• June 2014

Mark Nepo Inspires Us in "The Book of Awakening"

In “The Book of Awakening: Having the Life You Want by Being Present to the Life You Have,” philosopher-poet and cancer survivor Mark Nepo offers a challenge.

He summons us to take each day one at a time, and to savor the beauty offered by life’s unfolding.

“My goal is to open you up to a new season of freedom and joy—an escape from deadening, asleep-at-the wheel sameness—that is both profound and clarifying,” he insists of the 429-page daybook that provides readers with 365 ideas to ponder.

“These are woven from my own story, the stories of others’ struggles with their humanness, and truths from the great wisdom traditions,” Nepo shares, noting that he was drawn to this form because as a poet, “I was longing for a manner of expression that could be as useful as a spoon.”

Stepping back, Nepo believes that in the last 25 years of his life before writing “The Book of Awakening,” the daybook has been answering a collective need.

“It has become a spiritual sonnet of our age, a sturdy container for small doses of what matters,” he says. “This book is meant to be of use, to be a companion, a soul friend. It is, indeed, a book of awakenings. To write this I’ve had to live it. It’s given me a chance to gather and share the quiet teachers I’ve met throughout my life. The journey of unearthing and shaping these entries has helped me bring my inner and outer life more closely together. It has helped me know and use my heart. It has made me more whole. I hope it can be such a tool for you.”

We hope so, too. Scroll down for five of our favorite passages.

Photo illustrations by Anna Paige Gibbs.


May 13: Feeling Our Way Through
Underneath, there is only one emotion.

Nepo writes: I used to struggle, fighting off sadness or trying not to be anxious, but as most of us learn, once that drop of melancholy or unrest beads on the heart, trying to feel anything else is denial. Once the mind like a long guitar string is somehow plucked with the slightest agitation, there is nothing to do but let it ring itself out.

It is a hard thing, though, to lean into a sadness we don’t want, to let the tremor of anxiety work its way through. For myself, my resistance to unpleasant feelings has been my fear that if I give over to the sadness or anxiety or confusion or pain that is upon me, I will drown in it. … But what I discover, again and again, is that feeling one feeling deeply enough somehow opens me up to the common source of all feeling. And at the source, no one feeling can last by itself. So, through our feelings, not around them, we come upon the unnamable source of all feelings that can heal us of the pain of any one mood.

  • Breathe steadily and know that you are safe in this reflective space.
  • Once comfortable, allow yourself to feel one moment of sadness and anxiety that you are carrying. Try to stay with the feeling until it begins to pass. Note the lessening of your sadness or anxiety, however slight, and call this the beginning of peace.


July 12: Making Waves
I would do anything for you. Would you be yourself?

Nepo writes: In the Hans Christian Andersen classic, “The Little Mermaid,” Ariel gives up her beautiful voice in exchange for legs. This is a seemingly innocent fable that captures our deal with the modern devil. For aren’t we taught that mobility is freedom, whether it be moving from state to state, or from marriage to marriage, or from adventure to adventure? Aren’t we convinced that upward mobility, moving from job to job, is the definition of success?

Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with change or variety or newness or with improving our condition. The catch is when we are asked to give up our voice in order to move freely, when we are asked to silence what makes us unique in order to be successful. When not making waves means giving up our chance to dive into the deep, then we are bartering our access to God for a better driveway.

As a story about relationship, the lesson of Ariel is crucial. On the surface, her desire for legs seems touching and sweetly motivated by love and the wanting to belong. Yet here, too, is another false bargain that plagues everyone who ever tries it. For no matter how badly we want to love or be loved, we cannot alter our basic nature and survive inside, where it counts.

  • Sit quietly and consider your own history of love.
  • As you exhale, consider a time when you gave up some aspect of yourself in order to be loved.
  • As you inhale, allow yourself to reconnect with this silenced part of your nature.


October 12: We Tend to Cling
I envy the tree, how it reaches, but never holds.

