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The Exquisite Risk: Daring to Live an Authentic Life

The Exquisite Risk: Daring to Live an Authentic Life by Mark Nepo

Here are some of my favourite excerpts…

We cannot change the world by a new plan, project, or idea. We cannot even change other people by our convictions, stories, advice and proposals, but we can offer a space where people are encouraged to disarm themselves, lay aside their occupations and preoccupations and listen with attention and care to the voices speaking in their own center. —HENRI NOUWEN

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At a very early age, both the earth and the sea opened me to something deep inside that has carried me ever since. It was years before I had names for any of this, and after years of study in many spiritual traditions, I believe it is the simple, mysterious pulse of what is sacred. In these small childhood experiences of listening, I discovered a spiritual law: that we are both forced and drawn by everything larger than us to hear what is essential. Repeatedly, we are given chance after chance to stop and listen to all that is fundamental. When forced to our knees, we are offered the chance to hear the warmth in all that holds us up. When drawn into the rhythms of vastness that surround us, we are offered the chance to hear the waves of God’s voice, of which we are one, if we can leave the noise of others behind.

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When we can listen deeply, we are strengthened to feel that everything around us lives within us and that everything within us lives as part of the world. When we experience both the circumference and center of the circle of life at once, we are then in the larger Self, the Universal Self, as Carl Jung describes it.

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This falling down and emptying ourselves of noise so that we can hear the sacred pulse of things is at the heart of all the meditation practices invoked throughout the ages. Sooner or later, if we want to feel what it is to be alive in a Universe that is alive, we will have to empty ourselves, open our hearts, and listen. This emptying and opening and listening is the practice that allows us to hear that voice of God (whatever name you give to it) that resides in each of us. By listening with all of who we are, we are briefly illuminated, like stained glass; letting everything move through us in those privileged and enlightened moments. But how do we listen? It is so simple and so hard. So obvious to begin and so elusive to maintain. In this lies the vitality of deep listening. To keep beginning. Over and over. To keep emptying and opening. And simply to keep listening. For to listen is to continually give up all expectation and to give our attention, completely and freshly, to what is before us, not really knowing what we will hear or what that will mean. In the practice of our days, to listen is to lean in, softly, with a willingness to be changed by what we hear.

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So, this is not about bemoaning or rebelling against the gravities that keep our feet to the ground. Rather, I want to open a conversation about the pain and joy of being awake. I want to inquire into the personal practice of being authentic, of being fully here, of being human. I want to know how we as spirits, as walking pieces of divinity, can suffer our limitations with dignity and rejoice in the often gritty mystery of our humanness.

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It seems that, whether we are bankers or florists or mechanics, the work of wakefulness is not to drop what we do, but to inhabit it more completely, holding nothing back. Our task, then, is to live out the paradox of being opened and closed and to hold open the mysterious space in between.

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Death pushed me to the edge. Nowhere to back off. And to the shame of my fears, I danced with abandon in his face. I never danced as free. And Death backed off, the way dark backs off a sudden burst of flame. Now there’s nothing left but to keep dancing. It is the way I would have chosen had I been born three times as brave. That dance is what we’re here to explore. That dance is the vibrant, life-giving act of spirit and how it expresses us. Whether it appears as a cry of pain or a song of joy, this unseeable presence is the lifeblood of our health. As blood must circulate through a body for that body to be vital, as water must pass through the gills for a fish to stay alive, the dance of spirit must move through us if we are to know and feel our place in the mysterious scheme of things. For it is the dance of spirit that opens us to who we are. In this way, the act of being who we are is at the heart of staying well.

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The truth is that telling heals. Not just once, but as a way of being that filters the heart of its debris. In the way that ecosystems flush out the buildup of compost, storytelling is a God-given way to make an ecosystem of the heart, to flush out the buildup of scar tissue and compost that clogs our being. This is one fundamental purpose of human voice: to irrigate the heart dammed up with experience.

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Whether through the patterns left in snow, or geese honking in the dark, or through the brilliant wet leaf that hits your face the moment you are questioning your worth, the quiet teachers are everywhere, pointing us to the unlived portion of our lives. When we think we are in charge, the lessons dissolve as accidents or coincidence. But when we’re humble enough to welcome the connections, the glass that breaks across the room is offering us direction, giving us a clue to the story we are in.

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Basho’s small instruction reveals how human history has unfolded, with one pilgrim taking things apart and another putting them back together, and on and on. As Martin Luther King Jr. prophesied, “I believe what the self-centered have torn down, the other-centered will build up.”

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When we can connect to what lives both at the heart of our problems and at the heart of the problems of others, and listen to those connections, we become bridges to each other, the world, and to the spirit that informs everything. So, when we speak of integrity, we are speaking of how we care for the tender bridge between our innermost being and the common life of all beings.

