Tami Simon: You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today my guest is Mark Nepo. Mark is a poet and philosopher who has taught in the fields of poetry and spirituality for over 35 years. As a cancer survivor, Mark devotes his writing and teaching to the journey of inner transformation and the life of relationship. A New York Times #1 bestselling author, he has recorded eight audio projects and published thirteen books, including The Book of Awakening, which made the list of Opera’s “Ultimate Favorite Things.” With Sounds True, Mark has created an eight-session audio program called Staying Awake: The Ordinary Art, where he offers reflections on how to sense and inhabit the place of true meeting, how to make sense of our experience and mystery of transformation, and how to give voice to our authenticity.
In this episode of Insights at the Edge, Mark and I spoke about what it might mean to take what he calls “the exquisite risk.” We talked about the two most important lessons he’s learned in his journey with cancer and the role of effort and grace in our lives. We also talked about what it might mean to see with the eyes of the heart. Here is my intimate, warm, and very real conversation with Mark Nepo.
Mark, in your work, you talk about “staying awake,” and you’re also one of the featured presenters at Sounds True’s Wake Up Festival that’s happening this summer in Rocky Mountain National Park. And what I want to talk to you about is this idea of “wakefulness.” Waking up, staying awake—what you mean by the term.
Mark Nepo: Sure. You know, I think and I have kind of evolved my understanding in a personal way, as we all do, through my experience. Staying awake has become for me much more than just opening our eyes. But it’s opening our heart and our mind and our sensitivity and our compassion.
I think being human beings and the very term “human being” kind of captures it all because we’re a walking paradox. The human is very finite but the being is infinite. So we kind of walk around like lightning in a bottle, you know, and I feel—at least my life experience has kind of taught me—that we’re constantly opening and closing, dilating and constricting, becoming clear and confused. You know, we blink how many times a day? We inhale and exhale how many times a day? So staying awake is this process of not trying to arrive at some permanent state of enlightenment—which I just don’t think is possible—but how do we move in and out, as everything living does, from being open to closed? Mostly the “staying awake” is the practice, which everyone goes through, but is very personalized.
It is a practice of return. You know, we get hurt, [and] it’s instinctual to kind of close up, circle the wagons. But if we stay that way, we block out everything that can heal us, everything that matters. So how do we open again? That’s part of staying awake. How do we open our minds after we’ve shut them down or pain has caused us to be rigid?
TS: Well, you know, that it’s interesting that you say that being wakeful, staying awake is not a destination, because I think the way many spiritual teachers present it, it does seem that there’s this idea of: you’re going to have an awakening and then there’s going to be some constant state that you’re going to be in. But it seems that you’re presenting this quite differently.
MN: Well, I feel that, you know—and I’m not alone in this. I think of the great Hindu teacher, Ramana Maharshi who really spoke about—he said, “Enlightenment is simply living without illusion.” It doesn’t remove the hardships of life. We can have a moment of enlightenment, and then trip taking the garbage out, and take it out on whatever is nearby! I think that’s another thing that life has taught me: when I was young—and I think that this was kind of normal, archetypal—I was so intoxicated with mystery and moments of divinity. You know, I wanted to transcend out of here. And of course, going through cancer in my 30s, [I found that] the only thing we transcend to is right back here.
So we really transcend paradoxically down into the “is-ness,” the ground of things. And how do we continue there? I think this notion very much tied up with staying awake is the notion of holding nothing back. And that’s not just on a surface level of “let’s be passionate.” But again, it’s about how do we stay open? How do we stay vulnerable? How do we stay malleable? Because every crack from the inside is an opening from the outside. And it’s not easy, so we’re challenged on how to help each other stay open and awake.
TS: You speak so beautifully, Mark, when you say things like that: “every crack on the inside is an opening from the outside.” That’s just so beautiful.
MN: Well, thank you.
TS: Now, tell me more about what you’re meaning by “holding nothing back.” You’re saying that it’s not just at the surface level of kind of spilling our guts? What do you mean by that phrase? That phrase seems to be important to you?
MN: Well, I think I really became aware of this through my cancer journey, because again, no amount of shutting down or walling up or steeling myself worked to help me get to tomorrow. In fact, I had to be open the way a flag is in the wind.
I’ll give you an example, and then we’ll circle back to what this really means. It really was a teacher for me about how to deal with pain. I had this kind of vision when I was going through a procedure, and it was an image of a tree falling into an iced-over stream. The tree shattered and the ice cracked. Then I had the same immediate scene replay itself except that it was springtime. And now the tree fell into the water. Even though it made a huge splash, the water flowed around it. So that was an immediate instruction to me on how to meet pain and difficulty. To let it enter me but to be soft enough to flow around it. So that softness, that movement of our being into the world without rigidity, has a lot to do with [the] “holding nothing back” that I’m talking about here.
