Notes towards an egoless poetry 11: Kenosis
My sources here are primarily those that I have found who articulate things I already knew, but wasn’t clear that I knew, and that I hadn’t yet put into words or formal concepts. My Zen is more of an attitude than a strict practice; I like Dogen’s comment that you don’t need a meditation pillow to practice Zen, your ass will do just fine. I tend to steer clear of words like “God” because they have a tremendous amount of baggage accrued to them. I don’t go to church mostly because I don’t like church politics. I invent new terminologies for the sacred and the divine on a regular basis, which is a visionary poet’s right and pleasure. Lately, because I’ve been on the front lines of caring for my ailing parents, I have felt drawn more powerfully towards the Buddhist aspects of my practice.
As a lifelong mystic, I have most often focused on the common ground and identical concepts that arise independently in so many of the world’s religions. (I find it no coincidence that all of the world’s mystics, in all the world’s cultures, in every era, have all said very similar things.) I find it horrifying that so many conflicts have been fought about small disagreements around religious beliefs and practices. That we as a species are so willing and able to kill each other over sectarian differences saddens me beyond my ability to express in words.
Having said all this by way of preface, it’s time to return to poetry. I prefaced my remarks this way by way leading up to revealing that I read a lot of theology. I get a lot out of reading theology, even when it’s as parochial and self-referential as Western Christian theology can sometimes be.
(I read much more than Christian theology, however. In the original Greek, theos refers to all things divine, and can refer to the thousand little local gods, the greater demiurges, and hierarchy or pantheon of deities one choose to list, and the silent Godhead behind them all, for which they are all masks. It can also refer to the representatives of god, or the gods, which are the Powers That Be or many different functions and names. Theos can refer to Shiva, Vishnu, Mahakala, and Quan Yin just as readily as it can to the God of the three Abrahamic religions.)
So, in my recent readings in theology, I came across the idea of kenosis, introduced to me by a very remarkable short book: Kenosis: Emptying self and the path of Christian Service, by Kevin M. Cronin, a Franciscan priest. (Published in 1992 by Continuum, New York, a publisher whose books I frequently find of great interest and utility.) Fr. Cronin first defines kenosis in his book’s introduction as a resolute divesting of the person of every claim of self-interest so as to be ready to live the Gospel of Christ in every aspect of living, freed from the dictates of personal preference.
I find I prefer Fr. Cronin’s very Franciscan descriptions of kenosis as a process and a way of life over the dry, academic doctrinal definitions found in, for instance, the Catholic Encyclopedia or other dry technical discussions that seem involved more in the letter of doctrine than in its spirit. The traditional doctrinal definitions refer often to Paul’s epistle to the Philippians in the New Testament, specifically the remark: Jesus made himself nothing or emptied himself. The verb is ekenosen, which means “to empty,” that is, to empty the self. One pours out one’s existence on the ground, and gives up everything, only to be fulfilled.
(The section of Paul’s epistle in which this word appears is sometimes referred to as The Kenosis Hymn, or Prayer. An interesting discussion of kenosis from this perspective is The Poured-Out Life.)
Fr. Cronin describes how to put the principle into action. His book is partly memoir, partly meditation: his theology is grounded in practice and encounter, rather than in philosophy, for which we may all be grateful. As I have recently spent a great deal of time in hospitals, in Alzheimer’s care facilities, and with hospice patients, what Fr. Cronin describes as a process of emptying the self to be of service to others to have a great deal of resonance in my current daily life. I serve best when I get out of my own way, and live in the moment, and deal with what’s right in front of; I serve much less well when I dwell on what-ifs and might-bes and nebulous plans for a future that will never arrive except in the usual way, one minute at a time.
Although the concept and word kenosis are borrowed from Catholic theology, let us no set aside any sectarian doctrinal undercurrents and keep our attention here on how kenosis applies to poetry. If you like, set aside the God-language of doctrinal theology and substitute your own words for That which is greater than yourself. You can call it God, Goddess, Higher Self, Higher Power, the Powers That Be, Spirit, or any of a million other masks of god that are known by many other names. The point here is to recognize the archetypal universality of the human encounter with the transpersonal, whether we frame it as the Divine, or as some force that arises within the unknown parts of our own minds (and knowing that these might be the same thing).
Perhaps I am merely repeating myself, or circling around to approach the same island from a different direction. Syncretism and synchronicity are no strangers here, though, but regular visitors who drop around for tea and cookies.
Kenosis is the removal of the self so as to be open for the movement of Spirit to come in. This could be a description of the process of inspiration, of a Greek philosopher describing how the artist is “taken by the Muse.” It speaks directly to removing the “I” of the poet from the poetry.
Kenosis leads to egolessness. We’ve already discussed in this series how the ego tends to fight against being given up, as the ego can only perceive that as its own death; we’ve also discussed poetry’s relation, if any, to mental illness. Kenosis may be a more specific practice, rather than a new one, for achieving an egoless poetry.
Kenosis is a humbling, an emptying, a letting-go. It is transforming. As Fr. Cronin puts it: It’s the secret nature continually reveals every spring after winter; in rainbows after the rain; in butterflies after cocoons. . . . New life after dying to self. In the Peace prayer: “It is in dying that we are born!” (This could be a Buddhist as well as a Christian saying.)
Kenosis in poetry means emptying the mind so that the poem can come in. It means emptying the self to leave room from Something Else to come in; maybe that something else is the poem, or maybe it’s inspiration. Maybe it’s psychological, maybe it’s spiritual. I’m sure it doesn’t matter how you formulate it, as long as it is happening.
There’s a technique I’ve learned over the years for removing memories that are difficult, painful, disgusting, horrifying, but removing them without suppressing them or stuffing them into the shadow, to re-emerge elsewhere as a neurosis. The technique is to visualize a void, like a whole torn in the middle of a book page, a void where the fear or disgust used to be. But the important thing is to hold the void as long as you can, and let the hole be empty: don’t let it fill up; don’t let what was there before flow back in; and don’t try to fill it the way many people will try to fill in a silence in a conversation merely because they are uncomfortable with silence. Let the void be empty, for as long as you can sustain. You’ll find, then, as your mind turns inevitably to other things, that what once bothered you is gone, yet something new has come into you, perhaps from a completely unnoticed direction, and what has come in is often a gift of grace.
Emptying the self in poetry means emptying yourself of plans, intentions, expectations, detailed outlines, thought-forms, desires, structures and forms. The void will get refilled all by itself; you don’t have to do a thing. And your record of the experience is what becomes the poem. Emptying yourself of forms doesn’t mean you’ll stop writing sonnets, but it does mean you’ll look at the sonnet form in a new way: with the scales of expectation and habit removed from your eyes, you will see what’s actually there, rather than what you thought was there. (And that is the goal of all meditation practices, including zazen and monastic contemplative prayer alike: removal of the scales from the eyes.) Maintaining the void in yourself, emptying the self, means letting go of old habits of thought that may not serve you anymore. It means seeing what’s really there, without the filters and thought-forms we usually look through. Buddhist and Christian and Sufi and Taoist teachers alike have all yelled, Wake up! You’ve been asleep you entire life! So wake up!
Kenosis is letting go of what you thought you knew, and waking up to what really is. It leaves a place in you for grace to come in. And sometimes grace looks like a poem.