Poet | Spiritual Teacher | Best-selling author | Storyteller | Dog lover |
Despite all our efforts to prepare, we can’t plan who we will love, or who will be our most trustworthy friends. Nor can we plan who will be our transformative teachers. You can’t foresee who will have the most influence on your life. Nor can you foretell which books will change your life. If blessed, we are drawn below the words to the voices who brought those books into the world. It is their influence that stays with us as the presence of kindred spirits who affirm what it means to be alive. We discover these influences as we go. Certainly, we look for such voices, such teachers, even try to seek them out, only to trip and discover that the enduring teacher is underfoot.
I want to tell the story of my influences, the voices that transformed my mind so my heart could show itself completely. But first, let’s unpack the word influence, which comes from the Latin influere, a combination of in (into) and fluere (to flow). Influence, “to flow into.” In ancient astrology, influence means “the flowing that affects human destiny.”
And it is the presence of unexpected teachers who flow into us that affects our destiny, the way sudden rain irrigates the roots of a willow that was two dry days from perishing. In just this way, a profoundly true story or pouring out of spirit across the ages can swell our roots and save us.
These are the influences that have saved me over the years. As you walk with me through their stories, I invite you to reflect on the voices, stories, and books that have flowed into you to save your life.
Poet, philosopher, author, and teacher MARK NEPO has been inspiring readers and seekers all over the world with his #1 New York Times bestseller The Book of Awakening.
The author of over 22 books that have sold over a million copies in 20 languages, Mark has been called “one of the finest spiritual guides of our time.” In 2015, he was given a life-achievement award by AgeNation. In 2016, he was named as one of the 100 most spiritually influential living people by Watkins: Mind Body Spirit magazine and was chosen as one of Oprah Winfrey’s and the OWN Network’s Super Soul 100, a group of inspired leaders using their gifts and voices to elevate humanity. His latest book is The Book of Soul: 52 Paths to Living What Matters. www.MarkNepo.com and http://threeintentions.com.
by Ayn Rand
Before I’d written anything, I was captivated by the world of story as introduced to me by Miss Forshee, my eighth-grade English teacher. Her classroom felt like a wide cliff we would gather at, from which we could feel the wind from other times as we would gaze into the vastness of life. I couldn’t wait to get there. I was blessed that she saw something in me. I’m not sure what. But one day, after class, she called me to her desk and we began to talk. After a month of such talks, I walked her home one afternoon. She lived nearby. She invited me in briefly to see her library, an entire wall in her living room covered with books. It seemed as if the books were alive, just waiting to be held. She deliberately took a slim paperback off a shelf and gave it to me. She said, “I wonder what you will make of this story. Go on. Take it with you.”
I was astonished at her kindness and belief in me. I went home and straight upstairs in our small house to my room, closed the door, and began reading Anthem by Ayn Rand. The futuristic story is told in the third person plural, we. Towards the end, we learn that this is the story of a seeker who—in a world where the word “I” has been banished—discovers the singularity of his soul. When first writing from the “I” he affirms that “I need no warrant for being, and no word of sanction upon my being. I am the warrant and the sanction. It is my eyes which see, and the sight of my eyes grants beauty to the earth.”
At such an impressionable age, Miss Forshee had led me to a story that affirmed the worth of my own being through our direct and common experience of the Mystery of Life. Though I learned in time that it is the Mystery of Life that grants my eyes the privilege of perceiving a beauty that already exists. And the surprise that the “we” of the story was, in fact, an “I” introduced me to the power of voice in a story. I felt these revelations at once though I had no language for them at the time.
by Hermann Hesse
Six years later, I was accepted to attend the State University of New York at Cortland. Part of my summer orientation was to read the novel Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse. For the first time, I travelled through a story as if it were a landscape painted by a magical artist. Each sentence, direct and clear, served as a window into a deeper reality. I couldn’t see how this magic was performed but I was transported while reading this book, to places both familiar and new. The book made me grow while letting me feel more at home in my own life. This is something I have aspired to create ever since. The story also modeled deep forms of lasting relationship with Siddhartha’s dear friends: one from his youth, Govinda, and one later in life, Vasudeva. This, too, gave me luminous models of how to journey through life with respect and care for each other, no matter the time or distance between us.
