The Book of Parker J. Palmer

Parker_J_PalmerIn the spiritual literature of our time, it is not difficult to find the world of action portrayed as an arena of ego and power, while the world of contemplation is pictured as a realm of light and grace….

Contemporary images of what it means to be spiritual tend to value the inner search over the outward act, silence over sound, solitude over interaction, centeredness and quietude and balance over engagement and animation and struggle. If one is called to monastic life [e.g. Thomas Merton whose thoughts Palmer values], those images can be empowering. But if one is called to the world of action [as Palmer, who did not succeed at monasticism, clearly is], those same images can disenfranchise the soul, for they tend to devalue the energies of active life rather than encourage us to move with those energies toward wholeness….

Later, he writes, My aim in this book (The Active Life, Wisdom for Work, Creativity, and Caring, Harper San Francisco, 1991) is to celebrate and criticize the active life… [which leads to] … some of our deepest spiritual crises as well as some of our most heartful joys … to explore …  [by means of stories] … its joys and pains, its problems and potentials, to understand the forces that both drive and deform our activity – but to do all this with reverence for the mystery of self-discovery and creation which is at the heart of human activity.

Our drive to aliveness … to be fully alive … expresses itself in two elemental and inseparable ways: action and contemplation. We may think of the two as contrary modes, but they are one at the source, and they seek the same end – to celebrate the gift of life…. [So] … Rather than speak of contemplation and action, we might speak of contemplation-and-action, letting the hyphens suggest what our language obscures: that the one cannot exist without the other….

Hence, he suggests, “If we are to … understand their vital relatedness, we must abandon ordinary logic and embrace the insight of physicist Neils Bohr: ‘The opposite of a true statement is a false statement, but the opposite of a profound truth can be another profound truth. ” (I just had to include that profound piece of wisdom)

Moreover, continues Parker, when we abandon the creative tension between the two, then both ends fly apart into madness…. Action flies off into frenzy – a frantic and even violent effort to impose one’s will on the world, or at least to survive against the odds. Contemplation flies off into escapism – a flight from the world into a realm of false bliss.

To be fully alive is to act…. I understand action to be any way that we can co-create reality with other beings and with spirit….

To be fully alive is to contemplate…. I understand contemplation to be any way that we can unveil the illusions that masquerade as reality and reveal the reality behind the masks….
(Emphases in the original as I recall)

The greatest risk in action is the risk of self-revelation, and that is also action’s greatest joy. No one can know us fully, not even we ourselves, but when we act, something of our inner mystery often emerges, and it can shock or delight when it does…. Real action is part mind itself, as well as spirit and soul….

As an aside, in terms of mind, he mentions an interesting popular saying: “How can I know what I think until I hear myself say it?”

He continues,

Ultimately, action will help reveal what … reality is, if we pay attention to its outcomes. These are the crucial links between action and contemplation, for the function of contemplation in all its forms is to penetrate illusion and help us to touch reality…. [So] … when a friend says that he or she is disillusioned …  instead of commiserating or offering a shoulder to cry on … we ought to congratulate, celebrate and ask the friend how we can help the process go deeper still.

Pain is one of the sure signs that contemplation is working…. [which] … first deprives us of familiar comforts. Then it replaces them with an inner emptiness in which new truth, often alien and unsettling truth, can emerge. The contemplative journey from illusion to reality may have peace as its destination, but en route it usually passes through some fearsome places. 

So, as Carl Jung noted long ago it is a downward, not upward, journey. A journey down into the depths, the darkness, where the monsters dwell; where good and evil co-exist as one.

Parker, citing Isaiah 45:7, makes a similar point: “I am Yahweh, unrivaled, I form the light and I create the dark. I make good fortune and create calamity…..” Consequently, he adds, “When we meet the spirit that gives life we encounter all the powers including death, and we cannot be selective.” 

He continues, again echoing Jung, who refers to them as shadows to be accepted and welcomed:

We must … [therefore] … abandon the common sense notion that the monsters we meet within ourselves are enemies to be destroyed. Instead we must cultivate the hope that they can become companions to be embraced, guides to be followed, albeit with caution and respect.

Why? Because when we live a full life of contemplation-and-action, the monsters will always be aroused and we will be compelled to search the depths. It is good to know that those very monsters can take us to the depths we need to explore. It is even better to know that in those depths we can find the hidden wholeness that unites and energizes us, the source and the power that make us fully alive.

And without that knowledge, that hope, I am not sure most of us would be at all willing to embark on this journey which, it seems to me, takes a life-time to complete. So the final physical destination, death, becomes rather irrelevant.

And here, lastly, are the thoughts of three other writers, two unknown, on this action/contemplation theme. First, from an essay in Handbook For The Soul (Little, Brown & Co., Boston, 1995), psychologist Nathaniel Branden, who has been described as the “father of the self-esteem movement” in the US, writing, but using different words, about those two concepts:

Some writers – Erich From, for one – contrast a so-called “being” orientation with a “doing” orientation. The implication is that being and doing are in some sense antithetical. Of course they are not. Doing and being, action and stillness are dependent on one another. Without action we would cease to exist, and without stillness, we would neither be able to appreciate our existence nor have a foundation from which to act. We need stillness; we need the pure experience of being, in order to fully realize ourselves. Out of that stillness can come the motivation to act and also the awareness we need to act wisely, not to lose perspective.

Second, When being and doing are in harmony, when stillness and action are friends to each other, we create an integrated, satisfied soul. We are then in the best position to truly enjoy and appreciate life and not be destroyed by adversity. 

Third, Moving in stillness and being still in motion transforms the accumulation of our life experience into wisdom.