The patience of trees: a discussion with therapist, author, and poet, Philip Kenney

As many of us struggle to process the vast amount information, news, and regulations regarding the latest pandemic, finding stillness has become ever more a sacred craving.

I felt it was a good time to check in with Portland-based psychotherapist, author, and poet, Philip Kenney, to discuss how we might settle our minds and find refuge during such a tumultuous time in our history.


EL: In times of crisis when the global becomes personal, how do you, personally, process the vast amount of “news” and create a level of emotional and intellectual equilibrium?

PK: This is a big, important question. Emotional equilibrium is a challenge, especially under these circumstances. Yesterday I woke up convinced I was Bill Murray, waking up to the same day all over again. I dressed quickly and hightailed it for the meditation chair in pursuit of finding myself, unstuck in time. In other words, I’m not too sure I am processing the vast amount of news, anxiety and dread that is circulating the air waves with much equilibrium. I imagine I feel the same vulnerability and anxiety you and your readers do. Fortunately, I have a number of practices in place that are important to me and serve as anchors to the known world that is so rapidly receding. I begin each day with meditation, or what I now prefer to think of in the way Toni Morrison did, as sitting in the dark with stillness. There is nothing more essential to steadying the ship than these moments of quiet. More often than not, I am visited in the stillness by ideas for the current writing project and from the meditation chair I move to the writing desk. Honestly, if I’m not meditating and doing something creative, this brain feels like tapioca and my mood can be in the gutter. Even writing a few sentences is uplifting at this point. I can’t think of it as anything but grace.

I think a lot about emotional and intellectual equilibrium, Erin. It is a tricky subject. I don’t like people to think they should achieve some ideal state of balance. I hear this all the time in my therapy practice. It becomes a bit of a club after a while. The life of psyche seems far too dynamic to force into what usually amounts to a controlled and preconceived state of being. Life is always swirling with energy and desire, transforming from one form to another. Thus, the word psyche derives from the Greek word for butterfly. I relate to that in a big way. On the other hand, we want to be able to swing with that energy and assist it in making good for the world and shaping creative inspiration. The right words are tough to come by, but I try to find within my inner self, a “still point” at the heart of the whirling dance. As Toni Morrison said, “There is a third response to chaos, which is stillness. Stillness is what lies in awe, in meditation…” In my life, mindfulness means attending to and feeling the presence of stillness. This is a fascinating practice and so comforting when I am able to feel the still even in the midst of sound and fury.

On the more practical side, I limit the amount of news I take in. I think a person can stay informed without flooding the nervous system with fear and dread. Second, and I know it sounds boring, but I go to bed early, get up early and make sure I get enough sleep. Our brain loves it and equilibrium is hard to find with an unhappy brain. Third, I make sure I have plenty of real conversation with the people closest to me. That helps normalize my emotions and feel supported by the commonality of our experience. Lately, however, the most important practice has been hanging out with the stillness of trees. Last summer, recovering from total knee replacement, I read Richard Powers’ novel, The Overstory. That book altered me like nothing I have found since reading Beloved years ago. As a consequence, I have fallen completely, head over heels in love with trees. I wholeheartedly recommend hanging out in the woods to find patience, strength and joy. Read Mary Oliver’s poem, When I am Among Trees. She says it so beautifully. The best emotional and intellectual equilibrium is found in joy. Being with Redwoods and Western Cedars is to be showered with joy. As Mary Oliver says, they save me.

EL: Thank you for shining some light on the myth of balance, Phil. As you elude, Mary Oliver’s poignant observations, or meditations, also have a way of settling the confetti of the mind. 

I’ve enjoyed your work with the trees lately. Could you please share how The Overstory has sparked your recent creative project?

PK: I’m always happy to talk about The Overstory. In fact, I’ve become a bit of an evangelist for this book. I read it last year while recovering from a total knee replacement, so it had my complete attention – anything to forget about my knee! And forget I did, from the opening page and a half, which I read over and over. I found it completely captivating: “A thing can move anywhere, just by holding still.” I was mesmerized. That was my experience throughout the book. The writing was so remarkable and the content so intriguing that I found myself re-reading passages multiple times, often with tears streaming down my cheeks. I’ve read a lot of great novels, but few have altered me the way The Overstory did. Perhaps the central thesis of the book is that human beings walk right by the world without seeing it. Without being astonished. Only seeing parts and not the whole. Trees are the main characters of this book. Throughout its pages we learn just how extraordinary they are, and we are in awe. And humbled, by the encounter with our ignorance and blindness.

I live in Portland, Oregon and from the time I moved here in 1975, I have been enchanted by the forests of the Pacific Northwest. But having read Richard Power’s testament to the glory of these great beings, I came to understand the remarkable nature of their communal living and the truly mind-boggling process of making wood from only light, dirt, air and water. I began starting the day with a walk to our local park, which is a gem and more like an arboretum than a regular city park. We have the great fortune to be a few blocks from a collection of Giant Sequoias, Redwoods, Western Cedars, Hemlocks and other wonderous trees. One thousand in total, living in harmony. In a short time, I found myself head over heels in love and decided to make a photobook of the trees with my trusty iPhone 8 camera. I can’t quite explain what a transformative experience this has been. In about a year, I’ve taken over two thousand photos and two weeks ago finished putting together The Trees of Laurelhurst Park.

In the midst of this project, sometime in autumn, I was working on an essay entitled, On Disappearing into Joy, when I came across a haiku by the Japanese master, Basho. This is the haiku that woke me up and made the essay sing:

A cicada shell;

                    it sang itself  

                          utterly away.

