Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Empty Becomes Full.

    I attend a class that focuses on the contemplative practice of centering prayer, and the other night one of the facilitators mentioned the concept of kenosis or self-emptying. I remembered first learning about kenosis when I was in training to be a spiritual director. We were encouraged to develop a spiritual practice that would help us renew and be open to what we were created to be.
     Relying on God has to begin all over again every day, as if nothing had yet been done. 
C. S. Lewis

     Get thy heart as clear from the world as thou canst. Wholly lay by the thoughts of thy business, troubles, enjoyments, and everything that may take up any room in thy heart. Get it as empty as thou possibly canst, that it may be more capable of being filled with God.
Richard Baxter

     One of the practices I have used to empty myself and therefore, be more open to God is T'ai Chi. As I move through the T'ai Chi choreography, I clear the space, I become present, I smooth the rough edges. I find calm.  When I taught T'ai Chi, I always mentioned kenosis, and students seemed to appreciate the connection between body, mind and spirit.  But not always. 
     Once upon a time I was asked to offer an introduction to T'ai Chi at a woman's retreat. I didn't know the retreat leader well, but she had  attended an earlier event where I taught T'ai Chi. I also didn't know the retreat participants, and I knew very little about the content of the retreat itself. I just did what I always did, confident they would love it, too. When I introduced the move called Clearing the Space, I mentioned kenosis as an act of self-emptying. I talked about having a pitcher of water and if it is filled to the brim, there is room for no more. It is only by emptying that we can refill. Almost immediately I felt a shift in energy. Not everywhere in the room, but still, I sensed some discomfort.  I continued with my instruction, leading the group through the moves, trying to be alert to what might be happening, and soon I saw one woman stride quickly from the room. The retreat leader followed her. I finished my teaching, and all seemed to go well. Many, as I packed up my things to leave as had been planned,   indicated how much they enjoyed the session.  
     Days later the retreat leader called to tell me what had happened. The woman who left the room felt if we emptied ourselves, we left room for the devil to enter our hearts and take up residence. We needed to be ever on the alert and not leave any open space for the devil. I was stunned. Naively, that had never occurred to me. Knowing this perspective has not changed the way I feel about kenosis, but it furthered my awareness of how everything has shadow and light. I was saddened by the woman's fears that seemed to dominate her faith, but I respected her ability to act upon what was real for her. 
      I have continued to incorporate spiritual practices into my life that help me empty in order to know the movement of God in my life, and kenosis as I first understood it has been a staple in my spiritual life. Until this morning when I encountered this passage in the very challenging Awakening the Energies of Love, Discovering Fire for the Second Time by Anne Hillman.

     This silence--'the mind's empty room'--is not the emptiness our intellects define. This emptiness is full. Emptiful. To me the word I coin is resonant with the word beautiful.
     To enter this kind of Kingdom, we shift our attention from the mind's knowing and drop into what seems like emptiness inside. Then, we begin to dance with Life. We ask, What now? and are amazed to discover that the emptiness is full! New possibilities, all kinds of new responses to the situation at hand, arise out of the stillness within us--another way that spiritual practice 'breaks the mind.'  

     The difference is subtle. Instead of thinking about how emptiness leads to change, including fullness,  I contemplate emptiness AS fullness itself. I am not sure yet what that looks like or even feels like, but I am challenged to update, to deepen what I have up till now accepted. And to live it. Hillman continues,

     When, instead of reacting from our gut, we drop in to the silence and ask, we are offered spiritual gifts just waiting to be received: courage, reverence, awe, patience, restraint, gratitude, and more...
     Sometimes this is how I experience it: In the middle of a spat. I 'step back' from wanting to be right, then ask from some place deep in my body. What now? What rises is usually a response that is exactly right for the occasion! I don't think up this response; it is offered. In this situation, what might rise in awareness is forgiveness. If I am feeling stubborn or afraid, the suggestion might be willingness or courage. When I am trapped in judgment, what occurs to me is compassion. All of these responses from the "empty room" are nonviolent; all of them, a softening. And any one of them--if I receive and act on it--returns me to the present moment.

     How much I have yet to incorporate kenosis, the emptying and the fullness, into my life was clear to me this week when I realized how overbearing I had been in a specific situation. I did not pause and  and enter the empty room. Instead of softening, I hardened, judged, and got stuck in my own ego.  I am grateful my apology was accepted, but a real apology means greater devotion to contemplative practices, including centering prayer.  A greater exploration of emptiful.


  1. Rely on yourself- your multitude of positive attributes and accomplishments and the fact that you are one with the Universe is enough, more than enough. Be content, and strive further. There is no full or empty. It is all the same. Let me say that again, it is all the same. Mindfulness incorporates when to smash a cockroach in the kitchen and when to let an ant run free.
    Some say that music is the space between the notes, not the notes themselves. Some say that enlightenment is chopping wood after morning prayers.

    1. Thank you, thank you. I am chanting, "it's all the same. It's all the same."


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