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.