C is for Circles

Peppery Circles

C is for Circles

I’ve been resisting writing on this topic since it first drew my attention.  I’ve been “circling” around it ever since.  The Gladwellian “Tipping Point” that led to my actually putting these words down was when I was reminded of a classic definition of God:

The nature of God is a circle

of which the center is everywhere

and the circumference is nowhere.


Almost at once I was flooded with circle images and phrases: Inner circle; outer circle; going around in circles; expanding circles; contracting circles; hamster cage circles; circling for a landing; social circles; spirals; cycles of nature; going full circle; circles of us and them; etc.  Then I thought, “What if Empedocles was on to something?”  That meant that God was everywhere and anywhere that I could be aware of. That all awareness was of the infinite nature of God.

Now, let me get the word “God” dealt with so I can go on.  As a former active minister in the Presbyterian Church I was quite comfortable with this word.  Then I got psychologyized and liberated and evolved into using synonyms as a way to not have to deal with miscellaneous baggage associated with this word.  I tried a full range: higher power; Spirit; Nature; the Goddess; the Self; etc.  Finally two things became clear to me: one, the euphemism route just felt like cheating; and, two, I missed “God” in the sense that experiences I’d had associated with that word had been very rich and meaningful to me and I wanted to re-claim that heritage.  I’m not talking about the Patriarchal Cosmic Accountant.  I’m talking about what I experienced beyond the theological constructs and creeds.  I’m talking about what connected me to life in the fullest senses rather than what reduced things down to dualistic categories of right and wrong, black and white, good and bad.  The closest word for those experiences is Grace. If you push me I would admit I am very drawn to the Tao insofar as it speaks to this issue in the opening words of the Tao te Ching: “The Tao that can be named is not the eternal Tao.”  I think this is a big part of why I like Empedocles so much.  So, “God” it is.

The next step was to consider what I mean by circles and how circles come into being.  For now, since this is a topic in progress, I’m using the word “circle” to speak to any and all experiences of awareness.  I suspect that there is really only one big circle, but whenever I am able to be present and aware a “franchise” circle is created. I’m going to assume that each of us has our own franchise and all kinds of circles are being drawn all the time without anybody having to get permission from me.  That’s a relief.

It would seem that what I am saying is that God is at the center of all human experience.  That quickly leads to another old issue: what about evil?  Since so much of our experience as humans includes suffering, pain, and death do I want to put God in the center of those circles as well?  Yep.  Otherwise Empedocles would be pissed off at me; and, it would suggest that there are limits on God.  I’m not interested in such a cleaned up version of God.

Now we’re getting to it.  If God is at the center of all the circles of our existence and we don’t draw the circles we only become aware of whatever circle we’re capable of, then that changes the whole game for our dear old egos.  We suddenly find our place at the center of the/our universe very relativized to say the least.  I think of a t-shirt I’ve always fantasized about creating.  On the front it says: “Don’t they know who I am?”  And, on the back, it says, “Who do they think they are?”

The stumbling block is that we like the “Wow!” parts of hanging out in the circle with God, but we aren’t so thrilled about the “Ow!” experiences.  Once again the Buddha nailed it with the whole grasping and aversion reality.  In spite of all the experience to the contrary we think we can beat the system and avoid suffering.  We can’t.  The Circle has to be inclusive. We are not the center of the circle, but now we can be aware of the circle and expand our awareness of how vast it is and begin to see and experience our relationship to the nature of God.

My job description has now changed.  Can I open my awareness to the Circle of life in all its fullness?  Or, as I am fond of saying, “How much life can you stand?”

I intend to write more on this topic and hope you find it of value. Your feedback would be greatly appreciated.

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17 Comments on “C is for Circles”

  1. Josh Freeman Says:

    The spirituality of a visual object like a circle is an interesting subject to a designer like me. Metaphors are all we have to work with. And the sense of inclusion, exclusion, unity, wholeness, oneness, interest, attention and so on is great fodder for thought. Love to see where this leads. Another nice one, Allen.

  2. allenkoehn Says:

    Thanks for the quick response. I think I might actually be able to riff off this metaphor more easily – and more often – than the Sue Grafton.

