Transformation, Spirituality, Collective Intelligence

The Circle of Presence: Building the Capacity for Authentic Collective Wisdom

Our first article (Kosmos, Spring / Summer 2012) gave an overview of the new human capacity we are starting to articulate—that we call Collective Presencing, the purpose of which is to allow us to systematically achieve collective wisdom. We described the two distinct phases that we see unfolding as a collection of individuals learns to become a collective capable of employing this capacity on behalf of the whole: firstly, becoming a circle of presence, then becoming a circle of creation.


This second article describes in more detail what it takes to become a circle of presence. What is the groundwork that individuals must do, through collective practice, in order to come into presence together as a collective container for a ‘circle being?’ And what is the journey like that brings us there?

In the first article, we saw that this first phase is a process of deepening and widening alignment that brings the individual members of the circle into an embodiment of their own authentic selves (deepening), on the one hand, and into a growing awareness of complexity and interrelatedness (widening), on the other.We can liken the process of deepening to learning to hold a melody in order to be able to sing harmoniously in a choir. In the steps towards building a circle of presence, the individual is learning to discern what is authentic and what is learned and adaptive behaviour. Paradoxically, the way to do this is by learning to hear the melodies of others in the circle. We can discover our unique gifts only in interaction with others. When each member of the circle is grounded in their own authentic voice, then comes the practice of choral improvisation—learning to sense and ride the shifting patterns of the whole.

The process of widening takes us through the self and then beyond, in expanding waves through the other, the group and the field of future potential. Each of these stages of widening both requires and teaches distinct capacities, which are the main focus of this article. It is important to recognise that all these capacities can be learned: we feel that this learning is a crucial task for humanity at the dawn of the new epoch.

Journey Through the Self—Developing the capacity for subtle sensing to live an authentic life.

We live our lives in the realm of experience. In the manifest, everyday world, we tend to narrow this down to what we can experience with our physical senses to see, hear, smell, taste and touch. But as we journey deeper through the Self, we uncover a much wider spectrum of increasing subtlety. We notice that our experiences also include ideas, beliefs and emotions. Seeing this, in turn, involves consciousness and awareness—the capacity to reflect on our experiences and witness what is happening within. Harder to discern are the subtle perceptions—the hunches, intuitions and inner promptings that guide our steps along life’s path, if we but listen.

In all of this, the body is primordial. All experience (including reminiscence and dreaming of the future) happens in real time, through the body. Our subtle impressions, while they might not register with our gross physical senses, nevertheless have an undeniable impact on the material plane, and they are felt in the body before they become present to the mind. Indeed, it takes a conscious act of will to direct the attention towards them and allow their messages to percolate through into consciousness.

If we are to dance gracefully with complexity and uncertainty, we need to develop the capacity to sense the subtle dimensions in ourselves, in others and in the environment.  We need to learn systematically to notice shifts in energy, vitality, life force, so that we can follow the signals showing us where life wants to flow.

As we develop our capacity for subtle sensing, great discernment is needed. Are we actually sensing something from the future or a prompting from the soul, or is it just wishful thinking or emotional projection? The physical body is both a storehouse of old memories and an exquisite receptor of information from the field around us. If we are to discern between what is old stuff and what is really here and now, we must become deep listeners.

So how does one go about developing this capacity? Many people think it’s a gift: you either have it or you don’t. But in reality, it is an inherent part of what it is to be human, and it can be learned. The journey involves:
•  withdrawing from our default way of seeing—taking a distance from matter itself, taking a wider view with a softer focus so that we can start to notice what is happening in relationships and energy exchange. We must learn to treat the information that comes to us from seeing, feeling, hearing and intuiting as equally valid and complementary to the information provided by thinking.

•  slowing down—it takes time to let our subtle sensing reach our consciousness. This can require an intentional change of life—or work style—away from the rat race and towards something more restful and closer to nature.

•  practicing sensing in everyday life—learning to stop and ask, moment by moment, ‘What am I called to do next?’ and to stay still until a clear prompting comes through.

 training the body to act as a container to hold the energies of feeling, thinking, chaos and wisdom, on behalf of the whole. Disciplines that train the body/spirit complex include aikido, tai chi, yoga, dance, dynamic meditation and many more.

