Sniffing Out What Is Sacred

by Mark Nepo

Sometimes a glance, a few casual words, fragments of a melody
floating through the quiet air of a summer evening, a book that
accidentally comes into our hands, a poem or a memory-laden
fragrance, may bring about the impulse which changes and
determines our whole life.  — Llama Govinda

When I think of the times I’ve been lost in my life, each had the feel of an earthquake that upended something foundational. At the time, I was hurt, frightened, disoriented, unsure how to go on. Yet who would have guessed that one foundation broken apart would reveal another.

I was barely ten when I asked my parents about God. They looked at each other and flatly shut the door, saying, “We don’t believe in God.” It was the way they closed off all conversation that made me feel orphaned in my inquiries. I felt completely on my own. This was my first sense of death—the death of home. But it caused me to venture further into my own firsthand experience of everything larger than me. Ironically, because of how they shut me out, I solidified my bond with the mysteries.

As a teenager, I fell in love for the first time, and I fell deeply. She was beautiful and had questions of her own. In my innocence, I imbued her as the keeper of all that was holy. When she left me for another, I was devastated and darkly lost for almost two years. But one day, when exhausted of my very colorful despair, I sat in a field, drawn to watch the bees pulling nectar from the dew-heavy flowers. I was stopped by the beauty that keeps on creating itself no matter what we experience. Here, the death of my first love had led me to the unshakeable bottom of beauty.

At the age of thirty-six, in the midst of my struggle with cancer—between angiograms and MRIs—Grandma died. It was my first taste of inconsolable loss. For no one loved me like Grandma. She believed in me more than I could comprehend. And she was gone. The ground beneath me had split apart. Within months, the cancer resurfaced in a rib in my back. I felt utterly lost. It was the death of my faith. My rib was removed. When I woke on the other side, after having nothing to rely on, I discovered a deeper faith—one that exists like gravity, independent of our wishes and regrets.

It was almost ten years after cancer, when I was forty-five, that my former wife Ann and I separated after helping to save each other’s lives. To my surprise, several of my deepest friends, who had held me during surgeries and chemo, cast me out. This made me question the very ground by which I enter friendship. Not only could I no longer trust those I so loved, but I could no longer trust my own assessment of closeness. I felt isolated, and what I knew that was dependable, within me and around me, was no bigger than my palm. This was a death of friendship that I am still recovering from. But it forced me to fall into the bedrock of a deeper self which sniffs out what is sacred with the wonder of an animal—independent of what others think.

Still, when forty-eight, I learned that the press that had published my epic poem Fire Without Witness had gone out of business. In doing so, they had destroyed almost 1,500 copies without ever contacting me. Though I was experienced enough to know that this was just an external loss, it punctured me to my core. It had taken me ten years to birth that book. It was my deepest journey into the Unconscious. Try as I did to accept this brush with impermanence, I felt defeated and grew depressed.

Months later, I was driving a rental car from Albuquerque to Santa Fe to see my good friend Wayne when the old mountains baking under the big southwest sky somehow snapped me back into life. If they could outlive native names and Spanish names and American names, I could outlive this.

Now, at fifty-nine, I still miss Grandma terribly. But now her presence is foundational. She is in the silence that holds my missing rib, in the flowers waiting for the bees to find their nectar, and in my lifelong sense of God as everything larger than me. As I consider where I’ve been, I realize that, at every turn, I’ve been broken of my preferences, and so I find, to my delight, that I am interested in everything.

"Mark Nepo"
Bio: Mark Nepo
is a poet, philosopher and cancer survivor who has taught in the fields of poetry and spirituality for over thirty years.

Forthcoming work includes a new book of teaching stories, As Far As the Heart Can See, (HCI Books, Sept 2011), Finding Inner Courage (Red Wheel-Conari, Feb 2011, originally published as Facing the Lion, Being the Lion, 2007), and audio books of The Book of Awakening and Finding Inner Courage (CD, Simon & Schuster, March 2011).  “Sniffing Out What is Sacred” is from Finding Inner Courage. Please visit and