Mark Matousek

Ethical Wisdom

The One Life We're Given: A Conversation With Mark Nepo

The poet and philosopher talks about how to live an awakened life

Posted Oct 07, 2016

Mark Nepo’s latest book is called The One Life We’re Given: Finding the Wisdom That Waits in Your Heart. It explores how our hard work and authenticity ready us for meaning and grace in our lives, and how our sincerity and effort help us survive and thrive. For several decades, Mark has taught poetry and philosophy and is a renowned storyteller. His writing and teaching is devoted to the journey of inner transformation and the life of relationship. His #1 New York Times bestseller The Book of Awakening was translated into twenty languages. Mark was part of Oprah Winfrey's The Life You Want Tour in 2014 and has appeared several times with Oprah on her Super Soul Sunday program on OWN TV. I spoke to this wise and gifted poet when he was recently in New York about where he finds himself on his own wisdom journey. 

Mark Matousek:  What is the role of gratitude in spiritual life?

Mark Nepo:  The original meaning of the word “appreciate” means to move toward what is precious. Practicing gratitude is a type of leaning in towards being truly present. It’s a practice that reengages our aliveness—that awakens us to what is precious. Gratitude is at the heart of reciprocity; it’s the atom of relationship.

MM:  And how does this awareness affect daily your life?

MN:  It affects my “practice of return”, as I like to call it. Waking me when I fall asleep, being sensitive when I’m numb, reminding me that I need to be visible and let people know they are visible as well. When I go out to eat, I’m very aware when the waiter or waitress comes over and refills my water. They’re not invisible. I stop, look at them and say thank you. This is not just altruism or kindness. Doing that, I’m present, visible and engaged. I’m more embodied.

I try to affirm whatever life brings my way, even though it might be in a gentle way. The rhythms of life are such that things like fear, pain, worry, trouble and agitation push us away and part of our practice is to find a personal way to come back in. Gratitude is one of those ways.

MM:  What about practicing gratitude in the midst of hardship?  That can seem oxymoronic.

MN:  I’m often not grateful when I’m in the hardship. But I’ve been in hardship enough, and I’ve seen the gifts—even though I may not want them. I try to remember that even though I might not be grateful in the moment, once things expand, I probably will be again.

To be broken is no reason to see all things as broken. That was a great lesson for me in my cancer journey. My first chemo treatment was so hard and botched, and I was in great pain, sickness and fear while stuck in a Holiday Inn. Even though I felt broken in that moment, the sun was still shining and down the street a baby was being born, and somewhere else people were making love, and someone was being grateful to someone else. All of it was happening at once.

We talk so much about being in the moment, that I think we have to be careful we don’t make a cartoon of it. Being in the moment isn’t a license to be wild and abandoned and forget others. The reward for being in the moment is that we see differently, hear differently, and perceive differently. Being in the moment means that we expand our heart, as I was forced to in that motel room. 

We tend to either make what we’re going through everything or nothing. It’s a seesaw. We make the struggle and fear a descriptor of life and get caught in that and project it to being a world view. But it’s not a world view, it’s just our experience. The other extreme is to minimize, to make what we go through insignificant. Of course, the tension of the paradox is that both are true. So the challenge is to open your heart to what’s happening beyond your part of the moment, to the moment of life everywhere. 

Federico Garcia Lorca has a wonderful line in a poem that speaks to this. He says, “There is no one holding a baby child who can forget the emotionless skull of a dead corpse.” That’s a very striking image and kind of disturbing, but I think he’s suggesting that everything is happening all at once and we’re challenged to enter all of it. Whenever something comes together in one place, something is coming apart somewhere else, and vice versa.

MM:  You’re talking about honoring the fullness of experience?

MN:  Yes, and the original definition of the word honor is to keep what is true in view. I honor you by keeping what I know about you to be true in view; your gifts and strengths. And the same is true about life. I honor life by keeping what I know about life to be true in view.

MM:  And that connects to gratitude and appreciation. 

MN:  They are aspects of practices by which we can return to being wholehearted and present, even when we’re bounced around by circumstance. Three things we often take for granted are timeless and really work. The first is to hold nothing back and look at what you fear. Lean into your pain, even though it’s natural to want to avoid it. The other two, that are maybe the oldest forms of medicine are holding and listening. There’s never been a time that I have held or been held, that it hasn’t restored an aliveness in me. And likewise, there’s never been a time when I have listened or been listened to, even when the things are difficult to listen to, that hasn’t reengaged me in being alive.

