Mark Nepo didn’t set out to be a spiritual guide. In fact, the Kalamazoo resident and author of The Book of Awakening, which hit the top of the New York Times bestseller list after it was discovered by Oprah Winfrey, only began writing in high school after his first love broke his heart.
“I wrote to heal myself from that heartache,” Nepo says, “but I found I was not just talking to myself, but to the world and the universe.”
Now, 16 books later, Nepo is a prolific poet and philosopher who devotes his writing and teaching to the journey of inner transformation and spirituality. A sought-after speaker, Nepo was part of Winfrey’s “The Life You Want Tour” in 2014 and has appeared several times with Winfrey on her Super Soul Sunday program on OWN TV.
Many of Nepo’s books are books of poetry, and his latest, Inside the Miracle: Enduring Suffering, Approaching Wholeness (2015), is a collection of poems, essays and reflections on the connection between love and suffering. It’s a topic Nepo knows a little something about. At 36, he was diagnosed with a rare form of lymphoma, and in his struggle to recover from that cancer, Nepo says, he was helped by many people. The experience helped to form his philosophy of experiencing life fully while acknowledging that the future is unknowable, he says. But his connection to the world of spirit started before that.
“From an early age I was attracted to poetry and the world of spirit,” says Nepo, who was born in Brooklyn, New York, and grew up on Long Island. “As a child I understood the world through metaphor. My connection to the universe took place as the wind moved through the trees and the sun moved through the clouds. Through nature I was able to be in conversation with life.”
Nepo earned a doctorate in English literature and poetry at the University at Albany-State University of New York (SUNY), where he taught for 18 years before moving to Kalamazoo in 2001. He published his first book, God, the Maker of the Bed, and the Painter, in 1988. But it was the book he wrote in 2000, The Book of Awakening, that ultimately catapulted Nepo onto the world stage.
Ten years after The Book of Awakening was published, Winfrey received the book as a gift and liked it so much she included it on her 2010 Ultimate Favorite Things list, which propelled the book onto the New York Times bestseller list.
“She related to it and wanted to talk to me in person,” Nepo says. “This came as a grace out of the blue, and we established a friendship. She is an amazing woman who is both genuine and generous.”
In total, Nepo has published 16 books and 11 audio projects, with two more books scheduled for publication this year. He travels the globe speaking and leading retreats related to his writings. He will do both close to home next month, at Transformations Spirituality Center, 3427 Gull Road. He will talk about “Heartwork: Being a Spirit in the World” as the keynote speaker May 5 for Transformations’ Voices of Wisdom Benefit Dinner and lead a two-day retreat May 6-7 based on his book Inside the Miracle.
Nepo, who was raised in the Jewish tradition, says he does not follow a formal religion. He says that being helped by so many loving people during his cancer journey prompted him to become a student of all religious paths and traditions.
“All these traditions offer blessings, help and prayer. My temple is the world,” he says. Separating religions has gone on forever, and what life really comes down to is the ancient choice between love and fear, he says.
“When we are ruled by fear, we push away great love and suffering,” Nepo says. “What we have to remember is that we are all one family and that compassion opens us to the possibility that we will never close our hearts again — to anyone.”
According to Nepo, this compassion comes from developing empathy through experience. If we have experienced pain, we understand others’ pain and use that knowledge to help them. “We’re then in some kind of kinship with each other,” he says. “This is when love and suffering converge.”
Nepo addresses this kind of love and suffering in Inside the Miracle, discussing how to stay vital and buoyant amid the storms of life.
“We oftentimes commit ourselves to a personal fundamentalism where we are so afraid of difficulties and sorrows that we adhere to our own experience with stubbornness and push away life and other people,” he says. “It takes inner courage to realize that we need everyone different from ourselves to be whole and live well.
“For example, spring brings out thousands of birds and insects who were born to pollinate particular trees and plants. If the bees insisted that all the birds and insects pollinate the way they do, spring wouldn’t happen. The infinite mystery of life is that we need all the different ways of loving and being in the world, not just one way.”
And as clouds of fear hang over many — whether it is fear of crime, terrorism, illness or other forces — Nepo says it’s difficult to know how to respond to these problems but offers some reflections.
“Life is made just difficult enough so that we need each other,” he says. “This ensures that we can choose the journey of love. Every age has its share of those ruled by fear and those ruled by love. It’s always been this way, so we are challenged to decide which path we will live in our own time on Earth, again and again.”
Nepo recalls the words of his old friend and mentor Joel Elkes, who died recently at age 102 and who saw humanity as a “global body” composed of healthy cells and toxic cells. “In our time we have terrorists who are destructive toward others. They are like the toxic cells in the body,” Nepo says. “Those of us blessed to be ‘healthy cells’ this time around need to be like white blood cells and rush to the site of the wounds and infections.’”
Nepo says that just such healing occurred during World War II when the Allied nations led the fight against Hitler and that this effort is similar to the efforts today to defeat ISIS.
“Every time two or more people gather together in authenticity, they are strengthening the ‘immune cells’ in the ‘global body,’” he says. “Any one of us can go either way: to become a healthy cell or a toxic cell. Out of fear, toxic cells need and seek sameness. The other choice is to seek and learn with others so that we can complete ourselves. As Plato once said, we’re born whole, but we need each other to be complete.
“When we face our pain with others, we can restore ourselves and open our own hearts and the hearts of others. That’s when compassion takes place. I open my humanity by facing my trouble — and find others who are just like me. That’s the meaning behind drinking from the same cup — or seeking the vibrant center of life, whether that center is called dharma, spirit, awareness of being or enlightenment.”
And as much as Nepo is recognized as a deep thinker and a mystic, he has what many would see as a relatively normal life. He lives with his wife, Susan, and their “sweet yellow Lab,” Zuzu, a two-and-a-half-year-old rescue dog. Nepo loves sports, especially baseball, and spending time with friends, listening to jazz and folk music, and taking walks with his dog.
But Nepo recognizes that his ability to develop and express his spirituality through his teaching, writing and speaking and to foster the abilities of others is a rare blessing.
“It is my privilege to be with people and introduce them to their own gifts and wisdom,” Nepo says.
“Everyone is born with a gift. If able to find our gift, we’re like fish in water. I’m very blessed to have found ‘my water,’ and it makes me happy and joyful to be in these waters. It feeds me and keeps me alive.”