Mark Nepo: Writing Is Listening with Your Heart and Taking Notes

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September 10, 2019

Mark Nepo: Writing Is Listening with Your Heart and Taking Notes

Mark Nepo September 10, 2019

Mark Nepo is a New York Times bestselling author, poet, and philosopher whose many books include The Book of Awakening, Things That Join the Sea and the Sky, and The One Life We’re Given. Most recently, he has partnered with Sounds True to publish Drinking from the River of Light: The Life of Expression. In this episode of Insights at the Edge, Tami Simon speaks with Mark about about our collective notions around creativity and the societal role of art. Mark details how his own ideas about creative expression have shifted over the decades, as well as why we should try to separate creation from commerce. Mark and Tami talk about the “messy, magnificent journey” of being human and why art must be a “witness to what is.” Finally, they discuss the necessity of holding nothing back during the creative process and why the pursuit of art is also the pursuit of timelessness.(71 minutes)

Mark Nepo is a poet and philosopher who has taught in the fields of poetry and spirituality for over 40 years. A New York Times #1 bestselling author, he has published 21 books and recorded 14 audio projects. Mark has been interviewed several times by Oprah Winfrey as part of her Super Soul Sunday TV show, and was interviewed by Robin Roberts on Good Morning America. As a cancer survivor, Mark devotes his writing and teaching to the journey of inner transformation and the life of relationship. His work has been translated into more than 20 languages. For more, see marknepo.com.

Author photo © Brian Bankston

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Also By Author

Mark Nepo: The Half-Life of Angels

How do we know our own authenticity? How can we return to our hearts when we find we’ve left them? As we evolve and change along our journey, how do we relate to the “former selves” in our past? In this podcast, Tami Simon and poet-philosopher Mark Nepo address these questions and more, as they discuss his creative process; his new book, The Half-Life of Angels; and how we can each touch the ever-present and wholly miraculous “spark of becoming” waiting to guide our lives. 

Tune in as Tami and Mark talk about the introspective nature of the creative process; the metaphor of the soul as an inlet; congruency; how the heart shatters but inevitably heals; becoming a student to the mystery of life; the meaning of the word “admit,” and the practice of return; seeing through the lens of the miraculous; the intersection of meditation and creativity; the art of re-visioning; how a commitment to truthfulness grows in concentric circles; living from the deep versus diving and coming back up; the shift from being driven to being drawn; impermanence and perseverance; how the life of expression is one of discovery, relationship, and inquiry; why “there’s always a teacher next to you”; “becoming the poem”; and more.

Note: This episode originally aired on Sounds True One, where these special episodes of Insights at the Edge are available to watch live on video and with exclusive access to Q&As with our guests. Learn more at join.soundstrue.com.

Mark Nepo: Authentic Expression is Heart-Based

“All my work is about devotion to the messy, magnificent human journey”

—Mark Nepo

Every day, we learn. We take in more of the new. And yet, we can only respond to situations based on what we know already. We rely on the old.

Mark Nepo seems to be asking about the space between. What does it mean to grow and change with grace? What does it mean to have faith in that process? And what does this have to do with writing and expression?

We are constantly tasked to face the unknown using tools that may have only worked for us in the past (and that is freaking scary).

I believe that asking questions is elemental to human nature. But, it is impossible to truly know any of the answers.

For Mark, there is no one right way forward. There is no way out of fear. There is only a sensibility that can be adopted: that is, the willingness to listen. 

In other words, there are no objectives. There are no end products. The “answer” is in letting go of resistance to what we know, have, and are.

That way, the invisible can make itself known.

WITNESSING

“How do we talk about the things that matter that you really can’t see?”

—Mark Nepo

The ephemeral connection between ourselves and the world of essence exists within our hearts. With this practice—this practice of inner trust, perhaps even surrender—we can begin to gesture at expressing the unsayable.

What’s clear about Mark Nepo is that he is first and foremost a writer. However, his ideas can be applied to any form of expression.

To bear witness in writing, Mark advises giving full attention to whatever is in front of you, then describing it in as much detail as possible. It’s important not to make it seem magnificent or assign it “a bunch of meaning.”

