Pain, Fear, and Grief archive

Session 1:
Password: Nepo



Session 2:
Password: Nepo



Session 3:
Password: Nepo



Session 1: Pain, Fear, and Things As They Are


A Way In

Some things cannot be fixed. They can only be carried.

—Megan Devine

Heroes didn’t leap tall buildings or stop bullets with an outstretched hand; they didn’t wear boots and capes. They bled, and they bruised, and their superpowers were as simple as listening, or loving. Heroes were ordinary people who knew that even if their own lives were impossibly knotted, they could untangle someone else’s.

—Jodi Picoult

Let everything happen, beauty and terror.

No one feeling is final. Keep going.

—Rainer Maria Rilke


My barn having burned

to the ground, I can see

the moon more completely.

—Masahide (1657-1723)


Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something else is more important than fear.

—Ambrose Redmoon




Mark Nepo

On a still morning, you

may stumble and wonder
why you’re carrying
what you’re carrying,
why you’re never
where you are.

It seems a trick: to feel
so much and not be able
to hold it. But the clouds
can’t hold the sun and
the waves can’t hold
the wind.

When worn of our secrets,

we become temporary

blessings, like flags worn

free of their signs.

Lose your grip on what you

want and what others tell you

you want, and life becomes

simple. There is less to do.

Like a pearl washed ashore,

we just wait to be found.




Coming Alive

Mark Nepo

We run everywhere

when it’s only the moments

we are stopped that matter.


No matter how we are stopped,

by pain or beauty, by remembering

in the midst of crossing a street in

New York who you are and all

you’ve done for those you love.


No matter if it’s hard to get up.

Just stay down a while longer, so

you can see all the way through.


It’s in the stopped moments that

the music hiding in silence is



If we can carry that music in our

heart, we will become tender.


And once tender, the Universe

can thread the eye of the needle

that is our one and only life.



Outstretch Your Arms

Mark Nepo

Along the way, people we love

fall from the tightrope and vanish

and we wonder, why not me?


Then, there is a pandemic and

thousands cough and die with

no warning.


Or simply getting older, the view

widens but the path narrows. As

if we’re dancing on the edge of

a cliff.


But it has always been this way.

We are only now aware of it.


This is what the ancients were

honoring when they painted

their faces and danced around

the fire.


As if pain is the bark and joy

is the sap.


What other dance is there?



About Joy

Mark Nepo

Often, what keeps us from joy is the menacing assumption that life is happening other than where we are. So we are always leaving, running from or running to. All the while, joy rises like summer wind, waiting for us to grow in the open, large as willows it can sing through. Yet failing to grow in the open, we can be worn to it. Though working with what we’re given till it wears us through seems to be the grace we resist. Like everyone, I’ve spent so much of my life fearing pain that I’ve seldom felt things all the way through. And falling through more than working through, I’ve learned that if we can stay true to our experience and to each other, and face the spirit that experience and love carry, we will eventually be reduced to joy. Like cliffs worn to their beauty by the pounding of the sea, if we can hold each other up, all that will be left will be wonder and joy.


Bad Needles

Mark Nepo

I was on an examination table with an IV needle in my left arm. It was nothing serious, but Susan was concerned. Some test was being done. Someone was next to me, also having blood drawn. The nurse was busy with this other person. The needle in my arm was sore and my bicep was beginning to swell. Susan noticed the swelling and said, “Something’s wrong. Why don’t you tell the nurse?” I said, “No. It’s nothing serious. They just didn’t do a good job of putting the needle in. It’s alright.” The nurse, without looking up, jiggled the tube collecting my blood, while treating the other patient. I said, “Thank you.” She said, again without looking up, half-sarcastically, and half in admiration, “We treat him like hell and he thanks us.” Part of me took it as a compliment. But Susan was furious.


Now I realize that, for much of my life, I have accepted bad needles and said it is alright. I’m almost polite, accepting ill treatment in order to be seen as good and kind. I feel, all too often, that if I say the needle has been put in badly, I’m causing trouble or being ungrateful or complaining. Worse, there have been times I’ve pretended that there isn’t even a needle stuck in me, so as not to hurt the one poking. For the first time, I see how I’ve colluded in my suffering. Like a fish who dreams the hook will save him.


