Experiencing Kenosis in the Poetry of Donne and Shakespeare ‹ Literary Hub

In Buddhist thought, the ego is the source of all human suffering. Dukkha comes from attachment to impermanent things, which begins with attachment to self. From early childhood, we are biologically and psychologically driven to seek out the things our bodies want, to ignore the things it doesn’t care about, and to avoid the things that bother or threaten them. In a recursive loop, these attachments continually reinforce the ego, our sense of self-reality.

All of Buddhist practice can be seen as a program to move away from ego and into a permanent state of kenosis, which Buddhism calls Nirvana. Whether or not you believe enlightenment is attainable, the program is clearly structured (in ancient texts like the Sattipatthana Sutta) to gradually lead the practitioner towards a view of self (and all things) as interdependent, contingent and impermanent – ​​no more real in their separateness than a wave in the ocean.

At first it seemed like a very cold and inhumane prospect to aspire to. How could you live in the world thinking of everything, including yourself, as an illusion? But for the Buddha, kenosis does not lead to indifference, it leads to compassion. According to the story, after attaining enlightenment, freed from the narrow preoccupations of the ego, he sees at a glance the suffering of all sentient beings, caught between reality and illusion, struggling in the chains of selfishness and greed. He is moved by our pain and our desire for freedom. Instead of disappearing into nothingness, he returns to the world to teach.

Kenosis has been described and facilitated in a thousand different ways throughout history by devotees of sects and practices ranging from Sufi whirling dervishes to young people at rock concerts. Accounts of the peak experiences of religious visionaries, artists and art lovers, psychedelic users, mountain hikers, divers, and many others have so much in common that science has begun to relate to them. to interest. At Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research, Dr. Roland Griffiths and his colleagues are currently studying these spiritual experiences of ego transcendence – whether induced by prayer or by psychedelics like psilocybin – and find that they produce similar (and significant) mental health benefits.

Kenosis is almost always accompanied by a sense of wonder and connection to a greater whole: the rest of humanity, the atoms in the chair before you, Brahma, the “sacred geometry” of the universe – the specific imagery matters less than the sense of non-duality of all that you normally think of as ‘not-you’. A state of trust, acceptance and connection, kenosis is the antidote to evil spirit.

People have done and continue to do terrible things in the name of all religions, as they do in the name of democracy, family, a better future, business and much more. By Armstrong’s logic, the worst offenders are invariably the most Orthodox, from the Theravadan Buddhists of Myanmar, to the Islamic State, to the Christians of the Inquisition, to the Crusades, to the Salem witch trials and to the campaigns of homophobic hatred. But kenosis, wherever it appears, is a force for positive change in the world.

In the ancient and modern world, poetry, music, physical movement, and psychedelics like ayahuasca, psilocybin, psilocin, muscarine-containing mushrooms, and mescaline-containing cacti have all been known to be catalysts for kenosis.

In ancient Greece, at festivals honoring Dionysus (Roman: Bacchus), the god of wine, alcohol was used as a spiritual solvent, dissolving the boundaries between his followers and their god. As music producer and ethnomusicologist Christopher C. King explains in his book Lament from Epirus: An Odyssey in Europe’s Oldest Folk MusicGreece’s isolated mountain communities continue this tradition to this day at nighttime festivals where music and drink blur the lines between performer and audience, self and others, self and the natural world.

Meeting my late sister Meri again at my first ayahuasca retreat was an example of kenosis. I let go of guilt, doubt and shame and, with the help of the medicine, relaxed into the sensation of his presence. For an hour or two, I wasn’t the brother who either failed to save her or couldn’t love her enough to mourn her fully. My attention was no longer a CCTV, turned inward – it was open and connected to my sister, and through her to everything else. Like a baby floating in its amniotic sac, I was nobody and I belonged.

But the first experience of kenosis that I remember happened to me much earlier, in high school. It was in a ninth-grade English class where we studied poems by three long-dead English writers: John Donne, Robert Herrick and William Shakespeare.

I guess my brain was wired to love language and it must have been the right developmental time to take the leap, but my teacher did two things that helped turn those words on a page into scriptures. First, she had us read each poem aloud, slowly, and more than once. Second, she showed us how these writers used puns and metaphors to create clever multidimensional structures. If you read them carefully, they unfurl like one of those giant alien flowers of The day of the Triffidsa classic sci-fi movie my dad once made me watch and, just like those alien flowers, swallowed you whole.

