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Toward a Psychology of Awakening: Buddhism, Psychotherapy and the Path of Personal and Spiritual Transformation

Toward a Psychology of Awakening: Buddhism, Psychotherapy and the Path of Personal and Spiritual Transformation

by John Welwood, John Welwood

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     Can the meditative traditions of Buddhism be integrated with the practice of Western psychology? John Welwood's latest book addresses this question with new comprehensiveness and depth, building on the innovative psychospiritual approach of his six previous books. The questions he addresses include:
What can the spiritual


     Can the meditative traditions of Buddhism be integrated with the practice of Western psychology? John Welwood's latest book addresses this question with new comprehensiveness and depth, building on the innovative psychospiritual approach of his six previous books. The questions he addresses include:
What can the spiritual methodologies of the East teach us about psychological health? What issues arise when the recognition of our larger nature challenges our very conception of individual self? What new directions become possible when psychological work is undertaken in a spiritual context? How does Western psychological understanding affect our approach to spirituality?      
     Welwood's psychology of awakening brings together three major dimensions of human existence: personal, interpersonal, and suprapersonal, in one overall framework of understanding and practice. The book's first section addresses basic questions about the relationship between psychology and contemplative spirituality. The second explores the practical implications of this convergence for psychological health and healing. The third considers the implications for relationship and community.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Welwood, a clinical psychologist, associate editor of the Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, and author (Love and Awakening, LJ 1/96), here offers an anthology of revised and updated versions of articles he has published over the last 25 years plus new material. The result is an original, intellectually rigorous perspective of the convergence of Buddhism and Western psychology. Welwood's brilliant use of metaphor and historical reference and his emphasis on the heart set him apart from other East/West writers like Ken Wilber (Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, Shambhala, 1995) and Alan Watts (Psychotherapy, East and West, Pantheon, 1961), who are more intellectual. Readers who enjoy Thomas Moore and can accept a more Eastern flavor will want to read this book. Highly recommended for large public libraries and academic libraries with broad psychology collections.--Madeleine Nash, York Coll. Lib., CUNY Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\

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Shambhala Publications, Inc.
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1 ED
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6.25(w) x 9.27(h) x 1.12(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Between Heaven and Earth

Principles of Inner Work

* As a psychoterapist and meditation practitioners, I am continually faced with questions about the relationship between psychological and spiritual work—in my own experience, as well as with clients, students, and friends. Over the course of thirty years of considering these questions, I have gone back and forth between two different perspectives—sometimes regarding the psychological inquiry into self as diametrically opposed, even antagonistic, to the spiritual aim of going beyond self, and at other times seeing it as an extremely useful complement to spiritual work. This is a complex issue that we will consider in detail throughout this book. We can begin with a basic consideration of the essential challenges of inner work common to these two paths, and the different directions they take in addressing them.

Spiritual Bypassing

Starting in the 1970s I began to perceive a disturbing tendency among many members of spiritual communities. Although many spiritual practitioners were doing good work on themselves, I noticed a widespread tendency to use spiritual practice to bypass or avoid dealing with certain personal or emotional "unfinished business." This desire to find release from the earthly structures that seem to entrap us—the structures of karma, conditioning, body, form, matter, personality—has been a central motive in the spiritual search for thousands of years. So there is often a tendency to use spiritual practice to try to rise above our emotional and personalissues—all those messy, unresolved matters that weigh us down. I call this tendency to avoid or prematurely transcend basic human needs, feelings, and developmental tasks spiritual bypassing.

    Spiritual bypassing is particularly tempting for people who are having difficulty navigating life's developmental challenges, especially in a time and culture like ours, where what were once ordinary landmarks of adulthood—earning a livelihood through dignified work, raising a family, keeping a marriage together, belonging to a meaningful community—have become increasingly elusive for large segments of the population. While still struggling to find themselves, many people are introduced to spiritual teachings and practices that urge them to give themselves up. As a result, they wind up using spiritual practices to create a new "spiritual" identity, which is actually an old dysfunctional identity—based on avoidance of unresolved psychological issues—repackaged in a new guise.

