Circling One's Own Path

Posted on December 9, 2017

All human beings wish to avoid misery and achieve happiness. We all are taking steps, all the time, in a direction that we believe is best for us. So in a deep sense, we are all aspiring sages. We are all stumbling or crawling or walking towards what we conceive of as happiness or wisdom. Some of us are more conscious of this than others. Some of us are clearer on what wisdom truly is than others. The more aware we become of what matters in our lives, the better we are able to see that all the difficulties we encounter are occasions for learning and growth, invitations to dive deeper into this experience called living our lives.

It is important to remember that we are all on our own path. We are all lights to ourselves, and we can never transfer the responsibility for how to lead our lives and to whom to turn for inspiration and guidance, to someone else. Indeed, if someone pretends he has earned the right to tell us our do’s and dont’s, we can be sure that something is amiss. Deciding our own path is our inalienable right as human beings. Also, we simply cannot perform the part of someone else, for my meat can be your poison, and vice versa. So it is enough if I can find out what is good for me. If you want help in finding your path, then fair enough, we can discuss. But it should always remain very clear that this is about each of us finding our own paths, and that each of us must bear ultimate responsibility for how we decide to lead our lives.

Lao Tse, Socrates, Buddha, Christ, the Sages, the Saints, the Mystics of all the deep wisdom traditions that the Earth has seen, they have much more that they have in common than what sets them apart. Surely there are stages in Sainthood, in Wisdom, in Insight, and some of those that inspire us may have been more advanced than others. Surely, there are differences in transmission caused by differences in historical context. But I believe these differences do not matter much. Putting emphasis on differences is putting up barriers, and I believe such barriers are unhelpful.

I am a student of Advaita, and a practitioner of yoga, and a follower of the Buddha, and maybe even a disciple of Christ. The Christian path of universal love is more challenging for me because of the distorted version of it that I imbibed with my Roman Catholic upbringing. I kept the company of Buddhists for many years, and I learned from them what it means to look deeply into the interdependence of things. The nature of ultimate reality was revealed to me through Advaita, but I see that now as a kind of historic accident.

I share the sentiment of Walt Whitman when he claimed: “I believe all religions are true,” and I am wary when I encounter people who insist that the differences between one wisdom path and another matter a great deal. And I feel provoked by people who focus on puny differences between various group encounter and meditation techniques, and put emphasis on subtle distinctions, like that between circling and authentic relating. If from your viewpoint these are different, then you are too close, and you should take a bit more distance.

Last March, when I discussed my first circling experiences with my wife Heleen, she mockingly compared the activity I described to her as “Re-invention of the Wheel.” She did have a point. She has been around, and has seen, and taken part in, very similar things before, in different contexts, in different communities. Authentic relating goes on all the time in the ways in which healthy families interact, otherwise they would not stay healthy. In family life you have to find ways to transcend the daily drudgery, the irritations and quibbles. From the Buddhist monks and nuns in Plum Village (the monastery in Dordogne founded by Thich Nhat Hanh) we learned the practice of Beginning Anew. This practice is very similar to what goes on in circling. It is a bit more structured, and with good reason, for emphasis on flower watering is helpful in preparing the ground for exploring and healing painful misunderstandings and hurts.

I have experienced that circling is a tool, one of many, to get into deeper touch with reality, and I particularly like the vibrant spirit of the community here in Amsterdam. I have met a lot of marvellous, creative, courageous people that are great fun to be with. But I regard it as a sign of immaturity when people present circling as a completely new phenomenon in world history, something that is going to transform the earth, or that is going to create the sangha of all sangha’s that will function as the new world teacher. Also, something jars in me when leading people in circling refer to their teaching activities as dharma talks. The terminology makes me want to challenge them with “Who do you think you are?”

The Four Noble Truths of the Buddhist dharma make us aware of the essence of human suffering. Looking deeply into these truths has the power to transform, the power to makes us understand what is real and what is true, the power to set us on the path towards liberation. If I look at the principles of circling in the same manner, I can also find great depth there. Looking deeply into them, I can discover at their core some very deep and ancient truths. And the fact that what I find there is not at all new is for me a reason for rejoicing, not for lamentation.

