If I post about this again, shoot me

"A stern regard for principle, and a boundless capacity for empathy."

Dear Gray Mirror readers, I hear you. You’re bored! You want me to get back to taking over the world—or as Dennis Ross would put it, “providing global leadership.”

But as a blogger, it is a constant temptation to lose an argument just by shutting up and pretending to win. Gentlemen! I didn’t get to be the top monarchist on Substack by giving in to this kind of low-grade peasant temptation.

And as an amateur, there is nothing like doing straight-up intellectual battle with a professional. If the field is healthy the pro should win, but only the way a sprinter beats a decathlete: always and not by much. If it isn’t healthy… and, as I’ve seen on my little office-hours tours, there is essentially no profession not represented in our reader base.

Now another reader, whom I’ll call “Paul,” in an email to me, has gone even farther and done even better. So let’s give Babylon one more chance. I’ll post Paul’s comment, then comment on it very briefly. If you don’t care about any of this stuff, more “global leadership” is coming later in the week.

The theory

Paul, expanding on Pete’s comment (“novice,” yeah, right):

I think it’s a good response but incomplete in that it doesn’t explain the mechanism by which the shift from telling small-n narcissistic stories about oneself eventually gives way to just being present with oneself without telling those stories. I try to do that here in case you’re interested. This just reflects my novice experiences and opinions so I don’t claim to speak for circling or circlers in general.

Experienced circlers develop the skill of eventually bypassing the stories and going directly to the experience at the somatic level, even when feelings are strong. They speak from the experience (“I yelled because I felt scared”) instead of about the experience (“My husband disrespected me because he’s an asshole and I had to yell at him” or whatever the story) although when a new event comes up, they sometimes tell new stories before they find their way to the embodied experience.

It’s actually really hard to do. It takes practice to attune to what’s happening in the body and it takes practice to communicate it to others without being pulled into the story of the self.

That’s “being with your own experience” or “owning your experience”. Staying grounded in what’s happening in your own body as a way of understanding why we do what we do—rather than popping into the stories in the head that obscure the real reasons the body does what it does. We stop inhabiting a character narrative about ourselves and just start being ourselves and noticing what that self is actually like. 

While this uses only words known to Hemingway, it still includes phrases from new-age therapy world. Yet there is an immediate sense of truth to it. Let me try to restate this hypothesis in neurological, philosophical, religious, and even (gasp) AI terms.

At a neurological level, what Paul means by “somatic” is not literally that his bones and muscles are thinking. But Paul has a clear area of the brain in mind: the limbic system. If we replace “embodied” and “somatic” with “limbic,” and “head” with “cortex,” we can construct a clear and sensible neurological interpretation of these paragraphs.

As Wikipedia tells us:

The structures and interacting areas of the limbic system are involved in motivation, emotion, learning, and memory. The limbic system is where the subcortical structures meet the cerebral cortex.

The subcortical structures include the basal ganglia, which connect to the body. This is why “from the body” and “from the head” (the cerebral cortex) almost makes sense, in, like, a poetic kind of way.

So “the embodied experience” means the experience starting from the limbic system—or the limbic system as made audible to the cerebral cortex, by quieting the cortex in a meditative, unthinking state that can listen as directly as possible to the limbic system.

Of course in the ritual it is still necessary to talk—but the cortex, a flexible beast, can be trained to wire the limbic system straight to the tongue. As Paul says, this is hard. This is why it takes time to advance in the cult, and get the orange sash with a stripe! Lol just kidding.

Philosophically, “owning your experience” means explaining your experience from its original emotional motivation—a sound principle of narrative. By definition, we only act out of motivation. So you are not “owning” your experience, because you are not grounding your story in its motivation, from which all thoughts and acts must proceed. See how much sense this new-age garbage suddenly makes?

We can move the conversation easily into a religious context: the word spiritual is a reference to spirit, pneuma, breath—another extremely clear reference to the limbic system. Meditating, as practiced both in circling and in just about every religion, quiets the “self-loop” of the cortex and helps it hear unmediated limbic emotions.

Finally, the limbic system is the brain’s engine of reward, which should immediately light up the brain of any rationalist AI nerd. All computation is an attempt to optimize some reward function, which expresses the purpose of the computation. Cool!

The praxis

It’s impossible to argue with Paul’s description of how this mutual acceptance of spiritual, motivationally-rooted, limbic narratives actually works in practice when it works right (just as it was hard to argue with Pete’s). Paul’s description of the praxis is an impressive text, almost free of new-age babble—well, relatively free…

Why the listening works: People tell these stories because we are feeling strongly in various ways and the stories help us define ourselves in relationship to others or avoid the intensity of emotions in the body that we lack tools to cope with — even when they’re positive emotions.

