The Power of a Circle: A View from Bhutan
Tim Huang, Guest Writer

In 1972, the small Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan adopted the philosophy of Gross National Happiness (GNH), a holistic approach to development that moves beyond Gross Domestic Product and takes into account shared prosperity, environmental sustainability, cultural preservation, community vitality, and other factors that are essential to human well-being. While I cannot speak to the manifestation of Gross National Happiness as the complex policy tool or index that it is in the government’s eyes today, I can share about my own understanding of GNH in practice at a more simple, human level – in the heartfelt experience of co-hosting a weekly community circle in Bhutan.

Every Wednesday night, a group of educators, social workers, students, young leaders, and other development professionals host a community circle in the library of a local school in Bhutan’s capital city, Thimphu. The circle consists of an hour of silence for mindful contemplative practice, an hour of connection through a sharing circle, and an hour of gratitude enjoying a home-cooked meal together. As one of the former co-hosts, I always opened the circle with the invitation “welcome home” because this space has become a collective home for so many kindred spirits. Week in and week out, people show up exhausted from work or school but find solace recharging through silent time for self-care practices like meditation and prayer. During the sharing circle, we read a passage to spark insight and inspiration. The piece is often drawn from wisdom traditions and elders like the late Nelson Mandela, Buddhist nun Tenzin Palmo, or poet Mary Oliver. After reflecting on the piece, we share and listen from our hearts, which often leads to empathic tears, hearty laughter, and courageous vulnerability to allow others to see us as we truly are.

At one circle, a school principal opened up about her inspiring journey of breaking through barriers as the first woman college lecturer in Bhutan as well as her challenges today in educating her students for GNH. At another, a student shared about her fears of not living up to her family’s expectations and where she drew her inner strength during her mother’s illness. In yet another, a former substance user and gang-involved young man dug deep into his story, including the adversity he faced growing up in poverty without his father and how he learned to look within to transform his own anger. At our circle, he realized, like many others who join every week, that he is not alone in his struggle and he can lean on the collective presence of our community to heal. Today, he leads his life with renewed purpose in service of others, creating inspiring music as a popular rapper and Bhutanese youth icon who supports other young substance users facing similar challenges that he went through.

I have seen the power of the circle as an antidote to the isolation, violence, fear, addiction, mental illness, and disconnection we see in our world today. The circle empowers us to make four mindset shifts: isolation to community, transaction to trust, consumption to contribution, and scarcity to abundance. The beauty of the circle is that as each individual shares, everyone else bears witness. In an hour, each person may spend 1 minute sharing, but spend the remaining 59 minutes listening. In doing so, we hear the threads of our own stories in others’ stories, recognizing our interconnectedness. The circle is not new by any means. It is an innovation of the past. Generation after generation, the circle has been used for restorative justice in indigenous and customary legal systems, such as Nangkha Nangdrig, traditional community law practiced in rural villages across Bhutan.

Around the world, this contemporary circle we host in Bhutan is known as the “Awakin Circle,” a global grassroots movement of ordinary people gathering in living rooms and community spaces every Wednesday in over 90 cities on nearly every continent. Through this simple circle format of contemplative practice, vulnerable sharing and listening, and a home-cooked meal enjoyed in gratitude, individuals reconnect with their inner values. Soon, strangers become kin, and together, everyone awakens to bring this spirit of generosity and service into the world. Over the last 20 years, these circles have scaled organically through a few key design principles: stay volunteer-run, invest in the quality of relationships, host with the abundance of resources and wisdom in the local context, and leverage the online platform to amplify inspiration.

The circle is a living laboratory for trying something different in community development, just as Bhutan, with its philosophy of Gross National Happiness, is a living laboratory for trying something different with international development. The circle, like GNH, is grounded in multiple forms of capital, like social capital and cultural capital. It is about enabling well-being to flourish through peer-to-peer support systems of trust and shared values. It is about building our collective capacities to transform the world for the better, starting with ourselves. My hope is that community circles rooted in deep relationships can strengthen social networks for change and ecosystems of collaboration across the field of international development. I truly believe that the circle and the lessons of community we draw from it will contribute to a more just, interconnected, and compassionate world.