We are all in this together. Though each of us experiences life as a single, individual, mind, we share this vast universe as our home. We depend on one another for survival, for enjoyment, for care, for learning. It is so easy to become wound up in our own desires and to get lost in ourselves, particularly when we are having some trouble or feel wronged by others.
Thus, it is important for us to regularly gain some perspective from outside our own bubble, to deliberately summon goodwill, to challenge ourselves to care about more beings than we might at present, to remind ourselves of what we have in common.
The Expanding Circles of Concern come down to us from fragments of the Stoic philosopher Hierocles in the 2nd century CE. However, Albert Einstein articulated the essential matter perfectly when they said:
“A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He [sic] experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”
What is It?
The Expanding Circles of Concern are:
- A Stoic ethical framework
- A meditative exercise
It is used to expand our goodwill and thus expand the magnitude and range of our benevolent activity.
My main goal here is to present the Expanding Circles of Concern as a meditation which you can do regularly. Before I do that, I will provide some helpful background.
Drawing the Circles
The expanding circles of concern are very intuitive. Day-to-day, we have different amounts of care for and obligation to different people. For example, all of us care most for ourselves. We are primarily occupied with tending to our own needs. This is not necessarily because we are nasty and greedy, but because being inside our own skulls we are best positioned to pursue our own interests.
After that, we care most, perhaps, for our close family, romantic partner(s), and best friend(s). We can visualise this as a circle representing ourselves, and a layer outside representing our closest loved ones. Indeed, we often talk of an ‘inner circle’ in common speech. We can imagine further circular layers, for example, our work colleagues and classmates, our neighbours, the bus driver, a passerby, a stranger living in an adjacent province, a stranger living on the other side of the planet, and so forth.
Typically, we aren’t particularly concerned with the stranger walking past us on the path. We don’t wish them any harm, we might wish that they have a good day, but we don’t spend most of our time thinking about them or trying to help them. Whereas if, say, we have an infant, we are specially obligated to tend directly to their basic needs and we have a greater natural fondness for that child than a passerby.
The idea of circles of concern is an application of the Stoic psychological theory of oikeiosis, whereby we generalise our natural self-concern to more and more things external to us.
Our de facto circles of concern might look something like the following: