Posted on March 26, 2017

Jan van Eijck

Edited on March 27


And so I urge you, go after experience rather than knowledge. On account of pride, knowledge may often deceive you, but this gentle, loving affection will not deceive you. Knowledge tends to breed conceit, but love builds. Knowledge is full of labor, but love, full of rest.

(From: The Book of Privy Counsel, Chapter 23, by the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing, 14th Century, England)

Until about a week ago I had never heard of Circling. Then a recommendation from a Facebook friend made me curious about this playful free style group contact meditation activity, described on a website as a dynamic group process that is a mix of art, skillful facilitation and conversational yoga. As with many things, Amsterdam happens to be one of the places where they happen. You can find information (as I did) about a very active and very cosmopolitan Amsterdam Circling group here.

I am completely new to Circling, and therefore I am completely fresh. I have been to a single completely wonderful event that was facilitated by John Thompson, here in Amsterdam, where I felt very much at home, right from the start. This may have something to do with the fact that I am already familiar with bodywork and meditation. Or maybe it is just that I really enjoy meeting people in heart-to-heart encounters.

But let me tell you about that meeting, last Thursday night, in De Ruimte, at ten minutes cycling distance from my home. I had found out about the event and the venue on internet, and I decided to go there at the last possible moment. So, as is commonly the case with me, I was the last person to arrive at the meeting, which was scheduled to start at 7.30 pm and was announced to end at 10.00 pm.

I was welcomed at the door by a girl with a broad smile. After she collected my entrance fee (I got a discount because I was a first timer), she invited me to get myself a cup of tea and find myself a place. About twenty-five people were already sitting in a wide circle, on meditation cushions that were put on top of mattresses. The session was about to start. I poured myself some tea, put a meditation cushion on an empty spot, and was greeted warmly by friendly neighbours on each side who gave their names and asked for mine.

We were all sitting for quite a while, and nothing happened. Yet, there was a vibrancy in the room, an expectancy of things to come. Clearly, many of the attendants knew each other well. Glances and smiles were exchanged. Next, a woman said in a soft voice that she felt her heart pounding in her chest, that she felt anxious. Someone answered. Next, silence again.

Then a man (who later turned out to be John) asked “Who is new?”. Five people, including me, raised their hands. “If you wish, you can stay here and experience what is happening. But we can also give you a brief introduction in a smaller circle if you would like that; Miriam (the woman who sat next to me) can take you nextdoor for some explanation.” There was hesitation, and then I blurted out: “Since it looks to me that there are no rules to this game anyway, I do not think I need an introduction.” John: “Yes, but some people like to get into the swimming pool step by step.” Me: “I would rather take a plunge, if only someone can assure me that the pool is deep enough.” General laughter.

The next thing that happened was that a woman reacted to me. “I sense that you are in high spirits. But the thing is that I am not. And right now I am wondering if there is room here for someone who is feeling a bit down.” Someone reacted to that. And so it went on. At some point the interaction ceased to be general, and people started to share their feelings in subgroups that formed spontaneously. I felt lost for a moment, and then I boldly entered a group next to me: “This feels like I am intruding in a conversation, and it is clear that you know each other already, but I feel a bit lost right now.” This got me in. It was that easy. Groups broke up again and new groups formed. Most people I had interactions with that evening were obviously experienced and quite comfortable with prolonged eye contact.

This is what I discovered. Circling is very much about being present, in the company of others. It is an invitation to see yourself through eyes of loving attention, your own eyes, and the eyes of the others around you. It is about naked choiceless attention. It is about healing each other through full acceptance of who they are, who you are, how they are, how you are, how they appear to you, how you appear to them.

My initial impression that there were no rules turned out to be completely wrong, by the way. But this I only found out later. When I cycled home that night it felt like I was returning from a surprise party with complete strangers that unexpectedly had turned into a huge success, with everybody effortlessly and spontaneously engaging in heartfelt conversations with the others.

Finding Out More About Circling

On the day after the event I received an email from CirclingEurope (a website with pointers to lots of information, by the way) with a thank you for joining Circling Nights Amsterdam (this is how the evening events are called), a link to the Circling Nights Facebook Group and further YouTube links on Online Circling and General Info About Circling.

There is also a possibility to subscribe to an email sequence, but I did not manage to complete the process at the system did not send me the promised confirming email message.

It turns out there are various schools or styles in Circling. An internet search got me in touch with Marc Beneteau, who had written a draft “handbook”. Actually, it is more like a small tract, some thirty pages. If you would like to receive a copy of his Circling Handbook draft, you can get in touch with him here. By the way, Marc readily admits in his draft that he is relatively new to the technique.

