The Power of Community: An Interview with Mark Nepo

by Stephen Gawtry

This interview first appeared in Watkins Mind Body Spirit, issue 55.

Stephen Gawtry: What first brought the importance of community to your attention?

Mark Nepo:    Thirty-one years ago, I almost died from cancer. That raw and vulnerable journey tossed me into an urgent community of loved ones and kind strangers. Without their care, I wouldn’t be here. In a felt way, I experienced the power and spirit of community then. It was ten years later that I began to wonder about the lineage of human beings working well together. And so, I began to collect stories, both contemporary and historical, searching for the lessons in them that we can rely on today.

SG:      The title of the book, More Together than Alone, implies that humans are stronger together. Where did the title come from and can you give any examples of the pathways that can bring us together?

MN:    It was Plato who said, “We are born whole, but we need each other to be complete.” This brings us to a great and fundamental paradox in life, which is that no one can live your life for you and yet no one can make it alone. And so, in every generation, we discover through great love and great suffering that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts; that, in essence, we are more together than alone. A few ongoing efforts that can bring us together include:

  • To remember that we’re not separate from those we try to help.
  • To enter the smallest task wholeheartedly with an awareness of the Whole of Life.
  • To meet the outer life with our inner life.
  • To engage the world beyond the dualistic press of history.
  • To commit to participating in life and not just watching.
  • To have the courage to bear witness to how things come together with the same urgency as we bear witness to how things fall apart.

SG: The book includes stories and lessons from across cultures and history that reveal moments of community, as well as the qualities of being and relationship that bring people together. Do you have a favourite story that captures the essence of community?

MN: There are so many, but one of my favourite stories is how Lorenzo de’ Medici responded to brutality and tragedy by trying to build a better world. It was his gathering of the greatest minds and artists of his day, by creating the Medici Circle, that began the Italian Renaissance.

To tell his story briefly, imagine that your father builds a church that you grow up praying in. And one day, while praying with your eyes closed, you are stabbed in that same church. While bleeding, you watch your brother die. In the starkness of your grief, you hang those who betrayed you. And you begin again, trying to make sense of a world where we can be killed where we pray. Imagine that you carry the loss around for years like a pill you’re supposed to take but don’t. Until one day, you swallow it all and open your home to the greatest minds of your time. You seek out the greatest artists you can find and bring them home to live with you, and give them everything so they might build a better world.

This is the story of Lorenzo de’ Medici of Florence. And his great lesson is that we don’t have to become what is done to us. His great warning is that we’re always capable of both, of destroying the world out of vengeance and of creating a new world out of loss.

Lorenzo’s tragedy began when, with the pope’s support, rival papal bankers in Florence began to plot against the Medici family. And so, the Pazzi conspiracy was set in motion. On Sunday, April 26, 1478, during High Mass at the Duomo Cathedral in Florence, the Medici brothers were attacked before a crowd of 10,000. Giuliano, who was twenty-five, was stabbed nineteen times by Bernardo di Bandino Baroncelli and Francesco de’ Pazzi. As his brother bled to death on the cathedral floor, Lorenzo escaped with serious wounds.

The assassins were caught and within the hour, 120 conspirators were captured, and, at Lorenzo’s command, eighty were hanged. The horrific loss had Lorenzo re-examine what to do with his life and his wealth. He discovered that the journey is both grace-filled and bloody. But how we respond to brutality is what saves the world. And so, Lorenzo created his circle of thinkers and artists, committed to helping them birth their extraordinary gifts. Without Lorenzo protecting the gestation of their talents from the difficult aggressions of the world, the Renaissance may not have happened. Yet Lorenzo didn’t shield them from the harsher realities. Because of his losses, he wanted the full paradox of life to inform their work.

Pico was a genius at the heart of the Medici Circle. At twenty-three, he spoke sixteen languages and proposed a conference to explore the unity of religion, philosophy, nature, and magic, for which he wrote nine hundred theses. These essays formed his Oration on the Dignity of Man.

Years after Lorenzo was stabbed in church and saw his brother die, Pico paused in reflection, in the center of the circle Lorenzo had created. Trying to make sense of all we’re given and all that’s taken away, the young thinker looked at Lorenzo and said, “Friendship is the end of all philosophy.” I love this story because it affirms that we don’t have to become what is done to us. And this is at the heart of all community.

