Symposium Highlight

Rediscovering the Myth

For John O'Donohue, Therapy Is a Journey into the Unknown Self

Rediscovering the Myth

Psychotherapy’s preoccupation with personal troubles can seem like a self-indulgent luxury in the harsh Irish countryside near Conamara, where poet, philosopher, and former priest John O’Donohue makes his home. According to a commonly told local story, one day during World War II, two German fighter planes circled overhead. One pilot radioed the other asking, “Should we bomb it?” Looking down, the other pilot radioed back, “I think it’s been bombed already.” As O’Donohue, a tall, rangy man with amused eyes and a sudden, piercing laugh, puts it, “This landscape absolutely minimizes any kind of supposed significance of human words or thought; your pet ideas unravel very fast. It can be so desolating that it makes you feel how nomadic and transient you areall this was here hundreds of millions of years before humans-come-lately arrived. It makes you aware of our own arrogance, human orphans as we are, who think the whole of existence is all about us.”

His Irish upbringing among rural, traditionally reserved people, has enabled O’Donohue to bring an outsider’s perspective to our therapy-obsessed culture’s insistence on revealing all the intimate details of our own lives and uncovering those of other people. “Americans have a sweet and touching need to personalize everything,” he remarks with affectionate irony. “I found that, in America, if I put too much sincerity into the question, ‘How are you?’ I could unleash an entire biography. In my village, you wouldn’t ask a full-frontal question to anybody–you’d read the signs in the person, take stock of him or her, keep your distance, and then, maybe, you might get a glimpse of what was going on inside.” For good measure, he adds, quoting poet Rainer Maria Rilke, “I won’t go to a psychologist because I’m afraid that if my demons leave, my angels will as well.”

Nevertheless O’Donohue has begun to build up a small but devoted following in the therapy world, a following that mushroomed dramatically at last spring’s Networker Symposium in Washington, DC, where, in spite of the fact that few people had ever heard of him initially, his appearances became the talk the meeting. His poetry reading on the meeting’s opening day in particular became such a word-of-mouth sensation that it later sparked a run on the conference taping service. When O’Donohue’s new fans discovered that the reading hadn’t been taped, the occasion itself became something of an instant legend: afterward, stories about it passed along from those who’d been there to those unfortunates who hadn’t been so lucky, leaving the latter feeling they’d missed the biggest event at the conference. Fortunately, Symposium attendees will have another chance to hear John O’Donohue, who’ll be a keynoter at the 2006 conference.

This said, the reasons behind O’Donohue’s impact are a bit mysterious. He spoke about beauty, creativity, poetry, the divine. He delivered exuberant lyrical riffs–“blasts” he calls them–on the meaning of true identity; the holy power of language; the divine gift of imagination; the dialectic between visible and invisible, presence and absence, longing and belonging; the fundamental mystery of the self. He laced his almost incantatory flow of words with his own luminous poems, though the line between his poetry and everything else he said wasn’t easy to draw. It wasn’t even always entirely clear afterward what O’Donohue had been talking about–these were less logical discourses than extravagant wordfests. So how did he so deeply move an audience usually impressed far more by practical clinical tools than rhapsodic flights of the imagination?

Therapists in the audience had less to say about the information O’Donohue conveyed than about how he managed to open their inner beings to an entirely new way of perceiving the world. “He said such astonishing things, like ‘When we move away from our houses, do our houses miss us?’ And the shift he created, literally, smacked you in the face, demanded that you go somewhere in your mind you hadn’t been before,” says Richard Goldberg, a clinical social worker in Bethesda, Maryland. “It’s as if he’s come from some different, remote place, and he somehow touches you in that same remote place that you’d forgotten you had inside yourself,” said Virginia psychologist Charles Cerutti. Lisa Tillman, a therapist in Baltimore, Maryland, thought that “something happens in people’s brains when they hear language so precisely tuned into the soul. He has the ability to make that happen.” Of course,” she added, echoing several other people, “it didn’t hurt that he also had an Irish brogue.”

