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aftermath (Krieger)
aftermath (Krieger)

Trusting our Deeper Knowing: On Cataclysms, Contemplation, and Circles of Trust

by Parker J. Palmer










On October 10-12, 2008, Marcy Jackson and I (supported by our colleagues, Rick Jackson and Ann New), led a Circle of Trust retreat at the Fetzer Institute for fifteen people from the worlds of big business, financial services and philanthropy — many of them closely tied to Wall Street and all of them devoted to the common good. Our retreat began just one day after the Dow Jones had fallen nearly 40 percent below its record high, set only a year earlier.

As the economic and political fabric of American life unravels and reveals its many flaws, with tragic consequences for so many lives, the tag-line the Center has been using for the past few years — “Reclaiming Identity and Integrity in Professional and Public Life” — seems more important than ever. Can Circles of Trust contribute to that reclaiming? The fifteen civic-minded people involved in our October 10-12 retreat would, I believe, say “Yes.” What follows is the context in which we set those three days of listening to the inner teacher in community.

Alexis de Tocqueville, the nineteenth century French scholar famous for Democracy in America, wrote a less well-known book titled The Old Regime and the Revolution, arguing that the French Revolution happened long before it happened. The eruption that shattered French society at the end of the eighteenth century was the result of small seismic shifts that had been accumulating for decades deep underground. If people had paid attention to the tectonic instabilities caused by greed and injustice, and had responded wisely to the nervous needles on their inner seismographs, the “Reign of Terror” might have been avoided.

A parallel point can be made about the economic terrors that now engulf America: at some level, most of us knew they were coming. Who doesn’t know that a society in which the rich get richer while the poor get poorer is a society that will someday have to pay the piper? Who doesn’t know that when a relatively small fraction of the world’s population uses its power to command and consume a disproportionately large fraction of the world’s resources, the chickens will come home to roost? Who doesn’t know that an economic system that encourages us to live beyond our means and refuses to regulate greed is one in which our avarice will come back to bite us? Who doesn’t know that at every level of life, from personal to global to cosmic, what goes around comes around?

The problem is not that we don’t possess a capacity to know these things. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t have all the colloquialisms I just used! The problem is that the knowledge we need, like the seismic shifts that create eruptions, originates underground. It comes from a place within us deeper than our intellects, a place the poet William Stafford calls “a remote, important region in all who speak,” a place sometimes called the inner teacher or the soul.

But rarely do we allow ourselves to go to that place. Instead, we fill our lives with noisy distractions, blocking our access to insights that might scare us but could also save us. The purpose of an authentic “inner life” retreat is not to flee from a frightening world, but to give ourselves access to those deeper sources of knowing that can help us find our way through what we fear.

A story about Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk and writer, provides a case in point. In 1944, Merton entered the Abbey of Gethsemani, a walled monastery in the Kentucky woods, to live a life of silence and solitude. He had fled from the madness of a war-torn world just as American triumphalism was about to emerge — another form of national madness that may now, in the fall of 2008, have run its course for a while. For the next few years Merton pursued a “spirituality of flight,” and in 1949 published a rather pious book called Seeds of Contemplation.

But as Merton went deeper within himself and touched the collective consciousness, he began to “read” the rumblings of injustice under the surface of a fat, happy and deluded white America. He listened, really listened, to African American music, especially jazz and the blues. He corresponded with discerning friends who served as “listening posts” in the larger world. He read poetry and literary classics as well as social criticism. He examined his own conscience as a privileged white American male. And, through contemplation and prayer, he went to a place where language and sound cannot take us, a place within ourselves and our world where truth has a chance to come clear and the norms of love and justice coincide.

Fifteen years later, in 1964, Merton published Seeds of Destruction in which he prophesied “the fire next time,” a conflagration of the races rooted in white ignorance, indifference and injustice. The book lost him a lot of readers who had loved his earlier piosity. And he was taken to task, in print, by a well-known writer and urban activist who said, in effect, “How dare a cloistered monk, writing from behind gated walls in the Kentucky woods, pretend to know more about race in America than we who are out on the front lines extinguishing ‘the fire next time’?”

Three years later, in 1967, Merton’s critic wrote an open letter to Merton in The National Catholic Reporter, apologizing “for having put down Seeds of Destruction. With most of the summer of 1967 past, he said, we can now ‘see that you were correct.’ …At the time [I published my criticism] you seemed to be trying to be a white James Baldwin. Now it seems to me that you were ‘telling it as it is’ and maybe ‘as it will be.'” (The Hidden Ground of Love, p. 55.)

Neither Merton nor his critic would want us to withdraw from the action. But both would agree that activism ungrounded in contemplation can lead to ego-induced blindness, shutting down those soul-deep sources of knowing that open us to larger truth.

