Mark Nepo: More Together Than Alone

The prolific poet-philosopher takes on the subject of conscious community

Posted Nov 13, 2018

Mark Nepo has been clearing the path of spiritual inquiry for more than forty years. He is the author of twenty books, including The One Life We're Given, The Endless Practice, and the #1 New York Times bestseller, The Book of Awakening.  In his newest offering, More Together Than Alone, the philosopher-poet examines the subject of belonging and our urgent need for community in today's challenging, fragmented world.  I caught up with Nepo from his home in southwest Michigan to talk about the importance of like-minded souls in life, and community that we can trust.

Mark Matousek:  Why do we have such a crisis of belonging in the world today? 

Mark Nepo: Throughout history, there have been periods sometimes decades, sometimes centuries, when we have leaned into each other, where we have reached out for each other, where we help each other. And then there are other periods when we push each other away. It’s not clear right now which way it’s going, even though there is so much discord, fear, and isolation. So much global pushing away. 

I say it’s not clear, because when things they fall apart, they make a lot of noise. And when things come together, they’re quiet. It’s kind of like spiritual physics. Both things are always happening, but right now, we are in a global culture addicted to the noise of things falling apart. Therefore, we don’t have a real assessment because the things that are coming together are hidden or masked over by all the noise. 

In the “Two Tribes” chapter, I wrote about being a person with a context and a history. I’m of Jewish heritage and never thought I’d wake up to see Nazis in the streets of America. What am I supposed to do with that? I only know that in the context of being me and this personal history in this time, I feel I need to be more visible, and that comes up in my teaching.  Looking back in history, imagine the first time one person came upon another, after thinking they were alone. A person comes upon a cave and says, “Whoa. Who are you? What’s this?” And the one in the cave looks out and says, “You’re different. Go away.” I think, based on fear, that was the beginning of the Go Away Tribe.

Throughout history, when fear has dominated a culture, you hear, “I can’t trust you, so I’ve got to put you where I can watch you—in a detention center or ghetto.” And then in the metastasis of fear, when it totally ruins our way of interacting and our society, we’ve had periods of genocide where the fear said, “You can’t even trust they’ll be where you put them, so you better make them go away.”

On the other side [of this equation] is where we come together. Imagine if the person inside the cave saw the stranger and said, “Oh, you’re different. Come teach me.” That was the beginning of the Come Teach Me Tribe. There are a lot of traditions that said, “Thank God you’re not me. Together we’re more than alone. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts.” I love how the Native American Elder counsels still meet in a circle. Not just for equity—there’s no end to a circle—but so that everyone will have a direct view of the center. Under that is the belief that we need all views to approach the whole, to experience and understand the center.

We belong in both tribes. There is no “they.” And so, my whole life is committed to the Come Teach Me tribe. But if something happens, and I wake up tomorrow governed by fear, I’ll switch tribes and then need you to remind me of my commitment.

MM:  The world has gotten so big, so 24/7, and so multidimensional that we don’t have a direct view of any center to provide a sense of community, it seems to me. 

MN:  I agree.. And when we don’t meet existence with an authentic inner life, existence begins to crush us or define us. Not because existence is evil, but because, as with gravity and water, evil will fill any empty hole. If we don’t meet the outer world with an inner life, the characteristics of—let’s say technology—start to define us. When we stop relating, we isolate and become distant. We fall out of the relationship. And then we wind up grasping for meaning. And this happens in a cycle. We’re not going to eliminate those things that separate us, but the question is: As an individual and a society, how do we recover and restore?

Medieval monks, when asked how they practiced their faith, would say, “By falling down and getting up.” Well, this is the falling down part but we’ve forgotten how to get up. And it’s wonderful that we can see things immediately, all the time, through TV and everything, but we now numb ourselves, which isolates us further. Things that matter take time. Just because technology arrives in half a second doesn’t make it meaningful. Unless I bring my presence to it and relate to it, I can’t find meaning from it.

MM:  And what about the interplay of solitude and community, the human need for both?

MN:  Both are necessary, and both have gifts and liabilities or shadows. We all have inclinations toward one or the other, but I think we need to do the thing we’re not good at; we need to give more attention to it so we can be balanced and not just say, “I’m an extrovert,” or “I’m an introvert.”