After the five-hour drive to Cortland that summer, I sat in a circle with other freshmen to discuss the story and to explore how Siddhartha’s journey—to discover himself, and through himself, his connection to a Living Universe—was indeed our own journey.
I have read this small magical novel at least six times throughout my life. Like viewing a mountain from different vantage points during the climb, it always serves as an inner reflector of where I am in life’s journey. This, too, is something I have always aspired to in my own writing: to retrieve and craft a story or metaphor so truthfully that it can be returned to anew, again and again.
by Cid Corman
During my freshman year in college, I went to my first poetry reading held at Corey Union on campus. There was a crowd of thirty to fifty of us. A kind, bearded professor walked in with the guest of the evening. He was a large, stocky man in his fifties, quiet except when he read his poems. He sat before us in a large, torn armchair with twelve to fifteen books, which were his own. I was sitting in the front, on the floor, my mouth open, my head in my hands, my elbows on my knees—in awe of this sudden horizon of what I hoped to be. I hadn’t come with that dream, but somehow knew upon hearing him speak that I belonged to this tribe of seekers and sayers.
The poet was Cid Corman and the book he read from most was his recent book of poems, Livingdying. He was part of the Beat movement and, like Gary Snyder, had spent transformative years in Japan, which helped to shape his sensibility. His poems introduced me to the quiet marvel and acceptance of things as they are. In the dedication to Livingdying, he says, from the start, “What more mountain than the one that is.”
The Autobiography of
William Carlos Williams
After my early years in college, I was certain that I wanted a life of expression, but unsure what that meant. It was then I was introduced to the work of William Carlos Williams, one of the steadfast innovators of twentieth century poetry. At a time when his peers were fleeing America to work their creativity in the crucible of Europe, he finished medical school and rooted himself in Rutherford, New Jersey, where he was born. There, he practiced as a family doctor for more than fifty years. He had a typewriter bolted to a hinged desk, so he could leave in mid-poem to deliver babies and return to the poem with a fresh sense of life always writing him.
Through his own story and unwavering poems, I felt and respected his vulnerability and honesty as gateways to deeper forms of truth. In his poem, “The Last Words of My English Grandmother,” I admired how he didn’t polish his own image, but kept it as his grandmother saw him in her turmoil. I had found in him a model of how to be a truthful witness to all things.
Memories, Dreams, Reflections,
the Autobiography of Carl Jung
The last influence on me in college was anchoring and lasting. As a young mystic, I was overwhelmed by the kaleidoscope of Oneness I was sensing, both around me and across the ages. I had no reference point for this, other than the expansive moments of solitude when a child, which gave me a strength and clarity beyond my understanding. So, it was with great relief and excitement that I first read Carl Jung.
When wandering through the woods of the Unconscious in his writings, I stumbled on his essay about psychology and literature. The second part of that essay focuses on the poet. There, he says, clearly, that the poet is a lightning rod for the Unconscious. This sentence saved my life by giving me a way to understand how I could experience my own depth along with the depth of others. It wasn’t madness. I was part of an eternal tribe of soothsayers and praise singers whose call is to record and affirm the history of Wholeness as it manifests through the living heart.
Ever since, I have been devoted to the understanding that every soul endures, when daring to live its life to the fullest. And through that enduring fullness, we become the lightning rod for the experience, suffering, and joy of others. The embodiment of this is what it means to be fully alive. To record and honor what comes through such embodiment is the work of all art.
by Pablo Neruda
I was teaching at SUNY Albany when my oldest friend, Robert, and I went for a walk in the fall along a colorful hillside on campus. We sat on the grass and Robert pulled out a book of poems by a Spanish-speaking poet I had never heard of, Pablo Neruda. A colleague at work had lent him the book because Robert said he had to show me this.
The first poem we read aloud was “There is No Forgetting.” I had never heard a voice like his and felt an instant kinship. I certainly couldn’t write like Neruda but felt that we drank from the same invisible Source. I felt such a joy of inner confirmation that I couldn’t let the book out of my hands. I offered to buy his colleague another copy, which I did. That original copy is next to me as I write this. It is so worn that the binding is falling apart. The book, Pablo Neruda: Selected Poems edited by Nathaniel Tarn, just falls open to the same poem we first read forty years ago.
