Surviving Storms

Surviving Storms: Finding the Strength to Meet Adversity

St Martin’s Essential Books

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“This book is an enduring resource for our times. Journey here and discover your own strength.”
―Chip Conley, New York Times bestselling author and founder of the Modern Elder Academy

“Surviving Storms is thought provoking, riveting, courageous, honest, and true. The light of something timeless and true moves through Mark Nepo’s heart and fills his voice as he pours hope into both our collective and individual wounds.”
—poet Michael Mejia

Mark Nepo is a tremendous storyteller, and every story in his new book, Surviving Storms, is resonant, like a chord in music, letting you drop into a moment of truth and deeper knowing that we are more together than alone. This book supports us to be with our suffering without breaking, and to draw comfort and support from those who’ve come before us.
—Brooke Warner, publisher of She Writes Press

 

We live in a turbulent time. Storms are everywhere, of every size and shape. And like every generation before us, like every soul’s journey on Earth, we must learn the art of surviving storms, so we can help each other endure. In his new book, spiritual teacher and poet, Mark Nepo, explores the art and practice of finding the strength to meet adversity by using the timeless teachings of the heart. The reason heartwork is so important is that, as a tree needs to deepen its roots and widen its trunk to endure the force of unexpected storms, we need to know our true self so we can deepen our roots and solidify our connection to all Spirit and all life. Then, we, too, can endure the force of unexpected storms. This is especially relevant now. As a timely resource, this book carefully describes the heart’s process of renewal and connection in as much detail as possible. This spiritually practical book points to an inner exploration we each must map for ourselves, though there are common passages along the way. Once the rubble clears, we, like those before us, are inevitably called to build the world one more time, admitting that we need each other.

 


 

PRAISE

“Very few modern writers impress me as much as Mark Nepo with his insight, inspiration, and turn of phrase.”
—Christopher Buck, Publisher, OMTimes

 

“Mark Nepo is an exceptional writer and an amazing teacher and spiritual guide.”
Paul Grondahl, Director, New York State Writers Institute

 

“Lyrical, insightful, and wise, Surviving Storms is the guide to resilience that we find ourselves so desperately needing, both for individuals and communities. Mark Nepo’s words are a potent antidote to discouragement and a heartfelt call to perseverance.”
—Arianna Huffington, Founder & CEO, Thrive

 

“How can we walk through the fractured landscape of today and keep our eyes clear and our hearts open? Through his ability to find the wisdom in ordinary things, Mark Nepo shows how heartwork can deepen us on this journey, helping us to repair ourselves and the world. Here are resources for the traveler, helping us to say yes to life, awakening us to the grace that is always present.”
—Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee PhD, Sufi teacher and author, Sufism: the Transformation of the Heart

 

In this luminous collection of reflections on the turbulence of our times, my friend Mark Nepo once again beckons us toward the beauty in the brokenness, the holiness in the hot mess, and the call to oneness at the heart of our sense of disconnection. In reclaiming our kinship with all life, this book helps us increase our capacity to participate in mending and rebuilding the world.”
—Mirabai Starr, author of Caravan of No Despair and Wild Mercy

 

“Through twenty beautiful books of prose and poetry, Mark Nepo has shown us that life is a bottomless well of meaning when plumbed with the poetic imagination that is his hallmark. Now he’s done it again with his insightful and empowering reflections on finding the strength to meet adversity. We need this book as we grieve our losses from climate change, a world-wide pandemic, war and threats of war, and radical inequality. Mark looks straight into the challenges we face, and still finds hope in our shared journey. The key, he says, is ‘staying devoted to the difficult and beautiful journey of being human.’ That’s exactly what he does in this superb exploration. Count me among the deeply grateful.”
—Parker J. Palmer, author of On the Brink of Everything, Let Your Life Speak, A Hidden Wholeness, and The Courage to Teach

 

“There’s a reason the heart is located at the center of every sentient being. It is within our heart-center, our core, that we find our connection to and feel our coherence with the Divine. And it is through the wisdom and power of the heart that we discover the innate love, courage, and strength to transcend any challenge, regardless of what is happening in our lives and the world. Surviving Storms is your fail-safe guide in that discovery and exploration, one which ultimately leads to your freedom and empowerment.”
—Michael Bernard Beckwith, Founder & CEO of Agape International Spiritual Center and author of Life Visioning and Spiritual Liberation

 

“Mark Nepo is our bard of the enlightened heart, a voice of tenderness, wisdom, and sanity at a time when we are in upheaval. This book will steady you as you go and help you reach your true destination.”
—Mark Matousek, author of Ethical Wisdom: The Search for a Moral Life and Sex Death Enlightenment: A True Story

