My Intro to Circling

May 2015, I leaped into the Circling practice for the first time with a weekend intensive. In that past year, I had been pushing myself. I lead my own meditation retreat, started a dharma house, did my first Mondo Zen teacher training retreat, and more.

By May, a major life change felt imminent. I was seriously considering the monastic academy, moving into Cambridge Zen Center, doing a world traveling tour, or starting a graduate counseling program.

I didn’t know anything about authentic relating or circling before I signed up for the weekend. It was also only the second time I ever signed up for a weekend program that wasn’t strictly meditation focused.

I discovered circling only because a friend of mine mentioned authentic relating practice as we explored more relational forms of being with each other. A big edge of mine then and now was physical touch and intimacy with another person without necessarily making it sexual or romantic. Or including that without getting lost in it.

I googled authentic relating, found a meetup group in NYC doing a circling program that weekend, and I signed up. Boom.

To be honest, I think I also desperately wanted to be out of my house. It’s a tale for another time, but my dharma house experiment felt like it was falling apart. I was taking it really hard. And as the renewal for the lease was drawing closer, I felt lost with what I would do next year. I was desperate for change.

And so I went to NYC and was blown away.

People from that weekend still remember that I voiced initial cynicism and doubt about the whole thing on day 1. I also pushed back hard on day 2 when I thought it was going badly. Yet, here I am now a circling addict. In the past year, I have finished their six month training program, signed up for their online program, and lead circling nights at the monastery.

So, what is circling?

Circling is being with whatever is present in connection with others. Circling is a relational meditation practice of bringing presence to the experience of being with another moment to moment. I have found it to always be insightful and deeply powerful for everyone from newcomers to old timers. It’s also incredibly amazing as a mirror to one’s relational blind spots that one might never ever see or hear from others otherwise.

I love the practice for so many reasons. And terrified of it at the same time for the same reasons. I feel tremendously alive. Seen. Heard. Understood.

Circling is about trusting the full value of myself and others in expressing whatever our deepest truth that’s arising and trusting that the mask isn’t needed. That the core of my heart is unbreakable. And putting that to the test in with another or in a group by revealing our truth, our vulnerability, our authenticity.

But, I want to go back to my May 2015 weekend experience.

One of the most popular forms of circling is the birthday circle where one person becomes the focus of the group’s attention for an extended amount of time (10 minutes – 1 hour). The inquiry is to continually explore what’s happening right now. Most people perhaps never have experienced having the attention of a group without an acknowledged script to operate from.

I remember my first circle very well. The facilitator was a person still being trained named Nick. He kept inquiring into my experience in the present moment, and I felt so confused and disoriented. I felt like I had nothing to say. I couldn’t name any obvious, big feelings. I was mostly just self-conscious and wondering what other people were thinking, worried how they were perceiving me. But unable to even express that, unable to even know that I was being self-conscious. Over the minutes, I realized it felt like the experience was moving too quickly. Always faster than my mind’s ability to process and come up with the “right” thing to do. I started feeling dizzy like being on a roller coaster.

Later, on my lunch break, I watched the streets of NYC by myself and felt so totally paralyzed and confused. What happened? What was that? Why couldn’t I share and open up to these people? There was no danger. No chance of people turning away or abandoning me. Yet, I was just stuck. Doing this constant, desperate self-inquiry, I could feel my body literally tensing and stuck like wearing a suit of armor that keeps changing shape. Difficulty breathing or focus.

I realized how much I doubt myself. How much I rely on social cues from others to tell me whether what I’m expressing is valuable or needs to be adjusted. How much I doubt my own intuition and instincts. How afraid I am to say anything without knowing it’s right or will be received well. Meeting this big doubt was deeply transformative for me. It gave me deep clarity at that moment that I did indeed want to go join a monastery more than anything else. And, sure enough, I applied immediately after the weekend was over and decided to join a few days later.

But, the real kicker was after lunch. I came back to the yoga studio hosting us. Outside,a fellow participant, Pat, was standing outside. We chatted and I told her about my processing and insight I just had. She smiled warmly at me and said a simple sentence that floored me and has floored me ever since. She said, “I hope next time you are able and willing to do that while being in the circle with us in the moment.” Thank you Pat.

After that weekend, I started leading circling groups at my home in Boston for several weeks. Each session with 4-6 people. Originally we would plan for only 2 hours but the sessions would last 5+ hours. The feeling of connection, authenticity, and vulnerability was addicting. The last circle I did before leaving went poorly with maybe a dozen people there. One participant was particularly demanding, and I didn’t do well as a facilitator to refocus that energy. It made me wary of taking on circling facilitation again.

But when I came to CML, I was asked to lead a few sessions. The rigor of the schedule left people feeling cold to each other and a significant relational, emotional gap was present for many. It took many weeks before I agreed, and we did our first evening. Many of us cried that night.

Seeing the value of the practice and wanting to embody it more, I signed up for the SAS 6 month training program despite the time and financial cost that I paid with my own money and vacation time. It was worth every penny. I’ll cover those six months in a future post.

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