The One Life We're Given
CITED BY SPIRITUALITY & PRACTICE AS ONE OF THE BEST SPIRITUAL BOOKS OF 2016
In The One Life We’re Given: Finding the Wisdom That Waits in Your Heart, Nepo’s personal stories, questions, and meditations take us on a deep and uplifting journey to know our own hearts and enliven our souls.
This new book affirms how precious this one life is and opens the chance we have to be fully alive and to be of use to each other and the world. Drawn from my years of teaching, I’m exploring how our hard work and authenticity readies us for meaning and grace. I’m looking to unfold how, by loving what’s before us and concentrating on what’s particular and personal, we can begin to make sense of our experience. Over time, we uncover the twin callings of enlivening our soul and enlivening the world become one, and how our sincerity and labor help us to survive and thrive. Deepening the short-chapter format I used in The Book of Awakening, I’m trying to reveal how living wholeheartedly brings us into the field of grace, that larger current of life that awakens us.
By fully living the one life we’re given, we’re led to the wisdom that waits in our heart. There is no other way. To make the most of being here, we’re required to learn when to try and when to let go. This is our initiation into grace. The gift and practice of being human centers on the effort to restore what matters and, when in trouble, to make good use of our heart. No one quite knows how to do this, but learn it we must. Our path to love and truth depend on this journey. The sections of this book point to how we might truly inhabit the one life we’re given: by getting closer to life, loving what you do, finding what can last, and by being kind and useful.
From an early age, we’re taught to try hard, to do our best, to give our all. And so, our first encounter with effort is how hard we try to get from here to there, from inexperience to experience, from apprenticeship to mastery. This kind of work is necessary to accomplish things in the world. But just as we’re clearing a path, we experience heartbreak and loss. Things don’t go as planned. We lose our way. And without warning, we’re thrust into a life of transformation, which no one can escape. Now we’re introduced to a different sense of effort that asks us to put things down in order to discover beauty and wonder. As our inner life unfolds, we grow from ignorance to truth and from loneliness to love. This kind of work is necessary to join with the things of the world.
We clearly need both: to accomplish things and to join with things. Yet while trying so hard to get from here to there leads to achievement and even excellence, it’s giving our all to grow like a root that lets us blossom in the world. Ultimately, the effort to grow is more life-giving than the effort to get. It’s how we grow that leads in time to meaning and grace, a journey we can’t control or aim, but only enter when we agree to be baptized in the sea of aliveness.
“Mark Nepo is someone who walks through this confusing and sometimes dark world holding up a lantern and lighting the way. His voice helps us find pathways where we might have believed that no pathway could possibly exist. He is more than simply brave and more than simply wise; he is deeply kind—because he understands that kindness is the most courageous act of wisdom there is. I can say with all certainty that I would follow this man anywhere his words want to take us.”
—Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love and Big Magic
“Mark Nepo is one of our national treasures. That is because Mark inhabits that rare and beautiful consciousness that enables him to express the language of the soul. The words and energy flowing from the font of his heart not only make our lives more beautiful but heal us.”
—Rev. Ed Bacon, author, author of 8 Habits of Love; rector, All Saints Episcopal Church, Pasadena, CA
“This book is a powerful guide to being in the world without being overwhelmed by it. Nepo’s profound and poignant stories and insights can help us survive what life brings us, and to thrive inwardly.
—Arianna Huffington, author of The Sleep Revolution
“The wisdom presented on the shining pages of this holy book is another luminous gift from a gallant, grateful and imaginative spiritual master.”
—Spirituality & Practice (read full review)
“In his latest book, prolific author Nepo (Inside the Miracle) shares how to shape the life of the soul, and make sense of every pain, fear, and loss, as well as surprise, beauty, and wonder. Through thought-provoking stories and commentary, the author assists readers in discovering what can be accomplished, what will last, and how to be kind and useful. He asks readers to record their feelings and supplies topics for inspiration, which include the challenge of self-analysis.
VERDICT: Nepo is one of the best in terms of relating to the desires of the soul and pinings of readers. No time will be wasted reading through his work.”
“This book is out of the ordinary. The One Life We’re Given isn’t a book to whip through in a single reading. Like fine wine, every sip, or page in this case, should be savored. I know I could spend, at minimum, a year in dialogue with Mark through his writing—actually, a lifetime. His ability to share his life through his poetic and earthy prose exudes authenticity. The many images that he describes continue to haunt me, move me, and inspire me. I highly recommend this book. It is in my top 10 best books to have by my bed.”
—Justine Toms, Co-founder and Host, New Dimensions Radio
TOUCHING THE WATER
A troubled widower made his way to ask a wise old woman about his troubles. The old woman received him and they walked along a stream. She could see the pain in his face. He began to tremble as he asked, “What’s the point? Is there any meaning to life?” She invited him to sit on a large stone near the stream. She took a long branch and swirled it in the water, then replied, “It all depends on what it means to you to be alive.” In his sorrow, the man dropped his shoulders and the old woman gave him the branch. “Go on,” she said, “touch the branch to the water.”