    In this way, involvement in spiritual teachings and practices can become a way to rationalize and reinforce old defenses. For example, those who need to see themselves as special will often emphasize the specialness of their spiritual insight and practice, or their special relation to their teacher, to shore up a sense of self-importance. Many of the "perils of the path"—such as spiritual materialism (using spiritual ideas for personal gain), narcissism, inflation (delusions of grandiosity), or groupthink (uncritical acceptance of group ideology)—result from trying to use spirituality to shore up developmental deficiencies.

Grasping, Rejecting, Desensitizing

Many spiritual traditions speak of three basic tendencies that keep us tied to the wheel of suffering: the tendency to reject what is difficult or painful; the tendency to grasp onto something solid for comfort and security; and the tendency to desensitize ourselves so that we don't have to feel the whole problem of pleasure and pain, loss and gain at all.

    Spiritual bypassing is a symptom of the first tendency—to turn away from what is difficult or unpleasant, such as the vicissitudes of a weak ego: if you do not feel strong enough to deal with the difficulties of this world, then you find ways to transcend your personal feelings altogether. This is a major potential pitfall of the spiritual path, especially for modern Westerners. The attempt to avoid facing the unresolved issues of the conditioned personality only keeps us caught in their grip.

    The second tendency—to grasp and fixate—is often one of psychotherapy's subtler pitfalls. Some people find it so fascinating to delve into their feelings, archetypes, dreams, and relationships that they become endlessly absorbed in working on all their psychological material. Treating this kind of self-examination as the ultimate journey can turn it into an egocentric dead end. As Freud once remarked, we can never drain the swamp. Endlessly focusing on our inner states or conflicts in the personality structure can become a subtle trap that prevents us from seeing beyond the personality altogether.

    The third tendency—to simply desensitize ourselves to both our personal experience and our spiritual calling—is the most common of all in our society. There is a part in most of us that would rather take it easy, sink into some groove, and get through life with as little effort or challenge as possible. This leads to our common Western addictions—to television, spectator sports, consumerism, or alcohol and drugs—as ways to numb out and avoid facing the rawness of being fully alive.

Heaven, Earth, and Man

These three major pitfalls—spiritual bypassing, egocentric self-absorption, and desensitized distraction—can be counteracted by tapping certain essential resources that are contained in three dimensions of the human condition, known in traditional Chinese philosophy as heaven, earth, and man (human).

    In the simplest terms, we are beings who stand upright on the earth, with our feet on the ground and head raised up to the open sky. Because our feet are rooted to the ground, there is no other choice than to be right here, right where we are. This means that we have to fully respect the world and ourselves on this horizontal plane—something that spiritual bypassing fails to do. This is the earth principle.

    At the same time, our head is oriented toward the open sky above and all around, where we are able to see far-off things: horizons, stars and suns and planets, and the vast context of space surrounding the earth. Gazing in wonder and curiosity at the world around us, we can see beyond our immediate self-interest and survival concerns. Despite the apparent meaningfulness and importance of our earthly cares, if we go up a hundred feet, what is happening down here begins to lose some of its significance. If we go up even farther, as the astronauts did, all of this becomes but a tiny speck. When we move vertically—and our consciousness can always do this—we find endless space as far as we can go. Human consciousness is not just of this earth. Our lives take shape against the background of infinite space. This is the heaven principle.

    The basic human stance—straight back, with upright head and shoulders, firmly rooted to the earth below—exposes the whole front of the body to the world. Four-legged animals are careful to protect their vulnerable front. The porcupine's quills keep predators away from its soft belly. But as human beings we walk around with our belly and heart—our two main feeling centers—completely exposed to the world. To feel is to respond with the body to the world around us. Basic feeling is happening all the time, whether or not we pay attention to it. Because we sit or stand between heaven and earth with our front exposed, the world and other people can enter and touch us. This is the third, specifically human element of the heaven-earth-man triad.

