In defense of circling, fashion, and my ex

"When in Babylon, do you do as the Babylonians?"

When in Rome, do as the Romans—everyone knows this. But the weight of the dictum is too light—since everyone loves the Romans.

The real question is: when in Babylon, do you do as the Babylonians?

In the last two relationships-and-society posts (yes, we will get back to the real Gray Mirror soon), I’ve emphasized just how lost in life any ordinary person will become without a deeply-felt respect for either traditional wisdom, or conventional (normie) wisdom. While the conventional is a degraded version of the traditional, the traditional is dead and the conventional is living. Both have been tested—one longer in the past, one fresher in the present. Age and presence both deserve their own respect.

But what about the fashionable wisdom? The untested advice? The nerd fads, the schemes for the perfection of humanity, even the new religions?

Most readers will hate to hear this—but fashion too deserves its own respect. Fashion is power—arguably, the most concentrated and important form of power. And power always deserves respect.

I am interested in “circling” not just because it is interesting, though it is, but because the position of power it holds has made an impact on my social circle and my life. When power sets its truth before you, it is a serious error of character and judgment to say: no thank you, power, I will not be told what to think; I will find it myself.

You should taste power’s truth—the truth of anything real and substantial. Always give power a chance. The worst possible tactical situation is a situation in which power is right, and you are wrong.

Similarly, it is true that in a normal human relationship the woman is the judge and the man is the suitor, meaning that until the courtship/exploration period ands and a commitment is established—traditionally by marriage, conventionally by an exchange of “I love you” or equivalent—the woman holds the balance power. Meaning that the man has to give whatever she’s into the benefit of the doubt—and should, too.

Of course, there’s a limit. Most of my friends would run screaming about 45 seconds after googling “circling.” The Circling Institute homepage, in its design, content and tone, does roughly the same thing for me that the New York Post homepage does for a Jacobin reader. But when in Babylon…

Pete chimes in

Obviously, most comments and responses to my post echoed my perspective. This is not surprising, since I am right. But we got one very interesting discordant response that, in the spirit of this epistemic humility, I wanted to pull up to the top. (“Pete” is probably easy to identify, but we don’t do that here.)

Confession(/Brag?): if you were to pin the fact that nerds like MIRI are into circling on any one person, you would probably pin it on me personally. Almost everything you said here is right, and I won't quibble. But I thought you'd be interested in a chunk of writing that's part of a rough draft of a book that's been languishing on my computer for a couple years. It's a book by me, a “circler,” targeted at circlers.

Pitch: most people aren't as clever as you and so most people don't notice the "circling narcissism" thing right away, but I very notice it, and you might like to know some of what I have to say about it.

I do!

While I have no reason to take any of this flattery at anything less than face value, flattery and circling do often seem to travel together—and, as a manager, one is also reminded of the “shit sandwich” pattern. If you are a manager and you think you’re above serving up shit sandwiches, you’re not! I accept the flattery, Pete.

Accidental Narcissism in Circling

The original inspiration/discovery of circling wasn’t “saying the truth,” or “revealing oneself,” or any cult of vulnerability kind of stuff.

What was most original to circling was enacting a deep, phenomenological listening. A Listening willing to undo my understanding. Not listening as an empty, receptive vessel, but listening as an ontological midwifery where all involved hearkened the world anew, permeable to be struck and moved by the world as it really exists.

That listening is the essence of the kinds of conversations which the linguistic-self-loop simply can't survive.

—Guy Sengstock

[I actually altered this quote. Guy wrote the original on a facebook thread with the requisite typos and confusions that come with quick communication. I did my best to perfectly preserve the tone and meaning, while correcting the prose.]

Circling can easily become an exercise in narcissism, and the only thing it takes is slightly misunderstanding what is being done. To be clear, I mean small N narcissism, not the personality disorder in the DSM (I talk about the real disorder elsewhere in the book).

Here I just mean the sort of deluded self importance and navel gazing that comes with telling yourself stories about yourself, then believing and defending those stories. I mean losing yourself in an increasingly elaborate fantasy world which glorifies all your incidental thoughts and feelings as somehow more important than they actually are.

