Parker Palmer on Spirituality and Life

Gaia Partners with Naropa University for Commencement Address

When Gaia heard Parker Palmer was going to be in their very own backyard in Boulder, CO, they had to reach out and bring his message to you. With life focuses on spirituality, personal development, and education to name just a few, Parker Palmer helps bridge the gap between the contemplative life and the active life.

Gaia is proud to announce its partnership with Naropa University to bring you the free global live-stream of Parker Palmer’s 2015 commencement address. It will air at 1:30pm MST on May 10, 2015. Bookmark the Ustream link now so you’re ready for the big day. Parker’s address will focus on the topic of "Living from the Inside Out."

Who is Parker Palmer?

Parker J. Palmer, founder and Senior Partner of the Center for Courage & Renewal, is a world-renowned writer, speaker and activist who focuses on issues in education, community, leadership, spirituality and social change. He has reached millions worldwide through his nine books, including Let Your Life Speak, The Courage to Teach, A Hidden Wholeness, and Healing the Heart of Democracy. Read more in Parker’s biography.

Gaia Interviews Parker Palmer

Maya Angelou once said, "Courage is the most important of all virtues because without courage you can’t practice any other virtue consistently."

The life work of Parker Palmer embodies this idea. He says it is courage which allows us to face our illusions and then ultimately become disillusioned by them. This, in turn, becomes the pathway for leading a more awakened and spiritual life.

Disillusionment is the journey that life takes us on, and when we move through those times and experiences that cause it, we then experience reality and truth. Some of these experiences can be painful, but it is the courage to be present with them and fully experience all that they have to offer that helps us create more meaning.

It is these ideas that Gaia wanted to ask Parker more about in advance of his Naropa University commencement address.

On Spirituality

Gaia: How do we discover our true nature/true calling in life?

Parker Palmer: As Rilke famously said, there are some questions you can’t answer in any conventional sense of the word. You can only "live the questions" until, some distant day, you find that you've lived your way into an answer. So my best answer to this question is that you discover your true nature or true calling by living your life and paying close attention to what it’s trying to tell you.

Our command-and-control culture tells us that we are supposed to take charge of life and tell it who we are, what we need, and where we want to go. I’m not denying that we need to make decisions. But at age 76, it’s very clear to me that by following my life as one would follow a stream, rather than trying to drive it like a machine, I’ve been able to go places in life and work to which I never could have taken myself.

Gaia: When do you feel most in touch with your spirituality?

Parker Palmer: I define spirituality as "any way a person answers the eternal human yearning to be connected with something larger than one’s own ego." So I feel most in touch with my spirituality whenever I am joined to one or more of the many immense worlds we inhabit: the world of nature; the world of ideas; the world of human fears and needs, hopes and gifts; the world of beautiful and impenetrable mystery at the core of life and death that we can walk around and into, wide-eyed with wonder, but will never comprehend.

Gaia: How do we deepen our spirituality or spiritual practice?

Parker Palmer: Thomas Merton was the Novice Master at a Trappist monastery where he spent half of his life. I’ve heard a tape of one of his talks to the novices, and can easily picture the audience he was addressing: a room full of young, idealistic wanna-be monks with visions of a spiritual life that would whisk them away from this tawdry world into some sort of unworldly perfection and bliss.

So Merton begins by throwing a bucket of verbal cold water to wake them up: "Men," he said, "before you can have a spiritual life, you’ve gotta have a life!" That’s how we deepen our spirituality: we live our lives to the hilt, in all their tedium and messiness, pain and joy, so we have something to "get spiritual" about!

Life Lessons

Gaia: What is the lesson it took you the longest to learn?

Parker Palmer: Well, it has to be the one I’m still learning at age 76—and since I haven’t learned it yet, I’m not sure what it is! What I do know is that within the last few years, with my own mortality becoming clearer by the day, I’m better than ever before at living in the present moment and appreciating it in one way or another—from reveling in the joy to learning from the struggle.

The late Jerry May, a wonderful writer, psychiatrist and dear friend, once had a public dialogue with Thich Nhat Hanh, who was also a close friend of Jerry’s. Thich Nhat Hanh kept saying, "This moment, perfect moment, this moment, perfect moment"—to which Jerry replied, "Thich, old buddy, some moments suck!" Everyone laughed, and Thich led the way! The point is that "appreciating the moment" means appreciating all of them.

Gaia: What is the most devastating thing that’s happened to you, and how were you able to rise above it?

Parker Palmer: This one is easy: three deep dives into clinical depression—two in my forties and one in my sixties—are the most devastating thing that’s happened to me. And I don’t have the foggiest idea of how I was able not only to survive them, but to thrive on the other side. As I’ve written, people often say, "I just don’t understand why X took his or her own life."

Well, having spent time in a place where life did not seem worth living, I understand perfectly why people take their own lives: they need the rest. What I don’t understand is why some people come, though, to new life. Therapy may help, medication may help, changing your life path may help, etc., etc. But in the final analysis, it’s a mystery to me, and I’m inclined to believe that anyone who claims to "have the answer" about how to rise above depression hasn’t been there.

Gaia: Explain a time when you failed, but "failed well."

Parker Palmer: I’ve failed in whole or in part at many things, but who’s counting?! I got fired from a job years ago; I was less than a perfect parent to my three children; I’ve missed some chances to support people in need when I had what it took to do so; etc. But for the most part, I think I’ve been able to learn from these failures and change accordingly—and learning from failure and making mid-course corrections is my definition of "failing well."

I was blessed with a father who used to say to me, "Park, if a major league ball player hits .350 over a long career—which means getting three hits out of every ten at-bats—he’s very likely to make it into the Baseball Hall of Fame. So are you getting three out of ten things right in your life? If so, you’re on your way to the Hall of Fame!"

Gaia: As one who gives excellent advice yourself, what’s the best advice you were ever given?

Parker Palmer: The best advice I’ve ever been given—and the best advice I’ve ever given—is "Don’t give advice!" Don't give CPR unless the person can’t breathe for themselves, lest you smother them. Instead, learn the high art of asking honest, open questions to help "hear the other person into speech," questions that evoke the wisdom of their own inner teacher, which is the best source of guidance they have.

So my answer is paradoxical—but isn’t that true of all great truths? As a non-Buddhist who profoundly appreciates the Buddhist tradition, I’m often told by my Buddhist friends that "everything changes." As I say to them, "Well, that’s not altogether true, because one thing that NEVER changes is you people telling me that ‘everything changes’!" Long live paradox!

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jmosher1, posted on April 24, 2015

This was a wonderful article that came right at the right moment this AM...I had logged in to the "cleanse" and wandered around a bit...probably trying to avoid doing my yoga and having another cup of coffee...and there it was... my gratitude has already started this AM.
Thank you

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