The Circus as Transformative Experience

Running Away to Join the Circus

“Running away to join the circus” has long been a metaphor for escaping the tedium of an uninspired life. But for many – for both recreational and professional circus performers alike – the escape is more than just metaphorical. Engaging and participating in the circus arts provides a unparalleled, life-altering, first-person experience that defies third-person description. You have to live it to get it.

Most people experience the circus from the perspective of spectators.  And certainly there is much magic to enjoy as a mere observer of the circus.

“The circus overwhelms us with improbable spectacles. It scrambles our categories. What is going on here? What kind of drama is being enacted in this theater of incarnate dreams? What kind of sacrament is being celebrated in this church of impossible possibilities? What kind of weltschauung are we to deduce from this variety show of the spirit? Only this is clear. Entering the circus we step back into a world ruled by enchantment – where magic existed before morality, wonder before worship, pleasure before piety, and amazement before practicality.” — Sam Keen, Learning to Fly

But there is also the experience of the circus from the perspective of the participant.

Being in the circus is an extraordinary adventure in at least two ways:

First, the circus provides a remarkable, distinctive culture. If done right, a circus community can be open, expressive, creative, playful, supportive, and wonderful. People of all shapes and sizes, backgrounds, talents, beliefs, dreams, and ideas are embraced and celebrated in the circus. The wide variety of acts and activities that are (and have been) constitutive of the circus – aerial arts, juggling, clowning, acrobatics, sideshows, trapeze, dance, acting, dare devil feats, etc. – has helped to create the most inclusive community around. There is a place for everyone in the circus.

This is one of the many reasons there is a growing movement toward social circus – teaching circus arts to marginalized or under-served populations for social justice, social change, and social improvement. In describing the recent growth and success of social circus programs around the world, Duncan Wall claims that part of it is due to “…the feelings circus engender[s], and particularly the form’s ability to bond participants…[It] create[s] a natural camaraderie, a physical, even existential connection.”

Secondly, however, there are certain circus acts that, by participating in them, radically change the individuals who do them. Take the flying trapeze, for example. In the last few decades, more and more circus schools have opened up classes on the flying trapeze for ordinary, non-circus folk. Advertisements for various classes claim:

“No experience necessary!”

“Appropriate for all ages and abilities!”

“It’s totally safe! You will be in safety lines, a harness, and you will have a giant net beneath you!”

But you might be thinking: yeah, right. Despite the safety lines and harness and net you are still HANGING ON FOR DEAR LIFE from a SMALL METAL BAR suspended from swinging ROPES, dangling 20-30 feet above the HARD GROUND!!! No thank you.

But people – ordinary people – do it anyway, even when they are scared out of their minds. And almost everyone who does it reports a remarkable, deeply emotional experience, a humbling facing of fears, and a dramatic shift in perspective.

Duncan Wall quotes the trapeze artist, Jonathon Conant, as describing the flying trapeze as a “machine for helping people re-evaluate what they are capable of.”

‘Before a flight, people are invariably uncomfortable. They’re pissed off, they’re scared, they’re sad. There’s a real fear of getting hurt.’ Behind these feelings are the preconceived, romanticized notions, often dating from childhood, that they have about the trapeze: ‘It’s magical. It’s unattainable. It’s hugely difficult. It’s completely out of the realm of possibility for most people’s minds. They’re standing on the edge of the platform going ‘yes or no.’ But the minute they jump off, everything changes…There’s an evolution, an acceptance of what’s possible. The trapeze is so built up in people’s heads. And then someone says, ‘You can actually do this, too.’ That totally shifts the realm of what’s possible….People like to say the trapeze is a metaphor for overcoming your fears. But this is wrong. A metaphor is just a symbol. The trapeze actually works.’

Recalling a petrified, first-time flyer, Sam Keen describes her visible transformation as follows:

“Unassisted, she climbed and was welcomed at the top by one of the instructors. For ten minutes she hesitated, struggling to get the courage to make her maiden flight. Finally, with a scream of fear and exhalation, and loud applause from the group, she launched herself into the face of her fears. When she climbed down from the net, it was clear to everyone that she was a new being.”

Whether we take “running away to join the circus” literally or metaphorically, one of the main ideas behind the expression is the notion of making a choice to radically change one’s life in deep and meaningful ways. The expression evokes a sense of abandoning the mundane and routine for something exciting, magical, wild, and metamorphic. But, crucially, it is about personal–and perhaps spectacular–change.

Transformative Experience

This idea  of dramatic, personal change is closely tied to what philosopher L. A. Paul has called a transformative experience.

Personal and epistemic transformations

There are (at least) two ways someone can undergo a transformation. The first is personal. With personal transformations, your desires, beliefs, and preferences radically change.