Don’t evaluate it.

We are the observers and not yet the translators.

There is another part to it. Look inward. Feel what is moving through you at that moment. “Paint” that feeling with words. Don’t judge. Don’t bother with meaning. This disposition is inherently freeing. 

In this state (and I fall in and out of it even as I write this), reality moves up to our eyes like a mirror. We can look at it and hear it, be part of it.

THE INVISIBLE WORLD

“You can’t see light except for what it illuminates. All the forces that hold us and support us are invisible”

—Mark Nepo

We name things all the time. We have to. It keeps chaos at bay.

But, naming things tends to keep us separate from them. That is this and I am this and you are there and I am here.

In his Insights at the Edge episode with Tami, Mark mentions that we are accustomed to listening in this way.

We immediately assign names, places, spaces, reasons, meaning and significance to everything we see and feel. We judge and assume (partly because it is efficient; partly because we are so used to doing it).

This is in stark contrast to the “essence of wholehearted presence, however and whenever that appears.”

IMMERSION

“The truth is, I barely understand half of what comes through me. The other half leads me”

—Mark Nepo

Immersion is a different kind of listening.

Rather than naming, one engages in a mutual conversation with the world. Discovery and creation unite as the byproduct of participation in oneness.

For Mark, immersion is a way to stop resisting our naturalness and be… whatever it is we were meant to be, as humans.

When he talks about “the things that matter,” what he seems to mean is the invisible world, “that which holds us together.” In immersion, we have the chance to interact with the invisible source of our unity.

Like the fiery and untouchable sun from which our individual experiences emanate.

WHOLEHEARTEDNESS

“It’s a gift that we can’t reach what we’re trying to say or what we see, because of all that it gives us”

—Mark Nepo

In his interview, Mark says to Tami about art-making, “What matters more is our wholeheartedness than whether we do it well.”

Tami’s response struck me. “I notice, as you offer that answer, there’s a part of me that really softens.”

Creation can be a meeting place. Rather than prescribing, you meet something somewhere, and then you embrace whatever happens. You accept what is present—and in return, you are accepted just as you are.

Wholeheartedness: letting go of expectation for the sake of the unsayable.

SELF-EXPRESSION

“Just because I write it doesn’t mean that I have the meaning of it all”

—Mark Nepo

As a writing teacher, I often tell my students that if they’re stuck, they may not be empty of ideas. In fact, they may be too full.

Creating space for the heart allows the bubbles to rise up. Like attracts like. We see what we see.

“If you’re not quite there, go back to the heart of whatever the expression is about, and get closer, and get stiller, and put your defenses down, and get closer. … Go back and have a more open heart, and see what comes then.”

Sometimes, it’s unpleasant.

Sometimes, it’s utterly nonsensical.

Poetry, as one possible example of this art, has long emptied itself of pragmatic purpose and precise meaning for the sake of beauty and potentiality.

You may end up with something that you don’t understand for years. You may just take that thing out later and realize what you meant. Authentic expression is not a product. It’s a message from you to you, from the universe to the universe.

And it is always miraculous.

Mark Nepo: Writing Is Listening with Your Heart and Ta...

Mark Nepo is a New York Times bestselling author, poet, and philosopher whose many books include The Book of Awakening, Things That Join the Sea and the Sky, and The One Life We’re Given. Most recently, he has partnered with Sounds True to publish Drinking from the River of Light: The Life of Expression. In this episode of Insights at the Edge, Tami Simon speaks with Mark about about our collective notions around creativity and the societal role of art. Mark details how his own ideas about creative expression have shifted over the decades, as well as why we should try to separate creation from commerce. Mark and Tami talk about the “messy, magnificent journey” of being human and why art must be a “witness to what is.” Finally, they discuss the necessity of holding nothing back during the creative process and why the pursuit of art is also the pursuit of timelessness.(71 minutes)

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5 Tools to Create More Space in Your Mind

Busyness, distraction, and stress have all led to the shrinking of the modern mind.

I realize that’s a strange thing to say. Most of us don’t think of our mind as something with space in it, as a thing that can either be big or small, expensive or claustrophobic.

