How We Learn
with Mark Nepo

There was a young man who was eager to learn all he could about life. He was sincere and devoted. Soon after leaving his family, he came upon a baker and became his apprentice. He wa tched as the baker used a sieve to sift and refine his flour and sugar. The young man thought, this is how I'll sift the best from life; separating what is gross from what is fine. This is how I'll learn and think and work and love; filtering out the unwanted pieces. But while his heart became schooled at sifting out what is harsh and indigestible, he found that basing his life on only what is fine can be dangerous, like building a house on sand. Once sifted, nothing was foundational and there was nothing substantial enough to stand on. His life became like powder.

In time, the apprentice left the baker knowing that sweet things are necessary but not enduring. In time, he came upon a winemaker and apprenticed with him. He watched as the winemaker let the blood-like wine ferment in large oak casks. After much waiting, he saw how the winemaker would strain the aging wine to catch the dregs and sediment, which had given it its taste but which themselves were undrinkable. Now he thought, this is how I'll strain the difficult lessons of life. This is how I'll let the lessons of pain and heartache age. This is how I'll strain what is drinkable from them. But the apprentice was surprised to watch the winemaker grow drunk from his own wine and saw how the pain and heartache surfaced anyway. So while it is possible and even admirable to strain out the broken pieces that life brings us, we still must guard against becoming intoxicated by the sediment of life.

And so the apprentice moved on. By now he was no longer young, but middle-aged. As he tired, he came upon a farmer who gave him some water. They struck up a friendship and he saw that the farmer was a master at irrigation, at funneling water into the root systems that braided his land. He stayed on to learn how wide openings can gather water, how narrow pipes can carry it, how smaller openings can feed the water to the things that need it. So now he thought, this is how I will live. I will no longer try to get things out of life, but live as an instrument, as a funnel myself. I will open my heart wide and collect the waters of life and carry them through me to water things in need. He thought, this is how I will be authentic and of use. And the apprentice stayed with the farmer for many years. In times of plenty, they fed many. In times of lack, they kept everyone in water. And it was good to be of use.

But over the years, the aging apprentice began to feel worn down by being a funnel, especially in the narrow part of him that carried love to others. Living like this had scoured his insides, and he felt, at times, that he was losing the depth and calm of the whole to this narrowing.

By now, he was an old man. And when his friend died, the apprentice sat under the largest tree on the farm and thought about his life with the baker, the winemaker, and the farmer. He thought about how his heart had been a sieve, a strainer, and a funnel. He could feel the gift of each and the cost of each. It was then that he left the farm and made his way to the sea, where he lived quietly, roaming the shore.

In his remaining years he befriended a sponge diver and became fascinated by the simplicity of sponges to absorb without preference and to give without holding back. He thought, this is where I've been led. This is how I'll live what years are left, accepting like a sponge and giving like a sponge. And so he spent his days being porous and cleansing.

Tasting the heart

As we need to sleep and wake, we need to taste all forms of heart. As we need to breathe, we need to presence and sage: to open and absorb and narrow and hold on to and sift. For no one can blossom the God within but you. So water what you know, even more what you don't know. Taste everything and be surprised.

Mark Nepo moved and inspired readers and seekers all over the world with his #1 New York Times bestseller The Book of Awakening. Beloved as a poet, teacher, and storyteller, Mark has been called “one of the finest spiritual guides of our time,” “a consummate storyteller,” and “an eloquent spiritual teacher.” His work is widely accessible and used by many and his books have been translated into more than twenty languages.