What happens at a nuts and bolts level in a Circle?
Imagine you’ve decided to show up for a “Circling Night” in Anytown, Earth. Walking in to a large room in an upscale house you notice two comfy looking couches and a couple colorful rugs; the tables are dotted with succulents and flowers. The space has a casual vibe, somewhat like a cross between a yoga studio and a living room; well-cared for and well-used.
A gentleman in his late forties with curly salt-n-pepper hair greets you with a smile and asks if you’ve signed in. Behind him about a dozen other people are milling about, engaged in what appears to range from casual to meaningful conversation. One hippie-looking couple are staring into each other’s eyes without saying a word (awkward, you think to yourself), but most everyone else seems pretty normal.
After reviewing a document on participant responsibility, expectations of leadership, and a little clarification on what Circling is and isn’t, you walk over to a group of four people and ask what they do for a living. You internally cringe, wishing you’d asked a more interested question, but these people don’t seem to mind. The thirty-something woman does marketing, the forty-something dude is a software engineer at a local startup, the scrawny kid you would have guessed is an undergrad is actually a massage therapist, and the pretty woman in her early sixties does HR for the University.
Somehow this small group seem to be speaking normally… and yet they occasionally ask questions that take the conversation in a direction you wouldn’t have predicted. Instead of asking you more about where you’re from, they ask you what it’s like to be here. Occasionally they share what they’re feeling, the software engineer even referencing a feeling of relaxation in his stomach in response to something you say. When you note how this is a little unusual and ask about it, the HR woman tells you, “That’s good Circling, you’re a natural.” You have no idea what she’s talking about.
Before you have a chance to ask more, a Person-Who-Seems-In-Charge (presumably the evening’s facilitator) quietly says, “If you can hear my voice, please enter your deepest meditation,” with a mischievous grin. The room enters into a pregnant silence with surprising quickness. The facilitator continues, “Start to notice where your attention is already going.” She then begins to discuss two types of practices that will be facilitated at this event…
In an average Circle, 3 – 10 people sit in a circle and focus their attention on one person for a set amount of time, typically 20 – 45 minutes.
The Circle begins by selecting the Circlee (the focus of attention), is followed by a brief (less than one minute) guided meditation and then moves to a more open exploratory period of communication and interaction. During this phase anyone in the group can simultaneously:
This activity of (1) Getting a feel for the Circlee’s present moment experience and (2) Speaking one’s in-the-moment experience of being with the Circlee is 95% of activity that occurs during the Birthday Circle.
Near the end, the facilitator brings attention to the fact that the Circle will finish in a few minutes, and looks for a simple way to officially close the practice and acknowledge what has occurred in some way (such as hearing one word each participant that captures a personal experience of the Circle).
Surrendered Leadership Circle sizes have ranged from 3 – 110 people, and generally last from 30 minutes – 5 hours. When space permits, all of the people face each other in a roughly circular shape (or in online video-conferencing software); otherwise there tend to be two or three “rows” like stadium seating.
The Circle typically begins with the facilitator acknowledging in some way that the Circle has started. While this most generally happens in spoken communication—such as “If you haven’t already begun practicing, I invite you to begin now… let’s expand the kind of attention you just brought in the Birthday Circle to the whole group, including yourself”—different facilitators may use their own creative expression to signal the Circle’s opening. This can include a particularly communicative silence. The facilitator will often say a sentence or two that sets the tone for the Circle, and acts as context. This is a personal and creative expression so it looks different almost every time. But it almost always references an in-the-moment experience while inviting participants to:
For example, this author was once chatting about Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles with participants before the event started, so he set the context by saying, “For the next ninety minutes, I invite us to meditate in the style of Ninja Turtles. This means on the one hand we welcome each of our unique contributions for making this Circle our own—like the moodiness of Raphael, the goofiness of Michelangelo, the leaderliness of Leonardo, or the intelligence of Donatello. And we act as a team to make the city a better place—in other words, challenging and supporting each other while being guided toward a good that is beyond our personal gain.” Although first time participants may fail to recognize these clues, they tend to report in retrospect that the opening statements indeed generated a starter seed and guidance for the Circle’s activity.
During the rest of the time, people interact in a variety of ways, including speaking plainly, “Circling,” physically moving (which can involve consensual interactions with other participants, such as a hug), sharing meta-observations, and integrating other forms of meditation and personal practices. The facilitator(s) partake in all the actions listed in the previous paragraph, while taking on an additional role of guiding individual and group interactions to more “presence” and “surrender” while continuing to weave the overarching context. They also draw boundaries around the kinds of participation that move away from these, such as attempting to force everyone in the Circle into one particular healing-oriented activity.
