Expanding into joy, a conversation with Phil Kenney

Phil, let’s talk about Toni Morrison’s territory of the non-secular, as you put it in The Writer’s Crucible. It’s been a while since we last discussed this…can you give us your definition and your experience with this place, especially over the last year and a half? Has it been more challenging to access? A refuge? 

Phil – You know I love anything to do with Toni Morrison, so this is a great place to begin our conversation. I first came upon Ms. Morrison’s use of the term, “the non-secular,” in a 1993 interview with The Paris Review. I took to it right away because it differentiated her sense of what we call spiritual from mainstream religious thought while also recognizing the difficulty of naming what is ineffable (love that word!) and beyond the material world. In 2017, she gave a less formal interview with the literary quarterly, Granta, and said, in an uncharacteristic apologetic voice, “What I’m going to say is going to sound so pompous, but I think an artist, whether it’s a painter or a writer, it’s almost holy.” So, for me, the non-secular has always been a way into talking about the astonishing mystery of life and creativity. Some may feel we are getting into religious territory and be put off by her choice of the word holy. I’m good with it because when I write I feel whole. That ineffable something carries me deeper into what I think is best described as mystical.

In the spring of 2020, I planned to return to a long-neglected novel and get to work on revision #4. About that time, Covid-19 brain took over and my mind felt like sludge. I could barely read a paragraph, much less think about rewriting it. I tried, but just could not generate any juice. I was about to give up on writing and ride out the pandemic when one day a voice in my head said, “Hey, why not have some fun and write haiku?” I did, and from March 3rd through June 14th I wrote 159 haiku! Every morning, I walked to our local park/arboretum and returned home trying to remember the two or three haiku that appeared from out of nowhere and settled on my brain. By early summer my mind felt lubricated, and I was able to return to the novel and do some good work. To me, that is the non-secular: an unbidden conversation with the mystery of the creative spirit. I love it. And I love the infinite variety of expressions arising from the creative impulse born from that mysterious realm. 

Erin – I’m glad you brought up your struggle with creativity during the Pandemic, Phil. Definitely not an uncommon problem as our attention was directed toward the frightening unknown and for many, health trauma, or worse. And yet, you were able to connect with the holistic, if you will, nonsecular spirit, in nature. How did this ritual of walking and haiku serve to ground you over the past year? 

Phil – It was my refuge. My shelter from the storm. I walked every morning to our neighborhood park, which is a jewel, an arboretum. I walked slowly and felt the earth beneath my feet and did my best to take in the little treasures along the way. There was an upside to the Pandemic. Once we went into shutdown, a new quiet greeted the day – the air cleared of noise and exhaust and the sounds of birdsong were more lovely than ever. The sky was bluer, and the air felt so fresh. Do you remember that? I loved it, and my morning walks became a celebration.

I found, in those first months of the Pandemic, the beauty of walking slowly. I felt peace settle into my body, the joy of cool air touching my face, the awe in feeling the bark of giant Sequoias, and the thrill of watching light ripple on the pond. All very pastoral stuff that took me away from anxious thoughts and brought me deep into my senses. The sensuality of it all, and the walking itself was grounding and enlivening. And it gave me haiku! 

What I love about writing is that it asks me to be awake. This way of being unifies writing and spirituality. I am fond of saying that I meditate when I write, and I write when I meditate. There is no longer a difference. Each feeds the other. Both invite the world in and everything is of value: every detail of the inner and outer is important and connected. But that’s not all. Paying attention, walking and writing haiku every morning relieved me of Covid anxiety for a bit and awakened a deep connection with life and the creative source.

Erin – Beautiful. Nature is the ultimate poet and mental pacifist, isn’t it, Phil? And yet we’ve become so separate from the natural world many of us embraced as a child. I know you’re a former Midwesterner, remember how you slept after having played barefoot outside, chasing lightning bugs all summer? How often do you recommend nature therapy or just play as a practice to your clients? Nature is important but there is also something to be said for reaching back to our childhood selves and learning from them, as well. Any thoughts? 

Phil – Yes, I remember those days. In fact, I began an essay entitled, On Disappearing into Joy, with the story of a night in Ohio when I was ten years old running home in the dark surrounded by lightening bugs and serenaded by crickets. It was one of those magical nights and the first mystical experience I can remember. I ran my fastest, pumping my arms and legs until I was moving effortlessly through the cool air. And then it happened – my body began to disappear until only breathing remained. Slowly, breathing disappeared and what was left of me was joy. Vibrant joy. The amazing thing is, when I got home I didn’t run in the house and yell, “Mom, Dad, it’s a miracle!” I simply got a Coke, played with the dog, and went to my room. It was as though I recognized something in the experience that was familiar. 

As I said earlier, I walk to the local park every morning. It is a jewel, full of trees from all over the world including a dozen Giant Sequoias. It has saved me on many a day. I am astounded when I see so many people walking with their headphones on, running with a grim face, or talking at the top of their lungs and paying little to no attention to magnificent trees that surround them. I agree that too many people are largely separate from the natural world. Too many writers live in their heads and too many spiritual seekers bypass their bodies and conceptualize the truth. But the sacred is in the ordinary, in dirt, wind and rain. That’s why kids love to play in the mud. They’re worshiping.

