Mark Nepo, poet, cancer survivor and author of the new book Seven Thousand Ways to Listen, show us how to get back to who we really are... despite our fears.
We all have moments of clarity and then we're confused. We're awake and then we're numb. We're buoyant and then we're down. Just as we inhale and exhale constantly, our wakefulness ebbs and flows.
The practice of being human is the practice of coming awake, staying awake and returning to wakefulness when we go to sleep. We go to sleep because we're mortal—not because there's anything wrong with us. This opening and closing is part of the human journey. Therefore the practice of being a spirit—in a body, in the world—is a practice of returning to our center, where we can know the world fully.
Life has taught me two things about being centered. First, returning to our center, our solid place of inborn knowing, is only nourishing because it is through our core that we find our connection to the common Center of All Life. As thirst would drive you to a well, to drop your bucket and pull up water from the underground spring that feeds all wells, the individual soul is such a well that draws on the water of Spirit that feeds all souls. We need to know where our well is.
Second, the fact that we need to return to our center lets us know that we will drift away from what matters. This drifting is part of being human, and so, there is an ongoing need to find our way back to what matters.
Most of us are educated to think that if we work hard enough and are good enough and disciplined enough, we'll crack the secret of life and live at the end of all trouble. While these traits are helpful tools, being human doesn't work that way. From the very start, we're asked to stay as close as we can to all that is alive. The point of our experience is not to escape life but to live it; and the wakefulness and sleepiness, the agitation and calm, the joy and suffering we encounter, are continual. Our aim is not to eliminate these conditions but to navigate them from a living center, the way you'd steer a boat at sea while balanced in its stable bottom.
So we each have to discover a very personal practice of how to return to what matters when we lose access to what we know. Losing our way is even more painful in our world of judgment and duality—a world of good and bad, and up and down, and more and less—none of which is specific enough to be helpful or to let us decipher the wisdom in direct experience.
I use the word "wakefulness" as a term for enlightenment. I believe enlightenment isn't a place we arrive at but a process we stay in. Wakefulness isn't a destination; it's a song the heart sings like a bird singing at the sight of light. Our time on Earth is constantly shifting and changing, and being human itself is a paradox—the being is infinite and the human is very finite. We are wonderfully left to live out the gifts and tensions of both.
Next: How to achieve wakefulness
The first lesson of wakefulness is to keep opening our heart so we can meet what we're given; for meeting what we're given reveals the heart's deeper logic and therefore the logic of Spirit. There will always be things that pull us away from our center, things that dishearten us. And there will always be things we can rely on to bring us back to our center, things that will hearten us.
Here are some thing that dishearten us into life-draining positions:
The fear of the unknown—that I won't see it coming—infects our distrust of the days.
The fear of being undone—that the worst possible outcome will happen—breeds cynicism.
The fear of breaking—that things will shatter and fall apart—makes an occupation of anticipating pain.
The fear of rejection—that I will speak the truth and everyone will leave— leads to the practice of hiding.
The fear of death—that the clock will keep beating louder—enslaves us to panic and urgency.
All of these fears in passing are quite normal. It's when we give them primacy in our life that they become disabling and discouraging.
Thankfully, there are also intentions that counter these fears and bring us back to center. Let me name a few:
To strengthen trust, we can expand our ways of being to include surprise and deepen our ways of feeling to include wonder and curiosity.
To strengthen what is possible, we can imagine and spend equal time with what might go right as with what might go wrong.
To strengthen our ability to integrate pain, we can try to be like water and learn how to absorb what falls into us and how to flow instead of shatter.
To shrink our habits of hiding, we can listen to experience as a teacher and wait in the open for truth to show itself, the way trees grow toward the sun.
And to shrink the press and urgency of time, we can linger in the moment and try to accept our death.
I invite you to make a list of personal examples of things that dishearten you and things that hearten you. Which is troubling you the most these days? And which is bringing you closer to life? Comparing the two will help you begin a personal practice of how you can return to your center, when confused and in fear.
That we go numb along the way is to be expected. Even the bravest among us, who give their lives to care for others, go numb with fatigue, when the heart can take in no more, when we need time to digest all we meet. Overloaded and overwhelmed, we start to pull back from the world, so we can internalize what the world keeps giving us. Perhaps the noblest, private act is the unheralded effort to return: to open our hearts once they've closed, to open our souls once they've shied away, to soften our minds once they've been hardened by the storms of our day.
Always, on the inside of our hardness and shyness and numbness is the face of compassion through which we can reclaim our humanity. Our compassion waits there to revive us. Regardless of what we face, few things are as challenging or rewarding as moving from what disheartens us to what heartens us. Choose one thing in the way and begin your journey back to center.
Mark Nepo is the author of 14 books and eight audio projects. He has taught in the fields of poetry and spirituality for than 40 years. His new book, Seven Thousand Ways to Listen, is now available from Simon & Schuster. His other books include the No. 1 New York Times bestseller The Book of Awakening, which was selected as one of "Oprah's Ultimate Favorite Things" in 2010. Mark has also appeared with Oprah on her "Super Soul Sunday" program on OWN TV. As a cancer survivor, Mark devotes his writing and teaching to the journey of inner transformation and the life of relationship. To learn more, please visit MarkNepo.com and ThreeIntentions.com.