Copyright © 2017 Tommy Thompson, All rights reserved
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Keynote address given for
The 2nd International Alexander Teachers’ Convention
Emmaus Retreat Centre
Given April 10, 2017
At The Heart of Teaching
A Brilliant Disguise
(Song title from a song by Bruce Springsteen)
As one of several teachers giving keynotes this week, I’m happy to be speaking to you all tonight. When I first contacted Richard about maybe giving a workshop this year, he said that he was filled to the brim with teachers, but that he would like me to come anyway. So I thought, what a wonderful opportunity. I will attend the meeting of teachers and enjoy hearing what others have to say about the work. I had viewed the list of teachers and was impressed with who he had invited.
The next week Richard contacted me and asked, “Why don’t you give a keynote?” I said, “Well, certainly.”
Then, a week later Richard contacted me and asked, “Why you don’t give a little workshop?” I said, “Well, certainly.”
So what I hope now is that Richard has not made a mistake and invited the wrong person. I’m going take the chance I’m the one and give this keynote quickly before it dawns on him he may have made such a mistake. So here I stand before you.
Generally, a keynote is supposed to address and establish the theme and underlying tone for an assembly of people. This year’s theme is “At the Heart of the Technique.”
The Heart of the Technique! Interestingly enough, many teachers have begun to include “heart” into our work. I know that a number of us gathered here today do so.
Kahil Gibran suggested once that “Work is love made visible.” Frankly that’s the way I prefer to see our work as teachers. So I hope that I am speaking closely enough to your thinking about what I perceive to be at the heart of the Technique that allows you to expand your already expansive view of the Alexander work to include my perception.
Some will perceive this heart to be the guiding principles and concepts embodied in the teaching. Others perhaps will see the heart of the technique as what is actually taught. After a fair number of years teaching and witnessing many students of this work undergo profound life changes, and after having observed how they incorporate the teaching into their lives, I am in favor of seeing the heart of the technique as the student. For it is their heart and their mind and their soul we are speaking to, and as teachers, it is from our heart and our mind and our soul from which we speak. I mean this in terms of how each individual is guided into learning how to learn in a manner where they never feel corrected or judged for their commitment to habitual patterns, nor do they mistake their bodies as the culprit. Rather, they value reorganizing their awareness of how they use themselves and not their bodies: recognizing the body to be a reflection of the quality of their thoughts, feelings and perceptions made manifest.
My wife said to me once, “When you hold my hand I know all is forgiven.” Not that she meant there was anything to forgive, but that when holding someone’s hand you offer unconditional support while holding time and space for them to consider whatever is foremost in their thoughts and feelings. In holding hands there is no judgment, there is only support. And when during a lesson we blithely suggest to someone who is committed to patterns of behavior we associate with their use and they associate with their identity, they need support more than one might think.
We know about the role of head neck reflexes which are designed to integrate and coordinate the total pattern of neuromuscular skeletal fascial movement given what they are doing. And, this knowledge lets us help the person find a new experience outside and apart from the experience of themselves they brought into their lesson. However, their commitment to who they feel and think they need to be at a given moment in response to a stimulus often outweighs immediate acceptance of the new experience.
This keynote is to some extent an attempt to illustrate the value of bringing the work to the person, rather than bringing the person to the work. In the latter they are forever at risk of attempting to recall their experience of a lesson and trying to live up to a standard of use or behavior they cannot actually achieve. In the former, you meet the person where they are, not where you want them to be. However, a lesson is more about the importance of how one learns to regard the moment in life when one’s experience in being oneself opens a window, a portal into the potential of moving forward beyond what was and has been. We may come to recognize that our habitual response to a situation once gave meaning and purpose to our actions, while now the same response brings disappointment and confusion. In the past, perhaps you thought the habitual response was necessary, or perhaps it was all you had available at that time. In any case, it is pointless and counterproductive for either student or teacher to judge any past response in the present. The past can only be viewed from the present and the present is part of an ongoing continuum. This view of teacher and student necessarily places importance on the given individual one happens to be teaching, and in the same breath how the teacher brings the teaching to the student.
