Parker Palmer: Know Yourself, Change Your World

In the work you do each day, how do you distinguish truth from fraud, build community, and speak up for what’s right?

Parker Palmer

Photo by Dan Kowalski

Why do bankers make unethical investments, and what makes teachers burn out after a year on the job? Acclaimed educator and author Parker J. Palmer says most of us lack an understanding of our inner lives. If we learned in school how to navigate the inner landscapes of our lives, we might gain the tools to make it through difficult times, and clarify and act on our deepest values. Palmer is the author of A Hidden Wholeness, Let Your Life Speak, and The Courage to Teach, and a founder of the Center for Courage and Renewal. YES! Executive Editor Sarah van Gelder spoke with him about why “reflection” should be the fourth “R” of education.

Sarah: Why does learning about the inner life make you a better teacher, or doctor, or carpenter, or citizen?

Parker: Every line of work is deepened by bringing all of our human capacities to bear on whatever we are doing, and that includes our inner sensibilities as well as our externally oriented knowledge and skill. 

Doctors who are acquainted with their inner landscapes are better able to help their patients draw on the healing power of their own psyches and spirits. The relation between a doctor’s emotional self-awareness and a patient’s well-being is so well-grounded in clinical evidence that many medical schools are now making doctor-patient relationships a regular part of a physician’s preparation.

Sarah: What exactly do you mean by the inner life?

Parker: The inner landscape has at least three dimensions: a cognitive and intellectual dimension; an emotional, psychological dimension; and a spiritual dimension. My definition of spiritual is that it involves the eternal human yearning to be connected with something larger than my own ego.

Engaging the inner life also makes for a more ethical professional practice. As we look around the professions today—not least in the world of business and accounting—we see why we need people who have an examined inner life to strengthen the ethics of those professions.

So, for example, if you’re a great historian, you may be seeking to be connected with the massive story of human development over time, which rescues you from the smallness of your own story. An astronomer or a physicist may likewise find meaning and purpose in the larger story of their discipline’s contribution to human knowledge. If you’re a seeker on a more traditional religious path, you may find that larger connection beyond your own ego in Allah or Yahweh or God or in the void, in the Godhead, the Buddha, and so on.

My definition of spirituality doesn’t prescribe any particular path. Instead, it opens up an inquiry. We need such an inquiry in education because sometimes the answer people come up with in response to their spiritual yearning is the Third Reich, Aryan supremacy, or some other form of racism, sexism, or homophobia. We have all kinds of ways of saying, “My group is superior to your group,” and that’s the pathological way we get connected to something larger than our own egos.

So putting these questions on the table educationally is not only acceptable, it’s critical. When we leave them unexamined, we get a lot of darkness in the world as people fail to examine their underlying spiritual dynamics in relation to their work and other responsibilities.

You mentioned carpenters. My grandfather was a master carpenter. He had a sixth-grade education, but he had Einstein in his fingertips. His inner guidance was so strong that he could build a circular staircase in the middle of a house without using a miter box to cut the complex angles required. He’d cut them freehand and perfectly join that wood in a spiral.

My grandfather’s feeling for wood was parallel to the way geneticist Barbara McClintock worked with the biotic materials that led her to breakthrough discoveries in genetic transposition more than 50 years ago, long before we had the scientific instrumentation we have today. Of course, she had all the logical and observational powers you need to win a Nobel Prize in medicine. But she also had a relationship with the maize she studied that she called “a feeling for the organism.”

When we bring our inner lives into our work, whatever we’re working with ceases to be an object to be manipulated and becomes instead a partner to co-create with. That’s what good teachers do with students, good doctors do with patients, good writers do with words, good potters do with clay.

Sarah: What role does an inner practice have in educational settings?

Parker: For starters, if we helped would-be teachers understand their inner lives, we’d have less teacher burnout. Fifty percent of those who enter public school teaching will be gone at the end of five years. Schools are too often places that don’t sustain human growth and development. And if you’re not supporting that growth in teachers, then you’re not doing that for students, because adults who don’t develop their own inner lives can’t pass those capacities on to the young.

If you want evidence of the importance of the inner life in institutional reform, look at the study of school reform in Chicago in the 1990s, done by Anthony Bryk and Barbara Schneider. [1]

The study asked why some schools do better than others at teaching reading, writing, and math. They found that none of the “usual suspects” made much of a difference in improving kids’ learning: not money, models of governance, state-of-the-art curriculum, in-service training, or technology.