TS: OK. I imagine even just hearing these three words, and even if somebody didn’t [really] know the many layers of what it might mean to “hold nothing back” immediately what can come up is some sense of, “I don’t want to be hurt, rejected, pushed away. If I were to hold less back, you know, I could be hurt in so many ways. I’m just not sure I’m quite up for that, Mark.”
MN: Well, and I think this raises—I talk about paradox a lot, because paradox is, to me, “How do we meet and hold when more than one thing is true at the same time?” Paradox has been the great teacher for me and we touch on a paradox here, right now.
I talk about this in terms of the friction of being visible and the cost of being invisible. That, of course, as we meet things in the world, it hurts. We run into things. But we always have this choice and there is no right or wrong way to go. Each moment is a choice point, a personalized choice point. So I don’t want to be hurt, and I may avoid outside contact or conflict or speaking my truth or showing up in order to not be heard or rejected, but the cost of that on the inside, after a time, in corrosive. We start to muffle who we are. We start to not give enough space for the soul to breathe. And so there is a cost of being invisible.
Now, the other way, when we choose to be visible, we in fact will meet conflict because we can’t possibly please and meet everyone’s expectations in life. So now there will be the friction of being invisible, and it might hurt and it might be disappointing and we might be rejected. But the cost, at least I have found, of [being visible], while it can be painful, is nowhere near the cost of being corrosive. And I can give you a very immediate example that happened in a very simple small way for me the other day.
MN: I belong to a gym here. My exercise at this point in life is swimming. I used to run and racquetball, but then some part of me didn’t work. And then I ran for years and then something else didn’t work. Now I swim and I love swimming. But I get very cold easily because [of] the chemo that I had years ago. You’ll hear this from cancer survivors—my thermostat is, for some reason, a few degrees lower. So I get really cold. Well, I recently bought this modified wetsuit for pools. It’s like a vest and shorts so it would keep me warm.
So I go to the gym and what happens? This lifeguard, who is my age—I’m 60 and he’s probably in his 50s—he starts teasing me. It’s like high school. He’s teasing me because I’m wearing a wetsuit, that I’m a sissy. So, you know, I kind of let it go. And the next time I go it happens again. So here we are. Do I just let this roll or do I get visible with my truth? The next time it happened, which was just a few days ago, I went up to him and I pulled him aside and said, “You know, I’m a cancer survivor and the reason I do this is…” And I thought this information would just, you know—[but] the guy continues to really be awful. He says, “Yeah, you’re colder. You keep telling yourself that.” He’s really being high school-ish.
So I go swimming. He leaves and I am swimming and feeling the tension we just talked about. I’m feeling that I need to take up space—not that I’m going to change this person’s thinking, but that insensitivity sometimes needs to be met so that people who are insensitive know that there are consequences. So I get out of the pool. I tried to find him. I couldn’t find him. He’s gone. I found his name. I got his phone number and I call him at home and we have a pretty heated exchange on the phone. And this isn’t something I do all the time, you know?
So anyway, I’m sure that his thinking hasn’t changed at all, but I felt if I didn’t voice my truth, some part of me wouldn’t be OK going forward and I would have been a little more hidden for some reason.
TS: I’m imagining someone who is listening and is thinking of something in their life that they could see would be the next move for them—to not hold back in some area. Some conversation that they might have with their partner or their friend or someone they work with. And you have this phrase, Mark, in your work—you have so many beautiful phrases and I’m going to bring many of them up in our conversation. At least I hope to.
One of [those phrases] is this idea of taking what you call the “exquisite risk.” I wonder if you can talk more about that phrase. Speak directly to this person who might be like, “Well, I could have that conversation.” Whatever it might be. It might even be telling somebody something tremendously loving and positive that they’ve held back but it just feels so scary! It’s too big a risk.
MN: I think the thing that’s so amazing about this is [that] the things we’re scared of often [have] already happened anyway.
TS: What do you mean by that? I don’t get that.
MN: Well, it’s like I’m afraid of being hurt or rejected or afraid of what’s that’s going to do to me, when the fact is often I’ve already felt the hurt and rejection. It’s already happened and I’m still here. I’m fine. But I’m worried about how that’s going to impact me more. We run so much in our minds when the truth, especially emotional truth, has often already taken place. And we’re still standing. We’re still here.
I think what I mean by the exquisite risk—and this is tied to holding nothing back—[is] that we often are so close to the wonder that is around us constantly and the miracle of life. And it’s natural in the same way that windows get dirt on them, that trees get moss, that metal rusts, we get covered over by our experience. Part of staying awake and part of holding nothing back and part of the exquisite risk is to wipe and clean away the window, to constantly be committed to removing as much as possible between us and life. Which, yes, makes us vulnerable, but it also returns us to the unrepeatable miracle of being here completely.
