There is so much going on in school in the classrooms and playgrounds beyond the visible mechanics, structures and actions. The children are learning what their emotions are, how to express their ideas and needs, to manifest their purpose, to have time alone and with others and to look after themselves, each other and the world. However to gain these skills with sensitivity, it helps to have a space to watch the underlying currents with focus. Holding times where we can look together at who we each are and in relation to each other, to develop the vocabulary of emotions and to exercise autonomy and connection is vital to nurturing whole people and a wholesome culture.

With the suggestions of others trained in various gestalts and methods, I heard of a way to hold a space to look together at our individuality in community. I roamed my house and the odd charity shop to collect small knick-knacks, stones and mini animal figurines. This became a treasure box. The structure is simple: take a trinket and place it on our circular rug. That is now ‘you’ for the duration, and the rug slowly fills up with representatives. The guidelines are also simple: don’t touch another’s item, nor suggest where they move it, nor move your piece out of turn. Sometimes there is a visualisation or meditation at the start, there is always some kind of  invitation which varies: for instance to think of a wish, something we’d like to learn, of someone you miss, to be silent during the session, or to pay attention to how you know what you feel and where in you it is sensed. There is no compulsion. This process is done in turns, each person (usually) sharing a feeling of why they moved or what it feels like where their piece is now. After the initial choosing (and some participants have not been ready to choose in the first round, or ever in the session), the movements happen as people feel the need. This is indicated with raised hands and nods; the facilitation is to keep things slow. As many may feel to move at the same time, all sorts of opportunities for resilience, patience and awareness come up. As the exercise carries on, everyone notices where they are in relation to others, how they are effected by that, and what they feel as they move their own piece. Some hands shoot up the second another’s piece is moved, some don’t move their piece once in a whole session. Some move their piece to join a growing group (the shapes will vary from circles to lines to jumbles), others may share ‘I was too close’ and move their piece to a more solitary space. At the close, everyone reclaims their trinket and holds it until they are ready to share a feeling or an observation and relinquish the object back to the box. This can take from 15-45 minutes, but usually around half an hour.

The threads of observation and how we know our own dis/comfort run clearly through all the sessions, but the themes and atmosphere change. Sometimes the pieces are moved quickly and often. Other times, the pauses are long and perhaps the explanations as well. The children continually bring their own topics to the sessions: they are interested in the balance between closeness and separateness, aloneness and togetherness, edges and centres. They notice how fine these balances can be. “It was good, then I felt squished.” “I started to feel lonely.” “It’s hard to find the right place.” “I want to be close, but not too close.” “Here I feel connected.” “Here I feel myself.” These statements are accompanied by soft or intense eyes, deep frowns and slumped shoulders, hands on chests, fluttering arms, tightening or loosening of abdomens. Other big themes are those of privacy and authenticity – when to share and when to keep something to oneself, and how to do these honestly (the difference between “I don’t know” and “I don’t want to say”). Statements like “I feel sad”, “I feel grumpy”, “I feel excited” , a sigh accompanied by “I don’t want to share” are not probed, but accepted as contributions, with or without explanatory stories. Instead of agreeing or interrupting with our own story, we touch our noses to show empathy. People notice that they feel a sense of safety in the circle; their minds roam to special memories of the past (such as nursing as a baby, or a special connection), emotions that disturb them (anger from the morning, worry about an upcoming move), or confidence (moving near someone’s piece that they normally don’t know) . Concepts arise for us to define and explore, such as chaos and order, change and impermeability, discernment, respect, space, connection, influence, silence, future, past and present, inner and outer, generosity and fear.

The process is developing. When at first a sharing of hunger or tiredness was acknowledged as paying attention to  oneself, the request may now be to go deeper. What is the difference between an emotion and a need, an emotion and a desire? What feelings have you felt today, even if not exactly now? We live the interest, the intrigue of our emotional worlds. What is the difference between not knowing what you feel and not wanting to share it at that moment? Can you give yourself time to look in? Naming feelings can take a story or phrase, rather than a word that may label or fix things in time. It takes bravery to share, and mutuality. The facilitation gently questions the ‘givens’, notices the body language of those in response to the sharing. We may pause our routine as we go along, acknowledging when someone has spoken for many of us, or going deeper into a question or idea. It is also a good time to acknowledge habits and assumptions; is someone doing something they don’t really need to, can they see the ineffectiveness of their repetitive behaviour? Children who often find groups or sitting a challenge, stay focused, intent and even offer profound contributions in these sessions.

This exercise offers a rich venue, which asks each person to go to their own edge (no one else’s idea of their edge), and look around there. Within this, arises the awareness of the capacity for contradictory feelings to exist within us as individuals and as a group. It becomes clear how our experiences are both individually unique and universally collective. The exercise does not reach an end product of ‘wiseness’, but puts time in to pay attention, and to notice the blossoms and webs of connection from this attention.

Mariamah Mount