The Heart of Circling

On the way to my very first circle, I had an intense conversation with a friend about whether I should break up with my then-partner. It was very sad, and by the time we arrived at the circle, I felt like I was about to cry. I shoved down the feeling, put on a neutral, vaguely pleasant face, and sat on the floor in a circle with everyone else. They all spoke their names, the leader told us some guidelines and explained this was a ‘surrendered leadership’ style, and had us close our eyes in a brief meditation before starting.

People went around the circle talking about their feelings in a way I hadn’t really seen before. In some of the words there rose tension between two men; they noticed it, the whole room noticed it, and there was a dense silence. One of them was angry at the other; he was mad at how much space the other took up. They turned to face each other, made eye contact, said more careful things. Eventually the angry one said, “I desperately want your approval.” Something in the room discharged, the tension shifted.

I was shocked. I’d never seen anyone admit they wanted someone else’s approval – I could barely admit it to myself, when I felt it. I couldn’t believe this man had torn out his heart and slammed it in the open for all of us to see. I was in awe.

Eventually the circle turned to me, because I’d been so quiet. They asked me what was going on for me, how I felt; I still had the discussion about breaking up with my partner heavy in my body with grief, and quickly, embarrassingly, I started crying. “I’m just struggling with a hard decision,” I said between sobs. The group watched me quietly, patiently, not trying to fix my tears, just witnessing me in my grief.

And then a man on the other side of the circle said loudly, “I’m bored.”

I stared at him through my teary face, feeling like I’d just been slapped. I’d never heard anybody say something like that – their true feeling even when there was intense social pressure not to disrupt an experience?? From that moment on I was absolutely hooked – something going on here was magic, and I wanted more.

Exposure to rationality (of the rationalist community style) radically changed me; I felt like it significantly upgraded my ability to reason. The only other thing to have a comparable impact on my life was circling.

And to be clear, I am pretty allergic to most stuff in the neighborhood of circling. Authentic relating games, bonding workshops, eye contact stuff, those hippie circles where someone breathily expresses something they’re thankful for and everyone murmurs this vaguely-sexual hum in response while clicking their fingers – in all these things I range from ‘tolerant’ to ‘actively disgusted’. I’m not a positivity-human-contact junkie, I’m more of a ‘talk about our feelings through text over telegram while we’re sitting silently in the same room’ type girl.

But circling? Circling is great.

I’m not a circling expert, I’ve done maybe 120 hours of circling, nearly all in surrendered leadership in Circling Europe style. There’s different schools; my preferred school is the ‘wild west’ one, the ‘abandon all structure and see what happens.’ It can be quite intense, and of all the schools CE has the least emphasis on safety. The surrendered leadership mode is exactly what it sounds like – while there is a facilitator, they often barely guide the experience; everyone is expected to be their own leader in the group.

This is awesome, and terrifying. In surrendered leadership I’ve seen people outright lie down and sleep, cuddle piles spontaneously form, pretending to be animals, screaming at each other, 40 minutes of spontaneous silence, clothes coming of, and of course absolutely heroic displays of vulnerability I didn’t even know were possible for a human soul. Once I left a circle utterly triggered by a near-fistfight and spent ten minutes sobbing behind a door.

I’m listing the most exciting things to try to demonstrate that the boundary of ‘what counts as circling’ can be quite huge, but most of the actual content of it is slower, quieter, and internal. Some of the most bored I’ve ever been as an adult has been spent in circles; but this is sort of the point; I get an opportunity to meditate on a social experience and my relationship to it. Should I say something to be less bored? Am I embarrassed about being bored? Am I afraid of breaking silences?

It’s notoriously difficult to describe the heart of circling. It’s a bit like a drug; you can describe the funny visuals, the realization you’re a deity or whatever, but the meat of the thing is sort of sub-concept, where it’s hard to understand conceptually and much easier to understand experientially.

My favorite description is interpersonal meditation. Much as with regular meditation you sit and notice your experience, and then notice yourself noticing your experience, with circling you notice your experience in relation to others, and then notice yourself noticing your experience in relation to others, etc. You can also communicate your experience to others, much as you might communicate your experience to different parts of yourself in traditional meditation. The entire group becomes, in some sense, a single unit, exploring what it’s like to be in connection with each other.

For a while, I predicted experienced meditators would do a really good job circling; after all, they’ve spent a lot of time in careful consideration of themselves, so “themselves while around others” seemed like a small leap. I was surprised to find that (in my admittedly small-ish anecdotal experience), proficient meditators didn’t seem to be particularly better at circling than others, or pick it up faster. My theory is that meditating on self-as-part-of-a-group is simply really really different than meditating on self-alone, enough so that the muscles used to practice on them just don’t overlap.

