The Commonweal Way: Letter from Michael Lerner
July 12, 2023
Dear Commonweal Friends,
I hope this finds you well. This is my summer letter to the Commonweal community. It comes at a special point in our history.
This year I turn 80. Our executive director, Oren Slozberg, turns 60. And it’s 50 years since I co-founded Full Circle, the residential school for at-risk children just outside Bolinas that gave birth to Commonweal three years later in 1976.
Under Oren’s leadership, Commonweal has grown exponentially over the past five years. We have more than doubled our programs, budget, and staff. We are doing a great deal more good in the world—in health and healing, education and the arts, and environment and justice. And we’re focused on strengthening the resilience of all our work in the ever changing conditions created by the global polycrisis.This year is a good time for us to reflect and to ask what is ours to do in the decades ahead.
The Commonweal Way
Usually in my letters to you I talk about the work of Commonweal. I talk about the programs I am most engaged with. They include the Cancer Help Program, Healing Circles, Cancer Choices, The New School, the Omega Resilience Awards, and our broader work on the polycrisis through Omega. I talk about the Collaborative for Health and Environment and the work we are doing with refugees at the Sanctuary in Tijuana.
This time, I’ll save those updates for my Fall Letter. In this letter, I am trying to do something much more challenging. I’ve been asked by my colleagues to begin our effort to describe what we call the Commonweal Way. It is one of the greatest challenges I have faced. It is far more difficult, for example, than describing our healing work with cancer, or our work on the global polycrisis.
So here goes. See if you can follow me.
I was given a vision of Commonweal in 1975. I still pause when I walk by the place on Poplar Road in Bolinas where the vision came to me. That morning was overcast with clouds and mist scudding across the mesa. I looked out across the grasslands and pastures to the old RCA transmitter station two miles north where radio communications to the far east began.
A stray shaft of sunlight broke through the clouds and illuminated the Main Building with a golden light. That was the moment when the vision was given to me that changed my life. The vision of Commonweal as a center for healing ourselves and healing the earth.
We can debate whether that vision came from within me or came from beyond me. I prefer to believe that it came from beyond me. Either way, it was a kind of miracle.
From the beginning, I knew that the words for the vision I was given—of a center for healing ourselves and healing the earth—wouldn’t work in many contexts. We needed to find other words that were not so far ahead of their time.
One early formulation was “a center for service and research in health and human ecology.” It was accurate but a mouthful.
A later one was “a health and environmental research institute.” The elevator speeches depended on who we were talking to.
Today, thankfully, we’ve come back to “healing people, healing the planet.” But that still doesn’t say much about what Commonweal actually does.
It’s also important to understand what “healing” means. Healing as we define it is different from curing. Curing means to take a disease or a problem away completely.
Healing, by contrast, is a movement toward wholeness. Healing can take place physically, mentally, emotionally and/or spiritually. Healing can happen both in living and in dying. Sometimes great healings take place close to the time of death. Healing, truth be told, is actually a profound mystery, so this brief summary cannot do it justice. I have worked to understand healing for decades and it still eludes me.
Over time, many of us came to quietly enjoy the truth that what Commonweal is couldn’t easily be put into words. I won’t try to answer the question “what is Commonweal?” directly here. But I will try to begin to describe the “Commonweal Way.”
Three Principles in Action
While describing Commonweal has long been a dilemma, I came over time to believe that we could actually describe the three principles that inform our work. I believe they are: kindness of heart, consciousness of mind, and dedication to service. These principles speak less to “what” Commonweal is and more to “how” we do the work. Perhaps that “how” actually is the Commonweal Way in its essence. In many traditions, these principles represent our human inheritance. We are all given hearts, heads, and hands. In yoga, for example, bhakti, jnana, and karma yoga are the yogas of the heart, the head, and the hands—when all three are dedicated to lives of service.
What do these principles of kindness, consciousness, and service look like in action? In depth psychology, we speak of “love, wisdom, and will.” So our principles—kindness, consciousness, and dedication to service—are adaptations of these three great archetypal principles that make them more accessible. Let me say a little more about each.
Kindness. Kindness, friends say, is love with its work boots on. Love can mean almost anything. But we all know what kindness feels like. Kindness is our most fundamental value. When you visit Commonweal, you may feel kindness surrounding you.
Consciousness. Consciousness is a word that doesn’t claim too much. Wisdom, by contrast, might seem to claim too much. Socrates remarked that if the Delphic oracle said that if he was the wisest man in Athens it was because he knew that he did not know. That is my working definition of wisdom. We know that we don’t know. At the same time, we may recognize practical wisdom when we see it. So we try at a minimum to be conscious of what we are doing. And we aspire to practical wisdom.