    Not honoring any one of these three dimensions leads to a distorted, imbalanced life. If we focus only on our immediate existential and survival concerns, we will get bogged down, stuck in the mud, glued to the earth. Yet if we don't take enough account of our earthly needs, we become disconnected, lost in the stars, head in the clouds. And if we try to avoid the rawness and tenderness of the heart, we will become trapped in our character armor, which we initially developed to protect our vulnerable feeling centers. Instead of the armadillo's shell or the porcupine's quills, we grow ego defenses. To be fully human is to forge bridges between earth and sky, form and emptiness, matter and spirit. And our humanness expresses itself in a depth and tenderness of feeling or heart that arises at the intersection of these poles.

    Now we can consider three types of inner work that can help us cultivate and balance these three dimensions of our nature.

Grounding and Coming into Form: The Earth Principle

The essential purpose of spiritual practice is to liberate us from attachment to a narrow, conditioned self-structure, so that we realize we are something much larger. In order to reap the full benefits of such practice, however, we first need to have a workable self-structure. This means being grounded in earthly form.

    Yet all too often in our fast-paced, urban-technological society we never learn to be grounded in our own experience. With the breakdown of close-knit families and communities, children are increasingly shaped and influenced by the neurosis in their nuclear family and in their culture at large. As a result, many people spend most of their lives unconsciously reenacting distorted patterns established in childhood. Recognizing, working with, and growing out of these unconscious patterns is the groundwork for developing an authentic individuality that is not compulsively driven by conditioned tendencies from the past—limiting self-images, denied needs, self-punishment, childhood scripts, dysfunctional interpersonal patterns, fears of loving and losing love. This is primarily psychological rather than spiritual work.

    Fully inhabiting the body, working with our psychological patterns, coming into our true form—this is the work of grounding, the earth principle in action. At its best, psychotherapy can help us be more fully embodied, more grounded in ourselves. This kind of work can also be quite humbling. It involves what Robert Bly calls the "awful descent into the wound." The core wound we all suffer from is the disconnection from our own being. This inner disconnection originally took place in childhood as we contracted in fearful reaction to an environment that did not fully see, welcome, or accept us. When practiced in a spiritual context, psychotherapy can be a form of soulwork, helping us find a deeper meaning in our suffering: our particular pain and neurosis show us exactly where we have shut down, and thus where we also need to unfold as individuals. Soul in this sense is a direction of inwardness, a deep experiencing of individual meaning, purpose, aliveness.

    Different psychological approaches work with grounding in different ways. Many systems share an understanding that real change manifests through energy shifts in the body, rather than through talk or intellectual insight alone. For instance, in the Focusing method developed by Eugene Gendlin, it is essential to move out of the thinking mind into the lived body, connect with a bodily felt sense of whatever one is working on, and let that body sense find a voice, a way of unfolding. Other approaches such as Gestalt psychology or bioenergetics also help the body open up and respond in new ways.

    Spiritual practice also involves grounding or movement downward. In the Eastern traditions, coming down to earth may involve connecting with the center of gravity in the body below the navel, called hara in Japanese or the lower tan tien in Chinese. Practices such as aikido or tai chi chuan ground a person in this way. The sitting posture in meditation also has a grounding effect, as does the emphasis on work, precise attention to detail, and mindfulness of body in the Zen tradition ("chopping wood, carrying water"). However, although grounding practices often have an important supportive role in a complete spiritual path, they are not the main focus of spiritual work.

Letting Go: The Heaven Principle

If soulwork involves coming down to earth, working with structure, and coming into form, the essence of spiritual work involves learning to surrender and let go of all investment in form. Perhaps we have done a tremendous amount of psychological work, working through our major neuroses, scripts, and emotional entanglements. Yet even if we are what humanistic psychologists call "fully functioning" or "self-actualizing," we still hold on to ourselves in many subtle ways. It is hard to just let ourselves be, without grasping onto some structure, some agenda, some goal or activity. We become nervous when we encounter empty space, when there is a gap in a conversation, when we don't know what to say, when we are in a waiting room and there are no magazines on the table.