Some people describe circling as consisting as five principles:

  1. Commitment to connection – to commit, in this experience, to connection with others. Keep in mind connection is often misinterpreted as being ‘on the same wavelength’ or ‘vulnerable’; I personally interpret this as ‘attention’; to pay attention to what it’s like to be with the other people in the circle.
  2. Be with the other in their world – to try to inhabit the other as they are. We’re here to ‘get’ those around us; not who we would be in their circumstance, but to be them in their circumstance.
  3. Own your experience – to treat the things you experience as yours, without placing them on others. If someone makes you mad, the goal is to recognize that your anger is your own, the stories you have around it are yours; you are the generator and the creator of this experience. This is subtly and critically different from self blame or suppressing the anger.
  4. Trust your experience – to let your experience guide your interaction with the group. If you are angry, this isn’t something that needs to be understood; it’s trying to tell you something important, and in expressing it you may find out what it means. Or if you want to suppress the anger, trust that too; the urge to suppress is trying to tell you something important, and in suppressing you may find out what it means.
  5. Stay at the level of sensation – keep your attention regularly on your body, on the tiny little reactions you might have, on the fine-tuned, tiny-grained little movements in your stomach or heart or emotions. My more liberal interpretation of this is don’t get heady – we’re not here to analyze, fix, change, theorize, reminisce; we’re here to be with what is in this moment (even if it’s noticing the sensation of an urge to analyze, fix, change, theorize, or reminisce).

Curtis Yarvin recently wrote a takedown of circling. I’m probably not the right person to respond to this, because I’m a relative circling n00b and his takedown was of Circling Institute style, which features a strong facilitating hand and a guided experience. But it’s all under the ‘circling’ label, and includes some misconceptions about it, or at least accurate conceptions of ‘bad circling.’ Here’s some:

  1. You have to be vulnerable
    No; this implies you have to be a specific thing. Circling seems to be less about being a thing and more about being aware of whatever thing is going on, while in connection with other. If your experience is that you absolutely do not want to be vulnerable around this group, then the experience of avoiding vulnerability is what’s up for you.
  2. Connection with other means you have to tell others how you’re feeling
    No; it means being aware of your experience as it exists in relation to those around you. I’ve known multiple people who would regularly go to circling and say almost nothing, ever. One of my good friends would just lie down with his eyes covered on the outskirts of the circle and give only grunts as a response to questions. Another friend would cover his head in a blanket. “I don’t want to answer that question”, or “I don’t feel safe talking to you”, or just straight-up silence are all valid responses.
  3. If you do want to be ‘honest’, this is often brutal and shitty
    Especially early on, I’d go to circles terrified; what if I feel something really mean and someone asks me what I’m feeling? What if I hurt someone? What if people don’t like me? What if they think I don’t care about them? Turns out, when the time came to share my feelings, I didn’t just have a single brutal thing to say, I had an entire relationship to the thing I was saying. “I am afraid to say [brutal thing],” I’d share. “I am afraid I might hurt someone, and I’m afraid you won’t like me. I’m afraid you might interpret my experience as this other thing. I’m afraid you’ll interpret this as lack of care for you.”
    The point is, “hard honesty” that exists in isolation from all other parts of you isn’t really honesty.
  4. “Owned” language, like “I’m feeling x”, when you really want to say “stop being a jerk,” mutes some important expression
    I sort of agree with this, but my point here is a bit nuanced; I think it’s very possible to say “stop being a jerk” within the bounds of circling; it’s just that it’s not very circling-y to say it when you don’t know how not to say it, when it’s not a very conscious and deliberate choice. Sort of like how, when learning to paint, you might train carefully in realistic shadows and highlights, but then later on break all the conventions when you decide to pull in some abstract moves. The point of the restriction of language is to help draw your attention to what’s going on for you when you want to call someone a jerk, so that when you do finally tell someone to stop being a jerk it can be done with true mastery.
  5. Circling is too restrictive and suppresses good communication that might happen just cause it’s not said correctly
    Generally I hear this from people who are interested in doing more analyze-y things; a really cool theory occurred to them in the circle, and it feels almost criminal to be unable to discuss it with others. After all, isn’t connecting with concepts also a form of connection? Why are we stuck to just the present moment and feelings?
    And again, much like “stop being a jerk”, I think it’s possible for conceptual discussion to be done in the spirit of a circle – I just think it’s hard to do it well until you first have the ability to not do it at all. There is a difference between circling and not-circling (though the line is often blurred for some, including me; I’m referring more to the intentional frame), and one of those differences is a different allocation of attention that results in a really specific vibe. It’s hard to describe the vibe as the goal

Circling done well is an interesting combination of going super meta about the immediate moment. In this, it sort of default-circumvents a lot of complaints; if there’s a complaint about something happening in circling, if you feel bad about something being done, then let’s address it, and it’s the addressing it that feels like what circling is, not the thing generating the complaint in the first place. Circling is closer to a process of inquiry as opposed to specific conclusions.

Yarvin’s critique of circling felt a bit like critiques of science; “this study led to a wrong conclusion” or “people use scientific data to justify racism” or “people blindly trust scientific authority even when scientists are often misguided or have bad incentives.” Like yes, these things are true, but I can’t help but feel like people who make these critiques don’t fully understand the heart of science. “People doing science badly” doesn’t mean the process of inquiry itself is a bad concept, it means people are bad at executing the concept.

