I’ve seen people I love and respect “gracefully bow-out,” when they didn’t like something in a Circle, Circling group, or community. Don’t they know that I crave their critique as much as I crave their praise!? Don’t they know how much the group longs for their feedback? Don’t they know how necessary their dissent is for our ‘we’ to know itself and consciously course correct?! Don’t they see that we’re here for them too?
Probably not, so I’ll do my best to lay it out in the writing that follows. This is not a critique, it is a call for a more conscious world.
This is your community… not that it is exclusively yours, or that you are exclusive to it; but anything you want to see, or are frustrated by, you can bring to it, as a whole-part of it. Have you forgotten that you are never isolated in isolation?
(A whole-part, also known as a "holon," is whole that is a part of a larger whole, like this “word” is a whole that is part of the larger whole that is this sentence that is a part of a larger whole that is this article… and so on).
The way I see us is a dynamic, self-organizing system that we are all already and always impacting.
What this means is that our not-speaking is a speech and our non-actions are actions that contribute to how we self-organize as a community in every moment. (This doesn’t mean you should always speak or act, simply an invitation to greater awareness—this article is my listening-expression* as my part of our larger self-organizing system).
When I say "self-organizing" I'm describing the spontaneous order that arises out of individuals whose relatively independent actions and beliefs influence each other to create a meta-level coherence; a resiliency, complexity, and intelligence that is greater than the sum of its parts (which also include cultural and systemic pressures). Like ants in an ant-den, the sum is much more complex and elegant than the sum of the parts.
Each of our impacts is of a different scope.
Some impacts are larger than others—which is always changing and evolving based on a variety of factors (including how often we show up, how we speak out, the kind of respect we have, the formal power, cultural conditioning, the feedback mechanism of the self-organizing itself, etc.). This is an integral perspective, rather than an egalitarian one, which seems MORE honest, honoring and inclusive of differences.
A concrete example of this is a football/soccer team, where one player more often scores the goals, but not always, and certainly can’t do it without all of the other players on the field (think how big the advantage is when one team has an extra player!)
In Circling, the official leader of a session has more leverage for change, more often in the group. This honors the experientially obvious truth of power hierarchy. Yet in any given moment someone else might be more influential, accurate, or necessary for what wants to happen next—this is what makes the hierarchy inclusive (a holarchy), honors the truths of humility, and allows the group to course correct with much more agility than in a dominator hierarchy.
Do you feel like its pointless to try to change a system you're not a large part of? The problem with this kind of thinking is that it is self-fulfilling. And a counterpoint is that the act of trying to change the system actually makes you a larger part of it, giving you more impact even if you fail.
In Circling think of when someone (let’s call them Sally) shares “I’m bored and I want to move to pair exercises,” but at first no one responds. This drives Sally into a quiet, withdrawn loneliness which her friend Anne notices. Anne begins Circling Sally’s loneliness and discovers a profound feeling of inadequacy in both of them. The whole group sees how this inadequacy shines new light on the previous moment that bored Sally, bringing a much deeper level of awareness to what had been happening. Although Sally “failed” to lead the group to pair exercises, her input instead leads the group to a much deeper self- and collective awareness and insight (and Sally is no longer bored).
The more we are all willing to risk the vulnerability of “failing” as we attempt to create the community we desire, the more we all grow—either the community gets useful feedback, or you find out where you were projecting a load of guff onto everyone else. Then you get to liberate yourself, take the power back that you'd given to something outside of you.
This is also why we need your 'unimportant' feedback even when we later find out it actually is unimportant! Because we cannot know how important it is until it interacts with the larger system. And we can trust the system to sort it all out, if we let it. By trusting people to take responsibility for what is theirs, and not take responsibility for what is not theirs.
This includes learning from the people who only show up to one or two events, and listening to our friends and family who don’t care about Circling but whose input is crucial to our permeability and ability to integrate what we learn during practice to all aspects of our lives.
Think of Gollum in The Lord of the Rings. Despite his small part in the larger system of events, and his own goal of having his precious to himself failing, his impact on the whole is massive. He’s fundamental to them finding Mt. Doom, and his attempt to snatch the ring from Frodo at the end is actually what destroys it. It took a huge amount of acceptance and Frodo’s willingness to embrace the unlikely aid, and even then the biggest impact was something Frodo never could have anticipated.
I believe we can see our individual being and our world at large through the lens of self-organizing collectives—but the organizing is mostly done unconsciously.
Most people follow the implicit rules and norms of the group for the amount of time they’re in it, thereby unconsciously self-organizing to reinforce these implicit norms.
Are there any norms you're unconsciously reinforcing in your circles (literally and metaphorically), that you'd rather not? Are you accidentally reinforcing a broken system?