    When we let ourselves open to that space, as in sitting meditation, we come to see the subtlety and pervasiveness of holding on to the central fixation of "me, myself, and I." Spiritual work brings to light and helps us release this attachment to limited notions of who we are, so that we may realize our larger nature, which lies beyond all form, structure, or thought. If psychotherapy is like pruning and fertilizing a tree so it can grow up and bear fruit, spiritual practice is more radical medicine. It goes to the roots—the root clinging to a limited concept of self, which prevents us from relaxing and sinking deeper into the larger ground of being.

    Buddhist practice, for instance, works with freeing ourselves from five universal tendencies that cause suffering, called the root kleshas or poisons: grasping, aggression, ignorance, jealousy, and pride. As long as we are stuck in a limited understanding of who we are, these kleshas will continue to arise, regardless of how much psychotherapy we have done.

    A traditional Tibetan analogy describes three levels of spiritual practice, in terms of how they work with the root kleshas, which are compared to a poisonous plant. The first level of working with these poisonous tendencies is to replace them with virtuous tendencies. This is like uprooting the plant. The limitation of this approach is that in the uprooting you may also lose the connection with the earth in which the plant is rooted. Trying to avoid negative feelings and emotions through heavenly transcendence—rising above, trying to purify oneself through denying the lower impulses—can lead to spiritual bypassing and inner division.

    A second level of practice is to develop an antidote to the poisons instead of uprooting the plant. In Mahayana Buddhism, for instance, the antidote to the poisonous activity of the kleshas is the discovery of sunyata, or emptiness—the open dimension of being that dissolves the tendency to become attached to anything. However, this may leave us with a subtle preference for emptiness over form, which can also leave us inwardly divided.

    The third way, according to this analogy, is to develop immunity to the poison through judiciously eating leaves of the plant. This is the way of Tantric or Vajrayana Buddhism, which transmutes the poisons into amrita—what we might call the juice of life, the nectar of our true nature. Of course, a great deal of training and preparation is necessary for this kind of transmutation, so that we can actually assimilate the poison. This is the function of basic meditation training. By learning to open to the poisons of the mind and recognizing how they are all self-created fixations, arising out of our disconnection from our own true nature, we no longer fall under their power. This third way unlocks the vital energy contained in the poisons—energy that can help us maintain our connection with the earth, our passion, and everyday life. When we are no longer compelled to reject our neurotic tendencies, we have more compassion and understanding for how they affect other people as well. And this allows us to work with others more directly and skillfully.

Awakening the Heart: The Human Principle

The interplay of earth and heaven, coming into form and letting go of form, gives rise to a third principle of inner work—awakening the heart, which corresponds in Chinese thought to the man (human) principle. Awakening the heart involves stepping out of our character armor in order to let reality and other people into us. An open heart is also the source of courage (a word that derives from the French word for heart, coeur). Courage involves facing the world squarely and letting your heart be touched, forever opening to life, come what may.

    Psychological work can go a long way toward opening the heart, yet fully awakening the heart requires the more total letting go discovered through spiritual realization. Without the vast spaciousness of the heaven principle we might be able to let others in but then not be able to let them go or let them be. Letting go also involves a sense of humor, which arises when we step out of being stuck in a structure. When we laugh, we have just stepped out of a structure. Without a sense of space, humor, and letting go, the heart could become too syrupy, sentimental, heavy, or attached.

    Awakening the heart also requires being grounded, because without our connection to earth, there could be no compassion. If we can only let go but cannot take hold, if our only concern is with space or spirit, then we may never be able to fully commit ourselves to work with our own circumstances or with other sentient beings. True compassion develops out of our struggle with the world of form, limitation, personality, karma. If we are only oriented toward spirit, we could become impatient with the stuckness we find in ourselves and other people.