O’Donohue seemed to tap into a yearning in his audience not often addressed in today’s therapeutic culture. At a time when the pressure is on to do ever briefer, more technical, symptom-focused, “evidence-based,” standardized therapies, to make ever greater use of psychopharmacological agents, to slavishly follow DSM diagnostic categories, and to rationalize every moment of a clinical encounter, he reminded his listeners what a noble, even sacred, calling therapy can be. Quoting Plato’s Symposium, he said that “one of the greatest privileges of the human being is to become a midwife to the birth of the soul in another person.” This is what therapy is about, he added–“helping people retrieve what has been lost to them; wakening and bringing home their fundamental wholesomeness.” Therapists are like poets or priests, he noted: they draw on the power of words in the profoundly creative work of bringing people fully alive to themselves, awakening in them the human capacity for divine imagination that “dreams our completion.”

But perhaps most of all, O’Donohue reawakened his listeners to the fundamental mystery that surrounds our existence. “In focusing on how people work, we’ve lost a sense of reverence for the deep mystery of who they are. We have lost sight of the mystery in the primal fact of human presencethat we are here at all.” He suggested that the most important dimensions of human experience are those we can’t see and grasp and measure, which demands the most reverent attention from a therapist. “I’d love a return to that old way of considering human identity not just as biographical drama, but as sacred mystery.”

A scholar, bestselling author, internationally known speaker, and corporate consultant, O’Donohue is clearly both successful and comfortable in the 21st century. And yet he also seems to be something of an historical throwbacklike a 19th-century nature poet or 13th-century mystic, living in an 18th-century cottage, surrounded by 1st-century Celtic ghosts. Although he resists our modern tendency to reduce personal identity to the mere external facts of biography, we can’t help but wonder how this interesting human anomaly came to be.

The Making of a Poet

O’Donohue grew up in a premodern world of rural peasantry that would be almost unrecognizable to most Americans or Western Europeans today. The oldest of four children, he was born on a farm in Conamara–his father was a farmer and stonemason–surrounded by animals, in a community that probably hadn’t changed much in hundreds of years. His family had no electricity until he was nearly 10, and, in the evening, the oil lamps and candles created a small island of softly flickering light encircled by a penumbra of shadow fading off into deep, mysterious darkness. “It seemed to me, as a child, that the area of light was really an abbreviation of the dark presence of the house, and that there was a huge interim world between where light ended and true darkness began.”

Outside the house where O’Donohue’s family lived, nature was a constant, living presence, both intimate and vast, in which it must have been easy to imagine the existence of whole colonies of primal, wayward spirits, not at all submissive to human schemes and intentions. Although O’Donohue’s family wasn’t overtly “religious” in any rigidly doctrinaire way, he says, there was a great sense of spirituality in the house, along with a family ethic of nonjudgmental kindness. His mother was humorous and often irreverent, “with a wild kind of mind, very sharp, very bright,” while his father seems to have been something of a mystic himself. “My father was the holiest man I ever knew; more in the presence of God than anyone I’ve ever met,” recalls O’Donohue. “He could be great fun, and was very attentive, but his spirit was tuned into the divine, his mind and heart lingering there. If he was working in a field alone in the mountain, or on one of the open gardens we had, when you brought him up a tea or that, you’d often hear him praying before you’d see him. Being with him, you knew he had it–his presence was like a doorway opening to the divine. He also had a great sense of the transience of things, and a wariness of getting entangled in the world, which I guess kind of came over me, too. ‘Life is like a mist on the hillside,’ he used to say, ‘look, and it’s there. Look again, and it’s gone.’ “

O’Donohue went away to a boarding school at 12, and then, at 18, to St. Patrick’s College Maynooth, Ireland’s national seminary–one of the largest and most celebrated learning centers in Europewhere he began training for the priesthood. Why the priesthood? Certainly, it wasn’t something his family had pressured him to do. “The idea of making money never appealed to me,” he explains. “Ever since I was very young, like my father, I had the same informing intuition of transiencethat everything is passingand I wanted to do something that would make things eternal in some way. I considered medicine, but then thought that if I didn’t have a go at the priesthood, I’d always be kind of restless about it; it would always follow me.”

