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The Little Book of Awakening
Selections from the #1 New York Times Bestselling The Book of Awakening
By Mark Nepo
Red Wheel/Weiser, LLCCopyright © 2000 Mark Nepo
All rights reserved.
Burning the Wrapper
From the beginning, The key to renewal has been shedding, The casting off of old skin.
The Polynesians say the world began when Taaora—their name for the Creator—woke to find himself growing inside a shell. He stretched and broke the shell, and the Earth was created. Taaora kept growing, though, and after a time found himself inside another shell. Again, he stretched and broke the shell, and this time the moon was created. Again, Taaora kept growing, and again, he found himself contained by yet another shell. This time the breaking forth created the stars.
In this ancient story, the Polynesians have carried for us the wisdom that we each grow in this life by breaking successive shells, that the piece of God within each of us stretches until there's no room to be, and then the world as we know it must be broken so that we can be born anew.
In this way, life becomes a living of who we are until that form of self can no longer hold us, and, like Taaora in his shell, we must break the forms that contain us in order to birth our way into the next self. This is how we shed our many ways of seeing the world, not that any are false, but that each serves its purpose for a time until we grow and they no longer serve us.
I have lived through many selves. The first of me, so eager to be great, to set things ablaze, shunned everything that was ordinary. I hunted the burn of a champion's hip and wanted to be a great musician too—to be famous and extraordinary. But as I grew, the notion of fame left me lonely in the night. Thrones, no matter how pretty, have only room for one.
The second of me wanted to be covered by waves, inhale the stars, and move like a song. Now I wanted to be the great music itself. But to be the great thing was still as lonely as it was magnificent.
The third of me gave up on greatness. It was how I let others draw close. I asked more questions, not really interested in answers, but more, the face below the face about to speak.
And then during cancer, there came yet another self—there, bent and distorted in the hospital chrome as the late sun flooded my pillow. I was dead in the chrome, alive on the pillow, a quiet breath between—dead, alive—at once. And oddly, it did not scare, for I felt the pulse of life in the quiet breath, and the place to which I transcended is here.
Almost dying was another shell I had to break. It has led me to realize that each self unfolds, just one concentric womb en route to another, each encompassing the last. I would believe in arrival but for all the arrivals I've broken on the way.
* Breathe slowly with your eyes closed, and feel one aspect of your current world that seems confining.
* Rather than focusing on the people or circumstance involved, try to feel this confinement as the threshold of your next growth.
* Meditate on how the piece of God within you might stretch and stand more fully, so that being who you are more completely will break the shell of this confinement.
* Pray to understand that none of this is bad, but simply necessary for the growth of your soul.CHAPTER 2
The Art of Facing Things
What people have forgotten is what every salmon knows.
Salmon have much to teach us about the art of facing things. In swimming up waterfalls, these remarkable creatures seem to defy gravity. It is an amazing thing to behold. A closer look reveals a wisdom for all beings who want to thrive.
What the salmon somehow know is how to turn their underside—from center to tail—into the powerful current coming at them, which hits them squarely, and the impact then launches them out and further up the waterfall; to which their reaction is, again, to turn their underside back into the powerful current that, of course, again hits them squarely; and this successive impact launches them further out and up the waterfall. Their leaning into what they face bounces them further and further along their unlikely journey.
From a distance, it seems magical, as if these mighty fish are flying, conquering their element. In actuality, they are deeply at one with their element, vibrantly and thoroughly engaged in a compelling dance of turning-toward-and-being-hit-squarely that moves them through water and air to the very source of their nature.
In terms useful to the life of the spirit, the salmon are constantly faithful in exposing their underside to the current coming at them. Mysteriously, it is the physics of this courage that enables them to move through life as they know it so directly. We can learn from this very active paradox; for we, too, must be as faithful to living in the open if we are to stay real in the face of our daily experience. In order not to be swept away by what the days bring, we, too, must find a way to lean into the forces that hit us so squarely.
The salmon offer us a way to face truth without shutting down. They show us how leaning into our experience, though we don't like the hit, moves us on. Time and again, though we'd rather turn away, it is the impact of being revealed, through our willingness to be vulnerable, that enables us to experience both mystery and grace.
* Sit quietly and meditate on the last time you opened yourself to the life coming at you.
