Several years ago, I came across a passage by the Irish poet and philosopher, John O’Donohue. His words profoundly impacted my thoughts and have become somewhat of an interior anthem in my life. It feels fitting that we begin our series of reflections with his words. In his book, Beauty: The Invisible Embrace, O’Donohue writes, “What you encounter, recognize or discover depends to a large degree on the quality of your approach… When we approach with reverence, great things decide to approach us.”This passage is so rich with implications. As I have sat with it over the years and offered it to others in my therapy work and in workshop settings, I have continually seen its wisdom and value. For example, when we turn our attention to the inner world, we frequently do so with an eye toward evaluation and critique. We look for flaws and defects, casting about for evidence of failure. This gaze is harsh and causes the soul to retreat. Over thirty years in my psychotherapy practice, I have never seen anything open or change in an atmosphere of judgment. An approach of reverence, on the other hand, is foundational to a life imbued with soul. From this way of seeing, we recognize that everything possesses a measure of the sacred, including our sorrows and pain. Clearly, how we approach our inner life profoundly affects what comes to us in return.

What we encounter, recognize or discover, depends on the quality of our approach. An approach of reverence invites revelation. To pause and reflect on this can make all the difference between living in a cold, detached world, populated primarily by judgements and cynicism, and living in a world riddled with intimacy and offers of communion. When our approach is one of reverence, we find ourselves falling into a deeper embrace with all that is open to encounter, both internally and in the surrounding, breathing world. If we approach superficially or from a perspective of what can I get out of this exchange, then the encounter will be limited, what I recognize will be thin and what I discover will be nothing at all. I will simply be meeting my own well-rehearsed stories in the moment.

There is an intimation in O’Donohue’s passage: He tells us that great things will approach us when we practice the etiquette of reverence. It is as if the aperture of our perception widens when we bring reverence to bear. We become able to recognize the holiness that exists in the moment, as I experienced this morning on my drive to work. As I came around a bend, winding through vineyards and meadows, the mist was threading its way at the base of the hills and in that glimpse something great approached me. I was moved by the vista, brought to tears through the intimacy shared between my heart and the world.

An approach of reverence establishes a foundation ripe for amazement. We are readied for surprise and awe by a posture of reverence. It is a stance of humility, recognizing that the otherness that surround us—that infuses the world—is vast and powerful and yet curiously open for connection. An approach of reverence invites the mystery of encounter where two solitudes meet and become entangled, creating a Third Body, an intimacy born of affection. All true intimacy requires an approach of reverence, a deep regard, an unknowing of who or what we are meeting. It is our bow honoring the exchange.

O’Donohue advises us, however, that “The rushed heart and arrogant mind lack the gentleness and patience to enter that embrace.” We must be able to step out of the frantic and breathless pace that consumes much of our days. Reverence requires a rhythm akin to prayer. We are asked to slow down and rest in the space of silence and deep listening. There is a saying in the Zen tradition, “Not-knowing is most intimate.” When we suspend our preconceptions and static stories of who we are, or who our wife, husband, or partner is; when we let go of our predetermined expectations of how it all should be, then we come into a place of reverence, of deep respect and the freshness of the encounter is once again available to us. When we pause and notice, we are free to drink in the delicious thickness of the moment and all that it offers.

Reverence, rather than expectation or entitlement, acknowledges we live in a gifting cosmos and that we do best honoring creation by singing praises. As the poet Rilke said, “To praise is the whole thing! A man who can praise // comes toward us like ore out of the silences // of rock.” Reverence acknowledges that what we are seeing or seeking is holy; that we depend utterly on this world to breathe and to dream.

We are designed for encounter, our senses are rivers of connection in a continuous exchange with the world around us. How deeply we experience this encounter, what we come to recognize and discover, is a question of presence, of reverence.

Exercise:

Inner work: Experiment with reverence over the coming days. Be mindful of how you approach your inner world. Is it characterized by criticism and judgement? Imagine coming to your experience with reverence, especially around our more vulnerable states like fear or grief. Notice the difference when you come to your experience with reverence. Take ten minutes and write about your experience.

Outer work: Take a walk and let something call to your attention—a tree, a rose, a budding maple, an old barn. Soften your gaze and let the qualities of reverence fill your being. Simply notice what takes shape between the two of you. Allow the connection to come full and then offer your gratitude for the encounter. Remember, everything is open to the conversation. Take ten minutes and write about your experience.