Selections from “Anam Cara” by John O’Donohue

It is a startling truth that how you see and what you see determines how and who you will be.  An interesting way of beginning to do some interior work is to explore your particular style of seeing.  Ask yourself, what do I behold in the world?  Through this question you will discover your specific pattern of seeing.

To the fearful eye, all is threatening.  When you look toward the world in a fearful way, all you see and concentrate on are things that can damage and threaten you.  The fearful eye is always besieged by threat.

To the greedy eye, everything can be possessed.  Greed is one of the powerful forces in the modern Western world.  It is sad that a greedy person can never enjoy what they have, because they are always haunted by that which they do not yet possess.  This can refer to land, books, companies, ideas, money, or art.  The motor and agenda of greed is always the same.  Joy is possession, but sadly possession is ever restless; it has an inner insatiable hunger.  Greed is poignant because it is always haunted and emptied by future possibility; it can never engage presence.  However, the more sinister aspect of greed is its ability to sedate and extinguish desire.  It destroys the natural innocence of desire, dismantles its horizons, and replaces them with a driven and atrophied possessiveness.  This greed is now poisoning the Earth and impoverishing its people.  Having has become the sinister enemy of being.

To the judgmental eye, everything is closed in definitive frames.  When the judgmental eye looks out, it sees things in terms of lines and squares.  It is always excluding and separating, and therefore it never sees in a compassionate or celebratory way.  To see is to judge.  Sadly, the judgmental eye is always equally harsh with itself.  It sees only the images of its tormented interiority projected outward from itself.  The judgmental eye harvests the reflected surface and calls it truth.  It enjoys neither the forgiveness nor imagination to see deeper into the ground of things where truth is paradox.  An externalist, image-driven culture is the corollary of such an ideology of facile judgment.

To the resentful eye, everything is begrudged.   People who have allowed the canker of resentment into their vision can never enjoy who they are or what they have.  They are always looking out toward others with resentment.  Perhaps they are resentful because they see others as more beautiful, more gifted, or richer than themselves.  The resentful eye lives out of its poverty and forgets its own inner harvest.

To the indifferent eye, nothing calls or awakens.  Indifference is one of the hallmarks of our times.  It is said that indifference is necessary for power; to hold control one has to be successfully indifferent to the needs and vulnerabilities of those under control.  Thus indifference calls for a great commitment to nonvision.  To ignore things demands incredible mental energy.  Without even knowing it, indifference can place you beyond the frontiers of compassion, healing, and love.  When you become indifferent, you give all your power away.  Your imagination becomes fixated in the limbo of cynicism and despair.

To the inferior eye, everyone else is greater.  Others are more beautiful, brilliant, and gifted than you.  The inferior eye is always looking away from its own treasures.  It can never celebrate its own presence and potential.  The inferior eye is blind to its secret beauty.  The human eye was never designed to look up in a way that inflates the Other to superiority, nor to look down, reducing the Other to inferiority.  To look someone in the eye is a nice testament to truth, courage, and expectation.  Each one stands on common, but different, ground.

To the loving eye, everything is real.  This art of love is neither sentimental nor naive.  Such love is the greatest criterion of truth, celebration, and reality.  Kathleen Raine, a Scottish poet, says that unless you see a thing in the light of love, you do not see it at all.  Love is the light in which we see light.  Love is the light in which we see each thing in its true origin, nature, and destiny.  If we could look at the world in a loving way, then the world would rise up before us full of invitation, possibility, and depth.

The loving eye can even coax pain, hurt, and violence toward transfiguration and renewal.  The loving eye is bright because it is autonomous and free.  It can look lovingly upon anything.  The loving vision does not become entangled in the agenda of power, seduction, opposition, or complicity.  Such vision is creative and subversive.  It rises above the pathetic arithmetic of blame and judgment and engages experience at the level of its origin, structure, and destiny.  The loving eye sees through and beyond image and effects the deepest change.  Vision is central to your presence and creativity.  To recognize how you see things can bring you self-knowledge and enable you to glimpse the wonderful treasures your life secretly holds.