So where do I begin? All of our beginnings happen prior to the Alexander work. The experience we have in our initial exposure through a lesson usually lifts the fog of habit that guides us insightfully into our life as we currently live it and then back home to a state of mind and being that gives us further insight and understanding of who we are or could possibly be. Let me give you an example citing an incident from my past that has all the necessary characteristics embodied in this approach to viewing the learning and self realization associated with an Alexander lesson.
I grew up in the southern portion of the United States, where in 1960 schools, restaurants, movies, water fountains, etc. were still segregated. In other words the white and the black person were segregated from communion. If you were black you simply were not allowed to believe that you could eat next to someone in the restaurant if they were Caucasian, or drink from the same water fountain, sit together at the movies, or swim in the same swimming pool, etc.
This was a way of life that had existed for many, many years. Although some certainly always questioned this as a way of life, the majority of people simply grew up living this way of life. If you were white you seldom overtly questioned it. If you were black you were not supposed to question. However, in the sixties, in Bob Dylan’s view “The times they were a changin’.” And Martin Luther King was just around the corner.
I was eighteen years old. And I had an experience quite similar I think to an Alexander lesson where as the events unfolded, my experience of being me was elevated beyond my comfort zone and into an experience of myself that canceled out all habituation of thought, feeling, and perception. And this brought me into an awareness of who I actually was or certainly might be and simply could not deny. You might say in our parlance that my neck was freed from the yoke of cultural bias which I was born into, that really had nothing to do with who I was.
The incident happened at a local drive-through hamburger stand one night when maybe 15 carloads full of high school students from my high school were gathered. In those days you would sit inside your parked car, seated in pairs or as many as a car would hold, or you would stand outside of your car talking to classmates. You drank Pepsi cola, Dr Pepper, Coca-Cola and you ate hamburgers, French fries, and hotdogs.
Essentially you were having a good time. You were a teenager, and you were rowdy and you made a lot of noise. So the parking lot of the hamburger stand was filled with all of us having a good time making conversation. We were living our lives of expectation. We were clearly defined. We were comfortable in being ourselves. However, the “times they were a changing,” and two cars filled with women and children of African American descent drove into the parking lot. In 1961 the southern portion of the USA was still segregated. By law the women and their children could not be served.
Yet, here they were, and there we were, bearing witness to evolving consciousness.
They parked their cars, got out of their cars, and slowly walked toward the serving window of the hamburger stand the purpose of which was to be served just like the rest of us. Once the women and children got out of their cars, immediately, the entire parking became quiet and very still. No one was making noise anymore, no one was talking. We were all busy observing what was taking place, which from our cultural upbringing was not supposed to be taking place. African American women and children were standing before the serving window. And they were asking to be served.
The manager of the hamburger stand, crossing his hands back and forth signaled “I can’t serve you.” They must have asked again, for he signaled emphatically crossing his hands once more, and with some degree of frustration he mouthed “I can’t serve you.” There was a pause, a very long pause before the women, thoroughly humiliated, turned to look at each other then slowly began to walk away one by one. The parking lot was completely quiet, no sound was made. Only observation. Individual and collective experience.
Then, one of the women, the one who placed the order, as she turned away she tripped and fell to the pavement. The silence broke, and the entire parking lot filled with teenagers, broke into laughter. The women and the children froze; no one moved.
Except for me. I moved, not really knowing why except that I too knew humiliation, I too knew what it felt like to be laughed at and ridiculed. Who, among us all as teenagers, hadn’t known that feeling among all those gathered around their cars and who were now laughing, had not known humiliation?
Within moments I stood next to and above the woman who had fallen. She wouldn’t look up at me even when I extended my hand for her to take. And, once I extended my hand the entire parking lot filled with teenagers became quiet again, immediately. No one in the parking lot, neither teenagers nor the women and children had ever gone beyond this point in their experiences. All was silent again, still and silent.
Only individual and collective experience and observation.
She neither looked at me nor took my hand. I spoke to her, “Take my hand.” I smiled. Still not looking at me she took my hand. I lifted her up, and standing facing each other we looked into each other’s eyes briefly, and forever, each uncertain how to respond to our unexpected encounter and then I and the women and children walked together toward their parked cars. Everyone got back into their cars, women and children, respectively. I opened the door for the woman with whom I walked. Neither of us had words for what we were experiencing. Before I assisted her into the car we looked at each other, both with an understanding of what had and was taking place and with disappointment in life as we had just experienced it. I think she thanked me. I think I shook my head affirmatively but I had no words. I was overtaken by the sheer nature of an all consuming and unanticipated experience. I closed her car door. They drove away, the two carloads full of women with their children. They simply drove away. I watched them drive away. And they were gone as quickly as they had driven into the parking lot.