  3. Christina Mentes Says:

    Hey AK,
    I really resonated with your process of struggling with the term ‘God’ best holding your experiences after being ‘psychologized & liberated’. For a long time I tried to change the image I had of God as an old, white man into a woman or spirit, etc.-only to find this separated me from my deepest experiences when trying to do so. (he can actually be Black in image-probably due to early movies I saw-but not Latino. Wow, that is hard to admit online!) Reclaiming that image as a Latina social justice advocate was/ at times is / an internal nightmare-but necessary to feel fully connected to my depth of experiece of my relationship with God. My own anger and judgements of others who portray Jesus as White is being touched with compassion at this moment from reading your post. Thank you. Hugs! CM

  4. Diana Fisher Says:


    I’ve so enjoyed reading your thoughts on God in the dark before dawn. I appreciated the necessity of qualifying what you mean by God–I like the word “God” myself (“Higher Power” can too easily be abbreviated to sound like Hewlett Packard), but the word definitely has a lot of baggage. Still, somehow, I regret having to qualify it so often–I always feel I am simply offering an alternate set of baggage for whatever other baggage there is. The experience is ultimately unnameable–a circle is nice that way.
    Maybe because I have been up since 3, I did not really get the “franchise” part. I’d appreciate a little expansion on that.
    Best to you and yours, Diana

  5. Wendy Wade Says:

    So since God created everything, God is the largest circle, the God-self. We are made in his image with a Self to match. We are included in that circle as a collective and as individuals. I believe God is all good, not a duality of good and evil or even having both natures in a more grey sense. I know I am not Jungian by saying that. Oh well. Maybe God has the one all-good nature. What if God’s Self Holds all within its circular bounds for safety and the kind of protection people like me need–it has to come from somewhere, so we know deeply that we are loved, that grace is always available, BUT the permeable membranes of free will allow us to travel in and out of the One Self where evil is readily available. Could some ‘leak’ into God’s circle through those membranes too? That’s my next question for myself. Could it come in and God offer its transformation? I don’t know. These are early morning thoughts after 1 reading of your article. Challenge me and I’ll think some more. Glad to be talking to you again. Wendy

  6. almog shanun Says:

    thank you allen for sharing. you thought and comments are full of wisdom on the net as well as in class. god is a though term to me, just god and not gods or what they represnt. but it always intersting to get more perspectives about beliefs.

  7. Lu D Says:

    God has no beginning and no end, as the circle suggests. I would say, rather, there is no God—out there. There is only experience, but we need a story to express our experiences, there must be a story. . .so we have concepts of God.
    Reading the blog, and responses, reminded me of my experience with Catholicism. There, the Jesus character is the expression and experience of the OW. (Yes, in this story, the Glory/rising from the dead is supposed to be the focus, and that was more my experience during my Protestant seminary days) In a lived sense, experiencing God in Jesus through the OW is a daily experience as a Catholic–for some, those with the intention. I especially saw this so deeply integrated in the culture of New Mexico. Latinos there, it seemed to me, integrated and embodied God/WOW with the richness of grand ritual and also knew Jesus/OW shown in the expressions of suffering. Walking to the altar on their knees in prayer. Or, walking perhaps 100 miles carrying a cross in prayer/with intentions for a sick family member. This was quite like the Buddhist pilgrims I witnessed in Tibet who walked a few steps and then prostrated, got up and walked a few steps and on and on for amazingly long distances. This type of devotion, while riding on the tails/tales of religion is really the experience of this discussion; everywhere and nowhere. I love the quote. For me, with the circle, I get the image of a twister. With that much force and passion is the experience of OW. There is no true experience of WOW without OW. As you suggest, they are the same.

  8. Linda Martin Says:

    Hi Allen–Thanks for adding me to this circle/sphere.
    I usually misquote this to myself (Heaven becomes God), but I favor inclusivity by way of a linear metaphor attributed to St. Catherine of Siena: “All the way to Heaven is Heaven. For has he not said, “I am the Way.” This is an incredibly bitter pill to swallow if I allow that this must include everyone else’s Way (how much can you stand?, indeed), but nothing else makes much sense to me. I look forward to more of your exploration. The question I haven’t come near solving is how to lean toward Grace. (See how quick I get to grasping!) And the question I’d like to see you headed for is, Can we judge evil without setting ourselves apart from it? As for the he/she problem, I finally got around to calling “it” the Great Sympathy. Actually, I rarely call it that, it sounds so pompous & clumsy, but it comes closest to what I think of when I say my prayers.

  9. Radish Leaf Says:


    With this latest blog entry, I love where your thinking has taken you although, as I’m sure you know, this path leads onto rocky, lonely ground if people take you seriously.