Developing this capacity for subtle sensing allows us to see what is actually happening in and around us without judgement, opening up to the fullness of experience at all levels. As our field of perception expands, we learn to embrace the subtler layers of our experience, witness and suspend our habitual emotional reactions, and take full responsibility for our feelings, perspectives and actions. This emotional maturity allows us to relax more fully into relationship with others, sharing feelings without interpretation and knowing ourselves to be intimately linked to and held by a greater whole. As we learn to own the deepest parts of ourselves, there is congruence between our speech, actions and deepest feelings. The beauty of our essence shines through. Once I honour my deepest self, the only possible next step is to live my self to its fullest potential.

Journey Through the Other—Developing the capacity to integrate shadow and enter into authentic relationship.

Unless we can be flexible in dealing with life, we cannot be fully present. As soon as a vulnerable spot is touched in our interactions with others, our defense mechanisms kick in. We are stuck acting out our survival patterns—which formed long before we were consciously acting in the world. These patterns are so deeply ingrained that we experience them as part of our personality: they are how we handle conflict and protect our vulnerabilities from others. We all have different patterns, but they all have one thing in common: they prevent us from relating in a healthy way with the other. Before you can relate authentically to another, you must first deal with your own inflexibility and heal the unconscious parts of your personality.

The ‘shadow’ is that part of us which, from our earliest childhood, was not allowed to live in the full light and so retreated into the shade. By the time we are grown, we are convinced it is the other who carries the shadow, not us. What we have disowned now sits so thoroughly in our blind spot that we quite unconsciously project it onto the other, where it looks completely real. Our task is to take back our projection and re-integrate the disowned part it represents. Often we first greet it with guilt or shame. It takes courage and sensitivity to open up and remember it as part of ourselves; when we do, we encounter the hurt child who needs space, attention and recognition. These shadow parts—the things about ourselves we want to hide—are essential to our true authenticity. They hold the gift of who we are; a gift we can bring to the world only when we are fully present; a gift without which we cannot live up to our fullest potential.

Having realised that my inflexibility and charged emotions are my own, there is a huge release of energy: there is no more need to fight, discuss, blame, hold back. I am finally free to embark on the journey towards authentic relationship. I can open my heart to others and see them as they are—no more and no less: as human beings with their own unique wounding and gifts.

The core practices here are:

•  deep, clean listening—listening to the other with full attention, beyond, behind, between the spoken words. Simply witnessing and being present to what the other has to share without giving advice or seeking to fix.

•  suspending judgement and prejudice—seeing my own beliefs and ideas as only one small part of reality.•  looking beneath the surface to discern the essential authentic self of the other, recognising what lies underneath their personality, wounds, shadows and survival patterns.

staying open when emotionally triggered—transcending the mechanism of projection to honour the other even as her words ignite my anger or my fear.

•  voicing disturbance—witnessing what is going on between the other and me, sharing my emotional charge in order to integrate it and to deepen our heart connection in service of the whole.

 embracing diversity—recognising and fostering the different ways of sharing and expressing in a group.

 impersonal love—being free from attachment, judgement, requirements or expectations; holding and letting life unfold.

As we embrace true relationship with the other, our sense of separateness diminishes. Our experience of ourselves as a flow expands as we learn to hold both the other and ourselves in full focus at the same time. This relational field needs to be mastered before we can live, love and respect on a group level, just as we need practice at the group level before we can start to live together in real emergence.

Journey Through the GroupDeveloping the capacity to hold a collective field.

In Western society, where the focus is on the individual, we find it hard to imagine subordinating our individual interests to the well-being of the group and to its purpose. In the context of collective presencing, this subordination entails neither submerging the individual identity nor conforming to a group norm. Rather, it is simply the next step in our development, from dependent or over independent to inter-dependent; a recognition that we cannot attain our highest potential without the group, and that the group needs our full potential in order to attain its highest purpose. We recognise that if any element of the group holds back, then the whole system is holding back. In this context, leadership rotates or is assumed by the collective. We are all leaders. We participate fully and share overall responsibility.

