I came to learn recently that the esteemed therapist and psycho-spiritual teacher John Welwood passed away. I was listening to a Sounds True podcast and when I heard this I was instantly flooded with memories of a talk/workshop that he did in 2007 called “Perfect Love, Imperfect Relationships.” It was poignant, funny, deeply process-based and totally reflective of a man who was not journeying away from the messiness of being alive, but rather finding a way to meet that messiness with curiosity and unconditional presence.
In memoriam of his life, Sounds True aired the last interview they did with him in which he stated that we are all Buddhas becoming human. I was so struck by that. In the interview, you could hear in his voice that he was struggling- that his body was failing, yet what came through loud and clear was if we do not move towards our shadow material- the places that make us feel vulnerable and unlovable, we will never know the freedom and possibility that is on the other side of that impasse.
In “Perfect Love, Imperfect Relationships,” he gave steps for moving gently towards the things that trigger us: firstly, turn towards what is uncomfortable, acknowledge what is, allow the feelings, open the heart and finally, and finally enter into the experience fully all while allowing whatever resistance is there to be there. This all sounds pretty easy on paper but it is probably the hardest work there is and work that requires a strong, supportive holding space, especially if we are dealing with deeply entrenched wounds/patterns that go counter to these practices.
Part of John’s message was that while a lot of us turn to spirituality for relief from our relational wounds, spiritual practice alone cannot solve our human struggles. While meditation and yoga can provide a reprieve from over-thinking or the over-identification with the mind, if used unskilfully, these practices can become ways of bypassing the work that is necessary in creating and maintaining healthy relationships and communities. In other words, we cannot expect spiritual practice alone to heal our relational wounds because it is only in/through relationship that we can learn how to relate!
This is where psychological practice becomes instrumental – finding healthy containers and healthy mirrors (therapy!) that can help us to work through our blind spots. It is also where community becomes vital – a place where everyone is equal, where we practice relating to people who are different than ourselves all while understanding how our language and behaviour affect each other. While the student-teacher relationship can be helpful in certain settings, many hierarchical structures prove problematic as too often everything becomes about pleasing the teacher and then the teacher is shielded from their own work. In light of all the abuses that have been exposed in spiritual circles, what feels necessary, if we are to come together honestly, is to do it on our own terms with healthy boundaries that help everyone feel empowered and autonomous.
In the podcast, John talked about the crux of healing as a balance of psychological work and spiritual work. His metaphor for love was a combination of warmth and space: letting the warmth of the sun shine on your face while feeling the vastness of the sky – the warmth being what we get through connection and the space what we get from remembering our uprightness, or vertical connection to source. Often, when we are looking to relationship to fulfill these two needs, we are disappointed, because no one outside of ourselves and spiritual practice can give us a sense of peace with who we are- flaws and all. Conversely, spiritual practice doesn’t always provide the warmth and human connection needed to soften our edges and perfectionistic/idealistic tendencies.
To truly thrive, we really need both spiritual and psychological practices and a veritable treasure chest of tools that could include yoga, meditation, therapy, creativity and play in which to explore healing and wholeness. This means that being hell-bent on a vertical trajectory towards getting better or becoming enlightened is misguided. We are Buddhas becoming human and the way out is not to just rise above but also to move through experience with humility and curiosity. Instead of regarding the body or human experience as petty or shameful, we can be touched by the messiness of life and opened by it so that we become larger more compassionate containers for the highs and lows to which none of us are immune.
Instrumental to this way of healing is self-awareness and self-love – qualities we cultivate through spiritual practice and therapeutic relationship. The degree to which we can see what’s happening clearly and be kind with ourselves in the process is the degree to which we can grapple with our own shortcomings without losing ourselves in denial or self-flagellation. It is also how we cultivate resilience; understanding our stumbling blocks and working with them in order to have a more expanded understanding of how things are. By looking squarely at the things we’ve swept under the rug, we open to the true source of our awakening and come home to ourselves in the process.
This is why I appreciate teachers who are transparent. By owning their humanity, they invite others to do the same and while many talk a good talk about ‘getting real’, it is rare to see people in positions of power who have courage to own their shadows. Instead, spiritual bypassing, a term coined by John Welwood, allows them to avoid staying with whats uncomfortable in order to shift to some transcendent state. Disassociation and splitting become strategies that favour magical thinking over getting down to the brass tacks of unpacking pain and suffering and while we all need hope, clinging to positivity mantras or simply pushing things away is often emblematic of being lost in delusion.
The question is why do we look outside of ourselves for the magic bullet that will solve all our woes? Probably for the same reason that a child reaches out to a parent – to feel soothed, to feel met, to feel taken care of. While these are all human needs, and totally normal, no person outside of ourselves can provide all the answers for us and at the end of the day, as adults, it is our responsibility to be discerning and both ask for help and learn to take care of ourselves. I know that when I am looking to one thing as a fix-it-all for my own discomfort, I am creating more suffering for myself in the long run because eventually, all coping mechanisms break down because they are only that – ways of soothing or coping, not necessarily ways of addressing the real root of our pain.
Being with the whole uncertain, messy thing is teaching me not to try to wrap everything in a bow and to remember that things are changing all the time. I am a mystery and so is life. I can find the tools I need like meditation and therapy to help address the relational and spiritual challenges I have but nothing is going to take me away from the work of facing what is here and now. The most important thing I can cultivate is compassion in the face of adversity while building a strong container for my experience so that I am able to weather the storms of life without being completely swept away. If I can remember to love ‘the soft animal of (my) body,’ as Mary Oliver says in her poem, The Wild Geese, I can remember I am a Buddha learning to be human and relax into full-spectrum living with no parts left out.