The Patheos Interview Series talks to writers, leaders, clergy, artists, academics, and others about their journey of faith, and what belief means to them.
In this interview, we speak to Mark Nepo, a New York Times best-selling author, poet, and spiritual adviser who has taught in the fields of poetry and spirituality for over 40 years. Nepo devotes his writing and teaching to the journey of inner transformation and the life of relationship. He was diagnosed with a rare form of lymphoma in his thirties, a struggle he credits with helping him form his philosophy of experiencing life fully, while staying in relationship to an unknowable future. Read more about his unique philosophy below.
PATHEOS: What inspires or calls you to lead people on spiritual journeys?
Mark Nepo: I believe, as Plato said, that we are born whole but need each other to be complete. And so, the wholehearted give and take that comes from relationship is one of the most enlivening forces in life. It is this dynamic and true exchange that calls me, again and again, to journey with others. It is in the space of honest being and listening that we discover what we didn’t know we knew. It is a complete joy to enter these realms of true learning with others where we can compare notes on what it is to be alive.
PATHEOS: What do you believe is holding people back most from embracing their spirituality?
MN: As the sun never stops shining despite the constantly changing weather, the spirituality that sustains us never stops emanating within us, despite the constant psychological and emotional cloud cover that we encounter just for living. Unprocessed, our experience generates fear and anxiety and confusion. Every human being is covered, in time, by experience. And so, every human being must find authentic ways to uncover themselves to return to their inborn nature. Alone and with the help of others, we are challenged to develop reliable practices that can enliven us. What this means in daily terms is very personal. But mostly, we must find the inner courage to see things as they are and to accept and love ourselves, so we can love others.
PATHEOS: What are some of the most common barriers to spirituality you see when working with fellow seekers?
MN: Often, we refuse to look honestly at what is before us or within us when we are governed by our fear. I’ve come to understand that fear is to be moved through, not obeyed. Likewise, our resistance to change makes us stubborn and brittle in our ways of thinking and feeling. This stubbornness only makes our journey more difficult. Untreated stubbornness leads to denial, a refusal of reality. A third common barrier is how we tend to extrapolate our experience into a worldview. If I am afraid, then I make the world a fearful place. If I feel broken, then I make the world a broken place. Not allowing for the mysterious diversity of life to enter us prevents us from accessing the healing forces of the Universe.
PATHEOS: What were some turning points in your life that brought you close to your spiritual center?
MN: As with all souls, great love and great suffering transform us. I’m about to turn seventy, but in my thirties I almost died from a rare form of lymphoma. That deep journey turned me upside down and inside out. Three key transformations changed me completely. First, though I was raised Jewish, I was blessed to have offerings of healing from so many loving others from all traditions. Waking on the other side, still here, I was not—and am still not—wise enough to know what worked and what didn’t. And so, I was challenged to believe in everything. Ever since, I have been a student of all paths, and all my books and all my teaching is committed to revealing the common center of all paths and uplifting the unique gifts of each. Secondly, on the other side of almost dying, everything dropped into my heart. From that point on, my head has served my heart. And thirdly, before my cancer journey, I was a driven young artist. But on the other side, I had lost my drive. It was very disorienting. I thought I’d lost my creative gift. But in time, I realized that I was now drawn to things, not driven. This has led to a much deeper freedom and joy in my creative life.
PATHEOS: What are some of the biggest takeaways you want someone to have from reading your poetry?
MN: In my poetry, as well as in my teaching, my hope is that people will come away knowing their own gifts and wisdom more deeply, that my poetry, especially, can serve as a window to the vastness of life and the unbreakable center of all that keeps us alive. My hope is that each poem and each teaching moment can restore the direct kinship between all living things.
PATHEOS: What spiritual challenges do you see younger generations facing?
MN: There is a perennial difference between progress and incarnation. Progress is when the next generation benefits and begins with the hard-earned gifts of the previous generation. For instance, if a tribe clears a plateau of trees, then the children born there don’t have to work for the view of the vastness before them. But incarnation involves the inescapable thresholds, initiations, and passages that every soul will have to move through, no matter when they are born. These are passages of birth, death, love, loss, trust, betrayal, friendship, loneliness, and on and on. So, I think the younger generation will have their turn at inhabiting their incarnation, as we all do. I do think the particular presses of progress will be hard but surmountable. The most pressing one, to me, currently, is how the common ground of reality has been severed in our society. And so, the need to live authentically and kindly will be even more imperative for the coming generation. But I believe they can restore our common humanity and so, our common compassion.
Mark Nepo's #1 New York Times bestseller The Book of Awakening has sold millions of copies and inspired readers and seekers all over the world. He has been called “one of the finest spiritual guides of our time,” “a consummate storyteller,” and “an eloquent spiritual teacher.” A bestselling author of twenty-two books in twenty languages, he has also recorded fifteen audio projects, and his recent work includes The Book of Soul, Drinking from the River of Light, and More Together Than Alone. He is a regular columnist for Patheos.com and Spirituality & Health Magazine. Mark has been a guest on Super Soul Sunday with Oprah Winfrey several times and toured with her in 2014.
Visit him at Live.MarkNepo.com, www.MarkNepo.com, http://threeintentions.com.
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