In the Second Circle

Posted on April 3, 2017

The one who tastes, knows;
the one who explains, lies.

Rabia al-Basri

My Second Taste of Circling

Last Thursday I went to a next Circling event in De Ruimte. Quite different from the first time. Less people. Diffuse beginnings. There were some fifteen of us, this time, sitting together with no stated purpose but that of being present to each other and exploring the ways in which we relate to each other. The facilitator was Ellen Waenink. I knew her already from Facebook, for she is a member of the inner circle of Circling, but I had not yet met her in person.

After some giggles in different corners of the room – which I took to be caused by nervousness of some of the particants – the group became quiet, and it felt like we were doing a silent meditation together. Then Ellen shared something with us where she mentioned the word prayer. This evoked a variety of emotions in the group. Someone expressed sadness at not being able to pray. Someone else admitted to not even knowing what the practice might mean, and gave insight in what that felt like. Like being lost. A third voice commented on the feeling of not knowing to whom to address a prayer.

I also discovered a strong reaction within myself. A memory from adolescence suddenly became very vivid. The morning prayer practice in the chapel of my Roman Catholic boarding school, where we sang together: “Thank you for this new morning. Thank for every new day. Thank you that I with all my sorrows, can come to you.” If you really want to know what it sounded like in Dutch (but you probably won’t) click on Dank U voor deze nieuwe morgen.

But never mind what it sounded like. For a moment I was again the 12 year old boy singing that song, and opening my heart by singing that I was thankful for being there, for being able to experience the beauty of the world. A wave of emotion swept through me that I wanted to share. What I wanted to share with the group was the connection that I felt, at that moment, to that 12 year old boy. At 12, I still had to discover that we are living in a mad world, so I had not even started the long process of getting to terms with that.

The theme of thankfulness still resonates strongly with me, so this is what I shared with the group. I sensed a strong urge to express my joy about being there. In being with that feeling, I discovered that it does not matter in the least to whom I express this. I know that there is no person behind a counter to whom those who are dissatisfied with their lives can address complaints. Also, there is no desk where we can leave tokens of appreciation, for that matter. So if “person behind a counter who listens to complaints and does something about them” is what people mean by God then I do not believe in what they call God. On the other hand, if you wish, the whole world is our desk where we can display tokens of appreciation.

As long as you have complaints, you may feel the need for a person to blame for what is meted out to you. But for me, expressing how I experience life to the Universe at large is good enough. Universe, thank you for inviting me in, for it is so sweet to exist. This is what I shared. People in the group reacted strongly to this, some doubting whether my expression was genuine. I reacted to that. Other people reacted to my reaction. And so it went on for a while.

In sharing feelings like this, with this group of attentive people, I discover things about myself, or better, I find corroboration of things I already knew. I find it sweet to express myself to an audience that is willing to pay full attention. Even stronger: I just absolutely love it. It is sweet to be in an environment where people are not taken aback when I speak to them from the heart. And speaking from the heart is good practice for me, that is another thing I discovered. It works as a kind of stretching exercise that opens my heart even further. And when the words start to flow it becomes easier and easier. I just have to wait for the next sentence, without any pressure, without any need to know in advance what is going to come.

The rather chaotic process of silences, interspersed with exchanges of feelings, followed by varieties of reactions, followed by silences again, went on for quite some time. At some point, after more than one hour of this, Ellen proposed to structure the rest of the evening a bit more. She explained to the newcomers (or relative newcomers, such as me) what it means to be in a birthday circle. A birthday circle is a group that for some allotted time – say twenty minutes – pays exclusive attention to a single person in the middle of the circle. Who would like to be in birthday circle? Of course, I immediately volunteered. Two other people also selected themselves for this, and the big group split into three smaller ones.

In the Birthday Circle

Why was I keen on experiencing this? Does it mean I am an attention seeker? My experience with attention seekers is that they try to capture your attention because they cannot stand that the attention is not with them. But if you then give them your full attention, it changes; then suddenly they do not know how to handle it. You see this a lot with adolescents. This was very different. Here five people committed themselves to give me their full attention, and it was up to me to decide what to do with it. And I discovered that I found that very exciting.

