THE MOST DIFFICULT TWO INCHES ON EARTH
MARK NEPO, a poet, storyteller, and teacher of the journey of inner transformation and the life of relationship, has recorded 11 audio projects and published 16 books translated into more than 20 languages, including The Endless Practice, Reduced to Joy, Seven Thousand Ways to Listen, The Exquisite Risk, and the forthcoming Inside the Miracle, in addition to his bestselling The Book of Awakening.
When learning to swim, it’s natural enough to resist our initial sinking in the water. We seem to be going down. And the more we struggle at the surface, the stronger the pull seems, wanting to take us under. But when we can relax into the water, we settle a few inches into the miracle of buoyancy. Amazingly, the unseen depths hold us up.
This moment reveals the essence of faith. Forget all the definitions and debates. It’s as simple and difficult as swimming in the ocean of experience and learning how to trust the unseen depths to hold us up. We don’t have to name that depth or send messages to it or pray in the dark to it. We simply have to surrender enough to feel its buoyancy. Yet these are the most difficult two inches to travel on earth.
I experienced this literally once when I was swept out to sea. I wasn’t paying attention but the tide was going out and I was mesmerized by my glide through the waves. As I tired, I realized how far I was from shore. Then I panicked. Afraid of drowning, I kept fighting being brought below the surface. Yet this resistance only made my struggle worse. Only when I exhausted myself did I surrender; enough to feel the buoyancy of the ocean cradle me in its ancient hammock. Finally, I was able to rest and slowly make my way across the current, back to shore.
Since this experience, I’ve seen that our challenge is to surrender into the life we’re given. Such surrender opens us to the inexplicable buoyancy that holds up all existence. In this, we need the inherent intuition of a duck. And through duck eyes, I can now see that failure, loneliness, and suffering are the forms of drowning which the modern world loves to fear. We spend so much of our lives fighting failure, loneliness, and suffering that we miss the mysterious truth that, if we could only give in to gravity just a little, we would cross our inner boundary of fear and discover the endless world of being, buoyant enough to carry us through.
Consider Rilke’s poem “The Swan”:
This clumsy living that moves lumbering
as if in ropes through what is not done
reminds us of the awkward way the swan walks.
And to die, which is a letting go
of the ground we stand on and cling to every day,
is like the swan when he nervously lets himself down
into the water, which receives him gaily
and which flows joyfully under
and after him, wave after wave,
while the swan, unmoving and marvelously calm,
is pleased to be carried, each minute more fully grown,
more like a king, composed, farther and farther on.
For all I’ve read of Rilke — and I have wandered through his work as through a familiar garden — I had not met “The Swan” until recently. It seems particularly useful here. Isn’t this sense of experiential faith released whenever we can let ourselves sink ever so slightly into that mysterious water we call life? What waits for us if we can die to whatever voice of inadequacy is pressing on us in our moments of panic? What happens if we can die to our ambition, or die to our willfulness, or die to our need to measure up, or die to our need to keep score, or die to the dominance of our fear, or die to the machine of our doing? When courageous enough to let go at this level, we’re carried by the imperceptible tide that runs clear and deep beneath and around us….
All the traditions speak in different ways about our fear of drowning in the demands of living and about this buoyancy that waits just below our fears. All speak of a need to surrender into experience until life itself lifts us up. All suggest that staying awake is synonymous with faith. Not blind faith, but an open faith in the current of life that precedes, encompasses, and outlasts us; the kind of open faith that allows us to be rejuvenated by awe and wonder. As the theologian Paul Tillich describes it, “Faith is the state of being ultimately concerned. [It] is the most centered act of the human mind.” It is our abiding and unrestrained concern that keeps us fully alive and connected to life itself. Still, it is a struggle at best and we often lose our way….
In truth, everyone alive struggles with how to stay awake. While there are no answers except to stay concerned, there are small clues. One comes from Goethe, who says, “Every object well contemplated creates an organ within us.” What a startling shift. He suggests what sages and lovers have known forever; that beholding anything with ultimate care makes it come alive within us. Put simply, embracing the world animates our being.
The courage comes in letting go of our understandable resistance to being drawn into the depth of things. Yet if we are to fully live — that is, to let our love outlast our fear — we must die to everything that would keep us from animating our ultimate concern. And still, we must not be harsh with ourselves, for these are surely the most difficult two inches to travel on Earth.
This excerpt is adapted from The Endless Practice: Becoming Who You Were Born to Be, by Mark Nepo (Atria Books, 2014).