Sitting in Circles

In our journey toward inner truth, we need a supportive community--a circle of trust-- to guide us.

Five years after leaving Berkeley, I found myself sitting in circles again. This time it was at Pendle Hill, a Quaker living-Learning community near Philadelphia, where I spent eleven years starting in the mid-1970s. But these circles, I soon discovered, were of a different sort. They were not heady, aggressive, self-congratulatory, or manipulative. They were gentle, respectful, and reverent in the way they honored self and world, and slowly they changed my life.

In these quiet Quaker circles, people were doing neither the amateur psychotherapy nor the faux politics that I had experienced in Berkeley Instead, they were doing therapy and politics rightly understood: reaching in toward their own wholeness, reaching out toward the world's needs, and trying to live their lives at the intersection of the two.


In these quiet Quaker circles, I saw people challenged, but I never saw anyone harmed. I witnessed more personal transformations than I had seen before, and I watched more people embrace their social responsibilities as well. That was when I started to understand why Quakers, who have always been few in number, have often been overrepresented in the great social issues of their time.

The circles of trust I experienced at Pendle Hill are a rare form of community--one that supports rather than supplants the individual quest for integrity-that is rooted in two basic beliefs. First, we all have an inner teacher whose guidance is more reliable than anything we can get from a doctrine, ideology, collective belief system, institution, or leader. Second, we all need other people to invite, amplify, and help us discern the inner teacher's voice for at least three reasons:

  • The journey toward inner truth is too taxing to be made solo: lacking support, the solitary traveler soon becomes weary or fearful and is likely to quit the road.

  • The path is too deeply hidden to be traveled without company: finding our way involves clues that are subtle and sometimes misleading, requiring the kind of discernment that can happen only in dialogue.

  • The destination is too daunting to be achieved alone: we need community to find the courage to venture into the alien lands to which the inner teacher may call us.

    I want to dwell for a moment on that little word discern, which means "distinguish between things." I think again of C. S. Lewis's tales of Narnia, that land of inwardness the children enter through the back of the magical wardrobe. There is much in Narnia that is good and beautiful, especially the voice of truth-the voice of Asian. the great lion-that is sometimes heard in the land. But there are other voices in Narnia as well, voices of temptation, deception, darkness, and evil. It takes four children, a variety of guides, and seven volumes of pitfalls and perils to sift through this mix of messages and travel toward the truth.

    Occasionally, I hear people say, "The world is such a confusing place that I can find clarity only by going within." Well I, for one, find it at least as confusing "in here" as it is "out there"--usually more so!-and I think most people do. If we get lost in New York City, we can buy a map, ask a local, or find a cabbie who knows the way. The only guidance we can get on the inner journey comes through relationships in which others help us discern our leadings.

    But the kind of community I learned about at Pendle Hill does not presume to do that discernment for us, as communities sometimes do: "You tell us your version of truth, and we will tell you whether you are right or wrong!" Instead, a circle of trust holds us in a space where we can make our own discernments, in our own way and time, in the encouraging and challenging presence of other people.

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    Parker J. Palmer
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