Merton thanked his critic in writing, then took his case one step further. White liberals, he wrote, would not be up to the task of healing a racially divided nation. We would need “a new politics in this country” in order to come anywhere near that goal. Maybe, just maybe, we are seeing the seeds of that new politics today — fifty years after Merton got it right, once again, from his “still point” out in the woods.

What does all this have to do with circles of trust? Take Tocqueville’s insight about the subterranean causes of the French Revolution, fold in all those colloquialisms about “chickens coming home to roost,” and blend them with the Merton story: circles of trust give us a chance us to tap our deeper sources of knowing so we can see more clearly what is, what is coming and how we might find our way through, led by the soul as we go. In such circles we create a space that encourages inner discernment, while at the same time creating relationships that can support and sustain “right action” based on what we learn from within.

But there is, of course, a “rub” to all this in our culture of greed: listening to your inner teacher may make you a prophet but it is not likely to make you a profit. Reclaiming identity and integrity in personal and public life may make you a person who evokes the better angels of our nature, but it will not improve your “bottom line” — at least not in the understanding of that phrase that has landed us in so much trouble.

Take, for example, the companies that banks hire to identify people on the verge of foreclosure, people so desperate to salvage their homes that they can be conned into signing up for yet another mortgage scam. Who cares about destroying these families’ finances, along with the credit market itself, as long as the scammers’ bottom lines improve?

Apparently not Allen E. Geller, CEO of Visions Marketing Services in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, who was quoted as saying that the people his company called “were astounded. They said, ‘I can’t believe you just called me. How did you know we were just getting ready to [refinance our home]?’ We [who were making these calls] were just sitting back laughing.” (“The Debt Trap: Banks Mine Data and Woo Troubled Borrowers,” New York Times, Oct. 22, 2008, p. B1)

Vision Marketing Services has a “vision” that would terrify Dante. The fact that causing suffering makes them laugh makes me all the more grateful for the life-giving spirits of the business and financial leaders who showed up so fully for our October 10-12 Circle of Trust retreat. I know that there are many more of their kind out there, and we have much to learn from them.

The people in that circle told us that the retreat helped them recommit to integrity amid the piracy of the marketplace. Here is the testimony of one of them, the CEO of a very large publicly-traded corporation. His words, and what I know of his life and work, help me take heart. And they remind me why the mission of the Center for Courage & Renewal is important: creating trustworthy spaces where people can hear and follow the voice of their deeper knowing — the voice one can hear so clearly in these words-is work worth doing:

Arriving at the retreat, my heart was agitated. As I leave, it is still. Arriving at the retreat, I was blaming. As I leave, I am accepting responsibility. Arriving at the retreat, I was angry. As I leave, I have a sense of peace. Arriving at the retreat, I was focused on my own distress. As I leave, I am seeing beyond myself again. Arriving at the retreat, I was running from my pain. As I leave, I am allowing it to live in me. Arriving at the retreat, my angst was palpable. As I leave, I have hope about the present and the future.</span>

nicholas babaian

Poem For The Day II

A day of ominous decision has now dawned on this free nation.
Save us then from our obsessions!
Open our eyes, dissipate our confusions, teach us to understand ourselves and our adversary.
Let us never forget that sins against the law of love are punishable by loss of faith,
and those without faith stop at no crime to achieve their ends!
Help us to be masters of the weapons that threaten to master us.
Help us to use our science for peace and plenty, not for war and destruction.
Save us from the compulsion to follow our adversaries in all that we most hate,
confirming them in their hatred and suspicion of us.
Resolve our inner contradictions, which now grow beyond belief and beyond bearing.
They are at once a torment and a blessing:
for if you had not left us the light of conscience, we would not have to endure them.
Teach us to wait and trust.
Grant light, grant strength and patience to all who work for peace.
But grant us above all to see that our ways are not necessarily your ways,
that we cannot fully penetrate the mystery of your designs
and that the very storm of power now raging on this earth
reveals your hidden will and your inscrutable decision.
Grant us to see your face in the lightning of this cosmic storm –

Thomas Merton, Prayer For Peace.

Parker Palmer on our current crisis and our lesser angels

apocalypse_now  cretense

….the parallels between psychological depression and economic depression. I finally learned….that depression didn’t need to be pictured as the hand of an enemy trying to crush me, but rather the hand of a friend trying to press me down to ground on which it was safe to stand. And through that realization, I understood that part of what took me into depression was that I was living life at artificial heights, at untenable elevations, so that the elevation involving a kind of inflated ego or a free-floating spirituality or a detached sense of “oughts” and in that sense a false ethic, or simply living intellectually in my head more than in my feelings and in my body, that all of those things put you at such altitude that if you trip and fall, which you’re inevitably going to do.…

….One of the breakthrough studies recently done in what makes schools successful on behalf of kids is a factor they call “relational trust.” They found that if a building is full of people who trust each other, you’re going to get great outcomes for kids even if that school is unfairly deprived of the resources it needs. Because if people trust each other, they will come into community, they will generate abundance, they will love the kids and love each other, and good education will emerge. If a building is full of people who don’t trust each other, you can throw a lot of money at them, state-of-the-art curriculum and teaching technique, and not much good will come out the other end.

