Circling as Cousin to Rationality

Often, I talk to people who are highly skeptical, systematic thinkers who are frustrated with the level of inexplicable interest in Circling (previously discussed on LW) among some rationalists. “Sure,” they might say, “I can see how it might be a fun experience for some people, but why give it all this attention?” When people who are interested in Circling can’t give them a good response besides “try it, and perhaps then you’ll get why we like it,” there’s nothing in that response that distinguishes a contagious mind-virus from something useful for reasons not yet understood.

This post isn’t an attempt to fully explain what Circling is, nor do I think I’ll be able to capture everything that’s good about Circling. The hope is to clearly identify one way in which Circling is deeply principled in a way that rhymes with rationality, and potentially explains a substantial fraction of rationalist interest in Circling. As some context; I’m certified to lead Circles in the Circling Europe style after going through their training program, but I’ve done less Circling than Unreal had when she wrote this post, and I have minimal experience with the other styles.

Why am I interested in Circling?

Fundamentally, I think the thing that sets Circling apart is that it focuses on updating based on experience and strives to create a tight, high-bandwidth feedback loop to generate that experience. Add in some other principles and reflection, and you have a functioning culture of empiricism directed at human connection and psychology. I think they’d describe it a bit differently and put the emphasis in different places, while thinking that my characterization isn’t too unfair. This foundation of empiricism makes Circling seem to me like a ‘cousin of Rationality,’ though focused on people instead of systems.

I first noticed the way in which Circling was trying to implement empiricism early in my Circling experience, but it fully crystallized when a Circler said something that rhymes with P.C. Hodgell’s “That which can be destroyed by the truth should be.” I can’t remember the words precisely, but it was something like “in the practice, I have a deep level of trust that I should be open to the universe.” That is, he didn’t trust that authentic expression will predictably lead to success according to his current goals, but rather that a methodological commitment to putting himself out there and seeing what happens would lead to deeper understanding and connection with others, even though it requires relinquishing attachment to specific goals. This is a cognitive clone of how scientists don’t trust that running experiments will predictably lead to confirmation of their current hypotheses, but rather that a methodological commitment to experimentation and seeing what happens would lead to a deeper understanding of nature. A commitment to natural science is fueled by a belief that the process of openness and updating is worth doing; a commitment to human science is fueled by a belief that the process of openness and updating is worth doing.

Why should “that which can be destroyed by the truth” be destroyed? Because the truth is fundamentally more real and valuable than what it replaces, which must be implemented on a deeper level than “what my current beliefs think.” Similarly, why should “that which can be destroyed by authenticity” be destroyed? Because authenticity [IOU: a link as good as ‘The Simple Truth’] is fundamentally more real and valuable than what it replaces, which must be implemented on a deeper level than “what my current beliefs think.” I don’t mean to pitch ‘radical honesty’ here, or other sorts of excessive openness; authentic relationships include distance and walls and politeness and flexible preferences.

What is Circling, in this view?

So what is Circling, and why do I think it’s empirical in this way? I sometimes describe Circling as “multiplayer meditation.” That is, like a meditative practice, it involves a significant chunk of time devoted to attending to your own attention. Unlike sitting meditation, it happens in connection with other people, which allows you to see the parts of your mind that activate around other people, instead of just the parts that activate when you’re sitting with yourself. It also lets you attend to what’s happening in other people, both to get to understand them better and to see the ways in which they are or aren’t a mirror of what’s going on in you. It’s sometimes like ‘the group’ trying to meditate about ‘itself.’ A basic kind of Circle holds one of the members as the ‘object of meditation’, like a mantra or breathing with a sitting meditation, with a different member acting as facilitator, keeping the timebox, opening and closing, and helping guide attention towards the object when it drifts. Other Circles have no predefined object, and go wherever the group’s attention takes them.