Working with Suffering

A complete path of inner development that addresses both our personal psychology and our deeper spiritual nature must involve all three principles—grounding, letting go, and awakening the heart—which counteract the obstacles of spiritual bypassing, egocentric self-involvement, and numbing distraction. The core element of such a path would be an awareness practice such as meditation, which helps connect us with all three principles. Along with that, a method of psychological inquiry is extremely helpful for addressing the unconscious patterns and emotional complexes that interfere with living more authentically, with groundedness, openness, and heart.

    In my work as a psychotherapist I have found that I must continually stay in touch with heaven, earth, and heart, all three. To begin with, I have to listen to and respect the client's real problems, which belong to the realm of form, earth. If I don't do that, there is no connection between the two of us. Yet if I focus only on form, on the problems, then I lose a sense of the open mind, open heart, open space surrounding them. Psychological work then becomes too literal-minded and serious, losing its magic, its creative spark. When I started doing therapy right after graduate school, I had too small a vision of human nature and took the content of the problems too seriously. Later, after developing a larger sense of vast, open awareness through meditation, I found that I did not become burned out or bogged down by my client's problems, and my responses came from a much deeper place.

    One of meditation's great gifts was to help me distinguish between immediate experience and mental interpretations of that experience. This in turn allowed me to be more open to my client's suffering, without taking the heaviness of their problems so seriously. It is never burdensome to follow someone's genuine experiencing. Only the mental fixations—the stories, beliefs, and judgments about our experience—become burdensome, never someone's living experiencing itself. In the end I don't give all that much attention to the content of people's problems, because I am listening more to the being who is struggling with the problem. Thus, the heaven principle—providing space, letting go of holding on to form—can also play an important part in psychological work, even though it is not as central here as in spiritual work. In this way, riding the experiential process—respecting the other's feelings while continually tapping into a larger sense of openness underlying them and meeting the other in his or her immediacy and rawness—becomes meditation in action.

    With the help of meditation practice, I have been able to find delight in the work of therapy even when staying with clients in the midst of great suffering. Even pain and neurosis contain their own colors and have their own strange beauty. I have always found intelligence within the heart of every psychological conflict, and I can usually find ways to appreciate people's character armor—how it serves to protect them, and what a skillful creation it is in its own way, just like the porcupine's quills or the armadillo's shell.

    Since human development and transformation arise out of the interplay of earth and heaven, bounded and unbounded, the essential practice, common to both psychotherapy and meditation, is to bring our larger awareness to bear on our frozen karmic structures. Often this larger awareness is obscured—either buried beneath our problems, emotions, reactions, or else detached, dissociated, floating above them. So it is essential first to cultivate awareness and then to bring it to bear on the places where we are contracted and stuck. This allows us to taste the poisons of confused mind and transmute them.

    I once had a dream that portrayed the interplay between earth and heaven at the core of human life. I was in a huge tent with a high roof in which a lot of activity and celebration was going on. Although I was involved in the activity inside the tent, I was also simultaneously aware of the magical quality of space in the tent surrounding us and supporting our celebration.

    This is our nature as human beings: our lives unfold within earthly structures and frameworks that are permeated and surrounded by vast reaches of open space. In my dream, the structure of the tent was necessary to keep out the rain and protect the life within. Therapy and grounding work focus on form or structure—which is like helping the tent stand up firmly or patching the leaks. Yet whatever structures we build are never entirely solid but always ventilated by emptiness, the open dimension of being—like the tent's sides, open all around. While psychological work helps us come into form, spiritual work emphasizes what is beyond form, the boundless. In the end, cultivating openness to this larger space surrounding all our structures is what allows the fresh breezes of change and renewal to keep circulating through our lives.

Meet the Author

As a psychotherapist, teacher, and author, John Welwood has been a pioneer in integrating psychological and spiritual work. Welwood has published six books, including the best-selling Journey of the Heart (HarperCollins, 1990), as well as Challenge of the Heart (Shambhala, 1985), and Love and Awakening (HarperCollins, 1996). He is an associate editor of the Journal for Transpersonal Psychology. He leads workshops and trainings in psychospiritual work and conscious relationship throughout the world.

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