Fire of Aliveness Sessions Archive

Session 1: The Underlying Reality
password is FIRE



Where We Are
Mark Nepo
We travel so far only to land where we are. We imagine other lives, only to meet who we are. We seek out love in special ways, only to find everyone is special. Humbly, we can’t avoid this journey. It is precisely through it that, if blessed, we wake to the life we want by being present to the life we have.

A Pearl of Wind
Mark Nepo
Tell me a story, any story. Tell me
what happened or what didn’t happen
or what you hope will happen. I need
signs of life to lift my head. I need some
pearl of wind to open my wing. So sing
me a song. For yourself, but let me listen.
I don’t care if you’re trained or shy or
can’t hum a tune. Just sing anything.
It will stir my heart. We can do this
for each other, can’t we? It’s not like me
to ask so plainly. But I left my curiosity
in the back of the car when picking up
the groceries and now I’m waiting for
the nearest cloud to burst with rain, to
wash away all the noise. As soon as the
wonder returns, I can sing for you.

Mark Nepo
Faith is our covenant with life no matter what befalls us. It is our belief that we are part of something larger than us. It is our commitment to let all that is larger than us be our teacher. What light is for plants and flowers, faith is for human souls. It is that which causes us to grow and that toward which we grow. Imagine a seed growing underground toward a light it can’t yet see. In just this way, love and suffering cause us to break ground and flower. We break ground by following our heart, by being real, by being kind. This stirring, this breaking ground, this flowering is our transformation. When faithful—when full of faith—we reveal the force that joins us. There are many names for this force. Some call it God. Some call it Allah. Some call it the Holy Ghost. Some call it Yaweh. Some call it the Collective Unconscious. Some call it Atman. Some call it Oneness. Some call it the Great Spirit. Some just call it life-force. I welcome it by any name. It has saved my life.

Estimates from Leo
Mark Nepo
He said, “You need a new threshold.”
I said, “I know.”

He measured the opening,
“It needs to be bigger.”

I took him by the shoulders, “Can you
build me a door?”

He kept squinting, “Do you want this
solid or see-through?”

I said, “It has to open to the inside.”
He said, “It will be costly.”
I sighed, “It already is.”

He did some figuring. I grew impatient,
“Can you do it?”

He asked, “How long have you been looking?”
I said, “Ever since I first came here.”

He grew serious, “The glass must be tempered.”
I said, “I understand.”

He paced and took his glasses off.
“What is it?” I said.

He shook his head, “I don’t want
to be responsible.”

“I’ll waive all liability.”
He chuckled, “You can’t.”

He put down his pencil, “I think
you need to make
the threshold

Don’t you want to be alive before you die?
—Anthony Doerr

Who will speak these days,
if not I,
if not you?
—Muriel Rukeyser

The more you cut the branches of a tree, the higher and stronger it grows. The more you put the gold in the fire, the purer it becomes. The more you sharpen the steel by grinding, the better it cuts… Therefore I am happy that you have had great tribulations and difficulties… Strange it is that I love you and still I am happy that you have sorrows.

The Mistake
Mark Nepo
The wind had been knocked out of me
and doubled over, I looked like I was asking
for something. It was then that someone
passing by offered me something precious,
which I managed to hold briefly before
dropping. And when I dropped it,
it fell into someone else’s hands
and she was so grateful.
She called me kind and generous.
She couldn’t thank me enough.
But it was only a mistake.
I felt compelled to admit
that I had merely dropped
something precious. At this,
she put what I had dropped down
and took my face and said, “Don’t
you see? Even dropping what is precious
is a gift.” It made me cry and while
she rocked me, what was precious
rolled toward a bird who fluttered
over it. It finally landed at the feet
of a small child who hugged what was
given, what was dropped, what was a
mistake, what was let go in order to hold
someone lost. The little one just hugged it
and turned to her mother in awe, shouting,
“Look what I found! Look what I found!”

Weep and then, smile.
Don’t pretend
to know something
you haven’t experienced.

