New book by Philip Kenney

The Writer's Crucible Meditations on Emotion, Being and Creativity

Phil Kenney

Philip Kenney is a practicing psychotherapist in Portland, Oregon. He did his post-graduate work in British Object Relations at the Washington D.C. School of Psychiatry and has taught Self Psychology as part of his private practice. A long time meditator and poet, Mr. Kenney is the author of the novel, Radiance, and a collection of poetry, Where Roses Bloom. He strives to bring together the worlds of psychology, creativity and spirituality in his work and is the author of a new book on those subjects entitled, The Writer's Crucible: Meditations on Emotion, Being and Creativity.

The Joy of Disappearing

December 29, 2015

I first experienced it as a boy running home in the dark on a warm summer night. Moving through the night air with fireflies darting everywhere and crickets fiddling a happy tune, I ran my fastest until there was nothing left of me but joy.

Initially, it took effort to get my body up to speed. Soon it became rhythmical and the movement effortless. Then the strangest thing happened — the feeling of my body began to evaporate. Only breathing remained and it too was smooth and easy. And then, as though it was the most natural thing in the world, that too disappeared and I found myself in a field of joy that was both moving and still, and without an edge.

The funny thing is, when I disappeared into that field of joy I didn’t run home to my family yelling, “Mom, Dad, it’s a miracle, it’s a miracle!” In fact, I didn’t question it at all. Odd. It was as though I recognized something that was already familiar in a very intimate way. I just went home and did my usual basketball thing and then went to bed trying to figure out this other thing called infinity. It wasn’t until years later when opening up in meditation retreats that I realized, “Oh yeah, I know this.”

The experience of running home and disappearing into a field of joy shows just how free and completely democratic joy is. Children know it to be the stuff of life until we make them sit still and train them to disconnect. It takes tremendous psychic force to keep the inherent joyfulness of existence dampened. You have experienced this state of consciousness on many occasions, some as common as eating an ice cream cone, making love or watching your children play. In these moments the mind quiets and goes still, allowing another reality to come forth that is independently happy and loving.

The Still Point

What do we mean by disappearing? Isn’t that what happens when we die? Who disappears and for how long? Hey, I’ve got stuff to do. Where do we go when we disappear? Is it a black hole? That sounds scary like that empty place I feel sometimes that I hate. If that’s what you’re talking about, no thanks.

Don’t worry, it isn’t a black hole, it is the still point. Let’s return to the T. S. Elliot poem from last week’s blog and those wonderful lines that introduce the still point. Listen —

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;

Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,

But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,

Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from

nor towards, Neither ascent nor decline.

Except for the point, the still point,

There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.

Ah, the still point of the turning world. When the still point is contacted we enter mystery and find that the still point is all points, that the veil of physicality and psychological identifications fall away, revealing that which is always there: a field of joy. I liken it to effortless being which can be translated as a field of joy, or boundless love.

“Not flesh, not fleshless.” Remember running through the summer night? That’s where it’s all happening, at the still point, but “do not call it fixity,” which we do repeatedly. “Neither movement from nor towards,” when you disappear, so do all the spatial orientations, the markers, they all fall away. “Except for the point,” which is not a singular point, there would be nothing, no party, no dance. It’s all emanating from the formless source of creation.

It really doesn’t matter what we call this: God, Buddha nature, The divine presence, Atman, Soul, The Tao. There are a hundred names trying to point us in the direction of this boundless something. Whatever we want to call it, what seems clear is that its nature is joyful loving. Elliot calls it the dance. Yogis have called it the “Play of Consciousness.” Our Western minds like to name stuff and as soon as we do an unconscious reification takes place. “Do not call it fixity!”

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There is a lot of talk these days about the stories we tell ourselves. Indeed the mind/brain seems awfully busy cooking up countless tales about what is real in the world and what and who we are. Many of those stories make it difficult for us to imagine and sit with just how radically dynamic the field that gives birth to us really is. Still more challenging is to wrap our minds around the notion that joy is at the core of our being.

In other words, we could say the mind/brain is an identity maker. In large part it is what shapes and defines who we are and in so doing limits our experience. No doubt, this is an integral and necessary part of functioning in life and a society. The disconnect happens when those shapes become fixed and lose fluidity and contact with the larger field of being. So I tell myself I am a man, a father, a therapist, a writer and sometimes I tell myself I am bad, inadequate, not enough, unimportant. The strength and persistence and “fixity” of such internal branding is as binding as super glue.

In a certain way, narrative function is the ego that has come to dominate self perception. Perhaps this is so because we like a good story. But perhaps we need this narrative emperor to uphold the ruling cultural fiction of individual glory. Our challenge is to question cultural myths so that we may embody the full dimension of being and connect with the still point which is the doorway to unbounded joy.

Sleep Walking

For millennia yogis and more recently psychoanalysts have tried to tell human beings that we are asleep. “Wake up!” They implore us to wake up to the living moment. Opening to a larger field makes it obvious that we indeed are living in a trance. Sleep walking. My clients and I refer to this state as a spell. A spell that can take over consciousness like a weather system holding over a body of land. It is a strange phenomenon.

