Excellence Reporter: Mark, what is the meaning of life?
Mark Nepo: As important as this question is, it’s impossible to answer—as it’s impossible to see your hands while digging or to see your eyes while looking. Instead, let me share a story about meaning.
A troubled widower made his way to ask a wise old woman about his troubles. The old woman received him and they walked along a stream. She could see the pain in his face. He began to tremble as he asked, “What’s the point? Is there any meaning to life?” She invited him to sit on a large stone near the stream. She took a long branch and swirled it in the water, then replied, “It all depends on what it means to you to be alive.” In his sorrow, the man dropped his shoulders and the old woman gave him the branch. “Go on,” she said, “touch the branch to the water.”
As he poked the branch in the running stream, there was something comforting about feeling the movement of the water in his hand through the branch. She touched his hand and said, “You see, that you can feel the water without putting your hand in the water, this is what meaning feels like.” The man grew tender but still seemed puzzled. She said, “Close your eyes and feel your wife now gone. That you can feel her in your heart without being able to touch her, this is how meaning saves us.”
The widower began to cry. The old woman put her arm around him, “No one knows how to live or how to die. We only know how to love and how to lose, and how to pick up branches of meaning along the way.”
Every book and form of art, every keepsake and treasure we pass from generation to generation, every story told—these are the branches of meaning that help us along the way. And though we develop over time, there is no logical progression of steps by which our lives grow. Instead, each life unfolds the way rainwater fills the contours and grooves of the ground it lands on. No two patches of earth are identical and so the rain must fit each particular stretch of soil: trickling, pooling, and settling, as it will. In the same way, meaning fills the particulars of each life.
Two things I’m sure of are that we gather meaning through relationship, and that we understand life by working with what we’re given. And regardless of what you do for a living, the only important vocation is listening to the heart when it says: this is vital, this is alive, this can’t be lost. For me, the vitality and aliveness always precede my understanding of them. Making sense of our experience demands a faith in knowing what matters before we understand what it means. Making sense of life demands a conversation with what we’ve found and with what has found us.
As the wise old woman says in the story above, “No one knows how to live or how to die. We only know how to love and how to lose, and how to pick up branches of meaning along the way.”
Ultimately, meaning comes from inhabiting our gifts. I believe each person is born with a gift. Our call is to find it and care for it. I also believe that the ultimate purpose of the gift is to exercise the heart into inhabiting its aliveness. For the covenant of life is not just to stay alive, but to stay in our aliveness. And staying in aliveness depends on opening the heart and keeping it open.
Our dreams, goals, and ambitions are all kindling, fuel for the heart to exercise its aliveness, to bring our gift into the world, to discover what matters. Like a match, our light is revealed as our gift strikes against the needs of the world. When my sincerity strikes against yours, our gifts can give off their light.
We drift in and out of knowing our aliveness. Pain, worry, fear, and loss can muffle and confuse us. But finding our gift and working it will bring us back alive. It doesn’t matter if we’re skillful or clumsy, if we play our gift well or awkwardly, or if we make great strides or fail. Aliveness is not a judge in a talent show. Aliveness shows itself in response to wholeheartedness, when we can say yes to life, work with what we’re given, and stay in relationship—to everything.
When we come out of hiding and bring up the lights, we begin to discover what it means to be awake. When we’re knocked off our horse, we’re brought closer to life. Then we’re challenged to use our heart to break a path—this is the soul’s work. Finding our way always depends on using the one life we’re given to uncover the story behind the story, so we might find what can last.
So brave your way on. You are a blessing waiting to be discovered by yourself. The wisdom waits in your heart like a buried treasure which only loving your self can bring to the surface. And loving your self is like diving to the bottom of the ocean with nothing but who you are to find your way.
~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 seventeen books and recorded twelve audio projects and his work has been translated into more than twenty languages. The above contains excerpts from his forthcoming book The One Life We’re Given: Finding the Wisdom That Waits in Your Heart (Atria, July 2016). His most recent book is Inside the Miracle: Enduring Suffering, Approaching Wholeness (Sounds True, 2015). 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. And in 2016, he was named by Watkins: Mind Body Spirit as one of the 100 Most Spiritually Influential Living People.
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