Once you have decided who will be part of your Values & Visions Circle and how you will operate, you need to decide what resources you will use as catalysts for your conversations. And what a wealth of choices are available to you! Just a few years ago, you were limited to the films showing at your local theater. Now thousands of old and new movies are available on DVD and VHS. And libraries, bookstores, the Internet, and mail order catalogs offer almost unlimited access to books and audio tapes.
• Theme Programs. A good beginning program would be a very focused exploration of resources that are related by theme. Over time, as you circle around this theme, bringing your own stories to bear on it, different perspectives on its meanings will emerge.
Brainstorm within your circle to identify subjects you would like to consider. Have every member find one title that fits the theme. Or, surf through the practice homepages linked off the right column of the homepage at SpiritualityandPractice.com. Every practice has a list of films associated with it, linked to our reviews.
• Good for the Soul. Your circle might also share with each other resources that you have found to be good for your souls. You know what they are the book that changed your perspectives, the movie that moved you profoundly. Think back to the films or books that were your companions during a significant period of your life. They, too, are part of your life story. (Don't be surprised if you now experience them differently; this change is something to be marked and explored.)
• Seasonal Celebrations. Every month of the year has national and ethnic holidays, birthdays, saint days, anniversaries, and other moments to celebrate. In your circle, you can hallow these moments by doing related viewing, reading, and listening. The features in the Naming the Days area of SpiritualityandPractice.com often suggest movies, books, and audios for such seasonal celebrations. This kind of program puts your circle in rhythm with the rest of the world in its remembrances of both joys and sorrows another sign of soul coming alive.
• Don't Be Afraid. More often with movies than with books, people tell us that they just aren't sure everybody in the circle will "like" their program choices. You won't know until you truly get into them and consider them as part of a process of soulmaking. Still, let us make three comments on this subject of program choices.
1. Don't try to please everyone and especially don't try to make sure that nobody is troubled by a particular choice. In other words, don't be afraid to talk about the "depressing movie." The dark, the unknown, what we hate, and what makes us sad these are all shadow elements. And dealing with the shadow is part of soulmaking.
2. Don't prejudge resources (again, this happens most with films) as being "not good enough" or "not serious enough" to be used for soulmaking. Who said you had to be serious all the time! Laughter is a gift of Spirit. You'll find many comedies are deeply spiritual.
3. Don't worry about whether people have already seen a film or read a book. In your circle, you will be looking at it from a different perspective. Easy familiarity with the story may actually facilitate an in-depth consideration of it. Besides, as A. P. Herbert put it, "Imagine how little good music there would be if . . . a conductor refused to play Beethoven's Fifth Symphony on the grounds that his audience may have heard it before."
• Intention. Remember, books, films, and tapes often become what you intend them to be. If you expect a book to be difficult reading, most likely you will struggle to get through it. If you expect a movie to be funny, then you will notice the funny parts. If you listen to a workshop tape with the intention of finding some practical advice from the speaker, you will hear the words that you seek.
We guarantee that if you come to books, films, and tapes believing that they can be bearers of truth and meaning for your life, they will be. Put on your spiritual glasses and you will often be surprised by grace.
The Role of Guides: Person and Print
A circle does not have a "leader" but it may occasionally need "guides." Whether you are moving into familiar or unknown territory on your journey, guides can tell you what to watch for.
• Person Guide. Your circle may already have a person guide the one who called the circle or someone who has been involved in a similar experience before. Or you may choose to rotate this role so that for each gathering, a new person assumes the responsibilities. The latter system seems more in keeping with the circle model; by sharing the guide role, you signal your awareness of its importance and your mutual respect.
Think of the person guide not as the leader or expert but as the circle's scout. She or he points out possible routes for you to take and things to notice along the way. The guide keeps track of where you are on the trail and how much time you have left for the day's journey. S/he keeps your conversation focused, steering you back to the main road when someone gets off-track. The guide also encourages the travelers during the journey, making sure no one is left behind or rushes ahead of the others.