Naturally, narcissism (the fantasy pastime) and Narcissism (the DSM-5 diagnosis) go together all too well. So the practice seems most risky for those of us with a Dark Triad personality type. You cannot drown your Dark Triad in the bathtub, or pretend you don’t have it—you have to couple it with a strong, healthy and active conscience.

This is one of the criticisms of circling I hear from people who have been turned off by it, and although I object that it’s actually supposed to be part of circling, I do acknowledge that it happens a lot in circling culture.

The reason this happens seems clear enough to me, and I think Guy’s quote above explains it, but the quote seems like the sort of thing that would only resonate if you already knew what it meant. So I’ll try to explain what I think it means.

This is a very mild example of the branding issues here. It is too kind to suggest that “ontological midwifery” only resonates if you already know what it means. Rather, it resonates as intellectual puffery, even intellectual intimidation—the reader has the instant sense that if the phrase means anything at all, which is by no means obvious, whatever it might mean can be said in a lot less than nine syllables.

If you conceive of circling as getting someone’s world, or getting your own world in more detail than usual, then navel gazing is almost inevitable. That’s because when you start from a place of only really being aware of yourself as your “linguistic-self-loop,”—your conscious, narrative-based ego—then what else can you do but notice your own stories and make up more stories when given the instructions “pay attention to yourself”? Then as you dive deeper into the practice, what else can you do but make those stories increasingly elaborate and sprawling?

That is what small n narcissism is. That is why circling can lead people there.

Yes. We observe that circling did not invent the quest for egoless awareness—which is hardly a criticism! Yet to desire enlightenment is the most unenlightened thing of all.

The real practice of circling is the “deep, phenomenological listening” Guy is talking about. I’ll lay this out in plain terms.

First, when someone uses the term “phenomenological” in this context they mean the microscopic bits of impulse, sensation, and awareness that add up to your entire human experience. For most people the ego thought loop is deafening, it drowns out almost everything else. But almost everyone finds an incredibly rich texture of sensation underlying that if they practice paying attention to it. I mean literally the feelings in your body, like the particular nerve activation of endogenous chemicals in your gut.

Next, the “listening” here is not about listening to the people you’re circling with. Instead, you’re listening to your own deep phenomenology, by which I mean listening to the small nuances of your impulses, sensations, and awarenesses.

It doesn’t take long for this practice to pay off: paying close attention to the microscopic bits of impulse, sensation, and awareness quickly reveals that your linguistic-thought-loop is wrong or deluded or limited. I like the analogy of something happening in the world, and then a reporter writing a news story about it later--the story is often sort of right in a limited way, but it’s never quite true to the reality of the situation on the ground. Your story about yourself quickly gets quieter as you see the reality of how you actually are, at deeper, more subtle levels. With this practice, the ego quiets in contact with the world, as you see the machinery that produces the story you had about yourself.

Again, Buddhists call this “meditation.” Which is not a criticism! But a lot of time and stress could have been saved if the answer to the question “what is circling” had been “‘nonviolent communication’ under group meditation.”

I was taught basic-bitch Buddhist breath-control meditation practices at an early age and use them to rest or sleep every day. It is certainly an altered state—and my mind parses it as an altered state, just like one produced by alcohol or drugs.

Perhaps because this state is so familiar to me, it does not show me any realities different from the reality that my ego lives in; it does not seem to give me any special power to sense my emotions, or otherwise unscrew the housing of the story machine. Probably I am also insusceptible to hypnosis, a very similar phenomenon.

Perhaps by using meditation for these mundane and quotidian purposes, I have burned out its power to produce a spiritual experience in me—just as porn burns out your sex drive. But I usually feel I have a decent sense of my emotional energy and its sources, even when those sources aren’t what I want them to be (see under: Dark Triad).

Yet every altered state has its power—alcohol, MDMA, LSD, THC, etc. The Persians, Herodotus says, debated every issue twice—once drunk and once sober. The word “symposium” essentially means a “circle” lubricated not by meditation, but alcohol.

A useful thought-experiment is the transcript test. Did you learn anything from your circle? Did you gain anything? If instead of going to the circle, you sent a temporary fork of yourself, who before self-destructing gave you a printout of what was said, would you learn anything about yourself just by reading? This test separates the power of the information from the power of the experience.

