Have you ever felt like you were free-falling through life with no safety net below? Like the rug was ripped out from under you, leaving you disoriented and grasping for stability? Wondering how to stop the fall, let alone find a way to get back up after it?
If so, you’re not alone. We’ve all experienced those gut-wrenching moments of helplessness as the ground crumbles beneath our feet. But here’s the truth – falling down isn’t necessarily a bug in the system, but rather a universal part of the human experience. No matter how much we all tend to hide it and lead with how shiny, happy, utterly manufactured facades.
What matters most is how we become present in, and find a sense of agency and strength to get back up again. That doesn’t mean ignoring the hard reality, or “getting over” what may well not be get-overable, it means being honest in it, and working with what you have to make it what you need it to be.
My guest today, poet and author Mark Nepo, is all too familiar with life’s ups and downs. From battling cancer to grieving profound losses, his own journey led him to these vital questions: Where do we find the resilience to face hardship? How do we transform struggle into meaning?
Mark is one of OWN’s SuperSoul 100, acclaimed for using his voice and wisdom to lift up humanity. He’s touched millions through his books and retreats that guide people on the winding path to inner transformation. His latest, Falling Down and Getting Up: Discovering Your Inner Resilience and Strength, draws on decades of experience to unwrap the secrets to weathering life’s inevitable storms.
In our conversation, Mark shares how learning to fall with grace rather than resistance can help us mine life’s obstacles for their hidden gifts. He reveals why if you’re not stumbling, you’re not learning. And he opens up about his own messy tumbles into wisdom on the winding road to finding inner resilience.
As we explore the inevitability of adversity and the power of compassion, I’m struck by Mark’s gentle call to “hold nothing back and give our heart to everything.” No doubt, his teachings invite us to live with courage, care and an open heart – regardless of how many times we fall down.
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photo credit: Brian Bankston
Mark Nepo (00:00:00) – I think it is offensive for me to tell you in what you’re going through that it’s sacred. I think everyone who suffers has a wisdom the rest of us need. And since we all suffer, we take turns. So as a companion in compassion with you, if you’re suffering, if you’re feeling fear, pain or grief, it’s not my place to tell you that’s sacred. It’s my place to love you and keep you company until you tell me what’s sacred about it. Because you’re the teacher when you’re in that place.
Jonathan Fields (00:00:35) – So have you ever felt like you are almost freefalling through life with no safety net below, like a rug was ripped out from under you, leaving you disoriented and grasping for a stability, wondering how to stop the fall, let alone find a way back up after it. If so, you’re not alone. And we’ve all experienced those sometimes gut wrenching moments of helplessness as the ground crumbles beneath our feet. But here’s the truth Falling down isn’t necessarily a bug in the human system, but rather a universal part of the human experience.
Jonathan Fields (00:01:08) – No matter how we all tend to hide it and lead with how shiny, happy, utterly manufactured our lives sometimes are that beautiful, delusional facade. What matters most is how we become present in and find a sense of agency and strength to get back up again when we are brought to our knees. That doesn’t mean ignoring the hard reality or quote, getting over what may well not be get over it means being honest in it, being present to it, and working with what you have to make it what you need it to be. So my guest today, poet and author Mark Nepo, is all too familiar with life’s ups and downs, from battling cancer to grieving profound losses. His own journey led him to see these vital questions as central. Where do we find the resilience to face hardship? How do we transform struggle into meaning? Mark is one of our own super soul 100. Acclaimed for using his voice and wisdom to lift up humanity. He has touched millions of lives through his books and retreats that guide people on that winding path to inner transformation.
Jonathan Fields (00:02:17) – His latest Falling down and Getting up, Discovering your inner resilience and strength. It draws on decades of experience to unwrap the secrets to weathering life’s inevitable storms. And in our conversation, Mark shares how learning to fall with grace rather than resistance can help us mine life’s obstacles for what seems like utterly non-existent yet hidden possibilities and even gifts. He speaks about why, if you’re not stumbling, you’re also not learning. And he opens up about his own messy, tumbles into wisdom on that winding road to finding inner resilience. So as we explore the inevitability of adversity and the power of compassion, I was really struck by Mark’s gentle call to hold nothing back and give our heart to everything. And no doubt his teachings invite us to live with courage and care and an open heart regardless of how many times we fall down. So excited to share this conversation with you. I’m Jonathan Fields and this is a Good Life project. You and I have been in conversation a number of times over the years. Good to just be able to spend some time with you again.
Jonathan Fields (00:03:31) – Your new book is an interesting topic. Falling Down and Getting Up is the title, and it’s fundamentally an exploration of adversity, which certainly over the last three years, if not many times over our lifetimes, we deal with. But I feel like for so many people, the feeling that adversity has taken on a much more present role in their lives in the recent few years is just a much more common experience. And yet we often don’t talk about it in a meaningful way or really resource ourselves with tools. So that was really interesting that you decided that this was a moment to write about this, especially considering your own personal journey, where for sure, I mean, you have experienced adversity on the level of really being life threatening in your past. So I’m curious what brings you to this topic at this moment in time?
