Sometimes the universe conspires for certain things to cross our paths. This was the case for me with John O’Donohue’s book “Anam Cara.” The book poetically explores a whole slew of ideas stemming from the Irish/Celtic concept (anam cara) which means “soul friend.” Well, I had heard of soul mates and soul sisters…but soul friends? And an entire book on the topic? Needless to say, I was intrigued…
When First We Met
My first exposure to O’Donohue’s work was in 2011… or so I thought! Nestled in the woods of rural Ontario a friend and I happened across a video of O’Donohue poetically expounding on the ideas contained in his book Anam Cara. I was smitten! I started talking with everyone I met about this Celtic philosopher-priest-poet who was able to articulate so clearly so many critical thoughts about the nature of human love and friendship. It was then that I discovered from my grandmother that I had actually heard one of his poems recited (by her) at the memorial service of my great uncle some years ago (when I was too young to fully appreciate it ;).
Some months later a friend from Ireland came to visit my mother’s farm/retreat center where I often spend my summers. We got to chatting under the stars one night and John O’Donohue came up. It turned out my friend had a copy of Anam Cara on him that he had bought after the death of a close friend some years ago. The next morning as he got ready to leave he handed me his well-worn copy saying “I think I was meant to give this to you…” The reason I decided to share all this with you is that I think we would all benefit from being more conscious and attentive to the soul friends in our lives, be they family members, partners or “just” friends. As O’Donohue puts it, “in everyone’s life there is a great need for an anam cara, a soul friend. In this love you are understood as you are without mask or pretension….Love allows understanding to dawn, and understanding is precious. Where you are understood, you are at home….”
When I was a teenager and more active as a slam poet than a songwriter, I wrote a piece called “the death of the word love.” The piece was inspired by this feeling I had, and still feel at times, that there is an awkward unnecessary taboo around the word “love,” as if it were reserved solely for romantic purposes. “Not so!” say I. I love my friends, I love my family and I love a whole lot of other things on this planet, and saying so does not trivialize the feeling, rather it amplifies it! Saying “I love you” is, to me, an expression of something entirely fundamental to our humanity. Learning to express our love for each other and for other beings around us is an essential skill to living a happy and fulfilled life, in my humble opinion. I was thrilled to find some of these sentiments echoed so well in Anam Cara. “Love is anything but sentimental…In fact, it is the most real and creative form of human presence…all presence depends on our consciousness. Where there is depth of awareness, there is a reverence for presence…Consequently, awareness is the greatest gift we can bring to our friendships. Many people have an anam cara of whom they are not truly aware…”
It also speaks to this feeling I’ve often had about love being ever-present and abundant, whereas I feel that “society” and the media often portray it as something scarce, something we have to chase after. How many of our pop songs and TV shows and movies are dedicated to the struggle to find and keep love in our lives? When we can recognize this quality of soul friendship around us and work with its intrinsic qualities, “fear changes into courage, emptiness becomes plenitude and distance becomes intimacy.” When we are able to connect to the depth of love within us, we no longer need to run around in search of it, afraid of never finding or feeling that sense of belonging that comes from truly recognizing ourselves in the other. In fact, many of us are running in the opposite direction of what we claim to desire. “An excessive concentration on our work, achievements or spiritual quest can actually lead us away from the presence of love…we don’t need to go out and find love, rather we need to be still and let love discover us…” This is perhaps the hardest thing to accept, speaking for myself. When I am feeling lost in a confused state of “lovelessness” and loneliness it’s very hard to sit still and try and connect to that underlying love that exists within us all. I would rather be out running around, keeping busy, seeking some kind of fleeting intimacy. When it doubt though, I find that spending time in nature is the best thing to get me back to center and allow me to open back up to life in the wake of heartbreak (romantic or otherwise).
What interests me about this whole concept of soul friendship is that it breaks out of constraints of romantic partnership or “possession.” It invites us to take part in intentional, conscious growth and heart-opening with those close to us simply because Love is the foundation of Life. “The anam cara experience opens a friendship that is not wounded by separation or distance…Because they have broken through the barriers of persona and egoism on the soul level, the unity of their souls is not easily severed…With your anam cara you awaken the eternal.” Since being introduced to the book I have gone to it in many a moment for wisdom and insight. It has accompanied me through many a rut in the road and inspired me in many moments of connection. I invite you to take a moment and reflect on those in your life with whom you feel this sense of “belonging”, with whom you feel you could grow beyond your fears and the shadows of experience to sink in to a new trust. After all, it’s from the practice and awareness of love that we all are able to blossom and grow.