 

“There are those times—so widespread right now—when storms of conflict, confusion and adversity rage within and all around us. Who doesn’t yearn for the wisdom and ways to endure, and perhaps to even grow through it all? In Surviving Storms, spiritual teacher, poet, and cancer survivor, Mark Nepo, blesses us with a spark in the dark . . . soul stirring inspiration to reconnect us with the deepest things in life. Let this book help you, as it did me, become undeniably and passionately rooted in the courage, resilience and greatness of the awakened heart.”
—Dr. Roger Teel, Spiritual Leader and Author of This Life is Joy

 


 

EXCERPTS

From The Old World Is Gone

As the pandemic spread around the world, it brought moments from my cancer journey sharply before me. One profound moment in particular echoes where we are in a compelling way. It was the moment of my diagnosis more than thirty years ago. I was sitting in a doctor’s office when I heard the words, “You have cancer.”

I was, of course, frightened and disoriented. I thought, he must have made a mistake. How could this be me? Stunned, I left that appointment reeling. But the door I had walked through to keep that appointment was gone. There was no way back to my life before that moment. Life would never be the same. The old world was gone.

I think this transformative moment has gripped the world. Collectively, the world before the pandemic is gone. There is no way back to life before the coronavirus. We have no choice but to accept the truth of what is and love our way forward, discovering the new life unlived ahead of us.

To be sure, there is nothing glorious or mysterious about disease. The cancer I had was not as important as what it opened in me. Likewise, there is nothing glorious or mysterious about the coronavirus. It can never be as important as what it is opening in humanity. As cancer was a catalyst for transformation when I was ill, we need to ask: What is the appearance of this pandemic trying to open in us and teach us? How is it transforming us as a global family?

In the Jewish tradition, the word sabbath literally means “the one day we don’t turn one thing into another.” And we are being forced to stop, to be still, to halt our out-of-balance doing. In essence, all of humanity has been ushered into a global sabbath. We have no choice but to stop running from here to there, to stop planning, scheming, manipulating, even to stop dreaming, to stop turning one thing in to another. All to be where we are, so we might discover, yet again, that everything is sacred and that we are each other.

There is an ancient Hindu ethic carried in the phrase Thou art that. It means that, no matter our journey, no matter what befalls us, we are each other and what happens to one happens to all. And so, it is our turn to stop and behold each other, to stop and accept that we are all connected and have always been so. Despite our fears, we are being forced to accept and inhabit that taking care of ourselves is taking care of each other.

The old world is gone. The world as we have known it has broken down. And this engenders loss. No matter how we move forward, we have to grieve what is no more. This brings to mind the work of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, the mother of the modern hospice movement. Based on her work with those who were dying, the Swiss-born psychiatrist gave voice to what she called the five stages of grief. First introduced in her book, On Death and Dying (1969), she later confirmed that these stages are not necessarily sequential, but more a constellation of passages that we can move through, or get stuck in, in any order.

The five stages of grief are: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. It is clear that in pandemic America, there are substantial sections of our society that are stuck in different stages of grief now that life as we have known it has forever changed.

The part of our population stuck in denial won’t accept that the virus is with us. They insist it is a hoax. They don’t want the truth to be true. And part of our society is stuck in anger. They refuse to wear masks. They want to rebel and fight against someone or something because the world that we’ve known has been taken from us. But what are they protesting exactly—biology? And there are those who are experiencing the loss of loved ones, jobs, and life savings. They are deeply in pain, depressed at how so much is being taken away through no fault of their own. Yet, for all our pain, fear, denial, and anger, only by walking this difficult time together will we experience some form of acceptance that will allow us to make it through the storm and inhabit the future.

Since the landmark work of Kubler-Ross, our understanding of grief has evolved to include more ambiguous losses such as: loss of place, loss of time, loss of opportunity, and loss from being disenfranchised—all of which are affecting us now.

One inescapable and humbling challenge of loss is that grief requires us to make new maps. For when we lose something dear—a person or a way of life—the geography as we have known it has changed. And so, our old maps, no matter how dear, are no longer accurate, no longer of use. We have to make new maps for how to move forward. In its paradoxical way, grief forces us back into the world where we have to keep learning.

While we yearn to move on after trauma or loss, an integration of what we live through is necessary. At the same time, there is no going back to how things were before the trauma or loss. As I said, it’s been more than thirty years since I almost died from cancer. While I am not preoccupied with cancer, I have never “gotten over” this experience. More deeply, I’ve learned that the impact of such life-changing events changes the ground we walk on. And so, I’ve come to accept that life rearranges us, calling us to the art of creating new maps. In deep and lasting ways, living with an open heart is how the soul maps what is.