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Kent Keith speaks to this simple calling in his poem “Anyway”: If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives; Be kind anyway . . . What you spend years building, someone could destroy overnight; Build anyway . . . The good you do today, people will Often forget tomorrow; Do good anyway. Give the world the best you have, and it may never be enough; Give the world the best you’ve got anyway. You see, in the final analysis, it is between you and God; It was never between you and them anyway.

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At the risk of oversimplifying history, I want to suggest that there are fundamentally two worldviews: one that emphasizes a belief in our connectedness, and one that accepts our disconnectedness and isolation. As ancestors of connectedness, indigenous peoples around the globe, especially Native Americans, have believed for centuries that everything is related to everything else. All parts are connected to each other, as well as to the Whole. All parts are, in fact, empowered by actualizing this relatedness. Here, being real becomes a struggle to inhabit our relatedness to everything living.

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Thus, the spiritually practical questions become: How can we stay integral? How can we stay true and real and aligned? That is, how can we make a practice of wearing down what thickens around our mind and heart? Well, to start with, by being honest in our openness and direct in our empathy, we can minimize what stands between us and our experience of life. In actuality, living as close to our experience as possible is what it means to be authentic, and it is arduous, so we need each other to do so. This is the purpose of love and friendship and spiritual practice.

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This is the purpose of faith: to believe that this current is there even though we can’t see it. And this is the purpose of will: to correct our inevitable drifting with a paddle here and a paddle there, not trying to do it all ourselves, but trying to restore our native position in the ancient and immediate current so it can carry us into tomorrow. This image also gives us a way to understand our humanness and our need for inner practice. For when a canoe drifts left or right, or gets stuck in the roots of an old willow, it is not wrong or evil or lacking in character. It is just being a canoe. Likewise, our rush to judge ourselves and others for what goes wrong, or not as we planned, is a distraction from engaging the nature of living, which is drifting and steering.

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Though we can’t see it, our life is carried in an open vessel that mystics have called the soul. Think of it as a canoe. Anyone who has been in a canoe or rowboat knows that if left alone, the boat will drift. In a stream or river, the current will carry us, but we need from time to time to paddle or row, to steer our way back to where the current is clear and strong. This gives us a way to understand our journey on earth. For at the center of the stream of life is the unstoppable current of Spirit, the energy of Oneness, that vital Original Presence that all beings have longed for. Some call it the Tao. Others call it the Holy Spirit. Jung called it the Unconscious. Native Americans call it Wakan-Tanka, the Great Spirit. And Buddhists call it Dharmakaya, the stream of suchness. Whatever name you give it, it never stops rushing or carrying whatever dares to enter it. We only have to find our way to the center of its pull and our strength will seem to double, and the journey will seem easier.

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In essence, we are here “to widen our circle of compassion” until we experience “that the center is everywhere.” Whatever we attend to with sincerity is in some way a service to this end: to deepen and to reach out, and to live in that common beat.

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The delicate way we are all connected cannot be overstated. The family therapist John Bradshaw uses the image of a mobile, saying that every family operates like a suspended sculpture of individual pieces tied together with string or wire. When one piece is touched or moved, the entire mobile shifts. Family dynamics are like this. Relational dynamics are like this. In truth, the family of existence is like this. Around the globe, what happens to one living thing impacts all living things. We are all suspended and connected in an intricate mobile called life.

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As the child psychiatrist James Comer observes, “Much of the trouble we attribute to our young really stems from their sense of separation from the larger world.”

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We are not alone in this perennial task to be who we are and stay connected. For every spiritual path asserts a belief that everything is connected through a net of influences that each path names differently. And every tradition acknowledges that it is our human struggle to hold on to this fundamental connection. The Native Americans are wise teachers in this, in how they believe that all things are related.

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It is not by accident that Native American medicine men put these questions to the sick who are brought to them: When was the last time you sang? When was the last time you danced? When was the last time you told your story? When was the last time you listened to the stories of others? It has always been clear that the life of our expression and the life of our stories are connected to our health.

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How we think about this matters. For falling down is not about failure, but about experiencing as many of life’s positions as possible. It is how we learn. And getting up is not about vanquishing or conquering an opponent or circumstance, but about not getting stuck in one of life’s innumerable valleys. The truth is that we can’t avoid falling down and getting up, any more than we can avoid forgetting and remembering. It is how we integrate, one experience at a time, our human with our being.

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It’s such a simple thing, but in a moment of ego we refuse to put down what we carry in order to open the door. Time and time again, we are offered the chance to truly learn this: We cannot hold on to things and enter. We must put down what we carry, open the door, and then take up only what we need to bring inside. Amanda’s note: this is circle.

