Circling is a practice of revealing and bringing awareness to what is present here and now in relation to each other. We do this in something that looks a lot like a conversation with a few important differences and an inner practice. Often there’s also a result of deep connectedness, safety, communion, and peace.
The practice looks like 5-7 people sitting in a circle for about 50 minutes. In an individual circle (aka birthday circle) we bring our attention to one person (the circlee) for the full time. We ask the person questions about their experience of the moment, another person in the group, a life situation they have, a desire or fear they have, or any number of other things. We also share our feelings in response to both questions and answers from the circlee or any other participant. We try to favor things present in this moment over stories or things not here in the room. There are many other tools in circling that help us know each other and experience connection, but we’ll start with these.
Genuine Curiosity and Sharing Impact
We have some guidelines for the questions. We ask that participants ask questions they are genuinely curious about. We are not asking questions to try and guide the circlee to some solution or answer. We are not asking questions out of a sadistic intent. We are asking questions from a place of genuine curiosity and care with the goal of knowing and appreciating the circlee’s experience.
We also have guidelines for sharing impact (feelings in response to questions and answers). We try to remove causal relationships and own our experience. We say things like “when you said that, I felt sad” or “I feel sad hearing that” instead of “you made me sad” or “what you said made me sad”. We can share impact any time something is said. We get to discern when we want to share impact, or when we want to let the emotion go unsaid and bring our awareness back to the circlee or whoever is speaking.
Sharing impact helps bring our attention to what is present in the room. A felt emotion is something someone is experiencing in the moment and sharing it reveals something to everyone in the circle about the speaker’s experience in the moment. We want to prioritize attention on things present in the moment because they are real. They are real in the sense that they are perceivable now, where as stories – like a breakup with a loved one, for instance – aren’t something we can perceive. We can perceive the pain or feeling of loss. The thought that “we broke up”, however, is just a thought. The spiritual truth behind this insight is taught by many spiritual teachers and I do not want to defend it or elaborate here.
When we look at what’s real and happening now, we get to know ourselves, the present moment, each other, and the real relationships between us. Relationships are the way in which we are connected. Since these things are real and present there’s an opportunity for us to feel more connected with each other, have more insight into how we relate and have more insight into our self.
There are two points I really want to add to this. One is the inner compass and trail we follow while in this practice. The other is the vulnerability that often results and how that creates the connection and safety mentioned in the first paragraph.
Inner Compass and Vulnerability
The inner compass and trail is one of increased awareness of our body sensations, our emotions, other’s gestures, other’s expressions, and other’s intonations (among other things). The awareness of our body sensations and emotions come first. There is a deep wisdom in these two as they are intimately connected not only to our self, but to others! Through words, movement, gestures, facial expressions, eye contact, and intonation (as well as touch, but touch isn’t usually part of circling) we actually communicate vast information that has a chain of biochemical and emotional impact on each other. This awareness is very much like a meditation. We observe, objectively, without attachment.
What we notice – our sensations or emotions – may or may not be shared. We can make the choice to share whatever we’re noticing and are encouraged to be vulnerable in what we reveal. The vulnerability here has a very intimate relation to a feeling of connectedness and truth. Something feels vulnerable because there is some truth in it as well as some fear. The fear probably means we’ve rarely shared it (perhaps because we were hurt when sharing it previously). If we’ve rarely shared it then it is likely an area where we have not been truly seen. To reveal is to be seen and to be seen with appreciation is to feel connected. As the witnesses in this experience we strive to bring appreciation. Appreciation is a key ingredient to feeling connected. Without it, the person who revealed would likely feel embarrased or ashamed and revert back to hiding part of theirself.
A side note on appreciation. We are not appreciating what the person revealed. We are appreciating that they _did_ reveal, and we are appreciating _what_ their experience is around what they revealed. If we do not feel appreciation, then there are steps we can take to find appreciation – I hope to cover those in another article. Developing the skill to appreciation goes a long way towards daily compassion and connection with people and is a core skill developed in circling.
There is a cycle of vulnerably revealing and being appreciated for our experience that can take us deeper in connection… deeper in being seen. I have not yet been to a depth that could not go deeper and I know this cycle can take us very deep. The power in circling lies in this result of being deeply seen by others… and also deeply seeing ourselves.
Most of the circling we do has a facilitator. The facilitator’s role is to keep the circle “on track”. Facilitator’s are trained in everything mentioned above and in having a keen awareness of everyone in the circle. They remind us to share impact, remind us to ask questions from curiosity, steer us away from advice giving or fixing, model vulnerability and sharing of impact, and they make explicit requests to pause, hold a thought, or change directions. All of this is in the spirit of finding the overlap between vulnerability, appreciation, and safety and keeping the circle feeling alive and relevant. The facilitator’s role extends beyond this limited explanation and is a practice in itself to master.
A circle can end leaving us feeling any number of things and we don’t have to all feel the same thing. The most common result is feeling connected, appreciation, safety, communion, and peace. It does happen sometimes that we feel angry, hurt, sad, disconnected. The practice includes accepting what is and welcoming what is. When sadness, disconnection, or hurt are present we try to welcome it. I want to go back to the first part of this paragraph… circling most often leaves us feeling connected. This can be deeply nourishing.
The other benefit of circling is we sometimes get our own world better. It’s hard to see how we’re showing up in relation to others and how others are experiencing us when this is always part of our experience. We are always present everywhere we go, so how do we know how our presence is affecting things when we have no way of knowing what things are like without our presence?? Other’s sharing impact in the moment in response to us is one key ingredient to understanding how we impact others. Another key ingredient is when other’s reflect to us what they see or how they experience us. Whether or not their reflection is true isn’t so important. We disgard and let go of things that don’t land as true. When a reflection does land as true… it can be profound in that we may never have seen it so clearly… or at all.
Through asking questions from genuine curiosity, sharing impact, following our inner compass, and being vulnerable, circling offers us a chance to feel deep connection, safety, peace, insights, and transformation. I have thoroughly enjoyed and benefited from years of this practice and hope you will too!