When those stories are fully heard, when all of the stories of self-definition a person is compelled to tell are listened to without judgment until that person feels fully “gotten”—the person (unless they’re a clinical narcissist) will eventually let those stories go and stop trying to narrate the story of their life and instead just become more present with the moment-to-moment, embodied experience of being themselves.

Because nobody is pushing back on the story of the self (although asking genuine questions about things that don’t make sense is a type of push back that happens), the story becomes irrelevant and people stop telling it.

When I say “without judgment,” I don’t mean that nobody ever has judgmental thoughts in circling—but if I judge someone, I notice it, realize it has something to do with me/my values/my experiences and then speak from my (honest) belief that almost every human is doing the best they can with whatever resources and experiences they have and I try to speak to that base-level humanity.

I see it happen all the time — having someone accept whole cloth that you believe your own story and then completely decline to judge that story (not because they believe the story is accurate or think it’s the story of a good person or approve of the actions described therein), the person lets the story go and lets themselves feel the feelings in the body that the story was designed to explain or avoid. And then they find new clarity about what’s actually true about their embodied experience (why their body did what it did), which is an inherently non-narcissistic posture.

“Oh I did X because I felt Y”—doesn’t mean it’s a healthy or otherwise optimal response but the somatic self-awareness is a necessary precursor to making more optimal choices on whatever axis. Circlers are some of the most honest people I know about their character defects—it’s really amazing how a person can accept their shortcomings when they are surrounded by people who say “I see your essential humanity and you are worth listening to.” 

Of course, once you know you are honest about your character defects, that’s a great excuse to start being dishonest about your character defects.

Now, Paul is just plain beautiful here—even if he does sound a little, well, gay:

Sometimes a circling facilitator, when listening to the story, gets some sense of an emotion underneath the story and will invite the circlee to go directly there. “I’m noticing as you talk about your wife yelling at you, you seem to be breathing shallowly and tearing up. Can we just pause [the story] here and feel into what’s happening for you together?” And they’ll sometimes say no and we move on. And they’ll sometimes say yes and we just stay in the sadness or the anxiety for a little while or a long while and let them feel supported and heard as they experience the strong emotions.

And that experience of being witnessed experiencing the embodied emotion and letting it be (not trying to change anything) can affect a person strongly. They know they can feel the emotion and not die or lose their mind or be socially rejected — and they feel it and it passes through them and they move forward much less emotionally charged about whatever the thing is. And I think that’s a great thing! 

Circling isn’t therapy! It’s not designed to fix anyone’s problems or teach a person how to live better. It’s not a practice designed to catch and heal narcissistic people or histrionic people or depressed people. It’s a practice that exists because some people believe that there is inherent value in being heard and hearing others—that human connection is Good, as a pure observable virtue, and that hearing and being heard promotes that Good thing. It does sometimes help people with problems (as it has helped me!) but it’s as close to a rule of circling as we have to not have an agenda to fix anyone or caretake them. 

Real narcissists are really bad at circling because they can’t help but make every interaction about them—so whether they’re being circled or circling someone else, everything they share unconsciously pulls the group’s attention to them and their story. And the emotions they express are performative and tend to loop—they don’t feel a thing and process it and move on the way many do, they just repeat the performed emotion and self-aggrandizing story ad nauseam and never seem to move through it.

But that’s a tiny fraction of people I’ve seen in circling—probably close to a proportional representation in the general population. And they tend to get bored quickly and move on quickly because if you’re not able to really hold space for others (if you constantly pull attention to yourself, as I described in the first sentence of this paragraph), you don’t get a lot of praise and positive feedback about your circles, which they require in steady supply.

Okay, we do get a “hold space” in that last paragraph—but then he defines it. Bravo! New-age cult therapy world is as funny as it seems, but just try to laugh at this—you can’t. It’s solid. This is why, when in Babylon, you have to respect Babylon.

To paraphrase what Paul is saying, a circle “done right” is a group dynamic of very high honesty and very high trust. This dynamic is created by dropping everyone into a light meditative trance and coaching them to speak directly from their limbic systems, and listen directly in their limbic systems. While meditatively suppressing their egos,, they are taught to listen and speak in an egoless way.

This extreme honesty and trust can create much closer emotional and narrative connections. The result is an extraordinary feeling of relational closeness with the power of a ritual or a drug, in which people often learn more about themselves and always learn more about others.