Everything that slows us down and forces patience, everything that sets us back into the slow cycles of nature, is a help.
—May Sarton

Expectation is premeditated disappointment.
—Sogyal Rinpoche

The Gift of Deepening
Mark Nepo
The deepest place on Earth is not a physical place, but the stillness we enter at the bottom of our pain, at the bottom of our fear and worry. The stillness we enter there opens us to a spacious state of being that some call joy. When we put down our dreams and maps of memory, precious as they are, we can feel the pulse of life. Then all we could ask for is softly between us, when too tired to deny that there’s nowhere else to go. These moments of unfiltered depth are brief. We may only experience a handful of such openings in a lifetime. But like the strong chorus of stars that watch over us, we can navigate our way through the dark by following them. I’m thinking of the time we met in our grief after losing my father and your mother. We found ourselves sitting on the edge of our sorrow like a cliff we couldn’t leave or jump from. I’m thinking of the time we felt complete for no reason after falling in the grass with our dog and the light softened all we were carrying. It is these visitations to the deepest place on Earth that make life bearable, that draw who we are more fully into the world, that help us grow softer and stronger at the same time. No one can will these moments to open. No one can find them in the same place twice. And no one can live without them.

The Radiance in All Things
Mark Nepo
Just as physicists describe gravity as the pull of all things back to the Earth, mystics describe the radiance in all things as the emanation of a presence that brightens everything into being. There are many names for this dynamic. But life as we know it is where the radiance of being meets the gravity of the world. Where inner meets outer, we spark. This is why, in the rubble of Warsaw after World War II, the great Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz could render a semblance of light coming through the devastation. This is why when seeing a boy hung in Auschwitz and asked by another inmate, “Where is God?” Elie Wiesel grimly and mysteriously answered, “In the boy hanging.” This is why it takes only one twitching cell in a sea of dead cells to regenerate life, and one seed of dream in a dead soul to bring us back alive. There is a radiance in all things that is indestructible and almost unperceivable. How do I know this? I can’t really say, except that I have died and come alive again, through no wisdom or effort of my own. The only explanation can be that the cinder of radiance under all my rubble wouldn’t go out. I could have died, and the radiance would have skipped to some other life form. But I was blessed, for now, to catch the light and breathe again.

Under the Temple
Mark Nepo
The temple hanging over the water is
anchored on pillars that nameless workers
placed in the mud long ago. So never forget
that the mud and the hands of those workers
are part of the temple, too. What frames the
sacred is just as sacred. The dirt that packs
the plant is the beginning of beauty. And
those who haul the piano on stage are the
beginning of music. And those who are
stuck, though they dream of soaring,
are the ancestors of our wings.

Praying I Will Find
Mark Nepo 
I used to have so many plans, good plans,
grand plans. In the beginning, I would be
annoyed by the calamities I’d meet along
the way that would keep me from my plans.

I used to pride myself on how I could get
back on track so quickly. But the more I
loved and the more I suffered, the more
my plans were interrupted by those in

Eventually, the call of life, unexpected
and unrehearsed, made swiss cheese of
my plans.

Now, like an emperor undressed by time,
I wander the days naked of plans, praying
that I will find love to give and suffering
to heal before the sun goes down.

Take Home Journal Question: A See-Through Moment
Describe a see-through moment you have experienced. What do you think opened and what did it open to? What led you to this moment (being still, great love or great suffering, expressing yourself, or being authentic and real) and what did you learn from this moment. What do you think opened and what did it open to?

Take Home Journal Question: Disconnection and Connection
Describe one way you are currently disconnected from the life around you. Do a case study of how this came to be. Then, consult your heart on how to reconnect with the life around you. Plan a first step in reconnecting.