Something that I had sensed already during my Circling event was confirmed by what I learned later: there are clear do’s and don’ts about communication in a Circling group. In a internet chat I had with John Thompson he hinted that his European style is rather different from the American style, but hey, I am a newcomer, so I may be excused for not yet being sensitive to the subtleties of style. John seems to be wary of rules, but he stresses that there are “principles, ideas and invitations”. When I asked him to explain he pointed me to their website info. Hmm, homework to do. I hoped finally to have found a curriculum without homework. Well, never mind, according to John the homework is purely optional, and anyway, if I am allowed to set my own homework exercises it is maybe not so bad.

Here are some rules or principles that I discovered through participation and through a superficial study of the resources mentioned above.

Some example bits of conversation:

People generally did not raise their voices. A rule seems to be: if you react to someone who is talking in a loud voice, try lowering your own voice.

During the Circling event that I participated it, there was a lot of physical contact. But it was clear to me that there were also implicit rules about (physically) touching, in particular about when not to touch.

I did hug some people, but I took care to ask their permission first. “I would like to hug you now, but am I allowed to touch you?”

Lots of things that were going on reminded me of the practice of Flower Watering that I learned a long time ago from my Buddhist teacher, Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh. Flower watering means calling attention to what is beautiful in the person you are relating to. This will help them to open up, and sometimes will prepare the ground for more difficult feelings to share.

However, flower watering should be done with care. If I am overdoing it, my wife tells me I am a shameless flatterer, and when I overdo it with my daughters, they call me “slijmbal” (slimeball). One should know when and where to stop. Still, I must confess that in my interactions with others I find it very tempting to throw in a bit of flattery every once in a while. The thing with flattery is: people tend to react positively to it, even if they can see through it.

In his tract, Marc has a brief section on How to Deal With Narcissists. Thich Nhat Hanh recommends to get in touch with the narcissist in ourselves, and postpone action until we can act out of compassion. This may be a tall order.

Sociopaths are a different matter. A sociopath is someone who ultimately is not motivated by love but by power. Clearly, it is important not to give sociopaths power over a group. If people are behaving in a way that is clearly harmful to the group, they should be told, in no uncertain terms, by the host that they are not welcome anymore until they can recognize that genuinely relating to others is about love, not about power. There were no sociopaths in the group that I had taken part in, by the way.


My search for resources did not result in many paper references. I think the list of relevant related literature could be considerably expanded by making some obvious connections.

I did not have a chance to look at this.

These suggestions for community games made me curious. Looked nice to me. I intend to invite people over to play these games together.

See my remarks above.

The following is a list of further recommendations. Thich Nhat Hanh is a delightful blend of poet, Buddhist teacher and social activist. He has written many books. The following are relevant for the kind of dynamic group meditation that Circling is.

Next, in the area of theatre and working with performing artists, there is the remarkable attempt to invite people to increase their presence in situations they are in, on and off stage, by Master Voice and Shakespeare teacher Patsy Rodenburg.

The theatre is about emotion, for the purpose of art is to give voice to the emotional reaction of sensitive men and women to what happens in the world around us. Personally, I learned much from a year of theatre training by Dutch actor and theatre maker Helmert Woudenberg.

Shakespeare’s plays bring home how strong emotions can rule lives and decide fates. Hamlet about indecision, Othello about jealousy, King Lear about folly and remorse, Macbeth about lust for power. Shakespeare is an inexhaustible source of information about how emotions manifest in our bodies, about what it feels like to be suicidal (Hamlet’s famous soliloquy), what is feels like to be jealous (It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on, Iago in Othello), what the despair of a life lived in vain feels like (Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player That struts and frets his hour upon the stage And then is heard no more, Macbeth upon hearing of the death of his wife).

The way emotions got expressed during the Circling event that I participated in reminded me strongly of Emotionally Focussed Therapy:

Circling is about communicating with respect. This is connected to nonviolent communication and nonviolent action more generally. These are skills that can be learned:

Ultimately, Circling is about individual and social transformation. This is something that is urgently needed. The key question of any spiritual transformation process is the question Who Am I? The self enquiry process has three stages: (1) I am not the body. (2) I am not the mind with all its thoughts. (3) Awareness of the life force, awareness of consciousness. See:

Circling can be viewed as a group endeavour to confront us all with the fundamental question of who we are, to use this question to shed all the false answers, so that the Truth can shine and can be recognized, even if we can find no words to express it. So let’s add a final reference for living in truth:

This remarkable essay describes what it was like to be a dissenter in the oppressive society of Central-Eastern Europe in the years before the fall of the Berlin wall, and ultimately invites us to the power and dignity of what Havel calls living in truth, starting to listen to the inner voice that calls us to the truth, the voice that we can all learn to discern deep within us.