But just think about the last time you felt overwhelmed, stressed, or out of control. Chances are, you might not even have to think that hard. You might be experiencing that state right now as you read these words.

What happens in these moments? 

First, our mind wanders. It spins through all sorts of random thoughts about the past and the future. As a result, we lose touch with the direct experience of present time.

Second, we lose perspective. We can’t see the big picture anymore. Instead, it’s like we’re viewing life through a long and narrow tunnel. We become blind to possibility, fixated on problems.

Put these two together and you’ve got the perfect recipe for eradicating space in the mind. The landscape of the mind begins to feel like a calendar jammed with so many meetings, events, and obligations that these neon colored boxes cover-up even the smallest slivers of white space. 

So it could be nice for our partner, for our kids, and, mostly, for our ourselves to consider: how can we create more space in the mind?

Here are five tools for creating mental space. If you want to go deeper, check out my new book with Sounds True on the topic called OPEN: Living With an Expansive Mind in a Distracted World.

1. Meditation.

You’ve no doubt heard about all of the scientifically validated benefits of this practice. It reduces stress. It boosts productivity. It enhances focus.

That is all true. But here is the real benefit of meditation: it creates more space in the mind. To get started, try it out for just a few minutes a day. Use an app or guided practice to help you.

2. Movement.

So, maybe you’re not the meditating type. That’s fine. You can still create space in the mind by setting aside time for undistracted movement.

The key word here is “undistracted.” For many of us, exercise and movement have become yet another time where our headspace gets covered over by texts, podcasts, or our favorite Netflix series. 

There’s nothing wrong with this. But it can be powerful to leave the earbuds behind every once in a while and allow the mind to rest while you walk, stretch, run, bike, swim, or practice yoga.

3. Relax.

When it comes to creating headspace, we moderns, with our smartphone-flooded, overly-stimulated, minds seem to inevitably encounter a problem: we’re often too stressed, amped, and agitated to open.

Relaxation – calming the nervous system – is perhaps the best way to counter this effect and create more fertile ground for opening. When we relax – the real kind, not the Netflix or TikTok kind –  the grip of difficult emotions loosens, the speed of our whirling thoughts slows, and, most important, the sense of space in our mind begins to expand.

How can you relax? Try yoga. Try extended exhale breathing, where you inhale four counts, exhale eight counts. Try yoga nidra. Or, just treat yourself to a nap.

4. See bigger.

When life gets crazy, the mind isn’t the only thing that shrinks. The size of our visual field also gets smaller. Our eyes strain. Our peripheral vision falls out of awareness.

What’s the antidote to this tunnel vision view? See bigger.

Try it right now. With a soft gaze, allow the edges of your visual field to slowly expand. Imagine you’re seeing whatever happens to be in front of you from the top of a vast mountain peak. Now bring this more expansive, panoramic, way of seeing with you for the rest of the day.

5. Do nothing.

Now for the most advanced practice. It’s advanced because it cuts against everything our culture believes in. In a world where everyone is trying desperately to get more done, one of the most radical acts is to not do — to do nothing.

Even just a few minutes of this paradoxical practice can help you experience an expansion of space in the mind.

Lie on the floor or outside on the grass. Close your eyes. Put on your favorite music if you want. Set an alarm for a few minutes so you don’t freak out too much. 

Then, stop. Drop the technique. Drop the effort. Just allow yourself to savor this rare experience of doing absolutely nothing.

Nate Klemp, PhD, is a philosopher, writer, and mindfulness entrepreneur. He is the coauthor of the New York Times bestseller Start Here and the New York Times critics’ pick The 80/80 Marriage. His work has been featured in the LA Times, Psychology Today, the Times of London, and more, and his appearances include Good Morning America and Talks at Google. He’s a cofounder of LifeXT and founding partner at Mindful. For more, visit nateklemp.com or @Nate_Klemp on Instagram.

Perry Garfinkel: Experimenting with Becoming Gandhi

In a confessional reflection on writing his new book, Becoming Gandhi, acclaimed journalist and bestselling author Perry Garfinkel says, “It was so difficult I almost gave up twice. I thought, ‘I can’t write this book. It’s too big a subject. Who am I to try to become Gandhi?’” Garfinkel persevered, and in this podcast Tami Simon speaks with him about what he discovered along the journey—and how practicing (not perfecting) six universal principles of the Mahatma can transform each one of us. 

