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.

How is Cir­cling re­lated to ra­tio­nal­ity?

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