By Mark Nepo
Everything is beautiful and I am so sad.
This is how the heart makes a duet of
wonder and grief. The light spraying
through the lace of the fern is as delicate
as the fibers of memory forming their web
around the knot in my throat. The breeze
makes the birds move from branch to branch
as this ache makes me look for those I’ve lost
in the next room, in the next song, in the laugh
of the next stranger. In the very center, under
it all, what we have that no one can take
away and all that we’ve lost face each other.
It is there that I’m adrift, feeling punctured
by a holiness that exists inside everything.
I am so sad and everything is beautiful.
You know how it is when a song, a poem, a phrase comes to you, and it exactly expresses your deepest experience of the world in ways you could never before put words to?
I was attending a 4-day Science of Happiness event in Scott’s Valley, California this past weekend when Jack Kornfield, a renowned meditation teacher and Buddhism scholar, started us off us with a powerful meditation on themes of happiness and suffering and human connection. It was the first morning of our gathering, and amid the many nuggets of wisdom Jack shared with these themes, there was this poem by Mark Nepo that took hold of me.
It surprised me how much the poem resonated with something deep in my soul, putting words to the unexplainable binding of joy and sorrow that I often feel is part of how I move through life. Even in the midst of this “happiness” gathering, on the beautiful campus of 1440 Multiversity retreat center, nestled among giant redwoods just a 20-minute drive from the Santa Cruz beach, I was feeling that strange “duet of wonder and grief” very viscerally. Such irony. Such truth.
The Science of Happiness gathering was hosted and organized by the Greater Good Science Center at U.C. Berkeley (an organization I’ve had the deep pleasure of working with through my communications consulting work). I was mostly there to disconnect for a few days, soak in the wisdom of those present, surround myself in the natural beauty. But the event was also taking place in the run-up to my 45th birthday. And birthdays are always bittersweet for me. I look at my birthday as an important yearly milestone along the highway of my life. I look ahead, I look back, I give thanks for all I have enjoyed in life, and ache painfully for what I’ve not yet accomplished.
It was a powerful weekend from start to finish, perhaps made all the more powerful by the honest-to-goodness kindness of the people that it drew together in such a lovely setting. I can’t say that there were too many great surprises in the content that I learned — I’ve been absorbing this stuff for quite some time. But there were several key insights that surfaced again and again for me, such as:
- It is possible to cultivate happiness even amidst suffering
- Well-being is a skill that we can learn and mindfulness is an important tool in shaping well-being
- Positive emotions broaden our minds and affect us on a biological and cellular level
- The music of Diana Gameros, as well as her genuine presence in the world, is awe-inspiring
- And because we were nestled in the redwoods, this truth stayed with me.
Hats off to my colleagues at Greater Good Science Center who dedicate themselves to cultivating these insights and sharing them with the world.
There is more I could say about the internal and external happenings of that amazing 4-day expanse of reflection and connection, but I’ll just leave things here by saying that I believe more than ever that happiness and sadness can coexist, and in fact, SHOULD coexist. They are like the sun and the moon that play off each other in the sky. And if such polar opposites can coexist, how much more so are we capable of holding together all the dichotomies that exist in our society, our relationships, our lives. Birth, death, and everything in between. That is the great intersection of life.