Dolphins and whales are magnificent air-breathing creatures. But no matter how long they can stay under, they have to surface. And no matter how long they’re on the surface, they have to go into the deep to restore themselves, to renew themselves. This is a great metaphor for how humans need both solitude and community to refresh themselves, to restore their heart and soul. But even if you’re intoxicated with the deep and want to stay underwater, you can’t. You’ll drown. The being is infinite, but the human is very finite. So, we’re forced to live in this paradox. We have to break the surface and live in the world. There are traditions that are monastic and ascetic, but even they usually have some type of community.

And you know Martin Buber’s notion of “I-Thou,” the shadow side of solitude: “If all I’m left with is my direct experience, then I’m in trouble. Then I can go in a second without realizing it from being foundational to just being stubborn.”  On the other side, there are many beautiful gifts for belonging, but if we want it too badly, we can slip out of genuine connection and give away everything for that opportunity.

Every culture has a gift and a shadow. In Western culture, we’ve been particularly strong at the development and evolution of the self, and therefore self-reliance. But the obvious shadow—which is one of the biggest psychological diseases of our age—is self-centeredness and over-self-reliance. Independence is a very American thing. If you look at Africa, their strength is belonging and community. But from stories I’ve read, it seems to me that the shadow in some of the most powerfully connected tribes is that they have a hard time maintaining a sense of self or sense of identity. This sense of community is so strong in Africa that none of the different languages include a word for orphan.

MM:  That’s fascinating. 

MN:  There is such an extended tribal relationship, that if parents die there is no question that the children will be taken in by the larger community. It’s automatic, so there is no need for the word “orphan.” Finding that out blew my mind.

MM:  What do you think of Robert Frost's notion that good walls make good neighbors?  How does that contribute to a healthy community?  

MN:  Rather than strong walls, I believe porous walls make good neighbors. We do need boundaries, but in this country, we tend to be so individualistic that we think if we open our hearts, we have no boundaries. But if you’re going through something, if you’re in pain, then we need to open our hearts and let others in. In this way, we share our experience. It’s sharing the experience without being undone by it that we need to practice and understand. This is where compassion comes in.

One of my first real experiences of that was stumbling into a bar years ago and talking to a Vietnam vet who was way too loud. Nobody would go near him. I wound up having a beer with him. He was a wounded medic, who carried terrible stories. At one point in the conversation, I said, “I can’t imagine.” He just stopped and said, “No, you can’t.” And my reply was, “I can’t, but I’m here.”

This goes back to the Go Away Tribe and the Come Teach Me Tribe and reflects strongly on what’s going on today. Boundaries without compassion that merely isolate people and create a self-looping, damning cycle.

MM:  Can you give a personal experience of community that gave you a vision of what’s possible in your own life?

MN:  The lifeblood of community starts with small personal circles. During my cancer experience 30 years ago, I suddenly found myself in hospital waiting rooms and without any of the pretense or ways we’re taught to be polite, I dropped into authentic relationship and community. You’re sitting next to someone you barely know, and you strike up these intimate conversations to help each other through. Looking back, I think that triggered my interest in this book. Those memories created the seed of research.

Another personal community that has had an impact is the men’s group I’ve been meeting with for twelve years or so. Once a month, seven of us meet and once a year we go on retreat together. It started when we were just learning about each other’s lives, and then one of our eldest threw his back out. All of a sudden, rather than just reporting on our lives, we were sharing them. We’ve become like brothers, and it’s a very important community for me.

MM:  Men in our culture can become especially isolated in my experience.    

MN:  Absolutely. There were certainly things I admired about my father, but I didn’t have any models of the kind of man I wanted to be, and I think that’s common for a lot of men of our generation. In that way, the women’s movement is an inspiration. I’m sure you’ve experienced it too as a writer, but I feel like I’ve spent a lifetime being greeted by people who didn’t know how to put together that I was both a poet and a strong man.

MM:  I know that feeling. But it seems to be shifting.    

MN: It does seem less of a problem. And hopefully, it could just be a maturing of the culture. That would be a wonderful thing.