Reduced to Joy ~ Mark Nepo


Mark Nepo is emerging as one of the truly significant writers and thinkers of today. Nepo has a singular way of distilling great truths down to their essence. Moreover, during his cancer journey, Nepo relied on the power of expression and the writing process to keep him tethered to life. In Reduced to Joy, Mark Nepo explores the places where pain and joy are stitched to resilience, uncovering them with deep wisdom, poetic passages and personal revelations. Nepo reminds us all of the secret and sacred places within, forgotten in the noise and chatter of our busy distracted 21st Century lives. Reduced to Joy is a lesson in stillness, in standing in the mystery and, above all, in the work of love.

POEMS FROM THE BOOK

SO MUCH IS CARRIED
(for Saba)

When just a pup, I took her into winter.
While Paul photographed the heavy snow,
she, having never run free, circled wildly,
her little nose caked with white.

She slipped and broke the ice. I can still
see her puppy face underwater, looking
for a way out, her tiny paws swatting
at the thick clear deep.

With no thought, I was waist high and
wet, sweeping her into the air. She flew
a good twelve feet and landed with a thud.
She shook and started to shiver. We rubbed
her down for two hours, blowing her with
an old hair dryer. I held her in my shirt,
near my heart, the whole way home.

I’m fourteen years and seven states away
and she has died. My first dog. I close
my eyes and there she is, grown,
sniffing the air in an open field,
smelling things I couldn’t even sense.

How many times I’ve played that day
in the pond: her struggle underwater,
her drying on my chest.

How much that day has shaped my art:
always jumping in and sweeping what
has been baptized in the deep back
into the world, always holding it
near my heart. As if my life
depends on it.

THE SUBLIME DISTURBANCE

As the wind makes a different song
through the same tree as its branches
break, God makes finer and finer music
through the wearing down of our will.

WHERE IS GOD?

It’s as if what is unbreakable—
the very pulse of life—waits for
everything else to be torn away,
and then in the bareness that
only silence and suffering and
great love can expose, it dares
to speak through us and to us.

It seems to say, if you want to last,
hold on to nothing. If you want
to know love, let in everything.
If you want to feel the presence
of everything, stop counting the
things that break along the way.

Mark Nepo is a poet and philosopher who has taught in the fields of poetry, health, and spirituality for forty years. A New York Times #1 bestselling author, he has published fourteen books and recorded eight audio projects. Mark has appeared with Oprah Winfrey on her Super Soul Sunday program on OWN TV, and has also been interviewed by Robin Roberts on Good Morning America. His work has been translated into more than twenty languages. Mark keynotes regularly for conferences and corporations, works with healing and medical communities, including chaplains and therapists, speaks and offers workshops for colleges and universities, and leads spiritual retreats.

In 1987, Mark was diagnosed with a rare form of lymphoma. The heart of that journey and its aftermath has greatly informed his work. Ever since, he has been a student of all paths and his work has explored the common center and unity of all spiritual traditions, focusing on how we can experience that unity when we can lean into life and hold nothing back. Ultimately, he explores with others how to live wholeheartedly, so we can inhabit the gifts we are born with and find the language of our own wisdom.

Click here to browse inside.

A CONVERSATION WITH MARK ABOUT HIS NEW BOOK OF POEMS, REDUCED TO JOY

QUESTION: What inspired you to write this book?

MN: Poems come slowly. They break surface like dolphin after long stretches of going under. So writing a book of poems for me is different than writing my other books. I have to sit when I’m able and try to make heart-sense of what life has been doing to me and with me. Like wringing out a sponge, I squeeze what matters onto the page, let it dry, and see what’s there the next day. One by one, they gather into an instructive whole. All this to say, that by trying to make sense of my own experience, I’ve discovered a theme to the journey, that we are all reduced to joy, worn away of all excess. To survive this, we often need to hold each other up in order to discover and return to what matters. This book explores these essential relationships, which keep shaping me.

QUESTION: Can you speak about the nature of joy and what keeps us from it?
MN: For me, joy is different than happiness. While happiness is a fleeting mood, joy is larger and more lasting than any one feeling. If each feeling is a wave of emotion, then joy is the ocean that holds all feelings. As I get older, I’m coming to realize that joy is central to our knowing peace. It’s one deep way that we access Oneness. I’m also beginning to see that joy is the hum of Oneness. It’s the sensation of being connected to life itself. Another way to speak of joy is to say that it’s the reward for facing our experience. 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. What keeps us from joy, then, is often not being where we are and not valuing what is before us.

