Awakening the Mind, Awakening the Soul
by John O’Donohue
"Behind every face there is something eternal going on," writes Irish poet and spiritual philosopher John O’Donohue, author of Anam Cara, Eternal Echoes, and Beauty. And it is dedication to that "something eternal" that has made John a voice of inspiration, beauty, and purpose. His work and words guide the way to our soul’s calling and the living power of our imaginations, while acknowledging the obstacles we will face along the way. "Even the strangest and most magical things," he writes, "become absorbed into the routine of the daily mind with its steady geographies of endurance, anxiety, and contentment." In the following piece, John offers us a lively, poetic reflection on the gifts and challenges we are bound to encounter on the path of awakening.
Why must we answer the call to awaken? Why must we follow the questions of our soul? Because it is through habitual, non-inquisitive living that we lose our sense of wonder. Because eventually, even the strangest or most magical things become absorbed into the routine of the daily mind with its steady geographies of endurance, anxiety, and contentment. Left to our own devices, curiosity dims and fear of the unknown binds us; we cling to the known. Only seldom does the haze lift, as we glimpse for a moment the amazing plenitude of being here in the heart of the greatest story ever told—our own lives.
Once you start to awaken, however, nothing or no one can ever claim you again, pull you back into old patterns. Once you start to awaken, you know how precious your time here—on earth, in this body—is. You are no longer willing to squander your essence on undertakings that do not nourish your true self; your patience grows thin with tired talk and dead language. You see through the rosters of expectation that promise you safety and the confirmations of your outer identity. Now you are impatient for growth, willing to put yourself in the way of change. You want your work to become an expression of your innate gifts. You want your relationships to voyage beyond the pallid frontiers to where the danger of transformation dwells. You want your God to be wild and to call you to where your destiny awaits.
When your soul is born, when it awakens anew, you begin to inherit your true life, the one you were meant for. You leave the kingdom of fake surfaces, repetitive talk, and weary roles and slip deeper into the true adventure of who you are and who you are being called to become. The greatest friend of the soul is the unknown. Yet we are afraid of the unknown because it lies outside our vision and our control. We avoid it or quell it by filtering it through our protective barriers of domestication and control. This way, however, never leads home.
Unfortunately, it sometimes takes deep suffering, grief, or loss to awaken us. It could happen one evening in the middle of your life, your routines, your roles. The phone rings. Someone you love is in the grip of a serious illness that could take their life within months. It only takes a few seconds to receive that news. Yet, when you put the phone down, you are already standing in a different world. All you know has just been rendered unsure, tenuous. And it is in that unknown, in that mystery place, that lies the invitation to stay awake.
If you could imagine the most incredible story ever, it would be less incredible than the story of our being here alive on this earth. Ironically, it is not "just" a story; it’s the truth of our lives. Yet it takes us so long to see where we are along the path of our soul’s story. And it takes us even longer to see who we are. The single most important gift you can give yourself is the invitation to awaken to who you are and where you have landed. And you are the only person who can offer, and accept, that gift. Plato said in The Symposium that one of the greatest privileges of a human life is to become midwife to the birth of the soul—in this case, the birth of your own soul.
And when you finally come out of the illusion—Plato’s Cave of Images—you emerge into the sunlight, into the mystery of color and imagination. When you begin to sense that your imagination is the place where you are most divine, you feel called to clean out of your mind all the worn and shabby furniture of thought. You wish to refurbish yourself with the living imagination so that you can begin to see, so that your thoughts can become what Meister Eckhart calls "our inner senses." When the inner senses are dull and blurred, you become a respectable prisoner of a mind able to receive everything except the extraordinary.
You know now what Eckhart means when he says: "Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty," and you undertake the difficult but beautiful path to freedom. On this journey, the chambers of your heart that seemed awkward, contradictory, and uneven are where the treasure lies hidden. Being true to yourself becomes as necessary and automatic as breathing. As Shakespeare’s Polonius says in Hamlet: "To thine own self be true, and it must follow as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man."
From this inner dedication, you can creatively reconstruct your own values and take action. You develop from your own self-compassion a great compassion for others. You are no longer caught in the false game of judgment, comparison, and assumption. More naked now than ever, you finally feel truly alive. You begin to trust the music of your own soul; you have inherited treasure that no one will ever be able to take from you.
At the deepest level, this adventure of growth is in fact a transfigurative conversation with your own death. And when the time comes for you to leave this life, the view from your own death will show a life of growth that takes away all fear, gladdens the heart, and creates peace in the soul.
John O’Donohue is an Irish poet, author, and Catholic scholar whose writings reveal an original thinker rooted in an unorthodox blend of Irish heritage, German philosophy, and Western theology. A gifted and engaging author and speaker, John lectures and leads seminars throughout the United States and Europe, encouraging his audiences to become artists of their own deepest possibility.
© Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health. All rights reserved. Originally published in the August 2006 issue of Kripalu Online. To request permission to reprint, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.