The One Life We’re Given


No matter where we think we’re going, the journey of every life is to find its home in the moment where everything touches everything else.

When we can feel what is ours to feel, and inhabit our own particular moment—of love or suffering, of beauty or pain, of peace or agitation—that depth of feeling allows us to live once for all time. To live once for all time means that the depth of our one life, once opened, is filled with the stream of life from every direction. To live once for all time means that try as we do to add to the one life we’re given in our attempt to run from death, the incarnation of being human forces us to open the one life we’re given, so we might be immersed in the well of all life for the brief time we’re here. One life lived wholeheartedly and without disguise is more than enough. Nothing could be more precious or out of our control. Though we can try.

As a jazz musician spends years learning the intricacies of his instrument, never knowing when the goddess of music will sweep his practiced hands along, we master many paths, never knowing when we will be swept into the presence of beauty. As a shortstop fields thousands of grounders until his hands are blistered, all to be ready for the unpredictable bounce that will happen under the lights, we meditate, study, and field thousands of questions until our mind is blistered, all to be ready for the unpredictable bounce of circumstance that will bring us closer to life. In just this way, the heart learns the scales of love, never knowing when the work will be turned into song.

This journey to inhabit the one life we’re given is archetypal. Everyone who’s ever lived has had to go through it, though no two souls ever go through it exactly the same way. Yet we all experience common passages. As we start out, we’re preoccupied with finding our way, with discovering who we are, with defining ourselves by contrast with everything around us. We try to set ourselves apart by creating something out of nothing, by out-reaching or out-racing others. But sooner or later, obstacles throw us off course and the first versions of our life plans, always dear and precious, are broken. Then we’re sent into a passage of not-knowing, unsure where to go and what to do. Less certain, we’re challenged to inquire into a larger view of life that includes us but is not defined by us.

At this point, we’re ready to discover who we are a second time. With nowhere to go but here, with nothing to do but open the one life we’re given, a journey begins in which we experience life rather than dreaming that we can escape it. We start to invest who we are and all our care into where we are and slowly become one with everything we encounter. By now, there’s been enough suffering that we can feel our kinship with others and the depth of our care is closer to the surface.

In time, the heart works its way into the presence of grace by showing up completely, no matter the circumstance. We learn that meeting life with an open heart is how we can feel where everything is joined. Our call then is to let the soul out and the world in. Where soul and world touch, we spark alive. When our soul expresses itself in the world, our aliveness shows, and we begin to do our part in sustaining a Universe that keeps unfolding.

When the soul expresses itself, we experience enlivened arcs of grace in which we feel the force of life that runs through everything. Anything that moves us to carry our soul out into the world is a catalyst of grace. In this way, love, friendship, creativity, pain, and loss are agents of grace, as are surprise, beauty, grief, and wonder. And while experience wears us down to what’s essential so the soul can stop being encased, it also takes daily effort to let our soul out and an open heart to let the world in, so we can spark ourselves alive and finally be of use. Like it or not, we’re opened by the hard, sweet journey of being human, until we’re sparked and worn into a gateway for life-force.


One life lived wholeheartedly and without disguise is more than enough.


Seeds to Water

  • In your journal, describe a time when you defined yourself by contrast with everything around you. How did you set yourself apart? At the time, how did defining yourself this way help you? How did setting yourself apart from others hurt you?
  • In conversation with a friend or loved one, describe a time when you were asked to discover who you are a second time. What have you learned about your own nature? How is this second self different from the first version of yourself? Do you feel that you’re arriving at a foundational sense of who you are? If so, what does the foundation of you look like?

Excerpted from The One Life We’re Given: Finding the Wisdom that Waits in your Heart

By Mark Nepo and published by Atria Books


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