Read an Excerpt
The Book of Awakening
Having the Life You Want by Being Present to the Life You Have
By Mark Nepo
Red Wheel/Weiser, LLCCopyright © 2000 Mark Nepo
All rights reserved.
Precious Human Birth
Of all the things that exist, we breathe and wake and turn it into song.
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 plants and animals and minerals that make up the Earth, a very small portion of life has the wakefulness of spirit that we call "being human."
That I can rise from some depth of awareness to express this to you and that you can receive me in this instant is part of our precious human birth. You could have been an ant. I could have been an anteater. You could have been rain. I could have been a lick of salt. But we were blessed—in this time, in this place—to be human beings, alive in rare ways we often take for granted.
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 blue jay 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.
All Fall Down
Lead us from the unreal to the real.
It was a snowy night, and Robert was recalling the time two springs ago when he was determined to paint the family room. Up early, he was out the door, to the hardware store gathering the gallons of red, the wooden mixing sticks, the drop cloths, and the one-time brushes that always harden, no matter what you soak them in.
He mixed the paint outside and waddled to the door with a gallon in each hand, the drop cloth under his arm, and a wide brush in his mouth. He began to chuckle in telling what happened, "I teetered there for minutes, trying to open the door, not wanting to put anything down. I was so stubborn. I had the door almost open when I lost my grip, stumbled backward, and wound up on the ground, red gallons all over me."
At this point, he laughed at himself, as he has done many times, and we watched the snow fall in silence. I thought of his little story the whole way home. Amazingly, we all do this, whether with groceries or paint or with the stories we feel determined to share. We do this with our love, with our sense of truth, even with our pain. It's such a simple thing, but in a moment of ego we refuse to put down what we carry in order to open the door. Time and time again, we are offered the chance to truly learn this: We cannot hold on to things and enter. We must put down what we carry, open the door, and then take up only what we need to bring inside.
It is a basic human sequence: gather, prepare, put down, enter. But failing as we do, we always have that second chance: to learn how to fall, get up, and laugh.
* Meditate on some threshold you are having trouble crossing in your life. It might be at work, at home, in a relationship, or the doorway to greater peace.
* Breathe steadily and look to yourself to see if you are carrying too much to open the door.
* Breathe slowly and with each out-breath put the things you are carrying down.
* Breathe freely now and open the door.
Unlearning Back to God
The coming to consciousness is not a discovery of some new thing; it is a long and painful return to that which has always been.
Each person is born with an unencumbered spot—free of expectation and regret, free of ambition and embarrassment, free of fear and worry—an umbilical spot of grace where we were each first touched by God. It is this spot of grace that issues peace. Psychologists call this spot the Psyche, theologians call it the Soul, Jung calls it the Seat of the Unconscious, Hindu masters call it Atman, Buddhists call it Dharma, Rilke calls it Inwardness, Sufis call it Qalb, and Jesus calls it the Center of our Love.
To know this spot of Inwardness is to know who we are, not by surface markers of identity, not by where we work or what we wear or how we like to be addressed, but by feeling our place in relation to the Infinite and by inhabiting it. This is a hard lifelong task, for the nature of becoming is a constant filming over of where we begin, while the nature of being is a constant erosion of what is not essential. Each of us lives in the midst of this on going tension, growing tarnished or covered over, only to be worn back to that incorruptible spot of grace at our core.
When the film is worn through, we have moments of enlightenment, moments of wholeness, moments of satori, as the Zen sages term it, moments of clear living when inner meets outer, moments of full integrity of being, moments of complete Oneness. And whether the film is a veil of culture, of memory, of mental or religious training, of trauma or sophistication, the removal of that film and the restoration of that timeless spot of grace is the goal of all therapy and education.
Regardless of subject matter, this is the only thing worth teaching: how to uncover that original center and how to live there once it is restored. We call the filming over a deadening of heart, and the process of return, whether brought about through suffering or love, is how we unlearn our way back to God.
