Listening in with ... Mark Nepo
The Virtues of Vulnerability
Mark Nepo is a poet and philosopher who is very much at home on the New York Times best-seller list.
About three decades ago, Mark Nepo was diagnosed with a rare form of lymphoma. Dealing with and healing from cancer gave him deep insights into the challenge of staying present to live life fully, no matter what circumstances life hands us.
This theme has been central in Nepo’s work as a writer, speaker, and spiritual teacher—including in his 21st book, The Book of Soul: 52 Paths to Living What Matters, which St. Martin’s will publish in May of this year.
Here, Nepo talks with Unity Magazine editor Katy Koontz about being a poet, humanity’s progress toward oneness, and why staying vulnerable is vital for our spiritual growth.
Katy Koontz: In your latest work, The Book of Soul, you talk about a second, experiential womb that “through the labor of a lifetime, births the soul on Earth.” So our soul is continually being reborn?
Mark Nepo: Absolutely. It’s like caring for a potted plant—you eventually have to repot it or the roots get bound and it dies.
Each self, within a lifetime, needs to be repotted if we are to grow and serve our purpose. For example, the way that I first knew Spirit was through the lens of being a poet. But somewhere after my cancer journey in my late thirties, I began to see that my identity as a poet was like a pot. Almost dying caused me to grow, so the pot had broken.
I came to understand that if the Spirit that fills me was to keep growing, it couldn’t be contained in this pot by which I kept calling myself a poet. Though I will always know the world through the lens of being a poet, that identity is too small for the nameless Spirit that moves through each of us.
KK: At this point in your life, what is your definition of a poet?
MN: Let me back up and say that, for me, poetry is the unexpected utterance of the soul. It’s not about words; the words are the trail. Therefore, being a poet is the vow to stay wholehearted and present as much of the time as possible. It doesn’t really matter whether we write it down or not.
Vulnerability is the courage to be soft and open enough until the light starts to heal the part in us that is wounded.
KK: So it’s really about putting the energy of that feeling out there?
MN: This thing between us in this very moment—the experience of the aliveness that we’re blessed with—that’s the poetry. By giving ourselves to what we’re drawn to create, we are created for our wholehearted engagement.
My father was a master woodworker who lived to be 93. He was a real creative force in my life, but while he was creative with wood and nails, my medium remained invisible to him. Ultimately, he didn’t understand having a son who was a poet. But I learned so much from him. He used to make these model sailboats. He would get blueprints for sailing ships from the 1800s and working with tweezers he would spend hours making them to scale.
I remember being 8 or 9 and sitting on the basement steps watching him work. He didn’t know I was there because he was so immersed. I had this sense, even then, that he was in the moment of everyone who ever built a ship.
What that’s taught me years later is that it’s not about excellence—it’s about immersion. And the reward for immersion is that we experience oneness. Excellence is just the by-product.
So if I work toward excellence I may or may not create something good, but I have little chance of being whole. If I work toward immersion, then chances are I’ll do good work.
Two Paths to Growth: On Suffering, and Breaking Open
KK: That’s an important distinction. I take it that as a writer, you’ve always been interested in words.
MN: I’m interested in their origin because in the same way that nature erodes over time, words erode over time. Often the original definitions are more whole and more useful.
A great example is the word perfect, which didn’t originally mean “without flaws or mistakes.” Going back to the Aramaic, it meant “thorough,” and the reward for being thorough is being wholehearted.
KK: You write that the purpose of suffering is to exhaust us of our differences so we realize we’re all the same at heart. Is suffering necessary or is there an easier path we can take to that realization?
MN: There are two primary ways that human beings grow: one is by willfully shedding what no longer works and the other is by being broken open. Usually it’s a combination, but we don’t have to worry because if we resist willfully shedding, we will be broken open.
That doesn’t mean we have to seek suffering in order to grow. It means we must work with what we’re given, because everybody gets their handful of suffering. It’s how we help each other meet that suffering that matters. Growth can just as easily happen through wonder, or beauty, or surprise, or incredible gentleness. It’s a myth that we need to suffer in order to be fully here.
