For years, I kept the “woo woo” part of me under wraps.
I’ve had a number of transformative experiences which I define as spiritual, but which others might call “woo woo”—in other words, related to “pseudoscientific phenomena” “emotion-based belief,” “the paranormal or occult.” Just yesterday I discovered that, when used as a noun, it translates to “crazy lady.”
Usually meant to be dismissive or derogatory when uttered by skeptics or cynics, “woo woo” was my go-to word for decades when, in a self-deprecating manner, I’d confess to embodying it. Even in the early years of participation in a small group whose very focus was spirituality, I would preface personal anecdotes that involved the metaphysical with the “double-w.” As in, “Okay, I’m about to share something that you’re likely to find pretty woo woo…”
When we five couples first gathered, we didn’t know each other very well. However, all were active in a small faith community committed to social justice, diversity and lifelong learning, with the added draw of two thoughtful, dynamic preachers/speakers. At the outset, we decided to explore together spiritual questions and experiences in an honest and nonjudgmental way, the content distinct from conventional religious observance or study. Franciscan Richard Rohr articulates what we only sensed we were looking for back then—”actual inner experience.”
A necessity, he insists, for real spiritual growth: “There is no substitute for any personal or life-changing encounter with the Divine,” he says. “We must all start with our own anecdotal experience and then build from there.” Several months in, we were guided to shape an essentially anecdotal process that eventually helped me expunge “woo woo” from my working vocabulary.
Through it, I learned to trust that my truth would be honored. And that, in turn, I could honor others’—including, I suspected, compassionate skepticism among some about my bead on reality. I’m describing the process today, especially for those who have expressed an interest in starting up such a conversation or group.
THE ROAD LESS TRAVELED
Once a month, taking turns, we gather in a home and allow just enough time to greet each other and grab a glass of wine or water before sitting down together. In the center of our circle sits a low table with a candle and, as to its purpose, a version of the “talking stick.” It can be a stone, a small carving, a memento—anything that fits in the palm of a hand. We’ve added two candles to commemorate the lives of Peter and Sue, two beloveds who have crossed over. With the lighting of the three candles, the energy in the room shifts. It’s time for quiet and mindful attention.
In advance, the host—or both of a pair—choose a topic to explore. It’s meant to lead us forward and inward, to look at things spiritual from a range of perspectives. Sometimes a personal anecdote or a list of musings; perhaps a few quotes; or wisdom from a mystic or faith tradition sparks our own wonderings and wonderment. Sharing a passage or two from a thought-provoking essay or insightful piece of literature, a poem or two, can shine a light as well on the numinous in our lives.
Silence immediately follows the ten to twenty-minute intro. At this point, we pay attention to our own stories and feelings, reflecting on what’s just been shared. Some minutes later, the host distributes pens and paper along with large-enough books to serve as writing surfaces. Each is free in the extended silence to scribble down responses that have surfaced.
Finished with our jottings, one of us retrieves the piece designated for passing around the circle. Only the one holding it can speak, giving voice to the thoughts that have bubbled up. No matter how ardently someone else may want to support, challenge, interject a word, or ask for clarification, each of us knows to refrain. We’ve committed to being unconditionally receptive, however different the offering is from one’s own experience. (However similar, for that matter.) Simply listening, sitting-with whatever inner workings and experience shape another’s spiritual knowing is a rarity in this culture, but, we’ve discovered, truly gratifying in practice*.
When the first speaker finishes sharing, she/he sends the talking piece to the next person in the circle. (In recent years, each of us speaks when it feels “natural” to be next.) In both cases, participants don’t focus on any previous commentaries. They share what they’ve generated during the listening and reflection time. Any are free to let the piece pass through their hands without comment, but the ideal, the norm, is to have everybody eventually be heard.
It travels around a second time, providing a brief opportunity, if desired, for one to clarify or add to what was said earlier. It’s a chance, too, for anyone who hasn’t spoken to do so. There’s an understanding that whatever is shared stays in the circle. It’s a safeguard, encouraging more transparency. Ideally, nothing is taboo. We allow that perspectives can indeed change over time.
There’s a pause to claim a simple dessert, along with coffee or tea, to be savored back in the circle during check-in time. We listen now to what’s been happening in each person’s personal world—partnering and parenting rewards and challenges; work changes; health concerns; the highs and lows of being alive on this planet. Two to three hours past our arrival, we depart with soulful appreciation for what has been shared and the souls who have shared it.
THE RICH REWARDS
Early on, none of us imagined we’d still be doing this twenty-three years later. Nor did we appreciate then the depth and richness these explorations would bring to our lives. We’ve generated well over two hundred and fifty spiritual topics over the years! It’s become a social setting in which minutes of sacred silence, in-depth reflection, and real intimacy matter deeply.
We’ve co-created a space where we feel affirmed and loved, where we celebrate and grieve with each other. A safe place where, little by little, I began to feel a growing confidence to speak without apology or defensiveness about a spiritual reality that, for me, includes the nonphysical. I no longer identify as “woo woo”—a word already bound, I hope, for near-extinction, someday merely an archaic descriptor in an evolved world where direct inner experience, however mystical or mystifying, as well as spiritual exploration, like that of our longstanding group, become the norm. Consider trying out this process with our blessing.
In the photo above, two small-group members chat during one of the annual weekends we’ve spent up north.
*Kudos to Reverend Barbara Battin, wherever you are, for helping us create the format and process that still serves us today.