"In Western culture, we often seek truth through confrontation. But our headstrong ways of charging at truth scare the shy soul away. If soul truth is to be spoken and heard, it must be approached 'on the slant.' I do not mean we should be coy, speaking evasively about subjects that make us uncomfortable, which weakens us and our relationships. But soul truth is so powerful that we must allow ourselves to approach it, and it to approach us, indirectly. We must invite, not command, the soul to speak. We must allow, not force, ourselves to listen.
"We achieve intentionality in a circle of trust by focusing on an important topic. We achieve indirection by exploring that topic metaphorically, via a poem, a story, a piece of music, or a work of art that embodies it. I call these embodiments 'third things' because they represent neither the voice of the facilitator nor the voice of a participant. They have voices of their own, voices that tell the truth about a topic but, in the manner of metaphors, tell it on the slant. Mediated by a third thing, truth can emerge from, and return to, our awareness at whatever pace and depth we are able to handle sometimes inwardly in silence, sometimes aloud in community giving the shy soul the protective cover it needs.
"Rightly used, a third thing functions a bit like the old Rorschach inkblot test, evoking from us whatever the soul wants us to attend to. Mediated by a good metaphor, the soul is more likely than usual to have something to say. But the fact will count for nothing if we fail to recognize that the soul is speaking or fail to pay attention to what it says.
"This is why an unconventional kind of note-taking is helpful in a circle of trust. Normally, at workshops and retreat, we take the most notes on what the leader says, and a few, if any, notes on the words we ourselves speak. In a circle of trust, we reverse that order, taking the most notes on the words that arise within us, whether we speak them or not.
"A first, it seems odd to take notes on our own thoughts and words. We have a strange conceit that just because we have thought or said something, we understand what it means! But in a circle of trust, the inner teacher may give us insights so new or challenging that they take time to understand insights we may misinterpret, forget, or even deny if we do not record and continue to reflect on them. The notes we take on our own words in such moments become a text we can learn from long after the circle has ended.
"Conversations in which we speak and hear truth on the slant are always at risk because they defy conventional norms. As we explore a May Sarton poem, for example, we may discover (as I once did) that a member of the group did his doctoral dissertation on Sarton. After listening to people talk about the poem for a while, he proclaimed, "What you have been saying is not what Sarton had in mind!' Instantly, the circle became unsafe and this 'expert' tried to dominate it with 'objective' knowledge, intimidating people who had been speaking from their hearts.
"In such a moment, the facilitator must move gently but quickly and firmly to make everyone feel safe again, including, if possible, the person who made things unsafe. I recall saying something along these lines: 'What Sarton had in mind is certainly an interesting topic, but it is not our topic here. Our focus is on how this poem intersects our own lives and evokes our own experience. I invited all of you to speak about the poem in that spirit, and I invite you to continue to do so.'
"But keeping the circle open to subjective viewpoints does not mean that 'anything goes,' another way of saying that we must be intentional as well as invitational. A third thing, in the hands of a good facilitator, provides the boundaries that can help keep our exploration in that creative space between aimless meandering and a forced march toward some predetermined goal.
"When people wander from a topic and make comments unrelated to it (often because the topic is touching some nerve), the facilitator can call them back to the boundaries of the text itself, asking them to anchor whatever they say in a word, image, or line from the story or the poem. As we are brought back to the text, we are also brought back to the issue and to the voice of the inner teacher. Now our exploration is more likely to be driven by the agenda of the soul than by the agendas of ego and intellect lurking in the room.
"What T. S. Eliot said about poetry is true of all third things: '[Poetry] may make us . . . a little more aware of the deeper, unnamed feelings which form the substratum of our being, to which we rarely penetrate; for our lives are mostly a constant evasion of ourselves."