* In recalling this, try to focus on three things: the way that opening yourself caused you to unfold, the way that being hit squarely changed your life position, and where leaping like a salmon landed you.
* Breathe steadily, and invite the lessons of opening, being changed, and landing into your heart.
* Breathe slowly, and realize that you are in this process now.
* Relax and turn the belly of your heart toward the day.CHAPTER 3
I have just three things to teach: simplicity, patience, compassion. These are your greatest treasures. Compassionate toward yourself, you reconcile all beings in the world.
At first, we might ask, How can being compassionate to yourself reconcile all beings in the world?
To understand the gift of this, we need to recall the analogy of the Spoked Wheel, in which each life is a separate and unique spoke, and yet all lives, like those spokes, meet in a common hub or center. That's why when we tend our deepest center, we care for all souls.
Another powerful way to realize our interconnectedness is to imagine the human family as a stand of aspens growing by a river. Though each tree appears to be growing independently, not attached to the others, beneath the soil, out of view, the roots of all the trees exist as one enormous root. And so, like these trees, our soul's growth, while appearing to be independent, is intimately connected to the health of those around us. For our spirits are entwined at center, out of view.
Once realizing this, it becomes clear that we have no choice but to embrace the health of our neighbors as part of our own health. I felt this deeply in the many cancer rooms I sat in. I know these things to be true: in cutting off strangers, we cut off ourselves; in choking roots, we choke our own growth; in loving strangers, we love ourselves.
Having come this far, I believe that Lao-Tzu's third instruction tells us that if we are aware of our own suffering with the wish to relieve it, we will overcome distrust and reestablish a close relationship with all other living things. In deep and lasting ways, when we heal ourselves, we heal the world. For as the body is only as healthy as its individual cells, the world is only as healthy as its individual souls.
Across the centuries, we have this timeless medicine: Live directly, wait, and care for your soul as if it were the whole world.
* Breathe slowly, and feel your heart constrict and dilate as your eyes do.
* Breathe slowly, and care for your soul with each breath. Feel your heart expand. Feel your sense of self open.
* Breathe slowly, and feel your sense of the world open as you care for your soul.CHAPTER 4
Love at First Sight
Where two deliberate, the love is slight. Whoever loved, not having loved at first sight.
The true power of love at first sight is often missed because we insist on limiting its meaning to the sweep of falling into another person upon first meeting. To appreciate the deeper sense of this, we must uncover and reclaim the importance of first sight itself, which has more to do with seeing things essentially, rather than physically, for the first time.
We all walk around within the numbness of our habits and routines so often that we take the marvels of ordinary life for granted. It is first sight that opens the freshness of each moment, unencumbered by any of our habits and routines. First sight is the moment of God-sight, heart-sight, soul-sight. It is the seeing of revelation, the feeling of oneness that briefly overcomes us when nothing remains in the way.
At its deepest and most real level, the notion of love at first sight is spoken of in every spiritual tradition as the reward for being fully awake. Such seeing anew restores our sense of being alive. Paradoxically, first sight is recurring. In the same way that we wake every day, we regularly return to first sight in the rhythm of our wakefulness of spirit. Whenever we can see with that original vision—with nothing between us and the life around us—we can't help but love what we see. To see so fundamentally opens us to love. To love so fundamentally is to see the world we're a part of as the vibrant, ongoing creation that it is. So, it really manifests this way: at first sight, we find love; at our first true seeing, the love that is already there touches us.
In this regard, first seeing is an ever-present threshold to the majesty of what is. Certainly and beautifully, this happens with other people when we, upon first truly seeing another, fall sweetly into the miracle of their presence. But this is also possible, on a daily basis, upon first truly seeing ourselves, our world, our sense of God—again and again.
I can work across from the same person for years, and one day, because my own suffering has opened me more fully than I can remember and because the light floods that person's face, I can for the first time truly see who they are and feel love for them. I can walk by the same willow, season after season, and one day, because of the sheen of after-rain and the lowness of the wind, I can truly see the willow like never before, and feel love for the willow in all of us. I can, in the mirror late at night, after seeing myself hundreds of times, see the willow and the light and the other in my tired face, and know that sameness as the stuff of God.
