Inside the Miracle
An Interview with Mark Nepo by Margaret Cahill
In this interview, Margaret Cahill, author of Under Cover of Darkness: How I Blogged My Way through Mantle Cell Lymphoma, discusses Inside the Miracle: Enduring Suffering, Approaching Wholeness with its author, Mark Nepo.
This article first appeared in Watkins Mind Body Spirit, Issue 45.
MC: Mark, as someone who has also tried to communicate the deepest horrors of cancer through the written word, I am interested that in Inside the Miracle you use several different techniques – essays, poems and reflections. You also tell the reader it is a book to be dipped into at any point, with no particular order or sense of chronology, and you include ‘questions to walk with’. Can you tell us why you chose this format?
MN: This book gathers work from almost thirty years of writing and teaching. I’ve tried to be true to the lessons as they appeared along the way. As you know, I’m committed to being as honest as possible. I’m also convinced that it’s the evidence of our journey that is more helpful than any conclusions we might imagine. So the book itself is a journey, not offered in a straight line but quite circuitous—because that is how life is. Though events happen sequentially through the years, their impact gathers and merges inwardly. This is the inner rhythm of healing that leads to wholeness. My healing journey keeps reverberating forward, backward, sideways, and back to the beginning, always different but at heart the same. As a companion, the book tries to introduce the reader to this mysterious process. All so you as a reader can personalize the common passages in life and explore where the lessons and challenges live in you.
MC: In the early days of your first diagnosis – a lymphoma sited between your brain and your skull – you were visited by Tu Fu, a Chinese poet from the Tang dynasty. You say you had never been in contact with spirit guides before, so can you tell us what your initial reaction was, and how the relationship developed?
MN: Years earlier, I had read Tu Fu and felt him to be a friend across the ages, because he was so tender and honest about the quandaries of living. When I fell ill, I began to dream about Tu Fu. One night, the dream felt incredibly vivid, extra-real. The kind of dreaming where you don’t know you’ve been dreaming until you wake. I took those vivid, unconscious experiences as visitations from Tu Fu. It doesn’t matter if you believe in such things or not. During times of suffering, we’re invited to listen more deeply for the current of life, no matter how it appears. It may come as a memory of your beloved grandmother long gone or in the voice of a Chinese poet from the 700s. When suffering, we’re challenged to accept help however it appears.
MC: You write that, ‘We are each in a lifetime conversation with suffering and care that, in time, will open us to our strengths and gifts.” How do you convey that message, and its inherent hope, to someone who has just been diagnosed with cancer, or is newly bereaved, and can’t contemplate any sense of there being a strength or gift as part of their experience?
MN: It is such a difficult place to be in. I think it’s important that those near us affirm both our pain, our fear, and our grief while also providing a bedrock of calm that affirms that life is always more than our pain or fear or grief. I know when people, meaning well, offered things I couldn’t reach, it only made me feel more alone. Somehow, to love someone who is broken means affirming the truth of their darkness, while parting the blinds enough that the light from the rest of life is always near.
MC: I remember that fear was by far the most overwhelming reaction to my diagnosis, and in the early days of treatment it dominated every waking moment. Can you tell us how you dealt with the paralysis it brings, and how you lessened its hold over you?
MN: Until my cancer diagnosis, I’d never been ill. I was terrified and nothing was helping me conquer the fear. Initially, I felt the paralysis you speak of. At times, I felt like a wounded animal lying still in the brush, expecting to be struck again. This is worse than outright pain, this is withdrawing from anything that can help. This is the power of fear—to make us recoil from anything larger. While in this state, nothing reaches us. We remain cut off from all that might renew us. In time, I was broken of my illusion that fear could be conquered. Instead, I began to watch the winter trees as they let the wind through, always through. Since then, I’ve learned that fear gets its power from not looking, that it’s intensified by isolation, that it’s always more strident when we are self-centered. Now, when I am full of fear, which can’t be avoided, I try, though I don’t always succeed, to break its stridency by breaking my egocentrism. I try to quiet its intensity by admitting my fear to loved ones, and I try to disempower its exaggeration by looking directly into exactly what I fear. I try to know that though I can be fearful, I am more than my fear.
