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Circling is a practice, much like meditation is a practice.

There are many forms of it (again, like there are many forms of meditation). There are even life philosophies built around it. There are lots of intellectual, heady discussions of its theoretical underpinnings, often centered in Ken Wilber's Integral Theory. Subcultures have risen from it. It is mostly practiced in the US and Europe. It attracts lots of New Age-y, hippie, self-help-guru types. My guess is that the median age of practicers is in the 30's. I sometimes refer to practicers of Circling as relationalists (or just Circlers).

In recent years, Circling has caught the eye of rationalists, and that's why this post is showing up here, on LessWrong. I can hopefully direct people here who have the question, "I've heard of this thing called Circling, but... what exactly is it?" And further, people who ask, "Why is this thing so ****ing hard to explain? Just tell me!"

You are probably familiar with the term inferential distance.

Well, my friend Tiffany suggested a similar term to me, experiential distance—the gap in understanding caused by the distance between different sets of experiences. Let's just say that certain Circling experiences can create a big experiential distance, and this gap isn't easily closed using words. Much of the relevant "data" is in the nonverbal, subjective aspects of the experience, and even if I came up with a good metaphor or explanation, it would never close the gap. (This is annoyingly Postmodern, yes?)

[Ho ho~ how I do love poking fun at Postmodernism~]

But! There are still things to say, so I will say them. Just know that this post may not feel like eating a satisfying meal. I suspect it will feel more like licking a Pop-Tart, on the non-frosted side.

Some notes first.

Note #1: I'm not writing this to sell Circling or persuade you that it's good. I recommend using your own sense of curiosity, intuition, and intelligence to guide you. I don't want you to "put away" any of your thinking-feeling parts just to absorb what I'm saying. Rather, try remaining fully in contact with your awareness, your sensations, and your thoughts. (I hope this makes sense as a mental move.)

Note #2: The best introduction to Circling is to actually try it. It's like if I tried to explain watching Toy Story to someone who's never seen a movie. You don't explain movies to people; you just sit them down and have them watch one. So, I encourage you to stop reading at any time you notice yourself wanting to try it. My words will be mere pale ghosts. Pale ghosts, I tell you!

Note #3: This post is written by a rationalist who's done 400+ hours of Circling and has tried all the main styles / schools of Circling.

OK, I will try to explain what a circle is (the activity, not the general practice), but I also want to direct your attention to this handy 100-page PDF I found that attempts to explain everything Circling, if you're willing to skim it. (It is written by a relative amateur to the Circling world and contains many disputed sentences, but it is thorough. Just take it all with a grain of salt.)

So what is a circle?

You start by sitting with other people in a circle. So far, so good!

Group sizes can be as small as 2 and as large as 50+, but 4-12 is perhaps more expected.

There are often explicitly stated agreements or principles. These help create common knowledge about what to expect. The agreements aren't the same across circles or across schools of Circling. But a few common ones include "Honor self", "Own your experience", "Stay with the level of sensation", ...

There is usually at least one facilitator. They are responsible for tracking time and declaring the circle's start and end. Mostly they function as extra-good, extra-mindful participants—they're not "in charge" of the circle.

Then the group "has a conversation." Or maybe more accurately, it experiences what it’s like to be together, and sometimes intra-reports what that experience is like.

[^I'm actually super proud of this description! It's so succinctly what it is!]

Two common types of circles: Organic vs Birthday

Organic circles are more like a loose hivemind, where the group starts with no particular goal or orientation. Sometimes, a focal point emerges; sometimes it doesn't. Each individual has the freedom to point their attention however they will, and each individual can try to direct the group's attention in various ways. What happens when you put a certain selection of molecules into a container? How do they react? Do they bond? Do they stay the fuck away? What is it like to be a molecule in this situation? What is it like to be the molecule across from you?

Birthday circles start with a particular focal point. One person is chosen to be birthday circled, and the facilitator then gently cradles the group's attention towards this person, much like you can guide your attention back to your breath in meditation. And then the group tries to imagine/embody what it's like to be this person and "see through their eyes"—while also noticing what it's like to be themselves trying to do this.

Circling is often called a "relational practice."

It's a practice that's about the question of: What is it like to be me? What is it like to be me, while with another? What is it like for me to try to feel what the other is feeling? How might I express me? How does the other receive me and my expression?

In other words, it's a practice that explores what it means to be a sentient entity, among other sentient entities. And in particular what it means to be a human, among other humans.

If you haven't thought to yourself, "Being sentient is pretty weird; being a human is super weird; being a human around other humans is super-duper crazy weird." Then I suspect you haven't explored this space to its fullest extent. Circling has helped me feel more of the strangeness of this existence.

I notice I feel trepidation and fear as I prepare to discuss this. I'm afraid I won't be able to give you what you want, that you'll become bored or start judging me.

[^This is a Circling move I just made: revealing what I'm feeling and what I'm imagining will happen.]

If this were an actual circle, I could ask you and check if it's true—are you feeling bored? [I invite you to check.]

I felt afraid just now—that fear was borne out of some assumptions about reality I was implicitly making. But without having to know and delineate what the assumptions are, I can check those assumptions by asking you—you who are part of reality and have relevant data.

By asking you while feeling my fear and anticipation, I open up the parts of me that can update, like opening so many eyes that usually stay closed. And depending on how you respond, I can receive the data any number of ways (including having the data bounce off, integrating the data, or disbelieving the data).

So, perhaps one way Circling is related to rationality is that it can:

  1. put me in a state of being open to an update,
  2. train me to straightforwardly ask for the data, from the world, and
  3. respond to and receive the data—with all my faculties available.

What does it mean to be open to an update?

If you've experienced a more recent iteration of CFAR's Comfort Zone Exploration class (aka CoZE), it is just that.

There are parts of me that are scared of looking over the fence, where there might be dragons in the territory. (Why is the fence even there? Who knows. It belongs to Chesterton.)

My job, then, is not to shove the scared parts over the fence, or to suggest they shut their eyes and jump over it, or to destroy the fence. I walk next to the fence with my scared part, and I sit with and acknowledge the fear. Then I play around with getting closer to the fence; I play with waving my arms above the fence; I play with peeking over it; I play with touching the fence.

And this whole time, I'm quite aware of the fear; I do not push it down or call it inappropriate or dissociate. I listen to it, and I try to notice all my internal sensations and my awareness. I am fully exposed to new information, like walking into an ice bath slowly with all my senses awake. In my experience, being in an SNS-activated state really primes me for new information in a way that being calm (PSNS activation) does not.

And this is when I am most open to receiving new inputs from the world, where I might be the most affected by the new data.

I can practice playing around with this during Circling, and it can be quite powerful.

What does it mean to receive data with all my faculties available?

This means I'm not mindlessly "accepting" whatever is happening in front of me. All of me is engaged, such that I can notice and call bullshit if that's what's up.

If I'm actually in touch with my body and my felt senses, I can notice all the small niggling parts that are like, "Uhhh" or "Errgh." Often they're nonverbal. Even the tiniest flinches of discomfort or retraction I will use as signals of something, even if I don't really understand what they mean. And I can then also choose to name them out loud, if I want to. And see how the other person reacts to that.

In other words, my epistemic defense system is online and running. It's not taking a break during any of this, nor do I want it to be. If things still manage to slip past, I want to be able to notice it later on and investigate. Sometimes slowing things down helps. My mind will also automatically defend itself—in circles, I've fallen asleep, gotten distracted, failed to parse sentences, become aggressively confused or bored, among other things. What's cool is being able to notice all this as it's happening.

However, if I'm not in touch with my body—if I'm dissociated, if I don't normally feel my body/emotions, if I'm overwhelmed, if I'm solely in my thoughts—then that is a skill area I'd want to work on first. How to learn to stay aware of myself and my felt-sense body, even when I'm uncomfortable or my nervous system is activated. Circling can also train this, similar to Focusing.

The more I train this skill, the more I'll be able to engage with the universe. Rather than avoid the parts of it I don't like or don't want to acknowledge or don't want to look at.

I suspect some people might not even realize what they're missing out on here. People who've lived their entire lives without much of an "emotional library" or without understanding that their body is giving them all kinds of data. Usually these people don't go looking for the "missing thing" until some major problems crop up in their lives that they can't explain.

Circling as a rationality training ground

Circling can be a turbocharged training ground for a variety of rationality skills, including:

  • Real-time introspection
  • Surrendering to the unknown / being at the edge
  • Exploring unknown, unfamiliar, or avoided parts of the territory (like in CoZE)
  • Looking at parts of the territory that make you flinch (Mundanification)
  • Having the Double Crux spirit: being open to being wrong / updating, seeing other people as having relevant bits of map

I've also found it to be powerful in combination with:

  • Internal Double Crux (a CFAR technique for resolving internal conflict that involves lots of introspection)
  • Immunity to Change mapping (a Kegan-Lahey technique for making lasting change by looking for big assumptions)
  • CT Charting (a Leverage technique for mapping your beliefs and finding hidden assumptions)
  • or any other formal attempt to explore my aliefs and find core assumptions I've been holding onto

After using one of the above techniques to find a core assumption, I can use Circling to test out its validity. (My core assumptions often have something to do with other people, "Nobody can understand me, and even if they could, they wouldn't want to.") I can sometimes feel those assumptions being challenged during a circle.

So, if I try being in any ole circle, will I get all of the above?

Probably not.

Circles are high-variance. (The parameters of each circle matter a lot. Like who's in it, who's facilitating, what school of Circling is it based on, what are the lighting conditions, etc.)

I've circled about a hundred times by now, and a lot of those were in 3-day chunks. I guess multi-day immersions are a pretty good way to really try it out, so maybe try that and see? They reduce the variance in some dimensions.

What are some pitfalls of Circling?

1) You might become a "connection junkie".

Circling is (in its final form) a truth-seeking practice. IMO. But a lot of folks flock to it as a way to feel connected to other people.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact I suspect human-to-human contact is something many of us are seriously lacking, possibly starving for. It might be good for us to get more of this in our lives.

That said, there can be such a thing as "too much of a good thing."

2) You might obtain false beliefs.

I think this is always a risk, for humans, in life. But Circling does have a way of making things more salient than usual, and if some of those super-salient things lead you to believing, somehow, the "wrong" things, then maybe that's more of a problem.

I think this isn't actually a huge problem, as long as one has a good meta- or meta-meta-process for arriving eventually at true beliefs. (See the rest of this website for more!)

I also think this is mitigated by exposing yourself to a wide range of data. Like, consciously avoid being in a bubble. Join multiple cult-ures [sic].

3) Circles can be bad / harmful.

IMO, there is a qualitative difference between good and bad circles.

Concretely, the good facilitators understand the nuances of mental health and have done at least some research on therapy modalities. Circling isn't therapy, but psychological stuff comes up a fair amount. And if you vulnerably open up in a situation where they're not actually equipped to navigate your mental health issues, that could be quite bad indeed.

A good facilitator will also not force you to open up or try to get you to be vulnerable (this goes against Circling's principles). Instead they will tune into your nervous system and try to tell when you're feeling stressed or anxious or frozen and will probably reflect this back at you to check. Circling is not about "getting somewhere" or "healing you" or "solving a problem." So ... if you encounter a circle where that seems to be what's happening, try saying something out loud like "I have a story we're trying to fix something."

Good facilitation often costs money—there's a correlation, anyway. I wouldn't assume the facilitation will be good just because it costs money, but it's an easy signpost.