Service. We serve in many ways. One way stands out. “Justice,” Cornel West has said, “is what love looks like in the public sphere.” Justice in the Jewish tradition is an eternal religious obligation. Justice has been a priority at Commonweal from the start, working with children coming out of juvenile halls, and then with four decades of work to close California’s youth prisons.
Humility. Humility flows from our three principles. Humility integrates kindness, consciousness, and service. None of us can do real work alone. We serve best in community. Community requires that we work well together to be effective. Working well together is grounded in humility.
Humility at the archetypal level flows from the recognition that we are all stardust. We are children of the light. We have come forth from the stars. When we die, it is to stardust that we return. “Sic itur ad astra,” Virgil wrote in his Aeneid. “Thus we return to the stars.” Micah 6-8 in the Bible's Old Testament summarizes all of this for me:
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.And what does the Lord require of you?To act justly and to love mercyand to walk humbly with your God.
There you have these ancient three principles—“act justly” (service), “love mercy” (kindness) and “walk humbly” (consciously, with humility). You find them everywhere in the wisdom teachings once you begin to look.
These are simply my formulations. They may turn out to be useful for a shared understanding of the Commonweal Way. Beyond any shared formulations, we can each ask ourselves the ancient questions that may guide our personal paths in life. Who am I? Where do I come from? Why am I here? Where am I going? And to whom (or what) am I accountable? From our answers to these questions may flow our own intuitions as to how we can contribute to the true commonweal—the well being of life on earth.
We may need to arrive at agreements that spell out how our principles apply in our work. We may need to revisit them regularly so that the agreements stay alive. Here are eight possible candidates for such agreements.
Honesty. Honesty is difficult. But it is something we can commit to, especially honesty in financial matters, legal matters, and simple common sense and good practice. None of us are always honest. One of my teachers said speech should be truthful, useful, and peaceful. That’s a tall order. But basic honesty in our work is vital if we are to trust each other. And trust is the coin of the realm.
Clarity. Clarity is essential and yet elusive. I believe in putting things into writing to be sure we agree. I’m not talking about formal documents but just email or other written exchanges that can be called back up. Of course, when it comes to our shared agreements, there’s a benefit in more formal records.
Embracing Error. If you punish error, people hide their mistakes. If you embrace error, people discover how we can learn from what went wrong. Embracing error means making fewer of the same mistakes. Instead we get to make new and more interesting ones. Embracing error makes us a learning community.
Accepting Differences. We’re different. We’re designed to be different. Differences can create our greatest difficulties. They can also forge our greatest strengths. We need ways to resolve differences and grievances when they occur. As Commonweal grows, the need for these practices will grow.
Peaceful Partings. Partings can be notoriously difficult. Funding for projects can run out. Staff members move on or retire. Sometimes good talented people struggle to work well together. That is why I have always asked those I work with to agree, when the time does come to part, to try to part with the same commitment to kindness and shared purpose that we began with. That way we do as little harm as possible to each other and to the shared purpose with which we began.
Forgiveness. Forgiveness is fundamental to the last three agreements I have mentioned—embracing error, accepting our differences, and parting as well as we can when that time comes. Forgiveness is not always easy and may not come all at once. But holding mutual forgiveness as our intention is essential. A teacher of mine once said that when we point a finger at someone, we have three fingers that point back at us. “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
Overwork. There is an inevitable tendency in nonprofit work to try to do more than we have the capacity to do. This tendency is sometimes self-imposed. But it can also be imposed by the organization. It takes wisdom to manage this tendency. I have struggled with it all my life. Matching our work to our organizational capacity is basic wisdom. Overwork takes a toll on staff morale. People become exhausted and feel they can’t do their best work. Thomas Merton reminds us of what is truly at stake here:
There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence to which the idealist most easily succumbs: activism and overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence. The frenzy of our activism neutralizes our work for peace. It destroys our own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.
Overwork is not the “fault” of any single organization. It is among the most common conditions of our time. Many people I know who devote themselves to good work are overwhelmed. Many seem to count their overwhelm as a form of virtue. This common condition is worthy of consideration.
