Photo Credit © Harpo Studios, Inc./George Burns
Mark Nepo describes the process of leaning in, saying yes to all of life (both the joy and the pain), and keeping his heart wide open to all of it.
Now at the pinnacle of his career, best-selling author, poet, and speaker Mark Nepo knows that remaining present—both to the good and bad—is vital to living an authentic life. Recently on tour with Oprah Winfrey, he sees a duality at play in his life’s journey. He is experiencing great career success while also grieving two significant losses, that of his and his wife Susan’s beloved dog, Mira, and of his father, Morris Nepo.
“I’m working to keep my heart open to all of it,” he explains.
“We grow by great love and great suffering. It would be nice to not have to suffer, but suffering is. If we are sculpted by experience, suffering is the chisel. We are asked to lean in, to say yes to life, yes to difficulty, yes to joy. We have to be open to all of it.”
A humble philosopher, Nepo hopes to introduce people to their own wisdom and gifts through his writing and talks. His latest book, The Endless Practice: Becoming Who You Were Born to Be, published this past August by Atria Books, explores what it means to become our truest self by remaining awake to the dynamic wholeness of life, with all its unpredictability and messiness. This book is a continuation of his lifelong exploration of what it means to be alive.
So how does Nepo go about “leaning in” to life? Throughout the years he has learned to let his mind serve his heart, rather than the other way around. “A teacher for me has been the idea that all things are true,” he says. “Not that all things are just or fair, but that all things contain truth, and the mind cannot comprehend that. Our minds try to sort and analyze and prioritize—to make some things negative and others positive. But those are judgments and they aren’t really helpful. As I get older and experience life with my heart and not simply my mind, I have been asked to let everything in and not judge anything as good or bad. Only with an open heart can we let everything emerge.”
It’s with this openness that he describes the emotions around having and then losing his and his wife’s 13-year-old yellow Lab Mira. “My wife Susan and I picked her out of a litter. We saw her before her eyes opened. We were one of the first things she saw. And we were the last thing she saw. We really had a deep soul connection to her,” he remembers. Mira was like a child to them both.
Ironically, Nepo had a strong fear of dogs after one bit him when he was a child. “I ended up loving what I feared,” he notes with affection. “After my cancer journey, having gone through almost dying,” he remarks about his experience with a rare form of lymphoma, diagnosed in 1987, “it suddenly occurred to me, I wonder if I’m still afraid [of dogs]. So I walked by this group of homeless dogs, and interestingly enough, I kind of felt okay. Over time, it all just turned around and now I’m an enormous dog person. Mira taught me a lot by being with her ‘dogness.’”
Nepo fans would say he teaches them a lot by being with his humanness. His poetry, books, and speeches inspire people to “go deep” into their own personal reflection and spiritual inquiry. He notes a desire to help people find their own inner gifts: “There are many [spiritual] practices, and throughout my work, I try to pick examples as seeds that will stir readers to personalize them and make them their own.”
A Conversation With the Universe
Although he has more than 15 books to his credit, Nepo discusses his writing without ego. “My view of writing has changed over time,” he explains. “In the western world, we say, ‘I created this. I did this.’ Now I find that my writing is more like a relationship with the unknown, which involves me, of course, but it’s giving myself over so the universe will reveal itself. It’s a conversation.”
Although Nepo never plans his books, looking back he sees a perfect pattern to the way the topics have emerged. He believes all spiritual writers explore what they themselves need to learn. “The greatest spiritual literature of all time is simply people in the throws and majesty of being human; being spirit. We are all just comparing notes on what it’s like to be here. Today I am clear and tomorrow I’ll be cloudy. Today I am strong and tomorrow I’ll be afraid. I think all of my work has been a commitment to exploring and affirming the wholeness of the human journey,” he notes.
Photo Credit © Harpo Studios, Inc./George Burns
His need to revise his work and reach “perfection” has changed too. “Of course, I want things to be addressed as clearly as possible, but if I have only one day left, I don’t want [my work] to be perfect,” he insists. “I want to keep expressing. I try to make things as clear as possible, but at a certain point, I need to keep living. And whether I do it awkwardly or beautifully, sometimes the words just need to be said.”
The Endless Practice explores a variety of topics, including the idea that in order to grow we may need to abandon things that previously served us—whether it’s a job, a relationship, or even spiritual tools. Nepo puts it this way: “We tend to think and be taught that consistency and constancy are how we define our character. Being stable, reliable, dependable are all qualities we want to measure ourselves on. That’s fine within a moment or a year of a person’s life, but the nature of being alive is that we grow. We don’t stay the same. And that means by definition the things that work today, if they serve their purpose, at some point won’t work anymore. We will have to abandon them.
“One way to think about this is how a butterfly emerges from a cocoon. When the cocoon is left it doesn’t mean the cocoon was false, it means it served its purpose. The beauty of being a spirit in a body on earth is that we get to go through more than one cocoon in a lifetime. We get to become more than one butterfly. Each job, relationship, hardship, or obstacle starts to form a cocoon around us.”
When it’s time, he says, we emerge a new self, until we reach the next growth point, at which time we start another cocoon. And on it goes. “So if we do not have the courage to abandon our identity as a master,” he continues, “we will prevent our own natural process of growing as a spirit.”
Trusting Our Hearts
When asked if there is one idea he’d like readers to learn, he says it’s to remain open to accessing the “alive” place within our hearts. “Being human, we all move in and out of being fully present. No one can be present completely all the time. It’s only through the courage to remain open and loving that we return to that one true world of being fully alive.” The one true world Nepo speaks of never goes away, he stresses. We’re the ones who cycle through being able to access it.
“So I would encourage and affirm that every single person has a gift,” he adds. “We each simply need to discover our gifts. The purpose of our gifts is to exercise our hearts into being fully alive. It doesn’t matter if we do it well or not. It doesn’t matter if we fall down or if we fail. All we have to do is trust our heart, discover our gifts, and return to the world being fully alive.”
Surviving cancer made Nepo realize everything in life is a blessing. Humbly, he says, “I think about the grace by which I’m even here. So with that context, when I look at how my life is unfolding, I never take it for granted.” He says he feels truly blessed that thanks to much support from Winfrey, so many more people have read his work than he ever expected. “And that’s wonderful,” he adds, “but my job is just to stay true to my calling and share what I can.”
Nepo is excited about the future. “I’m 63, but I feel like everything has been an apprenticeship up to now. I feel like my best work is ahead of me. And I don’t know what that is,” he says with a certain degree of wonder. “I’m kind of like a fish—I just need to keep swimming.”
The Deeper Chance
Mira is our dog-child.
And though we held her as a pup,
she has a need to be held
that comes from beyond us.
And though I sat with her
when she was the size of a loaf of bread,
sat on the kitchen floor staring into
each other’s eyes, she has a need to stare
that comes from a place beneath
the awkwardness of humans.
These days, she seems, at moments,
a furry naked thing that never looks
Now, I understand: God made the animals
as raw breathing elements, each closer
in their way to one aspect of being.
And that the friction of time on Earth
might have its chance to make us wise,
God made the animals speechless.
We’ve learned that Mira in Spanish
means to look. And lately, she licks us
awake and stares deep into us, as if to say,
Get up. Don’t look away. Admit
you need to be held.
Photo by Brian Bankston.
“The Deeper Chance” from Inhabiting Wonder by Mark Nepo. Published by Bread for the Journey, 2004. Reprinted by permission from the author.
For more about Mark Nepo, including information about his books and upcoming appearances, visit www.marknepo.com.