Accepting Your Truth | Omega

Poet, philosopher, cancer thriver, and New York Times best-selling author Mark Nepo shares his thoughts on poetry, why we suffer, and the importance of staying open during difficult times.

Omega: Is there a poem that inspired you to be a poet?

Mark: The poetry of Pablo Neruda really inspired me. When I first read his work, I felt like, “I must belong to this tribe.” My oldest friend, Robert, who comes with me as a guest every year when I teach at Omega, introduced me to Neruda. I was so moved, I wouldn’t give him the book back.

Omega: In 1987, you were diagnosed with a rare form of lymphoma, which has greatly informed much of your work. What’s the first step toward healing? 

Mark: The first step toward healing in any situation is to accept the truth of where we are and what we’re facing, because ironically or paradoxically there is a great power in seeing things as they are. From there, it’s possible to know where to step next, what small thing can I do? So if we’re afraid, it helps to admit we’re afraid; if we’re sad, it helps to admit that we’re sad. Because often when I’m afraid things will change, they’ve already changed, and the rest of me is catching up. Or if I’m afraid to admit that I’m sad, it’s usually because I’m already sad, I’m already there. So I think that’s first, and then the second step is to trust our heart and hold nothing back.

Omega: What specific advice do you have for others going through cancer diagnosis and treatment?

Mark: My heart goes out to anyone who is facing that. It’s such a difficult roller coaster. I think advice is too strong a word, but my support would be to not go through it alone. If you don’t have friends, meet a stranger. This is one of the powerful things about anything that we go through—all of our prerequisites and requirements for having friends and needing others get reduced to very simple things. All that matters is if you need help, you say help. If you need a friend, you ask for a friend, and if someone asks you, then you show up. It sounds very simple or childlike, and it is. When I was in those waiting rooms and treatment rooms, some of the people I felt closest to were fellow patients and to this day I don’t even know their last names, where they lived, or what they did. But when you’re sitting there afraid and you’re in pain and you’re worried, you look at the person next to you and you say, “Are you okay?” And they’ll say, “No.”  And you’ll say, “Yeah, neither am I.” And then you start being real with each other, and there’s medicine in that immediately. So even if you’re alone, reach out and don’t do this all by yourself.

Omega: Why do you think humans go through suffering?

Mark: That’s a wonderful question, and of course, nobody knows the answer. I feel like we’re just comparing notes and I can only speak from my experience. I think suffering for human beings is what erosion is for nature. Nature is eroded to show its beauty, and the friction of life, or suffering, wears us down to reveal our inner beauty. Nobody likes suffering. I’m not advocating we go out and find it, but like gravity, we’ll all have our share. You can’t escape it. I think the other reason for suffering, if there is one, is life has been made just difficult enough that we need each other, and that’s to ensure the journey of love.

Omega: Most people tend to shut down during a crisis or tough life situation. How can we stay open during difficult times and why is it useful?

Mark: It’s a very natural rhythm of life to open and close. Everything in nature opens and closes. As I’m speaking to you, my heart is expanding and contracting; as you’re listening, your lungs are expanding and contracting. Our eyes are blinking. And so, too, when we face difficult things, it’s very natural. Pain, fear, and worry introduce themselves by being alarming, and it’s a natural reflex to say, “Oh, get away.”

When asked how they practiced their faith medieval monks said, “By falling down and getting up.” I love that. So not only is staying open useful, it’s necessary. It’s only by being open and living wholeheartedly that the difficulties in life can pass through us. If the fear and the pain have gotten in, we’re actually keeping it in. We think we’re walling it out, but it’s already inside us. 

In the ancient text Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu, there’s a chapter where he says the brittle are the things that never survive, they break. But things that are like water always survive because they’re flexible and open. It’s natural that we would tense up and that we would close, but part of the spiritual journey, and the human journey, is to open after we’ve closed, to get soft after we harden, and to be flexible after we tense. It’s a personal practice that I can’t tell anyone how to do, but everyone has to figure out how to do that—to open once we’ve closed, and not to beat ourselves up that we close and shut down.

Omega: During your appearance on Super Soul Sunday, you commented to Oprah that, “All of us must learn how to ask for what we need, only to practice accepting what we are given.” Can you talk more about this paradox and how you’ve worked with it in your life?

Mark: A paradox means both things are true; it’s a moment when more than one thing is true at the same time. Only the heart can understand that paradox. The mind can’t figure it out. Yes, we’re asked to learn how to ask for what we need. It would be nice that if we had the courage to ask for what we need, we’d get it. But most of the time, we don’t. So I’ve learned that the real reward for having the courage to ask for what we need is that we become intimate with our own nature. I learn more about who I am and what I am. We are asked to work with what we’re given. Accepting what we’re given doesn’t mean that we give up. It means learning acceptance, which is working with life, not against it.  Again, it doesn’t mean giving up or resignation. Acceptance lets me become intimate with the nature of life. We learn this rhythm of being an alive part in an alive universe. We start to learn our place in the unity of things. Think of it as a fish that finds the current and gets carried along. When we become intimate with who we are and intimate with life as we experience it, we’re like that fish. We start being carried by the current of life.

Omega: How can we match our personal rhythm with the rhythm of life?

Mark: We all struggle with it. I struggle, too. Just because I speak about these things doesn’t mean I’m exempt from struggling with them. That’s the human journey. It doesn’t matter how much we know, we have to get up every day and do this over and over, and I think that’s a beautiful thing.

I would say that we are constantly knocked down and roughed up. We move too fast, and I think that we’re asked constantly to slow down and move at the pace of what is real. One way that I know if I’m moving at the pace of what is real is when I can, however briefly, have my body, my mind, and my heart move at the same pace, like tumblers in some mystical lock. My personal rhythm starts to join with rhythm of all life. At that moment I can start to feel sometimes the moments of other lives and other lifetimes. I get a sense of other life before us and after us.

Omega: What’s your favorite part of the day?

Mark: I’d have to say the morning. I’m a morning person. I love the stillness and the light. I don’t get up before dawn anymore, but I’m up usually by 7:00 a.m. every day.

Omega: What does your spiritual practice look like today? Has it changed throughout the years?

Mark: It’s changed throughout the years because along the way I would try different meditations and practices. I’m Jewish by heritage, but after my cancer journey I became a student of all paths. I’m really interested in the common center of all spiritual paths and the unique gifts that each offers. 

I try to have an integrated practice. I will stop and consciously meditate if I need to, but I try to work for a little bit in the morning, walk our dog, and then I’ll work a little more, and then I’ll make sure I go out and do errands. I try to integrate the inner life and the outer life. It’s all one life; you know? When I was younger, I didn’t really want to be in the outer life too much, but of course almost dying and going through cancer and all these things have landed me right here. There’s nowhere to go but here, and here is pretty amazing once we open ourselves to it.

© 2016 Omega Institute for Holistic Studies

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