    By the time you get to a God that includes the whole shebang, particularly including evil, a God who lets “bad things that happen to good people” – or even more terrible: a God who is so literally everywhere that God is the one doing the “bad” things as much as the one to whom the “bad” things are done – you are a neighbor of Kazantzakis. Even worse than that, you may be about to become a close neighbor of Plotinus. You are also one of my very close neighbors.

    “In the Enneads Plotinus presents the Divine as an unequal triune, in descending order: (a) the One, perfection, having nothing, seeking nothing, needing nothing, yet it overflows creatively, the source of being; (b) the emitted Nous or Spirit, with intelligence, wisdom, poetic intuition, the “Father and Companion” of the soul; and, (c) the emitted Soul or Life, the vital essence of the world, which aspires to communion with the Spirit above, while also directly engaged with the physical world beneath. The One of Plotinus may act as a magnet for the human soul, but it cannot be said to show mercy, nor to help or love or redeem the individual on earth.” (from Wikipedia)

    This is not a comfortable place for most people. In fact, it’s so completely unacceptable that many people can’t even imagine it. But in this view, at least, the One is not jealous or vengeful; It simply is.

    Radish Leaf

  10. Always feeling compelled to think about your interesting blogs rather than do my work (okay it is Monday morning), I will give you my feedback.
    Don’t quite understand where you arrive from the quote about circles that Empedocles’ thus meant that all awareness was of the infinite nature of God. Am I missing something?
    Your discussion reminds me of a conversation I had when I was about 4 years old I think, when someone first asked me if I believed in God. I am sure I answered “yes”, but that was partly because of fear of social ostracism. I don’t think the question would never have occurred to me at least at that age, as my parents were atheists who would have thought the question was silly, but that was my parents.
    Which makes me wonder if questions of God are maybe a reflection of perhaps outmoded notions of the nature of reality possibly fueled by the needs of pre-psychologized and pre-post-modern egos, a way of providing structure to one’s perception of the observable world? giving folks a sense of community as long as everybody agreed on the same notions of existence, which otherwise mystfied them? I mean, is that even the right question? Perhaps, as a certain US president said, it comes down to what your notion of “is” is.
    I tend to believe the ego is a kind of insistent illusion, but a really nice one, which builds its notions of reality based on what it needs to exist, and which persists in trying to replicate and extend itself, to include railing against the idea as well as the reality of its own extinction. I mean that is what egos are for, aren’t they? At least from a western point of view.
    Not sure I should even post this comment, but it is Monday morning!

  11. sally farley Says:

    Your post on the circle reminds me of your prompting re “circumabulation” while writing my thesis. Still enjoy and appreciate that process. Also resonate with your comments regarding use of the term “god”. Frequently find myself in that place where the term is more than I mean to imply, and also less than, and then conclude its the best of all possibilities. Thanks for the post.

  12. christine kenmore Says:

    Allen –

    Great to get to hear words of wisdom from you again. Just got back form yoga class & allowed myself the luxury of delving deeply (for me) into your post – I’m not sure I agree that God is WOW or OW – God just is- it’s our reaction that creates the OW/WOW (if a tree falls in the forest & no one’s there…).

    “Suffering, pain & death” are definately part of God’s circle and, may in certain circumstances generate “WOWs” of their own (St. Theresa?)

    The fact that many(but not all)of us may choose to “OW/”WOW” at the same experience just illustrates the various Ven Diagrams included within the larger circle.

    Keep up the good work. Oddly enough given my usual propensities, I’m totally digging the geometry over the alphabetical…

  13. Tony Delmedico Says:

    Hi Allen — thanks for inviting me to share. Regarding your musings on all things circular: I was quite drawn to your description of that ever-illusive felt experience of a being in a state of Grace. It is precisely in those incidental moments of being overcome with a sense of sudden internal expansion that Empedocles’ geometric conundrum makes perfect sense. Outside of that, I tend to wrestle with the wow/ow stuff with the front part of my head!

  14. Karen E. Gros Says:

    This was posted on FB by my friend David Fideler, who wrote Jesus Christ, Sun of Man. Thought it fit in nicely with this. Modern music patterend after the spiral forming Fibonacci sequence! (with Hubble photos)

  15. Adam Nagata Says:

    Dear Allen Koan,

    So weird that C is for circle. I guess there’s something to be gleaned from the fact that O isn’t for circle. But here are my two cents regarding the perimeter-existing-nowhere issue: If we add a space in the word nowhere we are left with NOW HERE. And I think that may be your point! Thanks. So happy to stumble across this blog. Pretty neat.

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