Of course the two cannot be separated. But all these types of altered states can clothe the utterly jejune and conventional in the robes of transcendent experience. A Dorito on the floor, refracted through DMT, is a rich and glorious orange world all its own. But videotape the session, and you see yourself eating Doritos off the floor.

At this point you might be wondering whether the other people in the circle even have a place in the practice as I describe it. If you’re just listening to yourself, then why do you need other people at all? The answer is emphatically yes, other people do have a place. Here’s why:

It’s of course possible to listen deeply to your phenomenology in any context, but nonsocial contexts provide comparatively little data for you to actually be in contact with. This is true because most of who we are as humans is defined by our social reality, and separately because nonsocial realities are simply not about us. A cool breeze is something to behold on the level of pure sensation, but it’s not related to us except insofar as we are relating to it—the breeze didn’t arise in contact with you, and doesn’t reveal anything about you in particular.

This dearth of data, of anything to grab hold of, is also the point of a Zen koan. If the experience being described here is the true essence or ideal of circling—which I think it is—this is Buddhist meditation with NVC in place of the koan, scriptures, etc.

Which is a brilliant combination, because the point of “nonviolent communication” (which, like “rationalism,” is a modern invention important enough that it deserves a cringeless, non-loaded label or brand) is exactly that: egoless sharing of feelings, without the collision of egos that would break the altered state and bring you back to “the linguistic self-loop.”

“Nonviolent” is a straight-up Orwellian propaganda move, but “communication” is in a way just as wrong. Communication is the collision of egos that establishes a shared reality. “I hear you” and “you hear me” may be a starting point for communication—but the communication has not yet happened.

If a nerd analogy is pardonable, NVC is a kind of “lock-free programming”—a limited set of techniques for parallel programming in which computation threads cannot conflict. There is a lot you can do with LFP. But often, you need a single source of truth; you need to modify it, one thread at a time; and you need a lock.

My experience in attempting to communicate with an extremely smart and loquacious woman militantly determined to recreate the experience, even the ecstasy, of circling, but in a romantic relationship, may prove illustrative.

Where an ordinary person hears an ordinary response and, interpreting it using the principle of charity, internally translates it into conflict-free sharing, the response of the NVC militant is to simply reject and not-hear the response—almost trying the exotic-animal training method. I have even heard something like “I could hear that if you said X,” where I said Y, which no reasonable person could hear as anything but X.

And of course, once you hear “I hear you”—where do you go from there? The “I hear” all too quickly turns into a single syllable that starts with F. “I hear you hearing me” is the natural response, which is about as communicative as “F you too.”

My habits of active listening are very different, because they rely on often restating and paraphrasing the other person to solicit agreement. This involves a lot of guessing about what the other person thinks, often just trying to use different words. At least if the guess is wrong, in NVC terms this is “projection,” which is a major sin. When views cannot collide, and where they differ, actual communication of content can become almost impossible.

Conversely, a person being a certain way in our presence, especially when that person is also in deep, phenomenological contact with us, is very much about us. It’s partially about incidental factors in them and in the environment, but our presence in that environment changes who they are, materially changes their experience of the world. Said differently, their experience with us is partially a reflection of us. That means that people—other aware beings—can act as powerful mirrors for us, that we can choose to look into to see ourselves more clearly, if we have the courage and practice to do so.

This is the full platonic orgy. The fundamental question is: because you are high—high in two ways, on both the meditation and the social attentionyour look into yourself will indeed feel anomalously clear.

But—is it? All I can say is that clearly, in some cases, the answer is probably yes; and in many cases, the answer is certainly no. Altered states are not with a certain power. The Persians kicked ass. But it’s easy to get to the point where you only debate drunk.

So, in circling “knowing yourself” means being aware of how you actually experience and interact with the world, and does not mean having a detailed story about yourself. And actually doing the practice leads to more “knowing yourself” in circling terms, and leads to less “knowing yourself” in narcissistic terms.

This is what I actually mean when I say “feel what it’s like to be yourself,” when I intro circling for newcomers. The length of this explanation is a big part of why I don’t try to say anything like “deep, phenomenological listening” instead.