And I became aware that I was standing alone, divided between the cars driving away and the cars parked and filled with my classmates. I stood distinctly isolated with my back facing my high school classmates. At that moment, I realized as I stood alone watching the women and children drive along the street, that I could never go back to what was behind me. The awareness was coupled with an insight that I had just left what had been a belief I had seldom questioned and had never encountered as I had just done. I had just left my past. I could not really turn around again and see things the same way as I saw them now. Any one of us could’ve extended our hand for that one woman lying on the pavement. It was simply what you do. A person is humiliated, they fall down and lay further humiliated from their falling on the pavement and you simply extend your hand to help them up. It’s that simple. So why didn’t more than one person perform that action, why didn’t more of us go to help her regain her dignity as a human being standing in the fullness of her being in that recognition? What happened should not have happened. And yet it did.
Turning slowly around from watching the cars drive away and facing all my classmates, I was consumed with a new awareness of belonging and not belonging. Belonging to something apart from who I had thought myself to be, I stood undefined but not without identity. I came to a very deep understanding in that moment when looking towards my classmates, who still remained silent, even until I got into my father’s car to drive home, that I could never be anyone except who I was, and that was yet undiscovered.
This is my experience and my response to it. It has become one of many stories that has helped shaped who I have become well before I was ever exposed to the Alexander teaching. However the stages of awareness and learning born from the experience do resemble an Alexander lesson as I have had them and as I have given them.
First, I was given an experience of being me apart from the way that I was accustomed to being me. Second, the experience gave me a new awareness of potential as opposed to probability in response. Third, the experience joined with a new insight of who I might be rather than who I felt I needed to be to be me. Fourth, the experience gave me a deeper understanding of myself. These are the four stages of learning one can be guided through in any given lesson. And in fact on a good day they all happen at once, “each one separately and all at once.”
How would formal study in the Alexander principles and concepts have assisted my passage? I think I would have been more consciously assured that all of my actions were appropriate. Unconsciously I knew everything I was doing was what one should have done if one understands and appreciates the sacred relationship between all lives. With training and study in the Alexander teaching I would simply have been much more conscious of what I was doing while I was doing it; how I used myself to respond and when all was said and done and the cars and the women and the children had left, I would have probably felt more complete as a person – less defined and more complete. And when I turned and I looked at all my friends and all my acquaintances when no one said a word, I would not have wondered why they kept their silence.
Then, I thought and even today I think they kept their silence for different reasons. And I have to believe that no one said a word either because they did not know what to say having been witness to all they witnessed apart from all that had been raised to believe. Or perhaps they knew deep in their hearts, deep in their humanity, that they could’ve done the same thing. So they kept quiet. And then I got in the car with my best friend at that time. And he said, “What the hell did you do that for?” I looked at him for a long time then replied, “How could you not do that?” He said nothing and I drove away. And based upon this experience, this lesson which wove together all of my misgivings about how I had grown up and how I might yet evolve, months later I left my home state, went to California and embarked upon a career in theater that was as far from my expectations as I might ever had considered. But that’s another story.
Back to my keynote.
In a far away galaxy, seventeen years ago, I gave another keynote in Ireland at an ATI annual meeting at the Armada hotel at Spanish Point. Spanish Point was named after Philip II’s ill-conceived Spanish Armada, which was launched against the better vesseled English in the 16th century. The sea battle went badly for the Spanish. A storm complicated their retreat, and many Spanish ships were washed up on the west coast of Ireland. Most of the Spanish soldiers and sailors were drowned or killed by the Irish. However, a few lucky Spaniards survived, and possibly even managed to thrive, as their hands were held by Irish maidens, they married, and left as their legacy the darker complexioned “Black Irish.” By whatever stroke of good fortune some conquistadors were welcomed into the Irish view of “friendship,” into Shakespeare’s quietly impassioned view of human potential in Hamlet’s plaintive lament of the paradox of human capacity and potential, “What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculties! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel! In apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals!”