The birthday circle I was in was “facilitated” by Ellen. She and four others were sitting opposite to me in a semi-circle. We started with a short meditation, led by Ellen. Then, at Ellen’s invitation, we all opened our eyes, and …

I encounter five pairs of eyes that are all intently focussed on me. And I sense that I love it. So I start to give words to what is happening inside my body, while looking back at each of my birthday party guests in turn, slowly moving my gaze from one pair of eyes to the next. Energy arising in my chest. A feeling of acute awareness of being connected. Tingling sensations. Rushes of energy. Bliss. I give words to it. Ellen leads me on. My guests give me feedback. I react to that.

I start to notice differences in the quality of attention. I feel energy rising up, the urge to kind-of-challenge my guests, one by one, to test their reactions, or to test myself against them. I give words to it. Reactions. “When you talk to Eric like that, it makes me want to move between the two of you, to protect him.” My feeling towards Eric immediately changes on hearing that, so I challenge Ellen.

Ellen takes me up on it. We start pushing hands, while I continue to give voice to what I am experiencing, with Ellen giving feedback. I feel strength. I give it words. It changes. I feel joy in the struggle. I give it words. I feel really engaged with Ellen. Suddenly intense physical attraction. I give it words. Then it changes. Then, all of a sudden, deep sadness. I give it words. It stays. It gets more intense. I report on it, with tears in my eyes. I tell my circle about the terminal illness of a former true-love-of-mine. The feeling gets even more intense. Then it changes. Then it passes. And then the session is over.

We close off in a big group, and I find myself next to Theresa Blommerde, who I meet for the second time now: she was also at my first event. While we look at each other, she suddenly tells me she wants to slightly move away from me. Me: “OK, let’s find out why that is. I will keep looking at you, but while I do that I will try to keep my attention with my own breath.” She: “Yes, now it changes. I am OK now with you.” And then she made me feel good with her next remark: “Hmm, you seem to be getting very quickly what this is all about.”

My Circling Homework

I am now a recipient of a series of emails aimed at explaining some principles of Circling. The first email attempts to explain the basics of what Circling is. It takes care to add, “as we see them at CirclingEurope”. This is in line with my earlier impression from an exchange with John Thompson. Differences of style are already developing, and it looks like we are in a phase in the development of Circling where these differences get emphasized rather than transcended.

The email messages from Circling Europe are a bit like lessons of a correspondence course in Circling. The first lesson starts with a kind of definition: Circling is meditation practice in connection. Meditation means: focussed on the here and now. Practice means it is something we are doing, rather than theorizing about. Connection means that the focus of our awareness is relationship.

What I like about the further explanation is the emphasis on not knowing, not expecting to know, and not being bothered by not knowing. I relate to that, because it helps me to make sense of what I experienced during my two Circling evenings. Even if I feel frustration because nothing “interesting” seems to happen, that feeling itself is worthy of my attention. And as soon as I express it, it changes, and things change in the group. What I was getting quite quickly is that there is absolutely no need to make something happen.

Also, it does not bother me if what is happening around me does not at first seem to make sense to me. I even take that as a rather good sign, for making sense of what I see may easily turn into letting reality as it unfolds itself be obscured by preconceptions. As the physicist Richard Feynman used to say: “It does not bother me not to know.” This admission of ignorance is a good starting point, either for making a new discovery in physics, or for discovering what is really going on between you and me at a deep level.

Another key word in the first lesson is presence. What does it mean to be fully present? I cannot easily describe it, but I know now why the focus of full attention on me of a group of people is so exhilarating. It brings me immediately to full presence, the sense of being fully engaged with those around me, in the here and now. And I am starting to recognize that hightened sense of awareness while being with others in my everyday encounters too. Just tiny things. A lady approaching to retrieve her bicycle, and observing that my bicycle in the rack is obstructing hers. Me: “I suppose that your bicycle is the one right behind mine, for I detect a little frown on your face. Let me help you retrieving it.” And immediately her mood changes and she smiles. And I love it.

The final line of the first email of my correspondence course describes Circling as a call to a more mystical or spiritual experience of life. This rings true to me, for it aptly describes where my experiences with Circling so far are leading me. But not the least benefit of Circling, for me, is that it gets me in touch with a wild bunch of courageous, spontaneous and delightful people.