Mark Nepo (00:04:26) – You know, a couple of things concentrated here. And so, you know, it goes back to my previous book of just before Falling Down and Getting Up, which was surviving storms and right out of the pandemic mean think the doorway to all of this both books was a moment that I think a lot of people who’ve been through things had but all of a sudden you know in the pandemic my own cancer journey was coming back vividly.
Mark Nepo (00:04:54) – And and one of the one moment in particular was the moment I was diagnosed. You know, I had, as you might recall, you know, I had a tumor growing out of my skull bone, which was rather pronounced. And I went finally to a doctor, of course. And and when I was told that I had cancer, you know, I was frightened and up ended and, you know, everything. But then when I went to leave that appointment, the door, I had come through to keep that appointment was gone. There was no way back to life before that appointment. And I think this came back so vividly because I think the pandemic was such a moment for humanity. The old world’s gone. There’s no way back. There’s only loving each other forward. And when you look at like Kubler-Ross stages of grief and we’ve had parts of our society in all of it, we’ve had parts of our society in denial. It was a hoax. You know, we had parts of our society and in anger and resentment and what were we protesting? Biology.
Mark Nepo (00:06:02) – And so that was the doorway in. And I think that in the Jewish tradition, as you know, the word Sabbath literally means the one day we don’t turn one thing into another. Well, I think the pandemic was a global Sabbath. We were forced to stop. No, we’re not even dream or scheme or go from here to there. We were forced to revisit and accept the miracle of what is and which all the spiritual traditions point to through practice. But adversity brings us there abruptly, too. And so moving forward, you know, central part of this book is about fear, pain and grief. And that came about because out of the pandemic, you know, was having so many folks ask me if I might open up a space around that and offer something around that, and then that dovetail with my publisher, Joel Fontana’s with Saint Martin’s Essentials. He was wonderfully saying, You teach more than most of my other authors, you know, And he kept asking me about that space. And and then he finally had this wonderful invitation.
Mark Nepo (00:07:13) – He said, well, if someone couldn’t be in one of your circles, what book would be closest to that experience? So that was quite an invitation. And that, coupled with the things we’ve been talking about, gave me a way to really delve into into this archetypal journey. And, you know, the title comes because I discovered that medieval monks, when asked how to practice their faith, said, by falling down and getting up. And I know that. I understand that. And then as I learned, of course, every tradition has some version of that in the Japanese tradition, there’s a proverb that says, Fall down seven, get up eight. And it made me remember to, you know, after one part of my journey, cancer journey, I had a rib removed from my back surgically, and I barely woke up in the hospital room and this kind but gruff nurse was over me saying, We’re going to walk. And I said, What we Who’s we? And but then she said, Two steps forward, one step back.
Mark Nepo (00:08:23) – Which again seems the rhythm of really lit life on Earth. And then in doing this book, I ran across another deep echo of this, this rhythm, which is in the Upanishads, those wonderful, amazing Hindu texts. There’s just metaphors galore throughout that. And there was one of a caterpillar and how a caterpillar bunches up and it moves back in order to move forward. So two steps forward, one step back. And the metaphor was that this is how spiritual growth takes place, like a caterpillar bunching up and moving forward, bunching up. And so it made me looking at my life and at others, no one signs up for falling down. We don’t say, Oh, yeah, sure, sign me. No, no. But like gravity, it’s inevitable. And when we back up enough falling down and getting up becomes a dance. And so the question is what? We can’t avoid it or eliminate it. How do we learn the dance? And what does that look like for each of us? And what is our personal rhythm of falling down and getting up? And when do we need to ask for help in that process?
Jonathan Fields (00:09:39) – Yeah, I mean, it’s interesting, right? Because when you use the term falling down to sort of describe a whole host of experiences that we all have, and I think everybody is going to insert their own unique story or unique moment or a series of experiences into that phrase.
Jonathan Fields (00:09:56) – And this is something that you speak about and that you write about also is there’s also this notion that we spend an inordinate amount of time bracing ourselves to try and avoid the fall. And then once we realize that we are in the fall, that we are in this experience, that we are tumbling or stumbling, we are spiraling, whatever it may be, the immediate impulse is how do we break this? How do we break this? And you have an interesting reframe, which is what if we looked less at how do we break the fall and more how to receive them?
Mark Nepo (00:10:29) – Yeah. And you know, this was also a constellation of of instructions, if you will, around this. I mean, I remember being a kid in my father saying in his own very simple way, if you find yourself falling, go with it. He said, if you resist, you’re just going to break something and remember that as a kid, you know? And then more recently, I have a men’s group that I’m a part of.
