Awakening to Community:
Beyond the Veil of Separateness
Once upon a time in ancient China, the
inhabitants of one city were constantly in conflict. Efforts
at reconciliation had failed. Finally, the king himself
intervened, had the citizens arrested and thrown into
prison. Then he ordered that the hands of each were to be
attached to five-foot long chopsticks. Cooked rice was
available but no one could feed himself. The people were
rapidly approaching starvation in the midst of plenty. Then,
as if prompted by a collective dream, they started to feed
one another. The lesson was clear. If one only tended the
circle of oneself, emptiness grew. If each fed a neighbor,
then – in this expanded circle – all would be well.
Where do we begin in learning anew to recover and cultivate community?
Often, in workshops, I tear up a piece of paper, place the
scraps of paper on the ground before the group and ask,
“What do you see?” For me, there are two ways of relating to
the scraps of paper before us.
Starting from Separateness, we might say:
We see many pieces of
paper that happen to be in the same place.
Starting from Interconnection, we might say:
We see one piece of
paper that happens to be in many places.
I recommend starting from what deeply joins us, remembering we are one piece of paper, one human family, one web of life.1
Communities of Different Sizes
Arthur Koestler coined the term “holon”2
— a whole that is also a part of something larger
atoms are wholes unto themselves and also parts of molecules
and so on through cells, organs, and organisms. Humans are
wholes unto themselves and also parts of friendships,
families, organizations, nations. The entire human species
is a part of the web of all life on the planet. The planet,
in turn, is embedded in an ever-surprising universe. In this
view, we dwell in nested fields
— in concentric
circles, of a sort. Starting with the principle of unity at
each level will begin to shift our sense of wholes and
Relational Fields of Two
The smallest relational field (larger than my separate self) is
the one-to-one relationship. Such relationships come in a
number of kinds:4
In the realm of friendship, think
of two friends.
In the realm of family, think of
two spouses, or a parent and child, or a brother and
sister, and on and on.
In the realm of the wider world of
work, think of two colleagues, or a teacher and student,
or a doctor and patient, or an employer and employee, or
a government official and a citizen, and on and on.
Suppose we make the shift from separate
individuals as primary to relational fields as primary.
Then, we must learn “to see two but think three”: the
partnership and the parties within it. Think partnership
first and then you and me. Examples highlight the
Consider two couples, each at their wedding, each ready to
recite the traditional vows:
”I take you to be my husband or wife to have and to hold,
from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer,
for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to
cherish, until death do us part.”
Imagine we can see into their thought processes. The
first couple — call them the Separateness couple — dwells in
the mindset of separateness. For each, self-interest is
primary. Each says the traditional words while thinking: “As
long as it is a good deal — good for you, yes; good for me,
certainly.” Quid pro quo. Score-keeping. For better, yes;
for worse, I don’t know. And so on through the list. Nothing
unites this couple except separate acts of the will. Is it
any wonder that when the going gets rough, they return to
the default position: two separate selves engaged in
The second couple — call them the Oneness couple — starts
They see that the relational field as a “third” reality,
encompassing the two parties. This relational field contains
shared purposes, shared values, shared history, shared
defining moments, actual and potential, and is itself
changing and evolving. The relational field requires
tending, like a garden in which the two grow. The relational
field requires recognition like a bowl in which the two are
held. When things become difficult, one party to the
marriage may say to the other:
I see who we are together at our deepest and
I hold the bowl of our relationship and that
bowl is strong and whole.
I know that there will be times that I will
forget what joins us and
collapse our relationship into two separate
Then I ask you to hold the bowl and remind me of
what we are
together -- in the depth as well as on the
surface. In like fashion,
I pledge to remind you when you forget.
Consider Kuan Tao-Sheng’s beautiful poem “Married Love:”
You and I
have so much love
burns like a fire,
in which we bake a lump of clay
molded into a figure of you
and a figure of me.
Then we take both of them,
and break them to pieces,
and mix the pieces with water,
and mold again a figure of you
and a figure of me.
I am in your clay.
You are in my clay.
In life we share a single quilt.
In death we will share one bed.5
The poem recognizes “we are in each other’s clay.” Yet, we could go further. Think of each partner as a small crystal bowl filled with clear water. Each unique individual is a bowl with surface and depth. Next, see these two bowls as themselves floating in a third, larger crystal bowl — also filled with water. The marriage itself is a bowl with surface and depth. Here we have uniqueness-in-communion, communion composed of differences. And the partners can remind each other when they forget.
Relational Fields larger than Two
One-to-one partnerships are situated in larger units —
families, voluntary and work organizations, communities,
nations, the planet itself. As we widen the focus, several
Wherever the size of the unit, we can start with the unity at
the heart of each community.