We double our suffering when we resist the natural journey that unfolds in being a spirit in a body in time on earth.
KK: You teach that the purpose of the human journey is to live openly and honestly until we become a source of uncovered light. Is vulnerability a vital part of that equation?
MN: Yes, being vulnerable is necessary for us to grow. The great Jungian priest John Malecki, who led the wellness group I was in when I was going through cancer, would say there can be no transformation without vulnerability.
Going back to the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu said that everything brittle breaks, but the river never breaks because it absorbs. It’s vulnerable. It’s soft. It’s flexible.
The word vulnerable means “to hold a wound gracefully,” which doesn’t mean being stoic. We all know that physical wounds need to be open to air and light; if they’re covered too tightly they won’t heal and they’ll get infected.
Vulnerability is the courage to be soft and open enough until the light starts to heal the part in us that is wounded.
The Secret of Self-Protection
KK: So contrary to popular opinion, vulnerability is a strength.
MN: It is, yes. Throughout history we go through these phases where we think if we put a wall up, we’ll be able to save ourselves from the journey of being human. It’s an understandable first reflex, but it never works.
Fear, for example, is something to be experienced, not obeyed. It’s not a god, it’s a sensation of the human journey to move through.
In his poem “Self-Protection,” D.H. Lawrence asks the wonderful question: Is the best self-protection hiding who you are or being who you are?
My experience has shown me it’s being who you are. Yes, I can be hurt if I’m exposed, but it’s more corrosive if I hide because then a part of me starts to vanish. It also reminds me of that old Roman saying: “The fates lead those who are willing. Those who are not, they drag.”
The Meaning of Vulnerability
KK: We’re going, one way or another.
MN: Right, and we double our suffering when we resist the natural journey that unfolds in being a spirit in a body in time on earth.
So what does it mean to be vulnerable?
For me, it means to be fully present, to hold nothing back.
It also means to lean back in precisely when the undertow of life pushes us away. When we’re closed, that’s when we need to open. When we’re afraid, that’s when we need to be brave.
No one automatically knows how to do this. And I believe that life has been made just difficult enough that we need each other—to ensure the journey of love.
KK: And that in turn affects the people around us—including in ways we don’t see.
MN: The Polynesian term mana means the “numinous spirit or presence in everything,” including substances we see as inanimate, such as wood, stone, glass, and water. Carl Jung took that a step further and defined mana psychospiritually as the unconscious influence of one being on another—not through persuasion, manipulation, debate, or even encouragement, but in the way that plants naturally grow toward the sun.
So when we can be who we are—through being vulnerable and present and holding nothing back—then our hearts naturally grow toward each other.
KK: Do we progress through layers of vulnerability, or do we just become increasingly more comfortable with being vulnerable?
MN: In my experience, the threshold is the same, but as we grow the lessons change, the insights deepen, and how we’re transformed changes. Like a pianist who plays the same notes and keys every day for years, and then more and more music comes through, the more often we are vulnerable, the more life will come through us because we’re more practiced at staying open to life’s notes.
When Things Fall Apart, and How to Keep It Together
KK: Given all of the polarization in the world right now, I wonder how successful we will be in making our way toward oneness. Are we just on the other side of miraculously being able to come together?
MN: I think that there have been long periods—waves in the ocean of history—where we’ve come together, and other long waves where we’ve pushed each other away.
So while it feels like we’ve never been at this place before, we have. Things are always breaking apart and coming together at the same time—this is a law of spiritual physics.
When things fall apart they make a lot of noise, but when things come together, they’re quieter. The hostility, violence, and fear are real, but so, too, are the kindness, caring, and interdependence—they’re just quieter. It’s hard to get an accurate view of which way this is going.
Another strident time in history was the Dark Ages in Europe. During that time, only 10 percent of the European population was literate, and they kept literacy alive for 300 years. If we are entering a dark time again, it is incumbent on us to keep the literacy of the heart alive for as long as necessary.