Mark Nepo (00:10:54) – We’re really brothers, seven of us that we’ve been meeting and being in each other’s lives for 18 years now. And our elder Don, who’s an amazing watercolorist and he’s 86 now and he’s had a few spills and he said, When I find myself falling, I’ve got to fall with grace. And then he said, after he said, I don’t mean stoically or gracefully, I mean falling the current of whatever’s taking me down, which is the same more more eloquent way to say what my father was saying. And then I stumbled on to that in the martial arts and don’t practice the martial arts. I’ve only read them and seen metaphors in it. But in a kaiju, that art of using the energy of whatever you meet, not resisting it, that they actually teach practitioners how to fall and how to get up. And it’s known as ukemi is the skill and and that’s the first thing they say is tuck and roll, tuck and roll so that you’re right back up. And of course, when we look at these different ways of falling, well, tuck and roll with grief could take a decade.
Mark Nepo (00:12:09) – So you know these things again, how do we inhabit them and personalize them? Because that’s where the real meaning happens and how we can help each other.
Jonathan Fields (00:12:18) – Yeah. As you were describing that the first 18, 19 years of my life, I was I trained as a competitive gymnast. So every day for hours a day, I was flying through the air and often out of control and falling. So one of the things that you learn very quickly is and maybe that’s just because I really wasn’t all that talented, but that’s a whole another conversation. But you learn quickly that you’re going to fall all the time, and it’s part of the process of growth. And just like you described in martial arts, part of what you learn is how to fall, because it’s going to happen over and over and over. And you would eventually get to a point where if you hadn’t taken a fall, if you hadn’t flown off something for a long while, on the one hand you’re like, Oh, this is great.
Jonathan Fields (00:13:07) – I feel awesome. Like I’m not a little bit bruised or banged up. But on the other hand, there’s a little voice inside your head that says, But am I still growing towards am I still becoming or have I just sort of like slid into a season of stasis? And I wouldn’t have used that language when I was 18. But the experience, the feeling was there. And you’re just wondering, like, is this actually okay? It’s safe, but is that why I’m here?
Mark Nepo (00:13:36) – Yeah. And I think that’s a miseducation that’s maybe even more acute in the modern world is that, you know, we want to eliminate turbulence and conflict and challenge, which are all part of the rhythm of growth. And we seem to think that, you know, if we hit status, that’s a good thing and it’s not a good thing because too much stasis. The only time we’re really in spaces is in death and we’re here, we’re alive, and that means we’re never free of struggle. You know, I often think of and I think in one of my books, I explored the imagined an alternative to the myth of Sisyphus.
Mark Nepo (00:14:16) – You know, in the Myth of Sisyphus, he wrote for for Trespass against the Gods. He’s punished Sisyphus to roll a rock up a hill. And when he gets to the top, it falls to the bottom, and he does that for eternity. But I imagined an alternate myth in which, for being kind and generous, he’s rewarded to roll a ball of light up a hill for eternity so he can give it away as he finds it, and and happy to do it over and over again. And that the struggle which you know, Camus, of course, in his Myth of Sisyphus ends up in that point we have to love the struggle. And the struggle without end is really what makes the human journey noble. And even when we do, quote, accomplish things, it’s often not where we aimed, which is not a failure, but an awakening. You know, I think that I’ve learned over my life so far that there’s nothing wrong with working for what we want, but often working for what I want has become an apprenticeship for working with what I’m given.
Mark Nepo (00:15:28) – And that’s that’s where our real gifts show themselves.
Jonathan Fields (00:15:33) – As we talk about this. And just the notion of struggle, the notion of falling, the notion of the sometimes wide chasm between what we wanted to happen and what is happening. Part of that is our own internal pain, our own internal. You describing fear, pain, suffering, grief. And these are very real. These are very physiological, somatic, experiential, emotional and sometimes intellectual things that we go through. Part of the experience is also we are such social creatures that there’s also this conditioning that exists where when we stumble, when we fall and we see that in some way it is an observable experience by others, we freak out and we think the whole world is watching us. And again, this is something that you write and speak to and that alone, that social conditioning around the notion of falling and the shoulds that get wrapped around it, that alone, it’s like it layers on this compound level of suffering that really needn’t be there.
Mark Nepo (00:16:38) – Yeah.
Mark Nepo (00:16:39) – Thank you for bringing that up. You know the chapter in the new book called No One Is Watching. And you know, I think there’s this interesting thing from the beginning of time, I’m sure in primitive cave clans, in some places it’s deliberate, but I think it’s more kind of a byproduct of community is that we’re taught at an early age that someone is always watching and judging us, and that becomes kind of a form of keeping everybody in bounds. It’s kind of a form of social control. But what happens through that even, you know, Santa’s watch out, watch out. Santas watching who some bearded guy in the North Pole is watching me and I’m sick. What is going on? But what happens through that is then we are conditioned very quickly that to feel some kind of we feel an anxiety that someone’s watching us and we feel that we need to please or get approval from whoever is watching, whether that be a parent or social authorities or God or whatever form you want to talk about it.