Whatever the size of the unit, communities tend to exhibit
two aspects: a shared task (mission with division of
labor) and shared morale (emotional, motivational
bonding). Skills that build community look to both
aspects: the action-task aspect and the
Let us think of the move to recover oneness and the skills to
cultivate community as part of what Thomas Berry calls “the
Great Work.”6 In other words, it is part of a paradigm shift
from the modern world to an emerging ecological worldview.
After five hundred years of high individualism in the West,
this is a large step to take. We are not accustomed to
seeing relational fields as real, not practiced in seeking
first what deeply unites us. We are more practiced in seeing
separate selves as primary and groups as merely the sum of
individuals. So moving to a new paradigm requires skillful
strategy — a bit of jujitsu. In what follows, I suggest two
steps. Allow ourselves first to think of a set of practices
in the old way and then take up the practices in the newer
Skills for Community Living
Step One: Leadership scholar
Stephen R. Covey speaks of an Emotional Bank Account. In the
banking metaphor, one can make deposits and also
withdrawals. Here is my variant of Covey’s approach.7
Not keeping commitments
Acknowledging others, offering simple kindnesses
Not acknowledging others, not offering simple
Letting Go of Being Right
Refusing to let go of Being Right
Practicing Deep Listening (in order to understand)
Failing to listen in order to understand
Encouraging partnership with others
Practicing “superiority over” rather than
Whether we focus on a friendship or a family or a more
structured organization, surely the practice of making
deposits and apologizing for withdrawals will aid community
Step Two: Let us shift the metaphor from banking to
gardening. Think of cultivating community (much as
cultivating a garden). Next, put in place three new elements
to move us from separateness (parts first) to
interconnection (relationships first):
We are not alone (help is available). I do not do the
Great Work by myself alone.
We begin from the positive communal core — what joins us
together. I do not do the Great Work for myself alone.
Because of the nested nature of community, wherever in
the web we perform good actions or water good seeds, the
whole is modified and benefitted.
Let us revisit the five practices introduced above, broaden
them and place them in the paradigm of interconnection.
Think of five practices of mind and heart to cultivate the
garden of community:
1) Together we can cultivate a sense of the Whole and its Participant-parts.
Here we rest in the awareness that we are already communal
beings, already interconnected and interdependent. We honor
the relational field and those within it.
We can say:
I see that you are present to
me and for me. You see my surface pattern and my deep
I pledge to be present to you
and for you – to see both your surface patterns and your
I realize that what joins us
together also deserves care (as a garden in which we
grow, as a house in which we live).
Held in the beauty of this
relational field, I pledge to offer help
when I sense you are suffering.
Held in the beauty of this
relational field, I pledge to ask you for
help when I am suffering.
Together, we will remember
the surface and depth of each other and the
surface and depth of the evolving relationship in which we
2) Together — honoring surface and depth of each union/communion, we can rediscover sufficiency (or intersufficiency/abundance).9
We each have in ourselves and those who companion us all we
need to live a life of quality — right here and right now.
As Gandhi reminds us, there is enough for our need, not for
Coming from oneness reminds us of the positive — what
brought us together, what we prize about the whole and its
constituent parts, what we notice in the positive core of
our life together.10 Together, we are
enough and there is enough
A sign of coming from intersufficiency is the practice of
gratitude and generosity — receiving abundantly, giving
3) Together —honoring surface and depth, we can release from old surface stories and allow the deeper qualities of peace and joy and love to become manifest.11
We can certainly let go of “being right,” confront our
own blunders, apologize and, where appropriate make amends.
More profoundly, we can examine together our unexamined
beliefs and emotional triggers. We can release those that
are too small to live in. When living in community triggers
old stories and old emotional charges, we can aid each other
to recover largeness of vision and return to the bonds that
4) Together we can practice deep listening and loving speech — entering the unknown together13
We begin to realize that all beings are more mysterious than
we know. We learn — in the waters of unknowing — to hear
what is said and unsaid, the words and tone, and to pay
attention to the images that are just forming.
5) Together we can enlist collaboration (partnership with) and move with emerging currents.
Realizing that all beings seek
to fulfill themselves, we can learn when to act and when to
give space, when to advance and when to retreat, for the
sake of the whole and its participant parts. We do not do
the Great Work for ourselves or by ourselves.14
Aiding one another to develop
and deepen these five practices shows us
community-in-action. I think of St. Paul’s famous discourse
on love in this context of community-building:15
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy,
it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not
rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily
angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does
not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.
It always protects, always trusts, always hopes,
always perseveres. Love never fails.
