Circles — Sacred and Scientific


I was so well-behaved and knowledgeable in elementary school that the only times  remember being reprimanded, even gently, was when I was told to let other students answer questions occasionally.

I was pretty much always teacher’s pet.  Even at gifted children’s school.

John Holt visited my fourth grade class once a week.

He had no pet.

He was not even a standard, stands-up-in-front-of-the-class sort of teacher. He set up his cello off to the side and kept playing.

He brought his cello and set it up and practiced.  He did not play particularly well.

One of my most vivid memories of his visits was the time he asked us how the diameter of a circle was related to the circumference.

I remember figuring out, after trying to measure some cans and a round plate and such, that you had to multiply the diameter by 3 and a bit.

He kept playing, poorly, while he told me to keep working, for more precision.

It took me years to figure out all the things he was doing.

He was telling us to keep practicing whatever we were doing, even if we were not (yet) happy with the results.

He was telling us that the things we accepted as monotonous truths had been learned (and proven) the long and hard way, by folks like us.

He was telling us we were as smart as they had been and had the capacity to discover and prove things.

I remember his criticism made me feel important and not trivial and that was a unique and amazing feeling.

I was nine years old in the ninth grade and certainly no geometry expert.

I did know about how you multiply the length of sides of things with straight edges together to get the area, unless things were not at straight angles to each other and then you had to “drop a perpendicular” which sounded like a treacherous problem in graduate level mechanical engineering.

I did feel there was something different and magical about circles, even though I had not yet heard about “pie.”

It had, after all, been a mystery when my father of blessed memory had told me an allegedly grown-up joke about an engineer.

He was always criticizing engineers. He said they were not “well rounded” and knew nothing about music, which I later considered pretty far from the truth.

The allegedly stupid engineer, who was supposed to say “Pie are squared,” said “Pie are round. Corn bread are square.”

I did not learn about the squareness of corn bread until I ate some many years later in Kansas.

I did know, considerably before age 9, that circles were special because of the way they felt.

It is one of the earliest of memories, “Ring around the Rosy,” dancing in a circle with mother or even my grandmother, and I loved the “circle” feelings, the tiny beginnings of laughing dizziness.

I never much liked he end where we “all fall down.”

I sure loved the circle-dancing part.  I danced with other kids, mostly older than me, at Synagogue.  There was rhythmic running and jumping as we held hands with each other, this bunch of little girls.

I was about five — the others mostly seven or so. (We were at the age when asking each other’s ages was normal.)

The other girls told me there was weekly Israeli circle dancing (“Horah” dancing).   I never really understood why my mother did not want me to go.  Maybe there was a fee.  Maybe it was my mother’s recurrent fear of leaving me too long with “dull normal” people, as if I might damage my “IQ,” in the presence of “dull normals.”

But although the other girls could manage maybe a smile, I burst into giggles.  I was in some kind of ecstasy.

I had the same kind of ecstasy on my one and only (childhood) merry-go-round ride at a carnival.

Again, I never understood whether it was a pain to take me there, or it just cost money.

I didn’t know what hit me, on that merry-go-round, but it was the same kind of giggles.  I sought the sensations of a carousel many years later when I was out on my own.

Maybe some of it was something poorly described but often called “pelvic acceleration.”  They say a lot of women who can’t even describe why they love merry-go-round horses had their first orgasm on a merry-go-round.

I still think that going around in a circle was somehow part of this.

I always liked merry-go-round horses — enough that at least twice in my life I had one on my desk, on top of a music box that played the “Carousel Waltz.”

I never was that big on riding real horses, which I tried only once.

Circles feel good, and I think the feeling is universal.

The way that people are set up in configurations has a lot to do with how they feel.

I don’t remember speaking about this a lot, if at all, during my psychiatric residency.

I do remember the surprising strength of several psychoanalytic ideas, including this one, in … the U.S. Army.

I never quite understood why Army folks were always telling me to read and integrate the writings of Harry Stack Sullivan, but I did my best.

I remembered some very concrete things from those works.

I tried not to be completely turned off when he said something about women practicing “the profession” (psychiatry) should wear tweed suits and saddle shoes and being somehow “neutral” promoting “transference,” or the projection of feelings.

Although I will admit this made me feel a little less horrible about having to practice psychiatry in a military uniform, I was very proud of myself for not throwing this book that told moi (French-trained in such matters) how to dress, through the nearest plate glass windows.