The simplest way, the most direct way— it’s not always simple—to return to this [state] is taking the risk to be completely present in whatever moment you are in. And that’s part of holding nothing back, holding none of your attention back, holding none of your feelings back, holding none of whatever our questions are back. Because the exquisite risk is this repeatable threshold that no one can even notice but us. You know, I could be with you at a party and I could be genuine or not, and no one would ever know but me. So the risk lets the extraordinary show itself in everything that is ordinary.
I guess one thing that I would encourage anyone [to do is]—and to our kind of imagined person we’re talking to—I know for me, I often need to stop rehearsing my way through life. You know, we’re so bright. We’re so sophisticated. We’re so educated in a pessimistic world that we are ready with answers, opinions, and positions to meet almost anything. And often we judge how well we do in social situations by whether we have met what comes at us well rather than if we have genuinely entered it, a moment such as that, without having anything predetermined. You know, dropping our prepared thinking when we can, and meeting things with—the most wonderful thing I think anyone can say to me is, “I don’t know,” because then a friendship can begin. Because then I can say, “You know, I don’t know either, but let’s compare notes.”
TS: OK, Mark, but I want to take this a little further about somebody, this imagined person’s stepping out but feeling afraid of doing so. You said, “Well, the emotional hurt has already happened.” But the situation I’m imagining is a situation where I might be afraid of being rejected for some reason. So I haven’t been rejected yet because I haven’t come forward yet. So here I am. I’m thinking about it. How can you help me get over my fear of rejection?
MN: Well, I think—and thank you for that, because it helps me speak to this a little more clearly. What I mean by “what’s already happened” is the sense that if I’m afraid to be who I am with you, whether we have just met or whether we have known each other for years, it’s because some part of me already knows that you may not accept who I am. So now we are faced with, what good is the friendship if there’s no space for me to be who I am? If I curtail who I am to ensure that I won’t be rejected, I’ve already been rejected. I’ve already rejected myself.
TS: Now I got you.
MN: I used to do this years ago. You know, we all hopefully grow. It was at a time where I wasn’t very individuated and I so wanted loyal friends and good friends. I remember relationships where I would very much hesitate to bring all of who I am forward for fear that I would be rejected, or I would be misunderstood, and that that would then change that relationship. And it took me a long time to realize just what we’ve been talking about: What kind of relationship is it if I have to tiptoe into narrow spaces to have the relationship?
I think I’ve learned that you know that people love you when they don’t want you to stay the same, when they are committed to your growth. And the only way to find that out is to take this risk and to show a little more of who you truly are. I say somewhere in one of my writings, I think it’s in The Book of Awakening: even [though there were] great teachers [who] are legendary—Nelson Mandela, Rosa Parks, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr, and whoever [is on] your heroes list—we can do [this too] just by saying what movie we want to go to within a group of people. Or what place we want to go for dinner.
This brings up the paradox of preferences. You know, in the Buddhist tradition—the beautiful notion of, and I believe deeply, “those are closest to joy who have no preferences.” I mean, after cancer, I don’t care if it’s raining, the only bad weather is no weather. [Laughs] And the other side of the paradox of what we’re talking about here is that for me to state who I am, it doesn’t matter if we go to the movie I choose. But for who I am to be present through my particular humanity, that’s important.
TS: OK, so something I didn’t quite understand when you were talking about the exquisite risk is this risk to be fully in the moment, not rehearsing but in the moment. What’s so risky about being present?
MN: What’s risky about being present—aside from being rejected by others, or even if you’re by yourself—is that you will be changed. That life will not stay the same. Because if we truly bring who we are out and we drop our preconceptions and our opinions, we will be changed by what we encounter. And life will not be the same. And that’s beautiful and scary. You know, Thomas Merton said, “If we truly beheld each other, we would drop to our knees and worship each other.” If I truly am in each moment, it’s hard to stick to my plans because I will be touched and moved. So it raises this notion: What is our true journey in life?
Yes, it’s fine to have plans and to have goals and to work toward them. Let me give you an example. I have a story in my book of stories. It opens the book. It’s a very short one about a cyclist who works and prepares months for this cycling race. And it’s out in the country. The day comes and he’s in the lead. He’s ahead of everybody by quite a bit and all of a sudden, out of nowhere a great blue heron sweeps, wings spread, swoops right over his handlebars. And he’s stunned. He stops [and] straddles his bike, because the path of the heron opened something he had been chasing his whole life. And everybody else is catching up to him and he’s stopped and he’s confused. He ran into something he didn’t expect. And now, we fast forward and the end of the story, [and it’s] years later. Every once in a while he is asked, “What cost you the race?” And once in a while he’ll look to the south and he’ll say, “I didn’t lose the race. I left it.”
