In his address on Thursday, Bruce Bryant-Scott by extolling the virtues of the spiritual practice of self-emptying or kenosis.

In an interview with Tami Simon at “Sounds True” Cynthia Bourgeault spoke about the crucial function of “self-emptying” in the Christian mystical tradition.

The whole interview can be read here:

Here are a few excerpts:

TS: Now, in Encountering the Wisdom Jesus, you make the statement that everything about the path of Jesus and the practice of what he taught centers around kenosis, or emptying oneself, self-emptying. What is that? Can you describe that?

CB: Well, the Greek word kenosis is used in that famous hymn in the New Testament that Paul uses in Philippians. And from the context clues, it means very clearly nonclinging. The text goes something like, “Though his state was that of God, yet he didn’t deem equality with God as something he should cling to, rather he emptied himself.” There’s the kenosis word: “Therefore he emptied himself and assuming the state of a slave, was born in human likeness.”

So the idea is that it’s not airy-fairy; it doesn’t mean any kind of great making of oneself [into] nothing, existentially and metaphysically. It doesn’t talk about any state of altered consciousness. It’s just simple, what the Buddhists would call nonclinging.

TS: How is this made real in your life, this act of self-emptying?

CB: It cuts across the board. It begins in my practice of centering prayer, where the meditational form that we use in centering prayer is simply the letting go of the thoughts as they come. For me, the self-emptying or nonclinging is really about letting go and loosening the grip—loosening at the simplest level, the grip that you have on a thought when you are meditating. You know, the thought comes up and you let it go. And that’s the method of centering prayer. So the centering prayer is a meditational form of kenosis.

And then when you move into life, it simply very much is recognizing when you are stuck in a position of insisting or clinging or identifying, or putting your need or will against a situation, so that what you are doing is imposing on the situation and resisting. And it’s simply a matter of letting go. It doesn’t even mean renouncing, like pushing away; it’s much closer to what the folks in Alcoholics Anonymous call “being willing to have it taken away.” So it’s going through life, situationally, with a nonpossessive attitude.

TS: Now of course this all sounds wonderful, and there are many instances when I can imagine just letting go as you are describing, but I’m curious, how do you work with situations where it seems like there’s something that has a hold of you, more so than you are even holding on to it? It just doesn’t seem like it wants to let go, despite our best efforts.

CB: Well, I don’t know. It’s been awhile since I’ve found such a situation. You know, I’ve been at this for a very long time. Whether it’s an obsession, a compulsion, or an addition, there’s always—you know, it takes two to touch. If you are able to release—and once again it doesn’t mean renouncing. It means recognizing from what amounts to a witnessing place, but a witness that’s not carried in the mind, but deeper in the body and the heart. Just seeing the thing go rolling by, and if there’s no “you” there, it can’t really catch you.


for further thoughts on Cynthia’s teaching on self-emptying, see notes on a 2003 retreat with Cynthia posted at: