The Presence of Compassion

An Interview with John O'Donohue
By Mary NurrieStearns


For three months, John O'Donohue's book, "Eternal Echoes" rotated from the left to the right side of my computer. Each time my hand moved it, I stopped to read a few paragraphs, a few pages. Reading his words, I felt as though I was being embraced by a kind presence. Somehow, I felt seen, made visible, by the touch of compassion.

Compassion can be transmitted through many forms of words and actions. We recognize its energy when we feel that certain swelling in our hearts, for it is the heart that senses compassion. When compassion touches us we feel seen for who we truly are—as more than our troubles, our needs.

You will feel the presence of compassion as you read the interview with John O'Donohue. O'Donohue is a poet, scholar, and author of the award-winning and bestselling books "Anam Cara" and "Eternal Echoes." He lives in the west of Ireland, which is where he was the day we talked on the phone.

Personal Transformation: Let's begin with a general discussion of compassion in order to deepen our understanding of its nature.

John O'Donohue: Compassion distinguishes human presence from all other presence on the earth. The human mind is one of the most gracious gifts of creation. The human mind is the place where nature gathers at its most intense and at its most intimate. The human being is an in-between presence, belonging neither fully to the earth from which she has come, nor to the heavens toward which her mind and spirit aim. In a sense, the human being is the loneliest creature in creation. Paradoxically, the human being also has the greatest possibility for intimacy. I link compassion immediately with intimacy. Compassion is the ability to vitally imagine what it is like to be an other, the force that makes a bridge from the island of one individuality to the island of the other. It is an ability to step outside your own perspective, limitations and ego, and become attentive in a vulnerable, encouraging, critical, and creative way with the hidden world of another person.

Compassion is an ability to feel pity for an other. One of the greatest problems in post-modern culture is the problem of otherness, because many of the forces, like electronic media, commerce, economics, and the ideology of rush and speed that we adhere to leave us few possibilities to really engage the difference that we are and that each other is. Compassion is the ability to enter into a world that may be totally different from you, in an imaginative way, naturally, and feel what the others feel. It is related directly to justice. A lot of evil happens because of ignorance and of numbness, and compassion is one of the forces that invites and permits us to step outside our own complacency and see what life beyond our own skin is like.

Within the word compassion is passion. There is an intrinsic connection between passion and compassion. Someone who feels no passion is in pain, a pain that is always a lonesome pain. One of the loneliest things is to encounter somebody whose longing has been numbed. Her personality becomes a mere contour of externality around vacancy. Those who are compassionate are people whose passion and imagination are fully alive and vital.

Transformation: Is compassion innate to our nature, something to be released, or is compassion something to be developed?

O'Donohue: It's a bit of both. Compassion is somehow innate to our nature. We have a natural attraction toward the other, a fascination with the other, and are deeply touched when we see the other person in pain. It is natural in those ways, and it is easy to awaken, intensify, and extend. Compassion needs development. If a child is raised in a context where he is taught blame and hate, it is probable that his compassion will be damaged. It is interesting, in psychological terms, to look at the narratives of those who have done awful things in the world. Often, the root of the evil in perpetrators is found in an incredible numbing that happened at a time when they were most vulnerable. Great pain sometimes numbs the soul and quenches the potential for compassion.

Transformation: Is there an innate relationship between our yearning to belong and compassion?

O'Donohue: I think there is. The creator of the universe loves circles: time and space are circles, the day is a circle, the year is a circle, the earth is a circle. But when creating and fashioning the human heart, the creator only created a half-circle, so that there is something ontologically unfinished in human nature. That is why you can't enter your own life or inhabit your full presence without a vital and real relationship with some other person. Your awakening and the fulfillment of your identity requires that you belong together with others. The need to belong to yourself, the deepest need of all, can only be fulfilled through the beautiful force-field of friendship. Our hunger to belong is actually an expression of our compassion for ourselves and our passion for the other.

Transformation: Are you saying that the basis for compassion with oneself is the yearning for the other?

O'Donohue: Yes, that's not an absolute claim but it is a huge proportion of the force field. The beautiful irony is that even though we're housed in separate bodies there is a profound hidden tissue of absolute connection between us. The Celtic tradition sensed that no one lives for herself alone. Your call to discover who you are and to bring your soul into birth is also a great act of creativity toward everyone else.

Transformation: What other understandings about compassion have you extrapolated from Celtic thought?