Neruda’s largess to all things modeled for me the vow to hold nothing back, to always lean into life, no matter what. A few years later, I came upon what in English is called Neruda’s Memoirs, but which in Spanish he titled, I Confess That I Have Lived. To read his autobiography is like taking a long walk with a human songbird.
There is one more story that comes from my lifelong love affair with Neruda. It centers on my copy of his book, Isla Negra. I had recently purchased a first edition and was eager to dive in that weekend. I had it on an end table near my bed. That Friday night, I went to meet friends for dinner, leaving my six-month old golden retriever, Saba, home alone for the first time.
When I came home, I found confetti all over the house. In her anxiety, she had tossed my books about and shredded a good part of my first edition of Isla Negra! I was beside myself. I yelled at her at which she cowered in the kitchen. Then, I simply held her till she calmed down. As I gathered all the shreds of Neruda’s poems strewn around the house, I finally picked up the hardcover edition to find that Saba had eaten the front cover and shredded the first thirty-four pages.
The first intact remaining page was Neruda’s poem “Shyness” which ends with this image: “my lament [was] buried deep like the whine of a hurt dog at the bottom of a well.”
translated by Herbert Mason
In the early 1980s, I was teaching a reading poetry class at SUNY Albany when I came across Herbert Mason’s translation of the anonymous Assyrian narrative, Gilgamesh. More than 7000 years old, it was first carved on clay tablets. It is the story of a numb and enervated king who prompts war and conflict in order to stimulate his vacant life. In doing so, he loses his only friend, Enkidu. In his grief, he embarks on a journey to ask Utnapishtam, the Immortal One, to bring his friend back to life.
Having lost his father at a young age, Mason’s own grief enabled him to access the timeless reservoir of all grief in rendering an immediate version of the story we all go through. Feeling the inescapable trial of loss in such an intimate and ancient way made me realize that the human experience is inextricably linked across the centuries. It made me realize that a prevailing kinship waits at the core of all stories and all poetry if we can be honest enough to render our humanity bare.
After reading Mason’s translation, I raced into my class, put aside whatever we were working on, and said, “We must read this together—Now!” I also embarked on an essay trying to unfold the timeless depths Mason’s translation had unearthed. And through his publisher, I sent the essay with a note of tribute to Professor Mason at Boston University. To my surprise, he replied! This began a lengthy conversation, from which I continued to grow.
The Madman: His Parables and Poems
by Kahlil Gibran
Just before the heat of my journey with cancer in the late 1980s, I found this slim, hardcover volume by Kahil Gibran, published after World War I in September 1918 with illustrations by Gibran himself. In the prologue, the poet tells us that he became a mad man when thieves stole all his masks. For being seen naked, without any masks, people started to call him mad. But without his masks, he had a revelation and said, “For the first time the sun kissed my own naked face and my soul was inflamed with love for the sun, and I wanted masks no more. And as if in a trance, I cried, ‘Blessed, blessed are the thieves who stole my masks…’ [For] I have found both freedom and safety in my madness.”
His being labeled by others as mad immediately echoed how William Blake called his sacred sayings “Proverbs of Hell” because his true energy and vision were labelled by his contemporaries as the work of the devil. Like Blake, the inherent truth of voice in Gibran’s post World War I book helped me understand more deeply the cost of being hidden and the cost of being seen, an archetype we all must move through, if we are to live authentically with truth as our arrow and love as our bow.
by Maria Rilke
On the other side of almost dying from cancer, I entered my late thirties raw and thoroughly turned upside down and inside out. It was then that I found Rainer Maria Rilke’s amazingly poetic tribute to the great sculptor, Auguste Rodin. Rarely do we get to see the creative force of one artist through the creative force of another. When twenty-six, Rilke met Rodin who was sixty-one. Rodin welcomed the young poet into his home and studio for six months. During that time, the poet wrote this monograph, which is a force of nature by itself.
This torrent of subject and voice helped me find my own creative current in my new and fragile post-cancer life. I knew, going forward, that like the truth of a string resolutely plucked by a heart-broken cellist, no expression would be worthwhile unless struck like this in the chord of our being. And so, poetry and art, became faceless teachers who revealed their lessons only through the hollowing of our joy and suffering, met and faced without shame or excuse. Both Rodin and Rilke have been stalwart guides confirming my belief in the human process, which given voice to, becomes artistic. I have taken comfort in these lines from Rilke toward the end of his stay with Rodin, “I was walking lost in thought through that vast workshop, and I saw that everything was in the process of becoming and that nothing was in a hurry.”