Of course, the guide is with you on the trail and participates freely in the conversation. But, additionally, s/he agrees to do some advance preparation: getting supplies, planning a route, choosing starter questions, and advising the rest of you on luggage and materials to bring along, such as ritual objects, crayons for drawing, and refreshments.
The person guide agrees to be a conversation catalyst, if necessary. S/he arrives with some relevant personal stories to tell. S/he is also a good model for speaking and listening from the heart.
A guide may collect background information on a film or an author/speaker to enrich your discussions. S/he may plan some exercises journal work, imagery experiences, meditations/prayers for you to do together. And, at the end of your day, the guide is the one to build the campfire and lead the group sing or any other ritual you use to close your time together.
• Print Guides. Values & Visions Circles have access to a unique catalog of guides to films, videos, and books. There are more than 200 printed Values & Visions Guides available which we developed in the 1990s. More recent guides are available online and more are coming. In addition, we are planning some "Values & Visions Quests," guides to films on a common theme plus related readings and spiritual practices. These will be appropriate for four- to six-week programs.
These resources are designed to focus your attention on key themes in a story and to help you relate them to the story of your life. Let's look at the elements of a typical Values & Visions Guide.
Each guide opens with an introduction establishing the significance of the film or book. There may be a quotation from the author or director along with our assessment of why you should consider this story in a process of soulmaking.
A brief synopsis of the story follows or in the online guides, a link to our full review. The plot summary will save you time during your conversations; you do not have to remember all the characters' names and the sequence of story developments.
Most of the guides present seven themes of the story. They are explained using incidents and dialogue from the story or quotations from spirituality books and other resources. The questions under each theme ask you to consider first how it is developed in the story, then how it relates to your experiences.
We once asked a friend if the Values & Visions Guide had been useful for his group's discussion. He replied, quite apologetically, "Yes, but we spent all the time on only one of the questions." Well, we thought, that was certainly a good one! The lesson is that you should not try to cover all the themes and the questions in the print guide. The person guide might choose several questions to concentrate on. Or give everyone a guide before your gathering, then go around the circle and have each person say which questions s/he would like to explore in depth. Remember, you do not all have to speak on the same question only on the one that helps you get in touch with your deepest self.
When You Are Together
"Soulmaking," Thomas Moore writes in Soul Mates, "is usually the long process of taking the raw material life gives us, then making something out of it. The truth is, the whole world and all of life are nothing but the raw materials for soul making." For Values & Visions Circles, the raw materials are films, books, and audiotapes. Together circle members make something out of these stories, forging their souls in the process.
• Preparation. Your circle gatherings will be richer experiences if people come prepared. It's a given that everyone will have seen the film, read the book, or listened to the tape before your meeting. (See "When To Watch the Movie or 'Are You Telling Me There Is Homework?' " below). You will get more out of these activities when you do them with a purpose. Watch, read, and listen for ways that these resources speak to your soul. Jot down key lines and ideas you want to think about further before you meet with your circle.
Take notes of plot developments and characters' names so that the story line can be reconstructed easily. The circle may even want to designate one person as the official storyteller with the responsibility of making detailed notes.
Prepare as well for the personal disclosures that will be part of your circle conversations. Recall dialogue or scenes that strike you as important or note moments when you were moved to tears or burst out laughing. Think of one parallel between this story and your own life. Bring one question to your circle that you would like to talk about or choose questions from a Values & Visions Guide.
• In the Beginning. At your first circle meeting, or whenever new people join, go over your intentions, the approach to the stories you want to use, and the agreed upon guidelines for your conversations (see below for some common ones). You might even design a ritual which states your commitments.
Open your circle with a centering activity: a prayer, a moment of silence, a song. Then review the story that you are considering on this day. Your guide or designated storyteller should prepare a good plot synopsis. Even engrossing storylines can be quickly forgotten and, since you are not talking immediately after viewing or reading, a plot review is needed to get people back in the mood. This step also saves time during your conversation since the group does not have to remember exactly what happened when and to whom.