No doubt, this is why we love a good surprise. It’s like the hypnotist snapping his fingers to bring the subject out of a state of suggestibility. It’s why something in us craves novelty. Novelty is a fresh wind clearing out the smog that settles in and stagnates the spellbound mind. Can we clear the haze, or are we stuck with this property of the survival brain that makes us into sleep walkers?

Yes we can! Try this meditation. Think of something you love, let’s say your dog, a child, a loved one or even a place. Let yourself become absorbed in the presence of the love you feel for, let’s say, your doggie. Feel that love and let it fill your chest and as much of you as it wants. Now bring your focus from the dog directly to the love within you are experiencing. Just settle into that love. See if  you can feel the love without tying it to an object and sit in it. Try to understand and experience it as an ever-present dimension of you.

We talk a lot about embracing the moment, which is all well and good, but how good are we at letting the moment embrace us? What does this mean? It means being taken by the creative impulse. Being a good dance partner and allowing yourself to be led. Listening to the whispers of the cosmos. This is not mystical stuff, it can happen making a pot of soup or vacuuming the carpet or picking up the phone and calling a friend. It only asks that you engage fully. That you plunge in over your head into this living breathing swirling and improbable tango.

Sweet Surrender

The objection most people raise at this point is based on the anxiety that this is a selfish, and self indulgent way of living. What I find with myself and others is just the opposite. Disappearing into joy evokes a tremendous concern for the suffering and well-being of others: friend or foe. Giving is then transformed from what is often a hidden need to get a return into a spontaneous desire to spread good will.

Sacrifice sets the stage for giving and while once considered a noble virtue, it has lost its standing in our culture of narcissism. Like many boomers I saw sacrifice as a threat to my personal desires. It wasn’t until I held our first baby in my arms that an innate impulse to put others first superseded the usual self referencing. In short order, I disappeared from time to time into the process of child rearing and found myself delivered into the joy of caring more about the welfare of another than myself.

If the me culture has an aversion to sacrifice, it is down right abhorrent of the notion of surrender. As the great psychoanalyst, Emanuel Ghent wrote in his classic paper on Masochism, surrender is confused with submission and the terror of being dominated. Submission is obviously an intolerable possibility for our society’s dominant narrative of individual triumph.

But real surrender is the ultimate in giving and sacrifice. For centuries those interested in disappearing into joy have maintained we have to die before we can be born and really live. Of course, like sacrifice this teaching has been interpreted as a concrete proposal leading to all sorts of terrible consequences. It has lost the metaphoric power we know as the process of surrendering; that is giving over the individual notion of self to something far more vast.

Surrender is life enhancing. It is not pulling out the white towel and giving up. Every night you surrender to sleep and are rewarded with a refreshed brain in the morning. We hope. When you surrender into work, the hours go by quickly. When you surrender into love and lovemaking, time stops. When you surrender into being with your children, the mind is overwhelmed with delight.

Baby Suggs, the spiritual leader of the community of former slaves in Toni Morrison’s Beloved, told her people to “lay it down.” Lay down the pain and the grief, just lay it down. Lay down the burden of thinking you have to make everything happen by yourself. Lay down the old worn concepts of who you are, the familiar cravings and worries.

Lay ‘em down. Lay down the picture of inadequacy that shadows you, the idea that you are not enough. Surrender to sitting with the inner presence of your dear self and disappear into the huge reservoir of love. Surrender is more than acceptance, it is not so simple as “just let it go.” It takes time and a great deal of active emotional work to allow the psychic release of constrictions that bind spirit to matter.

Love, Love, Love

In the end it turns out what seemed like a disappearance to that little boy running home through the dark, was in actuality a remarkable appearance! Should you and I practice the art of disappearing, we may find ourselves better prepared for the day when we will disappear from this earth. Contemplating that day frightens me and puts a chill up my spine. However, understanding what it is to disappear into joy suggests there are realms of being other than those we can perceive and imagine.

Repeated experience of this sort of transformation may give us confidence that death is not the end we dread, but a transition to a radically different reality. One that may not have my name or yours on the ID card, and may not be of flesh and bone, but just might be made of the stuff we have tasted called joy and love dancing with the still point.

So let’s hear it for disappearing into this field of joyful loving. Here’s how George Saunders, one of our best living writers, said it in a commencement address at Syracuse University:

My heartfelt wish for you is this: As you get older,

your self will diminish and you will grow in love.

YOU will gradually be replaced by LOVE.

Something to look forward to! The disappearance of you, into the body love.  You and I are getting older every day, so let’s hope every day we are being replaced by love, falling in love, disappearing into love.

I am about to disappear from the blogosphere. For the next few months I’ll be editing and rewriting Meditations on the Vulnerabilities of Writers and Artists. Thanks to all of you for reading and commenting on Philz Blog. It is always a treat for me to hear from you.

I also want to thank my wife, Lori for all her help with editing these essays and discussing the ideas. Without her keen eye you would be stumbling over typos and scratching your head wondering how in the world did he get from here to there.

Hoping the new year is good to you and you are good to it.



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