Final thoughts

It's not like Circling has taken over the world or anything. So the same question posed to rationality has to be posed to it, Given it hasn't, why do you think it’s real?

And like with rationality, for me the answer is kind of like, I dunno because my inside view says it is?

/licks a Pop-Tart

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I've only circled twice, not sure how relevant this is. (FWIW, my takeaway so far is "eh, pretty okay, depends a lot on facilitator and situation"). But, some perspective I think is important to the debates going on here.

5 years ago, I was very pro "giving people an excuse to be more vulnerable than they'd normally feel comfortable being."

I'm still pretty pro this. But... in a less naive way than I was 5 years ago.

It seemed like being vulnerable was basically how you got anything worthwhile. I saw people curled up in their shells, desperately lacking in intimacy in ways that was having a crippling effect on them. They lived in fear of expressing themselves, of taking risks. And having an environment conducive to exploring intimacy and vulnerability was profoundly valuable. (I was at least somewhat this type of person, although I don't think it was as big a deal for me as for other people I knew)

And the thing that I intellectually understood, but took several years to grok, was that being vulnerable is in fact vulnerable, and you can get hurt doing it.

[my impression is that circling, at least as described by Unreal, is not primarily about vul... (read more)

Ideally, everyone would have the opportunity to explore vulnerability carefully, step by step, with a skilled therapist or something to turn to if things ever got dicey.

I think this is an essential line, and a core problem. For more than a half century the social capital of the average person in the US has been falling and falling and falling. A therapist is sort of just a person you pay to pretend to be a genuine friend, without you having to reciprocate friendship back at them. That it is considered reasonable or ideal (as the first thought) to go to a paid professional to get basic F2F friend services is historically weird.

Maybe it is the best we can do, but... like... it didn't used to be this way I don't think, and that suggests that it could be like it was in the past if we knew what was causing it.

A therapist is also someone who is bound by confidentiality - things you tell them don't get spread around and used against you by other people.

I think the Shell, Shield, Staff post by SquirrelInHell feels very relevant to all of this. (Not sure if SquirrelInHell would endorse my application of it here).

A few people said the original post was too poetical, and I'm not sure I can summarize it without resorting to most of the same poetry, but here goes:

i. Shell

If the world seems scary, often people first start by forming a shell. The shell prevents the world from affecting them at all. This is "safe", but it means that you're limiting your opportunity for growth. Well meaning friends may try to coax you out of your shell, but you know that if you leave your shell they'll start trampling over your boundar.ies and hurting you.

ii. Shield

An evolution of the shell is the shield. You figure out which parts of the world are most threatening, and develop a defense specifically against those. Instead of fully protecting you, the shield points to only one side. This has the advantage that it gives you more flexibility. You can let parts of the world affect you that seem trustworthy, allowing you to learn and grow. Occasionally this results in your getting stabbed, but you've become resilient enough that i... (read more)

One thing that's not great about this framing is that since the three things come in an order it's easy to get into an implicit frame where people with staffs are better than people with shields who are better than people with shells, or at least be worried that other people are doing this. (I have this concern about Kegan levels, for example, and it seems related to PDV's concerns around circling / NVC.)

So I'd like to push strongly for additional norms around this sort of thing, of the form "and also let's agree that we won't criticize people for having a different pattern than us or try to pressure them into 'leveling up' from our perspective."

Is this a social worry ("people will use it as a blugeon") or an epistemic worry ("people will incorrectly think there's a hierarchy, but actually they're all useful frames")?

I don't have strong feelings about shell/shield/staff, but I've gotten a lot of value out of Kegan levels, and I think the hierarchy is actually a loadbearing part of the theory. (Specifically, it matters that each level is legible to the one after it, but not vice versa.) I endorse being careful about the social implications, but I wouldn't want that to become a generalized claim that there aren't skill hierarchies in the territory.

Mostly a social worry.
Yes, important point.
7Said Achmiz
This is an excellent comment. I wonder, though, if you could say more about this aspect: … specifically, the former half of it. To me, for instance, it’s clear enough that there’s a lot of damage potential in such “vulnerability-inducing” activities; but it would be inaccurate of me to say that this is my primary problem with them. Rather, I simply can’t see what meaningful benefit they have! You say that it’s “crucially important” to undertake such steps, and that you think (or thought) that “being vulnerable was basically how you got anything worthwhile”. I’m interested to hear more about this, because these, to me, seem like very dubious propositions, and I am wondering what part of the inferential chain I’m missing, here.

The closest bonds I have in my life, are bonds that have been tested. One of my closest friends is someone with whom I decided to make a 450-person conference happen, given us having zero experience running conferences, and we eventually had some really big names coming, and things could have gone badly wrong and reflected terribly on us. But we worked hard and it succeeded, and now I know that when that friend tells me that we are going to do ambitious project X, then we are going to do ambitious project X, and they will not leave me behind to fail.

I trust that person in a way that I couldn't have if we hadn't opened ourselves to massive failure.

Something else I want in life, is the ability to talk with people about what thought processes I'm having, what's stressing me out, and what I'm worried about. Maybe I'm angry at my partner. Maybe I'm feeling depressed. However, many people have very different internal lives, and if you don't quite have the same internal life I have, something I say could come across wrong - as petty, or as selfish, or as nasty for example - when I'm trying to deal with the thought processes and reason about wh... (read more)

My guess, after several years of very similar conversations with you, is that there's a cluster of things (I'd vaguely call "fuzzy emotional group stuff") that just... aren't relevant to you as much, for one reason or another. It may be that different people get value from different things, and you don't get value from this class of thing. It may be that you have some kind of conceptual blocker and if you successfully understood the the thing, you'd suddenly get a lot of value out of it. I don't know.

Again, Scott Alexander's "Concept Shaped Holes" thing seems relevant. I, Qiaochu and I think others have attempted to explain a variety of things in this cluster, but we keep saying "these sorts of things are really hard to communciate via text-based media - you really need to just try it." Ultimately you either believe that (and are willing to think about reasons why this may all make sense without asking others to explain it in exhaustive detail, and/or just try stuff for yourself and lean hard into it to actually have a chance of gaining benefit), or you don't.

And I certainly understand that being frustrating, b... (read more)

FYI, although this isn't super optimized for helping with the current conversation, this post is essentially my previous attempt to summarize a lot of "why fuzzy, social, emotional stuff is important to understand and take seriously", relying as much as possible on System-2 explanations (instead of trying to ask analytic-oriented thinkers to take any leaps of faith). The Real Hufflepuff Sequence Was the Posts We Made Along the Way
You know, this sounds like that Clicking thing that Logic Nation guy talked about.

a) People are part of the territory. Not only that, they contain relevant map bits, such that I alone could never collect all the map bits without them.

b) My System 2 alone is not sufficient for epistemic rationality. System 1 not only has to be involved, but it is in fact the main determinant of my epistemics. As most "beliefs" are actually aliefs (nonverbal beliefs below the level of consciousness).

c) As such, it is ideal for my System 1 and 2 to work together to form correct beliefs. And, it is ideal for me to be able to fully engage with other people and their epistemics / beliefs. Where 'fully engage' means engaging with both System 1 and 2. (Do not mistake me as saying, "It's good to fully open up to people and expose myself." That's not what I mean. I mean that I want to be able to skillfully navigate human interaction—like I have a dashboard where I can see all the incoming streams of data. And I want to notice where I'm inclined to block/parry vs allow/receive, among other possible moves.)

The emotional involvement that occurs (the SNS activation) is a System 1 response, which to me indicates that I'm about to receive some pretty important data, and whatever happens next could be an important update for me.

I think I have way more to say on this, but I'm out of time for now. AMA.