Before launching into conversation, you might do a round of no cross-talk sharing. Go around the circle and have each person speak for a few minutes, knowing that no one else will comment or question what s/he says. For example, name one character you identified with and explain why; describe one scene that reminded you of something that has happened to you. Use this time to say which questions you would like to talk about from the Values & Visions Guide. Or talk about one thing that has happened to you since you last were together in the circle.
This activity actually models a very good style for the rest of your time together: talking and listening from the heart. This means that you speak spontaneously from your deep self without regard to what others might think of you. It also means that you listen respectfully to the other speakers. You do not sit there planning what you will say in rebuttal or even what you will say when it is your turn.
• Conversation. You are now ready to converse about the particular story at the center of your attention on this day. If you have a large group, you may want to break into pairs or groups of four - five for this conversation.
Start with good questions; either write them yourself or pick some from a Values & Visions Guide. A good soulmaking question has a "you" in it. The essence of soulmaking is exploring and sharing who you are. How do you and the others feel about the situations in the story? Would you make the same choices as the characters? What are the consequences of these actions? Where are the signs that a character has connected with his or her personal power? What does this story say about truly important things? How is the sacred revealed in the story?
Avoid questions that can be answered with a simple yes or no. Avoid questions which can be answered with facts or abstract concepts. Concentrate on questions that ask "what do you think?" and "how do you feel?" and "what would you do?" Share your own stories but also engage the story you are considering together. What can you learn from your reactions to it?
Encourage people to be reflective in their responses. How does this story speak to your soul? What meaning can you find in this story that applies to your life? Try to be as concrete as possible; identify aspects of the story or use other illustrations to convey your feelings. Remember, although there are times when abstract concepts can be useful frames for our ideas, often intellectual and theoretical discussions inhibit reflective sharing. It is not necessary in a circle experience to come to a conclusion. It is necessary only to be open, truthful, respectful, and caring.
Near the end of your time together, you may want to go around the circle once again and give each person a chance to give some parting words. These might include a meaning s/he will take away from the circle or an expression of gratitude. You should also go over plans for your next gathering.
• Common Sidetracks. Be aware of some ways that your conversations can be sidetracked, especially when you are considering films. From the beginning make it clear that you are not going to talk about the film's production values the quality of the actors' performances, the directing, the pacing, the amount of action or humor, the director's previous films, or the box office potential. In other words, don't mimic the critics. Because reviewers write about these aspects of movies, many people assume that this is what there is to say about them. When you find your conversation going in this direction, you might say "Let's get back to talking about what meaning we can find in this story in relation to our lives."
What if someone really doesn't like a particular film or book or you disagree about its value? Try engaging your dislike. Treat it like a shadow element. In your discomfort you may come upon a personal insight.
Conflict, tension, or competition within the circle can also derail a conversation. Without minimizing the very real pain of differences, you can still embrace them. In her memoir Crossing to Avalon, Jungian analyst Jean Shinoda Bolen suggests that our reactions to people in a circle can tell us something about ourselves:
"In a women's circle, every woman in the circle is herself and an aspect of every other woman there as well. . . . For a women's circle to work as a spiritual and psychological cauldron for change and growth, we need to see every woman in the circle as a sister who mirrors back to us reflections of ourselves. This means that whatever happened to her could have happened to us, that whatever she has felt or done is a possibility for us, that she is someone toward whom we feel neither superior nor inferior nor indifferent. These are not just concepts but the emotional reality that comes from listening to women tell the truth about their lives. Additional depth comes from the psychological awareness that strong reactions to another woman may occur because she represents something in ourselves that is psychologically charged; our reactions are not just about her but about us. Perhaps we can't stand her because she expresses experiences we have repressed; maybe we find her difficult because we react to her like we did to our personal mother or some other significant figure; maybe we are drawn to her because she embodies a potential in ourselves and the positive qualities we so admire in her are growing in us; maybe we avoid her because we fear our own addictions, dependency, or neediness. In this way, we are symbolic figures for each other that we need to understand as we would symbols in a personal dream."