Tune in to this highly aspirational yet very down-to-earth conversation on the poignance of the human condition and the elixir of laughter; the Tao of Gandhi; satyagraha, an insistence on and holding firm to the truth; considering “how to Gandhi” a situation you’re faced with; the notion of “good enough”; nonviolence in thought, word, and deed; the connection between words and feelings, and the step-by-step process of personal transformation; simplicity; faith as the driver of our moral compass; celibacy and making love; Gandhi’s life as his message—and making peace with his imperfections; and more.

What does it take to “Be the change you want to see ...

Excerpted from Becoming Gandhi: My Experiment Living the Mahatma’s 6 Moral Truths in Immoral Times by Perry Garfinkel.

Let the Journey Begin

By reading this preface, you have just joined what will hopefully be the experiment of a lifetime that will change both of our lives.

Let me set the ground rules, parameters, frameworks, timelines, caveats, excuses, permissions, and other details that will help you navigate your way—if not to be Gandhi, then to become a person who leads a more ethical, principled, spiritually and morally based, truth-full life.

As you will read in chapter 1, I first thought to undertake this effort more than a decade ago. It took me another twelve years to build up the confidence, belief in my commitment, and, frankly, the funding to actually begin this arduous journey, both inner and outer, including travel to three countries plus my own US. Little did I know how much it would change me, how many miles I would travel, how many inspirational people I would meet, and how many disappointments I would encounter, both in the world and in myself.

I began to take it seriously in the summer of 2019. That was when I started finding and  contacting knowledgeable sources in each country. As a dogged reporter who prides himself in finding the email and phone number for anyone anywhere in the world, that deep dive, which necessarily required a lot of reading and googling, was a relatively easy and very enjoyable and informative exercise. You may also want to research anything additional to what I write here and experiment with your own ways to follow the six principles. I can’t speak for Gandhi, but you have my wholehearted permission and encouragement to think outside the box and off this page.

The Big Goal here was to see if, in the face of a sociocultural climate that appears bereft of moral integrity, one could follow Gandhi’s moral compass, on the one hand, and on the other, to travel to countries where he spent considerable time to see how much had changed in the years since he left them. In other words, did he leave an enduring footprint that others followed or were Gandhi’s tracks swept away and forgotten by time and human nature? In these times of questionable ethical values, of increased violence and rampant lying, I was prepared to admit such evidence might be hard to find. In fact, one too-current example of the failure of the nonviolent movement, which was one of Gandhi’s primary pillars, is occurring as I’m writing this: CNN is reporting that thirty-nine mass shootings have taken place in the United States in the first three weeks of 2023 alone, killing more than sixty people, per the Gun Violence Archives.

I knew the hard part of this goal would be living these principles day in and day out on a personal level. There would be a lot of inner work, mental adjustments, a veritable paradigmatic shift of attitude. I would have to change my mind in the most fundamental ways. Change my habits, modes of thinking, daily actions.

The ground rules were simple: try to rigorously follow the six principles on a daily basis, keeping them in mind through the day, whether hanging out with friends and family, alone in my apartment, or out there in the world. But also to give myself some slack. If I “fell off the wagon,” I would forgive myself quickly and get right back on it. The latter would happen with frequency, as you will read. But I realized very soon that once engaged in this experiment, even when I fell off, there would be no turning back. Once the veil is lifted, it’s hard not to see the world for what it is, and see yourself for who you are, who you are not, and who you aspire to be.

People started wondering how long this experiment would last and asking me when or if I would drop vegetarianism and return to eating meat as soon as it ended. I had planned to dedicate one full year to this project. It expanded to some eighteen months of strict adherence 

to all of the principles, and even some that Gandhi didn’t consider in the course of things. I admit I slacked after that but, as I said, once you know which way the compass is pointing, you can’t completely turn back; you always return to your true north. You find the balance that suits you best, or at least better than before you started.

I frame this journey and this book around the six principles. Some sources list up to eleven Gandhi principles. I chose only six; already you can call me lazy.