This is related to a lot of the other disagreements we've been having lately. Many of the things I think I've learned about embodiment, human values, my own blind spots, etc. over the past year have come from circling.
People generally have good reasons for picking the degree of vulnerability they pick. They are comfortable with it, and would not be comfortable with more, due to real things in the world, not personal quirks. Giving an 'excuse' to be more vulnerable always has a serious risk of pushing people to be more vulnerable without actually addressing the reasons they are uncomfortable with being more vulnerable. When it's social risk they're being vulnerable to, it is necessarily a social environment and therefore has substantial implicit social pressure to avail yourself of the 'excuse', so that risk becomes a certainty. Every time you Circle, you are pushing people to be vulnerable whether or not it's good for them, and they generally know better than you whether it's good for them. And communicating those boundaries, in this kind of setting, is a risk of the exact type they're trying to limit their exposure to.
8Matt Goldenberg
I think people's defense mechanisms are rarely globally optimal.  They're often created from a specific set of little t and big T traumas that happened throughout their life, and created to avoid those very specific failure modes. And while they're effective at doing that, they're probably not well calibrated and create a bunch of other failure modes (this is part of what draws people to circling). The question is, is the circling context that you're in a safe place to explore the boundaries of your failure modes? A lot of this is related to which type of safe space you're in and how do you know? Are you in any of those safe spaces?   Of course, even if you are indeed in one of those safe spaces, that have a tight container held by good leaders and powerful vetting, your defense mechanisms may still not let you want to believe that. I think that's where the "leap" sometimes comes in, as there's no amount of small steps that can get you to the large step of trusting people to explore your sub-optimal defense mechanisms.
I agree that they're unlikely to be globally optimal, but it is unlikely that anyone* other than Bob has a better idea than Bob of where the optimal boundaries/defense mechanisms are relative to where Bob has placed his boundaries. Many people - myself probably included - have defense mechanisms which are too strong, but many others have defense mechanisms which are too weak. It's a bravery debate, strongly susceptible to typical-minding. And the people most likely to be willing to try Circling are those who least need it and in fact need the opposite. *Excepting therapists and other forms of trained professional boundary/defense-mechanism-optimality-assessors, whose training also includes a number of required secondary skills like maintaining confidentiality and the virtue of silence which are required to provide that expertise in an ethical and positive-EV way.
This feels like a fairly strong claim that I don't think you've justified. (I also note that you just claimed people don't generally know better than other people about what they need. But, you're kinda implicitly claiming here that you know better than the people who do circling whether circling is right for them) I am with you on "circling and circling-esque-things have some risks that people don't realize", and "people into circling shouldn't implicitly assume everyone will be into it", and there are several better practices that people should be doing with regards to it. But you seem to be assuming a level of danger that's 10x-100x worse than it is, and/or assuming a harm minimization model that I don't think most people are running.  I think most of the danger from circling lives in black swan events (I've seen a bunch of circles, only 2 cases where I think someone was harmed)
Black swan events are not something I'm meaningfully including in my assessment of the risks. If there's risks from black swans, and there do seem to be from e.g. bgaesop's case, that's on top of the risk from standard cases which is already substantial. You would not notice most cases of harm, and I'm not sure why you think you would. I'd guess that only half or so of cases of harm (large error bars, roughly 5:1 to 1:5) are noticed by the person affected in a way that allows them to connect the emotional damage to the Circle (probably as a merely substantial contributor rather than a sole contributor; many causes is the norm for this kind of thing), and even those aren't necessarily noticed immediately. The rest are likely to manifest as unease or nonspecific feelings of wrongness around the Circle, the people who were in it, that day, etc.; as misgivings about something tangentially related; or in no internally-legible way at all, just low-level anxiety/depression or worsening of issues that already existed. In other words, I would expect harm to present exactly like a mild social trauma, because that's precisely what it is. I guess it's a strong claim, but it's the standard prior on advice, cf. All Debates Are Bravery Debates, The Loudest Alarm is Probably False, and leverage points in systems analysis. People's biases for psychological interventions tend to be anticorrelated with how much they're needed.
(quick note to avoid doublecounting: bgaesop's black swan is the same one as mine)
5Matt Goldenberg
This feels cruxy to me.  I think that there are many groups and people who can are good at figuring this out who aren't therapists, and many therapists who aren't good at this.   I've been part of at least one circling group that was better at this than therapists I've been to, had strict rules and vetting around confidentiality and the virtue of silence, etc. Another way to say this: Is circling playing with fire? Yes. Should you only play with fire with registered firemen?  Not necessarily, you just need to be aware of what type of safety precautions the group you're with is taking, and protect yourself accordingly.
Therapists are the only group with structures to get systematic feedback on whether their assessments are correct; in the absence of such structures, I see no reason to believe self-reports of effectiveness. To paraphrase an -adjacent friend's recent FB post: "Everyone I've met who considered themself a 'people person' skeeved me out and eventually alienated me and many people around me. Everyone I've met who considered themself an 'empath' spent a lot of time telling me what my emotions were and not much time being correct about it." Someone who tells you they are good at this kind of skill, without reference to a structure they have in place which would detect them instead being very bad at it, is not giving you evidence that they are good at this skill. In practice, they are giving you (very weak) evidence they are very bad at it. Therapists are not always useful; I've had - six? I think six - and only the most recent one has been helpful. But therapy training is training in the skills required to "first, do no harm". Circling facilitators and similar things do not have those skills and generally don't actually try to investigate what skills they need to acquire in order to do no harm, nor to acquire those skills.
5Matt Goldenberg
What feedback mechanisms are you talking about here?  I'm having trouble thinking of the difference of a skilled circling facilitator that works with the same closed group, and a skilled therapist working with the same people   This has not been my experience with good circling facilitators. 
I think Czynski is claiming many/most circling facilitators are not good. And I think I likely agree with this, especially if we're looking at "all circling", or especially "all circling like things."  While I disagree, I do think it's a reasonable position "you should only do Circling with a trained facilitator" (notably different from small meetups self-organizing, which I think happens a fair bunch). And I have some sense that Circling Certification requires less total training than therapy. (But I'm not sure I have much reason to expect the therapy training to be that good.)
2Matt Goldenberg
I agree with this as well, but I think Czynski is claiming "therefore don't circle" vs. "therefore find good circling facilitors" which seems like the better move here .
There may be a small minority of facilitators who do not have this problem. I do not think I, you, or anyone else can, before something goes wrong, pick them out from the crowd of seems-pretty-good facilitators who do have the problem. Especially since charismatic people are better at seeming trustworthy than trustworthy but uncharismatic people are. Individual evaluation, absent an actual record of past behavior to examine, is pretty worthless. And if they are following reasonable counselative ethics*, there will be no record; allowing such a record to be read by the public is itself an ethics violation. Therapists are trained in counselative ethics, and if they violate them, can, and if it's discovered usually will, face severe consequences like revoking their license and making them unable to practice. I vaguely recall that there are somewhat-analogous pseudolicense-issuers who declare people "certified Circling facilitators". Even assuming, though, that those organizations put equivalent effort into investigating and assessing claimed violations and promulgating their conclusions (doubtful), they do not have real credibility. Revoking the certification might make it somewhat harder to continue to be a Circling facilitator; it's a very surmountable barrier, if it is a barrier at all. Those facilitators therefore do not have real skin in the game for the code of counselative ethics, because the issuing organizations just do not have the credibility to impose it. (They lack the right to be sued, in essence.) *I'm using this to mean "the therapist code of professional ethics" except without the connotation that it is their profession. The correct ethical standard is not actually dependent on whether it is your job or a hobby. It is sufficiently hard to maintain this standard that most people are not willing to put in the effort for a hobby, which is one part of "professional". The other part is that requiring that someone maintain a certain code to retain their au
I'm not sure I buy that emotional leaps are crucially important. Lowering barriers is, but I am not at all convinced that taking leaps is a good way to go about that.

I think the idealized way to do it is with small, incremental steps that let you explore new, untrusted domains and people as safely as you can, and the issue is that life doesn't necessarily provide safe, small, incremental steps where you can easily formally verify everything before diving in. Sometimes you meet a new person, find a new activity, or experience a new thing, and you don't have much choice between taking a leap of faith, or being so hesitant that the opportunity passes you by before you had the chance to explore it.

Or, even when life is providing you with a nice "difficulty curve" / "formal verification curve", the fact remains that there's a difference between maximizing safety, and maximizing expected value. Sometimes they are the same, but sometimes the payoff of seizing a new opportunity quickly (and, having a habit of seizing new opportunities quickly) lets you gain much more than you'd get by minimizing damage.

I don't think there is such a thing as "permanent harm in one's ability to trust". Although it can certainly feel that way, the capacity to trust isn't something that gets permanently damaged. There is always the potential to heal from relational trauma and learn to become more resilient, and find a way to understand and come to terms with what happened, and also work on your own ability to discern in what situations and to what degree you feel it is safe for yourself to risk vulnerability. So if you take out the assumption that "ability to trust" is an on/off switch you must avoid ever tripping in life, then damage to trust becomes a painful but temporary risk of all relating, and part of the growth of relational skill. I do think that tending to the relative fragility or lack of relational skill (part of which is inability to determine or set healthy boundaries around one's own vulnerability) is a crucial facilitation skill and it can be risky for a bunch of relatively low-skilled friends to get together and decide to play around with vulnerability. Not only is the lack of skill a problem, but circling with people with whom you have pre-existing relationships is usually a lot MORE complicated than with strangers. This is because all the unspoken stuff starts coming out, unspoken agreements to not discuss certain things start getting violated, and this is all happening within the high-stakes situation that you care about these people and want to maintain the relationship. All hell can break lose rather quickly. So I'd recommend (a) get comfortable with one on one therapy first, as it is the safest space you will find and much safer than a group of friends and then (b) get comfortable with a well-facilitated group of strangers led by someone with some therapy-type training and then if you want to (c) invite your friends to that well-facilitated group, and then only after that (d) try circling unsupervised with friends. And even after all of that, expect it to get
I think I agree with the object level advice here. Not 100% sure if I communicated the right thing with the "permanently damaged ability to trust" thing. I didn't mean they can't trust any more (pretty sure they can and do), but they are now more slow to trust. Over time, as they form relationships with new people I expect the system-1 evidence to pile up which gradually moves the needle on how easily they are able to trust a new person. (i.e. I believe their experience with Person A was an extreme outlier, so overtime their distrust-o-meter would naturally regress to the mean until it's properly calibrated, and if they do this mindfully and purposefully it may happen faster) But also because their experience with Person A was an extreme outlier (in terms of how trustworthy they appeared and how much they violated the trust), the rate at which they come to trust new people will, at the very least, take a much longer time to recover than usual, and seems likely (and perhaps even correct in some sense) that they'll never become quite as trusting as I currently am.

Because I haven't seen much in the way concrete comments on evidence that circling is real, I'm going to share a slightly outdated list of the concrete things I've gotten from practicing circling:
- a sense of what boundaries are, why they're important, and how to source them internally
- my rate of resolving emotionally-charged conflict over text went from < 1% to ≈80%-90% in the first month or three of me starting circling
- a tool ("Curiosity") for taking any conversation and making it genuinely interesting and likely deeper for me
- confidence and ability to connect more deeply with anyone who seems open to connecting more deeply with me
- the superpower of being able to describe to other people what I imagine they feel in their bodies in certain situations, and be right, even when they couldn't've generated the descriptions
- empathy of the "I'm with you in what you're feeling" sort rather than the "I have a conscious model of how you work and what's going on with you and can predict what you'll do" sort
- a language for talking about how I react in situations on a relational level
- a better understand... (read more)


Based on recent experience in the community around the subject, I think Circling is both toxic and a feedback-loop trap.

To paraphrase two friends who had similar strong negative reactions:

This is one of those "this thing is intensely intimate, but it is going to be pushed on me as if it isn't" things, where people will look down on me for not doing it because it is Therapeutic.
I am fairly sure this would be bad for me, in the same way meditation is bad for me, and I have a terror that because of the social aspect people I want to be friends with will come to decide it is essential to being friends.

This is something I would not do with anyone I did not trust absolutely. No matter what it ostensibly holds about how it should not "force you to open up or try to get you to be vulnerable", I am quite sure that, as practiced by humans, it will, and participants will be blinded to this obvious truth by the benefits and feeling of purity they have gained from it. Like NVC, I consider anyone engaging in this while in interaction with me a hostile actor.


I notice I feel trepidation and fear as I prepare to discuss this. I'm afraid I won't be able to giv... (read more)

So, I think a pretty strong analogy can be made to sex. Circling, like sex, is a vulnerable activity, and like sex, it's possible or even easy to do in a way that is nonconsensual and harmful. Like sex, it can cause harm so bad that people develop defenses of the form "anyone trying to engage with me even slightly in this way needs to back the fuck off," which I'm fine with and want to respect. (Also like sex, it can be amazing and I think there's something important about it.)

What bugs me about this comment is the lack of a clear distinction between "Circling is bad for me and people like me as we stand" and "Circling is bad, period, in general." Like, I'm entirely happy with

I consider anyone engaging in this while in interaction with me a hostile actor.

because you're just clearly stating a boundary, but not at all happy with

Anyone who uses this kind of frame is someone who is unsafe to know.

because it's phrased as a strong empirical claim about me and people I like. There's a huge difference between "people should not try to hit on me" and "sex in general is bad and anyone who attempts to have it is bad."

Also, I want to ask you more about your reaction to the quoted chunk, but... I... can't?

There used to be a reply from PDV here, leading to a long subthread with some strong anti-circling sentiment (from me too). Now LW2.0 doesn't show it anymore, but it's still visible on GW. Is this how the new mod tools work?
6clone of saturn
I'm pretty sure this is because of the way LW2.0 only displays a limited number of comments at a time--the lowest-karma comments, along with their replies, simply disappear without any indication that they need to be manually loaded in order to be seen.
Yeah, the comment and subthread are still here, you just have to press "load more" at the top. I too thought that the comment had been deleted at first, until I remembered that wait, this thread has a lot of comments, maybe all of them are just not showing.
8Ben Pace
Since your comment, Oli+Ray have done some backend improvements, and now the number of auto-lodaded comments is 200, so this problem should be gone right now.

That's excellent.

One remark: The larger that number is, (1) the less people will be used to seeing threads with some comments not displayed, hence (2) the more likely they are to forget that they are seeing only a partial picture; and also (3) the less it matters if the notice saying some comments haven't been loaded yet is ugly; so it may be worth making it more prominent.

Guys, we are over 200 comments right now. ....
I guess we could just increase it to 300? That would cover practically all posts, and I think it should be fine on most devices, but it might cause some serious load times on slow connections and slow devices. My guess it’s better to do that than to have this annoying loading experience, but I should really get around to refactoring our comment system.
My guess it’s better to do that than to have this annoying loading experience, but I should really get around to refactoring our comment system.

Yeah, it seems like we're making the experience worse in some actual cases, in exchange for making it better in other hypothetical cases.

If whenever we hit a limit we increase it, why even have the limit!?