The Thing About Fear

Mark Nepo

We try to avoid it, distract ourselves,

even put others in the way. Because it

makes what is necessary seem monumental.

It makes what is needed seem uncrossable.

Yet when we stumble over the line, or are

loved over the line, or, in our exhaustion,

fall beyond our pain, what we feared

was a fall to our death turns out

to have been the next step.



Tu Fu’s Reappearance

Mark Nepo

The great Chinese poet Tu Fu (712-770)

has appeared to me in dreams

as a guide.


Out of the yellow mist

he came again, his Asian beard

in tow. We were on a healthy shore

and he sat cross-legged in the sand,

scratching delicately with a branch,

his slender head down. I crouched

and put it to him, “How do I block

the fear?” He kept scratching the sand

as if he hadn’t heard. I grew angry,

“How do I block the fear?!” He lifted

his head and shrugged,

branch waving above him,

“How does a tree

block the wind?”

With that, he




Fighting the Instrument

Mark Nepo

Often the instruments of change

are not kind or just

and the hardest openness

of all might be

to embrace the change

while not wasting your heart

fighting the instrument.


The storm is not as important

as the path it opens.

The mistreatment in one life

never as crucial as the clearing

it makes in your heart.


This is very difficult to accept.

The hammer or cruel one

is always short-lived

compared to the jewel

in the center of the stone.



It’s Everywhere

Mark Nepo

It was there when I followed your

presence into what would be our love.

There, when I took the path that led to

the sea and stayed for days, putting down

all the names I’d been given. There, in the

dropped book of poems by George Seferis

when a clump of wet grass pointed up his

instruction to speak plainly. And there in

the small light that brought me back while

I was slipping away during surgery—there

in the crack of dawn promising so much,

if I could just return and walk beyond

death’s slim tree. And here I am, all these

years later, mouth open, still in awe. I’ve

tried so many times to seek the truth,

only to find it everywhere, if I can

step through my pain and put down

my want for things I can’t have.




Mark Nepo

Whether pacing in a waiting

room or enduring a sudden throb

of pain, take a long breath and float

like a lily pad, spreading yourself

before the world while looking

for your tether to the bottom

of things.


Just float until your grip is

loosened. It will be alright.


I mean, nothing less than death

will frighten you. And nothing less

than life will bring you back.



In Your Hand

Mark Nepo


I know you can only see red right now

through the cut in your trust. But most

cuts mend and then, the courage is in

finding an open boat so you can row

far enough out that you can drift.


And only when you have given up

going anywhere might you be drawn

to pick up the oars and start rowing

at the pace of clouds.


Then, as your hand is one with the oar

and the oar is one with the water, your

heart will be one with your life and

your life will be one with the ancient

drift that joins all things.



Take Home Journal Question: Questions for the Deeper Teachers

Surface and give voice to the most pressing question you have for each of these deeper teachers: Fear, Pain, and Grief. What is it you need to know about each?


Take Home Journal Question: Bad Needles                                                

Describe a bad needle you are accepting. Describe how you are colluding in your own suffering.



Session 2: Loss and Grief

The world is incomprehensible, but it is embraceable.

—Martin Buber


You don’t need to know people in order to grieve with them.

You grieve with them in order to know them.

—Valarie Kaur


Though Loss Is Everywhere

Mark Nepo

Your mother has died and you feel her

tenderness everywhere you turn. You reach

for her and come up empty. You long to pick

up the phone and call. You look for things

of hers to hold. But the dearest thing she

held was you. Perhaps her greatest gift

in going is that to feel her now,

you have to hold yourself.


You ask how I can go on? Why don’t

I have regrets? I guess I’ve been worn

to where I no longer reach. This is

neither better or worse. This is just

how it’s happened to me. I am not

removed. I just feel like a pebble

scoured in the middle of the stream.


The losses hurt and I struggle too,

to stay in the light, to get up and

try again. But the shore crumbling

into its beauty gives me strength.


Like the sun which changes everything,

those we love vanish, but their light

returns and another day begins,

like it or not.


So look to your open hand that has

held so much. What it has known

now lives in you, in a place

you can’t always reach.


I will hold you every chance I get

but this won’t compare to holding

yourself. Perhaps grief is how we exhaust

our reach for things that have gone,

and acceptance is how we slowly

learn to hold ourselves in

the middle of the storm.