I would recommend “nonviolent communication under group meditation.” The NVC brand may still take a bunch of selling; most people know what meditation is. Then again, this clinical technical description may not appeal to the actual target customer.

Who is definitely not me—although, as a philosopher, “nonviolent communication under group meditation” is something I would try, at least once—even if meditation isn’t really mind-altering for me. But I’m a philosopher.

“Ontological midwifery” is not. As a writer I will never yank your chain with words. And nor shall my chain be yanked. By entering the context as if it was the Eleusinian Mysteries, by starting with all this opacity and flummery and para-religious rhetoric, perhaps the circlers are creating the “set and setting” of their drug-free trip. Certainly it would not be the first cult to deploy mysticism—but these kinds of Jedi mind tricks do not work on me, and they probably shouldn’t work on you.

Pete, adroitly entering my frame of skepticism, closes in true circling style by echoing it back to me in the way I would most want to hear. Hopefully here he is authentic too—but here is the other piece of bread in the beautiful sandwich:

Oh, and if you're asking yourself:

Hey self, even if we take seriously the possibility that “doing it right” in circling is anti-narcissistic, while doing it subtly wrong is narcissistic, what does it say about the practice that the guy (Guy?) who started it and who selected a particular example video to be the top hit on google about it, is also “doing it wrong” in exactly that way?

My reply is: yes.

Not only do I “take seriously the possibility,” but I completely agree with it.

(Though it is not clear how much control the guy (Guy) has over Google—but that’s him in the video, clearly abetting a narcissistic moment (in a very un-Narcissistic person, ie, the kind of person who could most benefit from such an experience) in a way that is clearly insincere, and actually kind of creepy in certain perspectives.)

The problem, I think, is just that meditation is a weak drug (by drug standards). Also, as I’ve observed, you get kind of a tolerance.

This means that, at a certain point, if you like the experience and keep doing it, you’re going to find yourself in a situation where you have not actually achieved any kind of egoless enlightenment of pure thoughtless feeling. Actually, you are still thinking with your social-linguistic “self-loop”—and what does this self-loop tell you to do? Fake it.

Picture the situation of the facilitators in that video. Were they to authentically report what their body is telling them to feel, I am almost certainly sure they would report some kind of boredom—they are having the same cliched experience over and over again. Even a saint would be bored. These people aren’t saints. And the experience for the woman in their crosshairs is new, fresh, and overpowering—they cannot get into a rhythm with her unless they project the illusion that she is also overpowering them. Which, obviously, she isn’t.

And once you learn to fake it, you get in the habit of faking it. And once you get in the habit of faking it—especially when you are not always faking it—the real experience and the fake experience blur into one. The porn star, when she puts on her “bedroom eyes,” may even be genuinely horny. But even when her excitement is quite genuine, it retains a cold and artificial aftertaste. This is why “amateur porn” is a thing.

The phenomenon in which even a cult’s founder becomes corrupted by its potential for abuse is hardly a new one. Nor does it invalidate the principles of the cult—it is quite true, I think, that circling practiced properly is the opposite of narcissism. And in other news, communism practiced properly is the opposite of fascism. But what is the ordinary case? We must look at the world in front of us.

The tragedy of these systems is that they ruin people who don’t need to be ruined, and relationships ditto. I remember nowhere in the relationship where either party had any antisocial purpose, or any conscious intention of hurting the other. Yet the stress of miscommunication was constant and lethal—and I blame this on the attempt to run a relationship on these very dangerous principles.

It is not even close to fatal to have a bit of Narcissism in the DSM-5 sense—not even the whole Dark Triad. I have the whole Dark Triad and was happily married for 20 years, and if anyone was the boss in that marriage it was her. It may even be true that a bit of small-n narcissism might be good for someone like the shy woman in the video. But the combination of the two is utterly pathological.

Which leaves me with the same attitude toward my ex that I have toward our society. They are not bad people. In many cases, though, they have been utterly ruined by bad ideas. The people are impossible to work with, because they think the ideas are them. Yet one can still regard the people with affection, if not full-on love, and the ideas that have corrupted and destroyed them with white-hot burning rage.