But why is this good? Because it is inherently good—“human connection is Good, as a pure observable virtue.” While I think Hume would insist on his right to disagree, this virtue being an “ought” rather than an “is,” the natural-law standpoint here is strong—a religious person might say that God gave us speech that we might connect.

On the other hand, God also wants us to have sex. God may not want us to have orgies. God wants us to have platonic human connections as well; maybe not platonic orgies.

Is this not appealing? It is appealing to me. I would do it—with the right group—once. Because I am not hypnotizable, I probably would not fall into the meditative trance and would have to fake it, but I also think I have a reasonable sense of what my limbic system would do and would generate a reasonably honest, convincing fake. I would not get high as most people do, but a philosopher will try anything once. Or even twice.

As for doing it regularly—see below. But let’s stick a pin in that—we have a mystery. Maybe the mystery will reveal the pin.

A nonviolent mystery

Pete, an experienced circler, is telling us that narcissism is a significant problem in the circling world. Paul, obviously an experienced circler, is telling us it is a proportional fraction—and that circling, done right, is actually the converse of narcissism.

Because both Paul and Peter seem trustworthy people, let’s try to construct a story in which they can both be right. This must rely on different definitions of “narcissism.”

Paul’s definition of narcissism involves a person who just does not present as normal—closer to borderline personality disorder. People like this might be attracted to circling, as they are to any cult—but as Paul points out, the cult will reject them. Which is, frankly, pretty cool.

Pete’s definition of narcissism is more interesting and useful, I feel. It is essentially that of that great blogger of the early teens, The Last Psychiatrist: a narcissist is any person who is performing a character. TLP writes:

The narcissist believes he is the main character in his own movie.  Everyone else has a supporting role—everyone around him becomes a “type.”  You know how in every romantic comedy, there's always the funny friend who helps the main character figure out her relationship? 

In the movie, her whole existence is to be there for the main character.  But in real life, that funny friend has her own life; she might even be the main character in her own movie, right?  Well the narcissist wouldn't be able to grasp that.  Her friends are always supporting characters, that can be called at any hour of the night, that will always be interested in what she is wearing, or what she did.  That funny friend isn't just being kind, she doesn't just want to help—she's personally interested in the narcissist's life.  Of course she is.

A comedian I can't remember made a joke about actors in LA, but it's applicable to narcissists: when two narcissists go out, they just wait for the other person's mouth to stop moving so they can talk about themselves.

Circling is like this, but better: the circlers take turns being each other’s funny friends.

The audience, in responding to the circlee’s authentic, motivationally-rooted narrative, is coached to behave as supporting characters, who are always interested in what the circlee is wearing, or what she did. They are sharing the main character’s space, not impeding her self-expression by conflicting with it.

But since everyone in the circle “done right” is not playing a character, not telling a story, but speaking directly from their hearts—there is no narcissism; there is the opposite of narcissism; there is honest and sincere communication, in which each circler learns the true and complete motivational narrative of all the others.

The litigation

I think your best argument against circling (the one that actually points to something real and not avoided by “doing it right”) is that circling invites a level of intimacy with non-family members that is more appropriately reserved for spouses and that there’s something inherently emotionally non-monogamous about it.

If I married someone who objected, I wouldn’t circle with strangers anymore—but I probably wouldn’t marry someone who couldn’t learn the type of phenomenological listening that circling involves and share that with me IF they objected to my circling with others.

Paul, clearly no swinger, respects the power of the platonic orgy. However, this is only my fifth best argument.

My fourth best argument is that promiscuous sex is bad for most people, not just because it is bad for their partners, but because it is actually bad for them.

Each new partner creates new excitement—but this excitement, like any addiction, burns the limbic system out. It is no accident that the limbic system, the brain’s center of motivation, is also the brain’s center of addiction. Sexual promiscuity turns your warm, passionate bedroom eyes into hard, cold pornstar eyes.

God wants us to connect. But what if each act of connection burns out the power to create further connections, just as each new partner burns out the power to create genuine intimacy? Then God would want us to limit these connections, and only use them for the most virtuous purposes—never, as with sex, just for evanescent pleasure.

My third best argument is that the virtues of circling “done right” are not as relevant as they might seem, for the same reason that the virtues of communism “done right” are not as relevant they might seem. As we’ve seen, circling is better than communism—since circling “done right” is clearly a real thing. Paul’s descriptions ring true; but that only means they have happened—not that they usually or even often happen.

A good friend informed me of a hairy variant: a San Francisco men’s circle, using many of the same techniques, but also a bit of struggle-session action to make you get your shit together, clean your room, etc. This is a circle with a purpose in external reality. To use these techniques purely for their own sake, in workshops that just want to make you do more workshops—bad. To make real things in the real world—good.

