country would address the questions: What is the greatest challenge in being from your country and what are your greatest resources? The Germans went first, then the South Africans, followed by the Americans. The passion and power of each person’s struggle with pride and shame, frustration and inspiration, insecurity and determination linked all of us at a heart level that completely transcended any national boundaries.