Session 2: The Fire of Aliveness
password is FIRE



Inside the Pandemic
Mark Nepo
Now that we can’t touch, I am awash
with all the ways that touch sustains us.
Like an electricity from one heart to another
or the ancient rush of water down a falls into
the basin of a village. I’m thinking of how you
wiped my brow in the hospital and the time
you stroked a fallen bird, its beak aquiver,
and the time your mother held your face,
saying, “I saw how loving you are the day
you were born.” Or the moment I caught
a stranger in the parking lot as her groceries
splattered, her cart wobbling away. Earlier,
it was Grandma hoisting me to my feet in
her Brooklyn alley and the hands of my
father guiding mine as he taught me to
use a chisel. Now I’m seeing Whitman
as a medic in the Civil War wrapping a
bandage around a corporal’s chest. And
now I close my eyes to send my touch
like a Shaman across the dreamscape,
hoping it will reach you.

Mark Nepo
As soon as we can walk, we are
taught to run. In time, we think
we have to catch something out
of reach, when, if we let go, time
carries us the way a river carries a
boat with no oars. If we find our
place on the bottom, the noise stops
and time holds us in its soft cascade.
So jump into the current of time.
Sure, we will get wet. But that’s the
point. Important papers will dry and
seem less important. And the secret
maps no longer secret will free us
from ourselves. I once saw an old
woman leave her belongings on
the shore and wade in naked. I
feared she might be taking her
life. But she was finally giving
herself over to joy.

In the Interim
Mark Nepo
Come sit with me.
I know you’re busy.
I was busy too. Come.
This won’t take long.
There’s something I
want to show you. Look.
I found this spot of light
under all my wounds. I
thought it was mine,
something I’d earned.
But it was there long
before we were born.
Oh, don’t rush off.
I know you’re late
but all these appoint-
ments open like petals
to the same nectar.
And what if your heart
and my heart are fed by
the same lake? What
if your heart and my
heart are like a hundred-
year-old cello and that
spot of light I found is
trapped in its hollow,
waiting for each of us
to play our song—Oh,
I see you have to go. I
understand. Just put
your hand on my chest.
It’s alright. I want you
to feel that spot of light.
I’d give it to you, if I
could. Like a candle,
it flickers under
everything I know,
which is why I can’t
keep up. If I move too
fast, it might go out.

Take Home Journal Question: Autobiography as a Listener
Begin to trace your own history and evolution as a listener; describing three key experiences that have shaped what listening has meant to you and what you have heard along the way.


Session 3: The Fire of Aliveness
password is FIRE




By Request in Session 3:
The Promise of
the Inner World
Mark Nepo
If you take away all a person knows,
you are left with the mouth of a fish
gulping water as fast as it can. If you
take away a person’s coverings, you are
left with the naked freedom of a star.
If you take away all a person has done,
you are left with a soul eager to build.
And if you take away what a person has
saved, you are left with a life that
has to live now.
Stripped of too many thoughts, we
grow wise as a stone. Stripped of too
many accomplishments, we grow
possible like the sun. And stripped
of what we hoard, we grow immediate.
So taking away is not just about loss.
Like it or not, we are forced, again
and again, to the nakedness of freedom,
to the eagerness that wants to build its
way out of nothing, and to the poverty
of time that has to live now. If blessed,
we wake, one more time, gulping
our way into tomorrow.


Mark Nepo
While sitting in a waiting room
for my chemo, the young mother
next to me took my arm and uttered,
“I’m not ready to die.” I squeezed
her hand and we both welled up.
That was thirty years ago and though
I don’t know what happened to her,
I have been carried all this time like
a small flower on a fast stream.
Since then, I have seen how nothing
in life is untouched. Storms break
trees and spring lets them grow into
two trees. And the heart, breaking,
keeps growing, larger and softer.
I confess, I don’t know how any
of this happens. Only that even
gray days like today are beautiful
in the depth of their grayness.
Somehow, under all our struggles,
the spaces within are bare not
empty like the hollow of a lute
waiting for life itself to strum us
until our music can be played.