But O’Donohue almost gave this path up during the first year of seminary, when he faced “six months of complete aridity,” as he calls it. “I was there studying to be a priest because I wanted to participate in the huge, infinite intimacy with the divine, but I fell into a state of feeling complete, terrifying nothingness. I began to doubt that there was any divine at allthere was just nothing there. I began to believe I’d been duped.” He now remembers this terrible trial as one of his first great lessons in the tough struggle of true spiritual growth, which isn’t necessarily a feel-good course in personal uplift. “I learned that there’s a huge difference between feeling and presence  in the world of the mystical,” he says. “When you feel absolutely nothing, or only absence, that can be actually the most refined form of presence. While I was going through it, I just knew it was a desert, but revisiting it, I begin to see it as a huge pruning of the spirit–like a false skin of protectiveness falling away.”

While O’Donohue was never exactly a docile parish priest, he never thundered his rebellion against what he disliked. Instead, he staged a quiet, determined, persistent campaign in opposition to what he felt were some of the church’s most egregious failings, including its rigid hierarchy, its fear of the feminine, and its hostility to sexuality. “I thought that sexual morality was people’s own business, not the church’s, and never believed in the demonization of the body,” he says. “The most honest thing in human presence is the body–more honest than the mind, which is often twisted. I spoke in sermons about the lyrical beauty and innocence of the body, and tried to help people get away from the idea that sexuality was sinful, arguing instead that, for all the ambivalence we feel about sexuality, it was a creative, beautiful, and good thing in life.”

Four years after he was ordained a priest, he went off to Germany to get a Ph.D. from the University of Tubingen, where he wrote a dissertation in German on the notoriously difficult philosopher Friedrich Hegel. “Through the grace of ignorance, I had no idea when I began just how difficult it was going to get,” he recalls. “It was pure work, total work, work and work and work. That we don’t know the future is our greatest protection. If I’d seen the amount and depth of the work I’d have to do, both learning the language and writing about Hegel, I don’t think I could have done it.” Nonetheless, after four years inside what he calls “the white monastery of Hegel’s thought,” he completed the dissertation and saw it published in 1993 and favorably reviewed by a slew of German, French, Spanish, and English critics.

In 1990, he took up the more quotidian concerns of leading a parish in County Clare. He also threw himself into a 10-year, ultimately successful, struggle to save Mullaghmore, a beautiful, unspoiled mountain in the Burren area from development as a major tourist site. At the same time that he was working to protect this ancient, natural place, he was also rediscovering another ancient birthrightCeltic culture and mythologywhich, itself, was echoed and reflected in the Gaelic language, and even in the stories, anecdotes, references, and expressions used by his family and neighbors. Many people in this part of Ireland (including O’Donohue) still speak Gaelic, a language freighted with historical and social significance. Even regulation English, when spoken by the local people, reflects, says O’Donohue, “the colorful ghost of our real language, which was stolen from us by our colonizers.” Furthermore, the souls of these Celtic forebears, their descendants still living in the villages, working in the fields, all somehow belonged to and seemed to have emerged from–even merged with–the palpably living, breathing, perhaps conscious and watchful, landscape itself.

During the 1990s, O’Donohue began putting this vision of Conamara’s people and landscape to words, publishing his first book of poetry, Echoes of Memory, in 1994, and a second, Conamara Blues, in 2000. In both books, human love, longing, grief, memory, and faith are witnessed through the prism of, and haunted by, the brooding, timeless presence of nature. O’Donohue had begun writing poetry at about 18 or 19 on an impulse, he says, “stirred by experience too rich for normal words.” It seems fair to say that, for him, language itself is in some sense holy. He cites the famous passage from the gospel according to John“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”adding that he feels that poetry is as close to divinely inspired utterance as human beings can produce.

