I was first introduced to Council one June afternoon at the Spirit, Mind, Body Institute at Columbia University and it impacted the trajectory of my life in ways it’s taken years to understand. This summer, I found myself back in that same city with JARED SEIDE, Director of Center for Council, an L.A.-based nonprofit that trains individuals and communities in the practice of Council, an age-old practice that involves bringing people together in a circle for candid and heartfelt conversations. It was an extraordinary opportunity to not only explore this age-old practice with a visionary leader, but to finally get a handle on this elusive, transformative experience.
That June day, I took my seat in the Council circle with no prior knowledge and no expectations. Looking around, I was part of a motley crew of about 50 strangers. Folks of different colors, ages, faiths, nationalities, sexual and gender orientations, criminal histories, education and income levels—a Benetton commercial of diversity only possible in New York City—sat side by side. We were given basic instructions, and encouraged to offer everyone in the circle our full presence by not rehearsing our answers while others spoke. Nervously squirming in my seat, I wondered, could I trust that when it was my turn to speak to a big room full of strangers, the right and perfect story would just come?
We shared simple stories: meaningful gifts given and received, favorite childhood toys.
Relaxing into the practice, the stories flowed naturally. A surprising alchemy was at play. Being so present and engaged in the stories being shared allowed me to access to deeper truths. These truths were unconscious and unknown even to me until the exact moment that I opened my mouth to speak, and my story tumbled out.
On it went: listen to someone’s story, share yours. Hear and be heard. See and be seen.
As we wrapped up, I stood and realized I was shaking. Leveled. Blown wide open. Listen, I’m no novice to stories. And I’ve had more than my fair share of personally transcendent experiences, momentary glimpses of the oneness of creation. In my more pretentious moments, I even fancy myself a professional listener. But this was totally new to me.
What in the hell had just happened?
Through our conversation, beloved Jared, equal parts statesman, teacher, and healer, held space for me to find clarity.
Inside that circle years ago, 50 willing strangers wholeheartedly turned ourselves over to this experience. We tried our best to be present, to listen, and to share our stories. That pure, collective intention ignited an indescribable, intangible but unmistakable electric current. You could feel the thread of our interconnection activated. It coursed and pulsed between us transforming 50 distinct me’s into one we. Jolting us into a new state of awareness, the current itself grew stronger, enlivening each of us as it flowed.
That current? It’s ALWAYS there. Accessible to us at any moment. To You. Me. Your boss. That loud mouth on social media, and kid that bullies your kid on the bus. It’s our birthright. Every last one of us has the potential to sit in the circle and plug into the current.
We just have to create the spaces to do it.
Jared and his mighty band of Council trainers are leading the charge in our public institutions to plug into that current.
But Jared will be the first to tell you, Council isn’t the only answer. Dr. Joan Halifax was at Ojai Foundation when she sensed a common thread in wisdom traditions throughout the world spanning thousands of years. Pulling together strands of these ancient practices, she wove Council to be a modern interpretation. Council is but one of many generators of the current.
There is no time to lose creating new spaces where, as Jared says, our illusion of separation can be challenged. What we’re seeing in America today, is the rampant polarization when our reptilian brains go unchecked. Our default software is an “other-making” machine—constantly scanning for trouble, judging quickly, and dividing each situation into “us vs. them.”
As Jared laments in this video, he knows the dark side of the human potential well, having worked in witnessing and reconciliation in Auschwitz with Zen Peacemakers, in Rwanda, and in Bosnia. He minces no words: the othering that created the conditions for genocides and holocausts is here. The soil that allowed for that hate to take root is here. In our United States. Today.
At the end of our intimate, hour-long, meandering conversation, Jared said he felt the intensity of my longing for the connection that containers like Council bring. Feeling momentarily exposed, I shrugged it off. But he’s exactly right. I’ll own it: I have an unquenchable longing to plug into this current with you. It breaks my heart that more of us don’t remember what the current feels like.