Mark Nepo’s latest book is called The One Life We’re Given: Finding the Wisdom That Waits in Your Heart. It explores how our hard work and authenticity ready us for meaning and grace in our lives, and how our sincerity and effort help us survive and thrive. For several decades, Mark has taught poetry and philosophy and is a renowned storyteller. His writing and teaching is devoted to the journey of inner transformation and the life of relationship. His #1 New York Times bestseller The Book of Awakeningwas translated into twenty languages. Mark was part of Oprah Winfrey's The Life You Want Tour in 2014 and has appeared several times with Oprah on her Super Soul Sunday program on OWN TV. I spoke to this wise and giftedpoet when he was recently in New York about where he finds himself on his own wisdom journey. 

Mark Matousek:  What is the role of gratitude in spiritual life?

Mark Nepo:  The original meaning of the word “appreciate” means to move toward what is precious. Practicing gratitude is a type of leaning in towards being truly present. It’s a practice that reengages our aliveness—that awakens us to what is precious. Gratitude is at the heart of reciprocity; it’s the atom of relationship.

MM:  And how does this awareness affect daily your life?

MN:  It affects my “practice of return”, as I like to call it. Waking me when I fall asleep, being sensitive when I’m numb, reminding me that I need to be visible and let people know they are visible as well. When I go out to eat, I’m very aware when the waiter or waitress comes over and refills my water. They’re not invisible. I stop, look at them and say thank you. This is not just altruism or kindness. Doing that, I’m present, visible and engaged. I’m more embodied.

I try to affirm whatever life brings my way, even though it might be in a gentle way. The rhythms of life are such that things like fear, pain, worry, trouble and agitation push us away and part of our practice is to find a personal way to come back in. Gratitude is one of those ways.

MM:  What about practicing gratitude in the midst of hardship?  That can seem oxymoronic.

MN:  I’m often not grateful when I’m in the hardship. But I’ve been in hardship enough, and I’ve seen the gifts—even though I may not want them. I try to remember that even though I might not be grateful in the moment, once things expand, I probably will be again.

To be broken is no reason to see all things as broken. That was a great lesson for me in my cancer journey. My first chemo treatment was so hard and botched, and I was in great pain, sickness and fear while stuck in a Holiday Inn. Even though I felt broken in that moment, the sun was still shining and down the street a baby was being born, and somewhere else people were making love, and someone was being grateful to someone else. All of it was happening at once.

We talk so much about being in the moment, that I think we have to be careful we don’t make a cartoon of it. Being in the moment isn’t a license to be wild and abandoned and forget others. The reward for being in the moment is that we see differently, hear differently, and perceive differently. Being in the moment means that we expand our heart, as I was forced to in that motel room. 

We tend to either make what we’re going through everything or nothing. It’s a seesaw. We make the struggle and fear a descriptor of life and get caught in that and project it to being a world view. But it’s not a world view, it’s just our experience. The other extreme is to minimize, to make what we go through insignificant. Of course, the tension of the paradox is that both are true. So the challenge is to open your heart to what’s happening beyond your part of the moment, to the moment of life everywhere. 

Federico Garcia Lorca has a wonderful line in a poem that speaks to this. He says, “There is no one holding a baby child who can forget the emotionless skull of a dead corpse.” That’s a very striking image and kind of disturbing, but I think he’s suggesting that everything is happening all at once and we’re challenged to enter all of it. Whenever something comes together in one place, something is coming apart somewhere else, and vice versa.

MM:  You’re talking about honoring the fullness of experience?

MN:  Yes, and the original definition of the word honor is to keep what is true in view. I honor you by keeping what I know about you to be true in view; your gifts and strengths. And the same is true about life. I honor life by keeping what I know about life to be true in view.

MM:  And that connects to gratitude and appreciation. 

MN:  They are aspects of practices by which we can return to being wholehearted and present, even when we’re bounced around by circumstance. Three things we often take for granted are timeless and really work. The first is to hold nothing back and look at what you fear. Lean into your pain, even though it’s natural to want to avoid it. The other two, that are maybe the oldest forms of medicine are holding and listening. There’s never been a time that I have held or been held, that it hasn’t restored an aliveness in me. And likewise, there’s never been a time when I have listened or been listened to, even when the things are difficult to listen to, that hasn’t reengaged me in being alive.

Mark B. Baer, Esq. is a mediator, collaborative law practitioner, conflict resolution consultant, co-author of Putting Kids First in Divorce, and co-founder of Family Dynamics Assistance Center. He also regularly writes for the Huffington Post and Psychology Today.