Circling and Surrendered Leadership
“…Do not withhold the kindness that is longing to flow through you.
Give it away. Now.
Be courageous enough to topple your facades,
repurpose them as bridges,
span the divisions…”
I tried circling for the first time in May 2015. I was encouraged to try it by my partner Ronja, who had been to an event in Oslo the month before. I remember my first circling experience as quite confusing and frustrating, but something was also awakened in me that I wanted to explore further. I soon after signed up for the 6 month SAS training with Circling Europe and certified as a circling leader in February 2016.
Since then circling has been one of the core practices in my life. I have been running regular events in Copenhagen since 2015. In 2019 I have been part of hosting 13 weekend immersions in Copenhagen, Talinn and Trondheim and have been part of the leadership team on the London SAS training with Circling Europe.
In this article I try to give a personal account of what the practice means for me, what circling leadership implies for me and why I am passionate about building a stronger circling community in Scandinavia and bringing circling into the mainstream.
What is circling?
Circling is about bringing our presence, aliveness and vulnerability into connection with another person or a group. It is a form of relational meditation where we practice deep awareness of our own experience, but expand into relational space by bringing that experience into connection with a person or a group, allowing them to share how they are impacted. For me this simple manoeuvre is one of the elements that makes circling impactful, as you get immediate feedback on your experience by being in connection with other people and this has an amazing transformative potential.
With circling we bring a meditative acceptance and awareness to what’s happening in the moment. When we slow down, focus and reveal what is happening between us here and now, we create space for deeper meetings with the people around us, and deeper intimacy with ourselves.
Because circling has the focus of meeting each other where we are right now – in our greatest challenges and greatest capacities, it is a great practice for inducing flow experiences of being in a timeless space while fully present.
Circling is about attuning to what is happening in the now, seeing more of the complexity that is always present in the relational field – at all levels of being. It is about practicing not-knowing by not being overly invested in already known patterns of identity such as: I am the kind of person that…I don’t like…I cant…People are…People think I am…
Circling is fascinatingly paradoxical in many ways. It is not a form of therapy, but the effects can be very therapeutic. The strong focus on being with people as they are right now, without trying to change them, seems to lead to very transformative experiences. Similarly circling is not about inducing catharsis, but often cathartic moments occur for participants.
If you want a more authoritative introduction Jordan Myska Allen of Circling Europe wrote this introduction to Circling for the European Integral Conference 2020, that I quite like.
How do you navigate in a circling space?
Circling Europe bases the circling practice on five principles that I find quite useful for navigating the circling space. For me can be summed up like this:
– Commitment to connection. A dedication to stay in connection with what arises in the circle, also when it is uncomfortable.
– Trust experience. Allowing myself to really be immersed in the experience of the emergent moment. Trusting the not-knowing of the moment rather than trying to “get it right” or “figure it out”.
– Staying at the level of sensation. Trusting what is happening in my body-being and sharing from these subtle sensations and feelings.
– Owning experience. Taking responsibility for what is happening in me during a circle.
– Being with the other in their world. A sense of radical and open curiosity in another person.
While these principles are useful, circling is for me a non-dogmatic and pragmatic practice. It is an exploration of unknown (or partially known) relational landscapes through immersion in the present moment. The practice entails traversing these (co-created) landscapes together, based on maps (mental or embodied concepts, understandings, practices and habits) that have either been handed down to us or ones we have made ourselves.
Circling implies trusting the maps I have, while also knowing that the maps are not the territory. We are traveling the great unknown and any map will always be a reduction of the complexity we share – it is only the best available map at the moment. So while I find that there are ways to navigate circling more skillfully, I try to be careful not to get stuck in the belief that I have found the correct way of doing it.
“Be the salt“
Circling implies a connection and attunement to that which wants to emerge in the moment. There is no correct way that can be applied in all situations. For this I like to use an analogy made by the great martial artist and Zen teacher Peter Ralston.
”If you were one ingredient in the making of a dish, say the salt in a soup, then you must apply yourself to the soup (the condition arising) wholly and in the right proportion. To not apply yourself would be to not surrender to the making of the dish. To over-apply yourself would be to destroy the dish to further the exclusive demands of the self…Whether you are demanded of more or less is not seen as a rating of your value. As salt, your value lies in the whole condition arising, the soup.”
For me, there is a great importance in emphasizing that there is nothing wrong with speaking/doing a lot or doing very little in a circle – it all depends on “the soup”, what is present in the moment. Sometimes you are needed to open or expand the moment, sometimes you are needed to hold it without action. Figuring out if you should apply yourself can only be done by being aware of what is true in the situation. And you are the only one who can do that for yourself.