On Mysticism

The mind tends to divide.  The heart tends to join.  The mind separates apparent opposites.  The heart holds them together.  The mind specializes in dualities. The heart specializes in unities.  The mind is at home with clear categories and concepts.  The heart is at home with contradiction and paradox.  The mind reduces to comprehend.  The heart honours incomprehensible mystery.  The logic of the mind is linear and controlling.  The logic of the heart is love.  Mystics are those who have learned something of the logic of the heart.  They are those who have learned to see with the eyes of the heart.  Sometimes mystics are mischaracterized as irrational by their critics.  This is a significant misjudgement.  Because mystics are often those who uniquely perceive the nature and limitations of the rational mind and challenge its omnipotence in knowing all of what’s True and Real.  This can have the sound of scandalous heterodoxy to some modern thinkers.  But mystical knowing is very different from some sort of childish form of pre-rational magical thinking, as someone like Freud would have it.  Instead it is a more mature form of post/meta-rational holistic thinking that has learned to honour and include both mind and heart as integral aspects of human knowing.

Mind and heart have had a complicated relationship over history.  In our modern world, “mind” tends to more specifically refer to our rational mind.  Mind represents the capacity for rational thought, deductive logic, conceptualization, categorization, and so on.   In our modern rational age we sometimes go so far as to say “you are basically your mind,” implying that the centre of your self is found in your capacity for rational thought (which these days gets further reduced by some neuroscientists to accidental biochemical brain states and processes, but that’s somewhat besides the point).  We also frequently portray mind and heart as opposites in our modern age.  “Heart” in this scenario tends to represent some sloppy, romantic, irrational source of mindless emotions.  In the ancient Hebrew tradition though, one’s “heart” was conceived to be the centre of their being.  The heart was not merely viewed as a source of emotion either.  The heart was seen as a dynamic, gut-level source of desires, longings, and energies that vitalize and enliven individuals.  So for ancient hebrews, the centre of a person’s self is more to be found in their deepest desires and longings from which they direct their life and energies.  The heart in this sense is also not opposed or entirely separate to the rational mind, though it may be distinguished from it.

To see the mind and the heart at odds is very unfortunate.  It necessarily involves dividing and disintegrating aspects of our humanity that are integrated within our makeup, which can lead to dissociating and repressing those aspects of ourselves we dis-identify with.  The consequences of this are always tragic.  Seeing the mind and the heart as opposites also creates a false dichotomy that perpetuates the same dualistic assumptions which broader unitive logic transcends.  Many of our culture wars and differences rage on because of our inability to see alternative, holistic, unitive possibilities.  Such non-dual vision is not irrational either.  It’s transrational.  The heart and its capacities, in the ancient sense, exceed the boundaries of the narrow domain of rational logic.  The heart and the mind compliment each other in their healthiest forms.  Both are part of our inner life and experience.  Both deserve to be used.  Both need to be honoured.  At their best, the heart and the mind coexist together as interdependent and interactive aspects of human nature and knowing.


On Mysticism

The criticisms offered by some opponents of apophatic/negative theology, which is prevalent in mystic traditions, are frequently motivated by fear.  Pure and simple.  Sometimes this fear begins as fear of the unknown, at least for those who have never heard of or studied apophatic theology or mysticism.  But some, knowing something of these things, may say they are against mysticism because they are interested in defending the truth.  Mysticism, it is implied, is soft on truth.  I agree that truth matters.  Real freedom and knowledge begin with naming the truth.  And the truth is that apophatic theology challenges many of our most beloved reductions and illusions of God, which is why some find it so threatening.  Because it can be threatening, indeed it can be scary, but in the best possible way.  It threatens all of our small gods, our small christs, our small visions of life and reality that prevent us from knowing God and Christ and Life and Reality.



On Mysticism

Asking what mysticism is is like asking what love is.  A person may know some thoughtful explanations and perhaps even some moving songs about love, and yet still not fully know what love is until they encounter it for themselves in their own depths.  Mystics know something that everyone who has experienced love knows.  It is insight about what knowing love involves of us.  Rationality alone is not enough for knowing what love is.  Words alone are not enough either.  It is impossible to fully know what love is by simply thinking hard enough or speaking well enough about it.  Knowing love requires more than this and more of us.  This knowledge requires openly involving our whole selves, mind, heart, body, and soul.  Knowing love requires encountering another in naked vulnerability—figuratively and/or literally—where two come together as one in intimate communion without fear and without pretension.  It involves sharing, hospitality, giving, receiving.  Knowing love requires participation and risk.  It requires a constant willingness to let go of our preconceived judgements so that we can come to know another as they really are.  And this does not mean that loving someone is necessarily irrational or that we should never bother to talk about love either.  It simply means that loving involves more than what thinking alone can strictly explain, and more than what the most eloquent words of the finest poets alone can describe.  Real love exceeds theory and language.  Real love challenges our most cherished reductions.  Real love therefore knows, honours, and enters its own mystery.


