At 9am on a Sunday morning, in front of a group of new acquaintances, I was shedding quiet tears. From a bluetoothed ipad, Cat Stevens sang ‘Morning has Broken’ as I regarded a carpet of tree collages on the floor of the meeting room – the product of a workshop exercise the previous day. Let me be clear. I don’t cry in public. I reserve that for movies, in private, about dogs doing something noble. What was I doing here? And why was I so moved?
It was the last day of a retreat called ‘Courage and Renewal’.
Neil Millar, one of the facilitators, had joked “We will be using a methodology which has proven its success since the 60s…(pause)…” Oh no, I thought, something hippy and flaky. He finished the sentence “…since the 1660s”.
Aah, this could be interesting. Courage and Renewal is based on the ‘Circle of Trust’ approach described in Parker Palmer’s book, “A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life”. Parker is a Quaker, and the approach is modelled on his experience with Quaker dialogue circles. Neil pointed out that the process had triggered the anti-slavery commitment among Quakers decades before the issue took on broader political significance in abolitionist campaigns.
A friend had lent me the book a few months earlier, and I found Parker’s ideas both wise and inviting. Much of his writing is about reviving a spiritual dimension in our professional lives and communities. His definition of spiritual is generous and non-religious – a sense of connection to purpose that is larger than oneself, intention that extends beyond the ego. A more ambitious version is about reconnecting to a sense of ‘whole-hearted’ living. Challenge enough for many of us grown cynical with age or disillusionment.
We had been encouraged to come to the retreat with questions about our vocation or our life journey. My question was basic. What next, where I am heading now?
Two days later, I was still basking in the balmy emotional tone of the weekend, and a lingering quietness. Everything looked different. I noticed a lone tree on Stanmore station that I had never seen before. The faces of my fellow commuters on the train to Parramatta were more interesting – I was imagining us as animals in a zoo, how interesting we would be observe. I felt kinder towards my species.
That has diminished a bit as the days passed. What has enduring is a great sense of clarity about my purpose, my ‘vocation’ in Neil’s words.
I had come with a very specific question about vocation. Without directly addressing it, I found that when I woke up on Saturday morning, my question was already answered. I was quite clear about my vocation as a form both of self-expression and contribution. I could just lay the question to rest. I also acquired a quiet sense of confidence about shifting some of these new insights into a wide range of my current endeavours. Even more, I was now free to draft up a less vocational, much more delicious and evocative question by Sunday morning. What, in the past, have I delighted in, that I could revive and nourish in the years ahead?
A specific breakthrough for me was about being more open emotionally, less silenced by fear and shame, more able to acknowledge vulnerability. I know that my common response to difficulties, and challenges, or even intimacy is to be funny, smart and dismissive. It is a kind of protective cocoon that has well outlived its usefulness.
I approached my Monday work meeting with a quiet confidence, and willingness to explore others’ deeper intentions. On Tuesday I shared more personal stories than ever before. And felt quite comfortable doing it.
So why this shift?
The retreat process was, on face value, quite simple. Kirsty and Neil would present some kind of stimulus – a poem, a song, a cartoon – then pose a question to address. “Our lives pose questions which have no right to go away”. And questions may come for a time, and evaporate as other, more timely, questions take their place. I love the idea of a question being answered by a better question.
Then each activity or question is left for us to explore alone. We write journal notes, form collages, or just reflect. After this we share things with one or two others. Then we gather the strands of these conversations in a circle group. We are often reminded “this is not a share or die event”. Silence is more than permitted, it is encouraged, indeed celebrated. The tone of our conversations, when they occur, is thoughtful, heartfelt, often moving. There were a few basic rules for discussion (labelled “touchstones” rather than “ground rules”). No ‘fixing’ or solving someone else’s dilemma, no advice. Just open and honest questions.
The process is both delicate and powerful, Parker Palmer uses the image of holding a little bird in one’s hands (A Hidden Wholeness p.146).
What was both remarkable and lovely, was that some of the most enduring dilemmas facing me, questions which I had wrestled with for long, were so gently resolved. If not resolved, then shifted into a frame that seemed easy and amenable. This is such a relief, and exposed a habit of making things more complex and challenging than necessary. I noted a quote from one of the books scattered around the meeting room,
“It is always hard to believe that the courageous step is so close to us, that it is closer than we ever could imagine, that in fact, we already know what it is, and that the step is simpler, more radical than we had thought: which is why we so often prefer the story to be more elaborate, our identities clouded by fear, the horizon safely in the distance, the essay longer than it needs to
be and the answer safely in the realm of impossibility (David Whyte, Consolations).”
The formal, instructional language is ecumenical. What drew me to this retreat was something I had read in parker Palmer’s book. He talks about ‘a hidden wholeness’ and the ‘shy soul’. The first I think is a quote from Thomas Merton, a an American Catholic writer of last century (Pope Francis mentioned him in his address to Congress). My sense is that much that is deeply moving and important, moments of insight and deep reflection, are skipped over in our busy, anxious lives. Louder, more practical, even cynical voices take precedence. We fail to nourish our gentler urgings. When I turned sixty late last year, I resolved to pay more attention to my own inner life. A quote from Parker Palmer on ‘the soul’ “it doesn’t matter what you name it, as long as you name it.
I also had a renewed delight in silence and reflection in the middle of a busy life. Parker uses the metaphor of the Moebius strip. We have both inner and outer lives, which should nourish each other rather than contest. Neil introduced the first session with a comment about places. We have plenty of places that encourage the intellect to flourish, and the ego. But places that nurture the inner world are rare.
Parker encourages acceptance of the paradoxes we live within. How do we manage the pull between inner and outer worlds (the Moebius strip as a metaphor). How do we learn and change while holding on to what is most important? How do we learn and change while holding on to what is most important? In our relationships with others, do we give too much or too little.
The latter paradox is very important – the paradox of the self in community. Parker reports his conclusion that the specific gift that Quaker communities have to offer the world is about creating communities of ‘discernment’ – places where each individual finds encouragement to speak their own truths, and to be heard in a way that allows oneself to discover, to discern, what is most valuable and true. With time, and enough individual ‘threads’ being laid down by the individuals involved, the community itself may discern its collective truths.
The most valuable benefit from the workshop was that such a gentle, but rigorous process made it not only possible, but highly probably that I would discover a renewed sense of purpose. And I did.
Courage and Renewal retreat: facilitated by Kirsty McGeoch and Neil Millar, Killcare, 2015 “Listening to your Life – Tuning in for what matters most” Central Coast NSW September 25-27, 2015
More about Parker Palmer – http://www.couragerenewal.org/parker/