Often when I tell that story, a conversation will ensue about having to choose between winning the race and meeting the herring. But the exquisite risk was that he was opened to being changed by what he encountered, so that actually the goal of his training and of cycling in this race was not to win or finish the race, it was to meet the heron, which changed his life. We don’t know where our efforts will lead us if we’re only limited to what we have in mind. And the only way to be open to that is taking this risk. To meet what we encounter.
Let me give you one other ancient example.
MN: And that is in the story of Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh is this wonderful—[it’s] one of the oldest narratives we have. It is a Syrian tale about an empty king who is not close to life. He’s bored. He befriends a man who becomes his only friend, Enkidu, who was raised by animals, who is much closer to life. So the bored king declares a war on nature, on the nature god. In the war, his one friend is killed, [so] he journeys to the god of that culture, Utnapishtim, to ask for his friend to be brought to life. And he’s told, “OK, you can go and find Utnapishtim, but there [are] going to be stones along the way that will help show you how to get to Utnapishtim.” So he’s going along and he trips on these stones and he gets all angry and he smashes them. And then he gets to the ferryman, a month later, and the guy says, “I’ve been waiting for you. Where are the stones?” And the king goes, “The stones?”
We often walk by—in our anger, in our emptiness, and in our determination—the very clues we’re given to reach the godhead that is in everything.
TS: That’s beautiful, especially when you talk about the idea of risking winning the race. You definitely have me shaking in my knees here about being in the present moment. As someone who is very interested in winning. I know you said it was a paradox, so I’m just going to relax about it.
MN: Well, what’s so interesting—and I’ve faced this too, so often. Now I kind of expect it, but when I was younger, every book I’ve written has not been the book I’ve started or imagined, because where I think I’m going is often kindling for where spirit is leading me. And so often when we insist on our goals as we first imagine them, we walk right over the blessing. I think that this is a very natural thing. I mean, the exquisite risk kind of lives between effort and grace. We are all this. You know, I believe in effort. And I believe in effort because you never know when grace is going to appear.
TS: Well, it was one of the very interesting parts of your program with Sound True, Staying Awake, when you were singing the praises of effort. And I really like that, because often, especially in spiritual teachings, there’s a lot of emphasis on surrender and grace, and effort is kind of seen as an aspect of your ego. You know, “You’re efforting, you’re efforting.” But you really see effort as having an important value. And I wonder if you can talk about that?
MN: Oh yes! I love effort. And that’s an example of holding nothing back: If I don’t understand something, [I don’t] pretend that I’m sophisticated. I don’t want to sweat to understand it. I’ve learned that effort is putting our whole self into whatever we want to learn. If I want to get to know you, I want to hold nothing back. It doesn’t mean that I’m going to be at your house every day. It means that when we’re together, I’m truly trying to take you in. I’m truly trying to understand who you are and what makes you tick. And that means putting down some of my own opinions so I can really hear you. We all struggle with this.
An example [of effort from] my youth that I’ve looked back on, which really taught me, was that my father is a master woodworker. He is now 91 [years old] and is unable to really work with wood very much anymore. But he loved sail boats and he made, when we were kids, a 30-foot sailboat. He built it and we spent a lot of time growing up on it. He also made a lot of small wooden models to scale of great racing sailboats throughout history. And I remember sitting on the steps of our basement of this little house in suburban Long Island watching him work for hours on this. These incredible details on these tiny little masts and rails and portholes.
You know, we often think of effort as moving us toward excellence. But the immersion of effort allows us to participate in oneness. And that’s more important than excellence. So while he made beautiful little models of boats, what I learned from watching him, I never saw him so completely in oneness (I don’t think he even used this language) as when I saw him an hour or two working on these small boats and the effort an immersion allowed him. He wasn’t just working on one boat. He was now in the moment of every boat that had ever been built. And he, for the moment, could feel that lineage. That’s the reward for complete effort that I really long for and I think have been blessed to have, in moments, and then, as Ramana Maharshi says, “we trip on the garbage.”
TS: You know, there’s this quote that I’ll read now from the Staying Awake audio program that you say about will and surrender that I think is really beautiful. I’ll just read it and then you can comment on it.
You say, “Will and surrender are paddles that steer the canoe that we call the soul. The proper use of will is when we drift out of the current, we stroke a little to the left or to the right to get back into the center of the current that will take us.”
MN: Yes. Thank you for lifting that part up. I do feel—I’m a student, as you know, of all traditions, and I really pursue that. But one of the things [that brings me] really close to Taoism is the notion that the way—which, as you know in the Tao, simply means the unnameable way of things, the current that’s larger than any one living thing, the ocean of being or whatever we want to call it. And so this works very nicely, in this sense that’s inherent to Taoism. And that is the sense that we are fish in that stream of life force.
