Walking in Circles

“Stories move in circles. They don’t go in straight lines. There are stories inside stories and stories between stories, and finding your way through them is as easy and as hard as finding your way home. And part of the finding is getting lost. And when you’re lost, you start to look around and to listen” – from Writing For Your Life by Deena Metzner

I’ve spent my whole life wandering in circles.

The alarm clock rang three days during each school week at 5 am. Early enough for my mother to dress my half sleeping self in tights and skating clothes and get me to the ice rink before elementary school.

In the olden days of my youth, competitive figure skaters actually skated figures. We studied over 70 variations, increasing in complexity, of figure eights, with loops, half-turns, full turns, forward and backward, inside edges and outside edges, in order to work our way through the eight levels of testing that lead up to auditions for the Olympic team.

We were assigned completely clean patches of damp re-freezing ice freshly wiped by the amazing, magical, mechanical Zamboni. The goal was to move through a single figure eight variation, three full times around the double circle – but to leave only a single tracing on the ice with our blades. The belief was that the concentration, skill, precision and symmetry developed by skating figures created strong, balanced bodies and minds.

Three days a week, in the dark early mornings, a rink full of young girls and a boy or two, slowly, painstakingly tracing perfect circles, in complete silence, each on our designated patch. As the sun rose, the artificial lighting softened and we came off the ice for breakfast, our coaches would crouch on their hands and knees to examine our tracings on the ice.

I learned, before I understood almost anything else, that there were innumerable ways to move through the same circle and that nothing ever repeats as precisely and exactly as we imagine, no mater what we wish, even when we would like it to.

When we are lost we walk in circles too:

I spent years and years in my own therapy wandering around and around encircling wounds and memories, sorrows and rages, until I finally began to recognize the landmarks, and the shape of my own foot prints.

After many years, I grew comforted by the familiarity of the path and confident that I could find my way. I could then move on to new loops, wider-ranging, of increasing complexity and mounting mastery, all of which, even still, return me to the same familiar starting point. When I re-recognize the path around my core self, I know it is time rest or grieve, or remind myself where I come from before I set out again.

“God, you must be so sick of me.
I come in here and talk about the same crap week after week.”

I imagine all clients think it, and many utter it out loud at some point in the therapy when we realize that our conscious choices have led us unconsciously back to the beginning again. In therapy, we are always talking in circles – repeating the same core narrative over and over again, trekking along looping and overlapping trails.

For some period of time, the inevitable return to base camp is experienced as a defeat, proof that we can never escape our past, be done with it, or get over it, or stop repeating. It is exquisitely frustrating to discover that we have stumbled back to the the beginnings again.

Here is some news for you: We never escape our past.

Over time, we can come to have some compassion for ourselves, some acceptance of the inescapable repeat, and hopefully, some awareness that we never, in fact, can repeat the same loop in the exact same way. We repeat differently each time, and our cumulative circling is not without some subtle, valuable accumulated gains. We negotiate ever more sophisticated and savvy variations of the same themes.

Spiral learning.

As we pass over circular pathways layer upon layer of experience and understanding, of self-reflection, and compassion for ourselves and others builds up underfoot.

Sometimes, the encircled thoughts are erecting an essential defense, necessary protection against a frightening external threat. Or sometimes the circle securely incarcerates a perceived danger from within, or guards the treasure of our true, core Self.

The labyrinth at Crete was built at King Minos’ request. The purpose of the circular maze was to house the terrible Minotaur – a monstrous half man and half bull – birthed by Minos’ wife Pasiphae. A punishing curse from the the gods: Pasiphae’s passion for a sacred bull begot a shameful monster child, who at first nursed at his mother’s breast, but whose inhuman, insatiable growing appetite for human flesh had to be hidden and contained at the center of a long, dizzying circular pathway by order of the King.

Our monstrous half-human, blood-thirsty selves – our enraged, rejected, and shamed animalistic states can lurk at the dark center of a series of entwining circles until our conscious heroic self wanders through the maze, around and around the periphery building up strength to face down the internal horrors.

“Once upon a time, Shiva and Parvati decided to find out which of their sons, Ganesha or Karthikeya, was better. So they decided to settle the issue by giving their sons a test. “Whichever one of you goes around the world and comes back first is the winner,” said Shiva to his sons. He had barely uttered these words when Karthikeya got on his peacock and flew as fast as he could around the Earth, while Ganesha found the lazy but clever way out — he simply went around his parents thrice.

‘Why are you circling us?’ asked Shiva of Ganesha.

‘You are my parents and you represent the whole world to me,’ said Ganesha — and of course the elephant god won the contest hands down.”

(as told by Arun Ganapathy,
http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/2011-08-11/faith-and-ritual/29872516_1_shiva-temple-deity-vinayaka-temple )

We must always circumnambulate around the temple.

