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.

  1. Starting from Separateness, we might say: We see many pieces of paper that happen to be in the same place.

  2. 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 as 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 parts.3

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 differences.

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 self-protection?

The second couple — call them the Oneness couple — starts from interconnection.

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 best.
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 beings.
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
that it
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 lessons emerge:

  • 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 relational-communion aspect.

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 context.

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



Keeping Commitments

Not keeping commitments

Acknowledging others, offering simple kindnesses

Not acknowledging others,  not offering simple kindnesses

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 “partnership with”

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 to flourish.

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):

  1. We are not alone (help is available). I do not do the Great Work by myself alone.

  2. We begin from the positive communal core — what joins us together. I do not do the Great Work for myself alone.

  3. 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 nature.

I pledge to be present to you and for you – to see both your surface patterns and your deep nature.

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 dwell.8

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 our greed.

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 generously.

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 support us.12

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 below:

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 monk asked.

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


1 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

6 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

10 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

11 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

12 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

13 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. 265-266. BACK

14 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

15 Corinthians 13: 4-8 New International Version translation. BACK

16 See Coleman Barks with John Moyne, A. J. Arberry, Reynold Nicholson, The Essential Rumi (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1995), p. 109. BACK

17 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