O'Donohue: Celtic thought contributes magnificently to a philosophy of compassion, deriving from its sense that everything belongs in one diverse, living unity. On an ontological level, the exercise of compassion is the transfiguration of dualism: the separation of matter and spirit, masculine and feminine, body and soul, human and divine, person and animal, and person and element. The beauty of the Celtic tradition was that it managed to think and articulate all of these presences together in a profound, intimate unity. So, if compassion is a praxis which tries to bring that unity into explicit activity and presentation, then Celtic philosophy of unity contributes strongly to compassion. The Celtic sense of no separating border between nature and humans allows us to have compassion with animals and with places in nature. For the Celts, nature wasn't a huge expanse of endless matter. Nature was an incredibly elemental and passionately individual presence, and that is why many gods and spirits are actually tied into very explicit places, and to the memory and history and narrative of the places.

Transformation: Let's look at a narrow component of this philosophy. What do animals have to teach us about compassion?

O'Donohue: The predominant silence in which the animal world lives is very touching. As children on the farm, we were taught to respect animals. We were told that the dumb animals are blessed. They cannot say what they are feeling and we should have great compassion for them. They were tended to and looked after and people became upset if something happened to them. There was a great sense of solidarity between us and our older brothers and sisters, the animals. One of the tragedies in Western religion is the way that we have been so elitist in reserving the spiritual exclusively for the human. That is an awful, barbaric crime. When you subtract the notion of self from a presence, you objectify it and then that presence can be used and abused. It is a sin and blasphemy to say that animals have no spirits and souls. One of the cornerstones of contemplative life is going below the surface of the external and the negativity. The contemplative attends to the roots of wrong and violence. Because the animals live essentially what I call the contemplative life, maybe the most sacred prayer of the world actually happens within animal consciousness. Secondly, sometimes when you look into an animal's eyes, you see incredible pain. I think there are levels of suffering for which humans are not refined enough, and maybe our older, ancient brothers and sisters, the animals, carry some of that for us.

Transformation: Let's move to the presence of compassion. How do we recognize it?

O'Donohue: We recognize compassion in the willingness of someone to imagine himself into the life of another person. We recognize its presence in the withholding of huge negative moralistic judgment. We see compassion in the expression of mercy, in the refusal to label someone with a short-circuiting terminology that condemns her, even though her actions may be awkward. We see compassion in an openness to the greater mystery of the other person. The present situation, deed or misdeed is not the full story of the individual, there is a greater presence behind the deed or the person than society usually acknowledges. Above all, we see the presence of compassion as the vulnerability to be disturbed about awful things that are going on.

Transformation: What is the relationship between absence and compassion?

O'Donohue: Absence and presence are sisters. The opposite of presence is not absence, the opposite of presence is vacancy. Vacancy is a void, a space which is hungrily empty, whereas absence is a space of spatial emptiness, but there is a trail of connection toward the departed one, the lost one, the absent one. To feel absence is to feel connection with the one who has gone. There is still a huge affective involvement with the person. In exploring compassion and vacancy, vacancy is a sinister pain, because of its hunger, its emptiness. A form of vacancy that is prevalent in post-modern culture is indifference, the inability to imagine or show compassion to others who are in trouble. Absence is different. The feeling of absence can create an incredible feeling of compassion.

Transformation: In "Eternal Echoes," you refer to "the sanctuary of human presence." What does this phrase suggest?

O'Donohue: The visible presence of the body is the sign of the invisible presence of the eternal, the divine. One of the fascinating tasks in every human life is to engage and experience oneself as a unity. The idea of the sanctuary of the human presence implies a lovely lyrical unity in the human person. When you stand in front of another human being, you stand before the presence of an unknown and infinite world of love, belonging, imagination, and ambivalence, negativity, darkness, and struggle. It is sad, in post-modern culture, that human presence is diminished, rendered vacant, and not acknowledged for the wild divinity that it is.

Transformation: The sanctuary of human presence is the basis of anam cara friendship, or soul friends. Does that kind of friendship bring forth compassion?