Truth. In practice, truth is simply telling the truth, but Gandhi meant it to mean more. He said, “God is Truth,” later changing it to “Truth is God.” He coined the term satyagraha—loosely translated as “insistence on and holding firm to truth”—as a form of nonviolent resistance. I take this on, first focusing on practicing truth in thoughts, words, and actions, with particular attention to lies I tell myself. I look at how society views truth now.

Nonviolence. Although Gandhi was not the originator of nonviolence, he was the first to apply it as a strategy to move the dial in the direction of justice, as a peaceful weapon to protest social wrongdoings. His motto: “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” Taking it from the political to the personal, I look at how we all act out psychological violence—in passive-aggressive behaviors, in road rage, in clenched jaws, in couched (and not-so-couched) language—that sabotages our best interests. I myself am guilty: I was once a featured guest on The Phil Donahue Show, speaking about my own passive-aggressive behavior in my previous marriage.

Vegetarianism. Vegetarianism is deeply ingrained in Hindu and Jain traditions, the setting in which Gandhi was raised. In his London years as a law student, he embraced it more seriously to not only satisfy the requirements of the body and his religious beliefs but also to save money by not buying expensive meats. His book The Moral Basis of Vegetarianism, along with articles he wrote for the London Vegetarian Society’s publication, became my personal diet book. I was a meat-and-potatoes kind of kid, just like my father. I became a macrobiotic many years ago, had defaulted to meat in recent years, but an Ayurvedic diet I went on last fall convinced me I need to clean up my eating habits. Don’t we all?

Simplicity. Giving up unnecessary spending is the simple maxim Gandhi had in mind, and because this concept flies in the face of conspicuous consumers on spending sprees in shopping malls, it also has ramifications for our gluttonous nature, which thinks that more of anything automatically provides more satisfaction. But Gandhi also had a political motive in his so-called Swadeshi movement: by making their own clothes using a spinning wheel (charkha), Indians would deal an economic blow to the British establishment in India. These days consumers boycott various brands and stores to protest their company policy, a Gandhian spin. The contemporary “voluntary simplicity movement” draws directly from this Gandhian principle. I will closely examine my spending patterns and make budget slashes. Gandhi called it “reducing himself to zero.”

Faith. Gandhi meant belief in a higher power, no matter what religion. He wrote, “Mine is a broad faith which does not oppose Christians . . . not even the most fanatical Mussalman. I refuse to abuse a man for his fanatical deeds, because I try to see them from his point of view.” It’s the ability to see things from the point of view of someone from another faith that tests the faith of mankind. How are we doing with that? Not so good. The majority of wars in the world are religious wars. My challenge will be to find some balance between my practice of Buddhism, the religion of no God, and Judaism, the religion that invented the One God. I will test the boundaries of my acceptance of faiths I don’t believe in.

Celibacy. Called brahmacharya in Hindi, sexual abstinence was a spiritual path to achieving purity, according to Gandhi, who took the vow of chastity at the age of thirty-eight. Some people question whether Gandhi himself actually adhered to this, with stories and allegations he slept next to teenage girls to test his restraint. Celibacy is not for everyone. Is it for me? I will endeavor to find out, keeping copious notes on my fallings in and out. With my luck, the woman of my dreams will walk into my life and fall in love with me. What will I do . . . or, more precisely, not do?

I never intended this book to be categorized in the how-to or self help genre. I think or hope you can help yourself without my telling you how. Nonetheless, as I made my way around the world, around my mind, and finally around this book, I realized it would be helpful to at least sum up each chapter with what I learned, some tips for your (and my own) benefit. I call these end-of-chapter sections “How to Gandhi.”

With these guidelines and to-dos and with no further ado, here we go. Next stop: becoming the change.

Perry Garfinkel is a veteran journalist, editor, frequent speaker, and author of the bestselling Buddha or Bust. He has contributed to many sections of the New York Times since 1986 and has written for National Geographic magazine, AARP The Magazine, the Huffington Post, the LA Times, and others. He has appeared on CNN and CBS This Morning. He is a frequent guest on WCBS-NY radio’s Health & Well-Being Report.

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