SG: Is there a recurring pattern or idea that surfaces across the many stories you have found?

MN: Yes, most stories, across all cultures throughout history, lift up the fact that when things are difficult, fear makes us think that self-interest will protect us, while great love and great suffering affirm that we are more together than alone.

SG: Why is our sense of community dependent on our foundational understanding of life?

MN: Because our foundational understanding of life determines whether we seek each other out or push each other away. When we extrapolate our pain, suffering, and fear into a worldview, we distrust life, experience, and each other. When we accept that life includes our experience but is not defined solely by what we go through, we are open to the fact that we need each other. Which place we start from makes all the difference. All the spiritual traditions seek for us to join in order to survive and thrive.

For example, the Native American Diné tribe, named by the white man as Navajo, say that seeking wholeness is personal, an individual journey, while seeking harmony is transpersonal, a communal journey. And the notions of Ahimsa, Ren, and the Beloved Community are forms of connection that awaken the social self. These Hindu, Chinese, and African-American traditions offer foundational understandings of life that make community possible. Ahimsa means “to cause no harm or injury,” while Ren means “benevolence,” “human kindness,” or “what ties one to another.” And Martin Luther King, Jr.’s notion of a Beloved Community can be traced back to the African notion of Ubuntu, which means “a person is a person through other persons.” These are just a few, but these foundational understandings are what hold community together.

SG: You say that by going it alone we tend to guard against the harshness of life, defining things negatively by what they are not and thereby missing out on the strength in defining things by what they are. Can you give an example of this?

MN: In our ongoing struggle to resolve and repair racism, desegregation is not the same thing as integration. Martin Luther King, Jr. felt strongly that stopping segregation by itself, though necessary, would only produce “a society where men are physically desegregated and spiritually segregated, where elbows are together and hearts are apart. It gives us social togetherness and spiritual apartness. It leaves us with a stagnant equality of sameness rather than a constructive equality of oneness.”

If we are to grow, we have to do more than stop violence and prejudice. We have to commit to understanding their opposites in our hearts, and accept each other as part of a global family. Any true sense of community resides in staying committed to exploring and upholding what we are, as opposed to railing only against what we are not.

SG: You say that if we are to grow and make our way together, we have to do more than stop violence and prejudice. What else should we do?

MN: In every family, in every nation, in every age, we are constantly challenged to rediscover and practice the timeless skills of listening, empathy, and acting out of abundance and not scarcity. When enlivened, these human strengths resurrect our sense of cooperation and fairness.

Primatologist Frans de Waal has seen that bonobos and chimpanzees have an inborn sense of fairness. If two chimps are given equal rewards for a task, they will perform that task without question. But should one be given a grape, which is valued more than a cucumber, the one given the cucumber will become enraged.

Chimps demonstrate a sense of fairness about how they are treated, but bonobos demonstrate a sense of fairness regarding others, which chimps seem incapable of. A bonobo given the more valued grape will not continue a task until the other bonobo is given the same. Bonobos are imprinted with this awareness of the plight of others, perhaps with the primal DNA of social justice. The disturbing question is: What happens to humans that interferes with our awareness of the plight of others? What allows us to continue when we know that those beside us are not being treated fairly?

SG: You mention that “there is molecular and biological evidence of our Oneness and how our very presence influences each other, how being influences being”. What is that evidence and what are its ramifications?

MN: If you place two living heart cells, taken from different people, in a petri dish, they will, over time, find a third common beat. We can draw vitality and strength from this glimpse into the fabric of life, which affirms that we have an innate call to find each other and join. We could say this is the genetic basis for our impulse toward community. Hardship makes us forget our impulse to join, when we simply need to keep each other company during life’s surprising journey. We can see the impulse and need to join everywhere. Like white blood cells rushing to the site of an injury, people in the modern world are gathering around different injuries to help each other heal.  This has manifest in the modern network of recovery groups, healing circles, and lay spiritual communities.