Mark Nepo (00:17:48) – And then we start to feel that the only release we get or peace is by pleasing or approving whoever we think is watching. And of course, that’s not where a peace comes from. Peace comes from our grounding in the direct experience of life. So we discover somewhere through great love and great suffering, then no one’s watching. And that doesn’t mean we’re alone. That means the things that you’ve mentioned, all these tugs and pulls are out of the way for us to relate. Directly to life and to each other. And again, you know, for me, in my cancer journey, there was a moment when I realized this, you know, and it was after my rib surgery and I was not in a private room. I was in a for a quad room, you know, And there I was. I woke up early. Five, 530 in the morning after the surgery, a few days after the surgery. And and my other wounded angels were asleep and the light came through the window hitting the chrome side of my bed.
Mark Nepo (00:18:57) – And I could see a distorted image of my face in the chrome and realized, no one’s watching. Yeah, we’re here together. This is all real. And a film or a grid or a screen was lifted, which made life much more real and made the connections more real. So of course, as we struggle with this, you know, often our parents inadvertently become watchers in our mind. And then, you know, we and, you know, and tell a story in the book that just happened. You know, I’m 72. You know, I left my home when I was 18. So who’s keeping those voices alive? It’s up to us to put them down, to disengage them. But so, you know, my father was a master woodworker, and and he was a really good teacher. I think we may have touched on this in one of our conversations. He taught at Brooklyn Tech High School in New York City. And and he was a really good teacher, but with my brother and I don’t know if because we were his sons, he wanted so much more from us.
Mark Nepo (00:20:03) – He was very perfectionistic and critical at an early age. I said, I’m out of here. And so I always felt because of his voice, that I was not handy. And the truth is, I am. If I can disengage that voice. So, okay, here we are. I mean, when the last year or year and a half in our foyer or in our home here, we had coat hooks that were aging and pulling out of the wall. And so my wife, Susan and I were going to replace them and we had to take them out of the wall. And it got a little messy. And as we’re working on it, I started saying to her, You better be careful. Don’t make a mess. You’re going to make it worse than when we started. And God bless her without missing a beat. She said, I don’t know who’s talking, but you go figure that out. I want to replace the code books. And it just jarred me. And I said, Oh, so here I am, what, last year, 71, 70.
Mark Nepo (00:21:07) – And without disengaging that watcher here I am perpetuating it on Susan decades later. So we all struggle with this. And so one of the questions like to anyone who’s listening or a question I often ask when I when I work with folks around this inner circle, a journal question is who’s the largest voice in your head that’s not your own tell tell that story. How is it how did that come to be? And then the second part of this, which is just as important, is you and me, are we watcher voices in someone else’s head? And how do we.
Jonathan Fields (00:21:44) – No doubt.
Mark Nepo (00:21:45) – No doubt. So how do we encourage those, whether are friends or children or students, how do we encourage people to be who they are, not who we are?
Jonathan Fields (00:21:55) – And that last question, like as a parent really gets me because I look at it on two levels. One is like, what have I said? But probably the more relevant one is what have I done? Because kids model our behavior as much, if not more so than they model what we say.
Jonathan Fields (00:22:14) – And in fact, if our behavior contradicts what we say, they’re going to look at our lived experience and they’re going to. That’s the truth to them. So it’s not just like, what are we saying in conversation to those whose voices we may become in their heads, but also, how are we living in a way that sends a message to them that then becomes the unspoken but modeled voice in their head? Absolutely. It really makes you think about not just what you’re saying, but how am I moving through the world on just on a regular basis?
Mark Nepo (00:22:44) – Oh, I think you’re absolutely right that, you know, children especially and all of us, we pick up the model of authenticity and that stays with us more than any words. Yeah.
Jonathan Fields (00:22:59) – You use the word grounding a little while back. And you make an interesting distinction also between grounding and what you call chasing.
Mark Nepo (00:23:08) – Yeah. So, you know, one of the other lessons so far in my life has been that we’re also taught, while we’re taught that someone’s watching, that we need to get their approval.
Mark Nepo (00:23:19) – We’re also taught and this is a menacing assumption and again, it’s more acute in modern times, but it’s gone on forever. We’re taught that life is other than where we are, so we got to chase it. It’s over there. We got to go get it. It’s, you know, happiness is. Oh, if I’m alone, happiness looks like what I imagine in the couple I see across the street. If I could just have that or happiness is in whatever it might be. Wealth, security, friendship. Oh, I wish I had more friends. Oh, I wish. I wish, I wish. What we’re taught, miss taught that life is from here to there. When I’ve learned that life is from in to out. And so certainly in the outer world, we have to go from here to there, but not as a means to find meaning and worth as a means to live in the river of experience. That is life. So we do in the surface world of circumstance, I have to go from here to there.
Mark Nepo (00:24:17) – But meaning and beauty and truth and kindness all come from into Al. How do we ground ourselves? And this raises an interesting paradox between miracle and tragedy. We all have both in our lives. So when we think of miracle, we think of the extraordinary, not just the the special extraordinary things that happen, but the extraordinary sanctity of life that’s released in the ordinary. When we’re present enough, everything’s miraculous and that’s uplifting. But if we’re not grounded, we can be barely tethered and we’ll just float up into the sky and we’ll have a 35,000 foot view of everything or a Pandora view of every. Oh, this is wonderful. Why bother yourself with this? And the other is the groundedness or the weight of falling down and getting up of struggle. And under that umbrella of tragedy or the tragic sense is that grounds us and if but if we all we are as grounded, we are ground down. And so if these things are allowed to separately dominate our lives, I’ve found and I’ve been I found myself in my life at different times being swept up in one or the other.
