The Dao of Circling & Surrendered Leadership

Peter Munthe-Kaas
10 min readAug 12, 2023

This is just a map.

Please keep in mind as you read this, that the map is most certainly not the territory. It might be a useful map (It is for me, and I hope it will be for you as well), and yet it is just something have synthesized to convey some of the insight I have gained from practicing Tai Chi and Circling & Surrendered Leadership. I find that these practices, although very different at first glance, map very well onto each other in what they are teaching practitioners.

The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.
- Tao Te Ching

The aim of this article is to delineate some Circling skills in the hope that it that can be supportive for the leadership development of the reader. I have used my Tai Chi practice and the 8 “energies” of Tai Chi as the structure for describing some fundamental skills or “moves” within the Circling practice.

Wu Wei: The principle of effortless action

Practice is an important word here. The way I see it the forms of the practices, in Tai Chi as well as Circling, are there to teach us about a transcendent principle of how to move harmoniously though life. In Tai Chi the name for that principle would be the Daoist concept of Wu Wei which translates into something like non-action or effortless action. Wu Wei points to an elegant way of relating (and by extension living life), based on a sense-and-respond approach to change.

“Don’t ever force a lock; you’ll bend the key or break the lock. You jiggle until it revolves. So, Wúwéi is to act in accordance with the pattern of things as they exist, not to impose on any situation a kind of interference that is not in accordance with the situation.

For example, we have a slum, and the people are in difficulty, and they need better housing. Now, if you go in with a bulldozer and knock the slum down, and you put in its place by some architect’s imaginative notions of what is a super-efficient highrise apartment building to store people, you create a total mess. Utter chaos. A slum has what we would call an ecology. It has a very complex system of relationships going in it by which the thing is already a going concern, even though it isn’t going very well. Anybody who wants to alter that situation must first of all become sensitive to all the conditions and relationships going on there.

It’s terribly important, then, to have this feeling of the interdependence of every form of life upon every other form of life.”

~ Alan Watts

Wu Wei is a high attainment and could be understood as balancing yin and yang internally in perfect response to the arising situation. Wuwei points to a deep sensitivity to what is as well as a deep connection to oneself as the basis for movement and action. In Tai Chi you never guess or assume you opponents’ intention, but rather stay centered, soft and responsive to what is there, so you can respond according to the reality of the situation.

To move towards this responsive state of not-knowing and effortless action it is paradoxically necessary (at least it has been for me) to practice a lot. The practice in Tai Chi concerns body alignment/posture, rooting/grounding and relaxation/emptying at the physical level and conversely relaxation of the mind. In Circling (Europe) we practice relating to ourselves and others based on the principles of “commitment to connection”, “owning experience”, “trusting experience”, “staying at the level of sensation” and “being with the other in their world”.

In Tai Chi we work with the 8 gates or energies of the practice as relatively concrete ways of practicing. My interest in the rest of this article is to describe how this is done in Tai Chi after witch I will present 8 “energies” of the Circling practice.

Bagua: The 8 gates

The Bagua is a set of 8 symbols that represent the fundamental principles of reality. If Wuji is the limitless undivided everything/nothing and Taiji (yin and yang) is the absolute harmonious, dynamic unison, the 8 trigrams represent the next level of complexity as the whole lines (yang) and the broken lines (yin) form 8 possible combinations of the 2 fundamental forces. The trigrams have been used in Chinese and East Asian cosmology, medicine and martial art in a multitude of ways so here I will limit myself to writing a bit about how they are used in Tai Chi and how they can maybe contribute to our understanding of Circling.

In Tai Chi the 8 trigrams are used to point to 8 fundamental ways of moving (in relation to another body). This is often referred to as the “8 gates of Tai Chi Chuan” or the “8 energies of Tai Chi Chuan”. The idea is that these are the 8 fundamental skills that can be practiced to gain a fuller understanding of the art. Another way of looking at it would be to say that these are 8 fundamental forms your expression can take that are in alignment with the fundamental principle: Wu Wei. In the following I will present these energies briefly as they are used in Tai Chi.

Peng
Ward off: Peng is an expansive, opening, solid energy. It is not oppositional, but rather a grounded stability in central equilibrium based on rooting. It’s a natural, constant spring-like energy. It is expressed in the entire body as a whole unified mass, that cannot be easily moved.


Roll back: Lü is a soft, yielding energy that absorbs the force of an opponent. At no point does it oppose the energy coming towards it, but softly goes with it, giving no resistance and nothing to land on. Lü connects to the opponent and accompanies him into the emptiness by redirecting his force.

“Ever desireless, one can see the mystery.”
Tao Te Ching

Peng and Lü are the almost “pure yin” and “pure yang” energies. However there will always be some Peng in Lü and some Lü in Peng. Overfocus on the Peng aspect becomes disconnection through fighting and rigidity, where overfocus on the Lü aspect becomes disconnection through flight, fawn and collapse. Returning to the Wu Wei principle we want to be able to be structured and stable without fighting and be able to yield without collapsing. The attainment is to stay in central equilibrium at all times. Both of these energies also has an aspect of “sticking”, which is a core concept in Tai Chi. This means that as soon as you are in touch with an opponent, you stay with the contact because that is how you can continuously be responsive to them. In Circling the principle “commitment to connection” seems to point at something similar.

Ji
Press: Ji is a directional energy that moves together and forward like a ball that comes up after having been held underwater. It squeezes all the force together in a small area of the opponent.

An
Push: This energy connects to the roots of the opponent. It is a receptive energy that comes back as a push with the actual power coming from the earth through the legs.