And indeed it had been super good for my friend. Moreover, all kinds of religions use techniques vaguely like these, from Quaker meetings to Catholic confessions. Here again we must agree: organized religion, a real thing in the real world, is good. It may be spending the coin of limited connection—but it is buying something for that coin.

Yet we are forced to agree with Pete that circling “done wrong” is also a real thing—if nothing else, because the top YouTube hit for circling, a circle conducted (and quite expensively filmed, it appears) by the founder of circling, is agreed by all serious people, including Pete, to be “done wrong.” (Unfortunately Paul did not mention if he agrees.)

And after all—isn’t anything “done right” inherently good? Let us go deeper into how this process of hooking up everyone’s limbic systems can go awry—and actually cause the problems it is designed to remedy, or at least palliate.

The selling point of any of these social rituals is not that, when done right, they work. Everything works when it’s done right. The selling point is that if the ritual is always mechanically followed, it will always be done right—which, alas, is not so.

There is no authentic lunch

Paul’s essential assertion is that circling is counter-narcissistic, because speaking “from the body” (ie, from the limbic system) is inherently authentic. I wish Paul was right, but my second best argument is that I just don’t think he is.

The problem is: it is also possible to speak to your limbic system, which often finds itself just putting out something that you or someone else just put in. So the emotion is not always the ultimate cause of itself.

In the Circling Institute video, most viewers sense a profoundly inauthentic vibe from both the founder of circling (bald guy) and the first-time circlee (Chinese girl). Clearly, the Circling Institute feels that this is their best work, which is a problem. No one can say that the Chinese girl does not come away grinning like a fool on MDMA—which may also be a problem. When your top demo is a problem—there is a problem.

How can connecting everyone’s limbic systems be inauthentic? The limbic system can be inauthentic when its emotions are inauthentic—when they are not ultimate causes that the system itself creates, but are projected onto it by the self or others. Both of these projections are clearly visible in the video.

It is possible for another person to guide your limbic system. This is hypnosis—or, maybe, grooming. There is a clear hypnotic process going on with this circlee.

Her circlers are making it clear to her what emotions she is feeling, and what these emotions should mean to her. They are feeding her her story—and they are feeding that story not to her cerebral cortex, not to her “head,” but directly to her limbic system or “body.” As Pete agrees, there is something really wrong here—and what is still more wrong is that not only do the best experts not see this, they are literally involved in it.

But what of the founder and his sidekick? Don’t they sound like pedos? To groom her, to speak directly into her limbic system and incept emotions she believes are truly hers, the circling masters have to adopt this soothing patter, this almost ASMR tone, which is obviously as about as authentic as a used-car ad.

I have no idea what happens with experienced swingers. But here is what I think happens with experienced circlers: their “self-loop” learns to program their “body.” They essentially learn to hypnotize themselves, teaching the limbic system to reflect whatever they want it to reflect in the moment.

None of this, probably, is conscious. With practice, it must become easier and easier to listen to your emotions. It must also become easier and easier to invent your emotions, as the founder of circling himself sure appears to be doing here.

Imagine being the founder of circling. You have done this before. You have done this before with literally thousands of people. There is absolutely nothing different or unusual about the person in front of you.

Yet you are not about to say, with a deep “ah” from the heart, like at a poetry reading, that “your experiences reminded me of experiences I have felt hundreds of times before, and left me utterly bored, wanting a cigarette, and also maybe the bathroom.”

Will this get you invited to the next circle? Will it get you anywhere with the chick across the table? What will it do for the Institute? So…

So you learn to hypnotize, not just others, but yourself. You are not faking the circle by the crude means of only pretending to speak from the heart. You are really speaking from the heart—just as the pornstar is really sexually excited.

But she is still doing it on command. The founder genuinely feels an emotion of empathic connection with his subject—but his “self-loop” has ordered this emotion. The limbic system is only the proximate cause, not the ultimate cause. This is why it sounds creepy and fake, even if done well—it is a fake emotion, which is creepy.

Once you have trained yourself to fake emotions, you have a social superpower. The temptation to deploy this superpower on demand must be enormous. Of course, this is how you turn into what J.D Salinger called a “phony.” But we all turn into something.

What a narcissist who is also an experienced circler can do is to hypnotize himself on the drop of a hat, convincing his limbic system that it is really the limbic system of the character he wants to play. His emotions will sound authentic—well, sort of authentic, just like the circling founder sounds in that video.

