byUnreal1y16th Feb 2018250 comments


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