So, in my keynote at Spanish Point I spoke of a Celtic view of friendship given voice by an Irish monk and inspirational author, John O’Donohue in his book, Anam Cara. This Celtic notion of friendship is inspired by a unique understanding of love and friendship called Anam Cara or “soul love.” Anam is Gaelic for soul and Cara is the word for friend. So Anam Cara means “soul friend,” not to be confused with the term “soul mate” which although a similar concept tends to focus on romantic involvement which is another thing altogether.
In the early Celtic Church, prior to St Patrick, and dating back to Druid thought, anyone who acted as a teacher, companion, or spiritual guide was called Anam Cara. When Patrick altered the Irish landscape by converting a people firmly ensconced in pagan thought to Christian thought, he succeeded only by leaving intact their deep roots of paganism. In so doing, he altered the entire notion of confession by introducing the notion of Anam Cara into it. Confession was the basis for the individual’s relationship to God. Prior to this, in the early Roman version of the church, before Patrick entered the stage, your sins (or actions) were exposed to the entire village. You were defined, viewed and branded for your sins. Sins committed twice led to your being excommunicated from both church and village.
“No,” said Patrick, “we are Irish, and we have this concept of friendship rooted in Druid thought called Anam Cara. And when you have an Anam Cara, that friendship cuts across all convention, morality and category.” You were joined in an eternal way with this friend of your soul and this should be the basis for all confession. Do not, he suggested, necessarily choose a priest who holds the proper credentials to hear your confession. Instead, choose your Anam Cara, who will hear your confession and encourage you to confess the same sin for the rest of your life. For, as the Irish knew, you weren’t likely, in Christ’s words to “go and sin no more.” Undoing your ways was a life’s experience of meeting yourself being yourself, as a moment by moment affair. Rather than being a one-time correction leading to a standard of actually unattainable behavior, it is a way of coming closer to who you might be, long to be, and perhaps actually are. Thomas Cahill, in his book How the Irish Saved Civilization, describes the soul’s journey in a beautiful manner:
“Real friendship (and later on I will suggest, real or perhaps true teaching) is always an act of recognition. When you find the person you love, an act of recognition begins, and brings you together. It is as if millions of years before the silence broke… your lover’s clay and your clay lay side by side. Thus in the turning of the seasons, your clay divided and separated. You began to rise as distinct clay forms, each housing a different individuality and destiny. Without even knowing it your secret memory mourned the loss of the other. While your clay selves wandered for thousands of years, through the universe, your longing for each other never faded. So when you meet or re-meet and form an Anam Cara union, there is an awakening between you, a sense of ancient knowledge… And at this moment your soul awakens. The search begins and you can never go back. From then on you are inflamed with a special belonging that will never let you linger in the lowlands or partial fulfillment… When the spiritual path opens you can bring an incredible generosity for the world and for the lives of others.”
Now let’s expand this notion of Anam Cara and love as it describes the exchange in learning and awakening through recognition between friends and apply it to situations where there is a formal teaching and learning exchange, however the configuration manifests. In this analogy, there is also recognition of some deep longing in the student and in the teacher, each for the other– the desire for complete and total fulfillment of Self. In the entire unfolding of human evolution and civilization, a key component to all advancement, both individually and collectively, has been the teacher/student relationship. Everyone learns from someone. Learning is necessary, inevitable, and natural. You do not have to work at it. And experience is ubiquitous. You need only come to the point of premonition of the need to know, and the recognition of who among many in this sacred space will satisfy this longing, for indeed everyone at some point presents themselves as a student. At one instance you will teach, at another you will learn. Knowledge expands through exchange. The true teacher learns proportional to what they teach.
In Anam Cara, this exchange is unconditional. You have met the friend of your soul and through unconditional love and exchange a need has been addressed, a longing has been satisfied.
Whether we are talking about exchange in Anam Cara or an Alexander lesson, choice is always available to the student independent of the teacher’s guidance. Because of this fact, we must each become our own Anam Cara in the use of ourselves, neither right nor wrong at the moment of commitment to identity, but rather open to withholding definition of who we might be in favor of who we have never experienced. Otherwise, we can never cease to take lessons, and we’ll always rely on the teacher for advice and approval. I’m often asked during a lesson, and I’m certain you are asked the same question, “But what can I do when your hands aren’t guiding me?” My reply is always the same: “When my hands aren’t there to guide you, your awareness is.” And must be. The choice presented within the space between stimulus and response is theirs alone. Theirs between experience and awareness!