Once every member is participating fully, each can relax and deepen their trust in the group as a whole. I can open to the group as a community that takes care of me in those areas where I am not the expert. I can follow the suggestions of others who have more expertise or experience than I do. Only when we learn to act out of our unique, authentic self can we experience the full holding of the group. Allowing oneself to be held by the group is as important as offering one’s contribution, but this can often be challenging for individuals used to leading, coaching or facilitating others. Paradoxically, though, it is often when one member of the group takes a risk—showing some vulnerability—that the collective really shows up.

We saw in the previous section some of the unconscious dynamics that go on in an interaction between just two people. Multiply that by (n x (n-1) to get a feeling of what is at play in a group. Opening into the inner realms of the collective means not only releasing our judgements and projections on individuals, but also awakening to the deeply held shared assumptions and mental models of the group which, because they are shared, stay underground out of sight. This shared culture both creates our sense of belonging and limits our vision and understanding. If a group can step beyond these invisible boundaries, new ways of thinking, acting and creating will unfold.

Above and beyond the interpersonal dynamics and shared beliefs, each group operates within a subtle energetic field that is about neither entity nor process, you nor me, purpose nor path. It is neither particle nor wave—rather, it is both. It is the subtle, structuring mesh of our combined potentials—a web of invisible strands holding a collective potential that has never yet seen the light of day. Harnessing the potentials contained in the group’s field is one of the core capacities of a Circle of Presence, and it needs some explaining.

Looking more deeply into the subtle phenomena that lie beyond and beneath the 3-dimensional world of our everyday sensory experience, we discern the realms of Spirit and Source. These two are like the first couple that emerged from the One at the dawn of creation—the first paradox that spawned all the others: light/darkness, yin/yang, inner/outer, masculine/feminine. When we disengage from our immediate experience in order to witness, think and reflect upon it, we are moving towards Spirit—the realm of consciousness and awareness. When we drop down into our bodies, away from words and concepts into the world of ‘night consciousness,’ of subtle energies, sensing and deep inner knowing, we are moving towards Source—the realm of unmanifest potential.

The practice par excellence for connecting with Source is ‘holding space’ for potential to manifest—and that makes it a core practice in a Circle of Presence. It is what good parents do for their children, and what good facilitators do when hosting conversations and change processes in groups. It should also be a core competency in leadership teams required to deal with complexity and uncertainty. Perhaps the greatest challenge in this subtle work is its invisibility: there is no way to observe it being done and no scientifically accepted way to demonstrate its impact. Simply put, it involves connecting, through the body, with the unmanifest potential of whatever is being held—be it a person, a group, a place or a project. To hold space is to open the body and the subtle senses into conscious connection with the subtle energy of present potential in service of what wants to or can become manifest. It demands emptiness and deep inner stillness to embrace this potential without any attachment to a particular outcome, only holding a diffuse intention for the good of the whole. Holding space is an inherently feminine practice, which women instinctively recognise, as they have a natural tendency to hold space for people, places and projects, just as they hold space in their bodies for unborn babies, unconditionally, without knowing what the baby will be like once it is born.

But holding space on its own is not sufficient to midwife the unfolding of potential into actual manifestation. Some structuring energy is also needed, a more focused holding of intention. Paradoxically, though, if that intention is in any way closed orassociated with connecting with Spirit is ‘staying in inquiry’ so that inspiration can show up. The full depth of potential can become accessible for manifestation and action only when we are crystal clear about the intention or purpose we are serving. Just as the ship with the highest mast needs the deepest keel, so the higher the purpose we serve, the deeper the source we can tap into. When we hold space for potential to manifest, while simultaneously keeping our inquiry open for inspiration and innovation to show up, these two distinct practices can merge into a co-creative act that allows emergence to happen.

Emergence is the manifestation of the truly new that has never existed before, where new connections are made that create a new whole. It requires a degree of chaos, where the structuring comes not from manmade attempts at control, but from holding a strong energetic container for the necessary chaos, while staying with the guiding question and the intent that the emergence is invited to serve. Some of the ingredients needed to work intentionally with emergence are deep listening, generative conversation, and the ability to home in on and distil purpose, hold an intention and stay for extended periods in open inquiry.