A Poet’s Journal
by George Seferis
Finding my way back into life, I stumbled through everything familiar until it revealed something essential. In this state, I resumed teaching and worked toward a more direct and penetrating manner of expression. It was then that I met the poems of the Greek poet George Seferis. The clear mind of this modern pilgrim seemed a wide-open window through which his very large heart recorded the world. His commitment to have our mind serve our heart was part of the covenant I had made with the ineffable once waking on the other side of being ill. This journal by Seferis covers the years 1945-1951 when his life, too, was being re-fired and reformed.
It was by walking here with Seferis that I discovered the Japanese master Basho’s timeless instruction to Kikakou in the 1600s: “We shouldn’t abuse God’s creatures. You must reverse your haiku. Not: a dragonfly; remove its wings—pepper tree. But: pepper tree; add wings to it—dragonfly. The world depends on which way this thought unfolds.”
That Seferis kept turning inward for stories of joining over separating is proof that listening deeply is a restorative all by itself. As he drifted across a world rebuilding itself after immense destruction and atrocity, Seferis said, “Only now are we beginning to discern things that could perhaps come into the light… The point is… to write no matter what happens, to keep alive whatever expresses my aliveness.”
This has become an anthem by which I remember the way.
After seventy years of seeking and learning, I look back on these authentic teachers who shaped my mind and heart, thankful to have been shaped. I hold what each has shown me, not as an answer, but as a vow to inhabit while living a life. In particular, each voice has taught me:
- To affirm the worth of my own being through our direct and common experience of the Mystery of Life.
- To practice authenticity so that at the juncture of our realness we can discover the Living Universe.
- To look for peace in the marvel and acceptance of things as they are.
- To trust that vulnerability and honesty are gateways to deeper forms of truth.
- To trust that living life to the fullest will make us a conduit for the heart of all human experience.
- To hold nothing back, to always lean into life, no matter what, as an inner form of breathing.
- To be honest enough to render our humanity bare, so we can inhabit the prevailing kinship that waits at the core of all stories and all poetry.
- To outlive the cost of being hidden and endure the cost of being seen, so we can live without masks.
- To find meaningful resonance with others through the struck chord of our being.
- To have our hearts serve our minds and, by so doing, become a vessel for care and kindness.
To stay devoted to the magic inherent in all things.
- To love the struggle that living always brings, to treat struggle as a teacher.
- To be a lifelong servant of questions, always seeking viewpoints beyond our own.
I wonder what voice, what story, what book will be our next teacher? What flow will enter us, bringing more of us forward than we thought possible? Isn’t this how flowers bloom, always opening a little further until all their colors are revealed?
These books and the voices that brought them into the world are old sages turned friends. They sit tattered on my shelf as quiet and reliable oracles. Like stones in the river, they release deep, mysterious songs, just by standing firm in the current of life. Perhaps this is their greatest lesson, that just by standing true, we help to shape the world. I would be much less, had I not tripped into them.
Our vulnerability and honesty are gateways to deeper forms of truth.
Questions to Walk With
• In your journal, describe the books that have saved you and what each has taught you.
• In conversation with a friend or loved one, tell each other the story of your influences and how they came into your life.
“I need no warrant for being…”Ayn Rand, from Anthem. NY: Plume Editions of Penguin, 2005, p. 94. The novel was first published in England in 1938.
“What more mountain than the one that is” Cid Corman, from Livingdying. NY: New Directions, 1970, p. 2.
“My lament [was] buried deep…”Pablo Neruda, from “Shyness” in Isla Negra translated by Alastair Reid. NY: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1982, p. 36.
“For the first time…” Kahil Gibran, from The Madman: His Parables and Poems. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1918, p. 7-8.
“I was walking lost in thought…” Rainer Maria Rilke, from Rodin. Salt Lake City, UT: Peregrine Smith, 1979, p. 97. Originally published as a monograph in March 1903 in Berlin for the art series Die Kunst.
“Walking here with Seferis…” The three quotes here are from George Seferis, in A Poet’s Journal: Days of 1949-1951, translated by Athan Anagnostopoulos. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1974, p. 59, 119, 123.
“We shall not cease from exploration…”T.S. Eliot, from The Four Quartets. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1943.