It has been shown that a community with a close-knit web of connections has a lower rate of heart disease. This is called the Roseto effect, named for a town in Pennsylvania that had an unusually low rate of heart disease. At the time, Roseto was an Italian community with strong family ties and a long immigrant history. From 1954 to 1961, the men of Roseto had nearly no heart attacks. All other factors being the same in nearby communities, Roseto’s good health was attributed to an active caring community.

Carl Jung also believed that the inner work of individuation informs healthy community building. When individuated and transformed, we’re more capable of true relationship. The more congruent we are individually, the healthier our connections with others. The more authentic and whole we are, the more we discover that third common beat that exists between us. 

SG: You also say that when people meditate together, their brain waves quickly harmonize, and that when a newcomer joins the group their brain waves also harmonize with the group, suggesting that “intimacy is a catalyst for the experience of Oneness”. What does this imply and how might we learn from it?

MN: All of this implies that there is a unified field of presence, very near to each of us, that ranges from atoms to cells to souls. The crucial question, then, is: How do we relate to this field of presence? How do we tap into its energy and resources? One ancient and timeless way is that we experience connection and Oneness through kindness. In addition to strengthening the integrity of our relationships, kindness allows us to embody life-force and experience Oneness. It is no mistake that kindness has the same root as the word kinship. It was the Chinese philosopher Mencius who said that, as water allowed its true nature will always flow to and join other water, human beings, allowed their true nature, will always flow to help each other and join. So, we are always faced with surmounting our fear, restoring our trust, and reaching to each other in kindness and cooperation. 

SG: When I first read that writing and researching the book took a fifth of your life, I thought, “how come it took so long?” After several weeks of immersing myself in it and trying to extract coherent questions from its vast richness and immensity of ideas, I began to wonder how you’d pulled off so much in so little time. Were there occasions when, like one of Gary Larson’s cartoon schoolchildren with a small head, you asked to be excused because your brain was full?

MN: Oh yes! Retrieving this book has been very different than my other books, which is why it took so many years. Entering the vastness of this topic was overwhelming at times and often felt like breaking trail up the side of a mountain, hoping for the view at the top, but often losing my way. I would work on it for six months or so and then, exhausted and filled with questions, I would stop and work on another book for a while. I would dive in and come up for air repeatedly over the years. This is my twentieth book and, honestly, this is the only book, which halfway through, I thought I might not finish. Key to moving forward was accepting that I was always on the edge of my own understanding. And so, by staying true to the journey, this book has been a great teacher.

SG: How does a healthy, social network foster a sense of strong belonging?

MN: Psychologist Clarissa Pinkola Estes tells the story of an old man who on his deathbed calls all his loved ones to his side. He gives each a short, sturdy stick and instructs each to break it. They do so with ease and he remarks that this is how it is when the soul is alone. He then gives out more sticks and asks them to put their sticks together in a bundle. Then, he asks them to break the bundle. They can’t, which causes him to smile and say, “When we stay together, we can’t be broken.”

SG: As you rightly point out, many of us, when asked who we are, will respond with what we do or what we aspire to be, as if our identity is measured by accomplishment and ambition. Why do you think we do this – and does it have anything to do with a fear of losing our individuality?

MN: I think that our drive to be secure and to be validated leads us to define who we are by external means, by what we accomplish or not. Though the things that matter, that help us thrive, are defined by connection and inner experience. I experienced this first-hand during my cancer journey. In the many treatment rooms and support groups, it didn’t matter what we did for a living or what we accomplished. We often didn’t even know each other’s last names. But we couldn’t have been more integral or trustworthy, as we literally helped each other face death and live.

SG: As you show in the book, tribal people are not fixated on their role or accomplishments and that as humans, we are at our healthiest when we’re informed by who we are, rather than what we do. How can we restore that wider, deeper perspective of traditional societies that lets us know ourselves as part of a larger, living interdependent whole?[span2]In every generation, we discover through great love and great suffering that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts; that, in essence, we are more together than alone.[/span2]

MN: A perennial challenge in community is to stay open to more than our own opinions so we don’t wall out what might save us. We’re called to open our minds and hearts beyond the limits of our assumptions and conclusions. We’re asked to trust in our common good, beyond our personal wounds and preferences.

