Last night, the moon was twice its size, though it never changes. Today, my heart is twice its size, though it never rests. From this, I know I am everything and nothing. —MN
By Mark Nepo, author of The Book of Soul: 52 Paths to Living What Matters
At first, I passed you by, as I have passed the sap oozing from the maple, as I have passed the truth seeping from the quiet ones. Now I hear birds wing out of view like spirits long gone from the Earth. Now, when strangers ask, I hesitate, not holding back, just unsure how to climb into each other’s lives without breaking anything. I keep searching through the things of this world for one to carve into some form of hope, the kind that knits the living together. The truth is that in losing my way, I have found the small fire that can never go out, though we are terrified it will.
Still, there is an insidious web of influence that keeps us from being completely where we are. This web begins at an early age, when we’re mis-educated to think that we live before a constant audience, warned that someone is always watching and judging us. We’re raised to believe that it’s a terrible thing to disappoint those who are watching, even if we can’t figure out what would please them. This blind fear of disappointing those who are ready to judge us somehow convinces us that life needs to be made more special than it is.
All this puts enormous pressure on us from the moment we wake to the moment we go to sleep. It hurries us toward a want for approval that is always out of reach. It took almost dying for me to realize that no one is watching. This doesn’t mean we live alone or in a vacuum, but that it’s more important what others feel than what others think. It means that we’re not scampering in some emotional labyrinth chasing praise like some piece of cheese we can’t quite see.
In truth, when we can shed all the expectations and judgments we weave, feeling the bareness of things is magical enough. With nothing in the way, the smooth feel of stone and the mist of blue that coats the night are more than enough. Without any covering, the Whole of Existence leads to itself. And we’re surprised to arrive without having gone anywhere.
Given our entanglements, one of the most difficult acts of presence is not to vanish when overwhelmed by conflict or hardship. The simplest teachers in nature, such as the sun, the birds, and the flowers, are quietly heroic in this regard, not because they achieve anything, but because they remain completely true to their own nature, regardless of what happens to them.
Consider the constancy of the sun. Even in the womb, before our eyes are formed, we can feel the warmth and light of the sun through our mother’s belly. Spirit works this way, warming us before we can see, walk, or talk. As we grow, the heart senses the undying warmth of Spirit regardless of how blind we are to what we struggle with. Our job is to trust what the heart senses ahead of our understanding.
Under all our struggle, life exists independent of our assumptions or judgment. Life is not human-centric. I experienced this firsthand with my loss of hearing. The day I received my hearing aids, I walked out of the office and heard birdsong for the first time in months. I hadn’t even realized I wasn’t hearing birdsong. Of course, the birds never stopped their glorious melodies because I was losing my hearing. I’m not sure what kind of bird was singing that day, but hearing it again made me cry. That moment extinguished the self-centered philosophical question “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?” Of course it does!
And like the birds that sing at the first sight of light, our hearts don’t stop loving because we in our pain are blind, deaf, or afraid. Though from the depths of our fear and pain, we can muffle the love that emanates from our heart. We can convince ourselves that we’re no longer loving. In our hurt and confusion, we can deny the love that keeps shining from within us.
Yet we can always access the love in our hearts by finding our courage, which meant originally “to stand by one’s core.” Imagine a mountain rising from the earth. No matter how closely we look, it’s impossible to tell where the mountain ends and the earth it rises from begins. But it’s the earth that makes the mountain strong.
In the same way, you can’t tell where the soul stops and where the ground of being it rises from begins. When we can stand by our core, we enter our authority of being, which gains its strength from the Universal Ground of Being that is its foundation. So when we stand by our core, we stand by the core of all things. When we touch into our center, we enter the center of all things.
Still none of this is easy, even when aware of it. And so, we take guidance wherever we can, even from the forest floor, where we can ask the smallest flower, “What lets you bloom though no one is watching?”
When we can still ourselves, our heart will sink—of its own weight—below the noise of the world, the advice of others, and even our own expectations. When that still, we are by our core. This is how we practice meeting life.
So when losing track of what I believe in, when wondering what I’m called to next, I still my heart until I stop feeding the dark things that keep shouting they’re important. In that stillness, I ask myself, Where is the light coming from today? What do I have to do to put myself in its path? What part of me is illuminated for leaning into life? What can I learn by being so lighted? What is it my heart can’t keep from doing that will bring me more alive?
To lean into life requires a quiet courage that lets us find our aliveness. And the reward for leaning into life is that everything hidden becomes sweet and colorful. Or more, we’re finally present enough to receive the sweetness and color that is always there. Consider how a flower opens. It doesn’t prepare for a particular moment but stays true to a life of opening and leaning toward the light. When a flower blossoms, it turns inside out and wears its beauty in the world. In just this way, a soul opens over a lifetime of leaning into life.
Despite the hardships we encounter, and in spite of our pain, the heart keeps opening after closing, the way day follows night—until meeting life is our daily experiment in truth. No matter the obstacles, we’re asked to welcome all the teachers we encounter along the way, each shouting and whispering that the secret kingdom is everywhere.
As we keep searching, these efforts never go away: the work of presence, the listening for teachers, and the vow to stay close to the fire of our aliveness. I confess, when I began, I wanted to light so many things. Now I’m the one being lighted and there’s nowhere to go. I can see that as being becomes a nest, there’s no reason to fly.
When we can shed all the expectations and judgments we weave, feeling the bareness of things is magical enough.
Questions to Walk With
- In your journal, describe the web of influence you are under and trace where these expectations and judgments come from. Identify one expectation or judgment that feels inaccurate and how you might put it down.
- In conversation with a friend or loved one, describe a moment when you stood by your core. When standing by your core, did you feel or sense the core of all things? What did this feel like? What led you to this moment? What steps can you take to stand by your core when you need to?
Mark Nepo, the New York Times bestselling author of The Book of Awakening, has been called “one of the finest spiritual guides of our time,” “a consummate storyteller,” and “an eloquent spiritual teacher.” In The Book of Soul: 52 Paths to Living What Matters, his 22nd book, Mark explores our struggle to inhabit the soul on Earth through a messy human life, and how underneath our differences, we can be who we are everywhere and create a path to what matters. He suggests that after being born physically, we unfold within a second womb, meant to incubate our better angel.
- “finding our courage…” For an in-depth exploration of inner courage, please see my book Finding Inner Courage, Conari Press, 2011.