As part of this exploration, people often run into situations where they don’t have social scripts. Circling has its own set of scripts that allow for navigation of trickier territory, and also trains script-writing skills. They often run into situations that are vulnerable, where people are encouraged to follow their attention and name their dilemmas; if you’re trying to deepen your understanding of yourself and become attuned to subtler distinctions between experiences and emotions, running roughshod over your boundaries or switching them off is a clumsy and mistaken way to do so. Circles often find themselves meditating on why they cannot go deeper in that moment, not yet at least, in a way that welcomes and incorporates the resistance.

Circling Europe has five principles; each of these has a specialized meaning that takes them at least a page to explain, and so my attempt to summarize them in a paragraph will definitely miss out on important nuance. As well, after attempting to explain them normally, I’ll try to view them through the lens of updating and feedback.

  1. Commitment to Connection: remain in connection with the other despite resistance and impulses to break it, while not forcing yourself to stay when you genuinely want to separate or move away from the other. Reveal yourself to the other, and be willing to fully receive their expression before responding. This generates the high bandwidth information channel that can explore more broadly, while still allowing feedback; if you reveal an intense emotion, I let it land and then share my authentic reaction, allowing you to see what actually happens when you reveal that emotion, and allowing me to see what actually happens when I let that emotion land.

  2. Owning Experience: Orient towards your impressions and emotions and stories as being yours, instead of about the external world. “I feel alone” instead of “you betrayed me.” It also involves acknowledging difficult emotions, both to yourself and to others. The primary thing this does is avoid battles over “which interpretation is canonical,” replacing that with easier information flow about how different people are experiencing things; it also is a critical part of updating about what’s going on with yourself.

  3. Trusting Experience: Rather than limiting oneself to emotions and reactions that seem appropriate or justifiable or ‘rational’, be with whatever is actually present in the moment. This gives you a feedback loop of what it’s like to follow your attention, instead of your story of where your attention should be, and lets you update that story. It also helps draw out things that are poorly understood, letting the group discover new territory instead of limiting them to territory that they’ve all been to before. It also allows for all the recursion that normal human attention can access, as well as another layer, of attending to what it’s like to be attending to the Circle when it’s attending to you.

  4. Staying with the Level of Sensation: An echo of Commitment to Connection, this is about not losing touch with the sensory experience of being in your body (including embodied emotions) while speaking; this keeps things ‘alive’ and maintains the feedback loop between your embodied sense of things and your conscious attention. It has some similarities to Gendlin’s Focusing. Among other things, it lets you notice when you’re boring yourself.

  5. Being with the Other in Their World: This one is harder to describe, and has more details than the others, but a short summary is “be curious about the other person, and be open to them working very differently than you think they work; be with them as they reveal themselves, instead of poking at them under a microscope.” This further develops the information channel, in part by helping it feel fair, and in part by allowing for you to be more surprised than you thought you would be.

Having said all that, I want to note that I might be underselling Commitment to Connection. The story I’m telling here is “Circling is powered in part by a methodological commitment to openness,” and noting that science and rationality are powered similarly, but another story you could tell is “Circling is powered in part by a commitment to connection.” That is, a scientist might say “yes, it’s hard to learn that you’re wrong, but it’s worth it” and analogously a Circler might say “yes, it’s hard to look at difficult things, but it’s worth it,” but furthermore a Circler might say “yes, it’s hard to look at difficult things, but we’re in this together.”

Reflection as Secret Sauce

It’s one thing to have a feedback loop that builds techne, but I think Circling goes further. I think it taps into the power of reflection that creates a Lens That Sees Its Flaws. Humans can Circle, and humans can understand Circling; they can Circle about Circling. (They can also write blog posts about Circling, but that one’s a bit harder.) There’s also a benefit to meditating together, as I will have an easier time seeing my blind spots when they’re pointed out to me by other members of a Circle than when I go roaming through my mind by myself. Circling seems to be a way to widen your own lens, and see more of yourself, cultivating those parts to be more deliberate and reflective instead of remaining hidden and unknown.