O’Donohue describes his own fraught encounters with the ungovernable muse of poetry as something like wrestling with angels. “I have a great terror of the white page. I hate going to my desk in the morning, because it’s all or nothing when you sit down. When you submit yourself to this kind of rigor, of finding the form for something, what absolutely begins to emerge is something you’d never anticipate, something you can’t controlit knows it needs to come through. In some sense, everything you’ve ever experienced knows more about itself than you ever will. When I’m touched by a certain experience and start trying to go after it by writing it down, I often find it goes off in another direction completely, and, frequently, I find another experience is concealed there behind the first, but only now just showing itself. There’s wildness, passion, spontaneity, and freedom in it. Poems are the most sublime individualities, living actualities. They aren’t about anything, they are the thing itselfthey just are .”

By 1995, O’Donohue began what he calls the “long journey to resignation from the priesthood.” He now says that the best decision he ever made was to become a priest, and the second best decision was to resign from the priesthood. The priesthood refined and directed his inherent sense of reverence and spirituality, opened new intellectual worlds, made him lifelong friends, and introduced him to the work of thinkers and mystics that would help shape the contours of his mind. But by the mid-’90s, he was finding it ever harder to openly and honestly represent church positions he found increasingly untenable. He also crossed swords with a new bishop, who, O’Donohue says delicately, “wasn’t overburdened with hospitality toward the kind of vision I had.” Specifically, he insisted on assigning O’Donohue to full-time duties as a parish priest, which wouldn’t allow him any time to write, and there was no possibility of compromise.

Even though O’Donohue could see no other path but to leave, it was a wrenching break. “I made the decision very slowly, over a long time–and it was a very lonesome time. What I loved most was celebrating the Eucharist. That’s where the action is–the place where divine and human meet in ultimate togetherness. Sacrificing that was, for me, the loneliest, most forsaken thing.”

But shortly after taking this portentous step, he was freed to write, and write he did. His book Anam Cara, about Celtic spirituality and its relevance for the postmodern era, was published in 1997. It became an international bestseller and has been translated into 20 languages. Another book, Eternal Echoes, was published in 1998, and it, too, became a bestseller in Europe, Australia, and America. In his most recent book, Beauty: The Invisible Embrace, published in 2004, O’Donohue explores the physical, emotional, and spiritual experience of beauty and protests the commonplace notion that beauty is an extraneous luxury, which “practical” people can do without.

An Unlikely Friendship

O’Donohue’s introduction to the therapy field came through his unlikely friendship with neuropsychiatrist Daniel Siegel, known for his book The Developing Mind and his pathbreaking efforts to help therapists develop an understanding of how the brain develops and changes in response to human relationships. As Siegel was working on his book, an intricately constructed synthesis of evolutionary biology, neuroscience, and developmental psychology, with forays into attachment research, cognitive science, the study of emotion, and complexity theory, he came across O’Donohue’s poetry. Recalls Siegel, “It seemed to me that he described, in a beautifully poetic way, the human mind in a state of inner coherence or neural integrationwhich is my subject–and how both solitude and relationship can act in tandem to bring a sense of mental and emotional wholeness.”

Siegel cited Anam Cara in his own book and tried to contact Donohue directly, without success. Several years later, he saw a poster for a 10-day retreat O’Donohue was giving in Ireland and, as a birthday present, sent his wife–who’s of Irish descent–to the retreat. She came back exhilarated, saying that it had changed her life. A few months later, she returned the favor and sent Siegel to a week-long conference led by O’Donohue, this time, on the coast of Oregon. Between O’Donohue’s talks, the poetry jam sessions, the meditations and long walks together on the beach, O’Donohue and Siegel got to know each other. Each seems to feel he’s found in the other a true “soul friend”–the meaning of the Gaelic words Anam Caraa teacher, affectionate companion, and spiritual guide who completes the other’s unfinished self in some way.

