Anam Cara by John O'Donohue

The more lonely side of being here is our separation in the world. When you live in a body you are separate from every other object and person. Many of our attempts to pray, to love, and to create are secret attempts at transfiguring that separation in order to build bridges outward so that others can reach us and we can reach them.
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I first discovered John O'Donohue on the On Being podcast — nearly fifteen years after the interview was first aired. The conversation entitled, The Inner Landscape of Beauty, was full of valuable insights from an original thinker. I found myself quite surprised I had never heard of this captivating man before. He explored concepts based on the ways individuals understand themselves and in turn navigate the world. His light, lyrical Irish voice exuded such warmth. I listened intently to his expressive and enlightening language and felt an immediate kinship with him.

Known as a poet, philosopher and theologian, John was a man with the firm belief that the pursuit of beauty is a fundamental aspect of the human experience. He advised that we should always have something beautiful tucked away in our mind — something to glimpse at every now and then, especially during times of great bleakness.

Noticeably, he thought deeply and richly about all manner of things. He revelled in the mystery and magic of the world and with a great enthusiasm beckoned us to realise that we are physical expressions of this mystique. Listening to him brought about a sense of reawakening and I felt compelled to find out more, so I decided to start with his book Anam Cara.

The book title, (which is Gaelic for ‘soul friend’), weaves its meaning through ancient teachings of Celtic wisdom. The text is divided into several sections predominantly exploring the themes of friendship, love, spirituality, solitude, growth, aging and death.

The first part of the book entitled, The Mystery of Friendship, is beautiful and is where most of my notes were made. In a poetically crafted introduction, John delivers piercing observations attempting to peel apart the elusive mystery of our existence:

It is strange to be here. The mystery never leaves you alone. Behind your image, below your words, above your thoughts, the silence of another world waits. A world lives within you. No one else can bring you news of this inner world. Through the opening of the mouth, we bring out sounds from the mountain beneath the soul. These sounds are words. The world is full of words. There are so many talking all the time, loudly, quietly, in rooms, on streets, on television, on radio, in the paper, in books. The noise of words keeps what we call the world there for us. We take each other’s sounds and make patterns, predictions, benedictions, and blasphemies. Each day, our tribe of language holds what we call the world together. Yet the uttering of the word reveals how each of us relentlessly creates. Everyone is an artist. Each person brings sound out of silence and coaxes the invisible to become visible.

This is what made John so remarkable; his ability to beautifully articulate the rawest and deepest of human experiences. His depth of thinking maintains a level of wonderment to which many have abandoned. He sees the superficial but wants so much more and is constantly seeking to examine the deep reservoirs of the human spirit. He uses the example of looking at another person, the same way they look at us, and yet being resigned to the fact that we can never see our own faces as others see it.

John offered me clarity in what I sought to achieve with the Rude Health Project. His bold statement that, “Everyone is an artist” rang true the more I thought about it. His reference to the creative power of a child’s imagination — a creative power he refuses to believe eludes us as we mature — demonstrates that each individual actively participates in shaping the construction of their reality. We have the ability to reach into realms where the creative force working through us knows no bounds. Our dreams are the best example of this. They reside in a dimension where the subconscious mind unfurls as it takes advantage of the unshackled constraints of waking life.

John’s poetic prose often had me re-reading and revisiting certain concepts. Patience is required whilst reading this book, and so I lingered over specific insights in order to examine the spaces between the words and my own thoughts.

John is very good in constructing appealing narratives around very simple concepts. In the section, The Celtic Circle of Belonging, John vividly illustrates the circular nature of our journey — from darkness to light, returning back to the darkness:

We are always on a journey from darkness into light. At first, we are children of the darkness. Your body and your face were formed first in the kind darkness of your mother’s womb. Your birth was a first journey from darkness into light. All your life, your mind lives within the darkness of your body. Every thought that you have is a flint moment, a spark of light from your inner darkness. The miracle of thought is its presence in the night side of your soul; the brilliance of thought is born in darkness. Each day is a journey. We come out of the night into the day. All creativity awakens at this primal threshold where light and darkness test and bless each other. You only discover balance in your life when you learn to trust the flow of this ancient rhythm.

This is such powerful imagery. It prompted me to contemplate the necessity of darkness from a new perspective — that only through the shadowy recesses of darkness can the alchemy of great transformation occur.