So if you think of any fish, the purpose of [its] will is not to conquer the stream or the current, not to bend the current or to carve out river banks. The purpose of the will, in a fish, and therefore in a fish of being, is to help us find the current. And in those moments when we are in it, it doesn’t make any sense to ask, “Under what power are we swimming, our own or the current?” Because it’s all one.
So I think the purpose of will is to return to alignment with everything greater to us. And this is very, very important in terms of when we’re ill. I mean, what I learned through my illness was that every tradition has a different language, but basically, wellness is when we are in alignment with everything larger than us. An alignment with the whole. And dis-ease is when we fall out of that current. We fall out of that stream and then yes, we need to paddle back in.
TS: But of course, it’s interesting—and I’m not trying to get too nuanced here—but if we find ourselves out of the stream, might it be a situation when surrender is what’s required at that point [and] not more effort? Maybe we’re out of the flow because we’re trying too hard in the wrong direction or something.
MN: Well, yes, I think that what I’m assuming when I speak about this stream—I’m not talking about streams of a conformity or streams of everybody else’s thinking. I’m talking about when we—you know, there is an aliveness everywhere in the universe, and each of us is born with this aliveness. Much of our time on Earth is devoted to finding where we can live in concert with all aliveness. So the grace part is that we know when we line up and are close to aliveness. We know when we are in the presence of aliveness that touches our own. And we know when we fall out of it.
Often—and I think this speaks a lot in the life of addictions—a lot of effort goes to keeping ourselves stubbornly away from the grace of aliveness. And this ties into when we were talking about the exquisite risk and holding nothing back, because the effort [to surrender]—and this is paradoxical—is the effort to rise above or sink below or to drop all of our designs and simply accept our aliveness and trust it. I struggle with that. Everybody struggles with that. Is that making sense?
TS: It is, and it actually reminds me of another quote that I took from the audio program. Really, as I said, you have such beautiful and original language. I really appreciate it Mark, deeply. Here’s the other quote: “Wisdom is the result of faith. Faith is not the result of wisdom.” I thought that was really interesting.
MN: Well, thank you. You know, let me speak to the great Protestant theologian Paul Tillich. He defined faith as “an act of ultimate concern.” I love that. “An act of ultimate concern.” Not a conclusion. Faith, again, “an act of ultimate concern” is another way to talk about holding nothing back. It’s when we give our complete curiosity and wonder and heart to what’s before us and that opens the doorway to aliveness, which, if we walk down, will give us wisdom. And it’s interesting, that wisdom, and I explore this on the program as well.
I have learned in the last few years, as I have spent some time exploring this, [that] originally the word “sage” was a verb and not a noun, and it meant “to taste,” not “to know.” So when we can enter into this relationship, this conversation with aliveness, it leads us to taste, to embody, into a state of knowing as opposed to collecting knowledge. And that leads us to wisdom.
TS: I love that. The sage is the act of tasting.
MN: And it’s also fascinating that the early use of “sage,” the first use of it when it became a noun, appeared in Hindu culture, in Chinese culture, and in Greek [culture.] What’s interesting is that the seven sages in Hindu cultures were Vedic poets. And they are anonymous. They are not named. They are those who were able to hear and praise the hymns of the universe.
It’s not until we get to Greek times [when] Socrates is the first one to actually name people as sages. He names the Seven Sages of Greece. As soon as he does that, everybody starts arguing, “Why seven? Why not ten? And you left out Harry!” [Laughs] And what happens? Everybody stops tasting and they start arguing about who were the best wisdom tasters. And we get away from direct experience. We get away from the exquisite risk.
TS: Now Mark, I’m going to hold nothing back here and ask you a question that feels a little risky for me related to your cancer journey. And what I’m curious about—you know, people often say things like, “Well, this person made it through because they changed this part of their belief system, and that is why they lived through this terrible disease that they weren’t supposed to live through.” What I’m curious about [is], what do you make of the fact that you recovered? Do you think that it is because you had these great spiritual discoveries? Do you think that it was that you were just lucky? Chance? What do you make of it?
MN: Well, yes, and thank you for asking the question, which I’m happy to explore. You know, it was a very profound journey for me, and this is what has really led me—[this was] the doorway to all of my work in the last 24 years. I’m 60. I was 36 when I went through this. It was a three-year period of intense period of chemo and surgeries.
You know, I feel deeply that—I was raised Jewish, and I went into this journey and I was blessed that everyone I met was kind enough to offer something to me. I had Sufis that I had never met pray for me. I had my brother who tried to design a macrobiotic diet, which was awful but I did it. It tasted awful. And I even had a friend who was priest and he wanted to lay hands on me. I found suddenly, you know what, these things didn’t require conversation or thought. I said to him, “When, where, and how many times would you like to do it? Thank you.” I didn’t need discern, “Well, I’m Jewish and he’s a priest. Should I let him lay hands on my head?”