Our desires, beliefs, and preferences change in small ways quite often: sometimes we are hungry, sometimes we aren’t; sometimes we like the taste of coffee, sometimes we don’t; sometimes we prefer to be quiet and alone, sometimes we don’t. But every now and then we undergo an experience that changes our desires, beliefs, and preferences in a big way. If you have joined the armed forces, gone to college, switched careers, had children – these are all events that very likely significantly changed you. Who you are as a person may fundamentally change as a result of these events.

The second kind of transformation is epistemic.

Epistemology is the study of knowledge – what we can know and how we can know it.

As we saw last week (in class), one way to come to know the world is through our subjective, qualitative experiences. When we experience things first-hand, we have access to a what-it’s-like-ness: a sensational quality from a first-person perspective, something that needs to be experienced to be understood. When you undergo an epistemic transformation, you gain (or lose) access to a whole range of qualitative experiences that you didn’t have access to before.

Epistemic transformations can happen in more or less dramatic ways. If you have never had coffee or caffeine before, then your understanding of what-it’s-like to drink caffeinated coffee will change after your first cup of joe. This will be a small change, but you will now have access to a first-person qualitative experience that you didn’t have access to before.

Contrast this with the experience of going through basic training or going to college: in each case, you will have access to a whole range of first-person experiences that you didn’t have access to before. What sorts of things you can know may fundamentally change as a result of these events.

According to L. A. Paul, a transformative experience is one that is both personally and epistemically transformative. The experience will change you, fundamentally, as a person – your core desires, beliefs and preferences will transform. But the experience will also change you, fundamentally, as an epistemic agent – what you can know and how you can know it will be dramatically altered, too. If you have undergone a transformative experience, you will now have access to a whole range of qualitative, subjective experiences that you didn’t have access to before.

Joining the army, going to college, getting married, getting divorced, having a baby, running away to join the circus: these are all examples of transformative experiences. We cannot know what the qualitative experience of each of these events is like until we have actually experienced them. And after we have experienced them, who we are as persons might be radically different as well.

Rational Choice

Paul argues that, given how we usually understand ‘rational choice,’ we cannot rationally choose to undergo a transformative experience.

The idea is this: normally, when you are faced with a decision about what to do with you life, you think about who you are now, what you want, and how you can get it. You imagine how you might feel in the future once one decision is made, and you compare it to how you might feel in the future if you made a different decision. We check in with our desires and preferences, weigh our options, and consider (and try to anticipate) the subjective experience of making one choice as opposed to another.

Take your decision to go to college. There was some time, before you made the decision and signed the appropriate papers and made your commitment, when you had some options before you. To go or not to go? To go here or to go there? No doubt you checked in with where you were at in life, how you felt about things, how you wanted to change, where you wanted to be in the future, considered the reasons why you should go, and thought about whether you would be happy or fulfilled in making your decision, or whether doing whatever you were going to do would be a means to an end for something else that would make you happy or fulfilled. You also – and importantly – tried to imagine yourself in the future, given various alternatives. Maybe you tried to picture being in a dorm, meeting new friends, not living with your parents, having freedom, staying up as late as you wanted. You imagined taking new and interesting classes, maybe finding some direction or inspiration, or having your mind blown away by your first philosophy class. In short, you tried to imagine what it would be like – and importantly, you tried to imagine what it would be like for you to make whatever decision you were about to make.

This is how we usually think that we make rational choices when it comes to big decisions in our life: we imagine ourselves, we think about what it would be like to have the experience, and we imagine what it would be like for us, personally, given the kind of person we are, to have that particular experience.

Yet Paul argues that if these events are indeed transformative experiences, then by their very nature, we cannot know what it is like to have those experiences before we have them. Moreover, each of us will be so personally transformed by the experience, that even if we could know what it would be like to have the experience before we had it, we could not know how we might personally respond to the experience, since our core preferences will have drastically altered. So we cannot use our usual, rational means to choose a transformative experience.

This means: you cannot rationally choose to run away and join the circus.

(Maybe, you think, that’s ok: running away and joining the circus was never a life-choice equated with rationality anyway.)

But the point is bigger than the circus. If Paul is right, this means that any big life decisions are ones that we cannot rationally choose. Yet the big life decisions are exactly the ones we most want to be able to rationally choose! If we can’t use rationality to help us out for the big, important things, what’s the point in being rational at all?


Paul suggests that, despite the above problem, there are better and worse ways to make a decision when faced with a transformative experience. Ultimately, she claims, that the best option may be “to choose based on whether we want to discover who we’ll become.” We don’t have the space here to discuss this suggestion, but mentioning it may be enough to motivate some thoughts on the matter.

Should you run away and join the circus? That is a decision that you will have to make for yourself. And it may be one you cannot rationally choose, if Paul is right. But perhaps, if you value the discovery of your future self – even if you don’t know who that future self is or what kinds of qualitative experiences she may have – then that will encourage you to choose to run off and join the circus after all.

Suggested Reading

**Originally published Sept. 20, 2017; updated Oct. 23, 2018

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