I hope to surprise you with these 5 secrets, that’s why I used the word “secrets”. I also do not generally like suggesting a specific finite collection of instructions will have any specific result for everyone (or anyone for that matter), but I do believe these five things will improve your circling. I believe they will work for newbies to circling, participants, self learners, facilitators, and even the grand masters of circling. Though the last category probably already practices these five secrets; and that’s probably part of why they are grand masters of circling.
Generally speaking, I doubt many (if any) circling training programs teach these five secrets. That would be why they are secrets. However, I have not taken nor have knowledge of all the circling training programs out there. I am aware that Integral Theory talks about different lines and levels, and my very basic understanding of this tells me they encourage developing practices among a range of areas of life. The five secrets below probably fall into different lines, at least some of them. One of the major schools of circling is closely related to Integral Theory, and for years was based out of the Integral Center. Some call the style of circling based at the Integral Center “integral circling”.
I’ll follow the typical style of listing the lowest secret on the list first. Increasing in importance and impact as we move up the list to #1. Also, I suggest practicing them in order. Be sure you have #1 under control before moving on to #2, although they all kind of interdepend on each other so don’t exclusively focus on any one without balancing focus on the others.
Be gentle with yourself, this isn’t a thing to force on yourself. Try out the practices, if one day you think “I don’t feel like doing X”, then don’t. Or maybe sit with that feeling for while and see if it fades before deciding not to do X. Bring some awareness to how you feel about doing the practice, where the resistance is, and where the enthusiasm is. But don’t force.
I imagine this is the least surprising of the five secrets. Circling is sometimes called “intersubjective meditation”. Well, if you’re going to meditate, perhaps a simpler form of meditation will help the more complex form with the word “intersubjective” before it.
I believe almost any style of meditation will help a circling practitioner, but I do recommend two basic forms of meditation for those new to the practice.
Take a conscious breath any time you think of it.
With this style, you don’t have to sit down and formally practice meditation for any amount of time. You can practice this any time you think of it! While waiting in line at the DMV, take one conscious breath. Maybe take a second if the line is its usual exceptionally long length. Take as many as you want, but one will do.
Practice this, really, anytime you think of it. Not for one week. Not for one month. Not for the day of or the day before circling. Practice it anytime… all the time. If you want to see the results and want a set time to try it out then I suggest a year. I got this practice from Eckhart Tolle and he recommended it to a participant at a conference with many workshops designed to help spiritual growth. Eckhart offered this as an alternative to all the workshops saying it would probably provide more benefit than any of them.
Doing this practice takes you out of your mind, your thoughts, and your stories. It brings you into the present moment briefly. By repeating it, you are exercising the muscle to separate from your thoughts and be present. Part of the practice of circling is to be out of our stories and into the present moment.
Sit for 20 minutes a day and pay attention to your breath.
Honestly, I think this is a really hard practice! I’ve struggled with it many times and still do sometimes. Where the previous style of meditation works the muscle of presence, this practice is a marathon of presence! Yes, a marathon. I suggest you work yourself up to 20 minutes. Perhaps start with two. You are welcome to meditate for 30, 45, 60, or longer if you want, but I have discovered for myself that something happens after about 20 minutes. More on that later.
Find a comfortable place and posture to sit. Any will do, but here are some criteria:
- sit in a place where you will not be disturbed by sounds, people, or anything that you find disturbing,
- sit in a posture that is physically comfortable to you,
- sit in a posture that will not likely lead to sleeping for you (though if you cannot help but sleep… then perhaps you need to sleep more and then meditate), and
- use cushions, chairs, couches, or whatever helps you be physically comfortable.
Set a timer so that you do not have to think about time. The timer is not supposed to be a goal to mediate for the whole time, so don’t pressure yourself to meditate for the whole time. The timer is a way to give yourself permission to forget about what you have to do for the next 20 minutes and focus on this moment. The timer will go off to remind you to go to work, eat breakfast, finish your laundry, or whatever. You absolutely do not need to meditate the whole 20 minutes.
Now, here’s the meat. Bring your awareness to your breath. Notice how it feels for the air to enter your nostrils and fill your lungs. Notice how it feels for the air to leave your lungs out through your nostrils. Just keep noticing. Do not control your breath. Let it flow naturally.
During this time you’ll most certainly start day dreaming or feel strong desires to stop meditation and “do” something. This is normal. Make an effort to bring your awareness forgivingly and gently back to the breath. If you find the resistance in you or your desire to “do” is unbearably strong, then take a break and come back another time or day and try again. Maybe make the time shorter or maybe just recognize that this particular moment was harder than usual.
I find for myself that the desire in me to “do” is quite strong. When I take a moment to see that I gave myself permission not to “do” for 20 minutes yet my mind still wants to “do”, I often laugh. I find it funny how strong the impulse is and how the mind really tries to convince me to “do” something. Freeing yourself from this impulse takes time, but it is invaluable while circling.
