Approaching with Reverence

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Audio recording by author

by Petra Bongartz

What you encounter, recognize or discover depends to a large degree on the quality of your approach. Many of the ancient cultures practiced careful rituals of approach… When we approach with reverence, great things decide to approach us. Our real life comes to the surface and its light awakens the concealed beauty in things. When we walk on the earth with reverence, beauty will decide to trust us. The rushed heart and arrogant mind lack the gentleness and patience to enter that embrace.     –John O’Donohue

A couple of years ago, I found myself in a most beautiful encounter with wild baboons in the Cape Point Nature Reserve in South Africa where I live. As my friends and I sat quietly, the baboons chose to approach us with both curiosity and gentleness. It felt like they were approaching us in the way we would approach them. Respectfully, careful not to spook us. What ensued were incredible moments of what I can only describe as intimacy with the wild that touched me deeply–hard to put into words. It brought to mind John O’Donohue’s words above.

The experience made me ponder the notion of reverence and what is needed to cultivate this kind of approach to the world, to myself, to others. How would it be to approach the shy, wild, or wounded parts of ourselves with reverence rather than judgment? What would happen if we looked at each other more often from the place of openness, curiosity, and awe that reverence seems to hint at? And whilst being aware that this will be an ongoing dance between forgetting and remembering, how can I embody more often my reverence for life in what or who I encounter? I only need to spend a few hours with family to realize that this is anything but easy. 

Like many other important things in life, for me, increasing the possibility of experiencing this reverent approach requires a slowing down and quietening so that I have space to notice what is in front of me and space for choice to see it afresh. Without that space, I see and react to things from a place of habit and jump into the all too familiar, comfortable and well worn groove of the stories I have about myself, others and the world. Comfortable because I know them so well and thus feel in control. As O’Donohue says, the mind can be ‘arrogant’ in assuming it knows everything there is to know about what’s in front of us! This is hard-wired into our neurobiology for survival and it takes a lot to continuously challenge our own perception and to realize that things are not as they are but as we are. All that we have experienced, and, as epigenetics show us, all that our ancestors experienced, shapes the lens through which we perceive the world around us. 

Reverence requires some ‘unknowing’, a widening of our perception, an allowing of the mystery of the present moment

So reverence requires some ‘unknowing’, a widening of our perception, an allowing of the mystery of the present moment. I am reminded of moments when I am dancing when I have caught a glimpse of my own sacredness or beauty and the miracle of being alive in a body, when I’ve looked at my moving hand in awe and seen it for the miracle of life it is, when I have seen the billions of years of evolution that went into its making, when I felt the connection to all the ancestors who are part of this hand, when I realized anew that this hand will one day no longer exist..  

And then there are the moments of grace when I catch sight of others and see them as more than the person I know, more than a mix of appealing and annoying traits, more than the particular behaviour they engage in. Of course, all too often, I am swept up by the busyness of my thoughts and the perfectly and strategically arranged pathways to the known they lead me on. No space for reverence or unexpected beauty there. 
 
It’s no accident that these moments of opening to reverence happen most often when I am dancing, moving mindfully, or in nature. There, my mind is quieter, I am more connected to my other ways of knowing, my senses, my imagination. And the more I learn about how the brain works, the more I recognise how much practice, commitment, and dedication it takes to continuously see beyond our own biases, stories, and assumptions. It’s for good reason that John O’Donohue mentions the ‘careful rituals of approach’.  

What’s your experience of approaching–life, the world around you, other beings, yourself–with reverence? In what situations, with whom, have you practiced this or where might you want to bring this way of being into play?


Petra Bongartz is a passionate curator of spaces that invite us to be human together. Through movement, creative, relational, and embodied enquiry, she facilitates reconnection with our own wild intelligence. She is a practitioner and facilitator of the Work that Reconnects. Alongside her studies in Movement Medicine, Processwork, and other modalities, she draws on many years of experience of facilitating diverse groups in Africa, Europe, and Asia, whilst working in international development. Originally from Europe, she now lives in South Africa and is most at home in the forest, connecting with all creatures great and small. 

Recorded by Rebecca Selove

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