Mark Nepo (00:25:40) – If you’re only grounded, you wind up in a nihilistic space. You wind up in a pessimistic space. You wind up where pragmatism is your god and fear is your prince. Now, if you wind up simply in the miracle of things and try to avoid the truth of being here, then you transcend out of here. And I think we’re asked as human beings to find our own balance and let those things to feel both to be uplifted enough that we’re not ground down and grounded enough that we don’t vanish. And that’s the amazing, authentic journey. And this also speaks to my understanding of all art. Meaningful art, regardless of form, is to marry what is with what can be. Because, again, if all we stay with is what is will just be ground down, and if all we stay is what can be, we won’t really touch down in real life. So this is a different kind of version of falling down and getting up. How do we, you know, live here fully without being ground down? You know, I have a a small poem of mine that goes like this as a man can sit beneath a tree and view all the trees from above, a heart encumbered by reality can no eternity.
Mark Nepo (00:27:13) – And that’s part of the rhythm of falling down and getting up to is how do we not run from our own experience but allow other Thank God there’s more than just my experience and how can I be buoyed by other life?
Jonathan Fields (00:27:29) – And this is something that you speak to also in various different ways. The notion of not moving through these experiences, not moving through life, but especially moments of falling down and alone, and the experience of being in relationship with others. There’s a part you describe this falling in and loving through or really about relationships, starting as from any source of refuge from these experiences. But at some point they have to change. They have to open to see into. To see as a practice for something bigger and more universal.
Mark Nepo (00:28:02) – Yeah. And so I think we do tend to try to find another to have safe harbor against the storm. But yes, sooner or later, as our heart opens and this is the work and gift of true compassion and compassion literally means being with. So when we open our heart to each other, we agree to feel each other’s pain and joy.
Mark Nepo (00:28:27) – And then humbly, I mean, I know from my own experience, by loving one person fully, I have learned how to love the world by feeling one person’s pain without avoiding it or running from it or reframing it. I’ve learned to feel the pain of the world. And so, yeah, intimacy is the practice ground for how to love each other everywhere. And we learn a feeling at a time, a step at a time, a circle, a falling down at a time and a helping up, getting up.
Jonathan Fields (00:29:06) – And at the same time, on the one hand, it’s a growth opportunity, it training experience to a certain extent. But as you described also like I feel like we can treat it sometimes also as an escape from everything that’s happening outside of the container of that one relationship. So it’s interesting to me how your notion is. Well, yes. And what if this is all true and what if it is, in fact a training ground for like this deepened intimacy and expansive love and compassion? But that is not the thing that keeps you whole in the world, that is suffering, that that is actually the thing that prepares you to expand that experience into a world that is suffering.
Mark Nepo (00:29:50) – Yeah, absolutely. And I think this is what I I’ve come to understand as the maturing of compassion. You know, very naturally, our apprentice ship of compassion, which never ends, is through commonality. I had a broken heart where, friends, your heart gets broken. Oh, I’m drawing. I’m. There’s a magnetism. There’s a pull of commonality. Oh, we share this and then this compassion. But all of that is a practice ground for having compassion, for experience that I have nothing in common with. And I’ll give you two examples. An example of the apprenticeship of compassion. I’ve had different exercises at different decades of my life, but in my 30s I played racquetball and I remember being in a grocery line and in the front of the line was a very old woman. She’s probably my age now, but she seemed very old, and yet clearly she had a problem with her back. She was barely tiptoeing away from the register and I remember feeling for her. And then quite honestly, after a while, I got impatient.
Mark Nepo (00:30:59) – Okay. So she made her way. Life went on and about two weeks later, playing racquetball, I tweaked my back. Now, all of a sudden I got it. Now, like getting to the bathroom was like going to China. While ever since then, if I see someone like that ahead of me in the grocery line, I go carry their bags because I get it. I have suffered it. That’s the apprenticeship of compassion. My first true experience of compassion for something I had no experience of was when the Iraqi war was happening. After. Right after it, I was with friends in a restaurant bar, you know, and I went to the bar to get more drinks for our friends. And as I went by in the booth opposite the bar, there was a troubled guy who was kind of talking to himself. And I wound up in some conversation with him and I sat down and it turned out that he was a medic in Iraq and had been through and seen horrible things. I couldn’t just get up.
Mark Nepo (00:32:04) – I was listening and and there we were. All of a sudden, a seam opened up and we were there. And I remember saying, you know, I can’t imagine what you’ve been through. And he slammed his fist on the table and said, No, you can’t. And I was taken aback. But then I put my hand on his fist and I said, But I’m here and I’m listening. And then he softened. And then he cried. And all of my work unknowingly at having compassion through the doorway of things we have in common, was preparing me for that moment. There’s nothing we had in common. There was other than that we were human, which is the big one that I would have any way other than opening my heart than to know or glimpse what he had been through. In the same way. Our intimacy. We can be trapped. And. An insular in a relationship, whether it’s a significant other or a friendship or something that insulates us from the world. And I think we’re suffering a lot of that right now in our society.