What Bolen says about other members of a circle we can also say about a story. When you have an intense feeling about a film or book or one of its characters, talk about what aspect of yourself it might be mirroring.
When to Watch the Movie or "Are You Telling Me There Is Homework?"
One of the most common program formats we hear about is "Movie Night" at the church, synagogue, library, or community center. People tell us they are planning on renting a film, showing it to a group, and then having a discussion, often with refreshments. We do not recommend this format for Values & Visions Circles.
• Copyright Law and Videos. Although we do not aspire to the role of video police officers, we do feel that circles should know what they are doing. Showing a DVD in a church, synagogue, library, and any other community center is a "public performance." When you do this with a DVD that is marked "for home use only" (information contained in the FBI warning at the beginning of the tape), you are in violation of copyright. It does not matter whether you charge for the viewing or ask for donations or show it for free. It does not matter if you rent or own the video.
Most of our Values & Visions Guides focus on movies that are restricted to home use. Some DVD do come with public performance rights (meaning you can show them legally in public); usually these are educational programs developed specifically for use with groups. When in doubt, check the packaging or contact the distributor. For example, although the Spiritual Literacy DVDs are licensed for home use only, we are granting public performance rights for groups that do not charge for the showing.
You can buy a license that allows churches and other institutions to show "home use only" DVDs publicly. An annual license costs under $200 for small churches and more for larger institutions, depending upon membership. For details, visit www.cvli.org (Christian Video Licensing International, which is a subsidiary of the Motion Picture Licensing Corporation). Click on the United States tab to see the Total Producer Package listing all the producers and film studios whose films are covered.
• A Better Approach. Obviously, we believe that talking about movies in churches, synagogues, and other community settings is a good idea. We just don't think you should watch the film together as a circle. We recommend against group viewing even if you are meeting in homes. Instead, we suggest that circle members see the film or video on their own time.
In many communities, there are enough video stores that there will be sufficient copies of even rare films for every member of your group to rent one. Or talk to a store manager and guarantee a number of rentals if s/he puts the video "on reserve" for your circle. Some older titles may be gathering dust on the shelves and the manager will be willing to accommodate you. Some of your members may be members of Netflix or other rental programs and can easily get films that way.
Finally, seriously consider buying DVDs/videos you intend to talk about. Most titles sell today for under $30 and many of them are under $15. Once you own the video, you just need to make up a schedule and system for sharing the DVD or tape before your next circle meeting. You may also choose to focus on a film showing at the local theater, which gives everyone as many chances to see it as the theater has showings.
• Yes, there is homework. There are many good reasons, besides copyright restrictions, for taking a see-now-talk-later approach to films. If you try to do everything in one evening, your conversation time is bound to be limited. Also, some people need to let a story sink in before they can say what it means to them. They might want to meditate on some of the themes and find parallel situations in their own lives. Quiet, pause, reverie all are good for the soul and for soulmaking.
The analogy is a book discussion group. You would not come together and sit in a room all reading the same book for two hours and then have your discussion. For book groups, homework is expected. Make this one of the commitments of your Values & Visions Circle: you will each do soulwork at home with the agreed-upon film, book, or audiotape before coming together for conversation and personal storytelling.
Now that You Have a Circle . . .
There are a few more things you may want to do:
• Purchase Resources for Your Circle. We do not sell books, DVDs, or audiotapes, but we do have affiliate relationships with good suppliers of these resources. Just use the Reviews Search engine to find our review of the film or book you want to use. You'll find a purchase link in the right column. When you order through these links, SpiritualityandPractice.com gets a small commission, which is very valuable support of our work.
We do sell the DVD series based on our book Spiritual Literacy. Visit the Spiritual Literacy Project for more information and to see sample clips.
• Register Your Circle. Please send us some information about your Values & Visions Circle. No formal registration is required but we would like to know what you are doing and where we can help.
Please email us about (1) your chief interests (films, books, audios, a mix), (2) the average size and type of your circle, (3) how often you meet, (4) where you meet, and (5) last but not least, what else you need from us!