* Close your eyes and breathe your way beneath your troubles, the way a diver slips to that depth of stillness that is always waiting beneath the churning of the waves.
* Now, consider two things you love doing, such as running, drawing, singing, bird-watching, gardening, or reading. Meditate on what it is in each of these that makes you feel alive.
* Hold what they have in common before you, and breathing slowly, feel the spot of grace these dear things mirror within you.
Between Peace and Joy
We could never have guessed We were already blessed where we are....
This reminds me of a woman who found a folded sponge all dried and compressed, and tucked inside the hardened fold was a message she'd been seeking. She carried the hardened sponge to the sea and, up to her waist in the deep, she watched it unfold and come to life in the water. Magically, the secret of life became visible in the bubbles being released from the sponge, and to her amazement, a small fish, trapped in sleep in the hardened sponge, came alive and swam out to sea. From that day on, no matter where she went, she felt the little fish swimming in the deep, and this—the swimming of the little fish that had for so long been asleep—gave her a satisfaction that was somewhere between peace and joy.
Whatever our path, whatever the color or grain of our days, whatever riddles we must solve to stay alive, the secret of life somehow always has to do with the awakening and freeing of what has been asleep. Like that sponge, our very heart begs to unfold in the waters of our experience, and like that little fish, the soul is a tiny thing that brings us peace and joy when we let it swim.
But everything remains hard and compressed and illegible until, like this woman, waist deep in the ocean, we take our sleeping heart in our hands and plunge it tenderly into the life we are living.
* With your eyes closed, meditate on the image of a hardened sponge unfolding like a flower underwater.
* As you breathe, practice seeing your heart as such a sponge.
* The next time you do the dishes, pause, hold the hardened sponge in the water, and feel your heart unfold.
Show Your Hair
My grandmother told me, "Never hide your green hair—They can see it anyway."
From the agonies of kindergarten, when we first were teased or made fun of in the midst of all our innocence, we have all struggled in one way or another with hiding what is obvious about us.
No one plans this. It is not a conspiracy, but rather an inevitable and hurtful passage from knowing only ourselves to knowing the world. The tragedy is that many of us never talk about it, or never get told that our "green hair" is beautiful, or that we don't need to hide, no matter what anyone says on the way to lunch. And so, we often conclude that to know the world we must hide ourselves.
Nothing could be farther from the truth. It is an ancient, unspoken fact of being that blackmail is only possible if we believe that we have something to hide. The inner corollary of this is that worthless feelings arise when we believe, however briefly, that who we are is not enough.
* Sit quietly, with your eyes closed, and with each in-breath feel the fact that who you are is enough.
The Spoked Wheel
What we reach for may be different, but what makes us reach is the same. Imagine that each of us is a spoke in an Infinite Wheel, and, though each spoke is essential in keeping the Wheel whole, no two spokes are the same. The rim of that Wheel is our living sense of community, family, and relationship, but the common hub where all the spokes join is the one center where all souls meet. So, as I move out into the world, I live out my uniqueness, but when I dare to look into my core, I come upon the one common center where all lives begin. In that center, we are one and the same. In this way, we live out the paradox of being both unique and the same. For mysteriously and powerfully, when I look deep enough into you, I find me, and when you dare to hear my fear in the recess of your heart, you recognize it as your secret that you thought no one else knew. And that unexpected wholeness that is more than each of us, but common to all—that moment of unity is the atom of God.
Not surprisingly, like most people, in the first half of my life, I worked very hard to understand and strengthen my uniqueness. I worked hard to secure my place at the rim of the Wheel and so defined and valued myself by how different I was from everyone else. But in the second half of my life, I have been humbly brought to the center of that Wheel, and now I marvel at the mysterious oneness of our spirit.
Through cancer and grief and disappointment and unexpected turns in career—through the very breakdown and rearrangement of the things I have loved—I have come to realize that, as water smoothes stone and enters sand, we become each other. How could I be so slow? What I've always thought set me apart binds me to others.