As the two men talked, they discovered a common interest in “poetry and the brain, poetry “in the brain, poetry of the brain”–the details of which weren’t entirely clear. It was clear, however, that Siegel’s insights about interpersonal neurobiology dovetailed with O’Donohue’s lyrical and mystical sensibility, and that both recognized intuitively the connection between the hard facts of neurobiology and the more illusive reality of emotion, imagination, creativity, and spirituality. For Siegel, O’Donohue is “living poetry,” the walking incarnation of profound neural integration of the “logical, linear, literal left brain and the somatic, visual, emotional, ambiguity-loving right. Listening to him evokes a profound state of integration in us.”

For his part, O’Donohue has been amazed to discover from Siegel just how inherently mystical and poetic the physical brain actually is. “In my ignorance, I presumed that the brain was a fixed, closed object of control, execution, and measurement–a kind of central headquarters for thought and so forth,” he says. “But, actually, I learned from Dan that your experience shapes the kind of brain you have, and the brain you have shapes your experience. There’s this amazingly intimate and subversive mutuality between your mind and brain. All the mirroring you do of the world–your gathering of information and communications, your sense of yourselfall occurs within this huge poetic, organic matrix. The brain is actually a poetic reservoir that loves possibility and makes connections we normally think would never be made. It’s a lattice of subtle meshing that holds the fragile dust of spirit together to make the ‘whoness’ of who we are.”

Both partners in this unusual pairing of brain scientist and poet-mystic share a disenchantment with the usual rigid dualism assumed to exist between the hard, objective logic of science and the soft, subjective imaginings of spirituality and art. They’ve begun to take their joint show on the road, giving workshops together, each spinning curlicued improvisations off the thoughts and insights of the other. For Siegel, speaking as a therapist and scientist with his own lyrical sensibility, the essence of good therapy is to establish with clients a deeply attuned, responsive relationship that helps a brain state of neural cacophony become a harmonious polyphonic choir, which is “flexible, adaptable, coherent, energized, and stable.” For O’Donohue, the therapist, like the poet or priest, doesn’t “fix” people, or “manage” them, or make them more “functional,” but inspires and guides them on journeys only they can undertake into the deep territory of their unknown selves.

“The idea isn’t to give people answers, or lead their bark of longing into a safe, dull, protected harbor,” says O’Donohue, “but to make them aware of the depths of possibility in their hearts and lives; help them remove the barriers that keep them from being the people they were meant to be. In therapy, people tend to ask the ‘how’ questionshow do you express anger, how do you deal with others, how do you show your personality, how have you become who you are. What’s more interesting is the question of who. Who are you really? The essence of who you are is ultimately mysterious, ungraspable and numinous–completely different from every other structure of matter. When people get into therapy, or when they need healing, their real hope is that they’ll come to the secret frontier in themselves, some unknown source of energy and healing in themselves, where the divinity of ‘whoness’ is protected. This is a spiritual quest.” O’Donohue clearly yearns for an era that seems to have just about vanished from the Western world–except perhaps in the Irish equivalent of Brigadoon where he hangs out. “I was born in a rural, peasant community and grew up in the midst of a folk consciousness, rooted in the land, which had taken hundreds of years to emerge and was much more subtle and mysterious than anything in Freud’s Introductory Lectures. If you live in a community like this, people don’t show themselves to you directly, but only in an oblique, suggestive way.” He feels that the lack of respect in American culture for true privacy, for the fundamental ineffability of the deep self, has spawned an obsession with surface appearances that feeds our ravenous celebrity worship. Says O’Donohue. “I think that the pervasive loneliness of our times is related to this obsessive adoration of ever-changing surfaces–the computer screen is a good metaphorand an addiction to keeping up a bright facade. People look so good on the surface that you’d never suspect how lost they are underneath.”