Time Insists
Mark Nepo
We are mistakenly taught that life is other than where we are, and so we are schooled in strategies to traverse the imagined distance from here to there and trained in the fortitude to do what is necessary to secure the treasure at the end of our quest. But almost dying in my thirties and living ever since have taught me otherwise. There is no there, only here. And so, instead of trying so hard to go somewhere else, and to become something else, the long walk through time insists that we turn ourselves inside out to reveal our inner beauty. Like iris and orchids and tulips, we are each asked to break ground and—through love and suffering—to reveal the truth of who we are where we are. Until humanity becomes its own garden. This is the spiritual journey on Earth—not to strive from here to there, but to unfold from in to out. How we do this is both personal and Universal. But do it we must, if we are to flower and offer our nectar to the world.


The Chinese word 蜕变 (t-way be-yan) means “taking off all coverings to become one’s true self as time unfolds.”


It is most surely true that no one can safely enter the dark gate of the shadow world without knowing that some deeply loved and trusted person has absolute faith in the rightness of their journey and in their courage and ability to come through.
—Helen Luke


Any life, no matter how long and complex it may be, is made up of a single moment—the moment in which a person finds out, once and for all, who they are.
—Jorge Luis Borges


If you were to shield the canyons from the wind storms, they would never show their beautiful carvings.
—Elizabeth Kübler-Ross


“Why is the road to freedom so long?”
asked a troubled apprentice.
And the master replied,
“Because it has to go through you.”
—an old Zen story


The longest journey you will make in your life
is from your head to your heart.
—Lacotah Saying


I don’t know Who—or what—put the question. I don’t know when it was put. I don’t even remember answering. But at some moment I did answer Yes to Someone—or Something—and from that hour I was certain that existence is meaningful and that, therefore, my life, in self-surrender, had a goal.
—Dag Hammarskjöld


I have been a lucky man. To feel the intimacy of brothers is a marvelous thing in life. To feel the love of people whom we love is a fire that feeds our life. But to feel the affection that comes from those whom we do not know, from those unknown to us, who are watching over our sleep and solitude, over our dangers and our weaknesses—that is something still greater and more beautiful because it widens out the boundaries of our being, and unites all things. That exchange brought home to me for the first time a precious idea: that all of humanity is somehow together.
—Pablo Neruda


If you can’t see what you’re looking for,
See what’s there. It is enough.
—Tu Fu


Integrity is the ability to listen to a place inside oneself that doesn’t change, even though the life that carries it may change.
—Rabbi Jonathan Omer-Man


Mark Nepo
It takes so much to simply
wake. I don’t mean rising in
the morning. I mean gathering
your hands in the waters of the
heart, scooping the silt of the
years, and holding what’s never
seen the light—up to the light.


Mark Nepo
They say the old samurai, tired of
being on guard, gave his sword away.
It took months to accept a life without
armor, months to let his wounds
turn into blossoms.
In time, he took to long walks along
the river where he would sit alone
and play the one-stringed koto.
Sought out by a young soldier, the
former hero listened into dusk and
simply said, “I have looked my whole
life for the one string.”
When the would-be warrior asked about
greatness, the swordless samurai replied,
“Understanding life is like tossing a scarf
in the air and watching it drape
its way to the ground.”


The Love of Everything
Mark Nepo
After seventy years, I confess that though I have struggled I have never been lost and have never stopped loving—everything. And this has enabled me to inhabit life authentically. In the beginning, there were goals I was taught to work toward and these longings for worth were honed in time into personal ambitions, which all fell away. For staying true to the love of everything as our teacher has turned out to be the most enduring ambition of all. This love has made me get up when I have fallen, and has given me the strength to enter the breaks in my heart where I have retrieved my gifts. And so, I have very little to offer beyond the confirmation that unending love without preference will lead us to drink from the Mystery without leaving the world. Unending love without intent will fill every contour of existence the way light fills every hole. So, there is very little to teach. Just that love awakens everything. And care erases the walls we build between us.


Take Home Journal Question: Putting Down What No Longer Works
Describe one way of being or living that is currently no longer working for you. What are some steps you can take to put it down, to give it up, in order to stay close to what is real and sacred.