QUESTION: These poems are gathered from the last thirteen years of your life. How would you describe your journey over these years and how you’ve changed or grown during this time?

MN: With each hardship and loss, friendships matter more and not just with people, but with nature and time and with life itself. This last decade has made me more vulnerable and stronger at the same time. I feel there is less between me and what I experience. I think I’ve been reduced more and more to what is essential, less able to pretend or look away. I still get tripped up by fear and worry and at times forget where I’ve been and who I am. But this is all part of the endless journey. I’ve become a student of things as they are and this has led me to the astonishing guidance that all things are true. I simply have to keep my heart open long enough to discover how.

QUESTION: You talk a lot about “working with what we’re given” as a way to discover a meaningful life. Can you talk more about this?

MN: Try as we do to resist what we’re given, this is only doorway to truth. Not all that we’re given is difficult. There are many blessings and gentle surprises along the way. But we all waste too much time and energy either denying where we find ourselves or fighting where we find ourselves. When what’s before us is always a shy teacher insisting on our attention. I love the great Czech poet Vaclav Havel’s definition of hope as “not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.” Working with what we’re given is the mirror to uncovering our true nature.

QUESTION: The final section of the book is called “Falling in Love with the World.” What does this mean and how do we go about living this way?

MN: When we can find the courage and support to be where we are, completely, when we can find the wherewithal to meet what we’re given honestly, when we can see our feelings all the way through, then we open ourselves to an inner form of gravity that has us lean into life rather than pull away. This leaning into life with a fragile bareness awakens us to the tender irreplaceable side of life. It is here that we can’t help but fall in love with the world, in spite of its harshness and unpredictability.

QUESTION: In one of your poems, you refer to “the messy art of facing things” and how we sometimes hurt those closest to us. Why is facing things necessary and how can we go about doing it?

MN: The art of facing things is necessary because without it, we replay our struggles on everything around us. So if you want to lessen the amount of violence in the world, the first thing you can do is to commit to facing what is yours to face. When we don’t own what life brings us, we project our pain onto others. I’ve found over time that the first way for me to gather the courage to face my life is to renew my foundational belief that I will survive the discomfort of psychological and emotional pain. In fact, avoiding inner pain only intensifies it. Somehow I need to risk being reshaped by what I face. And the art of facing things isn’t just difficult and messy. It’s also beautiful and tender. Without facing things and each other, intimacy is not possible. No one knows the secret path to all this. Another reason we need each other.

QUESTION: In another poem, you look at what it means to know something by heart. Can you explain this and why it’s important?

MN:[Excerpt from poem]: To graduate into the world, we are
required to memorize practical and odd things: the number
of feet in a mile, the year Henry VIII beheaded Anne Boleyn,
the degree at which clouds will freeze their rain. But since
death is the mirror we eventually move through, let’s stop
carrying the things we repeat and start holding things
with our eyes.

I’ve been struck by how we’re trained away from direct, unscripted living. It’s interesting, as I mention in the poem, that “to know by heart” has been reduced to memorization. When the original sense of knowing something by heart is to be touched by what we meet so completely that our compassion is awakened. When we memorize things, we live in our heads and tend to track life rather than enter it. To truly know something or someone by heart means we will, no doubt, be changed for the experience. And ultimately, as prepared as we try to be, the goal of life is to be surprised into a greater depth of connection and being. Ironically, to be touched by life, we often have to put down what we know in order to be refreshed and re-vitalized by what we don’t know.

QUESTION: Finally, what do you hope readers will take with them from REDUCED TO JOY?

MN: My hope is that the poems in this book will serve as a threshold to an underlying connection to the greater life we are all a part of. I hope the book will be a resource for the reader when faced with the difficulties of living. I hope the poems will confirm that, no matter the struggle you find yourself in, you are not alone. May these poems be honest companions on the journey to joy.

An Evening with Mark Nepo

Published on Apr 22, 2013

Poetry readings by Mark Nepo at All Saints Church, Pasadena, at 7 p.m. on Sunday, April 21, 2013. For more about All Saints Church visit htt;://www.allsaints-pas.org.

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