But it is possible, I think, to learn to tell the difference. Needless to say, the narcissist’s character has no flaws—perhaps some past flaws, and/or present charming quirks.

The heart is deceitful above all things

And the worst problem is that to describe the heart is not to analyze it. If you let it tell its story and take that story at face value, you may be letting it talk you into lying.

Paul and I have different views of human nature. Paul, again, believes that

Almost every human is doing the best they can with whatever resources and experiences they have, and I try to speak to that base-level humanity.

I believe, with Solzhenitsyn, that

The line between good and evil runs through every human heart.

The heart will often present a dark emotion as a bright one. When we watch the video, we see the circlee tell us that she wants to matter more and feel more empathy. Yet we cannot help translating it into an utterly typical, human desire for more social status. Imagine being in the circle and responding: your utterly banal invocation of official ideology as a saccharine substitute for a genuine feeling leaves me feeling nauseated, as if I had eaten a bad pickle.

The whole idea of the circle was a zone of honesty and trust. And now we are just all lying to each other? What good does that do—besides making us feel close? The MDMA effect is a constant, more or less… but we could all just do MDMA, too…

Seeking the darkness in yourself

If you are a human being, the line between good and evil runs through your heart. The line between good and evil runs through every emotion; any emotion, from anger to love to even boredom, can become the motivation for good or evil.

The way to master evil (in my book) is not to scorch it from your heart. The way to master evil, since it will be there anyway, is to put a tight leash on it. The more evil you have in your heart, the more you need a strong and healthy conscience to constantly keep an eye on it. And above all—you need to know it’s there. And you won’t be perfect.

But while the positive emotions declare themselves loudly and need no analysis, the negative emotions furtively camouflage themselves as positive emotions.

To have the infamous “dark triad” of personality traits is just to have a sweet tooth for power. Everyone likes power. Some people like it more than others. When part of your motivation is the desire for power, how do you learn to see this in yourself? It’s hard, because you are always listening to what power says it is.

If you like power (and everyone likes power), you can be in two positions with respect to other powers: subordinate or dominant. From each of these two, what emotions does ambition—the sweet tooth, the desire for power—most often masquerade as? In each case, it masquerades as some deep moral principle.

In a subordinate position, ambition masquerades as righteousness. When you are totally powerless, the most you can do is to stand up for your rights. You fight for your rights not just so that you can have these rights, but so that others like you can as well. Whatever you did out of ambition, it was actually done in service to this principle.

From a dominant position, ambitions masquerades as empathy. When you are powerful, you should use your power to care for others. Unfortunately, this runs straight into my favorite etymological buzzsaw: the origin of the English word “lord.”

“Lord” is from Saxon hlaford, literally “loaf-ward” or “loaf-guard.” What is loaf-guarding? Is it like mate-guarding? What the Saxons meant is that he who wards your loaf—who gives you your daily bread, who secures your food supply, is your lord. And if he tells you to do something, you… have to do it.

The lord’s emotion toward his serfs owes little to empathy and more to property. If he is a good lord, he even feels responsibility and real warmth toward them. But from a dominant position, empathy is a warlike emotion—a threat to weaponize its recipients, perhaps even into a traditional army. To feed a man is to own a man. And anyone who is existentially dependent on your largesse is not a free man, but a serf.

Actually it is quite easy to misperceive the emotional motivations of one’s own actions. As Paul says, listening sensitively and accurately to your limbic system is hard. Paul, though, understates the danger that his limbic system is either lying to him, or being superficially controlled, either by himself or someone else, to produce a falsehood.

Unfortunately, distinguishing between empathy and ambition—between the desire to care for people, and the desire to own people—is analysis. This analysis is not that hard, perhaps, but analysis requires the head—the cerebral cortex—which is actually supposed to be turned off at the moment, except as required for talking and hearing. The same is true for all other deconstructions needed to verify emotional authenticity.

So you this powerful tool of introspection, circling, will tell you incorrectly that you are a perfectly good person without character flaws, and your actions are motivated both by a stern regard for principle, and a boundless capacity for empathy.

These stories come straight from the limbic system. The circling facilitator will not reject them. They fit the form perfectly. But they are lies. Actually, you are just playing a character—you are acting, and your method acting is so strong that it genuinely works at the level of emotion. But acting (which is narcissism in Pete’s definition) is exactly what you came here to avoid.

The limbic system will always try to camouflage its dark motives as light ones. Its truth is not always its own truth; the limbic system may be hypnotized by you or others. It cannot be trusted and has to be checked. This unfortunately requires a forebrain, breaking you out of any possible hypnotic trance. Sorry it’s all so hard.