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.

States Of Consciousness (Part 2)

In the First part of this series, I shared with you the different brainwave frequencies, and how they can affect consciousness.

In this part, I would like to begins to list a few different meditation practices  that have also proven to show ways in which to induce other states of consciousness.

Transcendental Meditation

One of the most famous of these practices being Transcendental Meditation™. TM™ was introduced to the West by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, his most famous of students being The Beatles. TM™ could be labeled a form of concentration meditation. In this practice, one is given a mantra by their teacher. During the meditation, the practitioner focuses on the mantra by repeating it over and over. This can induce a trance-like state. If the practitioner notices the mind wandering from the mantra, they simply bring their attention back to it, and begin again. This meditation is usually set for a period of 20 minutes. Practitioners often refer to the state achieved through this practice as the transcendental state of consciousness

(Another famous practitioner of the TM technique is David Lynch. He has created The David Lynch Foundation to bring the TM technique to inner-city schools.)

Sensory Deprivation/ Floatation Tanks

Floatation tanks were developed in the 1950’s at the US National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). The hypothesis was that by eliminating external stimulus, the mind could relax and become more focused on internal stimulus.

Modern day floatation tanks are filled with dense salt water, and are generally sound proof, and sealed for darkness. The practitioner floats in the tank with their head floating above the water. The sessions generally last about an hour. During that time, the practitioner practices whatever meditation technique they chose. The desired result by the end of the session is increased Theta waves in the brain.

(Comedian Joe Rogan is such a fan, he has his own personal tank in his home)

Breath Work

Breath work s a general term for different breathing techniques that can alter one’s state of consciousness.  Like meditation, there are many types of breath work, and more being developed.  Some famous types of breath work are Pranayama breathing, Tibetan Tantric Tummo, Holotropic Breathwork, as well as forms of movement and breath work together such as Qigong and T’ai Chi.

Each of these techniques brings its own pattern to consciousness. Some Shamanic styles often incorporate music at the same time. (Dr. Andrew Weil gives a quick overview.)

States of Consciousness (Part 1)

What is Consciousness? This question has been subject of debate since the time of Descartes.

Simply put, consciousness can be considered a level of awareness, both internal and external. (Subjective or Objective)  Let’s look at 3 of the most common states of consciousness.

1) Waking state. 

2) Dreaming State

3) Dreamless Sleep

These 3 states of consciousness are pretty self-explanatory and familiar to any mentally healthy functioning human being.  From here, there are many other states of consciousness that very, depending on the source material from which you may be investigating.

One theory on what creates various states of consciousness is based on brainwave patterns.  There are 4 basic ranges of brainwave frequencies.

Beta Waves (14-30 Hz)

Beta waves are the most common in everyday waking state consciousness. Chances are, as you are reading this, you are creating primarily Beta waves. This frequency is often associated with concentration and cognition. Beta waves at the higher levels are associated with anxiety and overwhelm.

Alpha Waves (8-13.9 Hz)

Alpha waves are common while in a state of relaxation, light trance, or meditation. Serotonin levels are increased, and is often associated with the experience of pre-sleep, and pre-waking.

Theta Waves (4-7.9 Hz)

Theta waves occur prominently in REM sleep cycles. They are also common in deep meditation and trance states.

Delta Waves (.1-3.9 Hz)

Dreamless sleep. HGH released in the brain. Non-physical awareness.

The multiple frequencies occurring in any human at anytime create a mandala like pattern that informs the state of consciousness in the moment.  There are many kinds of biofeedback machines that can detect or even entrain particular brain wave states through light or sound waves. (I have been using binaural beats in my meditation practice for years)

There are also 2 other types of brain wave frequencies discovered in the last century, Gamma Waves, and Mu Waves. Most of research has yet to be conclusive on these frequencies.  (See Ken Wilber change his Brainwave patterns Here)

Setting Context for Circling Lab (Part 2)

In my last post, I left off at a point where I explained the concept of one’s subjective experience during meditation. In this post, I would like to expand on what the term Inter-subjective Meditation means to the art and practice of Circling.

In Circling, the participants in the circle are focusing a portion of their concentration on the person being circled, while the person being circled is contemplating their own subjective experience. This practice is in service of what we like to call “getting their world”, meaning understanding the subjective experience of the person being circled, in service of creating an inter-subjective experience.

That’s a lot of “subjective” words. Let me brake it down in my own vernacular. (aka:Talk like a normal person)

One’s subjective experience, is what the world looks like through their filters. It is “the water we swim in”. The more we can understand the point of view of someone else, the more we can understand their motivations, desires, etc. The more we can understand that, the more we can relate to the person. The more we can relate to the person, the more we can share connection.

If sharing more connection with another is not enough, I find there is also another very valuable aspect to this practice.

Through the process of getting the world of someone else, I begin to understand my own a little more. I find I can relate with a new perspective that informs my own perspective. This allows me to know my own motivation, desires, ect. even more. The more I know myself, the more awareness I can cultivate to make informed decisions on how I choose to live my life and react to situations. This creates more efficiency in creating and achieving goals as well as how I interact in relationships.

Also, if I’m the one getting circled, the attention of the group, and their genuine curiosity can allow me more understanding of myself.  Having to explain to another what seems so obvious to me, can have me actually examine why and how I look at the world in the way I do. Once again, this cultivates awareness through relationship with the circle in ways that are not possible on my own.

Setting Context For Circling Lab (Part 1)

At The Integral Center, I facilitate our Circling Lab, Circling Fundamentals, and Circling Happy Hour.

Circling is shorthand for what we like to call Intersubjective Meditation.

I like to start off our Fundamentals class with some basic distinctions on what makes this practice “Intersubjective” as well as set some context for the practice.

First off, let’s take a basic look at the practice of meditation itself, and compare it to the art and practice of Intersubjective meditation (AKA Circling).

Meditation is a  term used to cover a wide variety of practices or disciplines.  It’s like the term yoga, or sports.  It can mean a lot of different things.

(I’m about to simplify things here. I like to keep my blog posts short, and this is a subject that volumes have been written upon in the past. Bare with me. I’m not looking to write an anthology.)

In most mental disciplines of meditation, the practice can be divided in to two categories: concentration, or contemplation.

Examples of concentration meditation practices could be as simple as focusing on your breath for a certain length of time. Also, as in Transcendental Meditation, one could focus on a mantra. Or a candle flame. Or a mandala. Or mindfulness. Or your Aunt Marietta’s meatloaf. Or anything really.

The point of this practice is to focus your attention on the object of concentration. If (really, if I’m going to be 100% honest, I should say when) you should notice your attention drift, you immediately bring it back to the object of your focus.  This practice helps build the discipline of concentration and focus over time, with practice.

The other discipline is one of contemplation. Contemplation is another one of those “tricky” words that means different things to different people. As I am using it here, I’ll refer to it as content-free mind directed towards awareness.

(“Content free mind directed towards awareness” is in, of itself, a pretty tall order.  AND, that’s why we call it practice.  I prefer to go easy on myself and direct my mind back if (when) it begins to drift.)

Now, anything that should arise within ones consciousness during a meditation practice is a purely subjective experience. Nobody, except the one doing the meditation, has any authority over what occurred to the person meditating. It was purely their own experience.

This is where I would introduce the concept of “Intersubjective Meditation”.