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Review of "Toward a Psychology of Awakening"

By John Welwood
Shambhala Publications, 2001
Review by H. Kimball Jones on Jun 22nd 2002
Toward a Psychology of Awakening

John Welwood's book, Toward a Psychology of Awakening, is a gem.  Several books have been written in recent years about the relationship between Eastern Meditative Practice and Western Psychotherapy, but few have reached the level of insight and clarity of thought that Welwood achieves here.  Lay people, religious professionals and psychotherapists should all find this book to be rich and insightful.  Welwood does not assume a prior understanding of meditation or psychotherapy on the part of the reader and manages to convey a very clear and readable understanding of both disciplines that should be instructive to the lay person, while at the same time dealing with complex and intricate issues which should be both enlightening and challenging to professionals.  Few authors have managed to pull this off without either resorting to overly simplistic descriptions, or getting lost in tangled esoteric distinctions.  That Welwood has managed to achieve this kind of clarity is testament to the depth of his understanding of both Eastern Meditative Thought and Western Psychology.

The book is divided into three sections, each of which could be a book in its own right: I. Integrating Psychology and Spirituality, II. Psychotherapy in a Spiritual Context, and III. The Awakening Power of Relationship.  Welwood suggests that some readers might want to skip the first part if they are less interested in philosophical than practical matters.  I think that would be a mistake.  While Part II is geared more toward the skills utilized in bringing Eastern Meditative Practice to bear in the process of psychotherapy, Part I is, in my opinion, the most challenging and interesting part of the book.  In the eight chapters that make up Part I, Welwood offers a thorough and fascinating theory of the structure and phenomenology of the human psyche when viewed from the combined insights of Eastern Meditation and Western Psychotherapy.

In this discussion Welwood acknowledges that he has been influenced strongly by existentialist philosophy, especially the French Existentialists; by Zen Buddhism, with particular emphasis upon its meditative practices; and by the psychology of Eugene Gendlin and his theory of "focusing."  Drawing upon all three of these sources, Welwood clarifies some of the more helpful insights of Western Psychology while, at the same time, challenging some of its most cherished beliefs. He describes the therapeutic process as one that involves an “unfolding” from the confined space of compulsions and conditioned responses to a larger open space that transcends the ego-bound limits of the individual personality.  For this unfolding to occur he suggests that both client and therapist must start from a position of unconditional acceptance of all accessible feelings without giving in to the urge to criticize, judge and change the existing personality.  Paradoxically, healthy change in neurotic patterns can occur only when there is first this unconditional acceptance of what is felt and experienced. He suggests that the “focusing” technique of Eugene Gendlin which seeks to go deeply into one’s feelings without making evaluative judgments of them can be helpful in this process: “…the first step in turning personality into path is developing a commitment to seeing ourselves as we are, no matter how much we might dread what we’ll discover.” (p.31)  Meditative practice can  be helpful  in achieving this, because it allows us to free the mind of all  thoughts that would judge troublesome feelings as being unacceptable.

In Chapter 5 – “Meditation and the Unconscious” – Welwood challenges some of the basic assumptions of modern depth psychology about the unconscious.    He suggests that while there are, indeed, rich sources of depth and meaning within the psyche that are normally inaccessible to the ego, to see these contents as residing in a separate realm – the unconscious – is an unnecessarily dualistic, inaccurate assessment.  From a Buddhist perspective, the idea of an unconscious as a separate mental realm reinforces the self/other split.  This becomes apparent in the practice of meditation.  In meditating, one gains a clear awareness simultaneously of “conscious” and “unconscious” contents.  Welwood suggests that using a model of “figure and ground” can be helpful here, seeing conscious as figure, unconscious as ground.  Within what is normally described as “the unconscious mind” there exists several layers of ground progressing from the personal to the transpersonal and ultimately to the “open” which is the “fundamental ground of pure awareness.” (p.71)   “As the inmost reality of human consciousness, the open ground is what allows the endless flow of moments to unfold and have meaning. It is not an unconscious mind situated somewhere inside the organism.” (p.75)   One must read this chapter to gain full appreciation of what Welwood is suggesting here.  This intriguing view puts a new perspective on what lies at the core of neurosis and psychopathology.  “From this perspective, what makes the ego anxious is not threatening unconscious contents so much as the groundless, open nature of our being…Resistance, repression and defense are ways that we armor ourselves against this larger openness that threatens our attempt to establish a permanent separate identity.” (p.75)  This is a persuasive and fascinating argument, and may cause many to rethink how they understand the very structure of the human psyche.

