There are 7000 living languages on earth, says Mark Nepo in his book, Seven Thousand Ways To Listen: Staying Close To What Is Sacred (Atria Paperbacks, 2013). He is quoting the Nigerian linguist Olasope Oyelaran. To hear, truly to hear what is spoken in any language, with the body, with expression, involves a kenosis, an emptying of the self. Only then, according to Nepo, can one enter into the realm of deep listening.
I first encountered Nepo’s work in his The Book of Awakening (Conari Press, 2000). He is a teacher and a survivor of cancer which led him to develop his own philosophy of being in the present, a not-unheard-of idea similar to many eastern philosophies, including Buddhism. We must learn, he argues in his introduction, to return “quite humbly, to the simple fate of being here.” This is where deep listening becomes sacred work.
Ironically, a loss of hearing due to chemotherapy drew Nepo back to the fundamental sensory perception of listening. It was in this lack of noise that he began to hear what exists more deeply in our subconscious: the rhythms and intricacies of daily life. “I seems that intuitive listening requires us to still our minds until the beauty of things older than our minds can find us,” he writes. He compares the assault of daily life to an angry tiger, always demanding our undivided attention, but if we can silence that tiger, in a sense, ignore the tiger, we can begin to hear “something timeless” that continually moves through the world.
Nepo divides the book into groupings of chapters: “The Work of Being”; The Work of Being Human”; and “The Work of Love.” Each chapter is short, like a Buddhist parable, but packed with meaning and insight. He intersperses, throughout the text, reflection, meditation, and journaling exercises that reinforce the message and theme of each section.
In his chapter on restoring our confidence, for example, he develops the theme of two powerful teachers in our lives: not-knowing and paradox. The translation of paradox from the “Greek para (beyond) and dox (belief) indicates to Nepo that something is “beyond our current understanding of things.” This highlights the ideas of faith and belief in a nutshell. There are aspects of this life that are beyond our limited human understanding. Quite simply, there are things we cannot know. Yet, these aspects are truths in and of themselves and cannot be ignored, resulting in a paradox. He ends the section with a journal question: “Tell a story of how some aspect of who you are has fallen away and died and what new way of being has replaced it.”
I find resonance with this idea because life is a series of little deaths, of things falling away as new opportunities present themselves. We are born on the highway toward the end from the very first breath. The signposts on this highway are often these little deaths—the end of a job, a divorce, a completion of a project or major quest. Things must die, like the leaves in autumn, in order to be renewed and continued. Life is seasons, and every season has its death, every journey has its end. When we end, we are transfigured into another existence. There is the energy of our life which rejoins the greater soul that Emerson spoke of so eloquently, and there are the memories of us carried by the people we touch in our lives. All of life contains some piece of the soul of existence, and therefore, nothing ever ends; as Frost wrote, there are three magic words about life: it goes on.
If I had a criticism of the book, it would be its length. At times, Nepo is repetitive. Like a lot of theological, spiritual, or self-help literature, the book could be edited down a bit, maybe even to the length of a magazine piece. But this is a minor criticism, mainly because some of us need the lesson conveyed in several ways to internalize what we need to learn. Often, we fall back on our old behaviors. We want to control what happens to us, we wish to dictate our lives, but we soon learn that this is impossible. Nepo writes, “For under all our attempts to script our lives, life itself cannot be scripted.” In the end, we can only live, and a primary component of that living is listening. Everyone has a story; every part of creation has a truth running through it. If we fail to listen, it is as if we are “reading the books of astronomers but never really looking at the stars,” as Nepo quotes from the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges.
This is one of the strengths of the book: Nepo links his ideas to, or supports his thesis with, literature. He comes to the table with a doctorate in English, so this is not unexpected. On the other hand, maybe it is better to go to these texts rather than allowing the words to be filtered down to us through Nepo’s pen. His writing is accessible and his voice is strong which makes for easy comprehension and consideration of often difficult philosophical ideas.
Nepo is a gifted philosopher and a deep thinker. There is much to take away from his work. The cover illustration sums up his point of view: a dock gradually moving away from the photographer into the blandly blue sea. That is our life, and even though the dock ends, it opens into the new world of the ocean with its own trials and tribulations, and yes, joys. If we listen, we can hear the waves, the water moving in its endless breathing in and out, never ending, but changing according to the seasons and the sky.