 

from The Purpose of Goodness

Reading Neil deGrasse Tyson, I was stunned to learn by what a thin margin we are here at all. Before the galaxies formed, matter and antimatter ate each other up. And only when a billion and one photons outlasted a billion hadrons was the one remaining atomic speck given the chance to seed the living Universe. Had this irrepressible moment swayed the other way, there would have been no galaxies or solar system or planet Earth.

And if the Earth, when forming, had settled any closer to the sun, the oceans would have evaporated. Yet had the Earth settled any farther from the sun, the oceans would have frozen. Too close or too far and there would have been no life on Earth. There would have been no history, no ebb and flow of civilization, nothing to submit to or resist. No chance to be born when we were. No chance to inhabit our individual lives. No chance to meet as we did and fall in love. No chance for me to almost die from cancer. No chance to be worn to a filament of care. None of this has to be as it is. Which is why I wake, every day, compelled, not toward any goal, but to fulfilling this recurring chance to be at all.

This initiation of the Universe has stayed with me: how the immensity of life in the beginning was so dependent on the smallest speck of positive energy. And then, it occurred to me that this is not just a description of the beginning of the Universe, but a description of an ongoing creation.

Remarkably, we are here by the one gesture that outweighs all the rest. And this process is never done. That one gesture has to be enlivened and reasserted every day. This is the purpose of goodness: to outweigh all the other possibilities by one gesture of care, so that life will continue. We are challenged to be the one positive ion of energy, the one photon, that ensures that life will have its chance.

This constant unfolding of matter over antimatter is a physical manifestation of the eternal unfolding of love over fear, which can also be understood as the unfolding of interdependence over self-interest. Every day, in every situation, we are called to make the one gesture that will outweigh all the rest. We are called to re-create the Universe by choosing love over fear, by choosing interdependence over self-interest, by choosing care over brutality. And so, ultimately, everything we do matters.

The push and pull between matter and antimatter is endless. In truth, we are both: the photon and the hadron, the kindness that gives and the fear that withholds. It is interesting that photon from the Greek means “light” and hadron from the Greek means “thick, heavy.” This affirms the timeless notion, offered in many traditions, that what is life-giving is transparent and luminous and what is life-draining is opaque and isolating.

Thus, when clear and authentic, when facing what is ours to face, we are healthy enough and light enough to love the world into tomorrow. But when knotted and in hiding, when putting other life down to prop ourselves up, when pushing other life away to run from what we fear, then we collapse into ourselves and, through our thickness and heaviness, we engender cruelty. Collapsed into ourselves, we jeopardize life on Earth.

There is one more dangerous position in all of this—the insidious buildup of indifference and neutrality. When we look more closely at the construction of matter, we see that one neutron is necessary in every atom as a stabilizing force between a proton and an electron. However, the stark subatomic reality is that an excess of neutrons destabilizes an atom, basically blowing it apart.

When we translate this to the human journey, it warns us that an excess of neutral or passive souls will create the conditions for a society to become radioactive and toxic.

Martin Niemöller (1892-1984) serves as a powerful example of toxic indifference. A Lutheran pastor born in Germany, Niemöller held anti-Semitic views before World War II, but opposed the Nazification of German churches and for this was imprisoned in several concentration camps until 1945. After being released, he expressed his deep regret for not having done enough to help the victims of the Nazis. He is known for this poem:

They came first for the Communists,

and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist.

Then they came for the Jews,

and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew.

Then they came for the trade unionists,

and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Catholics,

and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant.

Then they came for me,

and by that time no one was left to speak up.

 

Niemöller can be seen as a passive neutron who, along with so many indifferent Germans, enabled the release of unprecedented violence throughout Nazi Germany and then the world.

Ultimately, we are not masters of life, but servants brought alive by our service. And whether we manipulate or serve makes all the difference. And so, the very health of our humanity depends on the authenticity and care of its souls.

That so much depends on so little is the cornerstone of faith, not faith in an idea or a doctrine, but deep-seeded functional faith, which calls on us to believe in the one gesture we can offer—every day—never knowing if that particular kindness is the one that will keep life going. It may be our impulse to help an old woman pick up her groceries in the parking lot, or sitting for a minute with someone who is beside themselves, or stopping to move a stray dog out of the road.

