by Mark Nepo
Both Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo left a trail of unfinished art greater than anyone else in modern history. Still, they are regarded as two of the most talented artists who ever lived. They are extraordinary examples of how the journey of expression is more important than the final product.
William Blake is another inspiring example. Toward the end of his life, Blake endeavored to illustrate Dante’s Divine Comedy, the medieval epic poem that follows Dante’s transformative journey through Hell and Purgatory into Paradise. Blake created 102 watercolors, planning to engrave them all, but he only had time to begin seven.
More than his immense effort to create art, Blake’s innate devotion was to immerse himself deeply in the thickest currents of life. Though he couldn’t finish engraving his illustrations, I imagine that, at some point, the life-force Blake was so devoted to began engraving him. What more can any of us ask for but to be created by the very thing we feel compelled to create? This is where the holy work of effort leads, regardless of its trail.
Recently, while in London, I stood before one of Blake’s illustrations. It was a sketch of Dante on his knees, drinking from the River of Light, which descended from somewhere unseen like a waterfall. In this sketch, drawn three years before his death, Blake brought into being a portrait of himself. As I stood before it, over two hundred years later, I knew in my heart it was a portrait of me as well, and of every writer and teacher who ever lived.
For when we express, when we let out what is in, regardless of how, we are drinking from the River of Light. And that act, that devotion, allows us to glimpse the fabric of the Universe and the web of connection that holds life together. Glimpsing this, we are forever enlivened.
When I write, I’m only trying to reach the River of Light that informs all life and to drink from it, so I can be a conduit for life-force in the world. When I teach, I’m only trying to bring those who are willing to the River of Light, where we can drink and look at each other through awakened eyes. For I firmly believe that all forms of expression and education are meant to awaken the love that is possible in the world.
And so, you don’t have to work to find what is lasting and enlightened. You simply have to open your heart and let what’s there flow. The rest will follow. Expression will find you. For water finds water, light finds light, feelings find meaning, and love finds love.
The Life of Expression
As no one can live without inhaling and exhaling, no one can live without feeling and expressing. The life of expression is how the heart breathes and how our spirit grows in the life that carries it.
As meditation is an ancient art that deepens our relationship to how we breathe, writing is an ancient art that deepens our relationship to all that matters. And just as the reward for practicing meditation is not that we’ll become great breathers but that we’ll become clear vessels of life-force, the reward for practicing a personal form of expression is not that we’ll become great writers but that such practice will help us wake closer to life.
I want to affirm from the outset that this inquiry into the life of expression is not just about writing but the unnamable process under all art forms — the process of perceiving and feeling our way into life. And more than whatever we might create, the value of inhabiting this timeless process resides in how it helps us come alive by staying in conversation with life. So, while the examples and stories from different fields of creativity help to reveal this process, Drinking from the River of Light is not just for writers and artists but for anyone intent on staying close to the pulse of life.
As one form of expression, writing, whatever form it takes — poetry, story, memoir, or reflection — is a personal and necessary conversation with the Universe. And while there are many outstanding books that focus on craft and language, Drinking from the River of Light focuses on the irrepressible aspects of expression, how the forces of life enter us and leave us, and what they do to us on their way through. The exercises throughout are intended to introduce you to the skills of vision, perception, feeling, and articulation, which are the veins and arteries by which Spirit moves between us and the world. Whether we consider ourselves artists or not, we perceive and express as a way to extract what is essential to live.
“More than whatever we might create, the value of inhabiting this timeless process resides in how it helps us come alive by staying in conversation with life”
Retrieving this book has allowed me to shape and share a lifetime of inquiry about the life of expression. It has given me the chance to explore the art and practice of writing as a means to unfold our spiritual growth.
The book began as a popular, two-day intensive workshop offered at the 2013 and 2014 Sounds True Wake Up Festivals. Since then, I have evolved that workshop into this book, which focuses on how bearing witness to the truth of living reveals the mysteries of life. As the journey unfolds, you will be invited to explore the paradox of effort and grace, and to personalize the life-force that comes through the creative process. As you become more familiar with your own voice, you will be introduced to the expressive work of being.
Over the years, I have come upon many basic human truths by way of metaphors and stories. They are quiet teachers that have come to me through listening, writing, and reading. I have tried to sit at their feet and work with them. I assemble many of them in the book to unfold what I’ve learned and, in many cases, to pursue what I have yet to learn and to work with them further. While each at the time preoccupied my attention, I see now that they point to one essential theme — the recurrence of images that educate the heart.
For authentic, truthful expressions help us make the journey from our head to our heart. When we can surface without masks and stay in conversation with life, these essential expressions arrive with their wisdom. In this way, I retrieve poems more than create them. They become my guides. They become my inner curriculum. By listening to them, I learn and grow. And when I listen, I’m drawn to what I need to learn.
This way of learning is available to us all as we meet and learn from the moments of our lives. And so, I invite you to perceive and express your way through Drinking from the River of Light, to write your way through the topics and the stories by way of a journal. To help with this process, I offer “invitations” at the end of each chapter, which include prompts to write and to be in conversation with a friend or loved one. For conversation — the art and practice of truly listening to ourselves and each other — is a restorative mode of reflection. In essence, conversation is an agile and ever-present means of healing that is always very near. If you’re not in a place to converse with another, you can have that conversation with yourself, in your journal, on a walk, or at a café.
After all these years, I realize that, when fully present, what matters moves through us the way air moves through an open window. And being such a window is growthful for anyone. For when we practice our own authentic, open form of expression, we all become artists. For any art form or hands-on endeavor, devoted to in earnest, will reveal the same dynamic center at the heart of all expression. However we are drawn into it, the deeper dimension of the creative, expressive process will animate our soul. When moved to drink from the River of Light, we start to glow.
As the sculptor Henry Moore affirmed, “To be an artist is to believe in life.” Drinking from the River of Light is intended to enliven your belief in life. My hope is that this journey will touch into the miraculous depth of being that is always just below whatever you carry, and that you’ll return to your life having discovered and deepened a very personal form of expression that you can walk with in your days.
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Mark Nepo is a poet and philosopher who has taught in the fields of poetry and spirituality for over 40 years. A #1 New York Times 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.
Excerpted from Drinking From the River of Light: The Life of Expression by Mark Nepo, published by Sounds True, paperback (314 pages).
Also by Mark Nepo:
The Book of Awakening: Having the Life You Want by Being Present to the Life You Have (20th Anniversary Edition), with a foreword by Jamie Lee Curtis, published by Red Wheel, paperback, (456 pages).