If sex almost always happened in groups of 4-12, it would be unwise for most people to ever have sex, since it is highly unlikely that they would have 3-11 people they reasonably trusted enough to have sex with. If sex was praised as a way to be a better person and done in deliberate ritualized circumstances, it would be boundary-violating basically every single time. If it was both, then anyone who suggested you have sex would be so obviously wrong they could not be said to be anything but evil.

As someone who thinks he has learned a lot from integrating parts of NVC into his communication, and has benefited a bit from circling, would you be open to elaborating a bit more on what makes you think people who use NVC language are hostile?

(In my model both circling and NVC are roughly analogous to seatbelts, which will help you a bit if you bump into someone, but won't help if you barrel at 80 miles per hour into a wall. But them not helping in that situation does not strike me as a particularly good reason to have super strong negative reactions to seatbelts)

NVC in practice conflates two very different things:

(1) Report observations, inferences, and value judgments separately.

(2) Only feelings and perspectives exist and can be the object of conversation, not facts.

The first is right, the second is wrong. The ideology suffers from the same ambiguity - in principle "owning your experience" is a necessary Rationality practice; in practice, Circling can sometimes push people towards privileging some experiences over others, ones that are more feelingsy, and away from being able to own their experience as beings with incomplete information about an actual reality.

I don't get 2 in my understanding of nvc. That seems like a bad thing generally. One thing that is there is a separation of facts and observations. A fact like, "the sky is green", isn't the content of nvc. It's the concrete observation like, "yesterday I saw the sky was green" that can form part of nvc

In general Baileys are more implicit, Mottes are more explicit.


It's been my experience that when I encounter someone using NVC, or that general area of speech-type, that they are Bad Actors who are using it as a... tool to enforce their will, or make it seem like they are being reasonable and making reasonable requests when they aren't. And it often reads as general passive aggressiveness to me, even when people possibly don't mean it that way (I prefer more directness). I don't think it's inherent to the tool, but I can see how it could attract those sorts of people.

Circling seems really interesting and possibly useful to me, but only in specific settings, and a random meetup group is NOT one of them (unless it's staying really superficial, or I guess strangers you will never see again). For a closed group of friends, it sounds like it could be great though, and the sort of thing I'd be really into. If everyone was like me that would make it more difficult to spread, but then people with higher risk tolerances could go to larger/public circling events to learn and then take the skill back to their smaller/private groups.

If anybody DOES do it as a meetup topic, I strongly suggest that RSVP is required so that people can see who else is going, and can choose to stay away if an individual they specifically distrust would be in attendance (or can choose to go if they see that everyone who has RSVPd is a person they would feel comfortable with)

For all my experience looking for bad actors I keep finding actors that are just unaware of their trespassing on other people's boundaries. NVC used well, won't be able to be used as a weapon. Unfortunately - doing that is sometimes hard. Mistakes are made, hopefully without the intention to cause harm. In my experience, I don't find the intention to cause harm.

Of course, there are rather few people whose desires or goals are to intentionally cause harm.

But there is a rather significant amount of people who don't particularly care (much) about you and your boundaries, when those stand in the way of whatever their goals ARE. While they might not actively desire to harm you, they certainly will if that's the path that gets them what they want. I do consider those people to be Bad Actors.

For example, a corporation doesn't have in its mission statement "Pollute the Earth and Engage in Questionable Labor Practices!".... I feel like this has already been covered already somewhere between paperclips and Moloch.

I feel like you only engaged with the weakest strawman of what I said.


They both are situations of enforced sharing, ostensibly optional but socially mandated. They establish rules within which you must operate, which can and inevitably will be used against anyone less skilled in them. They can be good, but mostly for people who are already socially secure and powerful, and the downside risk is very large risk of totally losing self-image and identity, destroying load-bearing coping mechanisms, and generally taking someone with very few tools to deal with the world and breaking those tools in the name of giving them better ones.

I see. I think we are seeing things from slightly different perspectives here. I've always engaged with NVC as a method of personal communication, embedded in a broader world that is basically unaware of the structure of the NVC frame. I haven't been in environments that seem to insist that an NVC frame is used, but would probably have a very bad reaction to it, for the reasons you outlined in the comment.

So, I'm going to say this because it might be counterintuitive: I don't see a contradiction between my article and these comments here.

All the pitfalls of humanity (Goodharting, cognitive blindspots, status games, ulterior motives, etc.) can come alive in Circling. They are present because the ingredients you start with in a circle are humans. So all the human errors totally play out. They're baked into the final pie.

If you prefer to only put in totally trusted ingredients, that makes sense to me. If you prefer not to put things at risk you don't want to risk, that makes sense to me, and I endorse that behavior.

Circling isn't "separate" from the real world. It tries to be a microcosm of the real world, with a few notable tweaks, such as: You are encouraged to be more mindful of the present moment. There is also a trend towards making things "object" that were "subject." (I.e. revealing the water that you've been swimming in, unawares)

But, humans being humans, we do not always notice. We do not always see the patterns we are stuck in / re-enacting. And most of us are not trustworthy. Thus there is always risk.

Like in re... (read more)

I have, and have talked with others who have encountered weaponized NVC and it is indeed super horrible. People get gaslighted, having their own emotional needs used to enforce ideological consistent behavior.

I'd put the disclaimer 'Don't go around handing the keys to your soul to people who don't give a shit about you. Self identified 'utilitarians' might not give a shit about you, so be careful.'


It's somewhat broader than that. It's not necessary for the environment to insist on NVC, as long as it treats NVC as high-status and... I'm going to say "aspirationally normative" and hope that makes sense. See Val's comment here. That is, from my standpoint, an obvious social attack, enabled by NVC being, not necessarily normative, but treated as aligned with a general goal. As long as I accept the framing that NVC is good, I have no recourse but to take the status hit and accept the implicit premise that I need to demonstrate I'm not morally/epistemically/socially inferior.

I do believe that is possible to use NVC ethically. (It is also probably possible to Circle ethically.) But Hagbard's Law still applies; communication is only possible between equals, whether it's ostensibly nonviolent or not. If there is a power struggle in progress, all signals are distorted; all utterances are going to be received as moves in the power game first, communication second.

Link or tldr on what NVC is?
2Said Achmiz
Nonviolent communication.
Thank you for writing that! I don't know anything about circling, but the bit you highlighted feels creepy to me as well, and I have similar doubts about meditation. And I've noticed a few people in the community speaking in that manner too. Huh.
Upvoted for dissenting opinion. I am interested in hearing more of the objection. As relevant questions - Do you hold a fundamental premise that humans are not to be trusted? Have you been repeatedly betrayed by people you thought you could trust until you decided you were not good at judging who you could trust?


I feel really uneasy with a policy of upvoting comments based on the fact that they offer a dissenting opinion. That rewards contrarianism instead of good epistemics whenever there's a difference.

I think a better policy is, upvote only posts that support good epistemics and good discussion norms; and if you don't see a dissenting opinion appearing, try to form one yourself under the constraints of good epistemics and good discussion norms.


It's complicated. We need to keep the dissenter around before we can teach them good epistemics. Maybe being lenient on one is okay at times while we work on the other. I hold myself to standards, but it remains to be seen whether other people hold themselves to those same arbitrary standards that I want to hold.
Not by default and no, respectively. Most people are unknown to me and do not share my values. They are trustworthy to the extent of my ability to model them and my confidence that they are not manipulating me. I was systematically subtly pulled down by ostensible friends in middle school and early high school, but I don't consider that I was ever betrayed in any stronger sense, or by anyone I trusted to any high degree.
If that's the case then it's your duty to be better at modelling them than they are at surprising you. If they surprise you more often than you model them as not manipulating you then you will be living in a horrible world built on your own unfortunate premises about how it works. For the record "my ability to model them and my confidence that they are not manipulating me." recently took a hell of an upgrade by taking on board NVC, circling and many many more (see those 3 links). And I don't believe that many people are out to manipulate. It's rare that anyone surprises me, and I feel very safe and comfortable constantly because I am a good model of the other people around me and their actions. I'd encourage you in the direction of scholarship. It's very empowering to have the understanding of everyone else to feel more safe and in control.
I think that would be a crux. Virtually everyone is out to manipulate almost everyone else, at all times. Much of the manipulation is subconscious, and observing that it is present is harshly socially punished. (cf. ialdabaoth/frustrateddemiurge/the living incarnation of David Monroe, PBUH). Doing that in full generality is literally impossible; it's anti-inductive. It's entirely a matter of what tolerances are acceptable. Treating most people as not giving a shit about me or anyone else, until clearly demonstrated otherwise, has predicted the world accurately up to this point.
2Said Achmiz
I strongly endorse the sentiments expressed in this comment.

There was someone on LessWrong a few years ago who would respond to all negative criticism, however damning, by saying brightly,"Thanks for the feedback! I really appreciate hearing other views!" (If you recognise who I'm talking about, please don't mention his name. It was some years ago and he may have moved on.)

The NVC practitioners' responses here seem to me to have a like nature. You could program a chatbot to say things like "I hear that you feel strongly about [insert their words], but it's not clear to me why you feel that way. My preference would be for you to talk about your perspective instead of making factually-structured statements."

Being a chatbot does not necessarily feel like being a chatbot.


Probably obvious from context, but worth saying explicitly: The person in question, despite responding in that positive-sounding manner, never actually seemed to make any substantial change in behaviour in response to the criticism.

To me that sentence doesn't look like it passes the Ideological Turing Test.

Huh? Have you seen Valentine's reply to PDV in this very thread:

I get the impression that there’s something here that matters a lot to you. I can’t yet tell what it is though. It sounds like you feel really unsafe when reading Unreal’s self-reveal, and that you need others to recognize some kind of danger you see in it. If that’s right, then I don’t yet see what the danger you see is, but I’d like to. My preference would be for you to talk about your perspective (“I feel”, “I think”, “When I encounter X, I experience Y”, etc.) instead of making factually-structured statements about “most people”, because I find it easier to understand where you’re coming from if you talk from your perspective.

By the way, Richard's analogy with chatbots is also spot on. The first chatbot (ELIZA) was inspired by Carl Rogers.

Exactly. My hypothetical quote was written as a condensation of that very paragraph.

I was afraid going into this post (about this post triggering idea inoculation around circling) but I'm a lot more relieved now after reading through to the end. Thanks for writing such a reasonable and even-handed description!

I have embarrassingly strong things to say in favor of circling. It has, with no exaggeration, changed my life (see, this is why I shouldn't have written the first LW post about circling), although I think I've also been lucky to get to work with unusually good facilitators. Re: its relevance to rationality, I think that among many other things it can be a powerful way to find blind spots, although it's also susceptible to many levels of Goodharting.

One of the founders of Circling Europe sincerely and apropos-of-nothing thanked me for writing this post earlier this year, which I view as a sign that there were good consequences of me writing this post. My guess is that a bunch of rationalists found their way to Circling, and it was beneficial for people.

I've heard it said that this is one of the more rationalist-friendly summaries of Circling. I don't know it's the best possible such, but I think it's doing OK. I would certainly write it differently now, but shrug.

At this point I've done 1000+ hours of Circling, and this post isn't that far off from what I currently believe about Circling.

I'm less clear on the connection between Circling and 'rationality' because I have lost some touch with what 'rationality' is, and I think the concept 'rationality' is less personally meaningful to me now.

