What is Circling?

I get asked this question quite a bit. I don’t know that I can ever answer it quite as succinctly as people would seem to like. The answers to the question I give usually lead to more questions. Not that I mind. In fact, enjoy the questions myself, as they allow me to find new and better ways of describing the practice that I love. I find actually participating in the practice and experiencing it first hand is the best possible way of someone beginning to understand.

I usually start off the Circling Labs at the Integral Center by setting context in such a way that has people ready to dip their toes in the process.

Circling is a relating practice, where a group of people come together and focus their attention on what it is like being with each other in the present moment.

Circling is also known as “Intersubjective Meditation”.  The intersubjectivity of the practice comes from the act of more than one conscious mind becoming aware of shared reality in relationship. Thus, making explicit what was unconsciously implicit within the group relationship/dynamic.

I find the word “meditation” means a lot of different things to people. Kind of like the word, “yoga”. For my purposes here, I’d like to use the word meditation to mean the practice of cultivating awareness.

There are far too many meditation practices I know of to name here. (And I’m sure those of you reading this could mention even more) But for the purpose of explaining Circling, I like to think of it as a combined practice of Contemplation, and Concentration.

In a concentration practice, one focuses on an object of concentration. (such as a candle flame, or a mantra, ect.) When one becomes aware that their mind has wandered off the object of concentration, the practice requires you to let go of or quiet the thoughts, and bring your attention back to the object of concentration. (If you have ever tried one of these practices, you’re well aware that it is easier said than done.)

In a Contemplative practice, one sits with an inquiry, and begins to notice what arises in their awareness. This could be a practice of deep reflective thought, in which to bypass the normal construct of the mind.

In the practice of Circling, we often “focus” our attention on a single person, and allow ourselves to notice what arises in our awareness while in relationship with them.

Sounds simple right?

Well, if we are not in the practice of owning our own experience, we may discover that what we are noticing about another, are simply our own projections.  I often share a simple 3 step exercise that helps those of us who may need practice in this area.

Step 1: Notice what you are noticing.

Once again, sounds simple, right? I imagine you asking, “How can I not?”.

For me, I find I’m consistently surprised when I practice this step. When I can slow my internal dialog down enough, my thoughts become very basic.

Something that we are noticing should be generally unarguable. For example, I notice I feel nervousness in my stomach as I type this.

No one can really argue what I’m feeling in my stomach. How would they know? What authority do they have to tell me what I’m feeling?

Step 2: Notice what I’m imagining.

A large part of our minds are dedicated to making meaning of things and situations. This can be very useful, as if I see a door, I can imagine that it will lead me out of a particular space, into another space.  This saves us a lot of time as humans. Imagine if we had to figure out what a door was every time we saw one. I believe humanity would be at a much lower level of evolution if this was the case.

This also can be a source of difficulty, as our minds will sometimes imagine things that are not objectively true or resourceful.

Very often, it can get in way of how we relate to others. If we imagine we know someone’s experience, we might project on to them that they are a certain way. We might assume that they are angry, loving, cold-hearted, warm, hateful, or anything else.

I find, in my life, I can be many different ways, at many different times. I can be all of these things and more.

When we actually slow down and notice that what we are imagining about a person is in fact, just that, what we are imagining, it allows us to own what is arising in our own experience when in relationship to the other person.

Let’s try an example. In the first step, did you imagine anything about me when I revealed that I was feeling nervousness in my stomach while I typed this?

Maybe you imagined that I had forgotten to eat breakfast, and that I was probably just hungry.  Maybe you imagined that I was worried that I would be late for work since I’m writing such an incredibly long blog post. Maybe, I imagine, you didn’t think anything of it, as you were so excited to get to the answer that you were looking for that your eyes skipped over that info, and you actually scrolled up to see if I had actually typed that.

By noticing what we are imagining, we are setting our selves up for the third step, which can be branched off into 2 separate options.

Step 3: Sharing Impact/Getting Curious

After we are aware of what it is we are imagining, we then have the choice of sharing impact with the other person, or getting curious about their experience.

For our example, you might share with me that when you read that I was feeling nervousness in my stomach as I typed this, you imagined that I was probably just hungry.

Or, you could get curious and ask, “What has you feeling nervousness in your stomach while you type this?”

The process of step 3 allows us to understand the experience of the other person better, as well as cultivating awareness of our own pre-conceived notions.

Why is this valuable?

It is my assertion, that cultivating our own awareness allows us greater choice in how we react in any given situation, and that understanding someone else’s experience in greater detail allows for greater connection and intimacy.

I have also found, that the practice of Circling allows us to cultivate our own awareness via intersubjectivity that we otherwise could not access.

As the Spiritual Entertainer Alan Watts once said, “Trying to define yourself, is like trying to bite your own teeth.”.

By utilizing the practice of Intersubjective Meditation, we can cultivate relationships and our own consciousness at the same time.