In circling we don’t want to “do” anything. We want to “be” with each other. We do have a goal of knowing and understanding each other, but it’s hard to call this an action of “doing” something. The doing often comes in the form of trying to fix, resolve, help, reassure, or some other way of not being with what is. Meditation helps us to be with what is, since meditation is fundamentally about being.
Final thoughts on meditation
Having a good meditation practice may be the closest of these secrets to actual circling, but it really rests on the other 4 secrets. If you don’t have the remaining four secrets in good practice then meditation will be even harder and less fruitful.
Oh yeah, about the 20 minute duration, what does happen after 20 minutes? For me, it takes about 20 minutes for the urge to “do” to subside. It’s at about 20 minutes that I feel free to just sit and be. The exact time may be different for you. See if you can notice when or if the urge to do subsides. If you find it takes a specific amount of time for you, then perhaps that’s the amount of time you should meditate.
I can sum up this section with: we are in bodies evolved to run while sitting on the couch all day – often in front of some sort of screen (oops, did I just say that, well I did run for 30 minutes this morning; phew safe). What possible benefit could a body evolved to run receive by sitting on a couch, or a chair, or in a car, or in a park… all day.
There are different levels of exercise and they are all beneficial. I suggest a goal of 30 minutes of vigorous exercise daily alternating between at least two forms of exercise each day. For me, I run for 30 minutes with my heart rate 80% of max one day then a Nike high intensity workout for 20 minutes the next day. I’d like to bring that high intensity work out up to 30 minutes, but it only takes me 20 minutes to complete and I want to be gentle with myself. Now that I outed myself, I’m going to go look and see if there is a longer version of this workout.
I got the 30 minutes at 80% of maximum heart rate from a health article somewhere. You can google this information to verify or revise what I’m suggesting. Be careful not to raise your heart rate too high. One hundred percent of the maximum heart rate is where heart attacks can happen and other life threatening biological events. Thirty minutes is long enough to burn up the sugar in the blood stream and therefore lower the blood sugar level as well as release endorphins in the brain. You’ll have to check my facts on this. I’m reporting from memory and I cannot be sure I got all the information right. What I know for sure is that I read something and created this program for myself because 30 minutes at 80% max hr daily had the results I desired.
You can start smaller and I recommend it if you don’t already exercise regularly. At the most basic and foundational level, stand up. Stand up every hour for a few minutes. Maybe even take a short walk, real short. My FitBit recommends 250 steps. That’s about 4 minutes of walking or about a quarter mile or about a third of a kilometer. You could also do some stretches, as long as you’re standing. Standing requires the heart to work harder and increases blood circulation. However, standing for a full hour is just as bad for your health as sitting for a full hour. Switching between standing and sitting helps promote health. In general, move. Do not stand still or sit still. Which brings me to the next recommendation.
I bet you’ve already heard the importance of brisk walking. The general rule is 30 minutes a day. Regular brisk walks increase the health of the body more than standing up a few minutes an hour, though standing up a few minutes an hour adds to the benefits. This alone will have numerous health benefits and reduce the changes of a slew of diseases and health problems. Brisk walking is a great step towards a better exercise routine.
I still recommend a goal of 30 minutes of vigorous exercise. Exercise promotes relaxation in the body, a sense of peace, focus, and concentration. All of these will help with meditation and circling. If you’re going to sit for 60 minutes in a circle and focus on getting one person’s world, you’ll find your ability to focus much stronger with less effort after a week of regular exercise.
#3 Get Good Sleep
One night of bad sleep the night before circling could erase the benefits of years of meditation and weeks of exercise. However, a night of bad sleep requires many nights of good sleep before you’ll recover from that one night. You’ll benefit the most from regular good sleep, pretty much every night if you can manage.
Unfortunately, I know many people who, however hard they try, do not get regular good sleep. I cannot give you the formula for how to get a good night’s sleep, and you may be one of the unlucky people who cannot sleep well for some undetermined reason. However, if you haven’t investigated why you don’t sleep, then do! Consult a doctor if you do not know why you don’t sleep well. Put forth a good effort to figure this out.
Of course, you may not sleep well because you simply don’t go to sleep. You may spend late nights on your screen checking for the next laughable cute cat video or obsessing over your friends’ news feeds. You may play video games late into the night. Or maybe you are addicted to tango dancing that starts at 10pm. Whatever your reasons for staying up past your optimal bedtime, don’t do it.
Figure out what your optimal bedtime is… and your optimal wake up time. I learned mine by trial and error. My optimal bedtime is between 9:30 and 10pm and my optimal wake up time is about 7 to 7:30am though 6am works well if I really fall asleep and sleep soundly around 9:30pm. What’s most important for me is to sleep about 8-8.5hrs and NOT longer! That last part was an interesting discovery. I found when I allowed my self to savor that half awake half asleep hour in the morning after first waking up that I was more tired throughout the day than if I got out of bed soon after I first woke up. You’ll have to figure this out for yourself.
