Jalaja Bonheim, Ph.D., founder of the Institute for Circlework, has made several trips to Israel in the last few years, where she leads circles that bring Jews, Arabs, Bedouin, and Druze together to heal the wounds caused by the conflict there and to forge a path to peace between these groups. Herself Jewish, she is a global citizen who was raised in Austria and Germany and now resides in the US. Both here and in Israel, she trains professionals in a method of group leadership she developed called Circlework. As part of a visit to Fairfield this June, Jalaja (pronounced jaw-la-d’jaw) will give a free presentation at the Fairfield Public Library at 7:15 pm on June 7th, during which she will discuss her work in Israel, show slides of her most recent trip, and introduce the practice of Circlework. The following article is based on interviews with Jalaja.
Q: Let’s start with the word, “Circlework.” How do you define it?
J: Yes, that’s a good place to start. I like to define Circlework as the practice of using circle gatherings to awaken people to their oneness as members of a single human family, heal individuals and communities, and lay the foundation for peaceful co-existence. If you look at the geometric shape of the circle, you can think of Circlework as a formation of people where everyone around the rim can easily see and hear everyone else—like King Arthur’s legendary Round Table, where everyone met as equals. The form itself serves to create community and promote healing, peace and global perspective.
Q: You’ve been involved in Circlework for over 20 years, and you obviously are passionate about it. Why do you consider it so important?
J: The conflicts in the world that threaten our survival stem from identifying only with our own particular group, whether that be our own tribe or our nation. But this “tribal consciousness,” as I call it, is not sustainable. Either we will learn to get along with other groups that are different from our own, or our species will self-destruct. We have to learn to share the planet and to recognize that we are all members of a single planetary community. Circlework awakens in people the realization of our one-ness—not just on the level of intellectual insight, but something that is felt deeply, an awareness that says, “Yes! We really are all one.”
Circlework has the power to engender this awareness of our universality, of our essential connectedness with all of humanity and with all of life. It creates a field of love, and in that field, people spontaneously want to help one another instead of harming them. Through Circlework, I am striving to bring peace to the world, one circle at a time.
Q: So this is your way of being part of the solution, not the problem?
J: You could put it that way, yes. I think it’s a global process. Human consciousness needs to transform and is transforming. There are many people around the world who are working in their own ways to create a peaceful, loving world. My job is to make the contribution I can make. I’ve seen the results from Circlework. I know it works. And that is why I bring it to those areas, such as the Middle East, where there is a desperate need for something that works. I don’t know how it will turn out—but do I know that unless we transform consciousness, we don’t have a chance.
Q: Let’s talk about your work in the Middle East. You’ve been involved with Circlework in Israel since 2001, and in January you made your third trip there. What was that like?
J: With the Gaza war going on last January, it was a very intense time to be doing peace work in Israel. But in some ways, it was the perfect time because the need was so great.
In Israel, perhaps more than any other place I have worked, people recognize that Circlework is not just about personal healing. The women I worked with really understand that nothing could be more important or urgent than learning to overcome our apparent inability to co-exist peacefully with members of our own species. War and violence are daily realities of which one is constantly reminded. In my hotel in Nazareth, for instance, military planes were flying constantly over our hotel—loud, low, rattling the windowpanes. In one of my circles, a young woman in the circle told of arriving at a well-known café just five minutes after it had been ripped apart by a bomb, and being overwhelmed by the awful smell of burned human flesh. A mother told me that her six-year-old daughter suffers from post-traumatic stress after their neighbor’s house was hit by a bomb. "It is because of her," she said, "that I am doing this Circlework. I need to do this." It is impossible to be in that environment without feeling a sense of urgency to do something to ease their suffering and to end this violence to the human heart.
Q: You referred to women. Do men participate in your circles, too, or are they for women only?
J: I do offer mixed circles for both men and women, but in my last trip to Israel, the circles were organized just for women.
Q: Do both Jewish and Arabic women come to the same circle, or do you have separate circles for each?
J: The whole idea is for the different groups to be together. The women who came were Jewish and Arab and also Bedouin, Druze and Palestinian. I’d like to point out that it takes a lot of courage for the women to come. For Arab women, especially, it’s difficult to leave home for days at a time, as they must in order to participate in my retreats. Their husbands may not approve, and their culture holds that a woman’s place is in the home, especially if she’s a mother. Simply showing up is a powerful sign of bravery and commitment. Yet they do show up, as do the Jewish women, because they’re determined to stop the tragic cycle of war.
Many are mothers who want a better future for their children, and most are involved in some form of political or social activism. But activism alone, they understand, is not enough, for the roots of the suffering they witness around them lie within: if the world is to change, the human psyche must change.
They also realize that the alternative to violence is communication. And so they communicate, even against enormous odds..
Q: What kinds of things do they communicate in these circles?
J: You have to understand that some of the women in the circle were virtually neighbors, living in ethnically-segregated villages situated geographically close to each other, but culture and politics kept them worlds apart. And they have huge issues. You could hardly imagine the level of trauma they are living with. There is nobody in those circles who has not lost at least one loved one. Many of the Arab women had relatives in Gaza, many Jewish women had children in the military. There was a tremendous amount of pain and fear and anger. It was not easy at all.
Both sides tell their stories, not to cast blame, but because they have found that the most effective way to heal pain is to share it. They have seen close-up what unhealed pain can do. They have watched it fester, become inflamed, and explode in acts of violence. They have seen it reproduce, like the demons of certain myths whose every drop of blood begets a hundred more of their own kind. And so they share, and so they heal.