MC: There was a key moment in a wellness group when you were asked to draw your cancer. In doing so, you realised that the ‘miracle’ treatment of chemotherapy was now poisoning you and that the cancer had gone. Do you think you would have come to that conclusion without the group? And how did the people around you react to your decision to withdraw from the treatment?
MN: I don’t know if I would have arrived at this knowledge by myself. It certainly came more quickly through the committed care and company of others. In fact, it was someone in the group, not me, who noticed that the violent lines I drew as my chemo didn’t touch one of the barely seeable dots I’d made to represent my cancer. That was breathtaking. It was then that I was certain I had to stop the chemo. We are humbled by crisis—by great suffering and great love—to listen to life in new ways, that can help us to survive and, even more, thrive.
MC: You make the crucial point that although we all have to go through our suffering alone, none of us can make it alone. I was blessed with an extremely strong support network, and I know this was a major factor in my survival. What would you suggest to someone who wants to know how best to support a loved one as they go through their cancer journey?
MN: I think it’s important to listen and verify the patient’s experience. They’re the one going through this. I think it’s important to verbalize both your commitment to be there for the duration, and to be honest about your own fears, pain, and limits in living out this commitment. I think it’s important to ask those who are suffering for their wisdom. What do they see from where life has taken them? By loving them, you are agreeing to share in their pain and to accept that you will both be on a rollercoaster, a soar and tumble, that will only bring you closer together.
MC: I found I was often encouraged to be positive, even when I didn’t feel like it, and then when I was feeling surprisingly well, people were surprised at the way I was coping, almost expecting me to feel bad. You make the same point, which is very reassuring. It is a strange dichotomy, almost as if by feeling one emotion we are denying the other, yet for anyone facing massive change, life is full of contrary emotions. Can you tell us how you coped with this conflict?
MN: Our greatest resource is the full depth and range of our humanity. To problem-solve, we’re taught to sort, prioritize, and choose. This is a helpful skill for negotiating the surface world of circumstance. But I’ve learned that to live through the challenges that life gives us, we need to let everything in until we can internalize and absorb what comes our way, until we can integrate the aliveness we’re thrown into. More than being positive, we’re challenged to stay true to all we’re feeling. For it’s the totality of feeling that exercises our heart to be strong. Sooner or later, we’re asked to be honest with our fears and hopes; to render, through our experience, the irreducible mystery of life in which we all swim. After all this way, I know that I am weak and strong, stubborn and determined, afraid and brave, giving and demanding, resilient and stalled, confused and clear—sometimes all at once. I know now that going on without denying any aspect of the human drama is what strength is all about.
MC: You write about being broken by the experience of loss in some form, be it from illness or circumstance, and that in the act of breaking we are remade into something new and stronger. In some cultures, ornaments that have been broken are stuck back together with gold glue to emphasise the beauty of the repair. Do you feel stronger after your experience, and if so, how?
MN: I offer a mysterious truth that life has given me: that we are stronger, gentler, more resilient, and more beautiful than we imagine, and that the resource we call life is never far away. I know this because every time my heart has been broken or shattered, I have felt certain that it could never be put back together. And every time, without exception, not only has my heart mended but it has become larger, stronger, and more loving for the breaking. The mysterious and unfailing journey of how this happens is the ordinary art of staying awake and it involves the deep and continuous act of being present in all ways in all directions, which is the practice of staying close to what is sacred. Throughout the book, I invite the reader to gather and personalize their own understanding of this mysterious truth, of the art of staying awake, and of the practice of staying close to what is sacred. For resilience and lasting strength are to be discovered in how we personalize our own practice of being human.
MC: People going through gruelling cancer treatment are often described as ‘courageous’, when in fact from my experience there isn’t a choice – you just wake up every day and have to deal with whatever is thrown at you. Where do you think that apparent sense of courage comes from?
MN: I wrote an entire book exploring this, called Finding Inner Courage. The word courage comes from the Latin, cor, which literally means heart. The original use of the word courage means to stand by one’s core. This is a striking concept that reinforces the belief found in almost all traditions that living from the Center is what enables us to face whatever life has to offer. The courage we all admire—where ordinary people summon unexpected strength to run into burning buildings or to stand up to tyrants, whether an abusive father or an abusive leader, this inspiring and mysterious impulse to rise and meet a dangerous situation, which Hemingway referred to as grace under pressure—grows from another kind of courage: inner courage. By inner courage, I mean the ground of quiet braveries from which the more visible braveries sprout. These are the ways of living and being that make bravery possible in the first place; not just as an event, but as an approach to life, as a way of life. We each have access to this indestructible ground, if we can face what comes our way with an open heart.
