By Brooking Gatewood, Art of Circling student
People actually pay good money to sit around in circles and listen to someone else talk about themselves. It’s got training programs behind it, institutes, practice groups, devotees. It changes and enriches lives, this ‘circling’.
So what is it?
Most simply, it’s practicing being curious about other people’s worlds.
More esoterically, it’s about relating with ultimate reality as it shows up relationally between your arising experience and the surprise unfolding of experience arising in another.
Here’s how it works as a basic practice, from a lay perspective:
- Someone who feels like getting attention volunteers to be circled.
- Everyone else in the group (usually 3-8 or so people) then offers loving, curious attention to that person, while at least (and sometimes only) one person – the circler – engages the ‘circlee’ in conversation to explore what it’s like to be them.
- Anyone who speaks is practicing following their curiosity about this person, and paying attention to their own direct experience in the now. No fixing or assessing – just exploring what it’s like inside of one person’s reality.
- The group that constitutes “the circle” keeps this whole thing up for 30-60 minutes.
- That’s it. Find a new person to be circled and be circler, and repeat.
And eventually you notice that when you truly pay attention to and get curious about other people’s worlds, you get to experience yourself being surprised and touching The Mystery through this unfolding that you formerly conceptualized as a person. As circling co-founder Guy Sengstock says “If I’m really relating to you, you’ll always outlive my concept of you. And as long as I’m a human being, I’ll have a concept of you for you to outlive.”
In circling, people become objects for your attention and your love and your wonder. And they share their stories and you notice how their reality impact yours, and suddenly you are connected through paying attention to this impact. And the boundaries between you get a little triply. Me/you gives way to the wavy world of we.
But I’m not an expert. For that – take Guy Sengstock’s word via his the Circling Institute explanation, or if you really want to geek out, watch Decker Cunov and Michael Porcelli of the Integral Center talk through it together in this 20 minute podcast. These guys have all been honing this circling art for at least a decade. They have a thing or two to say about it.
Ok. So what’s the value?
At a minimum, it’s meditation with something more engaging to focus on than the breath or a candle. Someone gets attention for 30-60 minutes, everyone else practices holding attention for that long, and that’s almost always a good thing.
And like meditation, it can be awkward, boring, irritating, distraction-filled, sweet, peaceful, addictive. On occasion it gives you hits of that mysterious spiritual juju that keeps the growth junkies coming back for more.
Sometimes I find it totally annoying and heady. I’d rather go for a run or dance than sit still for hours listening to people talk about themselves while others share esoteric observations about sensation in their body they felt while that person shared. “Hearing that, I feel flush in my face.” Great. Sometimes there can be a sense of the contrived or process-heavy that you might as well brace yourself for now. Those who are really into it practice certain ways of talking and asking questions, and when we practice things, it can feel, well, like practice.
But sometimes, all this pointing back to what’s happening in the mundaneness of the here and now suddenly opens the portal of, well, the here and now, and it’s fucking magical. Circling, I’ve noticed, helps me feel connected to Love with a capital L. Someone’s sharing and I’m getting curious and suddenly something opens and I find myself swimming in the ocean of all that’s good and true in the world — especially with regard to this tender thing called being human — just from giving someone else’s reality my full attention.
Sometimes form itself seems to dissolve as you keep staring at this person who keeps talking and sharing about themselves while you keep noticing sensations as you as you knew yourself dissolve and this luminous unspeakable _______ starts unfolding through what was formerly them and you and the group and the space between, and everyone starts asking if anyone spiked the tea.
Trippy highs aside, one of the things that circling has helped me personally come to realize in a very first-hand way is that there is something kind of magical about people being truly themselves. And when we give each other the space and attention to let that ‘ourself-ness’ unfold, it’s absolutely magnificent. Every time. And the more I sit in love with other people being themselves, the more I can’t help but wonder if it’s okay for me to just be me too. I can’t say I’m always there yet. But it does have me sit with that question. And maybe that’s a reason to keep coming back for more.
So do you really need to pay for training in how to have a conversation?
Ultimately, no. Anyone could do this practice with anyone anytime. Just be present with each other, learn how to not label each other, and share your moment by moment experience being with someone rather than your assessments about them. Let them surprise you, get curious, let them unfold as something that you can’t put in a box. This is, ultimately, priceless stuff. And for the good of all mankind, I suggest all friends learn how to do this for each other.
And, unfortunately, learning how to speak from the present and stop presuming about each other is actually something that does take a fair amount of practice and coaching for many of us. Circling is a great way to practice these skills, and to experience deeper levels of connection and intimacy than you may have ever felt, to take this home to the relationships you already have and value, and to build new community with others who enjoy this shit.
The low barrier to entry way to check it out is through circling practice groups — For $20/night, try circling trainings or Thursday Nights with Guy (Berkeley) or Monday Lunch-time at the Integral Center (Boulder). If you like it, and want to do the deep dive intensives — whose main added benefits seem to be higher highs, deeper practice, and intimacy with those you practice with — it’s your dollar to spend.
And meanwhile, and for free, you might try the basics in your daily life: get curious, give people the gift of your attention, let them outlive your conceptions, and see what happens now.