Mark Nepo (00:33:08) – But it’s it’s somehow the mystery of authentic compassion and through sharing of true pain and joy, that it doesn’t stay limited to us like X and Y chromosomes, all of life is encoded in it. And it takes our open, authentic heart to go from being insular to feeling this strand that represents all of life.
Jonathan Fields (00:33:34) – I mean, a lot of what we’re talking about is this trifecta of fear, pain and grief. When we fall down one, two or all three of play and maybe if not simultaneously, like one’s coming next and this is a lot of what you speak to also, and there’s a frame that you bring to those three experiences, which is there’s a sacredness that you say exists when within those experiences and an opportunity to practice, to practice compassion, to practice commiseration, to practice, resilience, to practice. Like where do I go when I land in this place? And yet when we’re in it, when we’re in the feeling of fear, when we’re in the experience of pain, when we’re mired in the chasm of grief, to say to somebody in that moment, Oh, this is sacred ground, now you get to practice.
Jonathan Fields (00:34:26) – It seems completely inaccessible, if not offensive. Yeah, expand the frame on this for me because I think it’s a really fascinating exploration.
Mark Nepo (00:34:34) – Well, the first thing is that I think it is offensive for me to tell you in what you’re going through that it’s sacred. I think everyone who suffers has a wisdom the rest of us need. And since we all suffer, we take turns. So as a companion in compassion with you, if you’re suffering, if you’re feeling fear, pain or grief, it’s not my place to tell you that sacred. It’s my place to love you and keep you company until you tell me what’s sacred about it. Yeah, because you’re the teacher when you’re in that place. And this is our title. This goes back to this is really what the story of Job is about. You know, it’s told in the Old Testament about God. And, you know, is Joe’s faithfulness to God no matter what happens to him. But I think we can understand it in a human context, in a spiritual context, as the faith in life, faith in no matter how we fall down, we will find our way into getting up and not knowing what that looks like.
Mark Nepo (00:35:38) – That no matter when we’re in it, it’s hard to be grateful for pain and suffering when we’re in it. But faith in life, not in a principal or a deity or a saint or a sage. Faith in life is that I will be grateful. And once I’m through and there are two quotes that come to mind that are very helpful for me here. One is Vaclav Havel, who was the first president of the Czech Republic when the communist rule fell, and he was a poet and a playwright. He was actually a poet president, a rare thing, but he defined optimism as not the belief that things will turn out well, but the belief that no matter how things turn out, they will have meaning. That’s very helpful in terms of what we’re talking about here. The other is Rilke one, a real because wonderful lines which only discovered this only in the last few years was let everything happen. Beauty and terror. No one feeling is final. Keep going. And the third helpful thing here is Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah when he talks about the broken hallelujah.
Mark Nepo (00:36:53) – I think this is what he he’s talking about. You know, it’s the way I understand it because I always think in terms of metaphor as as a poet. But he’s talking about that healing and strength and resilience come from not avoiding what we’re going through and not thinking that all of life is what we’re going through. So if you’re on a raft at sea and a wave crashes on you and smashes the raft and you’re clinging to one board, that’s terrible and not but and it does not diminish the majesty of the sea. And in there is a paradox of the broken hallelujah that the truth of what we go through is real. That’s the groundedness, which can be tragic and be difficult. And yet we are always held by something that is not tragic, that is larger than us. And I experienced this very deeply during my cancer journey, which in a moment one of a constellation of moments. Changed my life. And that was after a terribly, horribly botched first chemo treatment. And I was in a Holiday Inn outside of New York City getting sick every 20 minutes because the only medicine they gave me when they sent me on my way was oral, which I couldn’t keep down.
Mark Nepo (00:38:14) – Afraid in pain. It was three weeks after I had my rib removed, so every time I got sick it was just terrible and thinking all this can’t go on. But eventually we did go to the emergency room, but just before that it was really dawn. It was like five or so in the morning and the sun was coming up and just not through any wisdom on my part, but because I was exhausted, I realized that somewhere nearby a baby was being born and somewhere nearby, a couple were making love for the first time and somewhere else. Not far away, an adult parent and child were resolving a breach between them that had lasted years. And so thank God what was happening to me on my small raft was true, you know, and we tend to do this, you know, we tend as human beings, if I realize that larger frame will go, Oh, gee, so what is happening to me is not so important. Or we go the other way more often, which is we don’t realize that larger frame and we make all of life and extrapolation of what we’re going through.
Mark Nepo (00:39:21) – So if I’m broken, the world’s a broken place. If I’m afraid the world’s a fearful place, if I’ve been betrayed, you can’t trust anything. Life is not trustable. And of course, as I was mentioning earlier about miracle and tragedy and the man under the tree can see that all the trees from above the tree at the same time, through our suffering and our understanding, we are challenged to be true to what we’re experiencing and to welcome all of life. That is not us, because that’s where the healing and resilience comes from.