I do believe that Circling has a deep connection to epistemics, belief formation, and belief updating, and can teach us many things about how those things work. Similar to meditation, Circling can guide people to understanding perception and seeing through their own percepti... (read more)


I think this

I have lost some touch with what 'rationality' is, and I think the concept 'rationality' is less personally meaningful to me now.

is useful information in itself, in that it suggests that maybe Circling, or some other things that for whatever reason tend to accompany it, may tend to move people who do it away from LW-style "rationality" with time. Whether that's a good thing (because LW-style "rationality" is actually too narrow or something of the kind) or a bad thing (because LW-style "rationality" is still more or less the best that's on offer, and moving away from it almost inevitably means not thinking so clearly) is a separate question, of course.

My personal understanding of rationality is that Rationality(tm) was always open to being discarded along the way to attaining the 12th virtue. To be clear, I still highly value truth-seeking, model-building, winning, etc. I just don't know what 'rationality' is actually trying to refer to these days. Maybe it feels small and incomplete to me, given my current perspectives.
I'm interested in some details about how you'd write it differently, if you're up for it.
I gave some of those details above. I don't have further thoughts.

The details reminds me a lot of hypnosis, with thoughts about thoughts, instead of just thinking things directly.

Breath. Body attention. Meta. Listen to the voice. Respond and recieve. Be open to the update. Body attention. Meta. Listen to the voice. Everyone trancing themselves and everyone else in a fuzzy haze...

Or how about, actually, NO!

How about instead we try to ramp up our critical faculties and talk about models and evidence?

I do not trust casual hypnosis because hypnosis can become "not casual" very fast.

Hypnosis is a power tool and basically it is one of those "things I won't work with" unless it is wartime and my side is losing and it seems highly relevant to victory. And it probably wouldn't be my side I'd be hypnotizing, it would be the bad guys.

"We broke the rules, Harry," she said in a hoarse voice. "We broke the rules."

"I..." Harry swallowed. "I still don't see how, I've been thinking but -"

"I asked if the Transfiguration was safe and you answered me! "

There was a pause...

"Right..." Harry said slowly. "That's probably one of those things they don&#x... (read more)

My own experience with circling is much more like hypnosis than it is like the more cognitive/alert state described in this post. On the other hand, this may be because ordinary social charisma has a strong hypnotic effect on me.

My experience with being in circles is that the closer they are to the original “genuine article” (with The extreme end being me being birthday circled by Guy Sengstock, the founder of circling) the more it feels like plain old hypnosis: a rapid induction of an emotional catharsis, tears, gratitude, a sort of suspended or awed and highly receptive state of mind...

My other personal observation of circling is that it makes men hotter, by making them more hypnotic.

I think hypnosis is nothing more than a mental state in which one is more disposed to play along with suggestions. It’s not inherently bad — you may choose to induce a suggestible state in order to learn faster, or to be more spontaneously creative. You can induce it by doing perfectly “normal“ things like looking deep into someone’s eyes and breathing deeply. I don’t think it’s an especially dangerous tool, especially given how common it is and how many people use hypnotic techniques without knowin... (read more)

I’ll add that I don’t expect the people most effective at inducing highly suggestible trance states to identify as hypnotists. For example, you enter such a state every time you’re totally absorbed in a movie, and we call the people who caused that effect “filmmakers” and “actors”, not hypnotists.

To clarify, my claim below is that the practice of Circling does not include in its philosophy or its intended practice to involve hypnosis (the intentional induction of a trance state where a person loses their full agency and becomes highly receptive to suggestion, including to the point where their perceptions can be rewritten or their TAPs can be altered to, e.g. stop smoking cigarettes). If you're talking about something weaker than that, something that happens all the time by accident, even in normal, everyday conversation, then ... that makes sense it happens. I don't think Circling is supposed to be for this. If it were me, I would hopefully notice myself in it and be like, "I seem to automatically want to do whatever it is you suggest." (And I've had that level of noticing before.) ... I'm confused why "a rapid induction of an emotional catharsis, tears, gratitude, a sort of suspended or awed and highly receptive state of mind..." would be considered reminiscent of hypnosis except for the 'highly receptive state of mind' part. ?

The cluster of things I’m calling hypnotism involves pretty much any ”guided meditation”, the opening ritual/warmup to most physical classes like martial arts or dance, some kinds of teaching, flirting of the kind where one partner “leads” the other, political rallies, movies, etc. It’s not so universal as to be meaningless, but it’s really really common.

It doesn’t permanently remove one’s agency, but literal hypnotists and cult leaders don’t do that either. Suggestible states are usually temporary and you don’t totally lose your preexisting personality. See Gwern’s research on “brainwashing” being mostly a myth. I think being influenced hypnotically to some extent is common, and as we go through our days we’re affected by a lot of influences, but total mind control is probably impossible.

I would totally buy that circling can have cool epistemic and relational properties beyond the hypnotic effect it has on some people. I’m just reporting that the hypnotic effect does exist.

Because suggestibility + being prompted to have strong vulnerable feelings results in actually having said strong vulnerable feelings.
It sounds like you don't identify as the source of these feelings when you have them, hence your framing of other people suggesting the feelings to you. Is that an accurate description of your position? Let me offer an alternative frame for what I think is going on when I see similar strong-feelings-as-a-result-of-circling in myself and others (although it's certainly possible that your experience is quite different from the experiences I'm using as a reference): there are some parts of you (the generic you) that have strong feelings about things for a variety of reasons, and for a variety of reasons your response to this is often to shut those parts up and stuff them in a corner in the back of your mind. It generally doesn't feel safe to let these parts out, so you don't. Circling can offer an environment in which things feel safe enough in some emotional sense (the term of art is that people are "holding space" for you) that these parts temporarily get let out, and the result can be surprisingly strong displays of emotion, crying, screaming, shuddering, etc. I have personally had this effect on people without any explicit suggestion on my part that they have strong feelings about anything; I "hold space" for them (whatever that means, I don't have gears around it yet) and they start crying. This has been done for me at least twice and I've done it for others at least four times now. When this has happened to me it has not felt even slightly hypnotic; I strongly identified as the parts that were having the emotions (although I think I identify as my S1 in general much more than most rationalists), and it never felt like the emotions were coming from anywhere other than me.

Yeah, to me it feels like "sure, you can do 'magic' and make me cry and hug and shudder, but that has very little to do with my long-term behavior patterns, it's just a transient effect." It feels like being flipped onto the mat by a skilled martial artist; I'm being a guinea pig for someone to demonstrate a cool trick.

My experience is that the cluster of experiences around "cry and hug and shudder" are what it feels like to become aware of something that's important to my system 1, and that those moments are intervention points for shifting system 1's heuristics. Progress on reducing akrasia, unendorsed social anxiety, etc. has often come from moments like that. I don't know you well, but I model you as someone with strong willpower and a general "mind over matter" attitude. This may make it less salient what your system 1 is up to?
Thanks for posting this. Strongly agree with learning to notice trance states and not confusing them for things they aren't.

Yeah. With these recent discussions I'm not sure instrumental rationality deserves the name anymore. It's too welcoming of woo. "You are the easiest person to fool" (Feynman).

I mean, I get why instrumental rationality exists. People noticed that epistemic rationality doesn't lead to success in life. But neither does science, look at all these starving postdocs. Neither does art, look at all these starving artists. Clearly we need "instrumental science" that makes you Tony Stark, and "instrumental art" that makes you Ron Hubbard. Or not.

To me, epistemic rationality is a great idea that solves the problem it sets out to solve. "Always try to find the simplest alternative explanation for the same data, compared to your idea." But when people mix it with self-help, it just creeps me out.

I consider Circling to be about epistemic rationality, and that's a big chunk of why it's interesting to me.

Are you objecting to circling-type instrumental rationality techniques, or to instrumental rationality in general?
Good job, well predicted. Even CFAR has degenerated into woo now.

I am fairly confident in this: Circling does not involve hypnosis and does not borrow from hypnosis.

I have had lots of exposure to Circling, its leadership, and have passed a training course in it. If Circling had anything to do with hypnosis, I would expect at least some of its curricula to recommend hypnosis-centered books or mention hypnosis techniques in their teachings. Or I would expect their trainings to include lessons on how to cause people to go into trance states or anything resembling this. Or I would have found some instances of people trying to use rhythm or patterned behaviors or "giving directions" or something like you're describing.

I have been exposed to all the main schools of Circling, and I haven't found anything remotely like this.

I want to be clear on this point, because I do think there are real risks and pitfalls of Circling, and conflating Circling with hypnosis is likely to muddy the waters, rather than bringing clarity.

I'm pretty sure these people don't think that what they are doing "borrows from" hypnosis or trance or suggestibility hacking or mesmerism or whatever words you want to use for it.

Their emotions are high, caused by skillful intentional actions, and involves a general dynamic of "playing along" with numerous secondary "critical cognitive faculties" seemingly disengaged. Their focus is on their own feelings, and how their feelings feel, and so on. It isn't that they don't notice what's directly happening to (and inside) them, it is that they notice very little else.

Maybe that's great. Being in religions seems empirically to be somewhat positive for people?

Maybe the preacher there has studied hypnosis and optimized things for trance states... but I don't think that would been required for him to be interacting with more or less the same basic mechanisms in people's cognitive machinery.

Those mechanisms are not particularly exotic or hard to mess with, but they cut directly to "goal-content integrity" and so caution is appropriate.

Willing to update that 'hyponosis' is actually more common and easy to do than I previously imagined. That said, my point still stands. If Circling involved intentionally trying to hypnotize people, even without calling it hypnosis, I would expect its training to include SOME kind of incentive toward "you're doing good Circling IF the people look a certain way, or are taking your suggestions, or are feeling lots of emotion." (When I see someone making this assumption—that good Circling is about feeling a certain way or avoiding negative emotion—I often try to correct them.) There is no directive toward getting people to cry, getting people to play along, getting people to amplify their emotions, etc. The directive is often to become more aware of your surroundings and the other people, as well as your feelings, thoughts, sensations. I have seen Circling leaders—if someone is going into overwhelming emotion or getting sucked into something—pause and try to keep the level of awareness high, so the person doesn't just automatically get sucked in without making a choice.

I want to flag that I am pretty confident that I've heard circling facilitators boasting about having had people cry during circling. I don't think it's an explicit directive, but it does seem to be something that at least some value or interpret as a sign of deepness.

It's evidence that something interesting is happening, and like most such things, is tempting and dangerous to Goodhart on.
This seems like a pretty subtle distinction. Won't "And how does that make you feel?" or "And where do you feel that in your body?" frequently amplify the feeling? Like, maybe something was below the level of my conscious awareness (or was on the edge of my awareness), but now my attention has been directed towards it, so it's been 'amplified' to take up more of my awareness. Not saying that's a bad thing, just that it does seem to me like it would fit the description of amplifying a feeling or emotion. Curious whether what I described matches your model of what's going on.

There are lots of dials you can play with, basically.

One of the dials is moving your awareness around.

One of them is being close/face-deep in a felt sense or distancing from a felt sense. Gendlin calls this smelling the soup—putting your face in the soup is very close, and not being able to smell it is far.

Another is deliberately amplifying an emotion. It involves, e.g. playing a memory in your mind so that the emotions triggered by the memory increase. With corresponding amplification in body reaction (faster breathing, etc).

My model is something like, moving my awareness around can 'open the door' for an emotion to come through (like I'm inviting it to speak). And sometimes I open the door, and the emotion is loud (I start crying, say). Sometimes I open it, and it is quiet (I don't feel much, even when my awareness is on it). I don't see this as the same as amplifying the emotion.

I can successfully be aware of my feelings and NOT feel them very much. Whereas, if I am aiming to amplify my feelings, I will know I'm succeeding if I feel them more. Different success criteria.