Remembering the mysterious shadowy space between light and dark in his childhood home, he wonders if the momentous shift to electrical lighting, with its severe, glaring, unshadowed light, has transformed the way modern people actually view the world and each other. This “neon consciousness,” as he calls it, can’t tolerate ambiguity, darkness, mystery. But trying to shine a glaring, blinding flashlight into the deep center of a person’s being will not, in the end, reveal anything worth seeing. “Severity of light banishes all shadows. In terms of human interiority, if you bring an electric neon band of light to shine on the inner world of thought and imagination, you’ll never write a poem or compose a piece of music or paint a picture or make a sculpture. If you try to see through to the bottom of a person’s being, all you’ll find is a false bottom, an ersatz kind of depth, with no nourishment in it, no fecund darkness; the real depths won’t show up. The excitement of creativity is something that emerges from the darkness quite mysteriously. If you completely wipe out the darkness, nothing can come forth.”

In fact, it’s at the threshold between knowing and not knowing, between complete mystery and full disclosure, between invisibility and visibility, at the boundary between dark unconscious and the light of awareness, O’Donohue suggests, that imagination has its fullest play. He describes a mountain near his home, with fog hiding its summit. “You know it’s there, but you cannot see it with the eye. This is a wonderful living metaphor for the imagination. Around every life are these adjacenciesthese huge, invisible presences that you can’t pick up with the human eye, but that you can connect to viscerally and affectively through the power of imagination. This is the threshold where polarities can enter into conversation with each other, and take us to new levels of complexity, differentiation, and integration.”

The Old Becomes New

Essentially, all John O’Donohue is doing is asking us to reflect on some of the same old questions mystics and spiritual guides have asked throughout the ages: Who are we? Where have we come from? Why are we here? What do we truly want? These are the grand, old chestnuts of philosophy and spirituality. We may still even vaguely remember them, like faint echoes from an earlier, more archaic time. And yet, somehow, through his astonishing way with language and incandescent presence, O’Donohue makes these old echoes ring again; makes the questions seem urgent, critically important, not only to our happiness, but to our very existence. Listening to him, we feel something stirring inside, something quickening, as if some buried yearning were being awakened. “There are certain rhythms and sounds of language that have their own atmosphere,” he says. “What affects you is the atmospherics of language. The weather of language gets inside you. It’s something intangible and illusive, but intimate and transforming.” Lightly, even gaily, with what seems like no effort whatsoever, he creates a kind of climate change within every person whose heart and mind isn’t terminally climate controlled.

How does he do this? The short answer is that John O’Donohue is an artist and this, to the extent of their talent, is what artists do. As an artist, he spins straw words into golden language, delivers them with all the brio of a born performer, enables us to experience the archaic world in a new, thrilling way. Perhaps one key to his appeal to therapists is that he does them the honor of suggesting that, at their best, they, too, have the power to be artists, midwives of the imagination, guides to the lost beauty their clients can no longer see in themselves. The other key may be that in a field increasingly focused on solutions and influenced by positive psychology, O’Donohue expresses an unflinching belief, deeply embedded in all the great spiritual traditions, that suffering isn’t only inevitable in human life, but may also be a great opening to transcendence. He quotes again from Plato, “‘All thought begins with the recognition that something is out of place,'” and adds, “Arriving into conception, into the womb, and then into birth is a primal act of rupture and disturbance, and all through human experience, that fracture doesn’t let us be completely ourselves.” If this is true, then the inherently human state of being “out of place” in the universe is the source of all our suffering, but also of the human imaginationborn of the need to repair or transcend the primal rupture.

At the heart of O’Donohue’s appeal is his ability to evoke the astonishing mystery of the human presence on earth–our peculiar, difficult place between earth and heaven. “We humans are the strangest creatures,” he says. “Outside my window, all the time, this raggle-taggle group of white mystics known as Conamara sheep wanders back and forth, showing no level of metaphysical disturbance at all. They’re as completely at one with the places they’re in as the stones and lakes and mountains. We are the only creatures who are in-between. We’re of the earth, but don’t belong to it, because we strain after the heavens; and yet the heavens aren’t fully in us. So this wonderful, restless, eternal longing in us has us always on a quest.”

Mary Sykes Wylie

Mary Sykes Wylie, PhD, is a former senior editor of the Psychotherapy Networker.