How can suffering lead to wholeness? The beloved poet-philosopher explains.
Mark Nepo is an author and teacher with more than forty years experience teaching poetry and philosophy. His published works include The Book of Awakening, a New York Times Best Seller, and his newest Inside the Miracle: Enduring Suffering, Approaching Wholeness, a meditation on awakening, healing and impermanence. Featured on Oprah Winfrey's "Super Soul Sunday," Nepo devotes his writing and teaching to the process of inner transformation and the life of relationship. In this interview, we spoke about the paradox of healing, working with adversity, and the redemptive forces of beauty and wisdom.
Mark Matousek: At the start of your new book, you quote William Blake: "Without contraries, there can be no progression." Is this something that having cancer taught you?
Mark Nepo: Yes, and even though that journey was 28 years ago, it really changed how I see the world and experience life. I was in my thirties, had never been through anything physically challenging and was scared of everything. The lesson related to that quote came from this gentle man named Tom who was going through his own cancer journey.
He acquiesced to whatever anybody in the medical community wanted to do and didn't participate in his own healing. Over the course of a year and a half, I watched him fade away and die. He may have died, anyway, but he reflected what Blake said.
Just the opposite of Tom was a very strong woman by the name of Janice. She didn't believe in any medical intervention whatsoever, but relied on her own will and her own constitution. I watched her hold firm and not welcome any help, and she died a very drawn out and difficult death.
These people became teachers in how to find balance and when to trust what I know in my heart regardless of what anyone else says. They continue to influence me because I recognize their energy. I can dig in and be stubborn or I can acquiesce and welcome help. These lessons are accentuated so acutely when we're going through a life-threatening situation but extrapolate to ordinary times as well.
All you have to do is imagine holding a watermelon seed between your fingers, and if you squeeze it, it squirts out. That 'contrary action' creates progression. This is similarly true for both emotional and psychological movement.
MM: So finding the middle way between total acquiescence and shutting down is the path to utilizing the 'contrary energy' of a harsh diagnosis, for instance?
MN: Yes, but in my experience, it never works out that cleanly. There were times when I had to acquiesce and surrender, and there were times when I had to stand firm. What it really offers is the teaching that we have to follow our hearts.
With my cancer, I went through many different decisions. For my brain tumor, I had to initially say no to brain surgery and spinal chemotherapy, but when a tumor appeared on my rib and back, I had to say yes to thoracic surgery to remove that rib. And I had to say yes to chemotherapy, but when it started to damage me, I had to say no.
Following my heart and listening to spirit, I was led to the right decision at every turn. On the surface this seemed illogical and irrational but it leads to another Blake aphorism: "Straight is the road to improvement, but crooked is the road to genius."
MM: Allowing the crookedness of decisions that come from your heart is the way forward in those dark times.
MN: I have found that when I open my heart and hold nothing back in the moment, I feel the oneness of things. And when I can feel the unity of life, it gives me fresh eyes and open ears. It allows me to see differently, and therefore I make different decisions. One of the great gifts of being in the moment is that it will lead to the next moment authentically.
MM: You write that, at a certain point in the heat of your own struggle, "Faith is no longer a construct but some vital tool as urgent as an oar in the ocean, or a prayer in the modern world." What is the nature of your faith, Mark?
MN: Faith to me is not unquestioned belief in a principle, idea, tradition or ritual. Faith is a felt certainty in life itself, even knowing you might not survive. The sun doesn't stop shining because people are blind.
There was a difficult but revelatory moment in my life two weeks after a rib was removed in my back. I was throwing up from chemo every 20 minutes. It was oral medicine and I couldn't keep it down. My former wife and one of my oldest friends were with me. The three of us were in this Holiday Inn outside New York City, and at five in the morning, I'm sitting on the floor exhausted, and my former wife in her desperation and anger blurted out, "Where is God?"
I don't know where it came from, but I whispered, "Here. Right here." I saw very clearly in that moment, that to be broken is no reason to see all things as broken. The sun was coming up, and somewhere else in that Holiday Inn, two people were making love and further away, somebody was being born. I've spent the last 28 years inquiring into what came to me in the moment.
I think faith is a felt understanding of the currents of life and not painting the whole world with what we're going through. A great image for this, was what I learned from watching a baby duck in a lake. I was sitting on the shore, and this baby duck was curled up into itself asleep, bobbing on the water. I'd never seen such an amazing example of trust.
