The Art of Staying Awake

An Interview with Mark Nepo

Mark Nepo has taught in the fields of poetry and spirituality for more than thirty-five years. In his most recent book, Seven Thousand Ways to Listen, Mark offers ancient and contemporary practices to help us stay close to what is sacred. As a cancer survivor, Mark devotes his writing and teaching to the journey of inner transformation and relationship. In this interview, he talks about the practice of wakefulness and the transformational process that is really what staying awake is all about.


Integral Yoga Magazine (IYM):  You write about being awake and that it’s a process. What do you mean?

Mark Nepo (MN): I use the word wakefulness as a term for enlightenment. I believe enlightenment isn’t an arrival but a process we stay in. Wakefulness isn’t a destination; it’s a song the heart sings like a bird singing at the sight of light. My time on earth in the incarnation of being human is constantly shifting and changing, and being a human itself is a paradox—the being is infinite and the human is very finite. Paradox at the simplest level, is when, at one moment, more than one thing is true. The mind can’t solve paradox but the heart can hold it.

The first lesson of wakefulness is to keep opening the heart so we can hold what we’re given, so it can reveal its deeper logic, the logic of the heart and spirit, which defies sorting and counting. Instead, it’s holding and joining. We’re clear and then we’re confused. We’re awake and then we’re numb. We’re buoyant and then we’re down. We inhale and exhale constantly, our hands move and muscles constrict and dilate. Our wakefulness also ebbs and flows. We’re born like lightning in a bottle. The practice of being human is the practice of coming awake, staying awake and returning to wakefulness when we go to sleep. We’ll go to sleep because, being human, we will—and not because there’s anything wrong with us. It’s that this is the journey. Therefore the practice of being a spirit, in a body, in the world, is a practice of return.

IYM: How do we return?

MN: It’s important for each to discover and practice his or her own method of return. Everything that matters, that is universal, is also personal. Sages have talked about these things and, if they touch your heart, then how do you go and find its very personal representation in your own life so it can be embodied and lived? Given that context, we can talk about the nature of things as I understand them. There are, among many, two ways that humans grow: One is by willfully shedding and the other is by being broken open. Like X- and Y-chromosomes we have both capacities inborn. When I was younger, I might have been less willing to shed. As I’m older, I’m more willing. We’ll all get a chance to be broken open and these opportunities don’t go away. How we engage these has a lot to do with how awake and authentic we are. Nature is eroded to its beauty; we are loved and suffered to our beauty. Of course, that’s not easy. When we’re broken open, it hurts. That’s why we need each other to hold each other up to the experience of being human so we can be worn to our beauty.

IYM: What does it mean to be “worn to our beauty”?

MN: Your question leads us to the wisdom of a broken and open heart. This teaching is in all the traditions, though, in each, it may be offered differently. In Tibetan mythology, there’s a beautiful notion that a spiritual warrior—one committed to a life of transformation—always has a crack in his heart. That’s how the mysteries can get in. Since the beginning of time, understandably, when we’re hurt or broken or fearful, we want to close down and wall out what hurts. But, the mystery of life comes as a whole, as a wholeness. When we wall out what’s difficult, we wall out the resources that can heal us. That’s why we need a crack in our hearts. If I were to take water, which is made of H2O, I can’t say I just want the hydrogen and I don’t want the oxygen. If I did, then it wouldn’t be water anymore nor would it quench my thirst. The mysterious resource of life is that, if I don’t accept the pain, the loss, the heartache, and uncertainty, it’s no longer life, thirst-quenching, resourceful or enlivening. We have to somehow receive both.

IYM: How?

Read the rest of this article in the Winter 2013 issue of Integral Yoga Magazine.