Kenosis is like falling in love. Nothing in the world exists apart from the source of this extraordinary experience.

I remember going through Shakespeare’s sonnets line by line, practicing this new form of exegetical magic. On first reading, I didn’t understand anything. Some music may have caught my ear: “Strong winds shake the cherished buds of May.” Pleasant. But the meaning was so tightly wrapped in the poem that the mind slipped from the shiny surfaces. Words, words, words. The second reading was more delicate. The spirit stood at military attention: What is the theme? What is the subtext? What exactly is this poem on? The poet and writer Robert Macfarlane told me that many of his Cambridge literature students, brilliant as they are, arrive in their first year armed with this kind of critical apparatus, eager to flay a living poem but unable to allow the poem to do the same for them. their.

The trick to the second reading lies in what Zen Buddhist master Kōshō Uchiyama called “opening the hand of thought.” This reading is an act of faith, and like all true faith, it is born of experience. The growing fear of the language that John and I shared was part of that experience and the teacher scaffolding gave us the rest. We took her at her word that there were hidden dimensions of beauty in this writing, and they could not be extracted under torture.

Thus, at second reading, we were aiming for a State which I would henceforth call meditative, laying what Buddhism calls “bare attention” on every word, every line, and allowing meaning to flourish. With this type of “mindfulness”, consciousness works on itself, gradually unraveling its own confusion.

In childhood, imaginative play is second nature. “Getting lost” in a cat game or fantasy story is a daily experience. I would say that kenosis is only really possible after what the great child psychologist Jean Piaget called the “concrete operational” developmental phase, that period of about seven to eleven years when we are fascinated by reality, justice and the physical world. . During this phase, children leave behind what Piaget saw as the strong egocentrism of early childhood.

But in the process, they paradoxically become more aware of themselves, more aware of the differences between themselves and everything else. At twelve, when many children enter middle school, they are often too rigid in this thinking to easily slip in and out of fantasy worlds. Friendships do not happen by chance, they must be negotiated. Kenosis is the spiritual act of crossing that chasm backwards, of returning to a state of unconscious innocence.

It is one thing to be subject to magic, another to understand how it is done, and yet another to have one’s power increased, not diminished, by that knowledge. before, and we took it. And as with anything that has ever moved me, I couldn’t shut up about it.

Not everyone was interested. For many people, including my father, poetry and literature did not produce much kenosis. They were important in theory but much less important in fact than the evening news or the time to set the alarm clock for work in the morning.

That’s the tricky thing with kenosis. If you can’t resist the explanatory, evangelistic urge, the ego comes roaring back, stronger than ever. While boring everyone you meet with your conversion story, you’ll learn that people have other interests and priorities that don’t remotely include John Donne. In the face of their indifference or repression, you will feel like one of the biblical prophets in the desert, crying out, “Repent! Repent!” You’ll wonder what’s wrong with these people. Why can’t they see transcendence when it looks them straight in the eye. You’ll come to the conclusion that only you and a select group of seers possess real knowledge and that everyone is an idiot.

Kenosis is the spiritual act of crossing that chasm backwards, of returning to a state of unconscious innocence.

It’s terribly sad, of course. Because in doing so, you will have taken that feeling of universal connection and turned it into plate armor for the ego. An enclosed garden without doors or windows.

Basketball, math, entrepreneurship – all of those were more or less closed books for me. For everyone, kenosis was possible, but not for me. So I pledged my soul to the Church of Art and decided that everything else was a complete waste of time.

I wanted to climb to the top of the National Cathedral (still unfinished) and sing these poems to the whole world. I wanted everyone to stop dead and listen. And I wanted some of that magic for myself.

My first girlfriend politely accepted a set of sonnets she had inspired: a horrid John Donne-style doggerel: “We’re all gonna die someday, so let’s sleep together now.” Luckily for both of us, the poems were incomprehensible.

Kenosis is like falling in love. Nothing in the world exists apart from the source of this extraordinary experience. This is especially true of young kenoses. As with love, it takes years to learn that you are not automatically worthy of the gift. It comes with responsibilities. It takes patience, humility, empathy, hard work. And if you want to nurture it and sustain it in a world that pulls you in a thousand different directions, you have to understand the physics of those forces. In other words, you have to grow.


Extract of Humanity Tries: Experiments for Living with Grief, Finding Connections, and Resisting Easy Answers by Jason Gots © 2022 by Jason Gots. Used with permission from Hanover Square Press/HarperCollins.

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