Interviewsand Articles


The Journey of Awakening: Conversation with Mark Nepo

by Marianna Caccaitore, Dec 19, 2011



Dec 10 2011 
Mark Nepo is a New York Times bestselling author, poet and his latest book The Book of Awakenings is currently #12 on the New York Times Bestsellers list. In 2010 Oprah Winfrey featured The Book of Awakenings on her Ultimate Favorite Things show. His latest book is called As Far As The Heart Can See, and his upcoming book, which will be released in 2012 by Simon and Schuster is called Seven Thousand Ways to Listen.  On this show, we're going to explore the tag line for The Book of Awakenings: Have the life you want by being fully present to the life you have. So Mark welcome and thank you. 
Marianna: Thank you. I'd like to begin our Journey of Awakening today with a sense of gratitude for being incarnate, here and now, as a human being. I'm wondering if you could help us get there by sharing your version of the Buddhist story about how rare it is to be born human.
Mark: Sure. As you say, wakefulness starts with our just remembering again and again our appreciation for really how rare it is to be here at all. As you know from my work, and any readers know, that I’m a cancer survivor. After all of that, I've come to feel that there is really no ‘bad weather’. The only bad weather is no weather. So it really puts things in a different perspective. But the story—one of the stories of Buddha—is that one of his students came and asked him, “How rare is it to be born as a human being?” and Buddha supposedly said, “Well imagine a tortoise in the ocean, on the bottom of the ocean, and it slowly rises, breaks surface and looks around, and then goes back to the bottom and goes back to sleep. The tortoise wakes a second time and now is moved back to the surface. The odds of it breaking surface in the same exact spot twice—that's how rare it is to be born in human form.”
Marianna: Each time I hear this story, it doesn't matter—it's fresh every time and I'm just struck…
Mark: And what it again suggests is this: I love all the new technology. I don't want to give it up …but one of the things I think we need to be aware of is that if we don't meet it with our own presence and inner journey, the structure and habits of technology inadvertently become our values. So we can record anything—we can stop it, we can replay it, but all of it to say what this beautiful little story says—life is unrepeatable. Every moment is unique and rare and that can fill us with terror on the one hand, but it also fills us with wonder and awe at how precious everything is and how it requires and asks us to constantly show up all the time.
Marianna: Right. I’m noticing even now just being fully present one of the tools I'm using is my breath. You know this—we get into moments when life just is busy and we're moving fast and maybe even, at times, our heart rate is up. There's a little anxiety but when I stop for a moment, just the topic you and I are talking about, suddenly here I am, fully present in this moment, in this interview fully and completely with you.
Mark: Yes and the breath of course, all the traditions speak of breath in contemplative and meditative practices. They've worked with it for years. But even the metaphor of it, just physically, because when we breathe, it's at the same time our breath, but of course we’re taking in the air that's everywhere and when we exhale what was now our breath is mixing with everything out there. So when we slow down we return to being an inlet where the individual soul is constantly mixing who and what we are with everything that is not us, with everything that is larger than us. And you know, it's like when we take an emotional breath, if you will, or a mental breath or a memory breath or a nature breath—we are doing the same thing. We are allowing everything larger than us to move inside us, take a piece of us, help restore us. And then as we exhale we offer something back out into the world.
Marianna: Right. It's this dance of giving and receiving in every breath we take. When you were speaking it made me think what a metaphor—no it’s more than a metaphor—what a real experience this is of oneness. We're all sharing breath together.
Mark: One of the things I’m learning as I get older and after staying on the journey, falling down and getting up, one thing I’m learning is being awake. In addition to allowing us to experience more, in addition to our relationships being more real and integral, being fully present and authentic is the admission ticket to experiencing oneness.
Marianna: Right, right.
Mark: We have these amazing things “Minds”, and we can comprehend oneness but that's not the same thing as experiencing oneness.
Marianna: So this makes me think again about meditation. When you're in that place—for me my breath is the thing that takes me kind of one layer or two or three layers deeper than the surface world. When I’m moving into a meditation—let’s say we’re in a room full of a people meditating—we feel the experience of oneness with the people in that room so palpably when we come out of the meditation and begin to look around.
