Tilly update
Tilly update

The philosophy of compassion

Chagford Commons

The mystical Celtic Christian tradition which has come down to us through the writings of the peregrini, among others, informs the work of Irish poet, philosopher, and theological scholar John O'Donohue (1956-2008), often quoted here on Myth & Moor. In his writings, the Celtic Chrisitian and pre-Christian traditions are closely aligned, both rooted in the natural world.

"Celtic thought contributes magnificently to a philosophy of compassion," he once explained in an interview, "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.

Nattadon Hill view from Chagford Commons

Dartmoor Ponies 1

"The predominant silence in which the animal world lives is very touching," O'Donohue continued. "As children on a 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.

Dartmoor Ponies 2

"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.

Dartmoor Ponies 3

Dartmoor Ponies 4

"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.

Dartmoor Ponies 5

Dartmoor Ponies 6

"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."

Dartmoor Ponies 7

Dartmoor Ponies 8

Dartmoor Ponies 9

Dartmoor Ponies 10

Dartmoor Ponies 11Pictures above: Dartmoor ponies on Chagford Commons. The passage quoted above comes from an interview with John O'Donohue by Mary NurrieStearns; you can read it in full here. The poem in the picture captions comes from Poems 1960-1967 by Denise Levertov (1923-1997). All rights reserved by the authors.


My apologies, everyone, for being slow to respond to comments this week. Between Tilly's recuperation and my own, time, energy, and "spoons" have been in short supply. I'll respond to the comments on the last few posts very soon, I promise! And I'm grateful to all of you who have kept the conversation here going despite my absence from it.

Beautiful. 'The demented gardener' - oh yes, been there and need to keep reminding myself to stop slipping back. In fact I was having that very conversation with myself last night. And the animals....

Hope you and Tilly recuperate gently

What a powerful post for me today, Terri, prose, pictures, and poem! Thank you. As soon as I have time, I'm going to read the whole interview. I'm familiar with John O'Donohue, but his words today resonate powerfully with my own experience at an educational institute I'm now attending. This is what I want to do - to teach my students to "creatively inhabit their own minds." For me, right now, these ideas extend into that idea of where you find your home - and your identity. So much here to ponder and hold in the heart!

I so love coming to these posts. In large part I feel that my incomplete understanding of natural mysteries is enlarged and encouraged. In particular I cherish every message that whatever divinity is, it links everything, and that the unity does not erase separate beings. As always, thank you. Oh, and I love the horses!

Thank you so much for introducing me to John O'Donohue. Being a mystical Christian his philosophy resonates deeply within my soul. Sometimes my compassion and sincerity gets me used by people. Guess I need to be more authentic.
Doggy is looking great! Goes to show she's got a tender loving owner there. Lucky dog......
These last two posts have been extremely beautiful and very helpful boosting my happiness level. Much to contemplate here and explore.
Thanks again Ms.Terri.

((((Terri))) these words tear ever so tenderly and gently deep into the heart of the matter

Oh Terri, I think this is why it's so very hard for me to read the news or even browse facebook. It's often quite devastating when I read about the suffering of strangers or loved ones, of animals, of our planet. This is not to say "woe is me, I'm so compassionate", just that this post resonated for me as a vulnerable human being. Thank you, and please take your time to heal and help Tilly.

Hi Terri

I send you and tilly my prayers for a continual and speedy recovery. Please take care of yourself and that wondrous and wise
guardian/guide of wood and field, as well as beloved companion.

And thank you for today's post. What beautiful photos and writings by John O'Donohue. I was really drawn to this and was deeply touched by the philosophy of compassion and its perspectives regarding nature and its inhabitants. Having lived here in the desert area of Southern California for almost 11 years, I have found a kinship and empathy with the land and its residents; and have learned some important things.

I think that animals also have an innate sense of compassion for those things or persons that come into their presence. As creatures in the wild, they might approach the subject but they sense a disturbance in the mortal soul/body as much as something in the weather. Here in the high desert, I constantly hear
this strange bird echoing throughout the day. He remains always hidden from sight but he is there. Variations in his pitch change with conditions in the air and field, the approach of storm or fire etc. But also
I sense that he knows fluctuations in my own temperament, especially when in pain or sorrow, or feeling terribly uncertain. His call is plaintive and moves in the rhythm of a long, bobbing echo. At dawn, it seems most acute, intense
and intuitive. It might just be my imagination but I feel a connection with him. He is a companion and welcome neighbor out there in the Joshua fields.

Bird Aubade

During the morning when the sky
seems low, shallowed in dusklight,
a bird calls into the Joshua field. His song
echoing like the bell song of a buoy, alerting us -

he is there, tilting toward hours of flame or storm
or simply an over cast cool. if you know
the variance in his voice --
you can tell; but I just lie back and listen.

The trees gesture in shadow
an awareness of the bird
and his origin, of how he calibrates
the weather -- and beyond that

the depth of green in plants,
the pitch of song in my bones.
Wishing you and tilly all the best

There is so much in this which resonates with me, especially this morning. These are wise, strong words, but also healing words. And I think I will carry the image (the small parable) of the demeted gardener with me always.

Gentle hugs to Tilly, and also I hope you are improving too.

Love the poem, especially the last line: "the pitch of song in my bones." Thanks for sharing.

Hi Glenda

Thank you so much for your kind words toward this poem!
I am glad you enjoyed it!!

My Best

Calibrating the weather indeed!!!



And you Jane!

For taking the time to read and comment. I deeply appreciate it!

take care

Hi A'Vonne

I agree with you about John O'Donohue,
I love his words and works. Have read him on line and seen him on a special sponsored by PBS! He is very comforting and intuitive in a mystical way that resonates with me.

My Best

Just lovely, Terri. Thank you.
Wishing you a cupboard-full of spoons.

To Alison, Dona, Angela, A'vonne, Mo, and Edith:

I'm glad John O'Donovan's words touched you as deeply as they did me. There's so much pain in the world right now (I suppose it feels that way in every generation), and his work reminds me of the importance of staying open-hearted nonetheless, rather than tuning it out, going numb, and living only half-alive.

I'm reminded of this too, one of my favorite passages from Terry Tempest Williams' gorgeous book, When Women Were Birds:

"I want to feel both the beauty and the pain of the age we are living in. I want to survive my life without becoming numb. I want to speak and comprehend words of wounding without having these words become the landscape where I dwell. I want to possess a light touch that can elevate darkness to the realm of stars."

"I think that animals also have an innate sense of compassion for those things or persons that come into their presence. As creatures in the wild, they might approach the subject but they sense a disturbance in the mortal soul/body as much as something in the weather."

Wendy, I believe that too. I felt that most sharply during my years in the Arizona desert, when regular encounters with wild creatures who shared the land I lived on always seemed to hold more than ordinary meaning -- or rather, held something more in addition to ordinary meaning. And I've carried that belief to life among the flora and fauna of Dartmoor.

Your poems are such a gift, carrying the desert across the ocean to me in this green, misty land. Thank you so much.

Thank you for the hugs, Sarah, and the spoons, Lynn. Tilly and I can never have enough of either one.

I'm with Glenda. That last line is perfection.

Thanks so much Terri

So glad it resonates!

Take care,
My Best


It's good to know that someone else understands and feels that concept or experience in a similar way. Thank you so much for sharing your personal perspective and for the kind and lovely comments on my poetry. I deeply, deeply appreciate them!

Take care,

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