Life is filled with hardships, but change doesn’t come from being comfortable. It comes from overcoming the challenges we face in life and how we deal with them. In his new book, Inside the Miracle: Enduring Suffering, Approaching Wholeness, spiritual teacher Mark Nepo presents a collection of poems and essays that reveal deep insight into the human spirit. Mark explains how our suffering is the door to becoming a stronger, more authentic version of ourselves.
For anyone struggling with a difficult transition, Nepo’s powerful advice can help to unlock the inner strength that lies within, and to confidently face difficult challenges. Here is an excerpt from Inside The Miracle: “How To Protect Ourselves By Being Who We Are.”
Like so many of life’s deepest truths, we seldom experience our gifts and trials separately. A profound treatment of all this is René Magritte’s eerie painting—“The Therapist”—of a faceless man whose chest is an open cage with a white bird perched peacefully in the cage, not flying, though the cage remains open.
If we can see the white bird perched in its open cage as our inner heart facing the world, we are left with this quandary: Is the bird free at last and incapable of exercising its long-awaited freedom? Or, finally seeing with the eyes of inner freedom, is the bird surprised that there is nowhere to go; that what was a cage for so long is really its nest, its home; that freedom is in the heart’s eye all along?
We’re brought back to risk, to the question of how to protect ourselves by being who we are. We are so steeped in skepticism and distrust in our age that this simple truism might seem like an outright contradiction. In his poem, “Self-Protection,” D. H. Lawrence affirms the power and durability of living by our own light when he declares that creatures that hide their essential nature have all become extinct and only those who live in outright splendor like the tiger and the nightingale have survived:
A nightingale singing at the top of his voice
Is neither hiding himself nor preserving himself;
He is giving himself away in every sense of the word;
And obviously, it is the culminating point of his
existence . . .
A personal example of this oscillation between cage and bird is what I felt in the throes of my cancer experience. In moments of fear my illness became the oppressive bars of my cage. But inexplicably, I was somehow thrust deeper into the freedom of my inner heart, where I realized, like Magritte’s white bird, that despite my fear, there was nowhere else to go—illness and all. This life was and is my nest, my home. From that feathery spirit’s perch between my eyes, other psychological bars dropped from view. The urgency of my illness—the sudden prospect of not existing anymore—made visible my luxuries of denial and projection and procrastinating, and my need to sing and give myself away, no matter how softly, became ever-present, opening Now.
The song, to my surprise, even when no one else could hear it, began to melt the bars, and those that didn’t melt split and sagged and reformed into the bent branches of my life. Amazing and mysterious yet true—the bird, if allowed to sing shapes its tree.
Now that I am well—my cage door blown open, my cage bars now revealed as the forest I have come from—all moments of living, no matter how difficult, come back into me, into some central point that opens like that unseeable eye that Jesus speaks of. Now light pours in and out at once, and I realize that this moment, whatever it might be, is a fine moment to live and a fine moment to die.
Full of light, everything happens at once—not pain-free, but unencumbered. I’m surprised to discover that loving yourself is like feeding a clear bird no one else can see. You must be still and offer your palmful of secrets like delicate seed. As she eats your secrets, no longer secret, she glows and you lighten and her voice, which only you can hear, is your voice bereft of plans. And the light through her body will bathe you till you wonder why the gems in your palm were ever fisted. Others will think you crazed to wait on something no one sees. But the clear bird only wants to feed and fly and sing. She only wants light in her belly. And once in a great while, if someone loves you enough, they might see her rise from the nest beneath your fear.
Adapted from Inside the Miracle: Enduring Suffering, Approaching Wholeness by Mark Nepo. Copyright © 2015 by Mark Nepo. To be published in November 2015 by Sounds True.
About 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, including Seven Thousand Ways to Listen (Atria), which won the 2012 Books for a Better Life Award. 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. He lives in Michigan. Please visit marknepo.com.