The Exquisite Risk:
Daring To Live An Authentic Life




“The exquisite risk is a doorway that lets us experience the extraordinary in the ordinary.”

In these fast-paced times, the exquisite risk facing each of us every day is to slow down and “still our own house” so that we may experience life rather than simply manage it. In The Exquisite Risk, poet and teacher Mark Nepo encourages readers to become quiet enough and open enough to listen to what truly matters—our own hearts, our loved ones, the wonders of nature—in order to live a life with nothing held back. Along the way, Nepo shares his own spiritual path, including a battle with illness that helped him understand how only by daring to embrace all that life has to offer can we come to a deeper appreciation of its meaning and beauty.

In the spirit of works by Deepak Chopra and Ram Dass, The Exquisite Risk unfolds in chapters like “The Struggle to Be Real,” “There Are Teachers Everywhere,” “The Rhythm of Kindness,” and “The Gift of Surprise,” offering fresh perspective on these universal themes and providing insight into how we can minimize what stands between us and our experience of life.



Before stories were recorded, what happened to the living was told and retold around fires, on cliffs, and in the shade of enormous trees. And it is said that somewhere on the edge of what was known and unknown, a man and a woman paused in their struggles to survive and faced each other. One asked the other, “Is there more to this than hauling wood?” The older of the two sighed, “Yes... And no.”

This may have been the beginning of our sense of being and our search for meaning. I imagine these two faced everything we face. For the journey is the same: How to open our pain and listen to all that matters, so we can make it through and rejoice from day to day.

Like those before us, we have the chance to wake and love, the chance to welcome the gift of surprise and befriend the Whole. For beneath the life of problem-solving waits the struggle to be real, from which no one is exempt. We each are asked to make our way through the drama of our bleeding to the stripping of our will, through the tensions of our suffering to the humility of surrender where we might learn the ordinary art of living at the pace of what is real.

So, is there more to this than hauling the wood of our history around? More than just replaying our patterns? Whether yesterday or 5000 years ago, there has always been the need to break our habits in the world—the need to give up what no longer works.

Ultimately, there is always the need to risk being new. Yet even succeeding, to be authentic—living as close to our experience as possible—is arduous. For being human, we remember and forget. We stray and return, fall down and get up, and cling and let go, again and again. But it is this straying and returning that makes life interesting, this clinging and letting go—damned as it is—that exercises the heart.

They say that, after a time, the two who paused on the edge of what was known and unknown stumbled into humility. “Please, tell me, is there more to this than hauling wood?” the one would ask again. And the more tired of the two replied, “No, no. It is all in the hauling, all in the wood, all in how we face each other around the small fires we can build.”

It was then that they rested, as we rest, when accepting the grace of our humanness. You see, we’ve always been on a journey, like it or not, aware of it or not, struggling to enter and embrace things as they are. And when we can accept our small part in the way of things, when we can build a small fire and gather, it opens us to joy. So join me on this journey we are already on. We can help each other hold nothing back. We can help each other live a sincere life. We can help each other wear down what gets in the way, waking close to the bone.

Come. There are teachers everywhere: in the stories around us, in the stories within us, in the life of expression that sings where we are broken, in the kinship of gratitude that keeps reminding us that we need each other as we become the earth.


The Upaguru—Hindu for the teacher that is next to you at any moment.

From the rotting tree felled by lightning to the water re-smoothing after the whale dives down, everything is of equal sanctity and grace. From the darkness we can’t see through to the tenderness of a grandfather afraid to speak, everything and everyone is a teacher. Each flower, each bird, each suffering, great and small, each eroded stone and crack in that stone, each question rising from each crack—every aspect of life holds some insight that can help us live. We can learn and deepen from anything anywhere.

Yet one of the paradoxes of being human is that no one can see or comprehend all of it. Thus, each of us must discover the teachers that speak to us, the ones we can hear. This seems to be our job as initiates of being: to pursue our curiosity and passion and suffering in an effort to uncover our teachers. Just as different insects are drawn to certain flowers, though pollen is everywhere, different souls are drawn to certain aspects of the living Universe, though God is in everything.

While the geography of stars pulsing in the night may help you discover the peace waiting in your soul, digging in the earth may help your sister know where she belongs. And yet, listening to elders speak of their life as they near death unlocks the things I need to learn. Each is equally a teacher, one no truer than the other. It’s as if everything has to carry what is holy because each of us has only one set of ears and one set of feet to stumble on our way.

The moments that hold mystery, whether dressed in pain or wonder, wait to be treated with respect and sincerity; as if a message was carved in stone for you before you were born, and a storm has washed it ashore just in time, and you need all the help you can get to decipher its meaning. And we will be found by our teachers repeatedly—be they the moon, the thief, or the tiger—until we can uncover their meaning.

It makes a difference when we can look at experience as such a vastness. And the moments that open our lives become powerful stories in our own personal mythology, the retelling of which renews our vitality. For me, such moments include God emanating solitude through the waves of the sea, and Grandma staring into eternity at 94 when she thought no one was looking, and when I woke after surgery to the miracle of freshly squeezed juice.