So arriving, being blessed to still be here—to be kind of thrown, like Jonah, out of the mouth of the whale, two things became clear to me. Very clear. One was that I am not wise enough, on this side, to know what worked. So from that point forward, I was challenged to believe in everything. And my challenge, which is why I have been a student of all the spiritual traditions, is to find where they all meet in the middle. What is the common core that they all resonate from and how they manifest so many different, beautiful ways for people to choose from.
I was constantly faced with people after I was still here who would come up to me and ask very much the question you asked, but with a hidden agenda. Everybody, when I got sick, wanted to blame it on their partial understanding of disease. “It’s what you ate. It’s the car you drove. It’s your sexuality. It’s your lack of sexuality. It’s your stubbornness. It’s your lack of will.” And when I was blessed to be well, so many people that I met wanted me to corroborate their partial understanding of wellness. “Oh, it was mind-over-matter,” said the person who doesn’t believe in God. “Oh, it’s Jesus.” “No, it’s Moses.” “No, it was all the vegetables.” “It was the vitamins.” “It was your will to live.” “It was your will to surrender.” Again, you know, I’m not wise enough to know. It led me into the unity and wholeness of life.
Let’s use the analogy of spring. You know, there are thousands of different insects, each designed by nature to be attracted to different nectar, and they each carry a particular pollen and pollinate a particular plant. And they don’t repeat themselves, but together, they bring this miracle we call “spring.” Why [can we not do the same] in the spiritual paths that human beings are open to? There are so many different paths because each of us is born with an attraction to one way that will pollinate our spirit. And no one person can hold it all. So the human spiritual notion of spring gives us just as many choices.
TS: So you said that there were two things that you came to: the first one was that you weren’t wise enough to know what the factors were so you welcomed all these different approaches, which I really appreciate. But what’s the second one?
MN: The second is that I woke up on the other side of that journey, of almost dying and through no wisdom of my own—you know, I went into it in my 30s believing in a hard view of the world, but I was still really very much in my head. And I woke up and I was living lower. I was suddenly in my chest.
The image I like to use is like in early spring, in March or April when the snow melts into the ground. It’s like my understanding of life melted from my head into the ground of me and from that point forward, my mind has served my heart and not the other way around. And that has helped me in everything I’ve investigated and discovered and in living closer in my own journey with the exquisite risk.
TS: That’s beautiful. You have a phrase, I wonder if you can unpack it for us, “beginner’s heart?”
MN: Yes. Well, often we know, and I think we’ve heard about “beginner’s mind” in the sense of dropping everything we know. Either love or great suffering often prompts us to do that. Then spiritual practice encourages us to do it without love or suffering being the catalyst. To drop what we know so we can see life freshly again as if we just arrived. Well, beginner’s mind helps us apprehend life freshly. But beginner’s heart, I believe, helps us embody life freshly. It helps us stop watching and enter what’s before us.
Maybe you know this, but I’ve been out to Naropa [University] several times over the years, and I always was interested in why the university was named Naropa. And I finally found someone who taught there who could tell me and I love this story. Naropa (and you’re probably aware of this), in the 11th century, was a renowned scholar, kind of like the Houston Smith of 11th-century India. He just knew every nuance of spiritual practice, of different sects and different traditions. He was walking down the street one day and an old woman crossed his path and stopped, pointed her finger at him and said, “Are you Naropa?” And he puffed up, ready to give an autograph and said, “Why yes, I am.” She looked at him and she pointed her finger, and asked, “Do you know the heart of all those paths?” And he felt somewhat affronted and taken by surprise and he said, “Well of course I do!” And then he walked on for a ways, but he of course knew that he had lied. So he ran back in front of her and got down before her and said, “Be my teacher.”
Naropa represents embodied wisdom. Beginner’s heart leads us, returns us through the exquisite risk, through holding nothing back, through effort and grace, it returns us every day if need be, to the aliveness and the freshness of what it is to be here. We are the only creatures. We certainly can go astray and we can be encased in a cocoon of our own making, but we are the only creatures that can shed that cocoon more than once in a lifetime.
TS: When you say that we can shed our cocoon, tell me more about what you mean by that, and how we’re the only creatures that can do that.
MN: Well, because, you know, we are—in the life of a butterfly, the cocoon is one stage of its life. It incubates. It forms. It breaks out of that cocoon and becomes a butterfly. We, as human beings, as spiritual creatures encased in a body living on earth, we go through many lives in one lifetime. We go through many cells if—if—we dare to grow, if we take the risks that are put before us. If, when we suffer, we’re not just broken but broken open. If, when we love, we are loved and loving beyond our sense of ourselves, we lose ourselves in a good way.