Mark: There's a paradox and I talk about paradox a lot because they continue to be the great teachers. Paradox among many ways of speaking about it—it's the moment when more than one thing is true. And how do we hold that? Our mind can’t hold it. Only our heart can, and one of the paradoxes about practice and meditation is practice is always for living, but the practice itself isn't living. The practice is valuable, but then how do we bring it into our lives? So it's important to practice so we can feel our breath, so we can still our minds, but very little is actually urgent in life. If someone is bleeding or can't breathe, that requires action immediately but most everything else, though it feels urgent, isn’t. We can take that breathing that we practice and use it, inhabit it, wherever we are. And we forget that. We don't use it.
One of the most important practices in wakefulness is the constant awareness to try, and I say try because we’re human so we don't always do it, but to try and integrate when we're out there in the gas line or the supermarket or waiting at a doctor’s office when we don't feel well.
Marianna Right -- you know I'm remembering when I was facilitating support groups with adults who were in grief. I was often in a room with 8 or 9 people. They were parents of young children, and somebody important had died. A spouse or a child were the most common losses. There was one person who was speaking, so nine people were holding space for one who was sharing something about their grief experience and journey. And you can imagine there were times, as a facilitator, my heart was beating fast. I’d be hearing a hard story to hear and I’d want to be of service in some way that is well-received and useful and welcomed by the person who’s speaking. And in my desire to want to do something, I would be thinking of what to say next. It was hard to be present. It was my breath, my years of practicing meditation had kicked in, and it was my breath that began to almost operate on its own. I began doing a slow, deep inhalation and exhalation and pretty soon my heart rate slowed down and I found my mind wasn't thinking of other things. I really was fully present and available to this present moment and this one person in this very room hearing this very story.
Mark: Let me take a moment here because, Marianna you're so kind to interview people me like me and everything, but I just want to note that the work you have done on your own and your own wisdom and would like to alert people to your book on how to walk with grief with a loved one and want to bring that up
Marianna Thank you so much. The book is called Being there for Someone in Grief and you can learn about it on my website which is my name or by Googling the book title. Mark, I'm wondering if you can give us a bit of background on your own life—particularly the time during your cancer journey when, I remember, you had a little chat with God. If you survived you promised to really be here. Can you tell a bit about that?
Mark: Sure. Well you know I’m 60 and it's now going on 24 years plus since the heart of my cancer journey. Hard to believe it's almost a quarter century, it feels a long time ago and like yesterday. I was in my mid 30s when I found myself with a large growth that turned out to be a tumor growing in my skull bone on the right backside of my head and it grew quite large—it was the size of a grapefruit, both pushing in on my brain and growing out. And it turned out it was a rare form of lymphoma. So I went through what turned out to be a three-year intense journey where I almost died. And the first part was that this tumor was rare and inexplicable and I was very close to having a craniotomy—which is brain surgery, and the side effects that were greatly possible were loss of memory and speech—which are like knees to a quarterback for a poet! And also I’d never been ill, so I was terrified of everything—of everything. My middle name was Put Me out. Everyone I met along the way, I’d just say, “put me out”, and of course my karma was this: I couldn't be put out because no one knew what they would find in that tumor if they opened it. They had to not use anesthesia, in case they needed to operate once they opened it. Within such a short time frame, they couldn't use anesthesia twice. So all the tests and everything I had to go through, I had to go through awake—which even in my thirties wasn't lost on me—I needed to be awake to move through this.
So the first thing I learned through that [experience] was the gift of impermanence. We learn about impermanence, the Buddhists talk about impermanence and we think immediately it means we're all going to die—which we will.  But within a life, impermanence means that nothing, not pain, not fear—nothing will last or stay the same. And I learned very early on that terror is when we get locked into a moment of fear, and we believe that this is the way it's going to be forever. I will never get out of this monument of fear, or pain—that's terror. There's a whole another kind of pain—chronic pain—that's a whole other issue that deserves our compassion and attention, but I’m talking here about passages and moments of fear and pain. So I learned that even though I hated it, I didn't like it and I was terrified—it would pass—it would pass. So I went through all this and the tumor in my skull—after all kinds of tests and procedures and an open biopsy—the tumor vanished and it was a miracle. And I was thrown back into life like Jonas spit out of the mouth of the whale—except the life that I had entered this journey from, was gone. There was no life to return to that I knew of. So one of the deep things that happened to me was that in the midst of this there were several times when I was thrown below all names. Through fear, through pain, through coming close to dying, there were moments when I forgot my name, and only knew the spirit underneath the names I could be given. So coming back into life, yes, I’m Mark and I respond to that name—but that name is a doorway to all that is unnamable that is within me, and that I move through life with. But within a year of being thrown back into life, there was a sister tumor discovered on my back—on the 8th rib of my back, on the left side. The tumor on my brain was so dramatic that nobody, not even me, noticed this little bump on that rib. So, within about ten months, that started to grow, and there I was. That was my deepest moment of despair. I felt—did I blow the miracle? Did I not do something I was supposed to do? I didn't need another wake up call. This was when I was afraid I might die. And I learned that miracle is a process and not an event. Because now I had to go to a thoracic surgeon who removed that rib and its adjacent muscles—and now I realized that the surgeon was a part of the miracle. And then I had to have aggressive chemotherapy and even the damn chemo was a part of the miracle. And after four months of very aggressive therapy, the chemo started to kill me. And I had to stop and say, no, I’m not going to do this anymore. It had started to give me neuropathy—a deadening of the nerve endings in your body—and it also gave me an ulcer on my esophagus.