O'Donohue: The Celtic tradition was very complex. It was a vigorous warrior type tradition, yet within it was this poignant icon of the anam cara, the notion of soul friendship. Anam is the word for soul, and cara is the word for friend. When you had an anam cara friend, it was as if you were joined in an eternal way with a friend of your soul, in some incredible recognition of the sublime affinity between the two. Originally, the myth was that each human was two in one, but they were split and separated, consequently they spent most of their lives searching for their other half. In the Celtic idea of the anam cara, the anam cara is the other half that you have been missing. In coming into the gift and grace of friendship, you enter into your own fullest completion. You are also being gifted with a dimension of your soul that was hungry and lost and is now found. That kind of attraction, passion, affinity and belonging is a profound experience of birthing one's own identity. The human body is born in miniature form, but completely there. I believe that the human heart is never fully born, and all our lives, we bring new kingdoms to birth in the hidden world of the heart. Maybe death is that moment you are fully born and you are received into another world where the laws of separation and dualism no longer operate. Unless you experience friendship, affinity, and belonging, it is very difficult to feel compassion. Therefore, friendship, especially the Celtic idea of friendship, is a profound, nurturing ground for extensive and intensive compassion.

Transformation: Talk about human vulnerability and compassion.

O'Donohue: One of the most vulnerable living forms in creation is human. Around the human body, where we live, there is emptiness. There is no big protective frame, so anything can come at you from outside at any time. At this moment, there are people in a doctor's office getting news that will change their lives forever. They will remember this day as the day their life broke in two. There are people having accidents that they never foresaw. There are safe, complacent people whose lives are managed under the dead manacle of control falling off a cliff into love and into the excitement and danger of a new relationship. In life, anything can come along the pathway to the house of your soul, the house of your body, to transfigure you. We're vulnerable externally to destiny, but we're also vulnerable internally, within ourselves. Things can come awake within your mind and heart that cause you immense days and nights of pain, a sense of being lost, of having no meaning, no worth; a kind of acidic negativity can knock down everything that you achieve in yourself, giving your world a sense of being damaged.

Another way to approach this is to look at the huge difference between sincerity and authenticity. Sincerity, while it's lovely, is necessary but insufficient, because you can be sincere with just one zone of your heart awakened. When many zones of the heart are awakened and harmonized we can speak of authenticity, which is a broader and more complex notion. It takes great courage and grace to feel the call to awaken, and it takes greater courage and more grace still to actually submit to the call, to risk yourself into these interior spaces where there is very often little protection. It takes a great person to creatively inhabit her own mind and not turn her mind into a destructive force that can ransack her life. You need compassion for yourself, particularly in American society, because many people in America identify themselves through the models and modules of psychology that inevitably categorize them as a syndrome. Lovely people feel that their real identity is working on themselves, and some work on themselves with such harshness. Like a demented gardener who won't let the soil settle for anything to grow, they keep raking, tearing away the nurturing clay from their own heart, then they're surprised that they feel so empty and vacant. Self-compassion is paramount. When you are compassionate with yourself, you trust in your soul, which you let guide your life. Your soul knows the geography of your destiny better than you do.

Transformation: A sister to vulnerability is suffering. Earlier you talked about how immense suffering can numb us. How does suffering both numb and teach?

O'Donohue: Yeats said, "Too much pain can make a stone of the heart." We're only able for so much. The real heroes in human life are the mainly silent, unnoticed ones who draw no attention to themselves but through their daily acts of love and gentleness and compassion keep the tissue of humane presence alive and vital. Some people are called to awful suffering. Down the road from you, in South America, a woman is searching through a bin for crumbs for her starving children, whom she loves just as much as we love our own children. I am often disturbed that she is there, near starvation, and we can talk about something that we love in the comfort of our homes. I don't know the answer to that, but I do feel that the duty of privilege is absolute integrity. The suffering of the world is not relieved because of our inability to realize how privileged we are, because of our blindness to our duty to help others. I also don't understand why innocent ones are called to carry awful cargoes of pain at their most vulnerable time. There is no doubt that pain damages. Often, the most beautiful people are those who have been badly broken, who have accessed a place of grace and light and healing. They come back, cohered together beautifully. There is also suffering which numbs you, deadens you. Out of dead vacancy, great darkness and sinister negativity can arise. Therein is the need for prayer, forgiveness, and mercy, which are sublime presences beyond human achievement that visit and mend us.

One of the best teachers in the world is suffering. Sometimes we suffer because we are reneging on our own growth and suffering comes along to unsettle, disturb, and break up some of the false constellations in which we have become atrophied. You may be atrophied in a position you don't even know you're in. Unknown to you, a shell grew around you and your life, rather than being a vital presence, was becoming a mere echo. Nothing breaks that shell like suffering. Suffering teaches you what you don't want to learn, bringing you the gift that you can only receive through suffering.

Transformation: Discuss the growth of integrity and compassion.