So, who and what have been your teachers? What stories carry the teachings? And what inner history do they form? Who can you share this with? If no one, find someone. It’s one of the few things that matter.

And where is your next teacher? In the loss about to happen that you won’t be able to make sense of? Or in the stone in your shoe next month that has the imprint of a bird’s wing?

It is all very humbling. For plan as we will, study as we may, search as we can, it is all a guess—a wild attempt to land ourselves in the open or in the dark until our teachers appear.


"Mark Nepo's The Exquisite Risk is one of the best books we've ever read on what it takes to live an authentic life."

—Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat



by Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat, Spirituality & Practice (April 2005, p.76)
Read the review in Spirituality & Practice online.

We were so inspired by Mark Nepo's The Book of Awakening that we gave it an award as one of the Best Spiritual Books of 2000. He is a program officer at the Fetzer Institute, a teacher of poetry and spirituality, and a guest speaker and leader of workshops across the country. He sees this new volume as "an intimate companion in exploring the intoxicating quandaries of being alive." He covers four areas: teachers, steering our way to center, going there together, and honoring the mystery. He asks us to slow down, be alert, and open our hearts and minds to what is in front of us. The exquisite risk in all of this is to hold nothing back, least of all our love and our energy to do our best at whatever we do.

Nepo is a cancer survivor whose journey into the country of illness has made him truly appreciative of the marvels and wonders of everyday life. "For me, almost dying meant experiencing small amounts of death so deeply and rawly that the very elements of living and dying scoured my basic understanding of things."

He is a great storyteller who has much wisdom to impart. Even the little asides are significant. He recounts a South African proverb that explains why two antelope walk together: so that one can blow the dust from the other's eyes.

In an intimate confession, the author shares his compulsion to do it all or to "experience greed." But by spreading himself all over the place and trying to understand everything, he found himself having trouble being present to anything. It took him a while to discover that the moment opened to him when he came to it empty-handed.

Nepo finds spiritual teachers all around him and challenges us to pick up the habit. He recalls the magic moments when he awoke from surgery to savor the miracle of freshly squeezed orange juice and when he experienced awe in the presence of his 94-year-old grandmother staring into eternity. He has a nice little essay on the difference between giving attention and getting attention. Most of us are much more interested in maneuvering the spotlight onto ourselves than we are in listening deeply to another person.

When Native American medicine men talk to the sick, they usually ask three questions: When was the last time you sang? When was the last time you danced? When was the last time you told your story? Nepo does all three with a piece on how Africans use song as a way of overcoming trials and tribulations. He shares a vignette about dancer Ted Shawn who got polio and followed a deep inner voice that told him to leave divinity school and begin to dance. He eventually regained the use of both legs. The healing process for this dancer was in "embodying God."

As you read this enthralling and life-affirming book, you are sure to find yourself having goose bumps as you make heart connections through these incredible essays. Frank Ostaseski, founder of the Zen Hospice Project in San Francisco, told the author that the most frequent question to arise from those who are dying is: Have I loved well? The Exquisite Risk is Mark Nepo's love letter to all of us.

“A lovely, luminous work that should make a lasting impression on its readers… Insightful chapters focus on learning to center ourselves, journeying with others in the sacred quest, and being present to the venerable unknown… Advanced students of truth-seeking will connect with the spiritual questions that Nepo asks.”
Library Journal

“Nepo offers a rich and lyric reflection on what it means to live a truly authentic life.”
Body & Soul Magazine

“There are books that encourage you to race through from beginning to end, and there are those meant to be savored like a fine meal. Nepo's book is filled with poetic imagery and language, enticing the reader to linger over its delicate flavors. Filtered through his personal experience, Nepo pours wisdom from the chalice of many cultures and faiths.”
The Cleveland Plain Dealer

“Once again, Mark Nepo draws us to the heart of what matters. He illuminates love with the light of his own understanding.”
Marianne Williamson, author of Enchanted Love

“The Exquisite Risk is a celebration of an honest life, lived on purpose. Mark Nepo’s words, like water on a stone, gently but firmly score a path for us to follow, a path that leads us into the place of remembering what a life is for; an invitation to tell the truth, remain close to the earth, and love well. What, more than this, can we ever ask of a book as our companion?”
Wayne Muller, author of Learning to Pray, Sabbath, and How, Then, Shall We Live?

“Every page of The Exquisite Risk is alive with Mark’s compassion, rich with his soulfulness. If you are looking for one of those rare books that offer companionship on the journey, you will find none better than this.”
Parker J. Palmer, author of A Hidden Wholeness, The Courage to Teach, and Let Your Life Speak

“An inspiration . . . The Exquisite Risk affirms that there are essentially two responses to life—a risky opening up to love and a controlling move into success and isolation. The direct reporting of Mark Nepo’s epiphanies moves and flows in a wonderful sequencing of revelations that deepen and fill out as we read. . . . An exquisite gift.”
Robert Inchausti, author of The Ignorant Perfection of Ordinary People

“In this exquisite book, the suffering of one man speaks with the voice of wisdom and beauty to all of us.”
Jacob Needleman, author of The American Soul, A Little Book on Love, and
Money and the Meaning of Life

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