Those eight words knocked me out and lit a fire. I started writing haiku inspired by what I saw while among the trees that morning. Soon I had dozens and decided to combine them with the photos in the book. It has come together beautifully. Months later when the Coronavirus hit, I was like most people, tense and frightened. My brain was static, and I couldn’t generate any writing whatsoever. But then I remembered my experience with Basho and started writing haiku again. To my surprise, the creative impulse came alive, and I found myself returning from the park with two or three little poems dancing in my head. (Small is beautiful, friends.) Often, they are inspired by the process of looking – intense, close up looking at the trees: at the bark (which is extraordinary,) at the branching (which is staggering) and at the light playing on the surfaces. Close up I see stories, histories, faces and paintings. I walk about in awe. Richard Powers says, “You have a right to be astonished.” And I am. You will be too! Combining the photo shoots with the haiku has been such fun. It has eased my anxiety about the pandemic and helped me focus on the living and the sacred.

Here’s a few samples for your readers. Mind you, these are not formal, traditional haiku in the 5-7-5 syllabic form. I don’t practice that religiously, but neither did Basho!

I live, now

On the edge

Of dangling leaves

 

I am trying to grasp,

To find in myself

The patience of trees

 

Prayer is effortless –

Who needs to kneel?

I bow to tangled trees

And what lies beneath

 

EL: So, in all your time with the trees, what do you feel is the unifying chorus they’ve offered you? 

They offer me this: “Be still, and when the wind begins to howl and shake your limbs, don’t fight it.”

There is a scene in The Overstory when Olivia and Nick are perched at the top of a thousand-year old Redwood, the tallest of the Redwoods in the endangered forest. Loggers are moving in with the intent of taking down the tree. Protesters have been occupying the grand tree for the past year in opposition to the slaughter of old growth. A massive storm blows through and the two warriors are being tossed about the makeshift tree house like dry leaves. Nick is beginning to panic and look for ways to secure himself. Over the roar of the wind, Olivia, the mystical heroine of the novel, yells to Nick “Don’t fight it!” He hears her and gives up the struggle to make himself safe, surrendering to the will of the wind. The next morning the two dear friends climb down to earth having survived hurricane strength gusts. On the ground, they are met by the once hostile loggers who greet them with the hard-won look of worry and respect.

We are living through a massive storm. Unstable pressure systems have been building for years and the Pandemic has released the winds of hateful politics, culture wars and class bigotry. These are the winds of circumstance. As a psychotherapist, I work primarily with internal storms: with the winds of self-reproach. This is an epidemic of the soul. These disturbances sound like this, “Something’s wrong with me,” “I don’t deserve to be happy,” “I’m not worthy of love.” These waves pound the psyche of our people and flood the heart to the point of despair. It seems we are always fighting with ourselves and many of us are exhausted by the struggle, and/or our bodies are ill. It seems impossible to not fight against shame. It seems like giving up to not strive to be better, to make oneself different, to improve. It seems insane to do as Olivia implored Nick to do – “Don’t fight it!” How will we ever be safe? Feel good enough?

The lives of trees are brimming with meaning and metaphor. Trees are steady. Their branches open wide to allow the wind to blow through with minimal resistance.

A tree is never lost,

or in need,

of shelter from the storm

Sit or stand next to a full-grown tree. Lean your back against its bark and close your eyes. Sit there and take in the astounding stillness of this great being. This living, breathing organism. If you can open, it will shower you with a presence rarely encountered. Be still – and know that you are that presence. Stillness is your essence. It is what resides between the inbreath and the outbreath. We live, T. S. Elliot wrote, At the still point of the turning world. Five-thousand years earlier the Upanishads told us, The one Self never moves, It is within all this, and yet without all this. Trees tell us, It’s simple: Be Still, and release the striving to be more. Release self-preoccupation. Enjoy where ever you are and love your neighbors. When exposed to this reality, shames loses its force and withers.

The still-point is waiting for you and me. It’s not going anywhere. Some would say it is beckoning. What we find so, so difficult to comprehend is that being still is not a thing we do. And it does not mean we do nothing. As an author, I have found writing is not about being clever, it is about being still, listening to silence and serving what beckons. And practicing what Wendell Berry wrote in the last stanza of his remarkable poem, How to be a Poet:

Accept what comes of silence,

Make the best you can of it.

Of the little words that come

Out of the silence, like prayers

Prayed back to the one who prays,

Make a poem that does not disturb

The silence from which it came.

 

Silence is the breath of stillness entering the world.

What the world needs now is love, sweet love. That hasn’t changed. But the nervous system of we the people is stuck in the sympathetic system on overdrive. We have to curb our reactivity if we are to have any hope. Trees have everything to teach us on a personal and societal level. Many people have come to me these past weeks and said, you know there’s something about this lockdown I like. It’s quiet. I’m not hurrying so much. This time can be a  retreat, a pause. A sacred pause. When we sit down next to a tree, or in our chair we have the opportunity to know what the sages who wrote the Upanishads referred to as, “Effortless Being.” Doesn’t that sound fine? I understand this is easier said than done. It takes daily practice to clear room for being to flourish. Sit with yourself, let your mind bounce around like Olivia and Nick in the tree house. Be still, the trees will help you, and as they said to me, “everything will come.” Joy, love, peace – what humans really want is within.

A couple of parting haikus for you, offerings of Doug Fir and Ms. Redwood.

Each of you

have a hollow, that plays

like a marimba


Philip Kenney is a practicing psychotherapist in Portland, Oregon. A long time meditator and poet, Philip 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 work on those subjects entitled, The Writer’s Crucible: Meditations on Emotion, Being and Creativity.

 

 

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