When we do authentic work, we are also weaving the threads that hold everything together.
The other paradox is that there is no “they.” We have all created this together, and our biggest challenge is in not becoming the things that we fear and resist.
An analogy I find helpful is that a body is considered healthy as long as it has one more healthy cell than toxic. If we look at humanity as a global body, then every soul is a cell in that body.
Everything matters because every gesture can keep one more soul healthy in the global body and give us a chance to move toward that deeper sense of oneness.
So all of this matters—even the conversation we’re having right now. This isn’t just self-reflective indulgence because when we do authentic work, we are also weaving the threads that hold everything together.
KK: So even if we were just sitting here chatting …
MN: It matters. Yes.
Love, Fear, and Staying Visible
KK: That gives me hope.
MN: So much comes down to the archetypal choice between love and fear.
When fear governs us, we look for sameness, and we confirm only what we already know. When love governs us, then I don’t want you to be me. I’ve had enough of me.
Then, I’m safe enough to say, “Thank God you’re not me. Share what you know.” Then, together we knit the fabric of humanity.
This goes back to being vulnerable. In the face of all of this discord, even violence, there’s a natural reflex to want to retreat. We can’t.
The quiet courage that is needed now is to stay visible, to stay vulnerable, to confirm and uphold what we don’t know, and to understand that we’re already more together than we are alone.
KK: What does it mean to stay visible?
MN: It’s being present with your heart, but how that looks can differ from day to day. It may mean being in this conversation, or going out and protesting, or writing a legislator, or helping someone who fell in the parking lot with their groceries. Every day I have to ask myself what staying visible means, so I can help keep the global body healthy—today.
KK: You write that we are often confused in thinking that the dream we hold is where we’re going, and so we miss the majesty of what the dream ignites within us. Can you give an example?
MN: There’s nothing wrong with working toward things we want, but I’ve learned to hold them loosely because they are not often where I’m going.
With every book I’ve written, the one that is published is never the one I started. Not one. I think it’s important to have goals, dreams, and ambitions but where we’re going will be beyond what we possibly could have imagined.
One of the stories in my book As Far as the Heart Can See is about a world-class cyclist who has been training for an important race.
When fear governs us, we look for sameness, and we confirm only what we already know. When love governs us, then I don’t want you to be me. I’ve had enough of me … Then, together we knit the fabric of humanity.
Training to Meet the Heron
The day of the race, he is so far ahead that he can’t see the other racers. As he comes down a hill, out of nowhere a great blue heron swoops over his handlebars, wings spread wide. The cyclist is stunned because the heron has opened something he’s been chasing. He stops, straddles the bike, not knowing how to continue. Soon, the other racers will catch up.
Now we move years later. And once in a while if you ask him, “What cost you the race?” he will say, “I didn’t lose the race, I left it.” Someone might think, Well, that’s all very poetic, but he did lose the race. He didn’t come in first.
I hold it differently, because I think he actually trained to meet the heron—which changed his life—and if you would have told him that he was training to meet a heron, then he wouldn’t have trained.
KK: He’d have said you were crazy.
MN: Yes, because he couldn’t have imagined it. But he needed the training to be available to the heron, just as we need to work at what we are doing—holding it loosely—so it can bring us to a more alive place than we ever imagined.
We still need our goals, dreams, and ambition, but we need not make gods of them. Often, our dreams don’t come true, but if we give our all to them, sometimes we come true—and that is more important.
Mark Nepo has been a poet, teacher, and storyteller for more than 40 years and was the keynote speaker at the 2014 World Day of Prayer at Unity Village. His New York Times No. 1 best-seller The Book of Awakening (Conari, 2000) was just republished in a special 20th anniversary edition. His latest book, The Book of Soul: 52 Paths to Living What Matters, will be published by St. Martin’s in May. Visit marknepo.com.
This article appeared in Unity Magazine®.