Nepo writes: Things that matter come and go, but being touched and feeling life move on, we tend to cling and hold on, not wanting anything to change. Of course, this fails and things do change. Often, we are stubborn enough to go after what we think is leaving, trying to manipulate and control the flow of life. Of course, this fails, too.

We can’t stop life from flowing. So we are left with feeling what was and what is, and we call the difference loss. But all the clinging and holding on only makes it worse. Now, new things come, and some of us anticipate the loss and just let the things of life go by without feeling them at all.

I have done all these things, but when clear enough and open enough, I try to let things in, to let things touch me. I try to not poke and pull at them as they move through. It doesn’t eliminate loss, but when trusting enough to let this happen, I am tuned like a harp held up to the wind.

  • Sit quietly, and bring to mind a feeling you’ve tried to hold onto.
  • Breathe evenly, and bring to mind a feeling you’ve cut off.
  • Breathe slowly, and bring to mind something you are feeling deeply right now, and try to allow it in without interfering with its presence.


December 31: I See You
I see you! I am here!

Nepo writes: For centuries, African Bushmen have greeted each other in this way. When the one becomes aware of his brother or sister coming out of the brush, he exclaims, “I see you!” and then the one approaching rejoices, “I am here!”

This timeless bearing witness is simple and profound, and it is telling that much of our modern therapeutic journey is suffered in this end: to have who we are and where we’ve been be seen. For with this simple and direct affirmation, it is possible to claim our own presence, to say, “I am here.”

Those people in our lives who have validated our personhood by seeing us and exclaiming so are the foundations of our self-worth. Think of who they are. … It is important to note that being seen enables us to claim our lives, and then it becomes possible to pass the gift on to others. But just as important as bearing witness is the joy with which these Bushmen proclaim what they see. It is the joy of first seeing and first knowing. This is the gift of love.

  • Sit with a trusted loved one, and with your eyes closed, meditate on their essence as you know them.
  • When filled with their presence, open your eyes and declare with joy and sincerity, “I see you!”
  • Allow your loved one the space to proclaim in return, “I am here!”
  • Switch roles, and repeat this process of first seeing and first knowing. If moved, life your life this way.


And now, begin anew:

January 1: The Precious Human Birth
Of all the things that exist, we breathe and wake and turn it into song.

Nepo writes: There is a Buddhist precept that asks us to be mindful of how rare it is to find ourselves in human form on earth. It is really a beautiful view of life that offers us the chance to feel enormous appreciation for the fact that we are here as individual spirits filled with consciousness, drinking water, and chopping wood.

It asks us to look about at the ant and antelope, at the worm and the butterfly, at the dog and the castrated bull, at the hawk and the wild lonely tiger, at the hundred-year-old oak and the thousand-year-old patch of ocean. It asks us to understand that no other life form has the consciousness of being that we are privilege to. It asks us to recognize that, of all the endless species of plant and animal and mineral that make up the earth, a very small portion of life has the wakefulness of spirit that we call being human.

All of this to say, this precious human birth is unrepeatable. So what will you do today, knowing that you are one of the rarest forms of life to ever walk the earth? How will you carry yourself? What will you do with your hands? What will you ask and of whom?

Tomorrow you could die and become an ant, and someone will be setting traps for you. But today you are precious and rare and awake. It ushers us into grateful living. It makes hesitation useless. Grateful and awake, ask what you need to know now. Say what you feel now. Love what you love now.

  • Sit outside, if possible, or near a window, and note the other life forms around you.
  • Breathe slowly and think of the ant and the blade of grass and the bluejay and what these life forms can do that you can’t.
  • Think of the pebble and the piece of bark and the stone bench, and center your breathing on the interior things that you can do that they can’t.
  • Rise slowly, feeling beautifully human, and enter your day with the conscious intent of doing one thing that only humans can do.
  • When the time arises, do this one thing with great reverence and gratitude.

Meet Mark Nepo at www.marknepo.com.

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