I think this unconscious reinforcement is mostly because of ignorance, but we can also see the vulnerability of the alternative: consciously engaging the process. This means either consciously knowing we’re following the implicit rules (which means surrendering to them, no small feat for our ego and drive for autonomy), or consciously challenging them.
Challenging them means facing possible rejection, ostracism, humiliation, and powerlessness to effect the changes we want to see. Avoidance of feeling these is a strong motivator for simply supporting what we perceive to be an existing culture’s expectations (and forgetting that we’re doing that). Are there norms you want to challenge, but you don't want to face the discomfort of doing so?
The irony is that we’ll have to feel these feelings anyway—often in the form of complaints. (‘They’ can’t see me, my pain is too big for the space, people are too judgmental, etc.).
Alternatively, we might try to gain more and more power in a community to formally force others into our norms. But since the collective is always self-organizing anyway, these attempts to codify new norms usually create exactly the same responses we were trying to avoid.
Think of a self-help teacher who wants everyone to “own their experience.” This teacher thinks of their ‘students’ as uneducated, less developed people who need to be challenged to learn the proper norms from their teaching. In doing so this teacher created a separation between “I” and “them,” which feels like a self-ostracism. And in focusing all of his/her attention on getting others to change, his/her power is projected out where s/he doesn’t actually have control (since each human is self-evidently autonomous), creating an underbelly of powerlessness.
What I believe is possible is for us to consciously engage and therefore be self-aware of our “we”. This is rare and exciting.
This conscious engagement which is aware of our we-self could still look like silence, or reinforcing certain norms (like a norm of staying with the level of sensation, for example).
But in being conscious, the experience of either following the norms or challenging them will be drastically more alive, inclusive, and free.
Think of going into a church and consciously choosing to follow the norm of being quiet. The silence then becomes alive and dynamic instead of oppressive.
In being conscious of your impact on the whole, the whole will be more agile and capable of responding to shifting environments and changes.
Our collective self-awareness (like any awareness) will make us more capable of incorporating new people and including different ways of being and expressing...
more gracefully evolving and updating...
more elegantly seeing and meeting the new challenges of being a human in the 21st century...
facing complexities and scales of problems unlike anything we’ve faced before.
This is the vision I have for our global Circling community, starting with the sub-communities I have the most direct capacity to shift the awareness of (CircleAnywhere, Circling in Austin, and Circling Europe as a whole global ecosystem).
I see us as pioneering experimenters in this collective self-awareness, figuring out what works best and what doesn’t to live lives of wholeness and integrity.
We are bushwhacking a trail toward powerfully-loving and naturally-transformative communities that we can pass on to others—actively and through cutting cosmic grooves—until it is the new norm of society.
Then other pioneers (or perhaps still us!) will show us new ways to ever greater levels of loving wholeness and authenticity, communion and autonomy, being and becoming.
So please, whenever you notice something you don't like, especially in Circling, and you notice yourself wanting to turn away and disengage, take a moment to see —have you spoken the truthiest truth? Can you rest knowing you’ve lived your fullest integrity, or are you running from pain instead of engaging (or some third option)?
Are you truly called to silence, or will you go to sleep still blaming something outside of you for your experience? Are you ready to face the vulnerability of leading instead? Even if it's in a very small way?
I was recently inspired to put together a free course in community building - a set of fifteen videos inviting an inquiry into your 'how,' 'what,' and 'why' for gathering people together to Circle on a regular basis. They feel like a natural emergence from the 5 principles, covering some of the following topics:
There are a lot of examples from our experience on the ground, around the globe, plus a segment with Sean talking about how he and John started Circling Europe.
Although we speak specifically of Circling communities (because it is where we have the most experience), we hope this can serve as a good way to inquire deeply into what motivates you and what you are being called to bring forth in all of the varieties communities in which you participate and belong.
Access the course here and feel free to share it with anyone who might enjoy it as well.
* I made up this term "listening-expression" because it seems meaningful to show how the two coexist. Each part's expression will always be also a listening, so knowing we're listening (rather than thinking our expression is ever outside of relationship to other parts, and the whole we’re a part of) makes the expression more resonant/powerful/meaningful to the whole. In this case, me writing this isn’t just me speaking “what’s true for me,” in isolation; it’s me sensing in to the whole community, imagining you the reader, what’s been said before and what’s not been said, and then listening to what wants to be expressed from this relationship (it’s easy to leave others out), which of course includes what I want and my unique voice (it’s easy to leave oneself out), and of course is a partial listening (since I only have my subjective view). By attempting to take into account the whole system I believe our expressions end up being more truthful—to ourselves as well.
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