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It was the beginning of spring. It was a sunny day and I went to the park and sat on a bench. I was one of many coming out from under our rocks to warm and lengthen. He was two benches down, a gentle older man staring off into the place between things, beyond any simple past, staring into the beginning or the end, it was hard to say. When he came up, our eyes met, and he knew I’d seen him journey there and back. There was no point in looking away, no point in pretending that we didn’t know each other. And so he shuffled over and sat beside me. The sun moved behind the one cloud and he finally said in half a quiver, “How can we go there together?” I searched my small mind for an answer. At this, he looked away and the sun came out and I realized: This is what the lonely sages of China were talking about, what the moon has whispered before turning full for centuries, what dancers leap for, what violinists dream after fevering their last note. But I was awkward and unsure. He stared, as if to search my will, and after several minutes, he just patted my hand and left. I watched him darken and brighten in the sun, and vowed to look in the folds of every cry for a way through, and hoped someday to meet him there. Ever since that day, I have understood his question as the heart of my own soul work and the work of our time: “How can we go there together?” For me, this old man brimming with eternity, patting my hand and walking on, helped me understand that this is the work of integration: to have our inner soul work meet our outer relational work. Indeed, how can we be who we are when no one is around and bring that holy presence everywhere?

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This leads us to a core paradox: how no one can live your life for you and yet we need each other to be whole and complete. How often we cycle through this struggle: fighting off the influence of others to discover and be who we truly are, and then fighting off the loneliness of such truth in order to feel the sweetness of belonging. Amanda’s note: reminds me about holons.

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Imagine that each of us is a spoke in an Infinite Wheel, and though each spoke is essential in keeping the Wheel whole, no two spokes are the same. Clearly, in a spoked wheel, the spokes separate as they each move out to support a different part of the rim. And clearly, they are all connected in a central hub that gives them the strength to form a wheel. We could say that the rim of that Wheel is our sense of community, family, and relationship, and the common hub where all the spokes join is the one center where all souls meet. So, as I move out into the world, I live out my uniqueness, but when I dare to look into my core, I come upon the one common center where all lives begin. In that center we are one and the same. In this way, we live out the paradox of being both unique and the same. For mysteriously and powerfully, when I look deep enough into you, I find me, and when you dare to hear my fear in the recess of your heart, you recognize it as your secret that you thought no one else knew. And that unexpected Wholeness that is more than each of us, but common to all—that moment of unity is the atom of God. The spoked wheel serves, then, as an image for how we are inextricably linked together. For without Spirit at the center or community as the rim, we find ourselves as unrelated and unsupported spokes drifting in time. We might cluster or gather around ideas or catastrophes, but we seldom discover our underlying relationship to each other and the world.

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Consider the genesis of wheat in Mesopotamia in roughly 4000 B.C. The humanitarian Lynne Twist tells us that, as different tribes began to meet and trade the single grains they grew, individual grains would spill and, quite naturally, the grains would mix and cross-pollinate. After enough trade, a mix of eight to twelve singular grains became the first form of wheat. This early form of agriculture serves as a model of relationship; a model for what happens when we spill into each other and share what we grow. When true dialogue and relationship take place, a form of spiritual wheat starts to appear as a common food, stronger than the individual grains of truth we know. It is this form of spiritual wheat that relationship and community can offer us. It’s interesting that the root of the word agriculture means “generative field.” And any time we lift up to bear each other and the space between, we enter that generative field that centuries have known as the art of relationship. Amanda’s note: reminds me of World Café.

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Compassion has always been the key to whether we understand each other or not. And so goes the world. Like so many things, this is old medicine, carried in timeless pouches we call stories.

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Of course, the broken landmark is the Tower of Babel, and it is well known that, shortly after this brick-carrier died, the now-heartless workers, pressed to finish someone else’s dream, decided to loot Heaven, upon which God confounded or confused their tongues. They instantly lost the ability to understand each other. The tower was never finished, and the human family, no longer able to speak to one another, dispersed across the earth. The medicine carried in this story tells us that the moment we value the brick over the person, we lose the ability to understand each other—we lose the privilege of a common language. And the moment we agree to build a dream we don’t believe in, for whatever reason, we become enslaved to the task.

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The medicine carried in this story tells us that the moment we dare to speak humbly and directly from our heart, we understand each other. The moment we speak from the truth of compassion, we speak the same language always waiting underneath our differences. The mystery here is that when we speak from the divine center of things, from our own understanding of God, things become one again. So we carry this in us, too: the possibility of Oneness. These are the deeper, perennial valuations: how to know when we begin to value the brick over the person, when we begin to get lost building someone else’s dream, when we slip into speaking different tongues, and how to put the brick down, how to make the dream ours again, how to find the one tongue God has given us. These are the things we need help with, again and again.

