Aug 24, 2012 | Parker J Palmer
If we want to create spaces that are safe for the soul, we need to understand why the soul so rarely shows up in everyday life. The poet Robert Bly offers one explanation: it is our powerful ego drive, "to pull everything...into ourselves and let nothing live for itself."
Behind that drive is our disbelief in the reality and power of the inner teacher. Convinced that people lack inner guidance wishing to ‘help' them, we feel obliged to tell others what we think they need to know and how we think they ought to live. Countless disasters originate here -- between parents and children, teachers and students, supervisors and employees -- originate, that is, in presumptuous advice-giving that leaves the other feeling diminished and disrespected. But we can learn a more creative way to be present to each other...by building a circle of trust in community. Community is an elusive word with many shades of meaning and sometimes points to a group of people with a shared commitment to making an external impact of some sort, from changing one another to changing the world.
But a circle of trust has no such agenda. Though people's lives may be changed in such a circle -- and that, in turn may change the world a bit -- the circle itself is focused on inward and invisible powers. Its singular purpose is to support the inner journey of each person in the group, to make each soul feel safe enough to show up and speak its truth, to help each person listen to his or her inner teacher.
In a circle of trust, we practice the paradox of ‘being alone together,' of being present to one another as a ‘community of solitudes.' Those phrases sound like contradictions, because we think of solitude and community as either-or. But solitude and community, rightly understood, go together, both-and.
To understand the true self -- which knows who we are in our inwardness and who we are in the larger world -- we need both the interior intimacy that comes with solitude and the otherness which comes with community.
When we split solitude and community into either-or and act as if we can get along with only one or the other, we put ourselves in spiritual peril. The theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer warned us about this risk in his classic Life Together: "Let (the person) who cannot be alone beware of community. Let who is not in community beware of being alone."
Bonhoeffer's warning is based on two simple truths. We have much to learn from within, but it is easy to get lost in the labyrinth of the inner life. We have much to learn from others, but it is easy to get lost in the confusion of the crowd. So we need solitude and community simultaneously: what we learn in one mode can check and balance what we learn in the other. Together, they make us whole, like breathing in and breathing out.
But exactly how solitude and community go together turns out to be trickier than breathing. When we say we are in solitude, we often bring other people with us: think how often our ‘solitude' is interrupted by an interior conversation with someone who is not there! When we say we are in community, we often lose track of true Self: think of how easily we can forget who we are when we get entangled in group dynamics.
If we are to hold solitude and community together as a true paradox, we need to deepen our understanding of both poles. Solitude does not necessarily mean living apart from others; rather it means living apart from one's self. It is not about absence of other people -- it's about being fully present to ourselves, whether or not we are with others.
Community does not necessarily mean living face-to-face with others; rather, it means never losing the awareness that we are connected to each other. It is not about the presence of other people -- it is about being fully open to the reality of relationship, whether or not we are alone.