MM:  You say every person is born with a unique gift—a kind of genius—but how does one awaken to personal genius? 

MN:  I think it’s working with what we’re given that awakens our gift. By following our heart. Our career is the awakening of our soul, the engagement of our gift—whatever that may be—and our occupation is where that happens. And because we’re dynamic and drawn to move toward different things, that can change.

We’re never so alive as when we’re beginning and learning something new. It’s like the intoxication of falling in love. Something subtle happens. however, as we move into mastery. It’s the difference of falling in love versus being in love. Sooner or later however, we’ve established a career or place in the world where we have some mastery and we’re respected and we do something well and our identity is formed. And now we’re asked to abandon not what we know, but the position of mastery, so we can begin again. The challenge is to keep learning with both beginner’s mind and beginner’s heart. Watch someone you admire doing something they love. How does it affect them and what can you learn from them about how to better do what you love doing? To be closer to it, to move toward what is precious?

On the side of working with what we’re given, as opposed to choosing what we love to do, everyone has a genius but it doesn’t reveal its light until we strike it against the needs of world. Our gifts are manifest through relationship and embodiment.

MM:  In the book you talk about learning to love our window. Can you elaborate on that? 

MN:  Jesus said, “The eye is the lamp of the soul.” This is an interesting phrase and metaphorically, not only does the eye see, but it lets light in and lets light out. Our heart, mind, being and self is our container of spirit: the one window we have on the world. So our window on life, in whatever way you want to look at it, is the conduit between who we are and the rest of the world—the rest of life. And we need to take care of that window, keep it clean and be able to open it, not just look through it. 

Here’s a little story about windows. My beloved immigrant grandmother lived to be ninety-four and I loved to spend time with her. During the last spring of her life, on a beautiful day in May, I went to see her and found her sitting on the edge of her bed feeling glum. When I asked her what was wrong, she looked at the small window in her room and in her Russian accent said, “Ah, it’s a grey day.”

I immediately thought Oh, she’s not lucid. Then I looked at the window and saw that it hadn’t been cleaned in six months. So I said, “Grandma, the window’s dirty. We’ll get it cleaned and I’ll take you out in the courtyard.” She looked at the window and with the recognition and humor of someone who’d been here for almost a hundred years, sighed and said “Ah, gotta dirty eye, see a dirty world.”

MM:  I love that.

MN:  I can’t tell you how many times that has helped me. We need to be aware that the mind and heart— our very being—gets filmed over by experience. Cleaning is a form of introspection; a form of gratitude; of leaning into what is precious. All of those are forms of cleaning the window. The goal of life is not to get dirty or to stay clean, it’s to stay in the process. Experience does film over the window of our heart and then by processing what we learned, we clean the window so we can see again. That’s how you love the window of your being and care for it. 

MM:  What do you mean by writing that “we have to become until we can be?”

MN:  We’re so out of balance in our modern world, so doing-oriented, that it creates an emphasis in our spiritual world—our world of consciousness—on becoming over being. But as human beings, we need both the becoming and the being. Without two eyes, there’s no depth perception.

Ramana Maharshi said, “One of the great paradoxes is that we seek reality when we are reality.” It doesn’t mean that we just stop and sit without engaging in the world. A comet enters the atmosphere and it worn down to its essence. In the same way, we have to move through the world to arrive at our being. Much of my latest book is about the relationship between effort and grace. 

Effort is revelation in slow motion, it readies us for grace. There’s nothing wrong with “becoming” and having dreams and goals and ambitions and working toward things. But the becoming, the doing, the working, is really kindling for us to be warmed to our being. There are times by sitting still that we can arrive at essence. And there are times when being in the world, we are broken open. We have to strike against the needs of the world, and we have to be engaged, and we have to work with what we’re given. Not to achieve so much as to uncover our essence.

MM:  In a section of the book called Burning the Map, you quote Sogyal Rinpoche as saying, “Expectation is premeditated disappointment.” How can we cultivate non-expectation in the process of becoming? 

MN:  Expectations launch us into moving toward what is precious, into engagement, into working in the world, but we tend to deify and enshrine expectation and develop an infantile sense of success. “If I get what I expected, I’m a success, and if I don’t, I’m a failure.” That’s a very self-centered view of success and failure. Our true contribution is revealed by our engagement. So cast out a dream, a goal, an expectation, but know that it’s only scaffolding. Then you’ll be surprised by where it leads you.