Like exercise, good regular sleep has numerous health benefits, but what we are concerned about is how sleep helps focus, concentration, a sense of peace, a sense of relaxation, and endurance. All of these qualities benefit the circling practitioner; again, as we sit in front of a person for an hour and try to get their world.
#2 Eat Good Food
I labored a bit deciding whether eating well or sleeping well should be #2. I’m still not sure which one belongs in this spot, maybe they should be tied for #2. Either way, here it is: eat good food. Or if you want: it well.
I’m reading Michael Pollan’s book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”. He sums up everything he learned about food with this:
Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.Michael Pollan
There’s so much going on in the practice of eating well and so much I don’t know about. I highly recommend following the link above. Food can affect your mood, your energy, your ability to concentrate, as well as your health. I believe if we, in western society, ate better that a slew of diseases and problems would evaporate. Including social problems, not just personal health problems.
I spent months in 2008 paying attention… to everything… and especially my diet and how it affected me and my relationship to food. I cannot go into all the details of my discoveries, but a few things come to mind.
I started reading Gandhi’s auto-biography many years ago and I put it down. I put it down because all he talked about for chapter after chapter was diet and his relationship to food! I puzzled over this for a long time until I realized how connected eating was to Gandhi’s spiritual practice and indeed everything was connected to his spiritual practice. In fact, I began to suspect how much food was connected to my spiritual practice whether I acknowledged it or not.
About that same time I was really enjoying a singer song writer I recently discovered from a friend’s recommendation: David Wilcox. The song of relevance here is “Down Inside Myself”. The story, told in song form, goes about like this: a man is seeking to feel better because he is feeling down – really down. He searches and finds a wise man on top of a far away mountain. The wise man listens to him and gives him the solution to his problems:
Your problem ain’t philosophy, so get it down to size. Right now, it’s physiological in a logical disguise… the cure is very simple and it works in half an hour: get some sleep, eat some broccoli, run a mile, and take a shower…David Wilcox in “Down Inside Myself”
I probably listened to the song half a dozen times before I really heard those words and they woke me up a little. I took the advice and immediately ate some broccoli and paid attention to how I felt. I felt better! Wow! Amazing!
Recently I discovered just why this might work. Folate (AKA folic acid, vitamin B9), found in broccoli, improves mood and concentration. Perhaps more accurately, a deficiency in folate can cause depression and lack of concentration.
I share all this with you in an attempt to motivate you to eat better and to look at your eating habits with the perspective of “wow, what I’m eating may be really affecting me in ways I never before considered!” You will be able to show up more fully in circling if you are not down inside yourself, if you have energy, and are able to concentrate.
#1 Drink Water
Surprise! I hope the number one practice is genuinely the biggest surprise for you. I’ll start with a paraphrased quote I remember from Decker Kunov, one of the best circling facilitators in the world and some probably rank him #1. “Every day I drink a full glass of water as soon as I wake up before I get out of bed.” I cannot remember why he said this or what his reasons were for doing it, but I tried it. For me it ended up being two glasses of water and I did walk to the kitchen to pour and drink them.
Have you ever felt tired in the middle of the day and you didn’t know why? I suggest you read over all the symptoms of dehydration and see how many apply to you; then try drinking more water and see how many of those symptoms disappear. You may feel tired because sleepiness and low energy are signs of dehydration. Many times when I feel this I drink a whole glass of water and feel better within minutes.
It comes down to this: your body needs water to function properly and effectively. This applies to pretty much any thing you’re going to do, including circling. Most American’s are dehydrated, and if you feel thirsty, you’ve already reached the dehydration mark. Drink about 8 cups of water a day (that’s half a gallon or about 2 liters). Drink more when you exercise, it’s hot, or anything that may have caused more water loss. Exactly how much you drink depends on you, your environment, and your activities. I use my pee to determine if I’m on track. If it’s yellowish and clear then I’m doing good. If it’s dark then I immediately up my water intake. If I have a headache, the first thing I do is drink a glass of water. Same if I’m tired.
Just like the other secrets here, this will improve your energy and concentration while focusing on one person for 60 minutes to get their world. Drinking more water may be the easiest of all these secrets and I believe it is the most foundational.
If I were to put a 6th practice on this list it would be to actually circle and circle often. However, this isn’t much of a secret, so I’ll just mention it and the importance of practicing. You have to do something and do it frequently for the brain to learn. Regular small doses of circling will work better than a weekend long retreat a couple times a year. If there isn’t regular circling happening in your area, find some friends that want to get together weekly and practice. Use one of these wonderful books to help you get started:
“The Art of Circling” may be costly for some, but it breaks down the art of circling into easy exercises to practice. For 6-12 months my friends and I got together weekly and selected one of the oracles from this book and circled with them in mind.
Good luck! Remember to enjoy and not force yourself.