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Dateline Islamabad: Listen to live

March 10, 2013

Years ago, one of our finest diplomats got the coveted foreign secretary’s slot. I went to the Foreign Office in Islamabad to interview him. Chain-smoking, chirpy with a clipped English accent, he took me on a long tour de force on how he planned running the store. “I have just one regret,” he said as the interview came to an end. “I don’t have time to think.”

As time went by, certain edginess took over. Asking him a question during a special briefing that he did not really want to answer often resulted in a sharpness of tone and a rebuke. He was changing. He was perhaps frustrated, that what he had set out to achieve was now going up in smoke just as the cigarette he would be holding.

Had Mark Nepo written his book Seven Thousand Ways to Listen two decades before it was published, the nervy foreign secretary may have survived the work pressure had he read it. His career ended the way of all our self-important and puffed-up babus — a walk down Sunset Boulevard.

Mark Nepo was struck with a rare form of cancer 25 years ago. He survived. He changed after being pulled out from the jaws of death to become one of the finest spiritual guides of our time. As a consummate storyteller, his book on listening is a riveting narrative of his first person experiences with life. He speaks of a photographer in California who tells him that there were two breaths that had changed his life the past year: his newborn’s first breath and his mother’s last breath.

“As his daughter inhaled the world, it seemed to awaken her soul on earth. As his mother exhaled her years, it seemed to free her soul of the world.” Drawing a lesson from his encounter with the photographer, Nepo says that with each exhalation, we too can free ourselves of the world that “entangles” us and with each inhalation of our breath, we too can take in the world to awaken our souls.

The book has overwhelming philosophy that requires close reading and chockfull concentration. Above all, it asks for a total surrender of our inner beings to receive the wisdom each page contains. Not all at any given moment are willing to plunge into the soul and try to excavate the hidden meaning of everyday life. Often, we live on the surface, where stress, disappointments, worries and a thousand other maladies rule our waking time.

The author speaks of his loss of hearing and how he learnt to cope with it by listening more intently to life and what it has to say. There are angels, says Nepo who present themselves in a thousand guises, each calling us to follow their song. “There is no right or wrong way to go”, says Nepo who thinks that only our heart can find the “appointments you are born to keep”. He says we should not fret about it but rather “meet each uncertainty” with an open heart that will lead us to an “authentic tomorrow”.

The book has bagged the #1 New York Times bestseller slot. People want to learn how to live. The cherry tree is a metaphor that the author uses to elaborate. He once lived upstate New York where a cherry tree blossomed on his street each year for just a few days in early May. “Since it blossomed before everything else, the miracle of flowers sprouting from wood was shouting quietly,” he writes. But the lesson he shares with us is that how quickly the cherry tree would let go of its beauty, as “quickly gone as it had come”.

The moral from the tree is: neither the fullness nor the bareness lasts, but we return. This in a nutshell is the cycle of life. All humans and living matter is interconnected. The font of knowledge is Nature itself. The different seasons, trees, flowers and everything around us are our teachers. They reveal mysteries of life that reveal to only those who care to discover them by stalking them.

Is Nepo making any sense to you so far?

He is a strange human, as he says himself. When in college, he was asked what subject he wanted to major in, he would say “in life”. People around him thought he was a lost soul. “But this inability to locate myself on the social map enabled me to uncover a deeper tie with the pulse of everything living, a tie that has nourished me my whole life”.

He says it’s futile to plan or chalk out a path over which we have no control. Following one’s agenda with a single-mind is a no-go. “For life is tangential and circulatory like the veins on a leaf or in the chamber of the heart”. It’s the ‘unplanned unfoldings’ that make us more human, he says. To put it another way, doggedly chasing a course that you have assigned yourself because you think it will lead you to success or fulfillment merely robs you of your humanness. We well know some people who are too robotic or mechanical. Nobody would care to share a meal with the humourless android. Right?

Nepo who has entered the sixth decade of his life but is nervous each time he goes for a physical exam fearing that the cancer may have returned is determined to live a normal life despite losing his hearing and suffering a permanent damage to his digestive system after a bout of stomach flu. His book borrows heavily from the wisdom of the sages. Each chapter has quotes that reflect the thinking of philosophers, historians, poets, artists, musicians who shaped the world and left it a better place to inhabit.

Ghalib features too! “For the raindrop, joy is entering the lake”, Nepo quotes Ghalib. He elaborates by telling us that as we search for our purpose on this Earth “we are opened to a conversation about the very relationship of a single soul to the ocean of life”.

The book’s last chapter carries Van Gogh’s classic words: “I tell you, the more I think, the more I feel that there is nothing more truly artistic than to love people”.

Wonder if our squabble-infested politicians have heard of Van Gogh? Instead of coming every night on television talk shows to mouth ugly insults on their adversaries, these foul tongued men and women who are best described as Philistines should take a break from television and learn the art of decent conversation. With decency will come their sense of aesthetics and who knows, perhaps love!