And sure – it’s possible that you can have full scientific institutions that are butchering the heart of science, and it’s meaningful to critique that. And if you don’t really know that the heart of science exists at all, it is pretty reasonable to confuse the Big Scientific Institution with science itself. It’s possible Guy’s style of Circling Institute is butchering the heart of circling somehow; I haven’t watched the video Yarvin linked and I haven’t done Circling Institute style. But I want to be clear that there is a heart in there, an incredibly valuable heart, and the goal here is to ‘do the heart justice’. If circling is going wrong, it’s because we’re failing circling, not because circling is failing us.

Much as exposure to rationality changed the way I think and orient to concepts, exposure to circling changed the way I experience interaction with other people.

  1. It made me more perceptive. This comes from raw practice – it’s common in circling to make guesses about the way other people are feeling, and then check if your guess is correct. This is incredible – it gives you quick feedback about your intuitions in a way that’s rarely possible outside of circling. It helped me refine my interpretations of how other people behave because I got to regularly ask them if my perceptions were correct.
  2. It made me less fearful of running into the edges of social boundaries, and gave me greater agency in social situations. This, also, was due to practice handling extreme edges of social boundaries and learning that the other side is quite safe, actually; much as science promises a ‘safety’ in following the process of inquiry wherever it leads, so in circling I learned an incredible safety in following the process into novel social dynamics.
  3. It caused me to realize humans are way more different than I thought. Often in circling a situation would happen where someone would say a thing, and I’d quietly, subconsciously assume that everyone must be having the same reaction to it. Either it was obviously cringe, or obviously heartwrenching; the idea that people all must agree wasn’t even in question, I only thought how people were going to communicate it. And time and time again, people surprised me by having completely different reactions than I predicted. It’s hard to overstate how shocking this was; I knew people were different, of course, but circling was the only place where we slowed down carefully enough to examine reactions that I got to see differences in places I’d never considered were possible before.
  4. It gave me the tools to feel and express love for others. By ‘love’ here I mean Looking; a pure, unflinching being with the other person in whatever they are. I knew how to do this already, but had sort of ‘turned it off’ in social situations where everyone seemed to be implicitly asking the group not to look at the people in it too closely. Circling helped me learn not to turn it off, to find ways to feel and express the love more directly in between the cracks of social politeness.
  5. It made me much, much more self-aware about my social impulses. I’d never before gotten the opportunity to pay super close attention to my social procedures, because a bunch of my attention was busy running those social procedures. Circling caused me to become aware of desires and impulses I had no idea I was subject to; shone a bright, cold light directly onto the social me. And to be clear – I wasn’t exactly ignorant to my ‘shadow’ self or whatever (tho I dislike the term) before, I’d done a huge amount of work staring directly at my own eyeballs on the mirror while on LSD and stuff, but me in relation to other coming to you live, as it happens was really, really new territory.
  6. It gave me a much healthier sense of boundaries (micro-boundaries?) in interactions with others. I got a lot of practice figuring out what feelings were mine and what weren’t, which made me both more comfortable expressing my own feelings and receiving others. I’m less defensive when someone is upset/needy/judgey at me, and I’m less afraid expressing my own displeasure to others – not because I consciously attempted to become less defensive or afraid, but rather because I had the opportunity to pay close attention to myself during times I felt defensive or afraid.

If you’re interested in trying circling, CircleAnywhere has easy-to-join circles of various types done online. There’s also in-person meetups in many, usually larger cities.

3 thoughts on “The Heart of Circling”

  1. I want to add [what I hope will be] clarity around your nuance re
    > “Owned” language, like “I’m feeling x”, when you really want to say “stop being a jerk,” mutes some important expression

    In my experience, the heart of experience-ownership is to purify expression. I use ownership language so that I trip myself up whenever I’m trying to do something with my language other than communicate (generally that thing is “control”, but in the case of nerding out about something it can also be … causing a particular experience without being fully present?). The point of ownership language is to transmute the part of “stop being a jerk” that’s aimed at controlling the other person (to get them to stop being a jerk) into something that’s more purely expressive (perhaps a pure expression about how you want to control them that doesn’t actually try to control them).

    There’s a next level to ownership language which is ownership energy. I can imagine someone screaming “stop being a jerk” in a way that’s a pure expression of frustration and perhaps overwhelm, while at the same time being surrendered to not controlling others. I’m my simulation, this invites the circle into their experience, galvanizes people (including the “jerk”) to show up more, to meet this person in their energy and their world. (Imagine the “jerk” just quietly leaving after this. To me this feels very incomplete, and doesn’t satisfy the thing the scream was aimed at.) This is very different from the “stop being a jerk” that’s casually dismissive and aimed at shutting the “jerk” down. (Here, if the “jerk” leaves, saying “well, good riddance” completes the interaction.)

    I imagine there’s yet another level, where you can express attachment to controlling in a way that’s pure and clean without detaching from it, but I haven’t yet experienced that.

  2. Have you received feedback on your mode of interaction from non-circling people? My read of Yarvin’s critique was that circling undermines your ability to with people in a non-circling manner, have you noticed anything similar to this?

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