Jonathan Fields (00:40:02) – Yeah, I mean, that all resonates deeply. And, you know, to a certain extent I think we’re doing this dance between the experience of falling down, but also getting back up. And I wonder if sometimes the popular overlay of, well, a successful, quote, successful getting back up means that I get to return to, quote, normal or we go back to the way things were. And that’s really not what we’re talking about. It’s not what you write or what you speak about, you know, and certainly the experience of grief.
Jonathan Fields (00:40:32) – There’s not a thing where, oh, I’m finally past the grief so I can go back to the way things were, as you describe, you know, know you’re forever changed. The landscape of your world has changed and it’s not getting back up isn’t about going back to the way things were. Yeah, it’s about moving forward differently.
Mark Nepo (00:40:50) – Yeah, absolutely. And I think grief is an entire, you know, fear and pain. We can learn to befriend, negotiate, work with, endure. But grief is a whole nother thing. And there were so many forms of grief, just as there are forms of falling down. Certainly the most acute form of grief is losing a loved one. But we can lose a marriage. We can lose a dream. We can lose our identity, we can lose our way. And all of these have their own form of grief. But grief. Yes. You know, I used the metaphor that with someone in our life that’s close, that’s a friend, a family member, a significant other, a child, a parent, whatever.
Mark Nepo (00:41:34) – We’ve mapped our way through life with them. And then we lose them and losing them to death when they’re never can return. It’s like the landscape is blown up, so the geography is never the same. And therefore all the maps, no matter how dear, are useless. And one of the paradoxes of grief is just when you don’t want to go out of the house and do anything in the world, you’re forced to remap the world. You’re you’re forced to go out there because the old maps, they’re useless. They’re inaccurate. They were dear. But now the land is blown up. And I think also the way that, you know, this is in the grief that I’ve experienced, they forever color your life. And then there’s this. Just as there was an integration between my pain in that Holiday Inn room and the rest of life happening, there is an eventual integration between the loss, the emptiness that now is in side one and merging with life going forward. And so the way that I understand that is another metaphor.
Mark Nepo (00:42:45) – You know, if you take a glass of water and you I drop a drop of iodine in it or food coloring, one drop colors the entire glass. And this is what grief does. It tints everything. And now you have to go forward in a new world. Does it mean that you’ll never experience joy again? No. But it will have a different tint. It will never quite be the same. Everything will be different. And we have to discover and lean into what that new world is. And so I don’t think we ever get over it. We may get under it, but we never get over it. And often and this is very common that people who are afraid to journey with another person’s grief will pathologize their grief or put a time limit on it, or be impatient and say, gee, you know, mean we, my wife, Susan and I, and we don’t have children. But our previous dog before Zuzu, who you just saw Mirror and these dogs are like dog children to us, you know.
Mark Nepo (00:43:49) – But we were in such an unexpected deep grief when we lost mirror. And there were people in our life who said, Gee, you know, I feel bad for them, but, you know, it’s just a dog. When are they when are they going to be able to go to have pizza again with us? And then there were other people who said, your grief scares me, but I’m here. And then we say, yeah, well, it scares us too. And we’ll learn how to do this together. And then those people, we got closer. That’s the kind of intimacy through which you learn to love the world. And the other friendships didn’t endure because they refused to stay in the journey of life together. Rather than say, Wow, I don’t know what to do with this, it makes me uncomfortable. It makes me afraid. And then we can say, Yeah, well, it does to us too, but we can do it together. And this is one of the chapters in the book, The Art of Netting.
Mark Nepo (00:44:45) – There’s two chapters in the book that come out of my accompanying a dear friend who’s going through grief, and this friend of mine, dear friend of mine, Paul, We’ve been friends for 40 years and he helped save my life all those years ago. He was one of those that group of people who helped save my life. And about a year and a half ago, he lost his wife very suddenly to a massive heart attack. And he’s just been devastated. And of course, I want to be there and I am there for him. And so his grief is being our teacher. And one of the things are two things. And one is that he sat right here visiting me in my study and have a rocking chair right next to here. And he said to me through tears, he said, You know, I’m now in the life after tears where everything is raw and everything is precious and everything is unrepeatable and everyone gets the chance to be dropped into the depth of life through great love or great suffering.
Mark Nepo (00:45:43) – It doesn’t it isn’t always difficult things to drop us. There can be wonder, beauty, surprise, being loved unconditionally. But before that we’re in the life before tears, before we’re opened. You know, writing has become, over the years, listening and taking notes. And what comes becomes my teacher. I know it’s true, but I have to be with it to understand it eventually. So a couple that’s been with me recently is being hardened will help us get through life. But being softened will let us experience life. The life before tears were getting through life. This goes back to getting from here to there. But in a life after tears, however, we are introduced to that. Now we’re softened. And now we’re dropped into the miracle, the miracle of life and how rare it is to be here. And so that the second part, the art of netting to go back to that is I have this men’s group I mentioned. Now they’ve never met Paul, but they know of him.