Everything can be shared
When I give feedback to participants at my circling events I find that I often say “that can also be shared”. As in, people will often come to me and say something like “I found what X said was really provocative, but I didn’t want to take up space, because Y seemed to be in the middle of something important”.
My response is something like: Maybe you could share all of that experience – “I am feeling provoked by what you are saying AND I am afraid of taking up space, because I can see that Y is in the middle of something important AND it feels important for me to bring all of this now AND saying this I both feel empowered and a bit shy.”
There is often great potential in sharing both the immediate reaction “I feel angry” and the fear or sense of holding back that is present in the situation “I feel angry AND I am afraid of bringing it, because it feels like someone is going to attack me now”.
The same goes for the situations many find themselves in where they don’t want to speak their experience because they are looking for the right thing to say. In those cases an expression could be “I am looking for the right thing to say.”
Circling thus revolves around noticing what is going on in the present moment and sharing (WHAT I am experiencing and HOW I experience it ) or moving from there. The focus is on what is present right now, in us and between us. Even if we circle on a specific theme (i.e. “our business plan for 2020”) we would focus on how we relate to it in this very moment and what it does to how we relate.
It is also about focusing on my body-being to see if there is anything that wants to be seen or heard rather than explaining why a discomfort or resistance is there (”maybe this resistance can teach me something that I haven’t realized yet”) and moving from vagueness to clear transmissions of that which deeply matters, although this often feels uncomfortable. Revealing ambivalence can be part of this (”I am feeling fear, but I also seem to like what you are saying”).
What have you learned through circling?
Circling for me is a continuous practice of discovering new and deeper layers of myself. At the end of my SAS training in 2016 the question “am I really allowed to live like this?/am I really allowed to love like this?” came to me and has been very significant for me ever since. I keep finding new places in my life where I am limiting myself out of fear or shame. Some of the places where I feel that circling has helped me grow out of old patterns are:
– Staying with frustration and anger has led me to find a playful, primal side of myself (it seems to be a wolf) that I had been keeping down. While I still find it difficult to fully allow and own my anger, it has also helped me to set more clear boundaries.
– Daring to express attraction has led me to be more fully in my sexuality and my appreciation and adoration of other people. And to see how much life I have been (and still am) shutting down because I judge my sexual energy.
– Exploring my resentment towards authority has led me to see how vulnerable it is for me to want recognition, but that I really long for people to see my capacities. I am still on the track of really stepping in to my power and allow myself to be seen fully – as the powerful place in me also seems to be the most vulnerable one.
– Going deeply into my stuckness and resistance of revealing myself has led to a discovery of how hard I find it to trust others. And how lonely it makes me feel. Exploring this further (particularly why I find it so hard to cry) has led to finding a deep longing for people to just be with me rather than wanting me to be someone or change me.
– Exploring my shyness has brought me in touch with a sense of deep longing and a very silent place in me (that feels like a dark forest lake). When I am in touch with this place I feel connected to vastness and my full potential.
– Being with others in their struggles has connected me to a deep sense of love for human beings and the strange patterns we have developed to cope with life.
– Staying in connection with people in the circling space has made me realize that “commitment to connection” is really another way of saying “love”. Loving someone is not so much about the present content of the relationship, but rather a commitment to stay with them, regardless of what comes up between us.
Circling allows me to be seen in my vulnerability and I have had many experiences of revealing something that felt frightening (as if nobody would like me after I said the words out loud) and being received only with love and compassion. Similarly I get to learn from seeing others in their struggles and vulnerabilities.
What is Surrendered Leadership?
Surrendered leadership has evolved out of Circling Europe’s continuous dedication to the circling practice. This leadership modality is based on the realization that if the leaders are part of rather than outside of the practice, the field deepens. With this perspective circling leadership is about showing up in my full vulnerability, while holding the context of the circle and guiding others on how to navigate the practice.
My personal perspective on leading circles has changed quite a lot over the last few years, from a position where I refused to accept the idea of being a leader, but rather (over)emphasized the co-created quality of the practice, to now feeling more in touch with what I am bringing as a leader.
Being an instrument in the service of connection
My leadership is based on being present with and trusting my own experience. The key here is not trying to be a good leader by bypassing my authentic experience, but rather returning to the questions “what is it like to be me right now” and “what is my deepest truth right now”. This often means staying with the connection and exploring what the discomfort or anger wants to tell me/us. It seems true to me that my capacity as a leader is limited by myself. If I am not able to be with my anger, it is unlikely that others will feel invited to bring anger into a circle I lead.