So yes, I encourage the people I work with to connect with the world. But first I urge them to inhabit their bodies as fully as possible. Believe me, that is not a given. I turned 72 in May and my balance has become a thing of concern and amusement. My wife and son have encouraged me to do balancing exercises which I resist whole heartedly. But one day it occurred to me as I struggled with standing on one leg that I was not in my feet. Embodiment stopped at my knees. How can you have good balance when you’re not feeling your feet? So, I set about putting my attention into the soles of my feet and man, it feels so good! My balance is better, and my new mantra is, “Feet first!”

I do recommend nature therapy to the people I work with, but I don’t recommend power walks. I suggest they walk slowly and give their attention to sights and sounds, the sensation of air on skin, and the ground beneath their feet! This is a form of adult play. It is a form of meditation, if you like, and the practice of giving yourself over to life and the astonishing sacredness before us. It is a profound exercise in feeling the unity that connects everything and knowing our precious place in that union. It’s hard for depression and anxiety to survive that contact. The way is then opened to disappear into love, joy, play – whatever you wish to call it. 

Erin – Your own creative work and writing reflects the peace of this pace exactly, Phil. I’m caught by your passage about spiritual seekers bypassing the body on their quest to conceptualize the truth. This is very intriguing to me. Can you expand? 

Phil – Sure. Let’s start with a saying from the Zen tradition. I heard this many years ago and it made quite an impression on me. Loosely translated, it goes like this, “Satori happens in an instant, enlightenment in thirty years.” You don’t hear that in many Western meditation classes. In the East, it’s understood. Americans, of course, are in a hurry with everything and especially with finding that holy place. The urgency with which we approach our daily life reflects the spiritual poverty we suffer from. Most of us feel an insatiable hunger. A hungry ghost inside ready to devour anything to feel whole. This is our sad condition. 

Not only are we vulnerable to feeling empty but all too many of us carry emotional wounds from traumas of one sort or another. These wounds leave raw emotions free floating that must be faced to truly inhabit the body. Spiritual bypassing tries to avoid that reckoning. It attempts to circumvent unwanted feelings by conceptualizing the truth and leapfrogging to nirvana.The result is a precarious, ungrounded inner self susceptible to emotional flooding and/or dissociation. A mature approach to spirituality recognizes the need to face the shadow parts of ourselves and the emotions that bind us to them. I don’t want the term spiritual bypassing to become a pejorative club. We are starving. We are in pain. Of course, when we get a taste of bliss, we want more, and we never want to give it up. Separation from the source, once it has been experienced, is misery and creates a powerful longing to return and cling to the love we find within.

I learned meditation in 1980 from an Indian master. It didn’t take long before I was having ecstatic experiences of expansiveness and joy that were beyond anything I thought possible. I got up at 5am every morning and sat for one hour, usually in a state of rapture. However, when meditation was over, I fell back into my ordinary state of discontent and by the time I got to the door of my room I was feeling resentful about going back into the world. I never wanted to leave that state of joy. 

But I just didn’t have the emotional equilibrium to hold the energy because I was too tangled up in unprocessed feelings.

A similar progression took place when I began writing. Working on my first novel was astonishing. I felt joyful as the creative spirit swept me along. Often, I was awakened in the middle of the night with whole paragraphs streaming through my head. It was a love fest, until it came to revision. I hated it. I wanted that feeling back of falling in love. It took some time for me to mature enough as a writer to appreciate that revision required a type of concentration that was itself a form of meditation. It’s like a seasoned marriage that grows out of the thrill of falling in love into a deeper intimacy. 

The process of coming back to the body to work through pain and trauma is tough. It takes time and commitment. Many can’t tolerate this and circumvent the painful work to find refuge in the comfort of a conceptual spirituality. There is safety and certainty in abstractions. The problem is, sooner or later the roof starts to leak, and things get weird. Emotional turmoil sets in. It’s time to deal with the truth of the body, so as to open the channels of the heart. I hate to sound parental, but there is a growing up process to spirituality and writing. A process that is emotionally challenging but restores the connection with the life of the body allowing the creative spirit to expand and flourish. 

I hope we all have the support and the stamina to work through the tough spots to get to what Toni Morrison named “The Non-Secular.” That sacred place of beauty within everyone and everything.


Phil Kenney writes and practices psychotherapy in Portland, Oregon. His most recent book, The Writer’s Crucible: Meditations on Emotion, Being and Creativity, was a finalist for The Red City Review 2018 Non-Fiction Book of the Year. This work is intended to support writers with the emotional vulnerabilities they face living a creative life. He is the author of the novel, Radiance, and a collection of poetry, Where Roses Grow. Phil gives workshops based on The Writer’s Crucible. The workshop explores the emotional and psychological dynamics of self-doubt and offers methods authors can utilize to get out of their way and let the creative spirit be the guide.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s