It made me think about our first experiences of swimming and how when we're first put in the water we start to sink, and the more we fight it the worse it is. But if we relax and let ourselves sink a little, then the buoyancy holds us up. The analogy is the same with the waters of existence.
Not to minimize what we're going through, but if we can relax and settle into a couple of inches, then the mystical buoyancy of existence will hold us up. It's not going to remove what we have to go through, but I think the metaphor is that those two inches are the most difficult to travel. Faith is that trust in those two inches, knowing that everything is not broken just because we are. The protestant theologian, Paul Tillich, said that faith is an act of ultimate concern. I love that.
MM: That reminds me of what Tagore said about faith. "Faith is the bird that feels the light and sings when the dawn is still dark."
MN: That's beautiful.
MM: You write, "The sighted fin only implies the wonder of the great fish pumping below and the sighted star only implies the ocean of light flooding the universe beyond the range of our eyes." Can you talk about the relationship between mystery, faith and gratitude?
MN: From the time I was a child, I've felt the physical universe was the tip of the iceberg. It's the manifestation of the unseen world, and that world is where everything is tied together and where the forces of life happen. I think of destiny as the manifestation of the unseen in the same way that trees and plants grow out of the ground. I think who we are, where we go, and what we do manifests out of the unseen, and that our destiny to be fully here.
Mystery is that terrain of the unseen. Faith allows us inquiry into the unseen spiritual physics and dynamics of things, because everything that matters is really intangible. Love, anger, disappointment... those things are not seeable. We see the manifestation of them though, just like we see the wind by the movement of the trees.
I don't think we can understand or see some of those spiritual physics if we don't have gratitude, because gratitude opens the door to mystery that's larger than our surface understanding and that lets the light come through.
MM: There's another great quote in the book that I'd like to mention. "When we cease to shed what's dead in us in order to soothe the fears of others, we remain partial." That says to me that unless we are true to who we are and grateful for who we are, we can't be whole.
MN: Absolutely. And this is one of the challenges of being human because we live in the midst of an essential paradox between solitude and community. We learn about mystery and life mostly in solitude. We have an experience and are so enlivened or confused or troubled by that, we want to say to others, "Did you experience that?" or "Is this crazy?" or "Isn't this beautiful?"
We have to trust our firsthand experience but if all we trust is what we know, we know very little. We need to learn from others, without giving up who we are. That puts us in the realm and shadow of community. In order to belong we give ourselves away.
What we're talking about here is one of the great metaphors of all time, Plato's allegory of the cave. To sum it up, nobody knows how everybody lives in this cave, out of the light, but it's a tradition. They're all fastened to a rock underground, and there are shadows on the wall from a fire that they don't see, so their priest, or whoever is the high leader of the group, interprets the shadows on the wall.
None of the people know what freedom is but one person's chains wore down; they crumbled and he was suddenly freed. He wandered out to the mouth of the cave where the fire was that was casting these shadows. Now to get into his direct experience of life, he has to run through the flames. So he does that and he gets a little burned but he's not hurt, and now he's stunned by the miracle of life. There are creatures that fly in the sky, and clear liquid that's flowing where he can see himself and can wash himself, and there's light, and there's grass, and he's just blown away.
He goes through a crisis wondering if he was dreaming but he's so excited about the life he's discovered. Then he remembers those he left behind so he goes back through the fire because he loves these people. He tells them, "Hey, you are not going to believe what I've found! Come, this is amazing!"
And of course they say, "You're interrupting the high priest, you're being disrespectful. Sit down and shut up."
He says, "No, no, you don't understand. This is unbelievable!"
And the priest doesn't do anything to dissuade them but they are so frightened of [the naysayer] that sadly, they stone him to death.
There's another version to this story, which is where they say, "Oh my god, you saw something. Take me out there, let me see it. Thank you!" This is another act of faith. And even today, we face this. This is not just political and religious fundamentalism, this is personal fundamentalism, where we're ready to stone someone who sees something we can't.
MM: It reminds me of the Bodhisattva path--coming back through the fire to draw people toward awareness and then being punished for it.
MN: The beauty of the Bodhisattva archetype in my interpretation, is freedom to leave the realm of suffering, but as they approach that liberation, they say, "I'm not gonna go until everybody can come with me." But I believe the Bodhisattva actually knows that not everybody's gonna make it. I don't know if strict Buddhists would interpret it this way but in essence, the Bodhisattva is accepting heaven here on earth and keeping people company to minimize suffering.
MM: That alone is a beautiful thing.