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Celtic Philosophy of John O'Donohue PDF Print E-mail


given by Mary Hendricks

The Celtic Philosophy of John O’Donohue from his book ANAM CARA as understood by Mary Hendriks

Anam Cara is a book that was a best seller in Ireland- but its not that well known around the world. Anam Cara is a book about the Celtic Philosophy, however, it is by no means a detailed study of the Celtic traditions, rather an exploration of contemporary living with reference to aspects of the Celtic and early Christian societies of Ireland. There are those who just love this book, and I'll say up front!! there are others who find it totally confusing – Anam Cara was written by John O'Donohue, who is an Irish poet philosopher still living in the West side of Ireland. John uses his understanding of the Celtic traditions of his homeland to offer a message to both the individual and to the modern corporate world where he is well sought after as a speaker. John grew up in the West of Ireland with a devout catholic family deeply connected to the land. At an early age, he entered the priesthood and studied in Germany, where he obtained his doctorate of philosophy in 1990, and later returned to serve in a parish in Ireland. After 19 years as a priest, he resigned to dedicate his time to his writings and produced several books, including the best selling Anam Cara that I will discuss today. Anam Cara means in Gaelic, soul friend, Cara means friend, Anam means Soul. In Celtic understanding, an Anam Cara was a person who was joined to you in a deep and personal way, someone who would share “your innermost self, your mind and your heart”p35. But John takes this term one step further, and looks at our friendship with ourselves and our connection with the outer world. In this book, there is one main theme, and that is the circle. John tells us that the Celtic world was one of circles, where everything flowed naturally, from one to the next. So his book, Anam Cara is written as a circle, with chapters that move from awakening of friendship, through discovery of our senses, and then inner solitude, to the external world of work and action, and finally to ageing and our encounter with death. But beyond that, there is a thread that is timeless, and draws the work into a circle, just like a day which has an awakening, a discovery, a solitude leading to work and action, a time for reflection, and then the inevitable, night time. And at every stage, John uses both traditional and Celtic philosophy to connect to our Anam Cara, our own soul-friend. In his work, John O’Donohue questions our modern, and often disconnected, way of life. He does this, not just from an intellectual perspective, but also from the emotional and our deeper spiritual perspective. His style is to use both logical analysis of, and emotional connection to the Celtic traditions of his Irish homeland. These two styles – one of logical analysis and the other of emotional, even spiritual connection, are interwoven throughout the book, which means that the reader has to move to from one to the other. So a logical thought is followed by a poem or a beautiful and evocative wordplay which engages the emotions. So to make this clearer, I am going to use a little play of my own. When I am talking about John's logical and scholarly comments, I will wear have the black hat. And when I am immersed in his Celtic roots, I will wear the green hat.

(Black Hat)The Anam Cara experience is not just a Celtic one – John uses quotes from many spiritual sources, including the Bible, and Buddhist writing, from literature, English poets and German authors, from philosophers and thinkers, such as Jung and Freud, and he shares stories of wisdom from tribal cultures of other countries. In the first section of Anam Cara - the awakening -John talks about Plato's symposium and the myth that each person is in fact two selves and that you spend your life looking for the other half. Once found, that friend needs nurturing. John writes “often people devote their primary attention to the facts of their lives, to their situation, to their work, to their status”. John is a passionate student of the 13th Century German mystic and philosopher, Meister Eckhart and he refers to Eckhart's concept that that most people wonder “what they should do, when in fact they should be more concerned about how to be”. p47

(Green Hat)The Celts were a nature people, and the Celtic people had a deep sense of the circular nature of our life journey. Friendship, once awakened, completes the circle of the self. John writes “In Celtic tradition the anam cara was not merely a metaphor or ideal. When your affection is kindled, the world of the intellect takes on a new tenderness. You look and see and understand differently” p38 . John comments that “most fundamentalism, greed, violence and oppression can be traced back to the separation of idea and affection.” So the Celtic way of connecting idea and affection is to offer good thoughts which will, in true cyclic form, come back – the more given away is the more received. John comments that our words are our art “bringing sound out of silence”and our way of connecting to our friends. His own poem to his friend “Josie”makes this gift of words and ends with:“may a slow wind work these words of love around you,an invisible cloak to mind your life”.