The principles of circling are guidelines for deepening connection in meeting another human. I find them beautiful and they certainly inspire me. The fact that they do not appear new to me I consider to be a virtue rather than a vice. It is a huge virtue that the circling community is rediscovering old truths and is finding ways to make old truths accessible to a new public. But it would be wise if we could admit to ourselves that it is old wine in new bottles. Let’s have a look at the principles, and see how they connect to what Aldous Huxley called The Perennial Philosophy, the metaphysical core that is common to all the great wisdom traditions.

1: Commitment to Connection This is about how to interact with others. Advaita sages recommend asking oneself the following question before deciding to speak: “Does my speech improve on the silence?” This is deep and beautiful question, so beautiful that it can hardly be improved upon. The Buddhist Pali Canon touches on the commitment to connection in the Vaca Sutta, which recommends that any utterance, spoken in a certain context, should satisfy the following conditions:

It is spoken at the right time. It is spoken in truth. It is spoken affectionately. It is spoken beneficially. It is spoken with a mind of good-will.

The Pali canon is the earliest Buddhist canon; it was preserved orally from the days of the Buddha, and written down in 29 BC.

2: Owning Your Experience The essence of this, as I can see it, is expressed clearly in many wisdom traditions. The Buddha admonishes us to be islands unto ourselves, and to be our own refuge. The New Testament admonishes us not to put our light under a bushel. Krishnamurti talks about the need for being lights in a world that gets ever darker. As I see it, this is what owning one’s experience is about: to realize that our experience is the light by which we illuminate our own path and sometimes the path of others.

3 Staying with Sensation As I understand it, this is about feeling what goes on in the body while being in connection with others. This is well known from mindfulness training. Mindfulness is a form of Buddhist meditation, but taken out of its Buddhist context. So this practice is as old as the Buddha. It is also the long standing practice with groups that get together for raising awareness about cravings and addictions, such as AA gatherings. To mindfully manage one’s craving for nicotine, alcohol, or sex, it is recommended to stay present with the bodily sensations of craving, with no attempt to distract from them or get rid of them. Many forms of meditation are precisely about this. Focus your awareness on your breathing. As soon as you notice that you have become distracted, return with your awareness to your breathing. In circling, but also in method acting and in improvised theatre, or in various kinds of group therapy, this is applied in an interactive setting.

4 Trusting Experience I read this as an injunction to trust what my own experience is telling me. There is a very deep reason for why this is important, a reason that I cannot discern in the principle itself, but that I can see if I look deeply and enquire into what the principle could be based on. Why should we trust experience? Because experience is all there is for us. Experience is how the Self emerges. As my favourite Indian sage explains:

The world is perceived as an apparent objective reality when the mind is externalized, thereby forsaking its identity with the Self. When the world is thus perceived, the true nature of the Self is not revealed; conversely, when the Self is realized the world ceases to appear as an objective reality. (From Sri Ramana Maharshi’s Words of Grace.)

This is part of Ramana’s text on Self Enquiry, his methodless method to arrive at ultimate wisdom, taught in the form of answers to his pupils in 1902.

5 Meeting Others in Their World Looking deeply into this, I perceive the Second of the two commandments from the New Testament (Gospel of Matthew, 22: 37-40): Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. As a student of Advaita, I see that if I truly meet the other I find myself. You can also find this in existentialist philosophy, e.g. in the philosophy of dialogue of Martin Buber. Buber’s Ich und Du (1923) describes the contrast between two modes of actualizing one’s existence, either by engaging with the outside world as objective, or by engaging with other beings in a way that is authentic, holistic and mutual. In a similar vein is Emanuel Levinas’ philosophy of the encounter with the other. And there is much, much more.

