The One Life We’re Given: Saying Yes to Life.
From May 23-28, 2022, I’m excited to be offering a weeklong Mastery Week at the Modern Elder Academy, called “The One Life We’re Given: Saying Yes to Life.” I’d like to share more deeply what this topic opens up for me, in hopes, if moved, you’ll join me in this empowering exploration.
No matter where we think we’re going, the journey of every life is to find its home in the moment where everything touches everything else. We are mistakenly taught that life is other than where we are, and so we are schooled in strategies to traverse the imagined distance from here to there and trained in the fortitude to do what is necessary to secure the treasure at the end of our quest. But almost dying in my thirties and living ever since have taught me otherwise. There is no there, only here.
And so, instead of trying so hard to go somewhere else, and to become something else, the long walk through time insists that we turn ourselves inside out to reveal our inner beauty. Like iris and orchids and tulips, we are each asked to break ground and—through love and suffering—to reveal the truth of who we are, where we are.
This is the spiritual journey on Earth—not to strive from here to there, but to unfold from in to out. How we do this is both personal and Universal. But do it we must, if we are to flower and offer our nectar to the world.
When we can feel what is ours to feel, and inhabit our own particular moment—of love or suffering, of beauty or pain, of peace or agitation—that depth of feeling allows us to live once for all time. To live once for all time means that the depth of our one life, once opened, is filled with the stream of life from every direction. To live once for all time means that try as we do to add to the one life we’re given in our attempt to run from death, the incarnation of being human forces us to open the one life we’re given, so we might be immersed in the well of all life for the brief time we’re here. One life lived wholeheartedly and without disguise is more than enough. Nothing could be more precious or out of our control. Though we can try.
As a jazz musician spends years learning the intricacies of his instrument, never knowing when the goddess of music will sweep his practiced hands along, we master many paths, never knowing when we will be swept into the presence of beauty. As a shortstop fields thousands of grounders until his hands are blistered, all to be ready for the unpredictable bounce that will happen under the lights, we meditate, study, and field thousands of questions until our mind is blistered, all to be ready for the unpredictable bounce of circumstance that will bring us closer to life. In just this way, the heart learns the scales of love, never knowing when the work will be turned into song.
This journey to inhabit the one life we’re given is archetypal. Everyone who’s ever lived has had to go through it, though no two souls ever go through it exactly the same way. Yet we all experience common passages. As we start out, we’re preoccupied with finding our way, with discovering who we are, with defining ourselves by contrast with everything around us. We try to set ourselves apart by creating something out of nothing, by out-reaching or out-racing others. But sooner or later, obstacles throw us off course and the first versions of our life plans, always dear and precious, are broken. Then we’re sent into a passage of not-knowing, unsure where to go and what to do. Less certain, we’re challenged to inquire into a larger view of life that includes us but is not defined by us.
At this point, we’re ready to discover who we are a second time. With nowhere to go but here, with nothing to do but open the one life we’re given, a journey begins in which we experience life rather than dreaming that we can escape it. We start to invest who we are and all our care into where we are and slowly become one with everything we encounter. By now, there’s been enough suffering that we can feel our kinship with others and the depth of our care is closer to the surface.
In time, the heart works its way into the presence of grace by showing up completely, no matter the circumstance. We learn that meeting life with an open heart is how we can feel where everything is joined. Our call then is to let the soul out and the world in. Where soul and world touch, we spark alive. When our soul expresses itself in the world, our aliveness shows, and we begin to do our part in sustaining a Universe that keeps unfolding.
When the soul expresses itself, we experience enlivened arcs of grace in which we feel the force of life that runs through everything. Anything that moves us to carry our soul out into the world is a catalyst of grace. In this way, love, friendship, creativity, pain, and loss are agents of grace, as are surprise, beauty, grief, and wonder. And while experience wears us down to what’s essential so the soul can stop being encased, it also takes daily effort to let our soul out and an open heart to let the world in, so we can spark ourselves alive and finally be of use.
Like it or not, we’re opened by the hard, sweet journey of being human, until we’re sparked and worn into a gateway for life-force. The truth is that nothing is as challenging or rewarding as saying yes to life. And mysteriously, life has been made just difficult enough that we need each other. To ensure the journey of love.
Mark Nepo is a poet and spiritual adviser who has taught in the fields of poetry and spirituality for over 30 years. He’s well-known for his New York Times #1 bestseller, “The Book of Awakening,” which Oprah chose as one of her “Ultimate Favorite Things” for her farewell season.