To truly understand the nonjudgmental role of one’s Anam Cara, let’s look at the
role of experience as it might pertain to our teaching. Webster’s Dictionary defines “experience” as “an event or occurrence which leaves an impression on someone.” Now that certainly does sound like an Alexander Technique lesson! Webster’s also suggests: “Experience of a particular instance of personally encountering or undergoing something.” This definition certainly emphasizes the ubiquitous nature of experience! And experience is ubiquitous! We are never without some kind or degree of experience. We have small, unregistered experiences of which we are seldom aware. Then again we have all manner of experiences about which we are very much aware. Some experiences are so vast that they are life changing! And the nature of experience is seductive. When we have a good experience we tend to want it again. When the experience is noxious we tend to want to avoid having that experience again. We make choices about whether to invite repetition of the experience. But why this reliance on experience?
Well I have a theory about the existence of experience as a phenomenon.
I will suggest that, at least in part, evolution’s or creation’s secret path to success was the all pervasive, all encompassing, all enticing phenomenon we call “Experience”. And when you look at the existence of a given species of life form, be it human, animal or microbe, experience is a given. And why? Because it is through experience that we learn. What do we learn? Well in terms of the evolution of our species, we learned what to do or not do and when to do it in order to survive– as did every other life form whether human, animal or microbe. Experience taught us the wisest course towards the prospect of continued existence.
How does experience best teach? Experience by itself is certainly a form of learning. However the creative aspect of the nature of experience is the new awareness that we enter given our response to and assimilation of the experience.
I’ll give an example:
Let me introduce Og, an ancestral example of a primitive individual who casually walks out of his cave in the midst of a thunder and lightning episode. Lightning strikes a fallen tree and a section of the tree catches fire. This is new to Og and without much ado Og reaches out to touch this new phenomenon not yet termed ‘fire.’ Og touches the flame and immediately draws back his hand in pain. The reaching towards and away from the flame is repeated until the experience is sufficient to convince the early primitive that it’s best to avoid the new phenomenon. Best to walk away and never do that again.
This is learning purely from experience and this learning certainly has its place.
But let’s look at another primitive explorer who is a little brighter perhaps, and certainly a bit more inquisitive.
This time Mog walks from her cave, on the same day in the same lightning and thunder episode and sees this new phenomenon not yet called ‘fire.’
She reaches towards the flame but does so with a reasonable degree in inquiry. Gradation of heat is her experience and so she doesn’t get her hand burnt, but warmed. She tests the gradations of heat and then based upon her ‘experience’ she enters a new level of awareness that then leads to insight and ultimately the understanding that if “I am able to bring this portion of the fallen tree back with me to my cave then my cave might be warmed.”
Whatever the case, this is a very rudimentary example of how we evolved by learning through experience, which does in fact in many of us lead to a new awareness of being ourselves which prior to our new experience we remained unaware. Through exercising our new awareness we gain insight as to potential as opposed to probability, and we become a little bit more of who we might be and in fact wish to be. This is the story of the cave lady, who in her self awareness deepens her understanding of herself now knowing that she would like a little comfort in her life. Or like Og, we remain ensnared by the all consuming nature of the experience and don’t bother to take that next step into the creative nature of increased awareness, and simply latch onto the most obvious and initial information gleaned from a new experience, and in favoring the memory of that experience thus we seek to recreate the experience, diminishing what we might learn. The evolutionary aspect of all creation, of which we are a part has always favored the benefits of heighten awareness leading towards new insight and ultimately into evolutionary potential.
All these stages of learning exist in the context of a given Alexander Technique lesson. Why? Because every experience affords us the opportunity to raise the level of our awareness. Where do we place this new awareness except back into the life we lead? And what ensures the possibility of living up to Hamlet’s vaunted standard of human capacity and potential except how we process our experiences of being alive on the planet in relation to ourselves and to each other?
How then do we guide our student into the ‘heart’ of their experience?
