Mindfulness, facilitation and eldership

still water blue sky

I’ve been teaching in different contexts in the past few weeks – a retreat at Sharpham called Sustaining Ourselves: Mindfulness for Burnout; and the second module of Apprenticing to Grief, where I share what I’ve learned with others wanting to hold grief spaces.

In both I noticed myself describing one of the core patterns of healthy culture. The pattern of stopping, bringing awareness to what is happening and responding.

Kaira Jewel Lingo, with whom I’ve taught Mindful Life programmes, might depict this as an image of stepping out of the river and sitting on the bank. 

Instead of being carried along by habits, by the fast moving currents of the mind, of the conversation, of the organisational culture, we deliberately step away to a place from which we can reflect. The steps might go like this –


Listen. Ask: what’s here?

Make meaning of what we notice


Without this pattern there is no stopping the existing direction from continuing. In engineering it would be unthinkable to create a system that can’t track itself, and stop when it’s going in the wrong direction.

In my own life this pattern happens in different ways. Sometimes I meditate. Sometimes I sit, and listen to myself, or write, or doodle. I have supervision where someone asks me, how are you? 

In 2015 I co-created a check in group with three others in the Transition movement I was working in. We met every Wednesday morning, because by that stage in the week our good intentions for balance and self-care in our working practice would often be heading out of the window. On zoom, now, we sit in silence for 2 minutes. We each take around 5 minutes to check in. How am I doing? And then 2 minutes to say: what am I taking from this? About 40 minutes total, if we are all there.

Longer spaces for stopping and listening happen if I take several days out to go on a retreat (I haven’t managed this for a while), or at the midwinter break when I review the year and dream into the year coming, on my own or with others. I am part of peer groups where we check in and support each other.

In organisations I work in, the pattern is also useful. As an intervention in meetings when things are getting heated – and often speeding up – I’ve sometimes found the space to say something like –

“Can we just take a moment to pause and take a breath, and ask, what’s going on here? Maybe we can all just say what we’re feeling or what we’re aware of?” 

Often this helps those present to notice that we’re getting into charged territory, and to understand more about what emotional charge is present, for whom, and why.

Facilitation is another name we might give to this role. After years of being a “facilitator” and wondering what I was really doing, I came up with this definition of what the role of facilitation is (this is not the truth, by the way):

  • To help a group establish its intention
  • In service to that intention, to welcome the many different voices, wisdoms, expressions within the group, especially the of those who are quieter or at the margins;
  • To offer processes and structures that might be helpful to the group intention;
  • To reflect back to the group what is seen, heard and noticed.

Part of my journey as someone occasionally asked to facilitate conflict has been to learn that my job is not to help a group resolve its conflict – that may happen. But the role is more to support a group to sit with the real experience of conflict, listening and making meaning together.

Perhaps it’s time for the group to change, to open, to end, to reset its intention, to split because there are two intentions present which are not compatible, to introduce new processes – or something else. To stop, listen, notice and make meaning, and consciously design a way forward.

Heated conflict and burnout are often signs that early warning signals have not been attended to. If signals aren’t caught early the pattern of deterioration will continue, and the signals will get bigger. Then the processes of repair or healing are likely to take longer.

At an Art of Mentoring camp I heard a story of how elders in the Haudenosaunee confederacy might have a role in meetings of intervening in a gentle way. Their version of a person or meeting in a healthy state was called “upright mind”, and the unhealthy state was called “deteriorating mind”. (Interesting that in their frame, unhealth doesn’t stay still, it gets worse…)

The story I remember is that when an elder felt a meeting was moving towards deteriorating mind they might say “I can just see a little spider is crawling towards the fire and I’m going to take this stick and remove it to safety”. 

Those present would know that this intervention meant, it’s time to check in whether you are in upright mind – in a calm state, connected with and in service to the whole, and not getting stuck in personal stories or intentions.

I’m curious about eldership as another embodiment of this pattern. The ones in a society who have already been through the stages of childhood, adulthood, working life, perhaps as parent or supportive adult in raising children, and governance of a community. 

Becoming an elder might mean letting go of personal investment, and taking a view of the whole. Standing for the well being of all the relations, within the community and including the beyond human interbeing of life. I’m grateful for the elders I have met, and how they have been role models for me.

I’m loving seeing the work of people like Tricia Hersey, founder of Nap Ministry naming rest as resistance!

In a society which emphasises individualism and speed, where the pressures to keep going are enormous, some of us may have the internal discipline to pause by ourselves. But some of us need structures and support to do that. Because this isn’t just an individual task. It’s about how we build healthier culture together.

Author: sophybanks

living in south west England

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