As he poked the branch in the running stream, there was something comforting about feeling the water in his hand through the branch. She touched his hand and said, “You see, that you can feel the water without putting your hand in the water, this is what meaning feels like.” The troubled man seemed puzzled. She said, “Close your eyes and feel your wife now gone. That you can feel her in your heart without being able to touch her, this is how meaning saves us.”
The widower began to cry. The old woman put her arm around him, “No one knows how to live or how to die. We only know how to love and how to lose, and how to pick up branches of meaning along the way.
EVERYONE HAS A GIFT
Each person is born with an unfathomable gift. Our call is to find it and care for it. And while working with our gift can create many wonderful things, the purpose of the gift is to exercise the heart into inhabiting its aliveness. For the covenant of life is not just to stay alive, but to stay in our aliveness. And staying in aliveness depends on opening the heart and keeping it open.
Our dreams, goals, and ambitions are all kindling to bring our gift into the world. All are fuel for the heart to exercise its aliveness. So the soul’s journey is to discover what matters by making good use of our heart. Until, like a match, our light is revealed as our gift strikes against the needs of the world. How? By saying yes to life, by working with what we’re given, and by staying in relationship—to everything.
Being human, we drift in and out of knowing our aliveness. Pain, worry, fear, and loss can muffle and confuse us. Re-finding our gift and working it will exercise the heart to bring us back alive. It doesn’t matter if we play our gift well or awkwardly, if we’re skillful or clumsy, if we make great strides or fail. For aliveness is not a judge in a talent show. Aliveness shows itself in response to wholeheartedness. We only have to be sincere and wholehearted in order to be returned to wonder. That we sometimes accomplish great things is inspiring, but feeling thoroughly alive is essential. At the deepest level, it doesn’t matter if we agree or believe in each other’s version of life. What matters is if my sincerity strikes against yours, like a match, so that our gifts can give off their light.
So brave your way on. You are a blessing waiting to be discovered by yourself. The wisdom waits in your heart like a buried treasure which only loving your self can bring to the surface. And yes, loving your self is like diving to the bottom of the ocean with nothing but who you are to find your way.
Sitting beside my father during his last months, I became aware that I was part of a legacy I hadn’t put together. I was part of a lineage that went back four generations.
My great-grandfather was a leather smith. He made saddles for a feudal baron in Russia. He endured his uncertain livelihood by pouring himself into his craft. During a Pogrom, he was chased by Cossacks into the Dnieper River, but wasn’t killed because they didn’t want their horses to get cold. After this, it took him fourteen years and three trips across the Atlantic to bring our family to America. Toward the end of his life, on summer nights in Williamsburg, he would say, “When in trouble, wait till you see a way out.”
His son, my grandfather, was a gentle soul who became a letterpress printer in New York City, only to lose his job during the Great Depression. With little to eat, he’d bring strangers home for dinner. When grandma would pull him aside with “We don’t have enough,” he’d kiss her cheek and say, “Break whatever we have in half. It will be enough.”
And then, in the hospital, his son, my 93-year-old father, was bobbing inside his stroke-laden body. I sat with my mother at the foot of his bed, as we watched him sink away from us. She shook her head and said, “I don’t know how he does it.” She stared into the trail of their lives, “No matter what we faced, he’d always say, ‘Give me a minute, and I’ll figure out what to do.'”
They’re all gone and I braid their lessons into a rope I can use: to see a way out, to know there will be enough, to figure out what to do. In the midst of trouble, we’re always challenged to stand still in the river, till we’re shown how to stay alive and give.
A CONVERSATION WITH MARK NEPO ABOUT HIS NEW BOOK,
THE ONE LIFE WE’RE GIVEN: FINDING THE WISDOM THAT WAITS IN YOUR HEART
QUESTION: What is the inspiration for this new book?
RESPONSE: As fish swim in water and birds wake to sing, I come alive in this unending inquiry we call writing. And I always write about what I need to learn. Now in my sixties, life feels even more precious and I keep learning how rare this one life is. I know from my own evolution that most of what the heart knows enters us like lightning, and is already true somewhere inside, while the rest of us struggles to catch up. I’ve also learned that we’re never drawn into a change we’re not ready for, though the change may be difficult. Under the weight of living, I’m thankful for how gifted we are to have hearts that feel. Thankful for the chance to be tender and thorough and possible one more time. And whenever we dare or are forced to lift each other up or ease each other down, we have the glorious chance to find what we’ve lost in our common story. When we can truly behold each other, we slowly become each other. We become love itself. It’s through love’s eyes that we can see that it’s sweetly enough to be here at all. I offer this book as a testament to the human spirit and to life itself.
QUESTION: In the book, you offer that effort and grace are key to finding the wisdom that waits in our heart and to living a full life. What do you mean by this?