We can restore that wider, deeper perspective by:

  • recognizing that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts
  • investing in a humility that lets us see beyond ourselves
  • believing that truth resides in more than one capacity, in more than just the mind, the heart, the intuition, or the gift of questioning
  • believing that the path to peace resides in more than just one person, organization, way of thinking, tradition, or generation
  • educating ourselves and our children in the sacred skills of listening, dialogue, and collaboration, and
  • committing to create environments, systems, and institutions that are greenhouses for awakened leadership and respectful community engagement.

SG: What are the timeless, relational skills that help us keep each other company?

MN: The effort to make other conditions our own, the effort to find authentic connection and intimacy, the effort to retain our identity and individual freedom, the effort to create a healthy social sense of belonging, the effort to face who we are and be who we are in the presence of others, the effort to have our relationships (and not what we do) define who we are, the effort to undo our human-centered, privileged view, and the effort to restore an encompassing perspective of life.

SG: If, as many people think, the idea of a global or ‘Beloved Community’ is too high an aspiration, what should we be aiming for?

MN: Though we many never attain a Beloved Community, everything that matters depends on our commitment to keep reaching. It was Sir Thomas More who first used the word utopia in his 1516 book by the same name. In it, an explorer visits the island of Utopia, which means “Nowhere Land,” a land that can’t exist and yet is a land worth looking for. In More’s Utopia, all things are owned in common, there is universal education for men and women, and religious differences are celebrated. While this has always seemed impossible, it’s worth the effort to try to live together in this way. The commitment to aim for our common good is a covenant of humanity.

So, if the creation of a Beloved Community seems daunting, what matters is the kindness we live out in trying to find it. What matters is the commitment to aim for our common good. The Beloved Community as we imagine it may not exist, but it’s a land worth looking for. Perhaps the heart of the Beloved Community is realized by how we live together along the way.

SG: What is ‘The One Water’ and what does it represent?

MN: All life depends on water. As such, access to water has become a universal right in the world, regardless of faith, country, privilege, or poverty. Throughout the world, in a legal and common law way, people, corporations, and countries have access to water, but no one owns the water. What this means is that if a river passes through your land, you can use it, but not divert it, dam it, stop its flow, or damage its purity as it passes through your land to another.

This says a great deal about our responsibility as guardians of what passes through our care. It says that the deepest resources are not ownable, but shared and passed on. As such, we can easily equate water with Spirit, wisdom, and the communal ways of being. We can also call that deeper stream which no one owns, the common good. For all life depends on the common good, which passes like a river through the land of our care. The One Water represents the common good, that which we all depend on, which no one owns.

SG: What is ‘The Seeing Place’ and what can it help us perceive?

MN: The word theatre comes from a Greek word meaning “the seeing place.” It implies a fundamental law that we often resist: that wisdom is accessible only when we live out the drama of our experience. This embodied path is the seeing place from which, through which, we can know the secrets of living, and living together. We can only go so far by conceptualizing or watching. The truth is that we must live what we’re given, singly and together, if the heart is to find and inhabit its place in relation to other life.

SG:In a nutshell, can you tell us the wonderful story of Tadodarho, the dark warrior, and the Great Tree of Peace?

MN:    This is the story of the five Iroquois Nations, known as “the people of the longhouse.” They include the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca. For decades, these tribes were in vengeful conflict with each other. It was the most violent period in Iroquois history, with one brutal act leading to another. Legend has it that the Great Spirit contemplated beginning again, the way God in the Western tradition sent Noah to survive the great flood. Instead, the Great Spirit sent a peacemaker to forge a lasting truce among the nations. This took place around 1570.

Tadodarho was an evil warrior who resisted the peacemaker with his entire being. Nothing could persuade Tadodarho to accept the notion of peace. Finally, the peacemaker gathered forty-nine true warriors and together they worked on opening the mind of Tadodarho. Eventually, the dark warrior couldn’t resist and he accepted the notion of peace. It was then that the peacemaker offered Tadodarho a special role in the years to come. Because he knew the heart of violence so intimately, Tadodarho was asked to watch for the signs of violence growing in others. And Tadodarho was asked to guard the fire of peace and to keep it burning on behalf of the five nations. With his heart fully opened, Tadodarho agreed.