Journey Through Future Potential—Developing the capacity to sense and act from Source on behalf of the whole.

To engage with the future is to participate in its unfolding—the very act of bringing our attention to what is emerging, listening deeply for the patterns that are revealing themselves is a creative force that will influence what is coming into manifestation in complex ways. 

Here we come to the home stretch of the journey towards the Circle of Presence. The reason for embarking on the journey in the first place is to engage co-creatively with the future.

The available free energy in a group that is not stuck in any repetition of habitual patterns is available for the work of engaging with the future. The capacity we develop and practice here is ‘sourcing’—sensing into the subtle energetic levels of reality that lie beneath the plane of manifestation. The process unfolds in the space between a guiding question and the deepest source. We are sensing into what wants to be born—this is not the same as imagining our own ideal future; it is more like sensing which seed is ready to sprout. There is no controlling what arises through sourcing: it can bring access to age-old wisdom or new insights, and the knowing filters into consciousness through the subtle realms of Kosmos, not through memory or mind.

Like intuition, sourcing is a direct, immediate apprehension of something, through a multi-sensory awareness in combination with intellect. Specifically, it involves directing the attention to what is coming into being. Like Eugene Gendlin’s ‘felt sense,’ it is an “internal aura that encompasses everything you feel and know about the given subject at a given time all at once, rather than detail by detail.” Specifically, it is a felt sense about an unmanifest potential, tapping into layers of reality that have not yet come into form. While sourcing, we are very present to the here and now, bringing our attention to bear on the unmanifest that is calling to become real, like the artist confronting the empty canvas with a felt sense of what she wants to bring forth, but without knowing what the finished work will look like. We speak and act from that future space, as we use our felt sense to guide us to new wisdom and applications that will help us see the opportunities for the emerging new world, instead of the problems and decay associated with the passing of the old.

So what does it feel like to be part of a fully-fledged Circle of Presence? Since the practice has so far mainly been restricted to women, not surprisingly it has often been described as like giving birth. Something that is not first formed in the conscious mind seeks entry through our subtle awareness, wanting to be expressed. Some speak of an experience of compulsion like subtle pangs of labour, others evoke the connection with the body—more specifically, the womb. Our role is an active surrendering to words, language, colour, movement and form. We suspect that sourcing is easier for women than for men because of the need for receptivity, staying attuned to the body and open to all the senses without going into action. Having a womb—an empty space designed to receive life—seems to make it easier to receive these subtle signs that seem to come from life itself.

One thing is certain: experiencing sourcing awakens a longing for more. As an experience of clarity and presence, it is sublime. Judy Wallace, co-founder of Women Moving the Edge, puts it like this: “After once touching into speaking from source, I would forever want to return there, to that incredible and liberating power of knowing.” Once knowing this experience, there comes a compelling sense of urgency to put this new capacity into service.

If this business of engaging with the future seems far-fetched to you, that is quite understandable. We know from our experience that sourcing from the future, as we have described it here, is possible—but the right conditions have to be in place. What is important is that the practices described here not only enable practitioners to learn to become present to increasing layers of depth and subtlety, they also create the conditions for attaining the collective wisdom we so desperately need in these complex and turbulent times—both of which are the purpose of the Circle of Presence. At the culmination of this journey, the group has started building an intentional and conscious partnership with the unmanifest potential and the future that resonate with the focus of its inquiry. This is where the Circle of Presence can graduate into the Circle of Creation—which will be the subject of the next article in this series.

Other Articles in the Collective Presencing Series

Collective Presencing – Part One: A New Human Capacity
Collective Presencing – Part Two: The Circle of Presence: Building the Capacity for Authentic Collective Wisdom
Collective Presencing – Part Three: Embracing a New Paradigm
Collective Presencing – Part Four: The Circle of Creation: Building Capacity for Generative Collective Action in Service of Life
Collective Presencing: Four Years Later