Circling 2.0

Posted on October 27, 2019

Circling is a form of meditation in connection and spontaneous sharing. The practice brings attention and awareness to how it is to be together with a group of people, with the intention of communion: the sharing from the heart of immediate truth. We share about how it feels in our body to be with the others. We share our world and get the worlds of others, from a position of pure curiosity, without judgement. Circling blends heart-to-heart communication, improvised theatre, poetical expression, and meditation in action. Circling is about the experience of connection to other people, about understanding the world of another person, about celebrating togetherness with others where they are right now.

My self image offers only a partial view of me. Your self image offers only a partial view of you. You can see things about me that I cannot see myself and I can see things about you that you cannot see yourself. So if I offer you the gift of my attention and if you allow me to focus my attention on you and invite me to share what I see, remarkable things can start to happen. And next we can turn it around. I allow you to focus your attention on me and to start noticing things. For the connection between you and me to be safe for both of us, trust is necessary. We need to have trust in a common intention to honour and celebrate each other.

The power to focus our attention is the essence of our agency. This is where the core of our freedom lies. Circumstances and people may constrain my freedom in all kinds of ways, but nothing or nobody can take away my freedom to direct my attention. My freedom to direct my attention is my sovereignty. I am free to give my attention, I am free to withold my attention. You are as free as I am. You are free to receive my attention on you. You are free to decline my attention on you or to disengage. There is absolutely no obligation for you to accept my gift.

Several Circling schools exist (Google for them). People who attended events report increased self awareness and awareness of others. But there are also reports of abuse and harassment during circling or connected with circling events or connected with circling organisations. It is clear from the reports that people have been harmed in circling sessions.

Circling is a powerful but morally neutral tool. Circling skills are like ninja skills. You can use then to protect but also to harm. In some cases we may have to attribute the harm to malice. Circling attracts all kind of folks, including severely character disordered people who view circling as a way to gain power over others (see below for the connection of circling to pickup artistry).

Most people are somewhere in the middle on a scale between severe neurosis (too much conscience, too much consideration for others) and character disorder (no conscience, no consideration for others). If you are the neurotic type, it is a good idea to educate yourself about character disordered people, the other end of the scale. You might wish to read George Simon’s In Sheep’s Clothing. This book has opened my eyes for the phenomenon of covert agression: using every means available, in a sly way, for getting what one wants irrespective of the adverse effects on others.

Covertly aggressive people are attracted to circling because it teaches them better ways to exercise power over others. If you want to circle in a safe way - and are not character disordered - then you should learn to recognize people who want to take away your agency. Believe me, they may not be beyond redemption, but you cannot save them. Even if you are strong enough to show them your boundaries, set limits for them, confront them, shame them and correct them, run! They will try to destroy you. Avoid circles where they are present. Toxic people will not be changed by the alchemy of your kindness.

In many cases, it seems fair to attribute lousy facilitation in circling to a mix of ignorance, incompetence, arrogance, and lack of emotional maturity in self-styled circling leaders. Experience in circling comes with practice. Experience counts, but the practice of circling is essentially non-hierarchical. There is no reason to consider someone with ample experience in circling facilitation as a spiritual guru or as a life coach. If your circling facilitator starts sending you private messages with invitations for coaching sessions, my advice to you is to run.

We should all remember that certification as a circling facilitator means very little, because independent certification procedures for circling do not exist. All circling schools “certify” their own leaders, and there are no established and time-honoured practices for this. Indeed, there is very little in the way of tradition, and the “lineages” claimed by the various circling schools are remarkably short and thin. Part of the reason for this is that the circling schools do not acknowledge their history or claim their ancestry in philosophy, in psychology and psychotherapy, in religious practices, and in the community building techniques of Indigenous cultures. The long list of neglected ancestors includes the following (this list is not exhaustive):

Finally, here is a slightly dubious ancestor:

Some circling leaders started their careers as pickup artists. If you recognize one of your circling facilitators in Strauss’ account, run!

The connections between circling and The Way of Council are very strong. Here are the 5 Agreements of Council:

These will all be familiar to circlers, except maybe for the third one, leanness of word (certainly something to aspire to). Another difference is that the techniques of council do have as their specific goal the strengthening of the community. In reflections on the goals of circling there is usually more emphasis on how we can benefit individually from our improved relational skills. There is something to be said for adopting strengthening the sense of community as an explicit goal in circling too. All in all, there is much inspiration for circling to be found in the way of council.

If circling facilitators take themselves too seriously and participants start projecting their stories onto them and are beginning to view them as people with superior spiritual insight, power dynamics comes into play. And this is the point where things can get really tricky. It is wise to not immerse oneself too deeply in a circling community. Falling a little bit in love with the practice and the people involved in it is OK, but please don’t neglect family and friends outside the circling world. In other words, don’t become a cult follower. The goal is to become lights to ourselves. This means we must avoid teachers who are telling us that we should follow their lights or teachers who claim to have superior insight in our feelings or our life path. There is no substitute for cultivating our own sense of discernment and sound judgement.

Lots of pitfalls in circling. And still I am grateful to this community, for it got me in touch with many delightful, wise, mature and super-creative folks that I have come to love. I tend to get along a bit better with those who do not aspire to circling leadership positions than with those that do. For one thing, aspiring leaders are part of a power dynamics that I distrust. But the main reason is that I dislike it when circling leaders see me as a potential client, and their (only thinly disguised) goal is to recruit me for a weekend or for a course.

I sometimes open my home for conscious connection meetings. I have come to avoid the “Circling” label for the activity we engage in together and I don’t care if what we engage in is not considered proper circling by a critic with superior training. I do not charge money for these events, because I derive as much joy from them as my guests. You can compare it to inviting friends for a home-cooked meal. It does not mean that I am against restaurants. I don’t mind if people charge money for circling events. They are in the business of running a restaurant. I happen to prefer eating at home with friends.