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A Spell Against Stagnation: John O’Donohue on Beginnings

A Spell Against Stagnation: John O’Donohue on Beginnings

There are moments in life when we are reminded that we are unfinished, that the story we have been telling ourselves about who we are and where our life leads is yet unwritten. Such moments come most readily at the beginning of something new.

To begin anything — a new practice, a new project, a new love — is to cast upon yourself a spell against stagnation. Beginnings are notation for the symphony of the possible in us. They ask us to break the pattern of our lives and reconfigure it afresh — something that can only be done with great courage and great tenderness, for no territory of life exposes both our power and our vulnerability more brightly than a beginning.

One of English artist Margaret C. Cook’s illustrations for a rare 1913 edition of Walt Whitman’s of Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

How to leap into the thrilling and terrifying unknowns of the possible is what the Irish poet and philosopher John O’Donohue (January 1, 1956–January 4, 2008) explores in a chapter of his parting gift to the world, To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings (public library), which also gave us his luminous meditation on kindling the light between us and within us.

He begins by telescoping into deep time, reminding us that we are but a small and new part of something ancient and immense — a vast totality that holds us in our incompleteness, in our existential loneliness, in the vulnerability of our self-creation:

There are days when Conamara is wreathed in blue Tuscan light. The mountains seem to waver as though they were huge dark ships on a distant voyage. I love to climb up into the silence of these vast autonomous structures. What seems like a pinnacled summit from beneath becomes a level plateau when you arrive there. Born in a red explosion of ascending fire, the granite lies cold, barely marked by the millions of years of rain and wind. On this primeval ground I feel I have entered into a pristine permanence, a continuity here that knew the wind hundreds of millions of years before a human face ever felt it.

When we arrive into the world, we enter this ancient sequence. All our beginnings happen within this continuity. Beginnings often frighten us because they seem like lonely voyages into the unknown. Yet, in truth, no beginning is empty or isolated. We seem to think that beginning is setting out from a lonely point along some line of direction into the unknown. This is not the case. Shelter and energy come alive when a beginning is embraced… We are never as alone in our beginnings as it might seem at the time. A beginning is ultimately an invitation to open toward the gifts and growth that are stored up for us. To refuse to begin can be an act of great self-neglect.

[…]

Our very life here depends directly on continuous acts of beginning.

Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer) by Caspar David Friedrich, circa 1817. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

Just as our lives are shaped by those necessary endings — by what we choose to let go — they are shaped by what we choose to begin, however precarious the precipice of the new.

A century after Van Gogh exulted in risk as the crucible of the creative life and a decade after David Bowie urged young artists to “always go a little further into the water than you feel you’re capable of being in,” O’Donohue adds:

Perhaps the art of harvesting the secret riches of our lives is best achieved when we place profound trust in the act of beginning. Risk might be our greatest ally. To live a truly creative life, we always need to cast a critical look at where we presently are, attempting always to discern where we have become stagnant and where new beginning might be ripening. There can be no growth if we do not remain open and vulnerable to what is new and different. I have never seen anyone take a risk for growth that was not rewarded a thousand times over.

Art by Dorothy Lathrop, 1922. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

And yet we are homeostasis machines, our very organism oriented toward maintaining the status quo of comfort and predictability, which every beginning inevitably disrupts with its fulcrum of change and its brunt of uncertainty. O’Donohue considers what it takes to override our creaturely reflex for habituation:

Sometimes the greatest challenge is to actually begin; there is something deep in us that conspires with what wants to remain within safe boundaries and stay the same… Sometimes a period of preparation is necessary, where the idea of the beginning can gestate and refine itself; yet quite often we unnecessarily postpone and equivocate when we should simply take the risk and leap into a new beginning.

He renders the vulnerability and redemption of that leap in a poem — a kind of self-blessing to consecrate the courage of beginning:

FOR A NEW BEGINNING
by John O’Donohue

In out-of-the-way places of the heart,
Where your thoughts never think to wander,
This beginning has been quietly forming,
Waiting until you were ready to emerge.

For a long time it has watched your desire,
Feeling the emptiness growing inside you,
Noticing how you willed yourself on,
Still unable to leave what you had outgrown.

It watched you play with the seduction of safety
And the gray promises that sameness whispered,
Heard the waves of turmoil rise and relent,
Wondered would you always live like this.

Then the delight, when your courage kindled,
And out you stepped onto new ground,
Your eyes young again with energy and dream,
A path of plenitude opening before you.

Though your destination is not yet clear
You can trust the promise of this opening;
Unfurl yourself into the grace of beginning
That is at one with your life’s desire.

Awaken your spirit to adventure;
Hold nothing back, learn to find ease in risk;
Soon you will be home in a new rhythm,
For your soul senses the world that awaits you.

Art by Sophie Blackall from Things to Look Forward to — an illustrated celebration of living with presence in uncertain times.

Sometimes — in fact, often — beginnings are tucked into endings. In consonance with his philosopher-poet friend David Whyte’s poignant reflection on ending love and beginning love, O’Donohue writes:

Often when something is ending we discover within it the spore of new beginning, and a whole new train of possibility is in motion before we even realize it. When the heart is ready for a fresh beginning, unforeseen things can emerge. And in a sense, this is exactly what a beginning does. It is an opening for surprises. Surrounding the intention and the act of beginning, there are always exciting possibilities.

Paying attention to those portals of possibility is both an act of self-respect and a reverence of life:

Part of the art of living wisely is to learn to recognize and attend to such profound openings in one’s life.

Complement with poet Pattiann Rogers’s stunning ode to our ongoing self-creation and the poetic psychoanalyst Allen Wheelis on how people change, the revisit John O’Donohue on why we fall in love, the essence of friendship, and how we bless each other.

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