We have the opportunity to live many lives in one life. So the idea or image of a butterfly is that more than once in our lifetime, we have a cocoon. We burst through it after we’ve formed. We fly and then we resurrect again. We go through the process again. I am not the same—though I am the same soul—self as I was five years ago, let alone 10 years ago, let alone 20, let alone before my cancer journey. I recognize those people as stages of me along the way. And the thing that we often do in our culture in the name of the blame game is, in order to have security about who we are now, we often need to make false who we were before. And that’s not helpful.
The cocoon for the butterfly, once the butterfly has emerged, wasn’t false—it just served its purpose. So who I was ten years ago, even though I can look and find some embarrassing moments, doesn’t mean that I was false. I was true as far as I knew how to be. And limited. And now I’ve grown, and I’m truer and I have less limitations. But who I will be, hopefully in five years from now, will be less limited than I am now.
TS: You know, one thing that I’m curious about, Mark, because I see this in the lives of people I am close to, is that one of the things that keeps people from breaking through that cocoon and growing into a new phase of life again and again is this concern about “leaving people behind.” Leaving people from a certain period of your life behind as you grow and change. And in the context of holding nothing back, I’m wondering what you can say about that.
MN: Well, I think that you raise a very poignant and difficult aspect of growing, which, you know, archetypally is in all of the stories of all the great spiritual teachers. Buddha [in Siddhartha]—we kind of pass over that part of the story because there is so much amazing that happens once he leaves, but you know, he was groomed to be king. He was a prince. And he had to leave life as he knew it and embark on his own.
And often, when we deify these people from the past, I think we step over the intense humanity and the lessons in [experience], that it probably wasn’t easy, that it was difficult. For me, I think that’s what’s very difficult, and we all have relationships and friendships and we grow in different directions. I think honoring the truth of who we are and who we become is one of the most difficult things that we have to face.
But if you imagine that relationships—if you were to put two row boats in the ocean and they were not tied together but just simply left there, and you came back the next day, you would not expect them to be in the exact same place. If you came back in a month, they might not even be near each other. If you came back in a year, they might not even be visible to each other. So there’s this very precarious current of life that we have no control over. And this is, again, a paradox. There is effort and commitment I believe and loyalty and devotion and commitment to people that we journey with. But there are times in everyone’s life when at the worst, who we are is kept down by the stubbornness or fear of someone close to us. And at the very best, who we are is that we grow to be who we are, and one of us grows into a land creature and one into an amphibian or a water creature. We can’t really live that close to each other though we may still love each other.
So either way, these are difficult passages. I think of my own journey with cancer, and there were many people from that time who helped me live who I am no longer—we’re not really in each other’s lives anymore because we grew in different directions. It doesn’t mean that they aren’t in my heart. It doesn’t mean that I don’t know when their birthdays are or go to a jazz concert and know that they would have loved it because they love this person. And feel that ache or that tug. But I think our obligation (and then let me tell you a story about not doing this) is to be as true to the aliveness we are born with as we can be and support that in others and be as truthful as we can be when they collide and even crowd each other out.
The story is—this is a story from the New Hebrides in Polynesian culture, and it’s the story about how human beings lost the ability to be immortal. It was believed in early indigenous cultures that what gave human beings the ability to be immortal was that they could shed their skin. And when they stopped shedding their skin, they lost that ability. So the story is, in this culture, that Alta Maremma (which literally means “changed skin of the world”), she was the matriarchal mother of this tribe, went to the river to shed her skin as she had done many times. And as she shed he skin and felt the freshness of a new skin, she just looked over her shoulder and saw that her old skin caught on a branch on a piece of drift wood. At the moment she thought nothing of it, and she returned to her village where he teenage daughter saw her and was frightened because she didn’t recognize her mother, who looked not much older than her.
She comforted her [daughter] that, “Yes, it’s still me.” Her mother said, “Look it’s still me.” And the daughter was repulsed, was angry. And Alta Maremma, to appease and sooth the fear and anxiety of her daughter, went back to the river, found her old skin and put it back on. And in the New Hebrides, it is said that from that day forward, human beings lost the ability to be immortal, which I take not to mean “live forever” but “to live as close to life as possible in any one moment.”
That’s a wonderful ancient story because, like all archetypes, it captures that we are all faced with this, almost daily. “Am I going to put on my old skin in order to avoid conflict with a loved one? Am I going to put on my old skin and keep my fresh aliveness from meeting the air because I want to appease their anxiety rather than help them through their anxiety?” There’s no answer to this, but you raise a very poignant, difficult question. This is part of the practice of being human and why we need to compare notes and help each other, because every generation, every life learns something more about how to do this.