Never was this more clear to me than when I was sitting in a waiting room at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in New York City, staring straight into this Hispanic woman's eyes, she into mine. In that moment, I began to accept that we all see the same wonder, all feel the same agony, though we all speak in a different voice. I know now that each being born, inconceivable as it seems, is another Adam or Eve.
* Sit with a trusted loved one and take turns:
* Name one defining trait of who you are that distinguishes you from others.
* Name one defining trait of who you are that you have in common with others.
* Discuss how you cope with the loneliness of what makes you unique from others, and how you cope with the experience of what makes you the same as others.
We Must Take Turns
We must take turns: diving into all there is and counting the time.
The gift and responsibility of relationship is to take turns doing the dishes and putting up the storm windows, giving the other the chance to dive for God without worrying about dinner. While one explores the inner, the other must tend the outer.
A great model of this is how pearl divers search the deep in pairs. Without scuba tanks or regulators, one waits at the surface tending the lines tied to the other who soft-steps the sand for treasures he hopes he'll recognize.
He walks the bottom, watching the leaves of vegetation sway and sways himself till she tugs the cord. He swallows the little air left as he ascends. Aboard, they talk for hours, placing what was seen, rubbing the rough and natural pearl. In the morning, she dives and fills their baskets and he counts the time, hands wrapped about her line.
Quite plainly, these pearl divers show us the work of being together and the miracle of trust. We must take turns: whoever is on the surface must count the air time left, so the one below can dive freely.
* Sit quietly and meditate on a significant relationship you are in with a friend or lover or family member.
* Breathe steadily and ask yourself if you take turns diving and counting the time.
* When moved to do so, discuss this with your loved one.
Feeding Your Heart
No matter how dark, the hand always knows the way to the mouth.
—Idoma Proverb (Nigeria)
Even when we can't see, we know how to feed ourselves. Even when the way isn't clear, the heart still pumps. Even when afraid, the air of everything enters and leaves the lungs. Even when clouds grow thick, the sun still pours its light earthward.
This African proverb reminds us that things are never quite as bad as they seem inside the problem. We have inner reflexes that keep us alive, deep impulses of being and aliveness that work beneath the hardships we are struggling with.
We must remember: the hand cannot eliminate the darkness, only find its way to the mouth. Likewise, our belief in life cannot eliminate our suffering, only find its way to feed our heart.
* Sit quietly and, with your eyes closed, bring your open hands to your mouth.
* Inhale as you do this and notice how, without guidance, your hands know the way.
* Breathe slowly, and with your eyes closed, bring your open hands to your heart.
* Notice how, without your guidance, your heart knows the way.
Life in the Tank
Love, and do what thou wilt.
It was a curious thing. Robert had filled the bathtub and put the fish in the tub, so he could clean their tank. After he'd scrubbed the film from the small walls of their make-believe deep, he went to retrieve them.
He was astonished to find that, though they had the entire tub to swim in, they were huddled in a small area the size of their tank. There was nothing containing them, nothing holding them back. Why wouldn't they dart about freely? What had life in the tank done to their natural ability to swim?
This quiet yet stark moment stayed with us both for a long time. We couldn't help but see those little fish going nowhere but into themselves. We now had a life-in-the-tank lens on the world and wondered daily, In what ways are we like them? In what ways do we go nowhere but into ourselves? In what ways do we shrink our world so as not to feel the press of our own self-imposed captivity?
Life in the tank made me think of how we are raised at home and in school. It made me think of being told that certain jobs are not acceptable and that certain jobs are out of reach, of being schooled to live a certain way, of being trained to think that only practical things are possible, of being warned over and over that life outside the tank of our values is risky and dangerous.
I began to see just how much we were taught as children to fear life outside the tank. As a father, Robert began to question if he was preparing his children for life in the tank or life in the uncontainable world.
Excerpted from The Book of Awakening by Mark Nepo. Copyright © 2000 Mark Nepo. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
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