Every day, there are countless gestures that keep the world going, which are anonymous but deeply essential. So, the next time you witness indifference, selfishness, or cruelty, counter it with a gesture of kindness and care. Be the anonymous photon, the one ion of care that makes life possible, that keeps this mysterious journey alive. Outweigh the dark choices—one more time. Can there be anything more noble and relevant than to dare to be relentlessly kind in an effort to keep life going?

 

Inside Everything

The humbling mystery inherent in all attempts at writing is that the words are like the dirt you dig out of a hole. There’s so much of it piled all around you as you stand there, sweating from all that digging. Yet all that matters is the opening that is left, which keeps drawing you further in.

And from that depth, I can say that if there is an undertaking at the center of this book, it is to devote yourself to gathering the self-knowledge of how your heart works. In the belief that through this ongoing practice, your heart will become your teacher. In the belief that if we stay connected to our heart, it will guide us to the center of all storms and connect us to the Living Universe. Our job, then, is to stay authentic, open, and vulnerable. These commitments to honest living will make a conduit of the heart, so it can naturally infuse us with the resources of life.

Still, no one can bypass the journey to being authentic. When young, I was so busy pleasing others that I was hiding pieces of myself from the world. Quickly, I was defined by what others needed until if they were on fire, I would throw myself on them like water. If they were inching like a root, I would pack myself around them like soil. If they were bleeding, I would soak up their hurt like a bandage. Sadly, I could only be what was missing. I had no idea who I was or where to go to find out.

I so lost myself in others that I secretly pushed the other way and spent the first half of my life trying to define who I am by how I was different, only to discover that who I really am is defined by what I have in common with all living things. And all along, I was stumbling on a journey of love and truth that kept me smack in the middle of what it means to be alive.

The enduring truth is that while we can always learn from others, no one can teach us how to be human or how to receive each other with compassion. In this, great love and great suffering have always been the teachers. All the spiritual traditions offer various ways and practices to erode our internal resistance to life. Yet, whether we learn from the traditions or not, every person will be given the opportunity to be dropped into the depth of life. We often resist this and fall into an argument with life, which we have to let go of in order to fully experience the miracle of being here.

The challenge for each of us is to enter life beyond our argument with an open heart and to meet trouble and help without preference. For, under all our resistance, the mystery of incarnation is that all the wisdom in the world will not relieve us from the weight of living but only support us in our turn at being here. And though the deepest work is internal and personal, we are not alone.

Arwa Qutbuddin, a young mother from India, has said, “What matters is that we teach our children kindness in a world that is wounded by a lack of it.” This is a perennial struggle that each life, each family, each nation, and each generation faces: how to be brave and loving enough to rekindle the kindness we so lack in a world struggling not to give into fear. Now it is our turn. For the future of love depends on the tenderness and honesty of those who can bear witness to the depth of soul rising through their pain. This is the deep remedy we need.

If Hell is dying repeatedly without ever feeling whole, then Heaven is the removal of any false or limited way of thinking or feeling that keeps us from being completely alive. And the heart is the unseeable bridge that offers us this pilgrimage. If blessed, our heartwork leads us from Hell to Heaven in some small way every day. If I could take you there, I would. But I am still making my way myself.

Having dug my way completely out of words, again, I offer you this small poem of mine, with which I wish you a lifetime of listening to the guidance of your heart:

 

Inside Everything

Keep trying to hide and in time

you become a wall.

 

Keep trying to love and in time

you become love.

 

Our journey on Earth is to stop

hiding, so we can become love.

 

Everything else is a seduction

and a distraction.

 

Courage is staying true.

 

 

A Conversation with Mark Nepo about his new book, Surviving Storms: Finding the Strength to Meet Adversity

Question: What are you trying to explore with this book?

Response: We live in a turbulent time. Storms are everywhere, of every shape and size. And like every generation before us, like every soul’s journey on Earth, we must learn the art of surviving storms, so we can endure and build a better world. The reason heartwork is so important in surviving storms is that, as a tree needs to deepen its roots and widen its trunk to endure the force of unexpected storms, we need to know our true self so we can deepen our roots and solidify our connection to all Spirit and all life. Then, we, too, can endure the force of unexpected storms. This is especially relevant now. Every generation has its share of turbulence and chaos—personal storms, relational storms, life storms. And all the traditions offer practices and resources to help us be strong enough and kind enough to meet the challenges of our day. It is our turn to rediscover these practices and resources in order to repair ourselves and our world. All this is inner practice. All this is heartwork that we each need to personalize. This is what this book explores.

 

Question: Can you describe the journey this book takes us on?

