It doesn’t interest me what you do for a living.
I want to know what you ache for and if you dare to dream of meeting your heart’s longing.

So begins the poem The Invitation by Oriah Mountain Dreamer, defiantly rejecting our common preoccupation in life and conversation. In its place she draws our attention immediately to the heart of life, and we are asked show our authentic and naked selves.

I remember coming across this poem many years ago, and thought it was such a wonderful call to the core of life: to be true to oneself, to live bravely as our unique selves.

Yet on reading the book though — a stanza-by-stanza expansion of the poem — I’m struck by the focus on the places we usually dare not look: the moments of human suffering, unexpected sorrow, difficult decisions, and the choice between upholding authenticity and smoothing over life with deception, towards ourselves or others.

That’s not to say it’s a depressing book. By nature people are drawn to pleasure and happy things, and we naturally avoid pain through whatever means possible. So The Invitation simply turns our attention towards the things that we dare not look at which are equally a part of our lives; and which, more importantly, contain the very things that bring completeness to our lives.

It’s all too easy to brush off the difficulties we face. Yet to truly live means to embrace the breadth and depth of human experience, especially the experiences that hurt us: the deaths of loved ones, failure, betrayal — to name a few.

All this requires the courage to accept, and the courage to act in the face of uncertainty, and often great pain.

In one story, she talks about her friend Catherine who, in the middle of a conversation, suffers an aneurysm. She describes what follows in excruciatingly painful detail: the mad rush to the hospital, her friend’s subsequent coma and disbelief at the suddenness of events. But the heart of the story comes later.

Her friend awakens a day before they were going to turn off her respirator, but she will never be the same. Oriah writes:

She is changed forever. And so am I… I wanted to save her, to restore her to what she was. What incredible arrogance! What amazing innocence. A hero’s skills and courage could not do what was needed. I was confronted with the illusion of my belief that I could make things right when it really mattered, if I simply tried hard enough. I couldn’t.

And so this event is like so many we face in life, with all their dilemmas and uncertainty. She carries on:

To continue, I had to live differently. I had to find the ability to live with the vastness of what I do not know and what I cannot control. I don’t know whether I did the right thing, reaching for Catherine and pulling her back.

Catherine’s family came close to pulling the plug on her, and Oriah was the one to suggest waiting another 24 hours. That makes all the difference and her friend wakes from the coma.

But things would not be the same again, and the weight of that decision stayed with her. Both Oriah and Catherine recognise that the aneurysm changed her, and they attempt to make the most of what worked, and this results in many difficult moments of letting go and accepting what is here.

Things are even more difficult for Roger, Catherine’s husband, who takes care of her for many years, but soon realises she is no longer the woman he married. When someone new enters his life, he eventually makes the decision to “break faith with the promise he made to Catherine years ago”.

What does one do in this situation? “There is no easy solution,” she writes. Indeed, such is life, and few things are ever crystal clear.

The theme of tough decisions that pit us against our deep desires occurs in other parts of the book. But the toughest (and sometimes overlooked) ones are often those we have to make for ourselves.

Do we dare to risk looking foolish, to risk failing and to risk facing disappointment, so that we can pursue our deepest yearnings? Do we dare to feel the full joy of being alive, instead of engaging in a kind of modesty of living, or numbing ourselves with modern pleasures? Can we find the courage to look deep within ourselves to find what is at the core of our being, when we strip the trappings of life and are truly alone? Can we act in accordance with that self we find, even if it is at the cost of hurting someone else?

Oriah never directly answers the questions, except to draw us to fully living these experiences, and questioning conventional notions of how to deal with them. In the end that seems wise: as the example of Catherine and Roger earlier show us, the path is seldom obvious or clear. But by opening us up to the less illuminated spots of our consciousness, she fulfils the title of the poem and the book.

A more subtle theme throughout The Invitation is also a call for true connection between people. But that happens only if we connect with ourselves first, because only when we are willing to accept what is happening to us, can be candid with others, and also deeply empathise with someone else’s situation.

Just like the way I got very different lessons from when I first read the poem and reading the book now, I suspect that it’s one of those volumes that, slim as it is, offers more of a reflection of where we are than what the author is trying to suggest. I’ve made a mental note to re-read it in the future; but if want to take an afternoon away to reflect on life, then I can’t think of any book more thought-provoking than this.

The Invitation by Oriah Mountain Dreamer

It doesn’t interest me
what you do for a living.
I want to know what you ache for
and if you dare to dream
of meeting your heart’s longing.

It doesn’t interest me
how old you are.
I want to know
if you will risk
looking like a fool
for love
for your dream
for the adventure of being alive.

It doesn’t interest me
what planets are
squaring your moon.
I want to know
if you have touched
the centre of your own sorrow
if you have been opened
by life’s betrayals
or have become shrivelled and closed
from fear of further pain.

I want to know
if you can sit with pain
mine or your own
without moving to hide it
or fade it
or fix it.

I want to know
if you can be with joy
mine or your own
if you can dance with wildness
and let the ecstasy fill you
to the tips of your fingers and toes
without cautioning us
to be careful
to be realistic
to remember the limitations
of being human.

It doesn’t interest me
if the story you are telling me
is true.
I want to know if you can
disappoint another
to be true to yourself.
If you can bear
the accusation of betrayal
and not betray your own soul.
If you can be faithless
and therefore trustworthy.

I want to know if you can see Beauty
even when it is not pretty
every day.
And if you can source your own life
from its presence.

I want to know
if you can live with failure
yours and mine
and still stand at the edge of the lake
and shout to the silver of the full moon,

It doesn’t interest me
to know where you live
or how much money you have.
I want to know if you can get up
after the night of grief and despair
weary and bruised to the bone
and do what needs to be done
to feed the children.

It doesn’t interest me
who you know
or how you came to be here.
I want to know if you will stand
in the centre of the fire
with me
and not shrink back.

It doesn’t interest me
where or what or with whom
you have studied.
I want to know
what sustains you
from the inside
when all else falls away.

I want to know
if you can be alone
with yourself
and if you truly like
the company you keep
in the empty moments.