It is dangerous and audacious to approach the sacred center straight on. We can be struck down by the gods if we are arrogant enough to do so. The core Self will protect itself at any cost if it perceives an advance that is not circumspect.

This is the source of the circumnambulating interpretation, the indirect round-about, meandering, encircling questions that therapists use to approach central conflicts:

“Hmmm, I wonder if that is ever hard for you sometimes….”
“What do you think it might be like if…..”
“I’m sensing something seems to be replaying, do you have any thoughts about what it might be…”

A slow, wandering, lost, circular pathway is the only respectful road to what is most important to us.

Another memory: from my earliest 20’s, the post-collegiate years. I worked in a theater where a highly-respected, multiple Tony award winning stage & film actress was performing a one woman show. Still lost and unconsolidated I asked her as soon I had the chance:

“When did you finally know you were really an actor, that you were on the right path?”

“Never.” she said.

She continued:
“If you are going to commit to this process, you are committing to asking yourself the same four or five questions- whatever your own questions are – over and over for the rest of your life. You might find some answers here and there, but always, the same goddamn questions will return and have to be faced again”


Forty years later I still wake up each morning and head out of the house to move through my circles. Circle walking is central to the martial arts practice of Baguazhang. So far, over the past 7 years or so, I’ve learned 14 or 15 new ways to move around a circle, and many more forms lie ahead. Every two weeks Master Yang scrutinizes and corrects my forms. His way around is always easier and flows more naturally than my own cockamamie methods and constructions.

Now my ambitions are modified, my goals simpler: Each morning, as I circle-walk, I simply try to eliminate one more of the thousands upon thousands of ways that I make the path harder for myself.

copyright © 2012
All rights reserved Martha Crawford

19 responses

  1. Thank you for this. I really REALLY needed to read it as I circle around yet again nearer the core.

    I do feel guilty (?) talking about the same thing over and over again, even from different angles, but I know things have changed over the course of my therapy, and I’ve grown and healed, and I’m trying to find faith that this path is indeed the right one.

    Your post helped.

  2. I’m glad it helps.
    Repetition is how we learn, digest, metabolize, transform…. I,ve come to trust it, but I appreciate the experience of fear that all roads lead to nowhere. Step by step. Notice what you have done differently. Sometimes it’s even just recognizing the repetition a little sooner than you did on the previous loop.

    Best wishes,


  3. I’m about to blog on this myself because my view is slightly different and I don’t see it as circles rather as a spiral since we never quite go over the same ground.All roads lead to somewhere in my view – new learning, new experiences and new beginnings.

  4. great and important point! the circling we do around and around our vulnerabilities and wounds, allows us to slowly digest and work through the small bits and pieces we can bite off at a time… this is so important but rarely approached in such a straightforward, yet poetic way–

  5. Thank you for this, your timing is superb. I’m struggling with some very deep triggering that has brought me back once more to the same central relationship dynamic learned in my childhood abuse. There is an enormous amount of shame tied up in the feelings being evoked and part of that has been turned on myself for, once again, being “back” here, looking at something I have looked at so many times. (I must hasten to add that my therapist is showing no frustration about this, I’m having enough for both of us.) I have a pretty clear understanding of what is going on, but that doesn’t exempt me from dealing with all of the feelings. So reading this was just amazingly encouraging.

    It’s also a joy to read because I really enjoy your writing and all the different elements you pull in from so many different sources all tied into your central theme. I must confess experiencing some envy alongside my enjoyment. 🙂

  6. thanks so much, and I’m glad to hear that it is encouraging.
    In my own therapy – I know that one of the deepest lessons I learned from, and with my own analyst was that when the universe sends me “home” to face my core-conflicts again, that this is an opportunity to learn more about where I truly come from, and the primary task is to deepen my compassion for myself…

    thanks for reading, hang in there.


  7. Thanks a lot Robin,
    Its very true, only so much can be assimilated at a time – it can take a life time of journeying back to the core before we have encountered a significant portion of the Self, and always the unknown, unexperienced bits of ourselves will remain…

  8. Aw, thanks WG.

    Not sure how this one came together! thought when I posted it it was just all over the place.. The creative process is so strange…

    Thanks for the kind words. 🙂

  9. This is really great and needed. I think a lot about circuity and recursion in poetry, fiction, and history, but I have a tendency to think of personal things in linear terms. This is a much more generous way to look at one’s past (and future), as never-exactly-retraced, widening circles (hopefully not gyres) instead of repeating patterns. I’ll have to find a labryinth to walk in Atlanta…

  10. Wow, what a brilliant post. Just tonight I told my husband how I struggle feeling so stupid because it took me so long to see the obvious and I’m still looking. Now, after reading this post, I will look at my “circling” around and back and forth differently! I will see myself circling around for another bit of soul food to digest. Thanks Martha! You are such an incredible writer! Write on! And Right on! 🙂

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