(Black Hat) In the next section, John discusses the world of the senses. He talks of the Plato allegory of the cave, where prisoners, all chained in a line, see the images cast from a fire behind them and they believe the images are reality. He talks about the senses, and the narrowness of our vision. John writes about our perception and how it is influenced by our mindset - if we are resentful, or indifferent, our view of the world is like the shadow on the cave wall. He asks us to ask ourselves the question “what way do I behold the world?”

(Green Hat )In the Celtic world there was no separation between the body and the soul. And the senses, rather than the intellect are the link with nature and the divine. Celtic nature poetry alerts the senses, and revives our awareness of sight, sound, touch, taste and smell. These lines are in one of the many poems of the book, this one is John's own poem:“May your senses gather you and bring you home.May your senses always enable you to celebrate the universe and the mystery and possibilities in your presence here”.

This chapter is confrontational for those raised in traditions where the divine is external and powerful. Here we begin to see John as the mystic, who connects with the internal and gentle wisdom of the physical body.

(Black Hat) Chapter three is about our inner world. John talks about our modern day obsession with spiritual programs, which are linear. He again quotes Meister Eckhart as saying that “there is no such thing as a spiritual journey”. And that the real conversation with yourself is not external. John O'Donohue also writes about the difficulty of re-discovering that inner world, and of the power of solitude and meditation to awaken the mystery within. He suggests that we “view ourselves a complete stranger” to liberate ourselves from the “numbing stranglehold” (p123) of habits and complacency.

(Green Hat) In the same chapter, John shares with us what is believed to be the first poem ever composed in Ireland (ed by P Murray p 128)

I am the wind which breathes upon the sea

I am the wave of the ocean

I am the murmur of the billows

I am the ox of the seven combats

I am the vulture on the rocks

I am a beam of the sun

I am the fairest of the plants

I am the wild boar in valour

I am the salmon in the water

I am a lake in the plain

I am a world of knowledge

I am the point of the lance in battle

I am the God who created fire in the head.

This poem is about one-ness and our connectedness as John says (Black Hat)

“this poem outlines the ontological depth and unity of the anam cara experience. According to John this is a reversal of Descartes “cogito ergo sum” , I think therefore I am. In fact, while John advocates solitude, he warns against negative introspection, and excessive self-analysis. By returning to the solitude within, we come into rhythm with ourselves and find the life we love, rather than the one that is expected of us.

The way that I see this is that our world is defined by our senses, our hearing, seeing, tasting, touching and our sense of smell. And we form an image of ourselves based on those impressions - we are programmed by these senses. Many modern psychologists are interested in our self—image and develop techniques for positive change, and some are based on considerable self-analysis. As someone who has been a student of the Buddhist approach, I see some parallels here with the NOW of Buddhist meditation. In Anam Cara, John is showing how the Celtic understanding works more with the present, and the presence, rather than the past.

(Green Hat) In the next chapter, John talks about our actions and our concept of time. The Celts believed in divine presences, and of sacred outdoor places in nature. The recognition of presence and the celebration of nature was part of life and of time. Imagination is not linear, and often takes a curved path, releasing creativity in action. This change in our way of thinking involves risk. John comments “When you are faithful to the risk and the ambivalence of growth, you are engaging your life.”p164

(Black Hat)Anam Cara challenges our attitudes to work. John warns us “if you awaken only your will and intellect, then your work can become your identity. Just like the epitaph on a gravestone “here lies Jeremy Brown, born a man, died a grocer”. So the person's complexity of spirit becomes their work identity, a linear time line often moving much too fast. He discusses the modern workplace and how “the world of quantity is always haunted by competition”, and he asks us to re-think these values and transfigure our workplaces to creative spaces, where we are empowered and engaged.