Lie
Split: Lie can be found in movements that splits the energy of an opponent in two directions, either as a defensive move towards a push or as an offensive move, throwing the opponent by applying pressure in two directions at the same time.

Cai
Pluck: The Cai energy can be accessed by the image of plucking a plant from the ground. It is a quick grab and pull where the opponent loses control of their centre of gravity and is uprooted. It I also often described as a lever lifting a large rock.

Zhou
Elbow: Zhou is an elbow stroke. A sharp, explosive, and dangerous move, that often aims for vital organs. The elbow is propelled by the centre and waist and the point of contact is thus an expression of the whole of the connected body.

Kao
Lean: In Tai Chi the Kao energy is used when an opponent is getting very close and you want to create distance. Kao implies moving the whole of the body as one unit, hitting the opponent with the full force of your connected body.

8 energies of Circling

I am fascinated with the way the 8 gates of Tai Chi expresses various options to be in harmonious relationship. Through practicing Circling & Surrendered Leadership a similar map of “Circling moves” has started to form for me and in the following passages I have tried to detail what 8 different expressions of Circling could look like, inspired by the structure of the bagua.

Becoming visible
In Circling I find a parallel to the Peng energy in what I call “becoming visible”. It is connected to will, taking space, setting boundaries and authenticity. I find that for myself showing up in this way is often where I find my deepest vulnerability, as I am showing myself in my power and in what I want. It also comes with a sense of being “in” with the other or the group. Rooted, centered, in integrity and with clear boundaries.

Expressions:
“I am here”
“This is important to me.”

Listening
I also find a parallel to the Lü energi in Circling as expressions of being in with consciousness or the mystery of being. It is expressed in stillness and non-knowing, surrendering to and listening to the silence. It is a state of receptive and responsive openness with a great deal of sensitivity towards the space. It is receiving the other fully without resistance.

Expressions:
“I am listening”
“I am open”

The two first energies/skills/moves of Circling are for me analogous to the Peng and Lü energies of Tai Chi and they share the same complexity of being present and boundaried without fighting and being soft and sensitive without collapsing. One way this comes out clearly for me in Circling is in the challenge of sharing my truth without making myself wrong (flight) or making the other/the group wrong (fight).

In the following 6 “moves” there is less of a direct connection with the 8 gates of Tai Chi and it is not possible for me to place them in the bagua in a way where I feel confident about the symbolism. The importance for me is naming a number of Circling moves and that it makes sense to think of them in terms of balancing yin and yang in different ways.

Inquiry
I find that the Ji energy in Tai Chi connects to the practice of inquiry and deep curiosity in Circling. This is where I trust my intuition, really allow myself to see the other and dare to share what I see. Owning experience is incredibly important here. In my journey with Circling it has become obvious that my intuition that f.x. “something is off” is almost always true, while my interpretation of that intuition “and that is because you are really feeling X” is quite often not and leads to disconnection as I start telling the other about their inner life.

Expressions:
“I imagine”

Self-reveal
Self-reveal for me means deeply trust my experience, staying at the level of sensation and sharing from there. I find that I often find connection to the other at an embodied level when I do this. Sharing the truth about my immediate experience seems to very often open connection to the roots of the experience of the other.

Expressions:
“I experience”
“I sense”

Discernment
Discernment for me means Judgement without charge. It is making sense of what is by naming the differences. It has a sense of freshness to it where events are reinterpreted and understood through a new lens. It can be a new beginning and new perspective.

Expressions:
“What I saw in this situation was”
“What I heard X say was”

Allowing/sharing impact
Allowing and sharing impact are deeply important moves in Circling. Really taking in the other and allowing myself to be touched by what they are bringing and really sharing the impact of being with them can be such a powerful gateway to connection. There is something very special about the meeting that happens when I mirror back to someone that I felt more in connection with them at certain parts of their story that often opens a whole new playing field.

Expressions:
“I am touched”
“The thing you said that impacted me the most was”

Innocence
In the I Ching the Lake is a symbol of innocence, joy, purity and truth. Some of the most powerful experiences I have had in Circling have been moments where innocence is present in such a way that it immediately creates connection. It can also come in the form of holding someone accountable by telling them the truth about how I am perceiving them. This is possibly also the energy from which you share the vulnerable truth that is standing in the way of connection.

Expressions:
“This is…”
“You are…”

Embodiment
Embodiment for me means allowing myself to move with my aliveness and speaking what wants to come through me without censoring anything. Allowing my body to be in the space and move and play, but also in the sense of “taking on” or “wearing” my experience — bringing it into connection with a full embodied expression.

Expressions:
“I am…”

Moving with the 8 energies

I like the connotation of skill in working with these 8 energies. My preferred way of understanding this is through the lens of something that is learned and developed through proper practice. So maybe 8 skills would be a more proper way of understanding these different aspects of the practices.

When I practice Tai Chi with a partner, and when I practice Circling, these “energies” or “moves” will come online more or less naturally. It is clear for me that I have practiced some more than others and that they feel more integrated and effortless — and thus there is potential to practice more where I don’t feel as fluent. At the same time it seems significant that life happens in a free movement in and between these energies and that getting invested in the outward form of them (as anything but objects of practice) would be foolish.

The 8 energies are to be seen as useful expressions in connection with the condition arising. The ”best” energy to move with will always be dependent on the condition arising and the relationship(s) you are partaking in. Or in other words, how to show up through surrender.

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Peter Munthe-Kaas

I am a Copenhagen based researcher of urban development, workshop facilitator and body therapist. In all my work I focus on sensitivity and relating.