If I've been ignoring my emotions or pushing them down for a while, I imagine they'll be louder when I open the door. This feels like a common dynamic.

I really like this comment!

I think I see you calling explicit attention attention to your model of cognition, and how your own volitional mental moves interact with seemingly non-volitional mental observations you become aware of.

Then you're integrating this micro-experimental data into an explanatory framework that implicitly acknowledges the possibility that your own model of yourself might be wrong, and even if it is right other people might work differently or have different observations.

I think that to get any sort of genuine, reproducible, safe, inter-subjectively validated meditative science that knows general laws of subjective psychology, it will involve conversations in this mode :-)

Etymologically, "meditation" comes from the latin meditari, "to study".

To make a "science word" we switch to ancient greek, where "meletan" means "to study or meditate". The three original "Boetian muses" were memory (Mnemosyne, who often is considered the mother of them all), song (Aoede), and meditation (Melete)... so if a science existed here it might be called "meletology"?

A few times I've playfully used the t... (read more)

Scientology is basically about telling people not to react to stimuli and suppressing them. It's about exercises like being able to say the same sentence for an hour at the same tone of voice without having emotional triggers that disturb the voice. Practices that are about connecting with the felt sense and giving that felt sense the space to show up and bring any emotional trigger to the forefront do on an important dimension the opposite of what the Scientology tech does. Being aware of your feelings and being aware of what causes them are two different issues. As far as Circling goes Circling (as I was taught it) is mostly not about having feeling because of memories or images but feelings caused by the interaction with the other people in the Circle. Modeling feelings as adrenaline spikes is a bad model and would be a different one. Feelings are not represented by people as high/low adrenaline states. Fear of excitement are both states with with adrenaline but they feel quite different and a person who confuses them isn't "aware of their feelings" and profits from a practice like Circling or Focusing to learn to get better in touch with their emotions.
In the state in which Circling happens, people do notice what the other people in the circle are doing and what they are experiencing. In addition to the primary perception that you listed there's a lot of attention on the secondary cognitive faculty of relating in Circling.
That video triggers some strong emotional response in me (disgust, aversion), and it seems that video is likely to feel weird to most LW viewers, one way or another. As in, the video's perspective is one of a voyeur or an observer to something strange, alienating, and possibly bad. I don't want to fight this battle if it involves bringing in videos that engender strong positive or negative reactions. (Especially given we're not Circling here, which is an arena I'd feel more comfortable bringing in emotions. As it is, I find that video manipulative in the current context.) I would have much less objection if the video were replaced with a verbal phrase or description.
For whatever it's worth, I would not describe my experiences with circling as "a fuzzy haze". Closer to the opposite, with a pretty sharp awareness of my own thoughts and cognition, and of the cognition of the people around me. But then, I have mostly been in circles with other rationalists, so experiences might vary.
This was my experience as well, though I've only done Circling once (it was with rationalists).
Circling seems like one of those things where both its promoters and detractors vastly overestimate its effects, either positive or negative. Like a lot the responses to this are either "it's pretty cool" or "it's pretty creepy." What about "meh"? The most likely outcome is that Circling does something extremely negligible if it does anything at all, or if it does seem to have some benefit it's because of the extra hour you set aside to think about things without many other distractions. In which case, a question I'd ask is "What was inadequate about the boring technique that doesn't have a name because it's so obvious?" Or, if you want to make a comparison to meditation / hypnosis, other stuff: When you stumbled across a Chesterton's Fence, what made you go "Hey, let's try moving this fence 50 feet to the left!"? You'll either get a) something that works pretty much the same as some more traditional practice or b) something that doesn't work at all.
Circles can vary extremely widely based on who's in them and how skilled the facilitators are, so it's not surprising that people have both widely varying experiences and widely varying senses of the possible range of experiences. (Again, the analogy to sex is helpful here.) I want to generally caution everyone in this discussion, both promoters and detractors, to avoid updating too strongly based only on their own circles. I can repeat from my other comment that circling has been extremely helpful for me personally and also that this is probably in large part because I've gotten to work with unusually skilled facilitators. I'm not surprised to hear that other people have very different and neutral or even much more negative experiences. A facilitator who's Goodharting on the wrong thing can be very bad, especially if no one else in the circle is experienced enough to notice and call them out on it.
Circling was "meh" for me. Maybe people who find it "meh" aren't as motivated to talk about it, so we get selection effects.
Producing a strong emotional attachment to the activity and thinking it's really great, is itself a significant, negative effect.

Having things in your life that you feel are great, feels like a positive thing to me. (I have too few of them.)

I think I understand the disconnect here, so let me try and describe it.

Suppose I have certain values, and preferences, which I endorse upon reflection; I am satisfied with what I value, in other words. Say that I enjoy physical activity, especially rock climbing and hiking; and I enjoy listening to [what I consider to be] good music; and I like writing poetry; and I enjoy fine dining (in particularly, exploring new cuisines); and say that I especially like doing this together with my friends, whom I respect and whose company I enjoy. I endorse these values; I take them to be part of who I am, and to develop the virtues I consider important.

Suppose that I go on a hike with a good friend of mine. I will enjoy this activity, yes? I will think that it’s really great, won’t I? Suppose we schedule the hike and my friend has to cancel—wouldn’t I be disappointed? That sounds like a “strong emotional attachment”… likewise if I were working on some verse which wasn’t coming together, etc. And is this bad? It doesn’t seem bad; after all, these really are my values; these are my true preferences; I endorse them; thus my “strong emotional attachment” to these activities, my judgment of them as... (read more)

Thank you for the explanation. I think that I'm missing some of the anti-wireheading genes; not that there wouldn't exist behaviors that I'd classify as wireheading and recoil from, but they tend to be things like rewriting your brain in a way that causes a permanent loss of agency, or hypnotizing yourself to believe that your child is happy and well when they are in fact starving and would need your help. But for the most part, I operate on a kind of implicit assumption that if something feels great, then that feeling of greatness is something intrinsically valuable itself. My wireheading revulsion only seems to kick in if the thing actually does active damage... and even then, I'm not sure if it's so much the wireheading aspect that I'm recoiling from, but rather the damage aspect.
Why do you enjoy rock climbing? Do you think that's independent of your experiences of rock climbing having produced adrenaline rushs?
It is good to have great things in your life. It is not necessarily good to have things you feel are great in your life; those feelings are not necessarily accurate. Many things that feel really good are metaphorical junk food. They are the Symbolic Representation of The Thing. Anything that quickly generates emotional attachment is most likely to be Goodharting, optimizing for feeling great and generating attachment, rather than being great.
This reads to me as a problem with System1-System 2 alignment / integration. You can Interal Double Crux about your feelings such that they start to align "great feelings" with actual greatness. Goodharting will always be an issue, but if System 1 & 2 actually talk to each other (and have a trusting, we're-in-it-together relationship), it's much easier to at least notice. If System 1 doesn't trust System 2, it's more likely System 1 will try to hide information, self-sabotage, and otherwise do more backstabby things, making it hard to strive for goals.
Okay. I don't seem to distinguish between "things that feel great" and "things that are great" in the same way as you do. (Obviously, there are things that are great despite not feeling great; e.g. helping someone else can be great even if it makes you feel bad at the time. But something feeling great is by itself a type of greatness to me, even though it shouldn't be the only type of greatness in one's life.)
I consider this a factual dispute about minds and Goodhart's Law, rather than a difference of subjective categorization, so this response is a non sequitur to me.
Your comment used terms like "good" and "great", which I interpret as subjective valuations, or preferences. I don't know how to translate a question about subjective valuations into one of factual claims.
I claim that as a general principle, "something feeling great is by itself a type of greatness to me" is a category error. What feels great is a map, and being great is the territory. There is a fact of the matter with regards to what is great for PDV, and what is great for Kaj. They are not identical, and they are not directly queriable, but there is a fact of the matter. Something great is something that increases your utility significantly. (Non-utilitarian ethics: translate that into language your system permits.) What feels great is a separate fact. It is directly queriable, and correlates with being great, but it is only an approximation, and can therefore be Goodharted. The distinction between the true utility and the approximation is a general property of human minds, with some regularities (superstimuli), but also not identical between people. So when you say "for me that's a subcategory", I conclude that you have a) misunderstood my claim, and b) mistaken the map for the territory.
So what makes up the territory? Like, if we are talking about a claim like "is it raining outside", then the territory is made up of whether it actually is raining outside or not. It's a concrete physical event. For "is something great", the nearest physical referent that I could think of is "does a person's brain make the evaluation that this is great". Which would make it into a question of subjective valuation, but you seem to have some more objective criteria in mind.
I said that already? "Something great is something that increases your utility significantly." This is a property of timelines, not of world-states, and so can't be directly queried, but better approximations can be built up by retrospecting on which times feeling great was accurate and which times it was not. Unreal, in a subthread above, claims that it is possible to realign System 1 such that feeling great coincides with being great. This seems wrong to me, but is the kind of thing that could be right. Your description does not seem to be the kind of thing that could be right.
Taboo "utility"? To me it's again just another word for personal preferences.
I'd like to try to explain and see if I'm pointing at the right thing. I might value being loved. (This thing has utility to me.) However, I do not actually have neurons that connect to the territory such that my neurons fire If and Only If I am being loved. My neurons are not magic. So instead they use proxy measures. Like looking at the person's face and seeing it smiling at me. Or seeing their body language and noticing it is relaxed and open. Or feeling their gentle touch. Etc. All these proxy measures add up to something that feels good. However, it is NEVER certain that it's measuring the thing I ultimately want (being loved). I'm just going off a guess. A pretty good guess, sometimes. But still. This is Goodhart's dilemma here. When I have a measure of a good thing (someone smiling at me), I will try to optimize for the measure, which is not necessarily the thing I was originally wanting to track (being loved). So at some point I may try to optimize for smiles, even when they're not out of love. And whatever those behaviors are, we call pica.
Right, I agree that there can be things which I value, and for which I can mistaken about whether or not I have them / they exist / etc. But PDV didn't seem to be just saying that "you can be mistaken about whether you actually have the thing that you think you have". They said that it's a category error for me to say that something feeling good is by itself something that I value, and that there's a factual dispute about minds here, rather than a dispute of subjective categorization. Your example doesn't feel like it helps me understand those claims. I can have a subjective categorization that being loved is something that I value, and I can be correct or mistaken about whether or not I'm actually loved. And I can indeed end up optimizing for something like smiles, which I think indicates being-lovedness, even when it's only weakly correlated. But that doesn't seem to be like a reason for why something feeling good couldn't also be something that I value for its own sake.
Wait... are you just trying to say that you can, in theory, value "positive feelings" like joy, delight, etc. in themselves? That seems unobjectionable. I thought PDV was saying that if you mistake "good feelings" for "good things" in general, that this was a category error. Like, if you always just think, "I feel good when the sun shines on me! It must BE good that the sun is shining on me." Then THAT is an error.
Wait... are you just trying to say that you can, in theory, value "positive feelings" like joy, delight, etc. in themselves? Yes. And not just in theory, I would expect that this is what many if not most people do: see e.g. all the advice about how to be happy, or the fact that many people take something like classical utilitarianism seriously as a moral theory. I thought PDV was saying that if you mistake "good feelings" for "good things" in general, that this was a category error. Oh. I thought that I already mentioned much earlier that I didn't mean that, when I said that things can be great despite not feeling great, and that "good feelings" are just one of the possible types of good things you can have in your life, and they shouldn't be the only ones.
Many if not most people are Goodharting in most aspects of their lives. Why not this one? I acknowledge your claim that you value feeling good over and above the things that cause you to feel good. I agree that many people implicitly endorse this claim about themselves. I think you and they are very likely mistaken about this preference, and that ceasing to optimize for it would improve your life significantly according to your other preferences.
was hoping you'd validate whether my "I thought PDV was saying" one way or another, above ... also, it seems like an important milestone if you guys actually sussed out where the actual disagreement is. and it seems like it isn't what either of you previously thought it was. so i want that to be made clear. Kaj wasn't saying 'a thing that couldn't be right'. Kaj was describing a totally realistic thing to do. which is to value feeling good itself. i think conversational milestones in arguments are important places to stop and orient, and i was worried this milestone would be quickly passed over. and NOW the disagreement is about a preference / why aren't you worried about Goodharting, whereas before it wasn't clear. is this actually agreed now by both parties?
(I greatly appreciate your attempt to clarify/improve the quality of the conversation.)
FWIW, I think 'valuing positive feelings in themselves' is a bad idea. It's theoretically possible to do it, but I wouldn't recommend it as part of one's final evolutionary form. Symmetrically, I think 'equating negative feelings with badness' or believing 'feeling bad is bad' is also not recommended.
People who don't have things that feel great in their life are likely to be depressed. Do you think that's a desireable state to be in?
I have both hypnosis and Circling skills. I understand hypnosis to be about having a specific behavior change that you want as outcome. When doing Circling your focus is not on specific behavior change. It's more like meditation about being in a certain state together. I consider Circling to have been very useful at getting some models of other people. After doing Circling at the LessWrong community weekend, one person said that they discovered in both Circlings in which they are that something they thought was unique about their own experience was also shared by other people. Many models aren't shared when you ramp up the critical nature of an exchange. Circling is about sharing of models about how people relate to their own experience that's valuable both for understanding oneselves and understanding other people. It's not about changing the models that are there even when they can change when you give them explicit attention. As far as the state goes, after a hypnotic trance state it makes sense to say "Now come back" to get people to be "awake" again. That's not the state in which Circling goes. I frequently have meditations seen to go into that space, but when meditating or guiding a meditation I usually intent to lead to a more present state as well.
Back when I was first getting into hypnosis, we talked about my experiments with hypnosis and all the terrifying possibilities that they implied. Even though I'd expect you'd have taken basically the same stance even without those conversations, I imagine it is still a significant contributing factor towards your take on hypnosis, and so I feel compelled to note that I no longer feel this way about it. To be clear, I don't think anything we talked about is "wrong", and the fact that the uncertainty mostly resolved on the "less scary" side isn't very reassuring. I still can't think of any circumstance with any hypnotist that I would allow them to "hypnotize" me, in the central meaning of the word, and I do still think people are insufficiently afraid of being hypnotized. That stuff is all more or less the same. The big difference is that now recognize more of how "responding hypnotically" is a really important part of both learning and relating to people, and that it's possible to do it without risking falling into any of the obvious traps that enable the scary bad possibilities. "Engage critical faculties, keep in mind evidence, develop models, etc" yes. Do that and "Listen to the voice. Respond and receive. Be open to the update, etc" -- to the extent that you can do that without losing track of the former (and work to increase this extent as much as you can). I don't even think it's always crazy to trade off some control for quicker learning, so long as this decision itself is made very carefully with full input of critical faculties, you understand the potential traps, and the person guiding you really can be verified to be worthy of the required trust, etc. However it's not necessary either. I've gotten better at it myself without sacrificing my need for control, and I have a very "control freaky" friend who is also figuring out how to respond hypnotically without giving up any control, and has gotten some really cool results from it. It's taken her four yea