MC: You make the point several times that cancer diagnosis brings with it the deep fear of being snatched away too soon – and the sense of not having lived enough, or well enough. How did you react to that feeling and how has that realisation changed the way you live your life?
MN: While I was terrified that I would die and frightened of what I would have to go through to stay alive, I honestly never felt, “Why me?” It takes six million pollen grains to seed one peony. That’s how rare it is to be alive. Once I could accept the mystery and vitality of life’s vastness, I began to move beyond asking the unanswerable questions. I found myself stumbling and drifting into a renewable sense of being that has me give my all to every moment I find myself in. And so, while I plan and look forward to things, all my dreams came back to Now. I’ve discovered that Eternity is not an endless stretch of time, but rather the endless resource of life waiting in the center of every moment. If we can be present enough to taste it.
MC: In your ‘questions for walking’ you ask us to compare our fragility and vulnerability to something we see in nature, then have a conversation with it. Your own sense of nature comes across very strongly in the book, with some beautiful metaphors. Can you describe how it brings meaning and strength to your life?
MN: The Hindu phrase Upaguru means the teacher that is next to you this moment. And the Universe is filled with thousands of Upagurus, mostly in nature. From an early age, the Living Universe has spoken to me, not in words, but in metaphors, in how things relate to one another. When watching closely enough, I can see how the rain drops off a tired leaf to grow a puddle from which small birds drink. And that teaches me how the excess of what we endure might, in turn, be food for other life. This restores my hope that, without even trying, our ability to endure is helping others.
MC: You write about tending the relationship between writing (the life of expression) and living (the internal search for meaning) and how one continually affects the other. Can you tell us how that relationship was affected by your illness and to what extent it helped you to deal with the difficult times in your life?
MN: I would not be here, if not for a miracle, if not for a series of miracles. Every day when I wake, both death and life perch over my shoulders, and I get out of bed, simply glad to be here. In needing to survive, I’ve been forced to pare my life down to what is essential, and in doing that, I’ve been transformed, and along the way, my sense of writing and living has transformed as well. By expressing the truth of my experience, I found I wasn’t alone. By being truthful about how difficult this journey was, I was able to diminish the intensity of that difficulty. For what is not ex-pressed is de-pressed. The life of expression is healing because we are meant to have life move through us. It’s the exchange of life that is healing. We inhale and exhale. We open and close our eyes. We sleep and wake. And we must perceive and feel, internalize and express.
MC: In your lovely poem ‘For That’, you finish by saying that your goal is to live a thousand years, not in succession, but in every breath. Can you explain how surviving life-threatening illness has brought you to that point?
MN: Surviving—which to me means having the courage to work with what we’re given—removes everything extraneous from our lives. All that’s left is what is essential. So the way coal is pressurized into a diamond, crisis, if we can hold each other up as we move through it, reduces us to the gem we each are. This all brings me to a powerful insight offered late in life by a softened Nietzsche who said, “I want to see what is necessary as beautiful, so I can be one of those who makes things beautiful.”
MC: The spiritual richness and depths of this beautiful book can hardly be touched upon in just a few questions, so I would like to close by quoting your final poem:
The Sway of It All
And so I lift my face from the mud,
the mud of my past, the mud of history,
the thick and ragged bark of how we
think everyone but our own darkness
is the enemy, I lift my face like a worn
planet spinning on itself to get back
into the light, to say to no one, to
everyone – it is an honor to be alive
Thank you, Mark. It has been a privilege to read your book.
Meet the author: Mark Nepo moved and inspired readers and seekers around the world with his #1 New York Times bestseller The Book of Awakening. Beloved as a poet, teacher, and storyteller, Mark has been called ‘one of the finest spiritual guides of our time’, ‘a consummate storyteller’, and ‘an eloquent spiritual teacher’. He has published sixteen books and recorded eleven audio projects and his work has been translated into more than twenty languages. Mark has appeared several times with Oprah Winfrey on her Super Soul Sunday program on OWN TV, and has also been interviewed by Robin Roberts on Good Morning America.
Inside the Miracle
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cancer, health, illness, interview, issue 45