Where Are You?

Mark Nepo

My teacher appeared to me

in the midst of my grief for him.

I was on a bench in a park in the

city. Buses were coughing by and

small shops were opening. And

since my teacher no longer has

hands, he swept a bird in my face

to break up my sadness. And since

he no longer has a mouth, the light

off the windows twenty stories up

drifted through the leaves. I said,

“I miss you.” And I thought I heard

him say, “Do everything while you’re

here.” Then it began to mist, though

the sun was shining. As if the Uni-

verse were crying at what it does to

us in order to keep going. Just then,

a child lost a ball. It bounced my

way. Now my teacher was in the

bounce and I thought I heard

him say, “Enough of this.

Pick up the ball and live.”




Mark Nepo

Everything is beautiful and I am so sad.

This is how the heart makes a duet of

wonder and grief. The light spraying

through the lace of the fern is as delicate

as the fibers of memory forming their web

around the knot in my throat. The breeze

makes the birds move from branch to branch

as this ache makes me look for those I’ve lost

in the next room, in the next song, in the laugh

of the next stranger. In the very center, under

it all, what we have that no one can take

away and all that we’ve lost face each other.

It is there that I’m adrift, feeling punctured

by a holiness that exists inside everything.

I am so sad and everything is beautiful.




Mark Nepo

It’s as if God squeezes this

beautiful, terrible day like a

lemon and those caught in

the grip grow so tender that

there is nowhere left to go.


Others, not caught in the

squeeze, don’t understand.

There are things to do and

bills to pay.


But all the plans against disaster

have been squeezed out of you

and the bee nuzzling its face

in the nectar of the peony

seems now like the end

of all our questions.



Back to You

Mark Nepo

You would have been 102 today

and I wonder what you would say

now that all that was hiding us

has fallen away.


I imagine you now as bare as the

trees outside my window. Despite

our tumble through the years,

I miss you.


For some reason, I keep returning

to the moment you dropped your

cane in the driveway and kissed

my neck.


It’s all I ever wanted. Yet, it took

fifty years to unfold, the slowest

flower I have known on earth.




Mark Nepo

Listen, if you can, for the angels

waiting to pollinate your emptiness.

No, you can’t see them. They are not

big and swanlike as we’ve been told

but thin as dragonflies that tickle you

with their drift. They float behind

your eyes, as your softer face reflected

in the rain, as the lightness you feel

when a headache is lifted, as the urge

to drop the stone you’ve carried for

years. They escape from the furl of a

sheet and land as the sudden warmth

that makes you help someone untangle

a knot. They dance like atoms around

the weeds in our heads. They help us

help others till we drip honey from

our trouble on the fire of life.




Take Home Journal Question: What Are You Grieving                 

Identify and personalize one of Kubler-Ross’s stages of grief that has been working you during this time: denial, anger, bartering, depression, or acceptance. What are you grieving? What are you being asked to accept?


Take Home Journal Question: Closeness Through Grief

Tell the story of someone you have become close with for sharing either their grief or yours. How did this experience bring you closer?


Take Home Journal Question: Connecting Through Grief

Identify someone you have lost in your life and identify someone important to you now who didn’t know them or didn’t know them well. Write a letter to the person you have lost describing your living friend to them. Then, write a letter to the living person in your life about the person you have lost. Later, meet with your living friend and read both letters aloud.


Take Home Journal Question: The Chords Under Everything                           

From his Spanish guitar teacher, Leonard Cohen learned the six basic chords of all Flamenco music. He later understood that all of his music came from these six chords. In truth, we each must learn the basic chords under everything that help us through life. Begin to describe what one of these basic chords is for you; that is, what do you experience as a basic agreement of life under all our trouble that help us find grace through our humanness?


Here are links to the Rufus Wainwright version of “Hallelujah” sung with 1500 souls in Toronto, Canada on June 11, 2016, as well as to Leonard Cohen’s acceptance speech on October 11, 2011 for the Spanish Prince of Asturias Award, and finally, to a live excerpt of Leonard Cohen singing “Hallelujah” himself in mid-life:


Choir! Choir! Choir! Epic! Nights: Rufus Wainwright + 1500 Singers sing HALLELUJAH​! ​


Leonard Cohen’s Prince of Asturias Speech (video and transcript)


Leonard Cohen Hallelujah (live excerpt)



Session 3: We Are More Than What Is Done To Us


The Great Opening

Mark Nepo

It was the son of a soldier,

a soldier who killed his own people.