Sullivan stipulated in his book, as also quoted to me by my supervisor, the angles that should exist between a psychiatrist’s and a patient’s chair.  Too close to 180 degrees and the anger of the confrontation would be unavoidable.  Too close to 90 degrees and it would be pretty near impossible for the doctor and the patient to “engage” enough to make the relationship work as needed.

No, I don’t remember the exact number of degrees specified, although my supervisor did.  For me, these decisions were more intuitive, more feeling based, but even I had to admit there was a nugget of truth here.


Everybody I can remember said a circle was the best way to build a group.

The Army sent me to a series of group sessions in Baltimore where both professional senior “psychiatrist-facilitators” and confused young psychiatrists such as moi sat in circles.  The “facilitators” were some how magically removed of their authority by our very equidistance.

As a matter of fact, at the end of this set of sessions, an empathic senior (female) psychiatrist explained to me that I was powerful and unafraid and as such, I was a “receptacle personality” who would be beloved by anyone who loved their mother and hated by anyone who hated their mother.

She reassured me things would not be “too horrible” as most people loved their mothers.

I must have said or did something correct as she invited me to apply to be a future psychiatrist-facilitator.


A lot of info to get from things I said and did (mostly) sitting in a circle.

I was in residency in Wichita when Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) was in its ascension.  One supervisor was savvy enough to see the power of the modality, so I went to a seminar given by one of its founders in Kansas City.

The seminar was very experiential.  I loved the idea of neurology shaping our views of the universe.  This was the first time since the army that I had discussed — let alone experienced — how placement in space shaped our view of the world — which it really did.

The seminar went beyond the pronouncements of Harry Stack Sullivan about how doctor and patient should sit.  Sitting with someone else in an adjacent chair facing the same way, it was actually pretty much impossible to have a profound and/or angry difference of opinion.  I actually ended up discussing abortion with a religious (native) Kansan who was wildly against that which I considered a woman’s right.  It seemed to end up being a fairly watered-down discussion of what viability was and when it was supposed to come, anyway.

But it was blown away by the exercises involving circles.  People loved being in a circle with walking or dancing around.  People took turns with, and universally seemed to love, standing in the middle of a circle, whether the circle was still or dancing and moving around.  But there was apparently universal anger when someone was outside of a circle and prohibited from entering.

We use the word and idea of the circle metaphorically an awful lot.

I have known women, often stalwart “salt of the earth” kinds of women, who got more than simple social cordiality from members of their sewing circles.  They developed some kind of psycho-social solidarity that permitted them to deal with some men who sounded pretty primitive.

But only a couple of generations before, their people had found security for whole communities by putting their (Conestoga type) wagons in a circle.

There is surely something “higher” in the meaning of circles.  There is something deeply spiritual.

I am not Christian and do not generally get into Christian hymns, but even I have heard and sung “Will the Circle be Unbroken?”  It seems to have slipped into public domain over time, so I am especially pleased to cite the authors, as on the link above.

Ada Ruth Habershon wrote the lyrics.

Charles H. Gabriel wrote the words.

Anything that has been around since 1907 and is still in use is impressive. But passing into public domain seems to be reserved for the wildly popular brands, the way people say “Please pass a Kleenex,” instead of “Please pass a tissue.”

This is the kind of hymn that can be counted upon to “lift up” a congregation even at (or especially at) a funeral.

It has been suggested that most of the development — if not the purpose — of religion is comforting the otherwise unfathomable hurt that comes when one must part with a beloved person by death.

There is a universal comfort in thinking of the universe as a circle.

Although labyrinths admittedly have their own subculture, they have been used, reproducibly, in the floors of cathedrals to replicate a complex divine experience.

The prototype for many modern labyrinths is in the floor of the Cathedral at Chartres.  There is but one way to get from the outside to the center, so even though one may seem far away from the center when it “feels” close, so it takes “trust,” analogous to a trust in the Divine,” to get there.

Anyone who has walked one with even a miniscule amount of self-awareness notices that the insights come at the end of a circular row where the path of the intrepid searcher whips around 180 degrees.

I think this means that blood is whipping around on the brain.

I keep coming back to a principle that I have always considered basic.

I believe that simple physiology underlies many if not all things considered spiritual.

