Michael O'Connor -- talking circle

Michael O'Connor holds an eagle feather and a bowl of burnt sage that he uses in his talking circle. Both items are traditional Native American practices that are incorporated into the talking circle, a traditional Native American meeting in which participants are enabled to talk freely.

SIOUX CITY | Help, healing or just that little boost you need to help make sense of life's everyday triumphs and challenges can come in a variety of forms.

Michael O'Connor believes that traditions Native Americans have carried down through the centuries can play a role in helping people find the inner peace they seek.

For about an hour each week, he leads a talking circle, a gathering that incorporates Native American traditions to help people talk about what's on their minds and grow personally.

"Talking circle is an old Native American concept, a practice that when there's meetings that need to be held, you gather in a circle, a prayer is said and that circle becomes holy and people feel safe to talk safely and in-depth," said O'Connor, a Yankton Sioux who has a background in social services and drug and alcohol education and prevention on the Yankton Sioux Indian Reservation in South Dakota.

Now a manager of a Sober Apartment Living unit in Sioux City, O'Connor said talking circles helped him kick addictions and turn his life around. He wants to help others find peace and understanding. It's not counseling, he said, and it differs from current Sioux City talking circles offered for those seeking sobriety from drug or alcohol addictions.

"I wanted to make the talking circle available to anyone and everyone," he said. "I know I've benefited from talking circles and they have helped me and I wanted to share it."

The circle began meeting at 8 p.m. on Mondays in July at the {Be} Yoga studio, located at 1101 Fourth St. Eight or nine participants have shown up thus far to share their thoughts and feelings.

"I left feeling positive, so that's why I came back the second Monday," said Suzanne, who did not wish to use her last name.

Those positive feelings are what O'Connor hopes circle members develop through sharing.

"I think it's a good place for people to open up, and when people open up, they grow," he said.

O'Connor utilizes Native American symbols to create a relaxed atmosphere. At a recent gathering, O'Connor opened with a prayer, spoken partly in the Lakota language, asking the Creator to acknowledge the circle's holiness and come into their hearts.

Sage is burned and presented to each member to breathe in. Its burning, O'Connor said, is a form of prayer that offers cleansing of the consciousness and the heart. If you offer a prayer, it goes into the smoke and off into creation.

After burning the sage, one of the participants reads a meditation and then members take turns discussing how it applies to their lives.

While each person speaks, he or she holds an eagle feather, another important symbol utilized in the circle. The eagle is considered a messenger from God because it flies the highest, O'Connor said, and those holding an eagle feather are more inclined to tell the truth.

It's not an airing of problems. Sure, participants reveal things that are troubling them, but they also talk about things that have made them happy since the last meeting. They talk in serious tones, but also crack a few jokes about their experiences and feelings.

Just as O'Connor hoped they would. The circle can serve different purposes to different people, so the free meetings are open for anyone to show up whenever they wish. With no attendance requirements, participants can come whenever they feel the need to be there.

O'Connor wants to see participants feel better and find healing for whatever might be troubling them.

"I think they reach a deeper level of awareness, a deeper level of honesty," he said. "You get braver in the circle, and then you take that with you."

His desire to share the circle follows the teachings of his elders who taught him that one is not measured by what he can get, but by what he can give.

"I would just like to see it continue and see more people come and fall in love with it like I have, to benefit from it, to pass it on," he said.

It's hard for some to pass up an hour of calm self-examination, shared with others seeking the same thing.

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