Seeing the Extraordinary in the Ordinary

Mark Nepo

I believe every single person will be given the chance to be dropped into the depths of life. That’s where the spiritual conversation really deepens. It doesn’t have to be a catastrophe or an illness. It can be surprise or wonder or beauty or the inexplicable calling of a bird that somehow changes how you see the world.

One of those thresholds for me was going through a rare form of cancer that almost killed me when I was in my 30s. I’m 65 now, and that experience continues to shape me because I don’t think that I’ve ever gotten over cancer. It turned me inside out. It changed how I see the world and how I understand our journey here.

One of the reasons it changed me is that I was blessed to have people of all faiths and all traditions offer me many blessings and kindnesses along the way. And when I say all faiths, I mean even beyond our traditional faiths—people who simply believe in nature, people who are quantum physicists, and even atheists. (An atheist, after all, simply believes in nothing, so atheism is still part of a kaleidoscope of traditions.) I wasn’t—and I am still not—wise enough to know which blessings worked and which didn’t, so I was challenged to believe in everything. And all my work since then—all my books, all my teaching, all my speaking—has been to try to honor and reveal what I see as the common center of all paths while lifting up the unique gifts of each.

The other reason cancer changed me is that when I woke up on the other side I was living from my heart and not my head. Since then, my mind has served my heart and not the other way around. So I think that whatever thresholds we face, whatever chances we have to be dropped into the depths of life, we’re all returned to facing the prospect of dying without having truly lived and living without having truly loved.

True relationship really starts when we can admit to each other, “You know what? I don’t know. I don’t have a clue.” We’re all just comparing notes. As soon as we can honor that in each other, we develop a real friendship. The German-Indo- European root of the word friendship (berg-frij) means “place of high safety.” Whenever we can truly be authentic and admit how much we don’t know, we open up that safe space to explore together.

For example, during my cancer journey, some of the deepest relationships and friendships I made began when people would lovingly say, “You know, I’m scared too. And I don’t know how I can help, but I’m here.” That’s all that matters. One of the most powerful things we can do is to admit the truth of where we are because then it’s no longer contained, and when things are contained, fear grows. It’s like the bogeyman in the closet—the more you don’t look, the bigger it gets.

We are dynamic creatures constantly unfolding in our aliveness. For me, enlightenment is not a permanent state that we arrive at. We’re human in this messy, magnificent incarnation; we keep unfolding, evolving, growing. Imagine the ocean: The waves never stop rising and falling, cresting and hitting the shore, and that’s what makes it the ocean. I think that the spirit that we contain, our soul, is really just looking at how it can stay close to its aliveness and stay dynamic while great love and great suffering continue to unfold us.

As soon as we stop participating in this unfolding, we’re not really here anymore because life is constant relationship—relationship with the universe, with silence, with nature, with each other, with everything that’s larger than ourselves. Obstacles are great teachers, and suffering is to human beings what erosion is to nature. It’s not always fun. Nobody signs up for it. But in the same way that the elements wear cliffs down, the ocean pounding them to the sea, the elements of experience wear us to our inner beauty. That’s a big part of our journey.

I’ve also learned that you can’t conquer fear, you can only let it through. This is not easy to do because fear, by its very nature, makes us cling and get tense. When we tighten, we’re asked to loosen. When we fall down, we’re asked to get up. When we close, we’re asked to open. So when we try to conquer fear, we’re asked to drop our will and let the fear through. Most of the time when I reflexively try to block something I’m afraid of, it’s already gotten inside and I am actually keeping it there longer.

Let’s look a little deeper at suffering. The word suffer means “to feel keenly.” And we don’t have to go very far to discover that to know joy, we have to feel keenly. Suffering really opens us up, not just to difficulties but also to beauty. It opens us up to great sensitivity. It opens us up to the mystery. It opens us up to great love. So there’s no way to escape suffering.

This is not to advocate or deify difficulty. You know, I had cancer. It’s just a disease. What is opened in us is always more important than what opens us. Living a full life requires being committed to having the courage and vulnerability to feel keenly and to live through all that we’re given. We have to have the obstacles along with the blessings—that’s part of the mystery of life. If we could just have the pleasant things, we might feel content for a while, but before long they’d no longer be quenching or life-giving or life-evolving.

The two main ways that human beings grow are by willfully shedding what no longer works and by being broken open—and we are always presented with a combination of both. If we choose not to willfully shed, we’ll get a chance to be broken open. That doesn’t feel good. It often hurts and it can be dangerous. But what happens when we’re broken open is that everything that’s inside now has a chance to come out. And everything that’s outside now has a chance to come in. And when what’s inside and outside join, then we start to enter the experience of oneness. And we could say that one of the sensations of oneness is wonder!

Look at it this way: When we’re in the same room and I breathe out and you breathe in, what started out as my breath and your breath doesn’t stay that way because now we’ve exchanged breaths. Now it’s our breath, and it’s part of the air that surrounds us. So when I am broken open, what I thought was secret is no longer private; it’s everywhere. And once I let it out, it actually glows. The extraordinary, we discover, is in the ordinary. When our minds and our hearts and our bodies can slow down to the pace of what is real, like tumblers in the mystical lock, our perception opens to the miraculous that is always nearby. 

Author Biography: 

This article was adapted from a November 2015 interview Mark Nepo gave to Janet Conner on her Unity Online Radio show, The Soul-Directed Life, airing Thursdays at 1 p.m. (CT) on unityonlineradio.org.

Mark NepoPoet and spiritual teacher Mark Nepo is the New York Times bestselling author of The Book of Awakening (Conari Press, 2000). His new book, published this month by Atria, is The One Life We’re Given. Sounds True will be publishing a major collection of his poetry titled The Way Under the Way in November. Visit marknepo.com.