O'Donohue: Human identity is about individuality. One of the greatest duties we have in the world is to become the individual we were called to be, to inhabit the destiny which we were prepared to follow from ancient times. Individuation is a call to holistic identity, to the fullness of identity, and it is a complex journey. The awakened life is the true life. I have been around death a lot and have noticed that people who have been faithful to the call of their own complexity and identity feel that they have attempted to realize what life calls them to. To renege on that is to settle for a life in a little ledge somewhere in your destiny and not to go out onto the ocean of the full voyage. That is where integrity comes in. There is a connection between integrity and integration. An awakened life has diversity and harmony within itself, and is a life which is integrated. Whatever is integrated means that the parts are in communication with each other. In the world, you find that destructive actions, which damage, come from energies which have broken off and set themselves up as a whole when they are incomplete, just a part. Integrity is the praxis of creation and compassionate being derives from integrated presence.

Transformation: Where does desire fit into compassion?

O'Donohue: The heart is a theater of desire, of different longings. Desire is the call of fulfillment. One of the etymological origins of desire means being away from one's star. In a sense, the call of desire is the call to come home. You can talk all you like about the spiritual life. Very often, the more talk there is about it, the less presence of it is actually around. One of the tests of spiritual integrity is whether a person is at home in his own life. That makes for poise. You can trust somebody who has poise and balance in his own spirit, because he is in unity and he is in rhythm, and you can always trust what is in rhythm. Distrust and fear are usually caused by an absence of rhythm and the unpredictability of the threat of destruction that it brings. In a deep, deep way, being at home in your own nature makes for a real sense of belonging. We always imagine that our desire is a call outward, toward something outside. In many instances, it can be, but in its fundamental intention, desire is the call to come home and to discover that which is sought outside is actually hidden under the heart in the home of your own soul.

Transformation: Coming home into your own soul gives presence to human life. What is the difference between being present and presence?

O'Donohue: Objectively, everything that is here now is present. The stones outside this house in Conamara are present, the mountains over the road, the lake outside my house, they are all present. The neighbors at the houses in the village are present in the world. But the fullness of human presence is an awakened and focused presence toward a receiver, a listener, or a hearer. Being present is what we spiritually yearn to be. To be present is to inhabit your own presence with clarity and luminosity. One of the most awful things in modern life is the consistent and insidious diminishment of presence in life. You see it in the corporate world, in relationships, at home, in families. I like to pose a simple question, one that quickly tells what is going on in your life. Ask yourself: to whom can I be truly present, where can I be truly present, in what context is my presence diminished, not desired, or felt? The spiritual hunger so prevalent in our times is a hunger for true presence. There is something ultimately divine in presence. Presence is what life is about. When we come into real presence, the eternal becomes fully active in us and around us. In other words, when we hit real presence we break into eternity.

Transformation: Let's close with a discussion about Celtic prayer and how prayer can help us develop compassion.

O'Donohue: In Celtic tradition, time had a secret structure and events had their own sacredness. The Celtic mind practiced what I call reverence of approach to experience. Experience was a profound threshold of creativity and transformation. Anything and everything that happens in experience unfolds, expresses, and embodies your identity. The Celtics had blessings for starting off the day, blessings for encounters, blessings for work, blessings for eating and for cooking. The last blessing at night was a blessing for the soaring of the fire. In the Celtic tradition, most of the wisdom was handed on around the fire, which was a lovely image of the heart and warmth. The coals of one night's fire would be the seed for the fire of the next day. The Celtics had this intimate and almost domestic sense of divine shelter and divine activity in the world. When you approach life like that, you are acutely aware of your own gift in the world. When you are aware of your gift, you are aware that your purpose is somehow tied into the deepest hunger and the deepest call of the world.

Additionally, prayer takes you into another kind of space. It takes you into that oblique interim place where the connections between things are born and where there is secretness together, where secret togetherness becomes active. Therefore, prayer is not about anything specific. Meister Eckhart said there is a place in the soul that neither time nor space nor no created thing can touch. The intentionality of prayer is to take us as frequently as possible into that serenity and tranquility and purity of space where we can heal and renew. The insight of prayer means that you are not identical to your biography, you are not just a psychological matrix. There is a place in you which is beyond psychology, and that is the eternal place within you. The more we visit there, the more we are touched and fused with the limitless kindness and affection of the divine. The ultimate goal of prayer is to learn to behold yourself with the same gentleness, pride, expectation, and compassion with which the divine presence beholds you at every moment. If we can inhabit that reflex of divine presence, then compassion will flow naturally from us.