On the last Full Moon, I did it again.
I know I shouldn’t have. The current limits on social gatherings are still quite strict. Yet, the promise of what we would create together was much greater than the perceived risk.
(Note: Although the gathering was bigger than allowed, we did follow social distancing rules and met outdoors.)
Under the cover of the night but with the guidance of the Moon, ten women went into the forest to sit around the fire. Each made her way through the darkness and to the sacred space. There, we knew we could feel safe. We could be with each other in a way that’s rare in most social interactions.
When one talks, all the others listen.
What’s said in the circle stays in the circle.
No one is held accountable for what she says, for our truth may change in the future.
We reserve judgment and comments; the point of sharing is to be witnessed, not given advice.
Finally, there’s the setup that enables all of this — sitting in a circle. As we face the fire and each other, we enter a sacred space that connects us to our ancestry. The darkness of the forest doesn’t threaten us. That’s because we’re here together — and we feel it.
Through its spatial qualities, the circle invites a distinct type of interaction. After that night, it becomes clear to me: People need to sit in a circle more often. When we do, we open up a new channel of communication.
This channel is what society needs right now.
How Circles Changed Me
My first memory of sitting in a circle is from kindergarten. When the teacher needed a break and wanted to make sure the 20+ kids behaved, she sat us down to play “The King (or Queen) of Silence.”
One child was announced the King or Queen and put in charge of a box full of colorful playing blocks. They would then go into the middle of the circle formed by the others. The point of the game was to sit as still and silent as possible. The Queen or King would then give out blocks to those kids who were the quietest.
To this day, I remember the intense energy associated with that game. Even though we weren’t allowed to speak, there was so much silent communication happening. We didn’t talk — but the circle setup made it impossible not to acknowledge one another.
Fast forward twenty years, and I started sitting in all kinds of sharing, healing, and community circles. Over the past five years, I experienced them as sacred spaces that help people come together. Sometimes, it was a one-off visit to a spiritual community. Other times, I occupied a circle spot as a regular, year-long practice.
Regardless of whether a particular circle would be ongoing or a one-off, each encounter was powerful. Sitting and sharing in a circle has certain qualities that leave me feeling empowered and less alone.
All the circles I’ve attended assisted my transformation in one way or another. By sharing words and experiences, being witnessed, and listening to others, I went through portals that wouldn’t be possible to access on my own. Circles made me realize that spiritual work done alone is usually incomplete.
As much as solitude is vital, your internal change comes to fruition when it’s witnessed by the community. Once the eyes of others reflect who you are becoming, you start believing it. This is how you transform. This is how you get to know yourself profoundly. And this is what the circle enables.
Circle sharing isn’t about asking for advice, discussing life events, or proving your reality to someone else. It’s not humble-bragging about your truth. The primary purpose of the circle is to witness others and be witnessed.
And even though our achievement-driven minds may find it hard to believe, this is powerful enough. Simply allowing the words to be spoken and heard in a safe space is transformative and nourishing. There’s no effort required. It’s simple.
All we need is to create the right setup — a circle — and do our best to speak and listen without judgment.
The Difference Between Sitting Around the Fire and in Front of the TV
Humans have been meeting in circles for millennia. It’s our most instinctive social setup that encourages honest interaction and connection.
“Circles with a sacred center are ancient, the oldest form of social interaction. The fire was in the center as the people cooked and ate their food, heard stories, worshiped their gods and goddesses, and passed down the traditions and wisdom that kept them alive and healthy.”
A circle is a place where the sacred blends with the ordinary. There’s no need for separating the two. That’s why circles can hold all types of interactions — from rituals and festivities to cooking and eating, to knitting or embroidering together (one casual form of a Women’s Circle), to playing board games (a contemporary example of circling).
Sitting in a circle is so instinctive that we tend to take it for granted. We don’t realize how powerful it is until we lack it. To grasp how deeply the idea of the circle is ingrained in our collective psyche, take a look at the language. For example, we speak of “social circles” or “circle of influence” to denote the people with whom we have an important connection.
The “circle” element helps us express the significance of those relationships.
Why is the circle so prevalent and instinctive? One reason is that it generates a connection by design. Sitting in a circle — traditionally, around a fire — makes us face each other. This physical setup nudges us to open up. It gives us no place to hide but, at the same time, it erases the need to hide.
After all, in a circle, you’re a part of the group. You can blend in and find a sense of belonging. And, you can also make yourself heard when the time comes.
Even though the circle is programmed into our collective unconscious, these days we don’t meet in this way as much. Contemporary spaces are designed to encourage something else. Our society organizes itself around hierarchy — and our living spaces reflect this.
Much of our spatial design disrupts connection, rather than support it. Just look at the school classrooms where pupils face the board and the teacher, not each other. Look at the office cubicle which became an iconic symbol of corporate life at the break of millennia. A lot of public spaces like buses, libraries, and even bars give us incentives to not interact, just because of the way the seats are arranged.
The cherry on top is one object that dictates the setup of our homes — the TV. Usually placed at the center of the living room, it sets the tone for daily encounters with our close ones.
According to Statista, 120.6 million US households have a TV. Considering the total estimated number of 128.45 million households, it leaves us with only about 6% of US homes being TV-free. In the other 94%, the ancient practice of sitting around the fire is replaced by gathering in front of the screen.
Instead of looking at each other, we watch TV.
