We were so inspired by Mark Nepo's The Book of Awakening that we gave it an award as one of the Best Spiritual Books of 2000. He was a program officer and poet-in-residence at the Fetzer Institute, and is a teacher of poetry and spirituality, and a guest speaker and leader of workshops across the country. He sees this new volume as "an intimate companion in exploring the intoxicating quandaries of being alive." He covers four areas: teachers, steering our way to center, going there together, and honoring the mystery. He asks us to slow down, be alert, and open our hearts and minds to what is in front of us. The exquisite risk in all of this is to hold nothing back, least of all our love and our energy to do our best at whatever we do.
Nepo is a cancer survivor whose journey into the country of illness has made him truly appreciative of the marvels and wonders of everyday life. "For me, almost dying meant experiencing small amounts of death so deeply and rawly that the very elements of living and dying scoured my basic understanding of things." He is a great storyteller who has much wisdom to impart. Even the little asides are significant. He recounts a South African proverb that explains why two antelope walk together: so that one can blow the dust from the other's eyes.
In an intimate confession, the author shares his compulsion to do it all or to "experience greed." But by spreading himself all over the place and trying to understand everything, he found himself having trouble being present to anything. It took him a while to discover that the moment opened to him when he came to it empty-handed.
Nepo finds spiritual teachers all around him and challenges us to pick up the habit. He recalls the magic moments when he awoke from surgery to savor the miracle of freshly squeezed orange juice and when he experienced awe in the presence of his 94-year-old grandmother staring into eternity. He has a nice little essay on the difference between giving attention and getting attention. Most of us are much more interested in maneuvering the spotlight onto ourselves than we are in listening deeply to another person.
When Native American medicine men talk to the sick, they usually ask three questions: When was the last time you sang? When was the last time you danced? When was the last time you told your story? Nepo does all three with a piece on how Africans use song as a way of overcoming trials and tribulations. He shares a vignette about dancer Ted Shawn who got polio and followed a deep inner voice that told him to leave divinity school and begin to dance. He eventually regained the use of both legs. The healing process for this dancer was in "embodying God."
As you read this enthralling and life-affirming book, you are sure to find yourself having goose bumps as you make heart connections through these incredible essays. Frank Ostaski, founder of the Zen Hospice Project in San Francisco, told the author that the most frequent question to arise from those who are dying is: Have I loved well? The Exquisite Risk is Mark Nepo's love letter to all of us.