At one point, a Jewish mother said, in a voice filled with sadness and passion: “I don’t know what the solution to our problems is. But one thing I see clearly: we must overcome the illusion of separation. Even though it seems like we’re on opposite sides, we’re really playing a game. I am you, and you are me!”
In that moment, she spoke for all of us. We all recognized the truth of her words, and yet, it’s an extraordinary statement, coming as it does from the mouth of someone who lives in the midst of one of the world’s most bitter conflicts. It shows the possibility for creating harmony and peace anywhere in the world.
Q: Do you really believe that Circlework can create peace when the international community has not been able to do so?
J: Despite the vast resources spent on trying to resolve the conflict between Israel and Palestine, and between Israeli Jews and Arabs, the situation has not improved. In my opinion, one of the main reasons is that most people are focusing exclusively on external changes. These are of course important, but they won’t bear fruit unless fundamental inner changes occur in the way people think, feel and relate. Circlework is a powerful tool for inspiring these changes. It’s a healing process and a spiritual practice that simultaneously provides the kind of education that we will all need in order to become planetary citizens in the global era. Today, we must find new ways to join forces, for as solitary individuals, we can no more accomplish the work that lies ahead of us than a solitary bee can create a beehive brimming with sweet honey. Most attempts to improve Jewish-Arab relationships focus on dialogue.
In contrast, Circlework holds that true reconciliation cannot occur as long as people’s hearts are closed to each other. Therefore, Circlework includes many non-verbal elements, such as music, movement, touch, and other tools that prepare participants to relate in an entirely new way.
Q: Can you say more about what you do in your circle gatherings?
J: In my circles, I begin by slowing people down and guiding them out of their heads into their hearts. For unless enemies are willing to open their hearts to each other, there is no way for them to overcome their conflicts. Therefore we begin by connecting, not as Jews or Arabs, but simply as human beings. We sing together, we dance, we laugh and cry. We share food and stories. In the age-old ways, we weave a basket that can hold whatever emotions need to be held.
In the circle, both Arab and Jewish women deal with powerful feelings of anger, resentment, fear, guilt, and shame, not to mention the discomfort that arises when we expose ourselves to the "other." Yet I never cease to be amazed at their capacity for forgiveness, for reconciliation, for self-liberation. Nothing could be more inspiring or hopeful than to witness how the realization of our oneness ceases to be a mere mental concept and instead becomes a visceral, embodied knowledge that changes lives.
In Israel, there is quite a lot of intense emotions, but there is also celebration in the circles. We sing and we dance and we move together in joy and love.
Q: You make it sound very warm and sweet.
J: There is a tremendous amount of love that gets generated through Circlework. But I don’t mean to give the impression that it is all sweetness or a continual flow of epiphanies. There can be conflict, too. In any circle that goes deep enough, conflict is inevitable. Part of what I teach people is how to work with conflict. When you work skillfully with conflict, it creates an amazing opening.
Q: So what is the Circlework way to deal with conflict, and how is it different from negotiating or other kinds of methods of conflict resolution?
J: When people go into a negotiation with a mental attitude of, “we’re going to discuss the issues, debate and argue.” it’s a complete waste of time, nothing will come out of it. Culturally we have this strong belief that every problem can be resolved by thinking about it. Think long and hard enough and you’ll find a solution. In contrast, Circlework is very much based on the premise that we need to cultivate receptivity, deep listening. We live in a society so focused on having opinions, on taking a stand, that it’s a discipline to be receptive.
In Circlework, it’s not a matter of simply talking through one’s differences. Movement, sharing, writing exercises, chanting and other experiential group activities are part of it. It’s not really mental. My sense is that as we let go of thinking, we gain access to a deeper wisdom that goes beyond what the conscious intellect can access. If people are able to really open their hearts and listen deeply, that’s where the reconciliation begins to happen.
Q: This sounds valuable in this country, too.
J: Definitely. Each time I go to Israel, I see that the need for healing in a war zone is huge, but when I come back, I see that the need for healing in our own community is also huge. We shouldn’t just think we’re fine and they are the ones who need all this help. There’s a lot of segregation going on and a lot of wounding in our own community, too.
Q: Could Circlework help rival gangs?
J: Yes, it’s already being done, and it works.
Q: Would the circles be different in other places?
J: Yes, there would be cultural differences, but at the same time there is an energy and a presence in the circle that I believe is universal. There’s no culture on earth where people did not traditionally gather in circles.
Q: Back to your work in Israel. Have you seen any concrete results from your Circlework there?
J: Yes. changes emerge. For example, one group of Arab and Jewish women made a commitment to start a cooperative kindergarten so both groups of children could meet at a young age and become friends. And a core group of the women resolved to stay connected, even when cooperation became difficult. During the most recent conflict, these women would call each other on their cell phones, whether Jewish or Arab, telling each other which roads were safe, helping in very practical ways.
Q: What excellent work you are doing. It must be very satisfying for you.
J: It brings me great joy. And it’s limitless, the different areas in society that can benefit from this work. Through the Institute [for Circlework], I train leaders in the knowledge and skills of Circlework, and these leaders have been incorporating the practice of circles into settings as diverse as business meetings, classrooms, training programs and, as we’ve been discussing, mothers for peace in the Middle East.
Q: Thank you, Jalaja, for the work you’re doing. And thank you for speaking with us.
J: Thank you, too, for helping to inform people about the possibilities for personal and global transformation that Circlework offers.
For more information on Circlework, see www.instituteforcirclework.org. For more information about Jalaja’s up-coming visit to Fairfield, please contact Julie Guttmann (641) 472-1728.
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