Re-creation. The issue of overwork brings us naturally to the need for re-creation—both on our own and together. This is the ancient wisdom of the Sabbath. Our monthly staff lunches are a wonderful example. Just as Commonweal needs to re-create itself continuously in our service work, we as a community need to re-create ourselves to keep the joy and friendships and energy flowing. How we select our agreements—so that there are not too many and so we touch on the most important ones—may be among our greatest collective decisions. You will notice that many of the agreements I have suggested focus on facing difficulties of various kinds. To me, these are simply eight basic needs: for honesty, clarity, embracing error, resolving differences, parting with grace, mutual forgiveness, avoiding overwork, and re-creating ourselves in friendship and joy.
Whether these agreements end up contributing to the list of agreements we make together, only time will tell. But they are at least an offering of the kind of agreements we may need—and the need to revisit our agreements and keep them fresh over time.
Ancient Wisdom Teachings
We can speak of our principles and agreements in the abstract, in action, and in our daily lives. But putting things into words, no matter how necessary, can also trap us. We can get trapped in the belief that words are a substitute for how we actually live, serve, and treat each other. Writing down these principles and agreements can actually backfire. So we should be very cautious as we approach this question.
That is why a part of me hesitates before the challenge of trying to put the Commonweal Way into words. I actually believe the true Commonweal Way is not something we can put into words.
“The Tao that can be spoken is not the true Tao.” In biblical terms, “By their fruits shall ye know them.”
The true Commonweal Way, in my view, is a way of being, not something that can be put into words. It is literally beyond words. In my view, the Commonweal Way is actually the way of the ancient wisdom teachings—the perennial philosophy or perennial wisdom as Leibnitz and Aldous Huxley described it. They claimed that there is a single ultimate wisdom at the heart of all great spirit teachings. At the heart of the great wisdom schools was the belief that the true way was forever beyond words, forever shrouded in mystery. Many in these times deny that such an ultimate wisdom exists. I won’t quarrel. But I seek to live as if such an ultimate wisdom exists.
George Fox, the founder of the Society of Friends, said there is “that of God” within every human being. We could rephrase that in less theocentric language. We could say there is some ultimate dignity in every human being. The Commonweal Way, in my view, contains nothing new. It is only a form of remembrance. Remembrance of old truths. Remembrance of our human inheritance. If we understand “commonweal” in its true sense—“the well-being of the community”—we can understand why there is nothing new in the Commonweal Way. It is simply how we all work as best we can to make good use of these precious lives we have been given.
That said, there is a perennial necessity to refresh our understanding of these ancient truths. Human consciousness is unequivocally evolving (whether for better or worse is another question). Likewise, the circumstances of life in the global polycrisis are evolving at incredible speed. And our understanding of the science of life and the universe is evolving at warp speed as well.So while the truths are ancient, the setting in which we are navigating life is one humans have never faced before. Hence the need to revisit ancient truths and test their applicability and the ways we can put them into practice. That is central to our work. That’s why this difficult task of describing the Commonweal Way makes sense to me.
It also makes sense because as Commonweal grows—as our work spreads across the country and around the world, as we shelter 30 different projects and 130 staff, many of whom do not know each other—we literally need some way to say what the principles and agreements are that hold us together as a community.
Three Focal Areas of Work
The Commonweal Way, it seems to me, is much more than a set of principles and agreements about how we work and treat each other. We describe our work as generally falling into three focal areas—health and healing, education and the arts, and environment and justice. We have an overarching focus on building resilience for our work in a rapidly changing world. These three focal areas seem to me to be part of the Commonweal Way. They are not as immutable as the principles. They are more like the agreements, which can also be modified. They may well change or expand over time. For example, I would love to see us work more with poverty, with migration, and with peace-making. But they deserve mention as the foci of our work for decades.
Our structure plays an important role in what Commonweal is and how we do things. As Oren says, our structure is inverted. The programs and their directors are at the top of the inverted pyramid. The stewardship council is at the bottom, supporting the programs. Our fundamental agreement with program directors is that they must find the resources for their programs and, in return, they have great freedom to guide their work as they see best. There are a few exceptions, and some talk of more exceptions, but that is the reality, at least for now.
Another key strength of our structure is that we aren’t focused in a single program area. We have the flexibility to engage across a wide range of interests in health and healing, education and the arts, and environment and justice. There is an immense freedom for Commonweal built into our structure at both levels—the freedom of the program directors and our organizational capacity to address the most urgent and most promising issues of our time. Nor are we eternally limited to the three areas in which we currently work. These twin freedoms seem a vital dimension both of what we are and of how we work.
Then there are also practices worthy of mention that support us at Commonweal.