One might posit that darkness is a necessary crucible towards a transcendental love. John is known for delving into the spiritual dimensions of love. He believed wholeheartedly in the transcendent and sacred power of love. In the podcast described earlier, he explains that we lack practice in it, making us all the more desperate for it. When John speaks of love, he is referring to profound, unfiltered love and points to the fact that important words have been watered down and almost ruined. He suggests that “unless you see a thing in the light of love you do not see it at all.” In Anam Cara, he writes eloquently about it being a triumphal and fundamental force:

When love awakens in your life, in the night of your heart, it is like the dawn breaking within you. Where before there was anonymity, now there is intimacy; where before there was fear, now there is courage; where before in your life there was awkwardness, now there is a rhythm of grace and gracefulness; where before you used to be jagged, now you are elegant and in rhythm with your self. When love awakens in your life, it is like a rebirth, a new beginning.

Toward a Spirituality of the Senses, is another insightful section of the book. In its sub-section entitled The Body as Mirror of the Soul, John presents the notion that “The soul is not simply within the body, hidden somewhere within its recesses. The truth is rather the converse. Your body is in the soul, and the soul suffuses you completely.” I believe this to be true and appreciate John’s succinct assertion that the body is in the soul, rather than the soul being in the body.

The concluding section of the book, Death: The Horizon is in the Well, offers a peaceful perspective on the inevitability of death. John encourages a more expansive and less fearful understanding of death, viewing it as not solely the end, but rather, as the continuation of a journey by transitioning to another state of being. We are reminded that “at birth you appear out of nowhere, at death you disappear to nowhere,” and that dispelling this fear is to rid yourself of the apprehension that steals the joy of living.

John invites us to see death as a friend who has accompanied us from the very beginning and it is a curiously comforting thought. Out of the ancient darkness of the womb and into the earthly light, death is by our side. John is resolute in his attitude towards death and gently advises that “if you really live your life to the full, death will never have power over you.”

Anam Cara is replete with insightful offerings and overall is a generous invitation to withdraw from a frenetically paced and disconnected world, and to open up and trust the sanctuary of contemplation.

It often interests me to see how a wonderfully articulate spoken voice would fare in the written form. From the outset, high expectations are honoured as revelation upon revelation of moving, insightful and unparalleled gems are presented. However, the feeling of riding high along on a lyrical wave begins to subside when moving further into the text. If, like me, you’re the type of person who has spent a considerable amount of time delving into the world of spirituality, then I suspect that a significant serving of the text may come across as terribly clichéd.

It’s difficult to sustain continuous prose of such quality, especially for a book of well over two hundred pages. The book noticeably skips along in bitesize chunks and doesn't give the reader a chance to fully saturate into the hidden folds of an idea. The fragmented structure sees John leaving scatterings of beautifully thought-provoking concepts, crying out to be developed further and drawn out in greater detail. Some would say that it reads like a collection of quotes, although I wouldn’t quite go that far.

I found myself skimming through the bulk of the middle, surprised to find myself looking for greater depth and analysis. However, saying this, there are more than enough breadcrumbs of wisdom and insights for the reader to make a meal out of.

Reflecting further on my sentiments regarding Anam Cara, I would say that the value you extract from this book may hinge upon your current life circumstances. Someone in the grip of grief, for example, may well find profound comfort and calm in John’s words. The greatest reward is probably for those with a spring-like experience of spirituality — in other words, those in the very early stages of discovery. For those who have read extensively on the subject of spirituality, it is certainly still worth reading for the poetic passages alone. John successfully navigates the reader through the corridors of self-discovery. Although some concepts aren’t particularly original, it is John’s unique framing, grounded in the wisdom of Celtic tradition, that grants readers a new depth.

I admit that the book is perhaps longer than necessary, and with better editing it could’ve been a more concise and impactful offering.

Listening to John is to hear the expression of a mind that worked in a uniquely refreshing way. His carefully considered observations were delivered in a melodic voice. Reading John’s words is an experience of literary artistry in places, but I must say that his Irish lilt gave his words a special dimension. When I imagine listening to John reading his own words, the text undergoes a textural transformation.

I look forward to reading John's other books and hope to explore the scope of his beautiful mind through a deeper analysis of his insights. Anam Cara was primarily a surfing exercise, harbouring numerous bite-sized gems, whereas a deep immersion into his philosophical world is what I really wanted.

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