It took a long time to make much progress through John O’Donohue’s Anam Ċara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom. I mean that in the best of ways. The Gaelic term, anam ċara is literally “soul friend,” and if books can be friends, this is such a one. Most pages hold something rich enough to send me off thinking about it for a while. I’ve kept returning through about two-thirds of it now, and today this is the passage on my mind:
Spirituality is the art of transfiguration. We should not force ourselves to change by hammering our lives into any pre-determined shape. We do not need to operate according to the idea of a predetermined program or plan for our lives. Rather, we need to practice a new art of attention to the inner rhythm of our days and lives. This attention brings a new awareness of our own human and divine presence.
A willingness to grow is a good thing, but the programs and plans available to encourage our development are overwhelming. Bookstore shelves teem with personal growth books, religious and secular, as if we can’t stop flagellating ourselves with agendas for self-improvement. And yes, I’m familiar with these store displays because I’m irresistibly drawn to them. It’s hard to pass up some bit of wisdom that will make me more capable, more fulfilled, more deserving. When an article promises to share Five Steps to Happiness, I can’t help but read it.
I want to grow, but I’d prefer to do it without all the messy uncertainty and annoying unpredictability of not knowing the way. I would love to learn what to do and just do it. But O’Donohue spells out what’s lacking in such a prescribed approach:
It is far more creative to work with the idea of mindfulness rather than the idea of will. Too often people try to change their lives using the will as a kind of hammer to beat their life into proper shape. The intellect identifies the goal of the program, and the will accordingly forces the life into that shape. This way of approaching the sacredness of one’s own presence is externalist and violent. It brings you falsely outside yourself, and you can spend years lost in the wilderness of your own mechanical, spiritual programs. You can perish in a famine of your own making.
Creating, growing, transforming—these are all mysterious processes. They happen underground, in the depths, in the dark. Paying attention while a process unfolds that we can neither control nor rush is a counter-cultural way of life. It can be hard to learn and harder to trust.
But if we lose faith and limit ourselves to the kind of processes we can control, we banish ourselves to the wilderness O’Donohue describes. Will power is hard work, and doesn’t make for a very joyful life. Maybe it’s trust power I need to work on.
What kind of power keeps you moving forward?