This can imply “staying at the level of sensation” by sharing that I feel blank, empty or frozen rather than looking for the way I think I should be feeling. Another layer of this could be to share that I am judging myself for not being more engaged or not being more caring.
Welcoming everything means trusting that everything can be brought while staying “committed to connection. It is holding a transcendent principle of ”we are in this together and we are on the same side” that allows anger, desire, fear, resentment and the full range of other emotions and expressions to be brought into the space. It is not making any expression wrong and trusting that what happens in every moment has value – including frustration, boredom or aggression.
This is also connected to the principle of “being with the other in their world” by bringing my awareness of where the participants are by for example recognizing their child-state (“you seem to be frozen”), inviting their grown-up parts in (“do you want to check if it is true that everyone is judging you right now?”) or inviting their deeper levels (“Is it like…I really want to be with you, but I am scared?”, “I feel deeply seen by you.”).
Welcoming everything does not mean agreeing with everything or that all perspectives are equally true for me. It concerns accepting what is present in the moment and not making it wrong – while also accepting the impact that it has on others, and not making that wrong either. It is about staying with my love for the one who has the attention of the group while also staying with love for everyone else in the group. I have noticed that I can have a slight tendency of forgetting this when I feel that someone is being attacked or seems overwhelmed and that there is a risk of me making the one bringing the ”attack” wrong.
Ken Wilber has a nice saying where he states that “nothing is completely wrong”, there is always a bit of truth in every expression. And I find that an important aspect of circling leadership is to help the group see the beauty and truth that is present in anything shared – seeing the signal in the noise.
Surrendering to the wisdom of the group
I find that to really “be an instrument in the service of connection” I must trust and bring myself fully while also surrendering to what is happening in the whole group and the fact that there is a bigger emergent wisdom present, than what I can bring myself. This implies feeling my own inadequacy as a leader and bringing it into presence.
This perspective implies a deep trust when there is something that I don’t understand in a situation and is pointing to a curiosity of the unknown. Leading from my own truth, attention and aliveness while also being open to being led by the larger wisdom of the moment. There is something to be trusted in every moment and this brings opportunities for me and the circle to ”be solved” or to learn what we need to learn.
Which leadership capacities have come out of circling and surrendered leadership training?
When I had just started circling I was deeply frustrated that I wasn’t able to bring it into my everyday life, to a degree where I almost “broke up” with a friend because I judged him for not wanting to be vulnerable with me. Today I find that I am still practicing bringing myself fully when relating to others, but I don’t have the same sense of wanting others to change. It has dawned on me that I can be committed to connection even if the other is not and that by revealing my inner landscapes I can invite others to open up.
My circling practice feels like a journey into an ever expanding territory of human connection and the practice has changed and deepened for me over the years while also having quite an impact on how i live my life in general. I also feel that I have grown some core leadership capacities through circling and surrendered leadership:
Intimacy with myself
A key element of circling for me is working on intimacy with myself (what is it like to be me right now?) and getting in touch with my body, my emotions and my thought patterns by noticing them as they are happening. This is about connecting to how I really feel and what deeply matters for me in this moment.
In the circling practice this intimacy happens when we slow down and allow for space to really experience what is going on in the moment. And sharing from there as my intimacy deepens. Quite often it requires ”stepping back” and noticing that whatever seems to be a problem right now actually has everything to do with me and nothing to do with the situation as such. For example I can not only reveal that I feel ”annoyed that we are starting late” but also that ”I long to start circling again now, but I don’t trust that I will be able to lead it”.
In my life it shows up as a far better connection to my real time lived experience – both alone and when I am with others. I am simply more conscious of what is going on in me and better able to “stay at the level of sensation”, “trusting experience” and “owning experience” rather than getting trapped in my own mind-games and stories.
This also means an increased awareness of my fears, better seeing where I am not doing what I want out of fear and when and where I am holding back my words or actions.
Trusting experience and aliveness
A central contribution circling has given to my life is the courage to (more often) speak what is present in me in the moment – that is, what I am thinking, feeling or sensing – what is true for me, even though it might be uncomfortable. I have found that this sharing of my inner life can have a profound effect in many relationships, often with a strong feeling of “depth”. The same goes for speaking what I notice outside of myself and trusting that. Surprisingly often I find that people I relate to feel met, when I tell them what I notice about their behavior, their way of speaking or being.