Most Alexander teaching today still emphasizes the hands-on experience, even though when F.M. Alexander made his series of discoveries he did so without receiving hands-on work from anyone. His investigation was an experience which involved observation and awareness. These two components of his discoveries – observation and awareness – are as deeply significant as the hands-on component. My teacher, Dr. Frank Pierce Jones, felt that the ability to convey the Alexander principles and concepts through touch was as significant a discovery as the initial series of discoveries themselves. I very much agree, because as a species the human being is designed to touch and be touched, the purpose of which is to communicate. And once Alexander made the discovery of how to use touch to convey the possibility of a new way of using oneself, he pretty much focused his teaching on that hands-on experience.
Experience is certainly a form of learning in and of itself. However the creative aspect of the nature of experience is the new awareness that we enter given our response to the experience. All such learning exists in the context of a given Alexander lesson. And following Frank Jones’ reasoning that the conveyance of the concepts and principles inherent in Alexander’s teaching leads the student into an immediate experience of those principles and concepts, the typical hands-on approach to teaching the Alexander Technique is in Bruce Springsteen’s words “a brilliant disguise” to what lies dormant, inherent and imminently available, should you take the next step.
People are always asking us about some version of the following: “When I leave your studio, I feel great! I want to keep this feeling. However, it fades and I gradually revert to how I was before. How do I learn to find this experience again on my own?” The answer of course, is not to try to find what no longer exists except vividly in your memory. No experience is meant to last. What endures is your awareness of potential (from the new experience in being you) apart from the probable (from the accustomed experience in being you). But how do we explain this so that they will readily understand, and how do we teach so as to emphasize awareness born from the experience? What if I were to provide you with an answer along the lines of: “When I am working with you verbally or through touch, you have a different awareness of potential in being you, and that lets you have a different experience. When I take my hands away, you will keep your new awareness born from your new experience. You own that. It is more enduring than the physical changes that are a part of your new experience.” You have learned something, and from this learning you have a deeper insight and understanding of you, of who you are or might become should you choose potential over familiarity. Inherent in any meaningful experience lies an exploration of awareness born from the new experience you just had as a means of making lasting changes towards making peace with yourself so you can be at peace with yourself. This can only occur through complete and total acceptance of who you are, have been and will become.
Today, my Anam Cara, the friend of my soul and my teacher, is my deceased wife. In appreciation for what we had together, the channel of communication remains unbroken between us, with she in spirit and I incarnate to complete what we were unable to complete when we were together in life. She speaks to me as a soft interruption in my thoughts, no voice. Once when visiting her gravesite, I turned away from the site as she had requested when we choose the site, asking that I not look for her where her ashes would lie, but to look for her out over the pond at the bottom of the hill.
“There you will find me,” she said.
I did so shortly after she passed. And while looking out over the pond she acknowledged my remembering her wish saying:
“I am what you see.”
Yes, I thought to myself, I can imagine a state of existence where in the absence of body you exist in pure consciousness, being a part of all that is.
One day, a year after her request, and after many visits to her resting place, I looked out over the pond at the trees and sky as I had many times before, and she asked:
“Can you see my peace”?
“I don’t know,” I replied.
Then a soft, barely perceptible mist of utter quiet seemed to appear above the trees surrounding the water; seemingly, there was a complete absence of any movement; stillness gathered and enveloped the entire perimeter of the pond, then descended throughout every molecule and atom of visible matter and through me as well. All within the perimeter of the pond and trees was still, quiet and clear, as was I. All surrounding area remained unchanged, unaffected by her perceived and apparent presence, and she spoke again:
”Can you see my peace?”
Fully understanding what I was experiencing, I nodded…
“Yes, I believe I can. But are you saying something more to me than, ‘Don’t be concerned about me for I’m at peace?’ Are you suggesting that I too can have this peace; this peace you just revealed you have as you are. Are you saying in my life here while alive on the planet and in the world I inhabit, that I too can have this peace?
“Yes,” she spoke interrupting my thought process, “It is a peace beyond your understanding, but not beyond your reach.”
I suggest that at the heart of the Alexander teaching there is such a peace. For anyone. It matters not that you understand all you experience in life, nor why you are drawn towards that which is most familiar and habitually accessible. What matters is that you reach, always beyond what you know and into the mystery that is you. And, paradoxically, you will only realize who you are in complete acceptance of who you have been. There is no room for judgment, only for self compassion. You remain your own Anam Cara always remembering and never wondering who you are.
The Emmaus Retreat Center