But one variable made a huge difference, a variable the researchers called “relational trust.” If your school had high levels of relational trust—among teachers and between teachers and administrators, and teachers and parents—and/or a leadership team that cared about trust, then over 10 years, your chance of raising student performance in basic skills was five out of seven. If not, your chances dropped to two out of seven.

So, what goes into relational trust? I’d argue that it relies on the capacity to do inner work, to go beyond the ego into something larger—in this case, into the shared desire to help children grow up in a way that will give them a chance at good lives.

Doing inner work means grappling with questions such as, “How do I get my own ego out of the way enough to regard you as a collaborator rather than as a competitor? If you step on my toes, how can I forgive you and move on? And if I step on your toes, how do I forgive myself and ask for your forgiveness so we can move on together?”

Engaging the inner life also makes for a more ethical professional practice. As we look around the professions today—not least in the world of business and accounting—we see why we need people who have an examined inner life to strengthen the ethics of those professions.

Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” I’d add, if you choose to live an unexamined life, please do not take a job that involves other people! You’re likely to cause real damage if you do.

Sarah: When people get clear on their values, don’t they tend to change the institutions they work with?

Parker: Yes, the inner life is subversive! When you develop an awareness of your inner life, you became aware of the disparity between your integrity and the way the institutions around you operate. And you may become aware that you are part of the problem—that you live a divided life, that the actions your institutions demand of you conflict with your inner values.

Institutions are projections of our own inner lives. Yes, they appear to have superhuman powers. But we can call them back to some semblance of humanity by reinventing them, because we invented them in the first place.

For example, a doctor at one of our Center for Courage and Renewal retreats said that the HMO where he works has him on the edge of violating his Hippocratic Oath two or three times a week. And under No Child Left Behind, many teachers are struggling with the demands of a testing system that threatens their commitment to serve the best interests of kids.

At that point, you have to reach deep and ask yourself, “Am I going to continue to live a divided life? Am I going to tuck this under the rug and pretend that I don’t know what’s going on? Or am I going to become a moral change agent within my institution and rally like-minded people around me, coalescing our power to bring about institutional change?”

Part of our problem is that our major institutions are often so complex that outsiders who want to hold them accountable have little access. Wall Street is a horrific example. We all know what happened when so very few insiders were willing to say what they knew—that our markets and financial system had become a house of cards. We need people within these institutions to act as moral agents, watching out for the best interests of those who are supposed to be served and of society at large.

In a recent article I wrote for Change Magazine [2], I argued that professional education must include the competencies individuals need to work toward change in our very dysfunctional institutions. In other words, all professionals ought to have some of the skills of a community organizer.

Sarah: In the new edition of your book, The Courage to Teach, you talk about debunking the myth that institutions possess autonomous power over our lives.

Parker: I tell a true story in The Courage to Teach about a medical resident who was given an impossible load of critical care patients to look after all by herself. She was unable to cope, and one of her patients died.

What do medical schools teach would-be doctors about their responsibilities and powers when they are asked to participate in wrongdoing? Do they teach them to blow the whistle on a system that puts them in an impossible situation? Or do they condition them to avoid getting crosswise with their superiors, and to just hope they make it through the day without anyone dying?

Institutions are projections of our own inner lives. Yes, they get large and complicated and appear to have superhuman powers. But we can call them back to some semblance of humanity by reinventing them, because we invented them in the first place. I think students don’t understand this. They believe that institutions have slots that you must fit into. But those slots are malleable, and those institutions can be rearranged. We have to help empower students to learn how to do that.

Sarah: Successful students are often the ones who did fit themselves into the slots within the educational institution that they graduated from.

Parker: That’s an important point. For generations, our schools have replicated the problems of our institutions. If you drive around small towns that haven’t rebuilt their high schools for the last 80 or 90 years, you see schools that were built to look like the factories that their graduates were going to work in. A lot of them look like those deadening assembly plant buildings that General Motors used to have, because the whole idea was to condition people to live and work under those circumstances.

But clearly that’s not education. Education was meant to be liberating for free men and women, which is where the name “liberal education” comes from.

Sarah: In Change Magazine, you proposed that we teach students how to “mine their emotions for knowledge.” What does that mean?

