What is Circling, anyway?
A relational, in-the-moment, presence-based group conversation and meditation with intent for “shared reality”
Circling is a form of meditation. As such, it involves bringing attention to what is arising in the present moment, welcoming everything – even resistance to what is arising – without trying to change it.
It is also relational. Therefore, what we attend most closely to – rather than the breath or a mantra – is the experience of being with, the quality of the relationship, the feeling-flavor of the moment in connection. (Or disconnection – what’s that like? Noticing.) And since it is intersubjective, rather than just subjective, we communicate our experience, weaving what we call “shared reality”.
Shared reality is where we are on the same page about what is happening. It does not mean that we’re having the same experience of what’s happening, but both of our experiences are generally included in “what’s happening”. So, circling is a practice of being fully with my own experience, while simultaneously being with others’ experiences. This—being differentiated, but connected—is the hallmark of healthy relating, and for many, it’s revolutionary.
And it’s a group conversation, in that it is not multiple conversations happening concurrently; the whole circle is involved. A big part of the practice of Circling is the dictum: Own Your Experience. The essence of owning one’s experience is to get as close as we can to our experience and speak from that place. By doing so, we avoid blaming, projecting, abstraction, deflection; and we invite others to know us as we are.
Circling is not coaching or psychoanalysis. We’re not trying to motivate or achieve or get somewhere other than right here, nor are we trying to explain or justify or figure out why we’re here, in terms of upbringing or otherwise. If a goal or desire is present, let’s be with it and check it out. (“What’s it like to want things to be different?”) If a memory comes up, a pattern is recognized, or a connection is made, let’s be together in it. As in other forms of meditation, if we notice we are leaving the moment, taken on a ride of past or future, we re-presence; that is, we zoom out of the mental elsewhereness, to acknowledge that that very elsewhereness is happening here. (“What’s it like to tell us about that?”) Circling is not about solving people’s problems. We’re not here to heal, fix, change, advise, shame, escape… We’re here to make ourselves available to connection in the moment.
In the basic form, a birthday circle, one person is the focus of the circle. The intentions are to be with this person (aka the Circlee) and to “get their world” – that is, to get a sense of what it’s like to be them. We’re also exploring what it’s like to be them with us in this moment, as well as what it’s like to be us with the Circlee. We’re going for shared reality—so rather than try to bracket ourselves out of the picture so as to pay attention to the other, we bring ourselves fully, available to resonate or dissonate, be curious or bored—whatever comes up for us. Our experience is important.
So, attention is on our own experience, another’s experience, and the quality of the connection between us, with attention to what feels “most alive”, without intent to change, heal, advise, fix, or otherwise shame or escape.
As the Circlee, your job is to show up fully and honor yourself. To the best of your abilities, know and honor your needs and boundaries. You are not subject to the whims of the circle: you have agency in this. You don’t have to answer anyone’s questions if you don’t want to. This is not about catharsis or baring your guts if that’s not where you’re at. And if the circle is missing what seems most alive for you, bring it! Know, however, that by being in this role, you’re signaling your openness for people’s reflections of you. It’s a practice of truth, of attunement, and of connection. Because of that, being in the Circlee role can bring up the ways we avoid connection, which can be hard, vulnerable, or scary for some. If you’re not down for that, maybe stick to the participant role for a few circles.
Basic categories of options for how to participate in a circle:
- Follow your curiosity. Ask questions about the Circlee’s experience, without assumption or “should-ing”. Beware of questions that start with why: they tend to get analytical and “figure-out-y”. Gear more toward the present moment quality of the experience. Beware questions that start with what if, or what would it be like if: they tend to be attempts to change or escape what’s actually present. Notice your underlying motivation: perhaps you might find discomfort at what is present. Which you might then express…
- Share your experience. Bodily sensations and emotions are good touchstones for staying in the present; this isn’t the best venue, in other words, for sharing your life story. Some useful sentence stems are: Being with you, I feel…, or When you said ___, I felt… You can also just share whatever your experience is if it feels really alive, not having to know whether it’s connected to anyone else’s, followed by a check-in: How does that land? Or What’s that like to hear? This kind of check-in is especially useful after you…
- Offer reflections. How does the Circlee seem to you? What do you notice about them? What do you imagine about their experience? Be willing to be wrong. For this category, it’s especially important to know the difference between an observation and an interpretation. For example, you wouldn’t say, I notice you’re nervous/sad/happy. Owning your experience, you might say, You seem nervous, is that right?/I feel sad being with you, and I’m wondering if you’re also feeling sad./I notice you’re smiling, and I imagine you’re feeling happy. Or you could say something like, I notice your shoulders slumped forward when you said that… what’s happening for you?
The facilitator’s job is to keep us in bounds, in the realm of Circling. If you as participant veer into coaching or advising, the facilitator as a part of the practice may help you to own your experience, for example, by finding the underlying feeling that’s motivating your share. They also may to varying degree take a guiding role in service of some value, whether it be group inclusion, or following a particular thread, as a meditator might stay with a particular feeling or sensation, rather than moving on to the next.
These descriptions may seem forced or limiting, but the reason for them is to help us own our own experience and give others space for theirs, while simultaneously being with them in the intersubjectivity of the moment. It’s certainly not about being nice or polite. The closer we can be to our own experience, the less we project onto others, the more freely we can play.