The Practice Before The Practice

Mark Nepo
691 words, 29K views, 20 comments

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From the moment we open our eyes, we are meaning-seeking creatures, looking for what matters though we carry what matters deep within us. And more than the hard-earned understandings we arrive at, more than the principles or beliefs we stitch together out of our experience, how we stay in relationship to the mysterious Whole of Life is what brings us alive and keeps us alive. Everyone knows firsthand that life is messy and painful, beautiful and unpredictable. The endless practice is keeping our heart open to the whole of it. And the journey of becoming who we were born to be never ends. It’s limitless, eternal. We don’t arrive—we grow.

I believe and give my heart to the notion that spirituality is listening for and living into the soul’s place on Earth. A life of spirit, regardless of the path we choose, begins with a person’s acceptance that they are part of something larger than themselves. The want to know who we really are and to know the truth of our existence and our connection to a living Universe is, to me, the fundamental life-giving question that the heart commits to once opened by love or suffering. How we are led and pushed to our true nature is what spirituality and personal growth are all about. At the heart of each spiritual tradition are the questions: how to be in the world without losing what matters, and is living an awakened life of any use if we don’t bring what matters to bear on the world? Though every path offers some form of refuge, the journey of every human being is to discover—through their personhood—their own living relationship between the soul and the world, between being and experience, and between love and service.

Every single being has an amazing, unfathomable gift that only meeting life head-on and heart-on will reveal. And we can’t fully know our gift alone. We need each other to discover the gift, to believe in the gift. And then, to learn how to use it. The challenge for each of us is not to discount our gift because of the indifference of others, and not to abdicate our gift because of the various weights we’re forced to carry. My hope is that we will better know our own true nature and the depth of our own resources by being in conversation with the inner terrain as it opens, including how to restore our trust in life, when suffering makes us lose our way; how to begin the work of saying yes to life, so it can enliven us; and how to make our inwardness a resource and not a refuge.

There is always a practice before the practice; a sitting before the incomprehensible long enough to feel and sometimes understand the mystery each instrument and craft is designed to invoke.

In Japan, before an apprentice can clay up his hands and work the wheel, he must watch the master potter for years. In Hawaii, before a young man can ever touch a boat, he must sit on the cliff of his ancestors and simply watch the sea. In Africa, before the children are allowed to drum, they must rub the length of skin stretched over wood and dream of the animal whose heart will guide their hands. In Vienna, the prodigy must visit the piano maker before ever fingering a scale; to see how the keys are carved and put into place. And in Switzerland legend has it that before the master watchmaker can couple his tiny gears, he must sit long enough to feel the passage of time.

Starting this way enables a love of the process that is life-giving. The legendary cellist Pablo Casals was asked at 92 why he still practiced four hours a day. He smiled and replied, “Because I believe I’m making progress.”

It is this sort of deep progress that saves us.


Mark Nepo is a poet, teacher, storyteller and author. Excerpt above from The Endless Practice: Becoming Who You Were Born to Be

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