John O'Donohue and the Poetics of Therapy

Rekindling Creative Therapy through Poetry

Mary Sykes Wylie

John O'Donohue has begun to build up a small but devoted following in the therapy world, a following that mushroomed dramatically at the 2006 Networker Symposium in Washington, D.C., where, in spite of the fact that few people had ever heard of the Irish poet, philosopher, and former priest, 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.

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."

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."

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.

After attending a week-long conference led by O'Donohue in Oregon, Siegel and O’Donohue got to know each other. As the two men talked, they discovered a common interest in "poetry and the brain, poetry in the brain, poetry of the brain.” 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 integration---which is my subject---and how both solitude and relationship can act in tandem to bring a sense of mental and emotional wholeness."

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.”

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. “The excitement of creativity, he says, “ is something that emerges from the darkness quite mysteriously. If you completely wipe out the darkness, nothing can come forth."

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.

This blog is excerpted from “Rediscovering the Myth” Read the full article here. >>

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Topic: Mindfulness | Children/Adolescents

Tags: add | brain science | consciousness | Dan Siegel | Daniel Siegel | developing mind | DSM | ED | emotion | family | imagination | John O'Donohue | Networker Symposium | neural integration | poet | poetry | psychiatrist | psychopharmacological | relationships | Symposium | TED | the developing mind | therapist | therapists | therapy

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