Mark Nepo (00:46:42) – So as I’m there for Paul, while he is struggling with his grief, these guys are reaching out to me to make sure I’m okay. And that introduced me to the art of netting, taking the word net net and making it a verb, and that a net when two people are holding something in a net, it distributes the weight and we take turns. You know, next year I might be in the center and someone will be helping me and someone who knows them but doesn’t know me, will help them, help me. And we distribute the weight. And this is also the work of compassion.
Jonathan Fields (00:47:19) – You describe in the book this notion of us having this one shared assignment, which is sort of like what we’re starting to speak to now, which is to let however you want to describe it, our light, our inner essence, like that which is vibrant and radiant about us, migrate through care out into the world. And this is part of what you’re describing, like the netting effect really relates to that context of like, well, there’s this bigger thing that we’re all here for.
Mark Nepo (00:47:49) – I think that our one assignment, as I try to explore or offer that there is letting the light of the world manifest through our humanity. And that seems essential because through our authenticity and because we have this amazing thing, the mind. So I can intellectual, I can conceptualize things larger than me, I can abstract, but that’s not the same that when we are authentic, it scours us out to be a hollow bone and then spirit and light and all of the intangible resources of life can now come through us into the world. That’s the not the same thing as intellectualizing it. You know, the Western traditions from the Greeks on down, wisdom has always been thought of as the understanding of truth. But the Eastern and indigenous traditions offer us that wisdom is the experience of truth, and it’s the experience of truth that can lead us to joy. There’s an old parable about a master sends his apprentice to He wants him to sit by the river and meditate until he’s learned all the river has to teach them.
Mark Nepo (00:49:10) – So he goes. He spends the whole first half day trying to figure out where’s the best place to sit. And he’s too close. He’s too finally, he sits halfway under a willow tree and he goes into serious meditation. Three days and after three days, nothing. He just has a terrible headache. He’s wondering, why did my master send me here? And just as his head is pounding out of nowhere across on the other side of the river, out of the brush, a monkey comes, jumps in the river and starts splashing and yapping. And the apprentice. He starts to weep. So he gathers his things. He goes back to his master, tells him what happened. His master puts his arm around him and says, Ah, the monkey heard you just listen. The monkey heard you just listened. And so the intellectual, the conceptualizing root of our experience watching is wonderful because we can learn a lot from watching, but only if it leads us to getting wet, getting in the river of life.
Mark Nepo (00:50:13) – Curiosity is only helpful if it leads us to wonder. And so this is, I think, one of the things that’s actually adds to the insulation of our modern age, especially with the younger generation, is, you know, in my father’s generation, as I mentioned, a master woodworker school teacher, he never traveled that much in his life. So we subscribe to National Geographic because he loved to see the pictures from around the world. So now here I am. I’ve been blessed to travel somewhat, but I can go on the Internet, on YouTube, and I can watch a video over someone’s shoulder who climbed Mount Everest. I’m never going to climb Mount Everest. That’s great. Wonderful. But what’s happening in our installation is so many of us are watching things and thinking we made the climb. It’s great if I watch that video because I’ll know I’ll never do it. But I didn’t climb Mount Everest. And so we have all of these vicarious experiences through social media, through the Internet, and we’re losing our direct experience of life, which cannot be replaced.
Mark Nepo (00:51:22) – So, no, if you watch something on TV, if you, you know, watch American Idol and you vote, you weren’t in community, you’ve expended your energy for others. And now when you turn the TV off, you’re still alone. You have to go out of the house to have community. That hasn’t changed just so. That’s why it’s so important that our one assignment is releasing the resources of life through our humanity.
Jonathan Fields (00:51:53) – So powerful it feels like that’s also a good place for us to come. Full circle in our conversation as we talk about that one sort of universal mission or vision or shared assignment. So in this container of Good Life project, if I offer up the phrase to live a good life, what comes up?
Mark Nepo (00:52:13) – To hold nothing back and to give our heart and care to every. Everything we meet until it becomes our teacher.
Jonathan Fields (00:52:23) – Thank you.
Jonathan Fields (00:52:25) – Hey, before you leave, if you love this episode, say that you’ll also love the conversation we had with Anne Lamott about embracing all parts of life.
Jonathan Fields (00:52:32) – You’ll find a link to Anne’s episode in the show notes. And of course, if you haven’t already done so, please go ahead and follow Good Life Project in your favorite listening app. And if you found this conversation interesting or inspiring or valuable and chances are you did. Since you’re still listening here, would you do me a personal favor, a seven second favor, and share it maybe on social or by text or by email. Even just with one person. Just copy the link from the app you’re using and tell those you know those you love, those you want to help navigate this thing called life a little better so we can all do it better together with more ease and more joy. Tell them to listen, then even invite them to talk about what you’ve both discovered. Because when podcasts become conversations and conversations become action. That’s how we all come alive together. Until next time, I’m Jonathan Fields, signing off for Good Life Project.