Silence is a central practice for many of us at Commonweal. It is central to our healing work. It is a form of meditation. We begin meetings with silence. The Healing Circles practice is grounded in silence. It is a practice that grew out of the Cancer Help Program and became a global network called Healing Circles Global. It’s a set of practices that work well for peer-led circle work. In this context, these practices may also may serve as a guide to how we work together and treat each other. Many of us start each work session with silence followed by a personal check-in before we begin the work. Many of us find this simple practice strengthens our work and nourishes our lives.
Appreciation of the gifts of diversity has been a principal practice at Commonweal from the start. The meaning of diversity has shifted over five decades. But our commitment to diversity in our community has never wavered. And diversity is deeply based in our core principles, agreements, and practices.
Many things are not shared dimensions of the Commonweal Way but are welcomed within it. One is a sense of kinship with each other and with all life.
We can speak of all the different paths—scientific, secular, humanistic, religious, spiritual, philosophical, pragmatic, common sense—whatever you choose to call the different ways we understand our lives. If the Commonweal Way has anything unusual about it, it is that we don’t privilege any of these ways above others. We welcome them all.
Resilience in the Polycrisis
The wild card in any effort to imagine how our work will continue is the reality of the global polycrisis. We have focused on the polycrisis through our Omega.ngo work for the past seven years. We were far ahead of our time in both research and action on the polycrisis. We have made resilience in the polycrisis the overarching theme in all our Commonweal work. What is the polycrisis? Many global stressors—social, environmental, technological, and economic—are interacting with increasing velocity and force. They are causing future shocks of increasing frequency and intensity. What brought the polycrisis to public awareness was, first, climate change; second, COVID-19; and, third, the Ukraine-Russian War. Concern with artificial intelligence and renewed U.S.-China tensions are among the continuing stream of polycrisis headlines. A more comprehensive list would include dozens of other factors.
I won’t attempt here to address what resilience in the polycrisis means in our work. But we enter the polycrisis with certain resources. The first is the flexibility inherent in our ability to continue to recognize opportunities for service that fit our skills. The second is that the close attention we are paying to the polycrisis prepares us to see where both dangers and opportunities are arising. The third is the physical preparations we are making to sustain access to water, electricity, and communications if the grid goes down. The fourth is the strength of our communities that share these concerns.How we respond to the dangers and opportunities of the polycrisis will likely determine the future of our work. And since the shape of the future is unknowable, an architecture designed to strengthen our resilience in many ways gives us the best chance to continue to serve.
With these observations, I bring to an end this first effort to contribute to what we mean when we talk about the Commonweal Way. I have spoken of our principles of kindness, consciousness, and dedication to service.I have located these principles in our hearts, our heads, and our hands.
I have shown these principles to be at the heart of the perennial wisdom teachings.Yet these principles need to be freshly examined for their application in these rapidly changing times.
I have offered a much more mutable and eclectic set of eight possible agreements.
My list includes honesty, clarity, embracing error, accepting differences, peaceful partings, forgiveness, avoiding overwork, and re-creating ourselves in friendship and in joy.
I have underscored that we may develop a better set of agreements as a community—and that they should be revisited and kept fresh over time.
I have described the three focal areas for our work—health and healing, education and the arts, and environment and justice. These focal areas may change with changing needs over time.
I have delineated our structure including our inverted pyramid of leadership that places the principle role of our program directors at the top. I have mentioned a few practices, such as silence, the healing circles methods, and our commitment to diversity as central to our work. I’ve spoken of our sense of kinship with each other and all life.
I have described the dangers and opportunities for our work in the global polycrisis and the steps we are taking to strengthen our resilience.
In closing, please remember that this is a tentative first effort to describe what we have long held to be almost beyond words: what Commonweal is and how it works. Now the real work will be in the hands of Oren and the entire Commonweal community.
Please Help Us Sustain Commonweal
Let me close with this. As always, we truly and urgently need your sustained and continuing support. Commonweal is rare, indeed, in how deeply we rely on the community of Commonweal friends who have made our work possible for 47 years.
Our work has touched people on every continent on earth. Healing work is central to us. So is earth care. So are the arts and humanities. So is justice. Now we seek to strengthen Commonweal for the next half century.
We have always needed your help. You are the Commonweal friends who have built our community. You are the friends we turn to now.
You have many ways you can support us. You can give to the individual programs you care about. Or you can support Commonweal as a whole. You can give online here.
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Thank you for being part of the Commonweal community, whether you are new to Commonweal or have been part of our community for years or decades.