Participants often notice Circles revolving around a universal theme that is shared by members of the group while experienced in very unique ways by each individual. For example, consider a Circle where a man is experiencing the grief of losing a loved one. Meanwhile another man expresses anger for the first time, a woman experiences blankness, and another woman notices she feels disgusted. At first, these all seem unrelated, but upon reflection the individuals realize they’re revealing their responses to death and grief—anger at being powerless, blankness to the depth of grief, and disgust in avoidance of facing the pain of loss. These kinds of shared-but-unique themes are so common that many practitioners believe this is a feature of all Surrendered Leadership Circles, whether or not the themes are noticed or spoken. Common perspectives for understanding this phenomenon include Family Constellations, Gestalt, Psychodrama, and Internal Family Systems (especially when applied to each member of the Circle at once). These are all welcome perspectives, but Surrendered Leadership as a practice does not affiliate with anyone of them. Any given Circle may revolve around one theme, explore sub-themes, move through a few in a kind of sequence, or evolve in thematic complexity as the Circle progresses. Finding a theme to explore is not necessary, and groups generally reject any individual attempting to assert a particular theme or model’s validity or universality unless they acknowledge the unique interpretations of the individuals.
Occasionally certain kinds of “rituals” will naturally emerge as a product of the individuals all opting in to a particular process, knowing they can question it or step out of it at any time. These are usually highly idiosyncratic, such as one group member pulling an imaginary light-switch to signal a group action. While rituals from other practices may be the initial spark of an idea, the results are creative to the point of unpredictability.
Participants commonly report perceptual shifts similar to mystical and druglike experiences, such as seeing facial distortions that look like other people, the room brightening in whitish-yellow light, increases in the vibrancy of sensory detail (especially visual, auditory, and somatic), a feeling of being in touch with a particular archetype such as “the jester,” “the cat,” or “the mother,” entering “timeless” and “boundless” experiences of empty presence, expanded or liberated senses of self-identity, unitive experiences with other participants, the group, and/or all of life. It’s also fairly common to see people shaking—anything from a quick little shiver up the spine to a kind of consistent shaking of the arm or leg for up to thirty seconds. Whether one considers these neurogenic tremors, energy release, or something more esoteric like Kundalini or ecstatic movement a la Shakers, the experience is consistently reported to be neutral or pleasant. These phenomena can coexist to a surprising degree with more familiar experiences.
Surrendered Leadership Circles end in a variety of meaningfully different ways. Nevertheless we can observe some patterns: Although anyone in the Circle can “call the end,” if they do so without attunement to the current state of the group, the group fails to follow their direction and continues to Circle. As a result the facilitator often looks for a shift in the energy to signal a change in context. If there is a strong time-limit, such as a Circling night, coaching session, or online session, the facilitator will typically look for ways to speak this reality to the group a few minutes before the end. Making the pending end-of-time common knowledge in the group usually helps bring about a sense of closing, while acknowledging that people will continue to be impacted by the Circle’s events even after the official end. Occasionally the facilitator will lead a more directed closing ritual, such as breaking people into pairs to go back and forth finishing the stem of a sentence that can help generate insight and meaning from the Circle, or asking a few individuals to share something they’ve learned.
Surrendered Leadership Circles that are larger than 35 people or longer than two hours have a unique flavor. For one thing the whole group’s attention doesn’t stay together as much—you might spontaneously end up with two or more conversations happening in parallel, or even see the group reorganize into smaller groups as people change seats according to their intuitions about where to be. These smaller ‘breakout groups’ will change size, shape, and position throughout the allotted time as individual members move fluidly between groups at any given moment, choosing on their own discretion. These breakouts often reform into the larger Whole Group Circle at the end of the time.
There’s a phenomenon where people will sometimes complain that a circle feels ‘too big’. One interesting thing about this is that this reaction comes up when almost all the attendees of a given event are in one circle together, whether or not that’s actually an absolutely big number. For example, if the event has 10 participants, one of these 10 will often report “feeling like” the Whole Group Circle is “too big” compared to smaller breakout Circles. Yet put roughly the same group of people in a breakout Circle of 13 people at an event with 34 total participants, and the same person will report “feeling like” this is a workable size.
Imagine that you’ve never watched a movie before. No matter how well it is described, you will likely have a difficult time understanding what a movie actually is without experiencing it first hand. Circling is very similar.
Now imagine that you have watched a movie for the first time. You will have a pretty solid idea of what a movie is—almost all movies have moving images, music, dialogue, plots, and so forth. Almost all Circles have such similarities.
At the same time, you’d be hard pressed to truly understand a horror movie or a documentary if you saw just one animated Disney movie. You would like find your predictions about the larger category of movies even less accurate.
Circling and Surrendered Leadership are analogous in this regard, in that each experience is very unique. Even Circles with the same people vary widely from session to session, in genre, pacing, themes and more. And just like movies have changed dramatically since their inception, Circling continues to evolve.
As a result, we encourage you to try a couple of sessions to get a real sense of what’s going on, even at a nuts and bolts level. You can find an upcoming event near you, or join us at one of daily online sessions.