Issue 20;

Book Review

Review of ‘The Way of Council’ (2nd Ed) Jack Zimmerman and Virginia Cole (Bramble Books, 2009).

By Josh Zatz

This book is about creating a container for authentic communication. Its subject is, perhaps, not so much ‘mindful communication’ as heartful communication. You could even say, “wholehearted communication”. It is about a method for fostering intimacy through authentic speech and authentic listening. It is also about how this method can move us beyond our habitual ways of relating, so that we can find ourselves speaking from a place of a more profound knowing, sometimes speaking truths that we did not even know we knew. In this way, together, we can discover the ‘Wisdom of the Circle’: the broader truth that can come out through a whole group, together.

The book explores the practical functioning of the ‘Way of Council’ in some depth, and looks at many different settings in which Council can be used, devoting a whole chapter each to practising Council with children, in a couple, in a family and in community and business settings. In addition –and this is what makes it, for me, such an extraordinary reading experience – the authors give much of their attention  to clarifying the more profound and mysterious aspects of the Council process: the deeper functioning which can make it so powerful and transformational.

“Participating in council teaches us how to let go of personal expectations and become fully attentive to others. The practise fosters compassionate response and provides a continuing source of wisdom.” (from the Introduction, pg6)

In its most essential form, a ‘Council’ is a meeting of two or more people in which each person takes it in turn to speak, and interruption is not permitted. The tradition of council set out in this book has its roots in Native American traditions, in which a talking piece would be held by the speaker and passed around the circle, and where the whole event would most often be bounded by some kind of ceremonial forms. The authors’ training and experience in this form has taken place in a number of environments, but is most deeply rooted, it seems, in their involvement with the Ojai Foundation, where it was originally introduced by Joan Halifax Roshi.

The form of Council which has been developed there – and at other related venues – is, in its essence, simple and universal. Nonetheless, it also utilises an array of particular methods, techniques and styles by which, in experienced hands, it can adapt to suit many different kinds of groups and circumstances. This book sets out many of these different methods and ways of working very clearly, along with numerous stories and anecdotes to illustrate their use.

I first experienced this kind of Circle in its simplest form, in the summer of 1994, when I lived at the Rainbow Centre – a squatted Church in North London with (pretty much) an open door policy. The weekly Talking Stick Circle was the only regular whole-community meeting. Generally the stick would go once around the circle, everyone who wished to, would speak – and then it would end. It was remarkable to me at the time how this simple form of meeting could suffice for such a diverse and often chaotic community, but for most of the time it served us very well, and in times of difficulty we held extra circles to address the specific issues. In the years that followed, I have sat in various circles of this sort from time to time.

More recently, I participated in the founding of an ecological community in Devon. In principle, our decision-making was by consensus, and most of us had a fair amount of experience in consensus-based decision-making, as well as in various kinds of ‘talking circles’ or ‘feelings circles’, and we used these kind of circles from time to time, especially when we had significant differences of vision, or interpersonal difficulties.  Nonetheless, after a few years, various interpersonal strains started to reach an unmanageable level, and we began to look for outside help. Through this, I came to be introduced for the first time to the slightly more formal structure of the ‘Way of Council’, as set out in this book. Our first Councils of this type were facilitated expertly by Rob Dreaming, an experienced and trained Council Leader who lives in the South East of England ( ). Rob also did his best to provide us with enough experience and confidence to continue to use the Way of Council by ourselves.

I was initially somewhat sceptical about using this kind of talking circle to address the community’s issues. I suspected that each person having an opportunity to tell the group their story – their version of reality – might just lead to a cementing of each person’s position. I felt that we already did a lot of talking, and that maybe spending some time in silence together might actually help more. That first time, we conducted a whole week of Councils and although many issues remained unresolved, I was very much converted. I had underestimated the transformative power of the particular kind of container created by this Way of Council.

Over the years that followed, we used Council regularly, mostly under our own rotating leadership. Once a year or so we brought in an experienced external facilitator to help us to ensure we were keeping to the forms well and to facilitate a more intensive period  of Council over a number of days, to enable more difficult issues to be heard and expressed. The people still living at the community continue to do this.

Through this experience, I have come to really value Council, not only for its ability to clear out difficulties and tensions within a group, but even more so for the way it constantly brought us back to a feeling of genuine intimacy and authenticity: for the opportunity to really meet each other; to see and be seen, to hear and be heard.

The Way of Council set out in this book creates a strong container through starting and ending ceremonially (this can be as simple as, for example, lighting a candle at the beginning and extinguishing it at the end) and through calling on each participant to embrace the ‘four intentions’. These are: to Speak from the Heart; to Listen from the Heart; to be of ‘Lean Expression’; and to be Spontaneous. In addition, confidentiality is important to enable trust and authenticity.

When the participants in the circle make a real, wholehearted effort to embody these four simple instructions, the quality of communication which can arise is really extraordinary. A large part of this magic is due to the quality of listening. I am very taken with the authors’ occasional use of the term, “devout listening”, which has its roots in the Quaker tradition. It evokes beautifully for me the quality of authentic ‘listening from the Heart’, which can seem to draw forth from each person in turn, the most authentic self-expression that they are capable of at that time.

“ In Council the gateway to the mystery is listening. We listen in council with more than our ears. We listen with the same awareness a mountain person gives to the wind in the alders or a mother gives her young child learning to speak….When we listen in this way, and the person speaking is able to do so authentically, we can see his or her story unfolding in front of us.”

(Introduction, pg6)

I personally have found that, when I find myself being listened to in this way, I hear my own story unfolding as I speak, sometimes more clearly than I have ever heard it before. On numerous occasions, I have seen deep misunderstandings unravel and become clear in the light of this mutual authenticity. This does not always mean that longstanding inter-personal conflicts are instantly ended – unfortunately - but it can be the beginning of their profound transformation. Through a better understanding of the other’s story it becomes easier to be more tolerant of whatever it is one is having difficulty with. Through receiving feedback from other members of the circle on one’s own story, one can start to hold it more lightly or to examine more carefully how true or helpful it really is. Most importantly, through really listening heartfully to the other’s heartful self-expression, an intimacy is engendered, even in the midst of conflict, and this intimacy necessarily transforms that conflict, even if it does not immediately end it.

In the spirit of Council, this book is filled with stories and personal experiences of the authors themselves and their colleagues, which help the reader to understand how Council can function in practise. The authors also deal in some detail with the technicalities of how authentic speaking and listening can bring individuals and groups into a sense of “heightened perception” and how council leaders can steer councils effectively by working consciously with the “Interactive Field” of the group.

I really don’t know how meaningful and comprehensible these particular sections of the book  would be to those who have not sat in Council with a skilled leader, but I do have a feeling that many who have sat Zazen in a group might have some sense of what is being talked about. That the subtle but powerful togetherness which one can feel in a group of silent meditators can also be experienced in the midst of verbal interaction is a potent message from this book for those of us who cherish that communion.

Since leaving that community, I no longer sit regularly in Council with a group, but I still consider it the most potent tool I know of for engendering genuine intimacy, openness and authenticity. Along with this, Council brings each individual the opportunity to practise Heartful communication – authentic listening and authentic self-expression – and this experience can transform one’s style of communication in the rest of one’s life. Within a community who practise Council together, this possibility can extend to the whole life of that community. 

For those interested in a tool for deep exploration of these qualities, this book will open a world of fascinating possibilities. For those with some experience already with this form, it invites us to deepen our practise and to understand it more clearly. I have really enjoyed re-reading it, to write this review. It has left me conscious of how I miss sitting in Council with a regular group, and keen to bring it back into my life.





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