… but the fact that we have those lesser angels and that they have enormous power. At the same time, once you see that, you also start to see the possibility that the better angels of our nature that Abraham Lincoln talked about and tried to invoke and evoke as the Civil War came to a close, that those angels are real too and that we have some very fundamental groundwork to do in our culture about the notion that you can educate the heart as much as you can educate the mind.

What I learned early on from some great teachers is that violence is not just a matter of dropping a bomb on someone or shooting a bullet at them or hitting them in the face. Violence is done whenever we violate the identity and integrity of the other. Violence is done when we demean, marginalize, dismiss, rendering other people irrelevant to our lives or even less than human. Violence is done when we simply don’t care or don’t look hard enough to evoke our caring for another.

So for me, living a nonviolent life means, first of all, doing what’s within my reach so that every day in every way in every relationship I have, I’m trying to ask the question how is it that I am called to honor the identity and integrity of this person?

I think the story of human greed is very simple. It’s the story that you can never have enough stuff. Once you go down the path that stuff is where my meaning lies, you can never have enough of it. But what we’re really looking for, I think, is the kind of abundance that comes from knowing that we are willing to feed one another, knowing that we are in those generative relationships where when you need my support, I’m there to offer it as best I can and when I need yours, the same is true of you.

And there’s as Leonard Cohen song of fairly recent vintage that has a great lyric in it that actually simply updates in more contemporary musical terms what the spiritual traditions have said for a long time. The lyric goes like this: “Forget your perfect offering. Ring the bell that still can ring. There’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” And it’s in those cracks that we connect with each other. It’s in the brokenness that we connect with each other and that we generate very mysteriously the abundance called hope that actually can make us move our feet and move our hands and move our minds towards something better in very practical terms.

I have that fear. When I listened more carefully to the words “be not afraid,” I realized that they didn’t say you can’t have fear. They say instead you don’t need to be your fear. And I think there’s a big, big difference. That if you learn your inner landscape well enough, you realize, yes, there’s a piece of turf in there called fear. And you can choose to stand there if you want, but there are other places in that inner landscape where you can stand as well if you work at it. You can stand in a place of hope. You can stand in a place of fellow feeling. You can stand in a place of appreciation of beauty. You can stand in a place of being aware of your own mortality, mindful of the simple fact that you are going to die, which, as you cultivate it, kind of relativizes a lot of other things.

You can choose where you stand within yourself if you know your inner landscape, where you stand as you move toward other people, the news of the day, the events of your own life, the situation of the moment. Those are actually choices that you can make. They’re not always easy, but they’re impossible if you’re not reflective about your own inner dynamics. Once you become reflective there comes with that the possibility of making choices and then the next frontier is the courage to make good choices about that, to move from a place in yourself, and the way I like to say it to myself is to choose to move from a place of myself that is more likely to have life-giving results for me and other people than death-dealing results. There’s no perfection in that. You screw up. But you can also stand in a place of self-forgiveness, which is also somewhere in there, and cut yourself some slack and try it again.

Parker Palmer, interview with Krista Tippett for NPR

Quaker Parker Palmer is founder and senior partner of the Center for Courage and Renewal. He speaks widely and lives in Madison, Wisconsin. His most recent book is A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life.

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I know this now. Every man gives his life for what he believes. Every woman gives her life for what she believes. Sometimes people believe in little or nothing yet they give their lives to that little or nothing. One life is all we have and we live it as we believe in living it. And then it is gone. But to sacrifice what you are and live without belief, that's more terrible than dying.--

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August 2009



On the day when
the weight deadens
on your shoulders
and you stumble,
may the clay dance
to balance you.

And when your eyes
freeze behind
the grey window
and the ghost of loss
gets in to you,
may a flock of colours,
indigo, red, green,
and azure blue
come to awaken in you
a meadow of delight.

When the canvas frays
in the currach of thought
and a stain of ocean
blackens beneath you,
may there come across the waters
a path of yellow moonlight
to bring you safely home.

May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
may the clarity of light be yours,
may the fluency of the ocean be yours,
may the protection of the ancestors be yours.
And so may a slow
wind work these words
of love around you,
an invisible cloak
to mind your life.

John O'Donohue, Echoes of Memory