A core thing I have learned from circling is working with my tendency to hold back when I think that what I am feeling or sensing is weird or unwelcome. I have found that when I dare to bring it there is often a relational treasure hidden. The other side of this is that I have started to notice how much pain it causes me when I do not bring myself and hold my life force back.
Another aspect of this is a capacity to see the “negative” reactions (for example anger or lack of understanding) of others as a potential to look for a deeper truth than what I just communicated. Not being immediately met can in this way become a way of going deeper and revealing even more of my world.
Moving with aliveness
For a long time, circling for me was very much about naming what I was discovering about myself. Often revealing my fear of moving, sharing something or getting closer. These days I am working on my courage and moving more with what is alive in me, going through the fear instead of talking about it. It has come out clearly as “I want to be like a cat”, moving where I want to and setting boundaries when I don’t want something.
In the circling space this means allowing my attention to move around in the group, following my curiosity and letting what feels alive guide me in the unknown.
For me this is very much about ”moving with uncertainty”. Allowing myself to go somewhere when I feel called to do so, even if I don’t know why I feel that way. Trusting that the small hunches and desires (sparks of aliveness) I feel in the space are worth exploring and can lead to valuable experiences both for me and others.
Bringing love and curiosity
I find that circling has helped me to see people through a lens of love. For me this means that I feel much less judgmental towards others. Interestingly I have also grown a capacity to stay with love, even though I am also annoyed or angry with someone.
It has dawned on me that there always seems to be an opportunity to choose love when being in connection. It seems to be about what I bring. If I bring my fears or wants (”I feel stuck”, ”I am uncomfortable right now”) the situation will move in one direction, but if i bring my love and deeper longings (”I really want to be closer to you right now, but I don’t know how to”) it will move in another.
The way I relate to love these days is through “commitment to connection”. Rather than wanting something particular from the relationship, staying with a trust that the relationship is in itself love.
In my life I find that I have become far better at being with people without needing anything from them, but rather staying with curiosity. But also simply sharing my lived experience. My experience is that at a very fundamental level “we know” what is going on in a social context. Not as in “my story about what is going on is correct”, but more as a felt sense that something is off, this is uncomfortable or similar.
Circling has helped me see how we can help each other into a higher integrity by trusting our inherent embodied sensitivities and bringing them into presence in our relationships. At a level of authenticity this could mean revealing that I feel uncomfortable, sad or angry as it arises in me. At a deeper level it could mean tapping into the fundamental needs and longings of myself and others in the present situation.
Even though all humans have their own individual histories and paths there seems to be a lot of core qualities that we all share, but rarely speak about.
Most people seem to share a deep need to be seen and a fear of showing ourselves. Many people also seem to have parts of themselves that they find so ugly, that they believe that people will feel disgusted and turn away if they are shown. This seems to be a fundamental pain in many of us – often at a level where we aren’t able to see it before it shows up. In addition it seems to me that many of us learn to harbor resentment towards others for not seeing us, even though we are actually never willing to reveal what it really going on for us.
That humans share some fundamental pains is not really news (it seems to be the key point in many religious systems), but circling (and some other related practices) have made me see this in a much more real and pragmatic light. I can see patterns in behavior in circling spaces that are interesting, but of course not true in any absolute sense. However I do think that a learning edge for me is to be more with that which we have in common and less with the stuff that divides us.
At one level everybody is the same and shares the same human condition and should thus be treated the same…but everybody is also different with unique stories, lives and cultures and should be treated as individuals.
I have traveled these paths (of circling) before and have made maps of them and learned or made up principles and methods that can be very useful…but we are travelling a great unknown and the ideas and maps of what is real and possible can be the biggest obstacle for new discoveries.
I like to think of circling as life condensed. Everything that comes up in a circling space is also present in life in general. It is just that we have more time and presence to investigate and be with what comes up in the circling practice. We get to attune to and explore what it means to relate.
Through circling we develop our sensitivity and empathy. We build capacities to better understand our body-beings and to communicate our boundaries and longings more clearly.
Circling provides learning environments where we can challenge ourselves to be more present, alive and true in our everyday lives – it is a place to learn about and experiment with how we can relate more authentically and with love as human beings.
Other resources on circling
At the Circling Europe website there is plenty of good texts and videos on the circling practice.
Introduction to Circling
Jordan Myska Allen from Circling Europe has written this introduction to circling for the European integral conference.
Circling and rationality
An interesting description of the circling practice, seen from the viewing point of a rationalist.