Journey to the Sacred: An Interview With Mark Nepo

Mark Nepo is a philosopher, poet, and teacher whose work has inspired millions of readers to take the spiritual plunge. I recently caught up with this modern-day magus at his home to talk about his new book,
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Mark Nepo is a philosopher, poet, and teacher whose work has inspired millions of readers to take the spiritual plunge. Best known for The Book of Awakening, a No. 1 New York Times bestseller (and Oprah favorite), Nepo has taught poetry and spirituality for more than 30 years, advocating "the usefulness of daily inner life to help us stay close to what is sacred."

As a cancer survivor, Nepo is most concerned with what he calls "the great ordinary things that all of us have to face: the prospect of dying without having truly lived and the prospect of living without having truly loved. And the joy of discovering this with others." I recently caught up with this modern-day magus at his home in Kalamazoo, Mich., to talk about his new book, Seven Thousand Ways To Listen.

Matousek: You talk about the "unending pull to center" being our greatest teacher, which I thought was just a beautiful phrase. Could you tell me what you mean by that?

Nepo: Sure. In the way that I experience life, the physical world is really just the tip of the iceberg of reality. Whether it's trees or stones or water or animals or stars, everything has an ineffable interior quality. Indigenous Polynesian cultures use the word mana to refer to the luminous glow of spirit that's in everything, and Jung appropriated and defined mana in a psycho-spiritual way as the unconscious influence of one being on another -- like the sun giving off warmth and light where things grow toward it. When we can be fully present, we grow toward each other. I feel that at the center of all life and traditions there is a common well of being that informs all of our lives and how we interact and live out in the world. For example, in the Bodhisattva tradition, being informs everything from the inside out, and it helps us be here together in the world.

Matousek: And the Bodhisattva takes a vow not to leave the world until everyone has achieved liberation.

Nepo: Yes, and what's so touching to me about the notion of a Bodhisattva is that given the way life is, I don't believe that we're going to get to that place. We're here with the beautiful flaws, the amazing majestic mess of it all. So when the Bodhisattvas say, "I'm not going until everybody can go," in a way they're agreeing to keep each other company and find that amazing state right here.

Matousek: So choosing to stay in samsara is like how the Dalai Lama talks about keeping your heart open in hell.

Nepo: Yes. I think at that level of full being and compassion here on earth, those dualities fall away. It's all right here wherever we are. I'm a cancer survivor for 25 years, but it feels like yesterday -- and a lifetime ago. But I remember about 10 years out, I had this really special bumpy day where my car broke down and I was caught out in the rain. Then I stopped, dripping wet in the rain, and I just thought: This is perfect.

Matousek: Right. And you felt gratitude instead of, "Lord, why me?"

Nepo: Absolutely. The only bad weather is no weather.

Matousek: Well, that's what I always say to people. It beats the alternative, you know, when they say how terrible their lives are. Have you always been a seeker?

Nepo: I think so. Before I knew any language for anything, even as a child, the world and god, nature, Tao or whatever you want to call it, always spoke to me, in metaphor. Before I knew what spirit or poetry was, I felt that when I did have solitude, I was in conversation. I was already listening to things larger than me and I felt at home there, and that's what opened me more deeply and turned me toward that center. So when I went through my cancer journey in my mid-30s -- I'm 61 now -- I was blessed to have people from many different faiths and traditions trying to help me. For the last 25 years, I've been a student of all paths and really committed to trying to discover where they meet and emanate from and how that translates into a daily kind of practical spirituality.

Matousek: Nothing could be more important. Or more complicated. Many people have very idealistic notions about what enlightenment is and what it means to lead a "spiritual life." They think it doesn't include vice and darkness and brokenness and mess and all the stuff that any real spirituality knows is the fuel that keeps you going. It sounds like you have a much more organic mystical view that includes the earth, and it includes some sorrow.

Nepo: Absolutely. I don't personally believe in an arrived state of enlightenment. I feel that being human is a constant practice of return. We have moments of clarity, and then we're confused. We have incredibly sensitive periods of being awake, and then we're numb. Being human is a very universal and a very personal practice of learning how to return when we can't get access to what we know. This is acute in our world of judgment and duality and good and bad and left and right and up and down -- none of which is very helpful or specific enough to let us live into a practice. And this opens up a whole terrain of learning how we listen. In the last 10 years I've been trying to understand, in a very real way, the Buddhist sense of seeing things as they are. All we have to do is look at relationships. A certain kind of pain comes from insisting that people be what they're not, or holding onto the hope of what a relationship should be.

Matousek: In Seven Thousand Ways to Listen, you write about "staying in conversation with all that is beyond our awareness." How does listening help us stay close to the sacred?

Nepo: I think that paradox is a great teacher. But the paradox here is that we have this amazing capacity in our minds and hearts to learn and gain insights and then to build a kind of personal storehouse of knowledge. The underside is that those insights harden and fill the spaces in our hearts and minds. They become assumptions, conclusions and judgments. When we learn to listen, we can meet life completely anew, everyday, but that is hard practice. Let's go back to relationships: My wife and I have been married 18 years, and I know her well enough that I can finish her sentences -- but listening means I don't. Listening means that I say, "Who are you now?"