With such reminders in place, even disturbances can prompt growth. The poet-mystic, Rumi, makes the point in his poem
The Guest House
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.16
This, in a sense, is one of
the fruits of practice. We can appreciate it in the form of
a final story:
A desert monk is surprised
to learn that a gardener in a nearby city has a way of
life more pleasing to God than his own. The monk visits
the city; finds the gardener selling vegetables; and
asks for shelter overnight. The gardener is overjoyed
that he can be of service. He gladly welcomes the monk
into his home. The monk cannot but admire the gardener’s
hospitality and his prayerful life. However, one thing
disturbs him: the vulgar songs of drunks can be heard
coming from the street nearby.
“Tell me, what do you
conceive in your heart when you hear these things?” the
The gardener replied: “That
they are all going to the kingdom.”
The monk, marveling, said:
“This is the practice which surpasses my labor of all
these years. Forgive me, brother, I have not yet
approached this standard”17
In my book
Living Large: Transformative Work at the Intersection of
Ethics and Spirituality (Laurel, MD: Tai Sophia Press,
2004) I attempt a synthesis of the pre-modern and the modern
epochs. For me, the move from separation to interconnection
is part of that paradigm shift. BACK
2 Arthur Koestler introduced the term in
his book, The Ghost in the Machine (London:
Hutchinson, 1967). BACK
3 Once we shift paradigms from a world of separateness to a universe of interconnection, we shall find ourselves moving from parts as primary (separate pieces) to relationships as primary – unique relational wholes composed of unique constituent parts. This will start to shift our understanding of wholes and parts. For a brief discussion, see my To Come to Life More Fully (Columbia, MD: Traditional Acupuncture Institute, 1990), chapter 10. BACK
4 This is, of course, a Confucian insight. See my
To Come to Life More Fully, chapters 2 and 11. BACK
5 The poem is translated by Kenneth Rexroth and Ling Chung. It may be found in Robert Hass & Stephen Mitchell, Into the Garden: A Wedding Anthology (New York: Harper Perennial, 1993), p. 13. BACK
See Thomas Berry, The Great Work (New York: Bell Tower Division of Random House, 1999). For Thomas Berry, the Great Work seeks to shift to “a period when humans would be present to the planet in mutually beneficial ways.” In this essay, I see the Great Work, in part, as a quest to take the best of the Pre-modern and the Modern and resituate their gifts in a new Trans-modern, Emerging Ecological era. BACK
7 For Covey’s original Emotional Bank Account, see his The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (New York: Simon and Shuster Fireside Book, 1989), pp.188-199. For a fuller story of why I chose the five practices I did, see my book,
Living Large, mentioned above. BACK
8 I am glossing TNH’s relational mantras. Here is basically how I remember them from a retreat at Stonehill College, August 2007:
Darling, I am here for you.
Darling, I recognize that you are here and I am very happy.
Darling, I wonder if you are suffering / having difficulties. I am here. May I help?
Darling, I’m suffering. I need your help.
I am adding a sense of the relational field and how one partner might remember this when the other forgets. BACK
9 In the banking approach, I placed here acknowledging the other and giving simple gifts. Here, we acknowledge the relational field and its participants and see the core unity under the aspect of abundance or sufficiency or intersufficiency. The giving and receiving is seen as mutual support. BACK
Hence it profits from a way of proceeding close to that of
Appreciative Inquiry. See, for example, David L. Cooperrider and
Diana Whitney, Appreciative Inquiry: A Positive Revolution in
Change (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2005). BACK
Here honoring “what is” in surface and depth and letting go
of what no longer serves becomes the dominant practice. This
more general practice of “letting go” includes but goes
beyond simply letting go of being right. BACK
For a powerful way
of working on issues of honoring what is and letting go of
old stories, see Byron Katie with Stephen Mitchell,
Loving What Is (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2002). BACK
As in the bank account model, listening is again the key
practice. Now it is broadened to deep listening and loving
speaking and deepened to include the context of unknowing.
The deep listening and loving speech echoes Thich Nhat
Hanh’s Fourth Mindfulness Training. See, Thich Nhat Hanh,
Friends on the Path: Living Spiritual Communities, compiled
by Jack Lawlor (Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 2002), pp.
For more on enlisting collaboration, see Rosamund Stone
Zander and Benjamin Zander, The Art of Possibility (Boston:
Harvard Business School Press, 2000), especially practices 9
and 12. BACK
Corinthians 13: 4-8 New International Version translation. BACK
See Coleman Barks with John Moyne, A. J. Arberry, Reynold
Nicholson, The Essential Rumi (San Francisco:
HarperSanFrancisco, 1995), p. 109. BACK
Kathleen Norris, Dakota: A Spiritual Geography (Boston:
Houghton Mifflin Company, 1993), pp. 98-99. She references
the story as coming from Benedicta Ward, S.L.G., ed., The
Desert Christian (New York: Macmillan, 1975). BACK