In truth, it has never been about first meeting, though this can happen, but more about first coming into view. As a breeze all spun out lets the water go clear, we finally stop talking, stop performing, stop pretending, and all tired out, we go clear, and the heart that rests in everything beats before us.
* Close your eyes and breathe away your mind-sight, your past-sight, your future-sight, your wounded-sight.
* With each slow breath, feel the cool air of your birth-sight, your first-sight.
* Breathe slowly and imagine that the beat of your heart carries up the beginning-of-time-sight.
* At the moment that you feel original, however briefly, open your eyes and bow with love to the first thing you see.CHAPTER 5
The Taste of Sky
Of magic doors there is this, you do not see them even as you are passing through.
Often as we are being transformed, we cannot tell what is happening. For while in the midst of staying afloat, it is next to impossible to see the ocean we are being carried into. While struggling with the pain of change, it is often impossible to see the new self we are becoming. While feeling our hand pried loose by experience, we seldom can imagine what will fill it once it is opened. As the days rinse our heart, we can feel something unseeable scour us through, though we can't yet imagine how much fresher milk and sky and laughter will taste once we are returned to the feel of being new.
* Sit quietly and bring to mind a struggle you are now experiencing in your life.
* Breathe through this struggle and bless the buried part of you just waiting for its turn in the world.CHAPTER 6
Against Our Will
As an inlet cannot close itself to the sea that shapes it, the heart can only wear itself open.
One of the hardest blessings to accept about the heart is that in the image of life itself, it will not stop emerging through experience. No matter how we try to preserve or relive what has already happened, the heart will not stop being shaped.
This is a magnificent key to health: that, despite our resistance to accept that what we've lost is behind us, despite our need at times to stitch our wounds closed by reliving them, and despite our heroic efforts to preserve whatever is precious, despite all our attempts to stop the flow of life, the heart knows better. It knows that the only way to truly remember or stay whole is to take the best and worst into its tissue.
Despite all our intentions not to be hurt again, the heart keeps us going by moving us ever forward into health. Though we walk around thinking we can direct it, our heart is endlessly shaped like the land, often against our will.
* Center yourself, and bring to mind one precious moment you'd like to preserve.
* As you breathe, let in the life that is presently around you—the quality of light, the temperature, the sounds coming and going.
* Breathe steadily and try not to choose one over the other. Simply allow the precious memory and the precious moment to tenderly become one.CHAPTER 7
The Way Is Hard, but Clear
Though it is the hardest going, the way is clear.
The naturalist and environmentalist Kevin Scribner tells us that salmon make their way upstream by bumping repeatedly into blocked pathways until they find where the current is strongest. Somehow they know that the unimpeded rush of water means that there is no obstacle there, and so they enter this opening fervently, for though it is the hardest going, the way is clear.
The lesson here is as unnerving as it is helpful. In facing both inner and outer adversities, the passage of truth comes at us with a powerful momentum because it is clear and unimpeded, and so, where we sense the rush of truth is where we must give our all.
As human beings, the blocked pathways of our journey can take on many forms, and—whether it be in avoiding conflict with others, or in not taking the risk to love, or in not accepting the call of spirit that would have us participate more fully in our days—it is often easier to butt up continually against these blocked pathways than to enter fervently the one passage that is so powerfully clear.
In this regard, salmon innately model a healthy persistence by showing us how to keep nosing for the unimpeded way, and once finding it, how to work even harder to make it through.
Some say it is easier for salmon, since the power of their drive to end where they begin is not compromised by the endless considerations that often keep us from the truth. Still, it is the heart's capacity to rise one more time after falling down, no matter how bruised, that verifies that such a drive lives in us too. Like salmon, our way depends not just on facing things head on, but in moving our whole being through.
* Center yourself and bring to mind something you are avoiding. It might be making a life decision or asking for what you need in a relationship.
* Breathe evenly and nose around the energy of the avoidance. What are you butting up against? Identify the resistance. Which part is coming from you? Which part from others?
* Breathe steadily and look for the rush of truth in all this. Feel for the clear and forceful way coming at you.
* For today, simply feel the power of the way that is clear and keep it before you.
Excerpted from The Little Book of Awakening by Mark Nepo. Copyright © 2000 Mark Nepo. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
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