I know how she thought about this or that, or about me or us, or about life or death. But if I ask, "Who are you now? How do you see this now?" I have to be willing to put all the information in my storehouse away and truly respond from where my heart is this instant. I think this is what meditation practice is all about -- trying to put everything down and simply breathe and return to what it means to be alive now, and then move from there. The real challenge is to remember to see clearly when everything's flying around us and we're wrapped up in our wounds and traumas.

Matousek: Intimacy only happens when we learn to listen?

Nepo: In the moment. The moment is the doorway -- the ever-present threshold to staying in conversation with everything that's larger than us. When I can be fully present and lean into whatever moment is before me, whether it's blissful or difficult, that is a doorway to oneness -- it's the sweet ache of being alive. I think happiness is overrated, but joy is the key to the thousands of possible moods we can feel. And when we can rest in that joy, then peace is the moment of openness that holds all feeling. As a kid, I would have this depth of feeling that somebody labeled sadness -- and I was told that I should get rid of this sadness, but I've never been able to. Then I realized that it's a much deeper feeling -- it's the sweet ache of being here, and it's one of my oldest friends. It's how I feel the pull of the universe and where I'm connected. So, how do we listen to where we're connected, because that opens up our compassion for everything?

Matousek: It sounds like you are describing the state of longing.

Nepo: Yes. Longing is often the thing we feel when we're awakened. But we often confuse the longing, which is sacred, with the object or experience that prompted it. It's like the romanticism of early first love. The first time we fall in love, our heart is opened and we say, "Wow, it must be this person. I can never be away from this person." It could be the same feeling for a teacher, a worldview, or a set of principles. Just substitute "first love" with anything, and our deeper listening practice becomes, "How do we honor both what is awakened in us and the things that awaken us, because we do need each other to become awake?" Plato said, "We're born whole, but we need each other to be complete." Think of it like a match: It has the capacity to make light, but that can't happen until it strikes something. We constantly need to strike against experience, and each other, and the world, to release the light that we carry within. The underside of that is addiction -- believing in the striking and not the light.

Matousek: You took the words out of my mouth. I was just going to say that. Jung called addiction "a prayer gone awry." We mistake the stimulus for the sacred longing itself.

Nepo: And knowing the difference is the first step to pulling out of it.

Matousek: When you talk about being "worn open by the world," what do you mean?

Nepo: There are many ways that we grow, but there are two major ways: We shed what no longer works, or we're broken open. If we're unwilling to shed, then we will be broken open. Through shedding, we are worn down, just as nature is eroded to its beauty. I think that through suffering, human beings are eroded to our beauty. We travel vast distances to see cliffs that are beautifully worn and hollowed by the sea over thousands of years. The original definition of sacrifice means, giving up what no longer works in order to stay close to what is sacred. There is a creation story in The Book of Awakening from the New Hebrides where it was believed that humans maintained their immortality by shedding their skin like snakes or crabs. In the story, Ul-ta-marama, which literally means Change-skin of the world, was a chief of a tribe in the New Hebrides. One day she went to shed her skin as she'd done many times before, taking it off and putting it in the river. But as she went back to her family, her teenage daughter saw this beautiful young woman and said, "That's not my mother. I want my mother." She tried to tell her daughter that in time she would have to teach her how to shed her own skin. But the daughter was getting very anxious and afraid and angry and said, "No, you're more like my sister. I want my mother." To appease her daughter, Ul-ta-marama went back to the river and put on her old skin. But when we put on an old skin -- something that no longer works -- in order to appease the conflicts, fear, or anger of a loved one, we give up our access to the eternal.

Getting back to your question about how we are worn to who we are by the world. I love the analogy of a flute. Flutes were originally carved from bone and wood, so no two were the same, and therefore no two could play the same song. So each being on earth is such a flute, unique, and experience carves holes in us. It doesn't feel good. It hurts. But once the holes are carved, the breath of spirit can move through each one of us and we can discover and play our song. This is a deep form of listening. Whatever holes are ours, we have to let them be carved all the way through. Otherwise we will never get to our song. We have a choice: To meet life through compassion and discover our song and listen to the songs of others, or wind up playing out the need to do that by carving holes in things smaller than us.

Matousek: What do you mean by that?

Nepo: I mean that if I don't face what is mine to face, that need doesn't go away. I will play it out on you. This is projection. We tend to do it on things that are smaller than us because it's easier. I think listening is the first step to stopping violence for two reasons. If we want to lessen the violence in the world, the first thing we can do is face what is ours to face, and not play it out elsewhere. And the other is as Longfellow said, that if I were to truly listen to my enemy's sorrows, they would stop being my enemy. Listening is the beginning of peace. We need to meet, embrace and work with what we're given. For what we want and what we're given often serve two different gods. And how we respond to their meeting determines our path.

Matousek: How would you characterize these two different gods?

Nepo: It's the god of want, the god of "I think I know what's best for me and the world" vs. the god of what is. I learned this very starkly on my cancer journey, because I was trying to change the world and all of a sudden, life was changing me. Sooner or later, every one of us who is alive, no matter how gifted, bright, lucky, or thoughtful, will not get what we want. Sometimes it's not important. But I could lose my wife. I could lose my sight. When we don't get what we want, there's a legitimate grieving, and then the spiritual journey truly begins, because not getting what we want breaks our self-reference; and once that is broken, we are aware that we are a part of a larger whole and this is where relationship begins. It changes everything.

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