Circles can also be a metaphor for not getting anywhere.  People can end up running around in circles.

More medically and concretely, they can end up, well, “dizzy.”

I first got this idea when I was a tiny student in Jewish religious school.  I used to notice, when we prayed with the elders of the congregation, that they would bob back and forth energetically while chanting.  Their eyes were often completely closed — understandable, since repetition fosters memorization.

I quickly memorized the texts, so closing my eyes was a slam-dunk.

Sometimes, as part of this practice called “shokeling,” they would even put their prayer-shawls over their heads.  When I could peek beneath, they often had beatific smiles.

I attempted to imitate this, although my teachers laughed.

It felt really, really good.

Now, I think there may have been temporary interruptions of circulation to my then-little brain.

I did this so energetically I once knocked over my little chair.

Couple this with a little hood-induced brain anoxia from a scarf (they did not dish out prayer shawls to women) and we had some kind of a happy-dizzy trance.

Great stuff.

They could keep in front of their seats in our little Synagogue, so congregational order was maintained.

They did not have to whip around like whirligig dervishes.

Come to think of this, it is probably how whirling dervishes work.

They are basically a subset of Islam that teaches to love absolutely everything.

Me, I think they would be a great antidote to any Terrorism aspects that may exist in Islam.

Western religions are not all as different as you would think, although my first thoughts of the meanings of dizziness are both secular and prosaic.

New England prep school, very early sixties:  This goody-two-shoes girl – moi — who had no idea she was going to become a pharmacologist, cornered a classmate, without witnesses in an otherwise empty classroom, to see what “chemicals” she was taking.  Something bad enough for her to get punished for.

I had never seen anything abnormal in her.

It turned out that she was taking “Morning Glories.”

I had thought that I had descended into the “slang” of the drug abusing world, but it turned out she took the seeds from the bright blue morning glory vines on her front gate.  She mixed them with some water, and drank them.

Not exactly the substance abuse of today’s street-wise urban youth.

She told me, “I got caught when I stupidly took the pan I used to mix them up, and left it for ‘cook’ to clean.”

After that, she said that her morning glory concoctions just made her “relaxed and a little sleepy.”


“The thing where you get dizzy is more fun, though.”

She wouldn’t show me.  Another girl agreed to “show and teach” behind the curtain on stage while we were waiting for drama class.

It started with walking around in an ever-shrinking circle, then spinning like the dervishes in the YouTube clip linked to above.  Then, she said she would start to feel light-headed and put her thumb in her mouth and sink to the floor and go out cold.

To her credit, she had warned me this would happen and told me not to wake her, as she would get up on her own at the right time.

I thanked her for her demonstration, but declined her “lesson.”  I tried to explain to her that I was quite certain I was wired different than she, and would not have been able to control the fall and would have been far tougher to revive.

Luckily, that explanation was enough to scare her off.

But what about western religions?  Well, for one thing, there are the Masons.

My brother of blessed memory was very fond of the Masons and proud to be a member.  He never did like that I seemed to know too many of their secrets.

I am not destroying anything much if I share that the letter “G” on the symbol on the side of their buildings stands for “God” and “Geometry.”

Now “Sacred Geometry” was mostly stolen from Jewish Kabbalah, anyway.  And “Sacred Geometry” is all over the internet.

As are all secrets – (Sigh!).

So beware — People are trying to sell secrets that are not secrets any more anyway.  They were used for a long time to plan sacred spaces.

My guess it is because of the way they made people feel.

Geometry is everywhere in nature.

When Rosalind Franklin found with X-ray distraction studies that the DNA molecule was built like a double helix, that was no less sacred than any circle from which double helical structure could have been derived.

There is religious perfection in the figure of the circle itself.

There are many polygons.  As sides become greater in number and shorter in length, these figures look more and more like a circle.

If you try to draw them, you asymptotically approach a circle.

(Yes, this was one of my gifted children’s geometry exercises, way back when.)

The circle is some kind of ecstatic perfection.

Its association with dizziness makes it no less sacred, maybe more so.

The key is doing something which westerners do quite poorly.

The key is accepting that one phenomenon — especially one so universal as the circle — may be the final endpoint of more than one system of thought, even though such systems may seem, superficially, to be incompatible.

I guess this means that in the infinity encompassed by the breadth and depth of human thought, the circle really can remain unbroken.

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