Parker: Fear can be like the canary in the mine. It’s trying to tell us that danger is coming and we need to do something about it. But people need help discerning their emotions, just as they need help discerning facts. We need to help students understand that some emotions come out of neurotic fears that can and must be overcome. But other emotions are pointing them toward external problems that they need to confront.

More from Parker J. Palmer

Now I Become Myself

How do you find the right work, the work that you alone are called to do? The first step is to ask a different question...

Integral Life, Integral Teacher
How can an inner decision to live and work with integrity spark a social movement?

We do our best discernment in community, where many eyes, ears, sets of experiences, and voices can sort out the wheat from the chaff. That’s how every mode of human knowing proceeds, including science. All of us together are smarter than any one of us alone—especially if we listen to the dissenters and to the people raising critical questions.

When students work together, they can learn how to move toward provisional conclusions about what’s true and false, what’s right and wrong, which leads are worth following, and which of them can be laid down and forgotten. If our schools would do that, we would have more community in our lives, better results in the world of work, and deeper discernment by citizens in our political life.

Likewise, institutional change doesn’t come about simply through the actions of courageous whistle-blowers. It happens through the formation of communities of people who have a shared moral concern and who can provide encouragement, resources, and protection for each other. That way, the whistle-blower isn’t so easily picked off and hung out to dry.

I don’t know of any great movement that hasn’t depended on base communities to sustain individuals in the demanding work of social change.

Sarah: You ended your new edition of The Courage to Teach by saying, “Let us resist the temptation to respond with a fearful ‘no’ or an elusive ‘maybe,’ and allow our lives to speak a clear and heartfelt ‘yes.’” What does it mean to do that in the times we’re in today?

Parker: For the past eight years, we had political leaders who lied to us. They pumped up our fear of terrorism to persuade us to agree to subverting our Constitution and disempowering citizens—strategies that we’ve seen before in fascist and totalitarian societies.

Now, of course, we have the fear that the American economy has been, and continues to be, a house of cards. A lot of people are suffering, and there is more suffering to come.

Rebuilding is going to require lots of Americans to re-envision what abundance means. I experienced more abundance in the Quaker community called Pendle Hill—where I spent 11 years living on $2,400 a year (beginning in 1975) plus room and board—than I have at many other times of my life. This abundance comes from knowing that we’re there for one another. If the bottom falls out of my life, I have a support net, and if the bottom falls out of your life, I can be part of the support net for you. That’s abundance.

There are not many Americans who live in that kind of milieu, so we’re surrounded by fear. And yet, I don’t think there’s any more important time than this to say a heartfelt “yes” to the human possibility. That sense of possibility disappears when we say “no” or “If I can’t have my illusions about the economy and about America’s inherent greatness, then I’ll give up. I’ll hunker down, get what I can for me and my kind, and let the devil take the hindmost.” That can very quickly become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So, we need to make “yes” a self-­fulfilling prophecy. But it has to be a “yes” tempered by a clear-eyed knowledge of both what is going on and what we know to be possible.

The challenge is to stand and act in what I call “the tragic gap.” This is the gap between the hard facts that surround us and what we know to be possible—not our dreams or fantasies, but what we know to be possible because we’ve seen the evidence with our own eyes, just as I saw evidence of communal abundance during my years at Pendle Hill.

It’s an ongoing journey to stand in the tragic gap and keep acting in hopeful ways, holding the tension between what is and what could be. It’s so easy to flip out either into cynicism—­because the latest wave of bad news has just washed over you—or into a kind of idealism, because something has gone well and you allow yourself to imagine that it will be this way forever. A good example might be the people who thought Barack Obama would get everything right, who are now tempted to drop out of the political process as Obama proves to have feet of clay, the kind that come with being human.

When I think of the great leaders whom I admire—whether it’s Nelson Mandela, or Dorothy Day, who started the Catholic worker movement, or Martin Luther King, Jr., or Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar—I think of people who stood in the tragic gap for a long, long time, people who kept moving forward saying “yes” in full awareness of the hard realities around them while never abandoning their vision of possibility.

If more and more of us can hold that tension and keep moving forward by saying “yes, yes, yes” to each incremental step toward the possible, no matter how small, then I think all kinds of good things can happen.

Interested? Parker J. Palmer on .



  1. Trust in Schools: A Core Resource for Improvement, Russell Sage Foundation Publications, 2004,

  2. Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, November-December 2007, . Read the .


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