Talking Circles


‘To see you in love is to see you in me’ Image courtesy of Anton Orlov

This is just a small extract from part 2 of Somewhere Under the Rainbow – if you like it, feel free to support the author and buy the book! 

Rainbow Gatherings have only been happening for four decades but some of the rituals we use go back millennia. The Occupy movements of 2011 reminded the world of the power of peaceful assembly but that’s old hat to anyone who’s been to Rainbow Gatherings and attended a talking circle. They’re often called when there’s a need to resolve practical issues in the Gathering but can also just be a forum for expression, to bring out into the open what everyone is feeling inside.

Common to indigenous societies as far apart as Native Americans, the Vikings and Australian Aboriginals, the talking circle evolved as the most democratic way for groups to communicate and make decisions.  The talking stick passes freely around the circle, staying as long as it needs to with each person and only the one holding it has the right to speak.

When I first heard of the talking circles they seemed as impractical as the Magic Hat – what if someone just took the stick and spoke forever? The Rainbow is a great teacher of patience however and while talking circles have the potential to be as never-ending as their geometrical properties, is there so much harm done if we learn to listen a little more than we’re used to?

Some torturous occasions come to mind though; I remember sitting in the fierce heat of the Bosnian European Rainbow at seed camp when a talking circle was called after lunch to discuss what needed to be done before the official start of the Gathering. 150 of us sat there in the 40 degrees sun, t-shirts draped over our heads, trying to decide whether it would be worse to let the nose or the shoulders get burnt as the talking stick went round at a snail’s pace. It stopped altogether when it reached a German girl who took a deep breath and announced:

‘I’m so happy to be here! I give thanks to Mother Earth and Father Sky and the spirits of this place! And, well, I want to tell you the story of how we came to this beautiful place…’

We passed in and out of a sun-struck stupor, cooking our brains in the midday heat and tuning in only every now and then to hear the warbling monologue continue: ‘And there were wonderful herbs growing in the forest! And the water was so fresh!’ By the time that the sister in question summed up with ‘…we felt like a true Family planting a seed for a Gathering full of light! And well, I don’t want to talk for too long…’ everyone else had already forgotten anything meaningful they might have had to say.

rainbow talking circle

Image by Fraulein Tuli

But as protracted and painful as the talking circles can be on occasion, they’re often the most memorable events of the Gathering. It’s when we take time out from the chores and the celebration and really meet each other. There’s never any obligation to speak but often, just the act of holding an old bit of wood can make a magic of its own. Whereas a normal discussion would be dominated by the confident and the eloquent, the talking stick allows us to hear the voices of even the quietest and most timid of speakers whose shy words sometimes go the deepest.

Topics shift with the wind. Perhaps a dog owner feels unwelcome after a clash with parents afraid for the safety of their children. Someone else might admit to feelings of low self-esteem in the Rainbow when encountering so many talented and charismatic brothers and sisters. Others might raise questions about how we can take some of the freedom and harmony of the Rainbow back to Babylon with us.

In a good talking circle, once the stick has flowed around a few times, something quite spooky happens: while waiting for your turn to talk, mentally rehearsing your contribution to the discussion, it frequently happens that the person before you expresses almost everything you planned to say. It’s almost as if a group mind is born simply by the magic of actually listening to each other. No one needs to be convinced of anything or proven wrong, there’s simply a deepening of understanding as everyone puts themselves in the shoes of the speaker. The harmony can grow to such a point that there’s nothing much left to say in the end but I love you family!

At my first Rainbow in the Israeli desert I was so skeptical about the talking circles until I saw one in action; a few cars had just been stolen from the parking lot and fingers were inevitably pointed at the Bedouin who walked in and out of the Rainbow without really interacting with us. There was some pushing and shoving around the main fire that night and the malcontent gave rise to a talking circle the next day.

One brother joked that a little bit of stealing was just part of the traditional Bedouin way of life. Their concepts of ownership were rather more…flexible than ours. An observation not without its basis in fact. Another sister remarked that although we were gathered there to unite with all the colours of the Rainbow, yet there remained a good deal of fear and mistrust of the Bedouin among the Israelis gathered. Why had we not invited them to join this circle, for instance? Why did we not greet and hug them when we met them in the camp? Why did they not come to eat with us at the food circle?

With this open forum to express the rage, confusion and fear held within, the talking circle did a lot to bring us closer together that afternoon. Inspired by the discussion, that evening I went to sit with the Bedouin who squatted around a small fire that they replenished by ripping branches of wild bushes from the ground every few minutes. Their jeep stood a few meters away.

I received a warm welcome and we spent a pleasant hour drinking tea and chatting in a mixture of Hebrew and English. I learned that although they had embraced many benefits of the modern world (moving around by jeep rather than by camel, never going anywhere without their cellphones), still they felt most at ease with the basic pleasures of life that they found in the desert: the stars, the sky, the wind.

Then one of them received a phone call. There was a quick exchange among them in Arabic and then they all turned to me, thanking me for my visit and wishing me a good night. I took the hint, thanked them in return and then walked back towards my tent, pleased with myself for having made what was surely an important cultural gesture.

A few moments later, however, the camp was thrown into panic as two Israeli army jeeps came thundering between the tents, hippies throwing themselves out of the way just in time. The patrol split to the left and right, one of the jeeps passing me with a searchlight mounted on top and a soldier in the back with his gun at the ready. When they had passed I heard another engine start and the Bedouin sped out through the middle of the camp with their lights off. The Israelis wheeled around to give chase and everyone huddled together as we heard the sound of gunfire not far away.

I suddenly understood that the phone call had been a warning. The Egyptian border was close by and as the Bedouin had made a living for centuries in this part of the world by smuggling, I was left only with the question: what did they have in the back of the jeep?


book about rainbow gatherings

Photo by Joth Shakerley

This is just a small extract from part 2 of Somewhere Under the Rainbow – if you like it, feel free to support the author and buy the book!