I find this relevant in the modern workplace or small business, where creative thinking, engaging our imagination, can restructure both our private and our working life. By releasing our imagination, we are able to participate more fully in the work activities. And at the same time, we can rethink our day, so that we have the space to be more than just a professional identity, to take up some sport, play an instrument, paint, or follow an interest, maybe even join Philo Agora! This work of Anam Cara is right at the leading edge of developing new business models and more flexible workplaces where creativity is valued.

(Green Hat) In Chapter 5 John again returns to the notion of the circle. The Celtic world was a three level world, of an underworld, the middle world of humans, and the upper world of the heavens, with each merging into the other. The year is a circle, and the seasons flow into each other in a continuous loop. The Celtic tradition had a sense of eternal time woven through our human linear time. John uses one of the many Celtic stories in the Anam Cara book to tell of the Celtic concept of two levels of time, one eternal and the other human. And the myths suggest that the “anam”, the soul or spirit, lives partly in this eternal time. When we lose ourself in some passion, some music or some intense memory, then we are in this eternal time. The Celts also recognised the negative side, “an addiction to the bleak shadow that lingers around every human form” (p244,) and one that “gnaws away at our belonging in the world”. This negativity, often resulting in modern day depression, can “make us a stranger in our own life”. But John writes about how this negativity can become the force for “renewal, creativity and growth” (p245).

(Black Hat) In this latter part of the book , John uses this concept of time to question our ability to inhabit present time. As we age, we may feel challenged by what we regret or what we have not done, and many people are anxious about the future, especially when loneliness may be part of that future. We are a knowledge based society, without a real sense of the rhythm of living. In this book, John moves from the mind of the scholar, to the Celtic connection to the natural and spiritual. He has therefore moved away from the external God of his Catholic training, to a concept where the physical body and its connection with nature is celebrated, and where the physical becomes the link to a spiritual dimension which is internal rather than external. Anam Cara does not seek to be confrontational, and there is no rejection of John's past training as a Catholic priest. Instead, this book is a positive view of a new way to become part of nature by understanding the Celtic Mind.

Why do I like Anam Cara? - for the past 10 years I was a student and sometimes lay teacher of the Buddhist path, and, as such, totally rejected our dependence on a benevolent God, to seek a self reliant path of cause and consequence. So John's delving into the spiritual was for me an about turn – but not quite. While John talks about our spiritual nature, he very much aligns with Celtic understanding, of a universe where our natural rhythm forms our spiritual connection, where logic is only one aspect of our being. I have been in small business ventures most of my working life and now use this knowledge to show others how to run their small businesses. I arrange workshop leaders to teach hiring, business planning, export, sales and marketing. What we also teach is that business is a circle, and not linear. The relationship with clients are best when they repeated and when there is interaction. The best team is one that is engaged and involved, the best products are those that are sustainable, and can be re-used, re-made or re-cycled. The linear economy was about ..take, make and use, then throw away. We now talk about the cyclic economy, and I believe that we need this new approach to all aspects of our modern living and working. And to conclude this brief overview of the ANAM CARA experience: “The Celtic Imagination” loved the circle.” John’s work is a reflection, rather than an analysis. It is not a linear, logical thought process, but a circular exploration of what it means to live, to work, to experience external life, to find our interior selves, to age and to die. Anam Cara means soul friend, which is not the “soul friend” or soul mate that we understand from romantic novels, but a transfiguration of our own deeper self, and an awareness of a deeper connection with others. John O'Donohue uses the Celtic traditional stories, not to convert us to believing in fairies, or other magical forms, but to release in us a new sense of our own depth, an expanded sense of time, and powerful ways to re-connect with the natural world.

In this modern time that we now find ourselves, living and working in cities, disengaged from the land and with scarcity of time for friendships, the message of Anam Cara is most significant. We live in a linear world, where we take from the planet what we need, use it, and throw away the waste. John O'Donohue has used the Celtic tradition of Anam Cara, to show us how to be a soul friend to ourselves and to our world, and how to transfigure our way of life from a disconnected line to a connected circle of belonging.

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