RESPONSE: This is a central inquiry of the book. From an early age, we’re taught to try hard, to do our best, to give our all, which is necessary to accomplish things in the world. We try to get from here to there, from inexperience to experience, from apprenticeship to mastery. But just as we’re clearing a path, we experience heartbreak and loss. Things don’t go as planned. We are betrayed. Our trust is broken. We lose our way. And without warning, we’re thrust into a life of transformation, which no one can escape. Now we’re introduced to a different sense of effort that asks us to put down what we accumulate in order to discover beauty and wonder. As our inner life unfolds, we grow from ignorance to truth and from loneliness to love. This kind of work is necessary to join with the world. We clearly need both to accomplish things and to join with other life. While trying so hard to get from here to there leads to achievement and even excellence, giving our all lets us grow like a root and blossom in the world wherever we are. Ultimately, the effort to grow inwardly is more life-giving than the effort to get. How we grow inwardly leads in time to meaning and grace, a journey we can’t control, but only enter. To make the most of being here, we’re required to learn when to try and when to let go. This is our initiation into grace. The practice of being human centers on our effort to connect to all life and, when in trouble, to make good use of our heart. No one quite knows how to do this, but we must learn how. Our life depends on this journey through the heart. There is no other way. By fully living the one life we’re given, we’re led to the wisdom that waits in our heart. This book explores these themes and invites the reader to personalize them.
QUESTION: You return in this book to the short-chapter format of your #1 New York Times bestseller, The Book of Awakening. What led you to re-engage this form?
RESPONSE: I’ve always been moved by the power of story. It is the oldest of teachers. In The Book of Awakening, I tried to offer small doses of what matters to carry into our days. More than returning to this form, I felt compelled to evolve it with all I’ve learned through the years. This book has grown out of the rhythms of my own spiritual inquiry and the path of my teaching. Both keep merging and forming a new whole. Both keep forming me into a new whole. Working with readers and students is a path I am devoted to. This path is a continuous inquiry into what it means to be human, to be here, and to care for each other. And so I’ve structured this book in the shape of the one conversation with life that I’ve been entering with so many through the years, which I welcome new readers to.
QUESTION: You give many examples of seekers whose journeys help to uncover the inner life. Was there someone in particular who helped you find your way into this book?
RESPONSE: Yes. My dear father, Morris Nepo, died three years ago at the age of ninety-three. He was at his strongest and happiest when working with wood, when building things. In his basement workshop, no one could suppress his love of life and his insatiable creativity. I learned a great deal from him. Though I can see now that there were many times he didn’t know he was teaching and I didn’t know I was learning. Mostly, he taught me by example that we’re called to make good use of the one life we’re given. He taught me that giving our all can lead to moments of fulfillment and grace. And those moments of full living can sustain us.
QUESTION: Can you tell us about the structure of this book?
RESPONSE: The sections of this book point to how we might truly inhabit the one life we’re given: by getting closer to life, loving what we do, finding what can last, and by being kind and useful. I present them in this order only because one page has to follow another. In life, these passages don’t always appear in this sequence. One may lead to another. Being kind and useful may ultimately get us closer to life. And finding what can last may help us love what we do. In life, these passages appear more like spokes on a wheel. Each, if followed, can lead us to their common center. At any time, each of these passages can serve as a meaningful beginning. Each chapter in the book contains a story or metaphor or personal example that brings a question or quandary of living into view. From this, I try to surface and reflect on the life lesson or skill carried there. Finally, and this is the most important part, I offer a question for you to walk with, or a conversation for you to have with a friend or loved one, or a meditation through which you might discover where this question or quandary or lesson or skill lives in you. These invitations are seeds to water along the way.
QUESTION: Can you share a story from the book that gives us a sense of its journey?
RESPONSE: I’m happy to. A troubled widower made his way to ask a wise old woman about his troubles. The old woman received him and they walked along a stream. She could see the pain in his face. He began to tremble as he asked, “What’s the point? Is there any meaning to life?” She invited him to sit on a large stone near the stream. She took a long branch and swirled it in the water, then replied, “It all depends on what it means to you to be alive.” In his sorrow, the man dropped his shoulders and the old woman gave him the branch. “Go on,” she said, “touch the branch to the water.” As he poked the branch in the running stream, there was something comforting about feeling the movement of the water in his hand through the branch. She touched his hand and said, “You see, that you can feel the water without putting your hand in the water, this is what meaning feels like.” The troubled man seemed puzzled. She said, “Close your eyes and feel your wife now gone. That you can feel her in your heart without being able to touch her, this is how meaning saves us.” The widower began to cry. The old woman put her arm around him, “No one knows how to live or how to die. We only know how to love and how to lose, and how to pick up branches of meaning along the way.” In just this way, I hope this book can be a branch of meaning that helps us find our way.
QUESTION: What do you hope readers will take with them from THE ONE LIFE WE’RE GIVEN?
RESPONSE: My hope is that, through the threshold this book opens, readers will deepen their conversation with life. That through their own path of obstacle and surprise, they will be opened to their gifts and become somewhat freed of all they carry. My hope is that they will begin to discover and experience the particular expression of their own nature. I share my story and the stories of others as examples, not instructions. For everyone has to uncover the lessons of their own journey. The word honor means to keep what is true in view. And so, we live the one life we’re given by keeping what we learn in view—about ourselves, each other, and life. We can begin by honoring the truth of our experience and learning from those who’ve loved us. Aware of it or not, we each have someone who’s taught us something about how to live. So who is that teacher for you? And what are you learning in the slow blossom of time? This is a step.