Marianna: We're back and we're talking to Mark Nepo, NYT bestselling author. His book, The Book of Awakening, is currently #12 on the NYT bestsellers list. He has been sharing with us the story of his own cancer journey and just before the break he was talking about being thrust back into life. Mark, lets continue with that.
Mark: Sure. I think this bears upon our talk on Wakefulness and having the life that we want by being present to the life we have. You know we really don't have any other choice but to be present to the life we have. We think we do, you know, we dream of everything from constructing pyramids, to conquering Mount Everest, to making millions—to all kinds of things—but the truth is that other than being fully present and caring and giving our best, we don't have a lot of control. So I found myself back in life, where I had been in my mid thirties, and I was trying to contribute and help change the world and all of a sudden the world was changing me, the world was opening me. And through that opening I have been able, paradoxically, to make a greater contribution for having been opened. And I think the things, among many, that came out of my cancer journey was that through no wisdom of mine, I woke up. And like snow melting into the ground in March, I had been living more in my head and that all melted into my heart.
Marianna: Ah.
Mark: From that point forward, I realized that it was more powerful—living from my heart. I’d like to say that there was some wisdom on my part, but it just happened because of what I went through, and so I lived lower. I lived from the center of my chest. And there’s one other thing. I was blessed. I’m Jewish, I was raised Jewish, but I practice everything, and that comes out of this journey, because I was blessed to have people from all faiths and all traditions offer help, prayer, all kinds of support. So blessed to still be here, I knew immediately that I was not wise enough to know what worked and what didn't. And I was faced with the challenge to believe in everything, and all my work in the last 24 years, my books and my teaching, has been centered on a devotion to discovering and sharing where all the traditions meet in the middle, out of what common center do they come, and how can we make use of them in our daily lives.
Marianna: And you so beautifully, inspiringly articulate that in the things that you write, from your poetry to your fiction to your nonfiction-—and even, you know, you and I are friends and have spent time together, you and Susan, your wife, and I. And in just average daily conversation, the way in which I find myself going deeper with you than I do with most other people—you just completely live it.
Mark: Thank you. I wrote a poem this morning. I’m just embarking on a writing sabbatical for three months—I’m really excited to have this time carved out. This poem—these poems—come through being open. I don't really feel anymore that I author these as much as I am in conversation with life, and the words are the trail of that conversation. This is called:
Winter Confession
I’ve tried to follow every wind and
listen for its source. I’ve tried to follow
every light, and with my face in the sun,
all the things we carry that are afraid of
the light scurry to the back of my mind.
I’ve tried to find the truth and when I
have, I’ve found it’s everywhere, and that
I step over it in my pain or want for some-
thing I can’t have. Thankfully there have
been ordinary blessings. When I followed
your presence into what would be our love.
When I took a left in the path that led to
the sea and stayed there for days, putting
down all the names I’d been given. How
months later, while dropping a book of
poems by George Seferis, a wet clump
of grass stained his instruction to speak
plainly. And the small light that brought
me back while I was in surgery. It was a
crack of dawn promising so much, if I
could just get up and walk beyond death’s
slim tree. And here I am, all these years
later, mouth open, still in awe. Yesterday,
in the pines, my dog put her nose in the
snow. What a teacher. I slipped to one
knee and did the same.

