An Undivided Life

An Undivided Life: Seeking Wholeness in Ourselves, Our Work & Our World
By Parker J. Palmer (interviewed by Tami Simon)
Boulder: Sounds True, 2009
Review by Carl McColman

An Undivided LifeParker Palmer is a wise and gentle teacher, and his books — such as The Active Life and The Promise of Paradox — are hailed as important works of contemporary spirituality. Ostensibly a Quaker yet clearly transcending any kind of sectarian narrowness, Palmer brings the deep contemplative ethos of the Society of Friends to his own work.

Although I’ve enjoyed reading Palmer’s writing, I’ve found this audio series from Sounds True to be singularly rewarding as a glimpse into the mind and heart of this living spiritual sage. Like Ken Wilber’s Kosmic Konsciousness before it, An Undivided Life presents Parker Palmer in the context of an interview with Sounds True’s CEO, Tami Simon. For this reason, this audiobook has an unusually intimate quality about it, and functions not so much as a teaching program but rather as an unstructured, almost rambling conversation in which Palmer comes across like nothing so much as an old, trusted friend, who is willing to take the time to share his wisdom in a relaxed and unhurried way. As an added bonus, Palmer’s voice is rich, deep, and resonant with a sense of earthy insight. The result is a listening experience that is as delightful as it is enlightening.

The key concept here, the undivided life, lines up nicely with what Ken Wilber calls the integral vision or what Richard Rohr calls non-dual consciousness. A lifelong educator, Palmer speaks of the importance of personal integrity and the willingness to orient our lives toward the deepest truths we can find within ourselves — even when such an orientation might call us to walk a path with others may not understand or appreciate. By honestly and vulnerably sharing his own repeated experience struggling with depression, Palmer ably speaks of the many forces in our lives that can serve to “divide” ourselves, such as the tendency to pursue a career that is at odds with our deepest values and desires, merely because of social or familial expectations. True spiritual health is found in our efforts to knit all the disparate elements of our lives together in a single whole, even though sometimes this might mean moving deeply into the reality of paradox, or learning to live with the soul as a wild, untamed and even “shy” part of ourselves.

Palmer is a natural storyteller, and whether he is recounting the tale of John Woolman’s struggle to lead the Quakers to take a stand against slavery, or the darkness he experienced in his own nights of depression, he knows how to make a story effortless to listen to, even as he wrings meaning out of each narrative. After five hours of hearing him speak, I felt that, without promoting a particular religious perspective or philosophical agenda, his words had truly nourished my soul.

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About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • Joanna

    You know, Father spoke this past Sunday on not keeping parts of our lives “for ourselves”, separate from Christ. This lines up so well with that.