Upfront note: I've enjoyed the circling I've done.

One reason to be cautious of circling: dropping group punishment norms for certain types of manipulation is extremely harmful.  From my experience of circling (which is limited to a CFAR workshop), it provides plausible cover for very powerful status grabs under the aegis of "(just) expressing feelings and experiences"; I think the strongest usual defense against this is actually group disapproval.  If someone is able to express such a status grab without receiving overt disapproval, they have essentially succeeded unless everyone in the group truly is superhuman at later correcting for this.  If mounting the obvious self-defense against the status grab is taken off the table, then you may just lose painfully unless you can out-do them.

Normalizing circling (or NVC) too much could lead to externalities, where this happens outside of an actual circling context. This could lead to people losing face who normally wouldn't, along with arms races that turn an X community into a circling-skill community.

If people are allowed to fish sell you (https://www.lesserwrong.com/posts/aFyWFwGWBsP5DZbHF/circling#E9dqjhm8... (read more)

The "fish sell" url isn't working - it just takes me to the top of the Circling post.
you have to go to the top of the comments and click (show more).
Yeah, this definitely seems like a bug; permalinks to comments shouldn't require this. Unfortunately, I don't see any obvious way to report a bug.
The "fish sell" link isn't working - it just takes me to the top of the circling post. Also, when I search for "fish sell" on Lesser Wrong, I get a result under "comments" of CronoDAS saying: And that link, itself, just takes me to the top of the circling post. And weirdly, I don't see that comment here anywhere. Is this a error on the website, rather than the way the link was formatted? Like, is it not possible to link to comments yet? I'll poke around a little, but I'm not all that hopeful, since that's a guess in the dark.
What's ridiculous about this is that the solution was actually shared "just below" this comment, BUT it doesn't show up because you would have needed to know the solution first to see it. -_- Anyway, you have to go to the top of the comments and click (show more). Then the link will work.
Outsch, sorry again. I will get around to increasing the comment limit soon.
Fix the links, not the limit.
You seem to be thinking that both NVC and Circling involve not maintaining boundaries against behaviors that we would otherwise notice, categorize as bad and take social action against. I am familiar with NVC and if anything the opposite seems to be the case, in NVC you enforce your boundaries more strongly and effectively than without it. I am not familiar with Circling, but I see nothing in the post above to suggest it would be any different.
I think it's a memetic adaptation type thing. I would claim that attempting to open up the group usage of NVC will also (in a large enough group) open up the usage of "language-that-appears-NVCish-even-if-against-the-stated-philosophy". I think that this type of language provides cover for power plays (re: the broken link to the fish selling scenario), and that using the language in a way that maintains boundaries requires the group to adapt and be skillful enough at detecting these violations. It is not enough if you do so as an individual if your group does not lend support; it may be enough if as an individual you are highly skilled at defending yourself in a way that does not lose face (and practicing NVC might raise that skill level), but it's harder than in the alternative scenario. I'm definitely not trying to object to NVC in general, but I'm worried about it as a large social group style. I think the failures of it as a large group style would mostly appear as relatively silent status transfers to the less virtuous. Also, these arguments are not super specific to NVC and Circling, so should probably be abstracted. I think any large scale group communication change has similar bad potential, and it's an object level question whether that actually happens. With NVC, I've seen some such dynamics in churches that remind me of it, hence why I raise the worry. I think I would feel queasy and like I was being attacked if someone started using NVC language at me in a public setting in front of others; I definitely feel like I've been "fish-sold" before. It's entirely possible that there exist large groups with a high enough skill level or different values so that this is not a problem at all, and my experience is just too limited.
It's not like Circling has taken over the world or anything. So the same question posed to rationality has to be posed to it, Given it hasn't, why do you think it’s real?

Why haven't bridges taken over the world? Why haven't iPads? Why isn't the world tiled with stir-fry, or double-entry accounting, or kittens?

If you're looking for things that have taken over the world, you'd want to look to things like language, writing, agriculture, urbanization, the nation-state, capitalism, the Bible, the British Empire, and America. None of these could have been successful without a whole bunch of other stuff that is valuable, but not at all the sort of thing that tries to take over the world.

It is totally fine, and usually the correct decision, not to even try to take over the world!

Circling, like most things people come up with or make, is a specific thing suited to specific problems and interests, and is enjoying a perfectly fine amount of popularity for one among many things one might do to explore some areas of mindspace.

The point here was about adequacy analysis; if circling is as good as the OP believes, the fact that it's not widespread among elites is surprising. You're right that it's fine if circling isn't as good as the OP says, but then Unreal wants to update their beliefs about circling.

I failed to mention my own history with Circling in the post. Unfortunately, me mentioning it now, I fear kind of comes across as trying to fight over who has the most XP. But ... it seems like relevant context, so I'll mention it now anyway. :x

My history: I've tried all the main schools of Circling: Integral Center (Aletheia), Circling Institute (with Guy Sengstock), and Circling Europe. Overall, I've circled for 400+ hours, and most of it was in Circling Europe's style. I passed Circling Europe's 6-month training course (SAS) last year and am now a TA at this year's. I've circled with various combinations of rationalists and non-rationalists, and I identify as a rationalist myself.

My opinion: Each school feels pretty distinct to me. I think it's still disputed among Circlers which school is, like, the true Circling. I was inclined to try all of them because I like breadth-first exploration. I've mostly settled on Circling Europe.

9Ben Pace
The number '400' was honestly very surprising to me. I feel like readers would get useful information from knowing about your extensive experience (e.g. this post isn't by a newbie), adding it somewhere to the OP could be good.
I updated the OP to reflect this. Thanks.

Curated this post for:

  • Giving a good description of something that seems important and valuable in the experience of a lot of people in the community (myself included)
  • While this post probably isn't super-informative to someone who hasn't tried Circling yet, it might encourage such a person to give Circling a try, which is probably the best outcome that you can get for a post that describes what's essentially procedural skill.

(disclaimer: I've done a fair bit of circling and "authentic relating," probably dozens of hours, but am by no means an expert.)

Thanks for the post! I have had a lot of fun circling and in some cases I have seen it lead to interpersonal breakthroughs. Further, I perceive at least some applications to rationality. However, my sense is that circling falls into the same category as lucid dreaming, memory palaces, or various other interesting techniques - fun, but not really in alignment with the core spirit of rationality. Lucid dreaming can be used to train noticing confusion; circling can be used to train relevant skills as well. However, that doesn't make either a core part of the program.

I would recommend circling to many people as a fun and interesting exercise; I would not recommend it as the forefront of rationality development. I also notice that I feel a sense of apprehension around these communities becoming too intertwined, in part because many people in the circling community are, as you say, New Age hippie self-help guru types. As a result, I've intentionally shied away from exploring this area more despite quite appreciating it - I'm not sure the epistemics are there and I'm very worried about these sorts of ideas having an undue influence on the rationality development project.

From my very limited (n = 1) circling experience, it felt valuable but before reading this post, it never occurred to me that it might be useful as a direct rationality tool.

What I got out of it was a sense of social connection, being seen, and being accepted as who I am; this made the practice seem valuable because I believe that a lot of people today are absolutely starved for these experiences, and that this could help satisfy their need for them.

Though while I agree that circling doesn't feel like a core rationality practice, it does feel like it should have an indirect benefit for some people. Namely, if you don't feel safe and accepted, then I believe that you are much more likely to react emotionally to factual claims, and to e.g. turn any conversation into a status struggle and generally engage in motivated reasoning. Insecurity makes for poor rationality, so if anyone has a serious deficiency on that front, I would expect that practices like circling might actually end up massively boosting their rationality if the practices helped fix the deficiency.

At the same time, if someone was already mostly feeling socially safe and secure, then it wouldn't have occurred to me to predict that circling would have any further effect on their rationality.