Marianna: Quite beautiful. Thank you.
Mark: Thank you. But you know I think that there is always a thread of light nearby. It doesn't mean, as you well know—and you do this so well in your own work around grief with people—it doesn't mean that we turn to the light instead of the dark. Life is this complicated, beautiful, mysterious, inextricable fabric of light and dark, of joy and pain, of love and suffering, and it’s understandable that as human beings we'd like to separate that out. And people have been trying to do that since the beginning of time. But you know what? It doesn't work.
Marianna: Earlier today I was on your website, and on the home page you have a video clip of your interview with Oprah. She reads one of the segments from The Book of Awakening, and you share a story. You were going through, a difficult, painful place—and then noticed at the window, a bird coming to land on a birdfeeder.
Mark: Yes, recently, in the last couple of years, I went through a very difficult physical journey with my stomach. I’m fine now, but I had this situation where I’d get these very deep pains in my stomach. They were unpredictable. I wouldn't know when they'd appear. It was summer time and we had bird feeders, as many people do, and we love when all the birds come. In the summer where we are, one or two days a year, these Baltimore Orioles come and they are brilliant birds. So the oriole came to the feeder and just as I was looking at the oriole, one of these painful attacks came. And there we have it. Both are real. I can't deny the pain but nor can I deny the beauty of the oriole. And it’s not just to honor the beauty; it's that the beauty of the oriole is medicine. It's understandable that moments of pain grab all our attention in their intensity. But then as they shift, and the intense moment starts to pass, what do we do? I don't want to deny my pain but I need to be able to let in that beauty, and we are faced with these choices in more subtle forms every day. Every day. You know…
Marianna: Every minute of every day.
Mark: Sometimes in the world there is such a need for justice. So many times there has always been, in every era. And sometimes—rarely—justice and healing are the same thing, but often they are not. Why that is so I don't know, but that it is so—that I do know. Therefore one of the practices of being human is that we are forced to choose between justice and healing.
Marianna: Give me an example.
Mark: Well, an example is, you know, as we've shared at different times, I've had a very difficult journey growing up with my parents. I don't know for how many years I kept the wounds of that journey open as evidence for a trial that would never come. So what was I doing? The wounds would start to heal, but I would keep them open so there would be fresh evidence when that law and order trial would come. But the trial never came and now I was faced with—yes from my perspective, what I went through was unjust. It hurt, but at some point I had to choose between justice and healing. Everything about life and my own nature wanted to heal, and I kept opening it, the wounds, to keep them fresh and clear and memorable, so I could make them account when the time would come. So this is between judgment and compassion. Now again, it doesn't mean that people aren't accountable—this isn't a cheap form of forgiveness, but it means—where do we live? Whether it’s those kinds of wounds, or the physical stomach pain and the bird, do we live in the wound and the pain or do we live in the greater miracle that can hold our pain not denying either? I think we tend, in our world, to go to extremes. We either try to skip over the suffering—that's a kind of Pollyanna view of the world, a world of denial—or we drown in the pain and become pessimistic and nihilistic.
Marianna We're going to have to take a break in a minute, but I think this is kind of the development of a porous heart where we can actually hold it all—not to deny whatever it is that breaks our heart.
Mark: And that leads us to generosity
Marianna: That's right, that's right, that's right.
Marianna Welcome back, we're hear with my dear friend Mark Nepo author of The Book of Awakening and we just talked about this experience of opening into kind of a porous heart, being able to hold what it is that brings us sorrow and pain, or what we feel when we see a homeless people on the street. And those things that connect us to others and bring us hope and enrich our lives.
Mark: One of the things here—and this is where the distortion of our fundamental rights in the Declaration of Independence comes in, the inalienable right. We have this right to be happy, and we do, but I think that's been distorted over time into an entitlement to be happy. And happiness all by itself is overrated because it's not by itself the whole of our human experience—just as any one mood or feeling is not by itself the whole human experience. Joy, to me, is much deeper and lasting than happiness. All of this to say that the suffering we encounter—and I’m not a cheerleader for suffering—it’s more like spiritual physics. It's like gravity. It's not debatable. There's gravity. There’s suffering. It goes with the landscape. That’s kind of how it is.  So, how do we deal with it and how do we help each other? For suffering, in my experience, enlarges the heart. Everything I've ever been through has extended the ground of compassion that I am able to be with in in the world. After going through cancer, I can never not have compassion for anyone in a life-threatening situation. 
