One of the most luminous and profound commencement addresses I have ever seen was by Parker Palmer. Palmer was being awarded the first ever honorary degree at Naropa University in Colorado in 2015. Naropa was founded in 1974 by the Tibetan Buddhist teacher and Oxford alumnus Chogyam Trungpa. The university was intended to be an experiment in the synergy of contemporary Western scholarship methodologies and timeless tenets of Eastern wisdom. Palmer’s speech draws on a life of experience - he is in his mid-70s - and snatches of what can only be transcendent insight to layout his six pillars of meaningful human existence.
The full video of his speech is enriching to watch and you can view it here. In recent times in which bigotry and shameless self-aggrandisement seems to flood our media waves and public space, I often think of his second and third interlinked points of counsel: the task of living with opposing truths and embracing inner wholeness, and openly accepting ‘others’.
Regarding the first pillar, Palmer speaks of a “shadow side” of each of us. This is the side of us that comprises of “alien parts”, opposed to everything we commonly project that is “bright and beautiful”. He advocates a process in which you candidly introduce yourself to this shadow: “let your altruism meet your egotism, let your generosity meet your greed, let your joy meet your grief”. This truthful confrontation he believes is the first step towards wholeness. Critically, wholeness “does not mean perfection, it means embracing brokenness as an integral part of your life”. The strength drawn from saying “I am all of the above, my shadow as well as my light”, is much greater than overblown egotism (or scathing self-depreciation for that matter). This embrace of brokenness allows for you to place the “shadow’s power in the service of the good”.
Politics, religion, business and mass media is riddled with examples of people in leadership positions who deny or refuse to acknowledge their shadow selves because they fear loosing power. They imagine that their shadows are a sign of weakness. Left unexamined and in the dark, these shadows fester, and they breed and ooze into practices of power for the sake of the perpetuation of power. On the other hand, if shadows are embraced and brought into the light of careful scrutiny, they are demonstrable examples of human nature; we can learn from them, we can grow from them and they can serve for a more balanced and just future.
The ability to “welcome whatever you find alien within yourself” is the precondition for acceptance of all you find alien in the outer world. This is the third pillar in Palmer’s estimation: “I don’t know any virtue more important these days than hospitality to the stranger, to those we perceive as ‘other’ than us.” Palmer’s speech here reminds me of Mahmoud Darwish’s unmatched poetic insight into the politics of inner alterity.
Some of Darwish’s poetry in the early 90s was concerned with the embrace of inner opposites and what he termed the ‘mixed blood’ of Middle Eastern and Semitic heritage. He saw the acknowledgement of self as comprising of multiple opposing historical and cultural influences as the precondition for peace the Middle Eastern region. The reality of history of the human race is one of complex synthesis and synergy, yet in recent times communities have tended to pick and choose a cemented notion of singular heritage, allowing for ideas of difference and conflict with ‘others’. Darwish advocated the unearthing of a messy, mixed ancient past in order to lay the foundations for a new notion of community: inner alterity, external heterogeneity and co-existence. One of my favourite poems from this time of his is titled, ‘The stranger finds himself in the stranger’.
On a personal level, examining your shadows and coming to embrace them as part of a diverse and whole self is necessarily a tenuous and ongoing process. It is for me. I first began this in my early twenties when I sought to confront and overcome a pattern of anorexia, bulimia, anxiety, insomnia and insecurity. I had developed this in my teens and it appeared insurmountable. Worst of all, it was deadening my ability to flourish and succeed in my pursuits. I knew however that no external psychological counsel or drugs were going to solve it.
They key to overcoming this myself was mediation and yoga. For the first time in my life I was, through yogic practices done regularly and with integrity, an observer to my negative thought patterns. I realised that the roots of the condition were a series of interlinked and self-perpetuating negative beliefs and thoughts. Caught up in a life without mindfulness, where I was reacting rather than creating in control, made me blind and deaf to the causes of my problems. Daily yoga and mediation is my context and means to make an examination of my shadows. I learnt that my self-hatred worked in tandem with an over-compensating ego. I was both brash and broken. Bringing this into the light was the hardest part. I found that shadows rarely retain negative power for long under careful, compassionate scrutiny. After this, they become the source of strength to help others.
Therefore, there are two points I would like to humbly offer to Palmer’s second and third tenets given my experiences. The first is mindfulness - in order to be able to successfully and sustainably examine your shadow selves you need to have a regular practice/routine that eases you into a measured, impassive and focused state of self-observation. The inner workings of your mind is a fluid and complex space of smoke and screens. Self-examination is so much more fruitful and stable if you have the framework of something like mediation and yoga to guide you.
The second is to set an intention for your self-examination that is bigger than you. This path can lead you to wallow in narcissism if you don’t have a clear goal or intention throughout. All the navel gazing and thought observation is truly beneficial only if you are doing it for a reason. This doesn’t have to be something etherial like ‘enlightenment’, it can be tangible and demonstrable, like to be a better person for your kids and partner, or to serve your community more with impact, and so on.
Sound leadership in all spheres, be it private or public, and inner wholeness begins with - in Darwish’s words - “an inner mirror with the eyes on an Other”.
Read more: Mahmoud Darwish, Unfortunately, it was Paradise: Selected Poems (2013)