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So, when we find ourselves speaking a language no one seems to understand, or, more important, when we can’t seem to understand or feel anyone else, we need to ask, “What brick am I carrying, and has it become too important?” For the first step in regaining our ability to listen is to put that brick down. Then, magically, when we’re not distracted by our differences, the one language will return. For the broken landmark we all recognize, no matter how lost, is not a tower, but an openness of heart that says, Oh yes, we are of the same tribe. Finally, I am home.

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Experience is a river that never stops coming. Often, to survive experience and unlock its meaning, we need to empty ourselves so as not to become burdened and clogged. This need to unclog ourselves is something all beings have faced, and each culture has initiated its own form of practice to keep the inner pipes clean. In human terms, this means keeping current, as Angeles Arrien says. It means we must keep emptying conclusions, judgments, and preconceptions in order to meet whatever comes our way freshly. If we don’t empty and stay current, our heart can become thick and less vital, a narrow version of itself. Amanda’s note: reminds me of The Work.

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For thousands of years we have gathered in circle— around fires, around bodies, around altars— because we can’t do this alone. —WAYNE MULLER

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It amazes me and humbles me where staying true leads us. It does not keep us from hurting others. It does not keep us from knowing change and pain. But it does keep us close to the miracle of being, which gives us the strength of compassion to hold each other through the hurt and change and pain. I will never know the whole of it. I only know that the heart, like a wing, is of no use tucked, and distrust in the world, like an eye swollen shut, stops the work of love.

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When everyone brings what they have, everyone has enough. —WAYNE MULLER

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It’s clear now that this is how the wounded find their way, and since we are all wounded, this is how we find each other. Every survivor, regardless of what they survive, knows the hammering of the sea, and the rock we find refuge on is an exposed place where we finally accept each other; too tired from swimming to think any longer about territories; too tired to talk except through simple touch. And in that sweet, exhausted landing, no words are necessary. We can tell with the simplest of unguarded looks who has been jarred awake and who carries the gratitude that now opens the mystery of our kinship.

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This inherent equality is beautifully expressed by an elder from the Achuar tribe of Ecuador, one of the oldest indigenous peoples of South America. When offered the help of benevolent Westerners, he said respectfully: If you’ve come to help me, you’re wasting your time. If you’ve come because your liberation is tied up with mine, then we can work together.

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Yet, while happiness is the bud opening on the branch, joy is feeling the entire tree—feeling the root lengthen as the bud opens. And so joy is feeling Heaven on Earth.

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We are human instruments and experience plucks our strings and our feelings are the notes. If we don’t sing them open, they build up and batter the heart from the inside out—till we explode. So it’s never been about singing well, just singing. This is the difference between entertainment and staying alive. This is B.B.’s true gift. Of course, he’s a master musician, but underneath that, he is a master at singing the blues, at feeling truth until it opens to joy—a master at staying alive. This is what every oppressed people, at the heart of their music and poetry and story and art, have to teach us.

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The Sufi poet Ghalib declared that “for the raindrop, joy is entering the lake.” Indeed, isn’t this the purpose of searching, to become one with things? And isn’t joy, then, the sensation that overcomes us as we experience Oneness? And let’s talk about peace. A contemporary poet, Elizabeth Goldman, remarks that “peace is a sensation, a cup resting in its given sphere.” Isn’t this the purpose of being? Isn’t peace, then, a feeling of true placement, a sense of arriving in moments of right relationship to the universe, when we fit lightly and securely into the space of our lives?

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Consider what Osho says about being a master: The Master is not a master over others, but a master of him or herself. And so welcomes others not because he or she wants to lead them, but because together, they create an energy field that supports each unique individual in finding his or her own light.

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It comes through in spite of our constant misperceptions. Rob Lehman puts it this way: “The great blind spot in human history is that we so often see life as separate and alien when it is truly being woven together in love. It is the occasional glimpse of this weaving that the Christian calls Christ Consciousness, and the Buddhist, Enlightenment.”

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The boy is eager to show him and turns the map of the world over, saying, “On the back was a picture of a person, Father. I put the person back together and then turned it over and the world was back together!” This simple story carries the profound wisdom that when we put ourselves back together, we put the world back together. That each of our unfathomable journeys is a torn piece in the living puzzle that is the world. That each time we take the exquisite risk toward being whole, toward living in the open, toward recognizing and affirming that we are, at heart, each other, we put the world back together. The truth is that each of our struggles matters, and we need each other to turn the story of our lives over to see how they so beautifully go together. Isn’t all our work about the picture of the person and the picture of the world and how the thousand torn pieces wait to be joined?

 

 

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