I went through a period when I was overweight, and that’s a relative term. I was overweight for me, whatever that meant. I didn't feel comfortable. It was more than I felt comfortable with, and having been through that, I can never not have compassion for anyone who is more than they would like to be. I realize having been through it, nobody decides they are going to be overweight. You wake up one day and you're in this larger thing that’s you. And it’s like how did this happen? And now, how do I change this? And now having been through what I went through with my stomach—my God! You know I was blessed because this stomach condition I had resolved itself but it’s a condition that can be chronic and my heart goes out—I don't know how people live like that. So this leads to something that we both are connected to. This leads to generosity. The more compassion we have—and literally the word means being with, it means keeping company. So the more compassion we have—the more we accept that we can just be with people—the more it leads to us wanting to help each other. That leads to what I feel is one of the challenges of our age: staying in relationship.
Marianna It's really the work our BFJ chapters are doing. We're about to open a chapter in Washington DC called Planting Seeds—a Bread for the Journey chapter. And this chapter is being started by a young man who, through his church, became involved in serving a homeless population. I think they were giving them shelter on cold winter nights at the church and he began volunteering. One thing led to another and he began to develop a deeper relationship with these people who had lost everything and now he's about to gather together a few friends and open a chapter of Bread for the Journey and this small band of people will reach out to people they know, their friends and colleagues and invite them to contribute. And together with their little pool of money, they will help in various ways. Whether it be to get somebody back into a home or helping with the economics of that person’s life—getting them back on track financially— all manner of things.
Mark: You know I am a BFJ groupie and have been for years. For folks listening, this is an amazing organization, all over the country, of folks helping folks, and started by our dear friend Wayne Muller years ago and his belief in the small gesture, the small kindness that matters. What I so love about Bread for the Journey is that it listens with heart to people, and tries to give the one missing piece that will make something work.
Marianna: Right and so much of it is around relationship. We enter into relationship with the people in the community who are in need, or those creating a program to help those in need. No written grant proposals. The grants we give are small amounts—$100 or $1500—but we enter into relationship with the person and there’s something there that has roots that grow deep. And that brings a kind of healing that can’t be gotten any other way than to really be present and available. And getting back to what we were talking about earlier—this business of keeping our hearts open to the sorrows of life, and at the same time awake to the birds that land on the window sill, you know this, how do we invite "other" into our life—this is one of the most beautiful ways, and the people at BFJ do just that. Thank you for your kind words Mark.
Mark: Obviously, when we help, the help that goes to people—when it’s their turn to be in need and our turn to give—is in itself a reward. But the other two kinds of rewards for giving is that giving is medicine for others, and giving heals us. And the other thing is that kindness reveals kinship. Kindness—the act of kindness reveals like kind. It gives us connection to everything greater than us and everything else that is kind in the universe. I think it’s a really powerful, powerful thing, and it’s such a small thing. I remember one of the hundreds of BFJ projects in the Santa Fe chapter I think. There was a local small town [in Northern New Mexico] that had a drug problem with its teenagers. The elders in the town were creating a youth center, to give the kids some place to be, to pull the culture away from the drug scene. And they had everything. They had it all ready to go but they couldn’t open because they ran out of money and couldn’t afford the required flood lights. Bread for the Journey gave them money for floodlights and they opened the center and within a few years the whole culture shifted. This giving of the one small thing that made the whole thing happen.
Marianna Right. We have hundreds of stories like that if you go to the website and click on Success Stories you’ll be able to read story after story all around the country where small amounts of money made a big difference
Mark: Let me offer this poem, it’s actually a stanza from a poem of mine:
The mystery is that whoever shows up when we dare to give
Has exactly what we need
Hidden in their trouble.
Marianna That is exactly the whole story encapsulated as a poet would do in a few small words. I am really delighted with that. I want to use this opportunity to wrap up and say thank you for the time you gave us today this has been one of the most enlivening interviews.
Mark: It’s a joy.
Marianna I’d like to close with these words:
May all beings be happy
May all beings be safe
May all beings be free.


About the Author

Marianna Cacciatore is the Executive Director of Bread for the Journey a national non-profit dedicated to nurturing the seed of generosity in every human heart. She hosts their radio program: Ordinary People -- Extraordinary Deeds.


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