The same goes for knowing God.  Especially if God is indeed Love—active, close, unconditional, and free.  Knowing God in this way can be scary.  This is why many prefer the safety of knowing about God in dogmas instead of knowing God directly.  Dogmas alone can be comprehended and controlled whereas God cannot.  Dogmas alone don’t surprise whereas God does. This kind of theological reductionism is called idolatry in ancient biblical language.  Idolatry occurs whenever we treat something that is not God as if it were God.  It occurs whenever we confuse images for Reality.  Both inadequate physical icons or abstract ideas, wrongly related to, can become idols that replace God.  Mystics are those individuals who don’t settle for only knowing about God indirectly through dogmas or icons or anything else.  They perceive the inadequacy of such knowledge alone.  They want the real thing, direct and unmediated, beyond all categories and images of thought, and beyond any and every possible idol.  Mystics long to know God in purity of heart and stillness of mind, accepting no substitutes for personal knowledge of the Divine.  This kind of fully relational knowing requires openness and trust, which is to say faith.  It involves open-mindedness and open-heartedness to change for one cannot truly experience Love and remain the same.  For Love is pregnant with possibilities.  Love is wild and unpredictable.  Love liberates and inspires.  Love gives birth to new life.  So it is with truly knowing God.



On Mysticism

Magic and mysticism are often confused.  Many times they’re even equated as if “magic” and “mysticism” are synonyms for essentially the same thing.  But magic and mysticism are not the same thing.  In fact, there are some essential differences between magic and mysticism.  Evelyn Underhill writes that the “fundamental difference between the two is this: magic wants to get, mysticism wants to give.”  Magic and mysticism are actually opposite poles on either side of conventional religion according to Underhill.

magic, mysticism, religion

A magician intends to get power over others and the world.  The motive of a magician is selfish control.   Like a scientist who develops technology that enables him to master and manipulate elements of the natural world for his own ends, a magician extends this attitude over into the unseen world.  A magician uses techniques with the intent of mastering and manipulating entities of the supernatural world for his own ends.  In this respect, both a scientist and a magician may be motived by a desire to gain power over the world—to control, to manipulate, to master for selfish purposes.  The desire to get power over things is implied in magical potions, spells, and incantations.  But magical tendencies can appear in apparently non-magical activities as well.  When a Christian prays with the intent of manipulating God to do what he wants, he is praying with an attitude akin to magic—his ultimate desire is to get God to do his will.  Indeed, magic involves “the deliberate exaltation of the will, till it transcends its usual limitations and obtains for the self or group of selves something which it or they did not previously possess.  It is an individualistic and acquisitive science: in all its forms an activity of the intellect, seeking Reality for its own purposes, or for those of humanity at large.”  So magic, in whatever form it appears, is invariably a selfish and manipulative pursuit.

A true mystic, in contrast, intends to give herself over—to God, to others, and to the movements of Life and Reality.  The motive of a mystic is selfless love.  Mysticism, then, is guided by the opposite motive of magic towards which mature religion is inclined.  As Underhill notes, mysticism “is non-individualistic. It implies, indeed, the abolition of individuality; of that hard separateness, that ‘I, Me, Mine’ which makes of man a finite isolated thing.  It is essentially a movement of the heart, seeking to transcend the limitations of the individual standpoint and to surrender itself to ultimate Reality; for no personal gain, to satisfy no transcendental curiosity, to obtain no other-worldly joys, but purely from an instinct of love.”  Unlike a magical prayer, Jesus’ famous prayer, “not my will, but Yours be done,” is an essentially mystical prayer.  Indeed, the mystic does not intend to master and manipulate God or Reality.  Rather, out of love, a mystic intends to give herself over—to sur-render herself—to the movements of Life, to know and become one with the Essence of things in which “we live and move and have our being.”