This is what the great choice comes down to—the great conflict between first-hand experience and tradition, between spontaneity and decorum, between compassion and obligation. Other life forms have no part in this. It’s strictly a human affair.
The sapling doesn’t look to its elders for approval. It just grows toward the light.
The bee feels its hunger and finds its honey. It doesn’t embark out of any sense of duty.
When I speak of these things, distrustful minds, against all intention of getting involved, blurt out but we have to live in the real world.
After a long silence, I offer, you must meet the outer world with your inner world or existence will crush you.
And so it begins, continues, ensues: Who will live your life? The answer is obvious. Yet the difficulty is not in knowing the course, but in accepting the many ways we give our life away, accepting the many ways we abdicate the one outright gift we have.
You must meet the outer world with your inner world or existence will crush you. —Mark Nepo
Too often, we’re told that to live in the real world we must give up our dreams in service of survival that looms as pragmatic.
In truth, it’s the opposite.
Living in the world in a real way requires the evolution of an interior life, and much of our health depends on how we, at our porous best, negotiate the infiltration of outer and the release of inner.
Kabir, the great mystic poet of India, suggests that the soul is merely a portion of ocean gathered in our pitcher of life:
Take a pitcher full of water and set it down on the water—
now it has water inside and water outside.
We mustn’t give it a name,
less silly people start talking again
about the body and the soul.
When we tend our soul, we tend to our portion of the ocean. When we give complete attention to our portion of God’s Being, we take up space and emanate the depths of our original energy. It’s how we shine within.
And at the edge, where the individual soul meets the world, where the pitcher meets the ocean, where inner light meets outer light, there is a kinetic border we can’t resist, a rim called wonder that draws us back into the Whole.
But out of fear or pressure, or both, we often remove ourselves from life in order to handle stressful situations.
How often do we steel our feelings in order to act objectively? How often do lovers remove themselves from the field of intimacy in order to leave a relationship? How often do we inwardly sever our bond to a dear one who is ill, long before they’re gone, to enable us to move on without the pain of losing them? How often do we minimize the life before us, so we can more easily do what we want?
We also stop living our own life when we succumb to the judgment and rejection of others. If you haven’t encountered it yet, you’ll surely be faced with the pressure of someone demanding more than you can safely give without damaging your soul.
Whether that someone is a needy friend, an arrogant boss, an inexorable religion, or a perfectionist brand of self-justification, it all comes down to how each of us dares to say no when asked to be other than who we are.
Throughout our lives, we struggle with the temporary ease of hiding and the pain of never surfacing: hiding our feelings of insignificance in our ambitions for a life of fame, hiding our confusions at the complexities of life in the principles we hope will swallow them, hiding our pain of honest suffering in a resignation that stills the heart.
And all the while our experience of what is real gets away from us.
But if we were to hide who we are, like hiding a body in its skin, if we were to let things be and not make over their impact on us, all hiding would evaporate and the constancy of our self would be final, real, and unequivocal in its majesty of flaws.
When we can manage to live our own life, letting nothing real slip away, the larger ocean of life draws us with a magnetism all its own, the way a fish is drawn by light to a surface it can’t imagine.
Adapted with permission from Inside the Miracle: Enduring Suffering, Approaching Wholeness by Mark Nepo, Sounds True, 2015.