Sense of connection and being seen is definitely one of the most obvious possible benefits of circling, and many people are in fact starved for these things.

But this is one of the layers of Goodharting I mentioned: I think if a circle Goodharts on sense of connection it's missing the opportunity to do something different and more interesting for rationalists, which I don't know how to explain in words (part of the reason it's easy to miss). The situation is roughly analogous to meditating because it helps you feel calmer, as opposed to the mountains of wacky stuff meditation can do instead.

To make an attempt to put it into a few words (but the topic still needs to have it's own post at another time): The relationship that people have to themselves matters. Many people don't have an explicit model of how they relate to themselves. It's a blindspot for many rationalists and given that the relationship that people have to themselves affects what the believe, feel and do, that has implications for rationality. It also trains the core skills involved in Focusing and that's valuable for the reason that make CFAR teach it.
Could you elaborate on what the hell "being seen" means? My experience with the term is somewhere between meaninglessness and "a distraction mentioned while someone's covertly socially attacking".

A sense that other people are paying direct attention to you, noticing important and real aspects of you, and not rejecting those aspects.

This is rare in my experience because people mostly don't actually pay attention to each other, they just notice some vague surface-level details that are easy to remember and not much else.

I endorse this summary. The experience of being seen often translates into a feeling of safety for me, something like "people saw me for what I am and accepted me; that implies that, at least around some people, I can relax my guards and not worry so much about giving a good impression, because these people are fine with me already".
I've done less circling than Davis, and only really in the context of the rationality community, so I am even less of an expert here, but this basically sums up my perspective on circling as well. It seems pretty good in a narrow set of contexts, doesn't seem to have super much to do with the core art of rationality, and falls in the category of things that seem to make people overconfident about the positive effects they produce (similar to memory palaces or lucid dreaming). I do think it can help with a bunch of pretty important rationality skills, and might be covering some bases that are particularly deficient in the people who are currently part of this community (i.e. something like access to your felt senses and nuanced models of social reality).
Agree. I suspect 'Circling' per se is missing the forest for the trees (disclaimer, have only circled 10ish times), though they are adjacent to/accidentally facilitate something that actually works which I would be more likely to point to with the moniker 'group mindfulness.' The reason I think the actual thing is a rationality tool is that it, like meditation, is a lens polisher (the lens that sees its own flaws). You can use them as fora for noticing and then messing with your perceptual apertures as well as having other people point out cracks in your lens that you thought were in the territory. Strongly agree with the people saying that you don't get the core thing if you don't have a facilitator who knows enought to give detailed instructions and feedback. In the same way that if you get a poor meditation instructor you will just have a nice relaxing time without ever actually doing the thing, poor circlling will lead to the emotional benefits mentioned and if some people are starved for that it will get mistaken for the thing. It also requires very high trust to do the real thing, which random groups of 4-12 will not generally pull off.
Appreciate you bringing this perspective. I think it's true for the majority of Circling I've seen, in most places. But there are some brands(?) of Circling that seem more directly rationality-aligned and ultimately focused on truth-seeking. That said, I think you're still mostly right.
Given that you seem to have a deeper experience in multiple styles of cirling I would be interested in a post exploring the differences. I learned circling mostly in the Circling Europe style and I would love to know how the thing in the Bay Area differs.
This blog post from the Integral Center offers a reasonable comparison as far as I can tell. (Most of my circling experience is with facilitators who were trained in the Circling Europe style; I've had one or two Circling Institute circles and one or two Integral Center circles.)
I would compare circling to meditation, rather than lucid dreaming. It's not quite the same thing as rationality, and it has a lot of built up culture and tradition, some of which we disagree with, but it's a demostrably powerful tool that we would be impoverished if we ignored.

Upon re-reading this post, I want to review this sentence:

In my experience, being in an SNS-activated state really primes me for new information in a way that being calm (PSNS activation) does not.

I think this is true still, but I also suspect being in a certain calm, open PSNS state is also good for integrating new information.

I don't understand this fully yet. But some things:

  • Many therapeutic modalities attempt to get me into a particular open, peaceful, "all-seeing", perceptive state. Often related to compassion + curiosity. Referred to as "Self" in IFS. From here, I have been able to integrate many things that were previously "too hard" or "overwhelming."
  • In Circling, I have sometimes been basically doing CoZE and going right up to the fence of my fears. Maybe looking at someone actively caring about me / understanding me while I feel shame / fear / self-judgment. For me, this is a very activating situation, like reaching the peak of a roller coaster. From here, I have made some of my biggest updates / experienced my largest releases. And I attributed that to the level of activation / fear, in contrast with the "drop"—there's this big juxtaposition between my feared/projected/storied reality and what is happening in front of me right now.

These phenomena are mostly still mystery to me.

It's worth noting that in the rationalist vocabulary we also have Hamming Circles and Doom Circles. Neither of those are about Circling as described in this post but both terms point to different practices.

There's no extensive writeup on Hamming Circles currently on LessWrong. At the same time a few posts cover some of the ground:

  • https://vkrakovna.wordpress.com/2015/05/17/hamming-questions-and-bottlenecks/
  • https://www.lesserwrong.com/posts/aRNxWnqnrz3FdNpfi/dark-arts-defense-in-reputational-warfare/CQL2WkNB8u8tK6T5r
  • https://www.lesserwrong.com/posts/pjGGqmtqf8vChJ9BR/unofficial-canon-on-applied-rationality

For Doom Circles I unfortunately don't know of any writeup.

Doom Circles, in short, are as follows: someone is the focus of attention, and the circle will, one by one, point out their "doom"--this is something like "this is what your Hamming problem looks like to me" or "this is your core problem" or "if you fail at your goals, it will be because of X." The main goal is something like exposing your blind spots, or calibrating you on how much things matter / how much various problems you have are visible on the outside.

I've also personally benefited a lot from doom circles.

At the last CFAR reunion I experimented with a modified version of the protocol based on the idea that a surprising amount of doom circle feedback is projection (which doesn't mean it's not true), which I called "doom mirror circles" at the time: after each person gives doom, they point a mirror (in this case we used a phone camera) at themselves and then see what happens when they apply the doom to themselves. Worked pretty well, but I haven't tried it since.

This is good! Keep going! Bringing awareness of projection into circling should also help ameliorate some failure modes. This works best when you experience it (via doom mirror in this case) than just think about it.
An element that's easy to leave out in a description, but which I understand to be fairly critical, is the deliberate over-the-top nature of it. You don't just say "That is your doom", you go DOOOOOM, DOOMY DOOMY DOOM between one person receiving doom and the next. I believe its function is to both allow for people to be more extreme than they would if they didn't have the vague feeling that anything could be taken as exaggeration, and simultaneously to lessen the emotional impact of the criticism.
5Pee Doom
I facilitated a Hamming Circle two days ago and it looks like I will produce some kind of writeup someday, >50% probability.
Do keep in mind that Hamming circles have some very relevant differences from the sort of circling being described here. As someone who has facilitated many Hamming circles, I consider them broadly unrelated aside from both having "circle" in the name. (probably you know this already, but just making sure!)
5Pee Doom
I was wrong on producing a writeup that qualifies as "a writeup" (I'm not sure exactly where I would have put it after the draft had been finished). I am poorly calibrated in personal action predictions (it may be the case that I am only tempted to make a prediction that I'll do a thing when I want to signal to myself or others that I will in fact do a thing when the outside view says I won't, so I should probably update downward that I'll do a thing if I find myself trying to predict a probability that I'll do it, over and above the normal downward adjustment for planning fallacy and Hofstadter's Law). Thankfully there is satisfactory content on the subject. For instance, "Group Debugging" seems to be the thing-that-is-doing-the-closest-thing-to-this at meetups that is more repeatable and tractable than the original Hamming question (it's basically what the Hamming thing I said I facilitated was), though it is somewhat different from the broad scope of the original (though I don't like the word "Debugging" associated with this exercise, it seems to fetishize using programming metaphors to apply to human psychology, which feels sterile, cliquey, overreliant on usage of "System 2" solutions, and not as obviously descriptive of what is happening as it could be. Maybe "Group Problem-Solving"?).

This is very interesting. I do not have a good chance of being able to try this out, so I cannot evaluate any of the claims made directly, but it seems well-written, well-thought, and all in all a top-tier post.

I read posts as a beginner - and thinking about a wider-access book format ...

Great writing style - very accessible.   Honest and informative. 
A modern-day explorer of the frontiers of the mind and human experience.

Edit Notes:

1. I'd make this the 1st paragraph: "In recent years, Circling has caught the eye of rationalists... " include a "WTF is circling?" as a question for a wider audience! and the LW bit isn't necessary now. 

2. Include a definition for inferential distance for ease of reading to newbies.

3... (read more)

I think it's great to have a post about Circling here as a reference that's written in a more traditional LessWrong language.

In Berlin we also do regular Circling sessions in our LessWrong group. My first contact with Circling was due to having known the first person who brought Circling to Berlin for a longer time. We started our rationalist Circling group after local rationalist discovered Circling in the bay area and came back to Berlin and wanted to have a Circling group here as well.

I have a few unrelated old contact to people from another ... (read more)


I have run circling in our local dojos. I endorse it for being an interesting practice for getting information about how other people work. And also understanding different ways of noticing the same experience. And getting connected with other people.

I think this post is of historical interest on a topic important to the modern development of the rationality community.  I believe I was already 'into Circling' before I read this post and so it didn't materially change things on that front, but it seems like it sparked conversation that was useful. I think some of the comments are a necessary counterpoint to the post if we want to include it in the printed book, but that we can probably figure out something useful there.

While I've always had many hesitations around circling as a packaged deal, I have come to believe that as a practice it ended up addressing many things that I care about, and in many important settings I would now encourage people to engage in circling-related practices. As such, I think it has actually played a pretty key role in developing my current models of group dynamics, and in-particular the effects of various social relationships on the formation of beliefs. 

This post is I think the best written explanation of circling we have, so I think it's quite valuable to review, and has a good chance of deserving a place in our collection of best posts of 2018. 

Promoted to frontpage.

Hey unreal!

I came to your article never having heard of circling before, and your first iteration at describing put me into the mind: "well, it's just another name for a party". But later you explained how the group gives explicit attention to feelings, especially feelings of the moment. This bring to mind and experience I would like to share with you.

I typically operate in a very masculine oriented environment and I've sometimes heard women complain they find the approaches taken, say, to reaching a decision, are unnatural for them. ... (read more)

2Said Achmiz
But… how did this “women’s” group actually… decide what to do? What sorts of groups were these, anyway? What was the decision-making procedure? (In other words, who had the power to make the decisions?) These and other details would be needed before any conclusions can be drawn from your anecdote, I think.

Nope.  Nopenopenope.  This trips so many cult flags.  This does not feel like rationality, this feels like pseudoreligion, like cult entrance activities, with rationality window dressing.


Maybe it's just because of the "you have to experience it for yourself" theme of this article, but right now this gets a hard nope from me, like psychedelics & speaking in tongues.



"Written by a relative amateur to the circling world and contains many disputed sentences...". As the author of the Circling Guide (http://circlingguide.com) , I can't say I disagree! I somewhat take pride in the "disputed sentences" (although probably less disputed than you imagine), because these people like to argue and carry on turf-wars. In terms of "relative amateur" I will reply: "in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king". Meaning that my book is far and away the most popular written resource on Circling, currently. There is a reason f

... (read more)