Every morning we awaken from a long bout of unconsciousness. We blink, stretch, yawn, and slide out of bed. Our feet hit the floor and we start walking in a big, wide circle. Tonight we’ll be back in this room, crawling into bed and slipping down into the same womb of unconsciousness from which we were born just a few hours ago. Everything is a circle, every day a rebirth. We orbit our lives like the earth around the sun.
On a circle, it’s impossible to mark one point as the beginning and another as the end. Words like beginning and end have no fixed meaning. On the wheel of time there is only this one eternally present moment. Concepts like past and future are little more than helpful constructs. They have no more reality than a dream. Like dreams, past and future exist only in the privacy and isolation of our own consciousness. The still-point at the hub of the wheel knows nothing of the constant turning at the rim.
This is why the circle is the most common spiritual symbol on earth – the mandalas of Tibetan Buddhism, the labyrinth on the floor of Chartres Cathedral, Ezekiel’s wheel in the sky, the archetypal hero’s journey, the sand paintings of the Hopi and the Navajo – everywhere we turn human beings express their deepest realizations in circular form. Plato said that the soul is in the form of a circle. Timaeus, Plato’s Pythagorean friend, famously defined God as a circle whose center is everywhere and circumference is nowhere. Throughout Egyptian, Norse, Mesoamerican, and Asian mythology the circle appears so often that Jung must be right – they can’t all have originated in one place and dispersed – the circle symbol arises of its own accord from the collective unconscious of humankind whenever and wherever they are, a universal symbol or archetype, taking on local flavor, but retaining its deeper, more mystical meaning throughout its myriad and diverse expressions. Time, it seems, is a snake eating its own tail.
So here at the beginning of the year we once again embody all the budding potentiality that January holds, seeding projects, planning conquests, pouring over maps and setting courses for new and bountiful waters. Just as we are reborn every morning, and the moon is reborn every month, so too we celebrate the rebirth of the human project every year. January comes with a distinct feeling of renewal and redemption. On one hand, the calendar does seem rather arbitrary and inconsequential. On the other, it seems deadly serious, this business of starting over. We need it.
Maybe it’s just the way our brains are wired. We discern patterns. We intrinsically assess and sort the raw data of our sense-stream into preconceived categories and columns. Conceptual abstractions like circularity are again and again confirmed in the world around us. Noticing them helps us make order out of chaos.
We leave home in the morning only to return again in the evening. A song in the key of G wanders all around the scale before returning to G. The hero begins her journey in the known world, is called into the unknown, undergoes essential trials and transformations there, and returns to her place of origin strengthened, wiser, and far more willing and able to serve. Ocean water evaporates into the atmosphere, forms into clouds, rains down on the mountains, and gathers into streams that pour into rivers that return to the sea. The hummingbird returns to the nest where she was born to lay her own tiny clutch of eggs.
Knowing this makes us ready for the inevitably cyclical nature of our own lives. We are born toothless, hairless, incompetent, and incontinent. If we live long enough we return to those same hapless conditions. In the beginning and at the end of our lives we are utterly dependant on others – only in the middle are we strong enough to care for ourselves. And if we’re particularly skillful, we can even care for others.
Since the entire universe, from the spiraling of galaxies to the whirling of electrons, is organized into circles, it seems like a good idea to move through our own lives with the same sense of shape and direction. Straight-edged linear thinking and simplistic expectations are far less effective than allowing the naturally cyclical patterns to carry us over and around obstacles. There will be days when you are not at your best. Wait. You’ll come around. There will be days when you are shockingly creative and productive. Don’t resent all the other days for not being like this one. Begin to notice the waxing and waning, dawning and dusking, rising and falling nature of all your energies and attitudes and allow them to move unhindered.
In the longer cycles of our lives, learn to honor the natural energies of the season. There is a virtue for every hour and a natural graciousness for every age – in our youth, humility; in our adulthood, responsibility; in our middle age; contemplation; in our final years, appreciation.
Artists of every media understand and exploit the circularity of life through the means of symmetry, rhyme, and harmony. Visual artists create cyclical echoes with shape, form, color, light, and shadow. Musicians root deeply into repeating patterns and trust their audience to recognize their own longing in the singer’s sadness. Beyond every heartbreak a healing, beyond every journey a homecoming, beyond every death a resurrection, beyond every betrayal a redemption. Every performer who has ever stood on a stage has felt in their bones this truth – it is not they alone who create the music in the room. The performer is merely the channel through whose hands, heart, and voice the longing of the audience comes. We are in this together. We are not making the music. The music is making us.
Art is relationship. Martin Buber was right – God or the sacred exists in the space between us when we meet in authentic dialogue. God is indeed a circle whose center is everywhere and circumference nowhere.
What’s more important, the performer or the audience? It’s a terrible question. All that matters is what happens when they come together, when the circle is unbroken, and the vibrant aliveness of presence emerges through the cracks of our collective imperfection. Aesthetic appreciation is an art form. Put down your phone. Stop talking. Lean in. Let yourself go. Feel yourself lifted into the center of a great circle, a paradise without beginning or end. Let yourself be reborn into the eternal now, a homeland where the soul feels, finally, fully alive. In this way we are each reborn, every moment, again and again.
Peter Bolland is a writer, speaker, and singer-songwriter as well as the chair of the humanities department and professor of philosophy at Southwestern College where he teaches comparative religion, Asian philosophy, ethics and world mythology. You can find him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/peter.bolland.page, follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/peterhbolland, hear his music at www.reverbnation.com/peterbolland, or write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org