What is Circling?

This entry is part 1 of 3 in the series Circling

I was first introduced to circling at the Monastic Academy in 2015, shortly after Peter Xūramitra Park joined the residential program. Circling is an interpersonal activity about connecting to others and their experience. Circling is sometimes described as a kind of interpersonal meditation, where the focus space is relationships and social interactions, rather than something like body sensations.

Thanks to Mitra’s dedication and commitment, circling has become one of the most central and beloved practices in our community. We do circling practices weekly, and hold several “circling retreats” each year – intensive practice periods combining circling and authentic relating with the structure of our meditation retreats.

Circling has been a very beneficial practice for our community. It has helped us to grow closer, to be better able to understand and care for each other. Our highs are higher, but so are our lows. All communities experience conflicts and struggles, but because of the skills we’ve built through circling, I have more confidence that we will move through the struggle in a healthy and productive way.

Circling has also had numerous benefits for me personally. It has helped me to better understand others’ experience, as well as my own. It’s helped me to communicate better with just about everyone: strangers, colleagues, partners, friends and family. This has helped me to be a better friend and leader.

I’ve also found circling to be a helpful complement to my meditation practice. I find that it helps me to be present and focused in the company of others – something that is sometimes hard to do. On top of that, I find that when I circle before meditation, it’s easier to concentrate and enter deep states.

I’ve also just had a lot of fun with circling! When I circle, I feel connected to and curious about others – both of which tend to make me happy.

Circling is sometimes criticized for being awkward, fake or artificial, or triggering. In all honesty, it can be those things. But it has been a tremendously beneficial practice for our community and for me personally.

In this series, I’ll explain what circling is and dive into some deeper topics about circling.

What kinds of circles are there?

Although “circling” is one term, there are in fact many different styles of circling. This is similar to meditation practice, where one term is used to refer to many different traditions, teachings, and techniques.

There are different styles of Circling. At the Monastic Academy, we have been most directly influenced by the style of circling taught by Circling Europe. Circling Europe emphasizes Five Principles of Circling:

  1. Commitment to Connection: committing to be present with and speak to what is arising in connection
  2. Own Your Experience: stating what is inarguable (“I feel angry”) rather than what is arguable (“You’re a jerk”); taking responsibility for our experience and how we are participating in relationship.
  3. Staying With The Level of Sensation: feeling body sensations while we stay in connection with others, noticing how they change as we are in relationship
  4. Trusting Experience: trusting what is arising in your experience, even if it is unexpected or seems irrational; believing that this is the experience we are supposed to be having.
  5. Being With The Other In Their World: having a compassionate, curious attitude towards others; noticing and dropping assumptions, while trying to attune to what it’s like to be someone else.

Even within a specific style or flavor of circling, there are several different kinds or forms of circling. Here are some of the forms we practice most frequently at the Monastic Academy:

  • Dyads: pairs of people circling each other, usually with structured prompts
  • Birthday Circles: a circle that focuses on one person and what it’s like to be in relationship with that person
  • Organic Circles: a circle with a number of people and one or more designated facilitators providing structure
  • Surrendered Leadership: a circle without a designated leader; instead each participant is empowered to show up as a leader. This type of circling typically varies quite a bit in the form it takes.

When we introduce people to circling at the Monastic Academy, we typically like to use a progression from dyads to Surrendered Leadership, following the order above. These forms build on each other, and have increasing levels of challenge and complexity.

We start with dyads because they are a relatively simple and comfortable form of circling. The dyads begin with simply being present with a partner, and then we introduce new tools or “moves”:

  • Feeling: feeling your body
  • Noticing: observing and naming something objective about your experience or the other, like “I’m warm” or “I noticed you smiled just now”
  • Imagining: guessing about the other’s world (“I imagine you feel happy right now”)
  • Asking: asking a question about the other’s experience (“Why did you look away just then?”)
  • Requesting: making a request for something you want (“Could you come sit next to me?”)

We begin with just being present with our partner. Then we allow partners to exchange noticings; then imaginations, and perhaps adding questions or requests. Layering in these tools one at a time allows each member of a dyad to gain comfort with the basic fundamentals of circling. These tools can also be used in more complex forms of circling, like birthday circles or organic circles, as they feel relevant and useful.

If you’re interested in trying circling yourself, find a friend that’s willing and interested, and practice a dyad together. Begin with being present with yourself and the other, and gradually introduce the tools above, from noticings to imaginations and questions or requests. Having practiced circling in a simple dyad, you can find a few more friends, and try a birthday circle or an organic circle.

Circling is a wonderful practice that can shift the depth and connection you feel in relationship with others, whether they are close friends and partners, or total strangers.

Further Resources:

If you enjoyed this post, consider making a donation to Dharma Gates, a non-profit dedicated to creating pathways into deep meditation training for young adults.

Subscribe to my newsletter, my YouTube channel, or follow me on Twitter to get updates on my new blog posts and current projects.

Series NavigationBuddhist Circling >>