The Circles Maps

The following maps explore some of our deepest assumptions as individuals and as a culture about how the world works. The maps are descriptions from a systems or ecological point of view of how things actually work with us, not prescriptions of what should happen, and they are maps of two very different kinds of experience.

The coercive or vicious circle is the map of the old common sense – the core of the institutional and cultural thought system within which we have lived for the last 6-10,000 years coming down from the beginning of civilization and history and continuing into the present. The collaborative or benign circle is the new common sense or understanding that is evolving within the old.

The terms ‘vicious’ and ’benign’ are not equivalent to good and bad (that perspective is itself part of the dualistic structure of the vicious circle itself) but instead describe the nature of the outcomes of each system. The first systematically works against what we want, and what supports us, generating paralyzing double binds or the treadmills of vicious circles; while the benign circle has effects that work towards what we value and what supports as well the system or whole that we are part of.

A common sense is not an ideology or set of beliefs as we usually think of beliefs, but the underpinnings of our thinking. A common sense is a shared practice of a way of thinking that is a bedrock for very differing beliefs about how the world is. The common sense of the previous several thousand years is the basis of both Christian and Islamic beliefs, Marxism and capitalism, religions and scientific thought.

The core assumptions of the common sense are in the centre of the circles. This is the level of paradigm – the understandings we hold about how the world works, understandings that generate the kinds of structures –political, economic and social – which in turn create the patterns of events we experience every day.

Each circle is an integrated system of thought, an ecology of underlying ideas, people and actions. The assumptions within each circle fit together intricately to create a perfectly coherent and understandable system of thought, feeling and action. If you grasp the core assumptions and how they interplay, the characteristics of the system that emerges become understandable and predictable in nature. The assumptions lead to behaviour that confirms the assumptions and tends to draw out more of that kind of behaviour which again reinforces the assumptions. The circle is the line we trace as we move through time, thinking, acting, getting feedback, thinking, acting. The driving emotions and mindsets fuel our circling (or spiraling – you could see it as a spiral seen from the top, with us moving through time, coming back to similar places, though never the same.) And in real time, it is not a simple circle; many parts of our lives are all moving at once, creating a web.

Diagrams and distinctions

(click the images to enlarge them)
Coercive-Circle Collaborative-Circle

Coercive Circle core assumptions:

  • That the world and thought about the world are by nature dualistic, a division of things into pairs and opposites, including good and bad, wrong and right.
  • That there is an authority outside of ourselves which is the source of knowledge about ‘reality’ and what is good and bad, and is able to punish or reward behaviour.
  • That a set of standards or rules handed down by this authority is the proper guide for human activity.
  • That it makes sense to create judgement, to guilt, shame and blame, or more secondarily, to reward and praise behaviour.

This vicious circle first assumes a world of dualistic good and bad, right and wrong. It then works by installing a guilt button – the capacity to be sensitive to blame and guilt. It establishes the standards of what is right and wrong, and then sets the circle in motion by elaborating ways of comparing people ( test, rank, compete) and their worth against the standards – ways of judging them. Driving it is fear – fear of being found wrong, fear of not achieving the standards, and fear of losing what one may have gained by being successful in matching the standards or creating an acceptable self. It is also fueled by desire for the goals that are held as being desirable, though the fear is more predominant. Great battles can take place over what is actually right and wrong, yet within the system, no one doubts that objective right and wrong can be known.

It is vicious not because it is bad but because there is no way of satisfying its demands, and because its effects are to undermine and destroy what we strive for, and even the world we depend on. There is no way to stay at the top – inevitably, by the very nature of the system itself, we move around the circle.

From within this vicious circle system, it doesn’t look to us like a circle but more like a ladder, with all the desirable, good aspects at the top, and the undesirable on the bottom. Heaven is at the top, Hell at the lowest point, and we are struggling to rise up the ladder, and checking to see if others are a step or more above or below us. We talk about rising above things, ascending – or falling from grace, sinking into the depths of degradation. It does seem to us that we could reach and stay up the ladder. We ourselves in this view seem to be stable, consistent ongoing objects who are to be measured and ranked; saved by our efforts, or thrown out of the company of the righteous or the successful or the ‘cool’.

Having power is good, being powerless is bad, and so the unacknowledged undercurrent of the ‘good/bad’ judgment is the power struggle – ‘who has power and control over whom?’ We all defend ourselves in this system, and the defenses themselves become more problems. We are all caught in the double binds of ‘doing it right’.

Collaborative Circle core assumptions:

  • Learning/creating is central to us and is inherent in our nature.
  • We learn and create best anchored in a trust-of-ourselves-in-the-universe, rather than fearing ourselves.
  • We are complex adaptive living systems, profoundly interdependent with each other and that world, more processes in flow and change than separate objects isolated in space and time, and we need a systems way of understanding, which will allow us a base for reflection on the systemic effects of trust- and fear-based choices for us and our world.

With these assumptions as its ground, the circle then says the sorts of actions needed are to “support, nurture, question, stimulate, challenge, inform, demonstrate, reflect, dialogue, appreciate, play” – towards ourselves and towards others. We learn and continue to learn. What supports the learning on which our personal and collective growth and evolution depends is a set of behaviours and intentions – nurturing, stimulating, informing, dialoguing, playing – that reflect and reinforce the intent to relate to each rather than to control, and to support the learning and understanding process. These behaviours lead to a fundamental sense of trust of ourselves, more ongoing deep learning, and a creative openness to explore and act in the world. This underpins the development of the intelligence and sensitivity – the wisdom and compassion to truly explore and care for oneself and the world we are part of.

Flow in the circling and spiraling processes of life find us moving through different phases of living and learning – knowing and not knowing, creating and dissolving, birth and death – and accepting all these as part of the flow. We can’t separate out one and have it without the other.

We ourselves are in flow, more patterns in the flow of the universe, vortexes in the river of living being. “The universe peoples as the ocean waves”, said Zen writer Alan Watts; “We are not stuff that abides, but patterns that perpetuate themselves”, said cyberneticist Norbert Weiner.

We follow what we are drawn to by desire, and also accept that every gain naturally dissolves into loss, that not knowing is as much a part of the learning process as knowing. We become able to trust ourselves in the larger flow of the circle, and to be present, open, curious and creative in what the moment presents. We can hold more ‘both-and’ understandings rather than seeing things as excluding one another as either/or choices.

The result is integrity – a sense of wholeness, integrating all our knowing and understanding – including our not knowing – not having to hide or deny parts of ourselves and our experience. We are free for wonder, collaboration, empathy, love, and an understanding caring about the amazing whole of which we find ourselves to be a part.

The Living Room Context Commitments & Assumptions are copyright 2001 Jean Robertson.

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