It was that gentle son who went

in despair to his grandfather’s

bridge to ask in his

solitude why.


And that night he dreamt

that everyone who’d been hurt

and everyone who’d done the hurting

met on that bridge. And in their

awkwardness and pain, it began

to rain flowers which grazing

their skin opened their faces

and they were healed.


And the flowers, falling

into the water, brought

the fish who thought

the petals were food.


And the son of the soldier

woke committed to the building

of bridges and to the food

of flowers raining

from the sky.



Disrobing in Time

Mark Nepo

Nothing is easy, but to tell the truth.

The truth of what I see and feel.

This somehow cleanses my eye

and it becomes clear what to do.


In my pain I forget to admit what is

true and things get worse. Because

I don’t want to be sad, I don’t admit

that I already am. Then I feel like

I’m drowning.


Because I don’t want things to change,

I don’t admit that they already have.

Then I feel like the wheel of life

is tearing me apart.


The greatest power we have when

feeling powerless is to admit what

is already true. Then the stepping

stones of Eternity rise out of the

mud, showing us where to go.




To Be and Belong

Mark Nepo

Let go your want for greatness

and feel the tool that’s in your hand.


Let go your fear of emptiness

and receive the wave still reaching

from the beginning.


It only wants to enliven you

the way water refreshes every hole.


So let the web of things

entangle you.


Only stars are free

and they are so lonely.


Curse what you will

but give thanks


that everything alive

wants something from you.



The Appointment

Mark Nepo

What if, on the first sunny day,

on your way to work, a colorful bird

sweeps in front of you down a

street you’ve never heard of.


You might pause and smile,

a sweet beginning to your day.


Or you might step into that street

and realize there are many ways to work.


You might sense the bird knows some-

thing you don’t and wander after.


You might hesitate when the bird

turns down an alley. For now

there is a tension: Is what the

bird knows worth being late?


You might go another block or two,

thinking you can have it both ways.

But soon you arrive at the edge

of all your plans.


The bird circles back for you

and you must decide which

appointment you were

born to keep.



The Pool of Grief

Mark Nepo

We each climbed our lives, which

turned out to be different sides of

the same mountain.


At the top, we saw ourselves and

all we’d been through in the same

pool. Behind our swollen heads

was the magnificent sky.


Realizing we each had been crippled

by loss, a few of us cried and our

tears broke our reflections till

we were, finally, as we had

begun, of the same water.


Then, the inconsolable one drank

from the pool of everyone’s grief

and, strangely, was able to go on.


Then, we all drank.


In a day or so, we reluctantly

went back into the world.


Now, when lost, we recognize

each other by the dark cloud

that hovers in the center

of our love of life.



I Need to Know

Mark Nepo

How the willow catches the wind

without falling over, so I can leave

the house.


How birds sing at the first sign of

light, so I can stop living in the past.


How starfish grow another point,

so wounds won’t cripple me.


How elephants find their way to

the river, so nothing will stop me

from living my life.




The Love of Everything

Mark Nepo

After more than seventy years, I confess that, even when struggling, even when lost, I 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 affirmation 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 keep building between us.


Take Home Journal Question: Giving and Withholding                               

Describe a time when your heart hardened and then at a time when your heart softened. What led to each of this instances and what does this tell you about your own rhythms of giving and withholding?


Take Home Journal Question: The Blessing of the Ordinary

Describe a moment you came upon that you were able to enter when still enough. What opened for you in this moment? How did entering this moment affect you? How would you describe what this moment opened you to?



Take Home Journal Question: The Work of Flourishing

Explore a self-assessment of the five practices of flourishing:

How are you doing with the work of Being Opened?

How are you doing with the work of Being Broken?

How are you doing with the work of Being Transparent?

How are you doing with the work of Being Vulnerable?

How are you doing with the work of Finding the living center that we have in common with all life?

What behaviors or practices are helping you flourish?

What behaviors or practices are keeping you from flourishing?