TS: Mark, I feel like I could talk to you for a long time. I feel like talking to you is a little bit like sitting next to a beautiful fireplace, a beautiful hearth.
Now Mark, I would like to ask you two more questions. This first one is a bit personal. There’s a quote I read from you that “we’re both born with a gift and an emptiness.” And I’m curious, I’m sure you’ve reflected on, in your own life, what you feel is your gift and what would you say is the emptiness?
MN: Thank you. Let me say for a second that what you read there is something that I’ve been exploring lately, and that is that we are each born with a gift and an emptiness and we often try to push away the emptiness. We try to push it away and only focus on the gift when I think that one of our callings in life is for those two aspects of our soul to be in conversation with each other. So imagine a hole dug out of the earth. Unless you put the light of your gift in that hole, you cannot see the depths that the emptiness revealed.
Before I speak about my gift and emptiness, as I think I know it at least so far, let me just say that the nature of emptiness, I’m sure you’re aware of, is two-fold here. There is the deep emptiness that is not empty, that all the traditions speak about. The Hindu and Buddhist traditions especially. The still center. The center that holds everything. The quiet that is at the heart of silence. The bareness, if you will. The is-ness of things in which we are always held if we can quiet all the noise. That is the large emptiness that is not empty. There is the psychological emptiness that we all struggle with about our own worth, about our own contributing, about our own mattering. And so these two are very close to each other. Often when we can face our psychological emptiness, the bottom falls out, which from that position we think is terrible. But then it drops into this bareness that holds us.
So, I think that my emptiness that I struggle with is [this:] from an early age—and growing up in a family that was pretty critical and angry, and also a family that supported my gift, but also made me feel this emptiness (and I nurtured it in myself as well)—is I flash from being a mature person who has journeyed on earth for 60 years to being a little boy in a man’s body, unsure how to proceed. So I think my emptiness is a trail or a psychological reflex that has certainly lessoned over the years, but I don’t think we ever get rid of it. Just like we don’t get to a permanent state of enlightenment, I don’t think we ever get rid of these things. I think they lesson. They right-size. When I fall into that little boy’s space, I know it more quickly. I can come out of it in less time than 10 years ago. I can have the person I am—it’s in me rather than me being in it.
My gift is seeing the world through my heart. And certainly you can see, as with everybody, the relationship between my gift and my emptiness. It is very important because if I am stuck in my little boy psychological emptiness, the only thing I can see through my heart is my fear and insecurity. I can’t see everything else. So my gift helps turn my emptiness into the larger bareness of being. Now, you can replace those particulars for me with your own, and anybody who is listening can [do the same]. But we don’t eliminate these things. We build relationships with them and that’s at the core of being here. That’s at the core of staying awake and holding nothing back and the practice of being human.
TS: And then Mark, just to end our conversation, if you would be willing, I wonder if you could share with us whatever lines of poetry, of your poetry, occur to you that would be kind of a ribbon on our conversation.
MN: Sure, and actually, this is kind of amazing, because I’m on a writing sabbatical now for these couple of months here, but I just wrote a poem last week called, The Empty Necklace. So let me share that.
MN: The Empty Necklace
We each have one, made over a lifetime
of the empty moments in between, when
everything is still and complete, each a
clear bead strung on the invisible chain
of our experience.
I’m thinking of the long silence after
we’d talked for months about what it’s
like to be alive.
Or the time in winter when the snowy
pines were creaking and swaying a
hundred feet up like the eye of the
earth opening slightly.
Or the time in early fall when you
were pinching a pot in the sun
and our dog was chewing on a stick
and I started to cry.
And the moment I woke from surgery
too soon and my soul had to decide
which way to swim.
And sometimes, when the wind sweeps
the next task from my mind, I am
returned to the moment before I
was born: floating with a brief sense
of all there is, just as I was ushered
into the world with our need to
find that feeling between us.
TS: Thank you, Mark, for a very intimate, beautiful and heart-warming conversation. Thank you so much.
MN: Oh, you’re welcome. It was a joy for me too. I think we could talk for hours.
TS: That’s true.
I’ve been speaking with Mark Nepo. He has created with Sounds True a new eight-session audio learning program called Staying Awake: The Ordinary Art, and it is filled with poetry, stories, teachings, metaphors—it’s just gorgeous! Also a two-session audio program called Holding Nothing Back: The Essentials for an Authentic Life.
Mark will also be with Sounds True and 20 other authors, artists, poets, and musicians at Sounds True’s very first Wake Up Festival, August 22-26, 2012, at the YMCA of the Rockies in Estes Parks, Colorado. And if you want more information on the Wake Up Festival, you can visit SoundsTrue.com/Wakeup. SoundsTrue.com. Many voices, one journey. Thanks for listening.