Sure, we still may do it “together.” But that sense of togetherness diminishes when the space that hosts us incentivizes us to hide, rather than open up.
How to Foster The Power of Circling
The difference between sitting in a circle versus in front of the screen is similar to that between being intentional in our interactions and allowing them to unfold on autopilot.
In other words, a circle signals that we’re deliberate about what we want to create together. It empowers us to own our voices, speak our truth, and act responsibly.
Meanwhile, staring at the screen is more passive. It’s akin to saying: I don’t mind. Whatever is presented to me, I’ll take it, consume it, and continue to watch.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I don’t think that either of these setups is morally superior to the other. In our lives, we need both. Sometimes, we’re called to be in charge, conscious creators of our experience. In other moments, we must let go, sit back, and allow things to happen.
However, with the challenges we’re now facing on the individual, communal, and global level, it’s becoming clear that we need more circles. We need to create spaces that allow us to communicate clearly and boldly. We need containers to hold us while we heal, express ideas, and grow into our Big Selves.
Most of us have had enough of socializing on autopilot. How many times have you been out for the happy hour, reiterating the same old conversation with your friends? How often have you attended a family gathering, predictable to the point of seeming like a staged play?
I know how this feels because I’ve been there. Not just in the past; I still go into social setups where I show up as less than my Big Self. Even though it feels uncomfortable, I still hide. I struggle to speak my truth because the urge to fit in is so overpowering.
That’s why, to balance things off, I know I need more circle sharing. The Women’s Circle I’ve been attending for the past few months is one outlet. From there, I want to create more opportunities for circle exchanges with my friends and housemates.
While there are centuries of tradition weaved into circle sharing, at the core, this practice is simple. Below, I outline its components that proved crucial in my experience. Crucial for initiating the deliberate, open communication I spoke about in this article — but also, for supporting personal transformation in a safe space.
The clear, agreed-upon structure
A key element of circle sharing is well-structured dynamics. Without it, it’s harder to create the kind of “safe container’ where people can share vulnerably and authentically.
In the Women’s Circle, the person who holds the gathering outlines a few simple rules in the beginning. We all agree to the structure and rules of the sharing. For example, after the first person speaks, we’ll move clockwise to the next person and continue around the circle. We also verbally consent to the confidentiality of what’s being said and express the willingness to reserve judgment. The circle-holder announces the approximate time the ceremony is going to take.
Thanks to all this, we know what’s going to happen. Because the sharing is structured, it resembles a ritual in which we create a sense of control and predictability. Thanks to that, it feels safe to be open up and speak our truth without inhibition.
The genuine, aligned intention
You don’t need to be lifelong friends with the people with whom you sit in the circle. The power of circle sharing doesn’t come from the bonds we have prior to gathering. Rather, the bond is created thanks to the circle’s spatial design — and the shared intention of its participants.
This doesn’t mean that everyone’s intentions need to be identical. But, it’s important that they are compatible. For this, the participants need to combine their willingness to voice their needs with allowing space for the needs of others.
The balance of the circle is found in being ready to both speak and listen; to witness and be witnessed. Recognizing these as two sides of the same process is what’s required for everyone’s intentions to align.
The rule of non-interference
Circle sharing is about speaking and communication — but it’s different from when we communicate on autopilot.
When people share their stories, feelings, and experiences in a circle, all that’s required of others is to tune in and listen. This isn’t about discussing, asking for advice, or trying to assess what “the right thing to do” is. The value of circling is found in being witnessed without interference — and, in the next breath, witnessing others.
Through sharing without interference, it becomes clear how our personal journeys relate to one another. When we listen deeply, we realize how we all go through similar experiences. Other people’s struggles suddenly sound much like our own.
This way, we can experience what’s sometimes called a sense of “common humanity.” For this to be powerful, it needs to happen organically. Others may tell you countless times that “we are one” or that “all people are one big family.” But it doesn’t really get to you until you build the experiential knowledge of this truth.
In the circle, the realization of common humanity arises through practicing non-interference. When you focus on simply being present, the truth is self-evident. It becomes clear as day that we are all unique expressions of the same essence.
When this arrives in your awareness as a personal insight rather than theory, your paradigm shifts. And this shift is exactly what we all need right now, as a society.
Don’t Shy Away From Sitting in Circles
I say this mostly to myself, but I hope it can be beneficial to you, too:
Sitting in a circle together is something we can’t afford to shy away from.
I know from experience that it may be intimidating to introduce the idea of circle sharing. Your friends may laugh it off as “artificial” or “weird.” That’s usually because this kind of interaction feels challenging to everyone.
We’re not used to sitting in circles and facing each other. We don’t habitually spend our evenings around the fire as I imagine our ancestors did. The culture we’re raised in teaches us to hide and inhibit ourselves.
No wonder that the idea of circle sharing can seem strange, awkward, and challenging to us.
It does feel this way to me. But I discovered that this doesn’t have to stop me from participating in or even organizing sharing circles. And I don’t want this to stop you either. I want you to give it a try when an opportunity comes.
Yes, it may feel uncomfortable and awkward. Yes, you may not know what to say and the words may not come out quite right. Your attention may drift away or you may become bored when listening to other people.
But so what? None of us is perfect. Our circles may also not be perfect. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t organize them and do our best to communicate.
Don’t give up on authenticity and connection. Not in a global crisis, not ever. The price you’ll pay for that is much higher than the risk of feeling awkward for a few moments.