Life Beyond the Fish Tank

Life Beyond the Fish Tank

Life Beyond the Fish Tank

The beloved poet and spiritual teacher Mark Nepo recently celebrated the 20th anniversary of the publication of his  New York Times best-selling The Book of Awakening: Having the Life You Want by Being Present to the Life You Have by reading some of the most moving and enlightening poems/meditations/essays in a recent webinar. Inspiring enough that I found my 20-year old copy of The Book of Awakening on my shelf and began thumbing through it almost like tossing the I Ching.

And found “Life in the Tank,” written 20 years before we ever heard of the pandemic, but so profoundly relevant now, as we try to find the courage to re-emerge from our sheltering in place and re-enter the larger world.


Life in the Tank

– by Mark Nepo, The Book of Awakening

It was a curious thing. Robert had filled the bathtub and put the fish in the tub, so he could clean their tank. After he’d scrubbed the film from the small walls of their make-believe deep, he went to retrieve them.

He was astonished to find that, though they had the entire tub to swim in, they were huddled in a small area the size of their tank. There was nothing containing them, nothing holding them back. Why wouldn’t they dart about freely? What had life in the tank done to their natural ability to swim?

This quiet yet stark moment stayed with both of us for a long time.  We couldn’t help but see those little fish going nowhere but into themselves.  We now had a life-in-the-tank lens on the world and wondered daily, In what ways are we like them?  In what ways do we go nowhere but into ourselves? In what ways do we shrink our world so as not to feel the press of our own self-imposed captivity?

Life in the tank made me think of how we are raised at home and in school. It made me think of being told that certain jobs are not acceptable and that certain jobs are out of reach, of being schooled to live a certain way, of being trained to think that only practical things are possible, of being warned over and over that life outside the tank of our values is risky and dangerous.

I began to see just how much we were taught as children to fear life outside the tank.  As a father, Robert began to question if he was preparing his children for life in the tank or life in the uncontainable world.

It makes me wonder now, in middle age, if being spontaneous and kind and curious are all parts of our natural ability to swim.  Each time I hesitate to do the unplanned, or unexpected, or hesitate to reach and help another, or hesitate to inquire into something I know nothing about; each time I Ignore the impulse to run in the rain or to call you up just to say I love you – I wonder, am I turning on myself, swimming safely in the middle of the tub? 


Most of us were lucky enough, and grateful enough, to have safe tubs to swim in during the pandemic. Now, as we hope our children can return to school in person, and families are holding weddings and funerals in person again, we may have unknowingly developed a life-in-the-tank lens that smallifies our sense of opportunities and makes us hesitate in the face of uncertainty, the unknowable and the uncontainable.

I’ve offered my suggestions for addressing this life-in-the-tank lens in previous posts, though I didn’t have Mark’s poetic phrasing of it at the time.  In Re-Couping from A Hard, Hard Year Part One and Part Two and Recovering from Pandemic Burnout and Fatigue…In Ways that Are Honest and Effective.

Mark’s suggestions at the end of Life in the Tank:

Sit quietly until you feel thoroughly in your center.

Now rise and slowly walk about the room you are in.

Now walk close to the walls of our room and meditate on life in your tank.

Breathe clearly and move to the doorway and meditate on the nature of what is truly possible in life.

Now step through the doorway and enter your day. Step through your day and enter the world.  

May it be so.