The five principles of circling are also very useful for detecting circling mannerisms, by the way, for adopting them unthinkingly easily leads to a certain woolliness of expression. Everything you say needs to be nuanced so much and diluted by so much concern for how what is expressed could be conceived by the other that at some point it becomes super hard to discern what you are about. The result is a manner of expression that resembles the heaviness and incomprehensibility of German idealist philosophy at its worst, a style that I have learnt to avoid. Please, let us be aware of the difference between manner and mannerism. I sense in your expression bla bla bla, and a part of me wants to bla bla bla, while another part of me would rather like to bla bla bla. And so on. A substantial part of me wants to poke fun at this.

Building a supportive community is crucial for spiritual development in any tradition. I can sense that circling and authentic relating have huge potential here. But there are pitfalls. I like it when concepts have clear definitions, but such seems not to be the case with the concept of surrendered leadership. At best, this suggests the kind of leadership that is recommended in a famous quote from Lao Tse.

A leader is best when people barely know he exists. When his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.

This is very beautiful. But I am afraid this is not how the concept is used in circling. In circling, surrendered leadership can provide an excuse for avoiding responsibility. For either you are a leader, or you surrender your leadership, and then you are not a leader anymore. What is wrong with being a leader and claiming your leadership? Every monastery needs to have an abbot. Every country needs to have a government. Every ship or airplane needs to have a captain. Every community needs people who adopt the role of leaders. If these leaders can act in the spirit of Lao Tse, so much the better.

There have been several occasions in my brief circling history where I sensed that genuine leadership to provide structure was sorely needed and was not forthcoming. On these occasions I would have given something for the presence of a few people with enough discernment to accurately judge the situation and enough guts to act on their judgement. Leaders are needed in difficult situations. Difficult situations occur. To be a true leader in a difficult situation takes courage. Courage is rare, but it can be acquired through adequate training.

What I see in circling is that everyone wants to lead, everyone wants to be a coach, everyone wants to guide others on the path, everyone wants to facilitate, and at the same time there seems to be a scarcity of simple folks that sense a need for being coached, being led, being facilitated, and that are willing to pay for it. It is like the stage in capitalism where everyone aspires to be a manager but nobody wants to work, and it brings to mind Bertold Brecht’s song about the invigorating effects of money.

Überall dicke Luft, die uns gar nicht gefällt.
Alles voller Haß und voller Neider.
Keiner will mehr Pferd sein, jeder Reiter.
Und die Welt ist eine kalte Welt.
(Bertold Brecht, Lied von der belebenden Wirkung des Geldes.)

Nobody wants to be horse anymore, everyone rider. I have no objection to playing horse, only I do not need a rider on my back. Why not all walk? We all have to find our own path anyway.

I believe the circling community would do well to drop the current practice of self certification, and adopt the sensible procedures that are in place in academia or in other spiritual traditions for assessing levels of accomplishment. One cannot certify oneself, or more precisely, teachers should not certify their own students. A professor can not grant a doctorate, for it is not enough if the teacher approves of the manuscript of his PhD student. The manuscript has to be judged and approved by independent experts, and next the board of the university grants the doctorate, by the power of the academic tradition. But if you are not yet part of a tradition, you cannot organize your certification process like this, and that means that you have a problem. For self certification is sticking feathers in one’s own bum, putting garlands on one’s own shoulders, grabbing the crown and putting it on one’s own head. This simply does not make sense, for why should you take me seriously when I proclaim myself (and my student) to be marvellous and accomplished? There has to be some outside authority for investing us with marks of distinction. I am afraid this has something to do with arrogance. “We are so unique that no-one can assess what we are worth, so we assess ourselves.” High time to snap out of it.

Offering circling courses is fine, but there should be no suggestion that anyone needs to go through such a course to be an adequate circling practitioner. Circling, authentic relating, radical honesty, compassionate living, are all invitations to enter into genuine contact with ourselves and with each other. These practices do not belong to anyone, or they belong to us all. They are all invitations to enter into the sphere of the miraculous of what we can experience together. Nobody has any claims of superiority to make here, and the spirit of competition is completely out of place.

The phone rings. “Hello, this is Mother Teresa. I found out that you are offering relief to the sick and dying here in Calcutta. Calcutta is my territory. So get off my turf. Go away and offer your relief elsewhere. And by the way, you are not properly ordained as a Missionary of Charity.”