This part of the story represents the eternal argument between the peacemaker within us and the vengeful, hurtful one, the Tadodarho within us. Often, we need a safe place to put down our weapons, so we can summon the forty-nine voices of love to work on the vengeful one who lingers in our darkness.

Once Tadodarho agreed to be the firekeeper of the peace, the peacemaker gathered the chiefs and warriors of the five nations. He saw how hard their hearts were as they gripped their bloodied weapons. So he brought them to the oldest tree he could find. It was an ancient white pine. And with the help of the Great Spirit, he uprooted the tree without harming it and told all the chiefs and warriors to bury their weapons in the unearthed hole of the ancient tree. They all resisted until Tadodarho put his weapons in the hole first. Then one by one the chiefs and warriors followed.

The peacemaker then replanted the tree over the buried weapons and placed an eagle to live atop the white pine, so no one would forget the Great Tree of Peace. In time, the muscular roots grew into place around the decomposing weapons, not letting them surface back into the world. In time, the mulch of the buried weapons fed the roots of peace. And Tadodarho, the evil one turned firekeeper, spent the rest of his days watching over the Great Tree of Peace.

Each time around, we need to bury our weapons under our common roots. Each time we’re tempted toward vengeance, we need to listen to the forty-nine voices of love until they turn the vengeful one within us into a firekeeper of peace.

SG: What’s the difference between shared values and shared humanity?

MN: Shared values are based on agreements that come from the head. They form the basis of culture. But it’s our shared humanity that is the basis of community. Our shared humanity is rooted in the honest and caring acknowledgment of our first-hand experience. In truth, the ways in which we meet without pretense are the ways we strengthen the bonds that hold us together.

SG: Why is the heart like the great Baobab tree?

MN: In Africa, the great Baobab tree grows in the center of certain villages. An ancient myth says that the gods planted the first Baobab trees upside down so the roots would grow in the open. It’s believed that ancestor spirits live inside the Baobab tree. The long fruit grows from the roots and has a sweet fiber. It’s believed that if you eat the fruit of the Baobab when in pain, you will feel our connection to everything. Every spring, the elders of the village make pilgrimage to sit in the hollow of the Baobab tree to hear the voices of the ancestors. Some say this is where the stories go to live once they are told. And those who find the courage to sit in the hollow of the Baobab tree are filled with the truth and heart of all who have come before.

On an elemental level, a level of necessity, spiritual courage involves facing our humanity, with all its messiness and frailty, without turning away, until, like those who sit in the hollow of the Baobab tree, we begin to experience the common source of all humanity. Then we do not sort who will or will not belong to our community, we enlist everyone.

The truth is that the heart is like the great Baobab tree. Through the heart’s open-air roots we grow our consciousness, and through the heart’s fruit, we sweeten the world. When we do good, our capacity for connection reveals itself. When we endure others without subjugating ourselves to abuse or violence, we create a larger home in which all are welcome. Being wholehearted, we are strengthened by the mysterious fact that we are all that we touch and all that enters us, matured by each.

SG: And finally, what, for you, is the power of community?

MN:    In the heart of it all, we are both irrepressible and uncontainable, compelled to find our way and compelled to help each other through. Perhaps, the power of community comes down to this: taking turns being blind and sighted as we tumble through all life has to offer, surviving the ruins, clearing the rubble, and learning to read the signs of life as we help each other up, again and again.

And why tend all this? Because somewhere another child is being born who will ask us things we don’t yet know, and we must have some sense of how to account for our time on Earth. As the forgiveness researcher Robert Enright has said, “We need to prepare the hearts of the children for the conflicts they will inherit.”

MARK NEPO is the author of twenty books, including Things That Join the Sea and Sky, The One Life We’re Given, Inside the Miracle, Seven Thousand Ways to Listen, The Endless Practice, and the #1 New York Times bestseller, The Book of Awakening. His work has been translated into more than twenty languages. Mark travelled the country with Oprah Winfrey on her sold-out 2014 “The Life You Want” tour and has appeared several times with Oprah on her Super Soul Sunday program.




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