Sixty two year old poet and philosopher Mark Nepo observed recently that his life purpose has changed over the years. In his “youth”, Mark observed, he was driven by the need to become his own unique self as he pushed himself forward to carve out a niche in the competitive world of writing. Then, in midlife, Mark had a serious bout with cancer and everything changed. He describes this time as an experience of “breaking open” completely. Suddenly success, individualism, and forward momentum, were simply not important. Now, a handful of years after the beginning of his cancer journey, Mark is focusing his energy on building and deepening relationships. Even the creative process of poetry writing has taken a back seat to this, as Mark strives to find all the ways in which he is in unity with others, rather than “set apart”.
Mark Nepo’s observations strike a deep chord with me, for several reasons. First of all, I’m 63, and have recently had a “break open” experience of my own. In my view, he is exactly right. When these experiences happen, the only thing that makes them bearable is connecting with others in a meaningful way. Secondly, professionally I’m interested in helping people who have experienced “relationship failure” to learn how to find and keep relationships…romantic or not. So, how does one get stared with this task? More importantly, how does a person get started if they are coming from a place of deep loneliness, fear, and anger after profound disappointment and betrayal? Mark Nepo offers some ideas on this that I believe are worth looking at.
The first idea that really resonated with me is Mr. Nepos assertion that true loneliness is not something we feel, necessarily, when we are physically alone. The deepest loneliness is rather an inner loneliness that occurs when we are a “stranger” to ourselves. How do we become a “stranger” to ourselves? Mark Nepo suggests that it happens when we “react” to our emotional and/or physical pain by retreating into ourselves. Alternatively, we many anesthetize ourselves with drugs and alcohol. To the outside world, we may appear aloof and uncaring. Or, maybe we have a great “party” persona that is “laughing on the outside while crying on the inside”. We are, in these instances, essentially “hiding”…. both from ourselves and from others.
Mark Nepo believes that the only way out of this profoundly lonely place is to allow ourselves to feel all of our pain “all the way through”. We actually have to invite every sensation, every thought, every emotion, every everything to come to our table. All are welcome. None are denied entrance. Mindfulness meditation is one way to begin to identify and accept everything by noticing the way it all “lands” in our body. Journaling can also help with building awareness and learning to tolerate all of who we are.
The goal of all of this “self” reflection is to literally; finally, and fully see “the man (or woman) in the mirror”(that is ourselves) So…Ok…but how does this help us not be lonely, and build a healthy relationship?
The idea is that when we allow ourselves to fully feel emotional pain, we are connecting deeply with the vast “river” of anyone and everyone who has ever suffered. We are connecting with the human family, essentially, and we are laying the foundation for the empathy and compassion that will lead us into our deepest friendships and most committed relationships. This makes sense, when you think about it. It becomes clear to you when you allow a full experience of emotional pain, that everyone else is just like you. In your “awakened” state you will now see everyone fully, from the “reference point” of yourself. Now your heart is open and you are available to let someone in. It starts with you…not anyone else…because your openheartedness radiates outward in a welcoming gesture that attracts people to you. It has to…there is no other way.
Just remember..spend some time looking in that mirror first!