Response: The first two chapters of this book describe the storms of our time—where we are and how we got here. They outline the fault lines of our refracted society, including: our loss of relationship, the isolation of technology, the dissolution of reality, the loss of a common good, the press of narcissism over inclusion, and our addiction to violence. The third chapter explores the nature and life of storms. And the fourth chapter unpacks the purpose of goodness. The rest of the book describes the perennial practices and resources that we can reacquaint ourselves with in order to restore our basic human nature and transcend our perceived differences. This task is nothing short of the remaking of humanity, yet one more time.

Question: You refer to the difficulties we face today as part of a pattern in history? Can you speak to this?

Response: The long swells of history crest and crash, century after century. The kindness and cruelty of an age expands and contracts. The openness and narrowness of how we learn either grows or collapses depending on how each generation reacts to the storms they encounter and create. As I write this, a good part of humanity is in such a collapse of narrowness, in such a contraction of cruelty. And though we have crashed, the harsh beauty of waves is that they always reform, gathering all they’ve been through to rise and crest again. Likewise, we can learn from what we’ve been through. We can expand again and open our minds and hearts. We can find our way back to kindness, if we dare to see each other in ourselves and accept the truth of what we’ve broken. Then, we can see what needs repair.

 

Question: You talk about the maturing of compassion. What do you mean by this?

Response: Ultimately, loving is the practice ground for everything. Early in life, there is an initiation into the practice of compassion through the commonality of our experience with others. If I have suffered a broken heart, then when I witness your heart breaking, I can easily identify with what you’re going through. This sort of compassion, based on our common experience, is an ongoing apprenticeship that never ends. But over the years, as I’ve thinned what builds between my heart and the world, I’ve come to see that this form of compassion, dear and necessary as it is, leads to a maturing of compassion. Once our heart is opened, the practice of identifying with others leads us to the noble and necessary act of feeling compassion for those that we have no common experience with.

 

Question: You have a chapter called “Ten Thousand Hands.” What are you exploring here?

Response:  I offer this metaphor to explore the difference between our infinite want and our very finite reach in this world. For the heart has ten thousand hands that want to lift and hold everything, to leave no dream untried. But the life that carries the heart has only has two hands. And so, intoxicated with life, we reach for more than we can carry, and meaning well, we promise more than we can ever hope to care for. In this way, we try to live as many lives as possible rather than inhabit the one life we are given. This is a common, inner tension. For as human beings, our being is infinite and unlimited, but our humanness is very finite and limited. Feeling this innate cross-purpose, we can be seduced by the want to do everything and to go everywhere—though we can’t. Without accepting our very human limits, we can inadvertently do harm to each other.

 

Question: Can you speak more about what it means to work with what we’re given?

Response:  Though there’s nothing wrong with working for things we want, I have found that my deepest gifts have shown themselves when working with what I’ve been given. I’ve come to see that working for what I want is often an apprenticeship for working with what I’m given. For by working with what we’re given, our soul shows itself. All of this is how the heart initiates us into the art of acceptance where, far from resignation, we are asked to be kind and useful beyond all intent.

 

Question: An early chapter is called “The Old World Is Gone.” What are you suggesting here? 

Response:  As the pandemic spread around the world, it brought moments from my cancer journey sharply before me. One profound moment in particular echoes where we are in a compelling way. It was the moment of my diagnosis more than thirty years ago. I was sitting in a doctor’s office when I heard the words, “You have cancer.”

I was, of course, frightened and disoriented. I thought, he must have made a mistake. How could this be me? Stunned, I left that appointment reeling. But the door I had walked through to keep that appointment was gone. There was no way back to my life before that moment. Life would never be the same. The old world was gone.

I think this transformative moment has gripped the world. Collectively, the world before the pandemic is gone. There is no way back to life before the coronavirus. We have no choice but to accept the truth of what is and love our way forward, discovering the new life unlived ahead of us.

To be sure, there is nothing glorious or mysterious about disease. The cancer I had was not as important as what it opened in me. Likewise, there is nothing glorious or mysterious about the coronavirus. It can never be as important as what it is opening in humanity. As cancer was a catalyst for transformation when I was ill, we need to ask: What is the appearance of this pandemic trying to open in us and teach us? How is it transforming us as a global family?

 

Question: What is your hope for anyone engaging with this book?

Response: The Hebrew word for blessing means “more life.” This is the blessing that comes from being educated by the heart—we are given more life. This is the blessing I wish for everyone who reads this book—that as a fish grows stronger for having a healthy and muscular gill, you are given more life for having an expansive and well-tuned heart.