Having posited the goal of undivided awareness, Welwood then asks how psychotherapeutic reflection, which by its very nature is a form of divided consciousness, can help one to achieve this awareness.  He suggests that this can best be achieved through what he describes as “presence-centered psychotherapy” which, he suggests, is “psychotherapeutic work in a spiritual context.”  Using a focusing-like technique, this process progresses beyond the conceptual reflection that marks much of traditional psychotherapy, through a phenomenological reflection, to a “witnessing” that is close to a meditative state of “mindfulness”, and finally to a “transreflective resting in open presence within whatever experience arises, which is no other than pure being/emptiness (self-liberation).” (p.127).  In describing the levels of this process Welwood acknowledges that this is an ideal progression that many people can only begin to approach and which may not be practical for some who suffer from weak ego structure and serious early personality damage.

In The second part of the book –“Psychotherapy in a Spiritual Context” –Welwood describes the process of “presence-centered psychotherapy” in greater detail and with more practical application, drawing helpfully on several vignettes form his own psychotherapy practice.  He suggests that the practice of meditation can be invaluable to psychotherapists in achieving the kind of loving, unconditional presence that is required to facilitate the unfolding process of presence-centered psychotherapy.  By experiencing the kind of open awareness that comes with  disciplined meditation, the therapist can avoid being drawn in to the client’s need for solutions based on radical personality change.   In the tradition of R.  D. Laing and Karl Meninger, among others, he suggests that the seeds of real change lie within the core of the neurotic symptoms themselves, which need to be acknowledged as creative, and sometimes brilliant, adaptations to difficult life situations.  In saying this, Welwood is not romanticizing pathology, but rather seeing the clues and tools for positive change to lie within the adaptive defensive techniques of the psyche. He is suggesting that new strategies for coping often emerge from these very adaptations rather than from changes brought about in the core of the personality.

In Chapter 14 –“Embodying Your Realization: Psychological Work  in the Service of Spiritual Development”  -- Welwood again breaks new ground.  Here he suggests that while many have written on how spiritual disciplines can help increase psychological awareness, few have talked about how psychological reflection can aid spiritual work.  Spiritual insight, while frequently dramatic, is often short lived.  Spiritual disciplines often fail to teach how to fully embody what we have learned and how to weave it into the fabric of daily life.

            “Here is where psychological work might serve as an ally to spiritual practice—

            by helping to shine the light of awareness into all the hidden nooks and crannies

            of our conditioned personality, so that it becomes more porous, more permeable

            to the larger being that is its ground.” (p. 196)

In Part III –The Awakening Power of Relationship –Welwood suggests that one area where psychotherapy can be particularly helpful in the service of spiritual development is in helping to understand the dynamics of human relationship.  In the sacred space of intimate relationship we often experience the tensions and dualities of life with a special intensity.  In  understanding the dynamics and intricacies of relationship including the destructive role of projection, which Western Psychology teaches us, we can become more open to the fullness of being in all aspects of our lives.  Eastern Meditative Practice, on the other hand, can help us to achieve the kind of clarity that can break through projections and experience intimate relationship as a sacred path.

In sum, in this enlightening book, Welwood offers us a very rich and fresh look at the weaving together of Eastern Meditative Practice and Western Psychotherapy.  He succeeds both in feeding us with helpful insights while also challenging some of our basic assumptions about ourselves and the world.  One cannot read this book without feeling both moved and challenged.

© 2002 H. Kimball Jones


H. Kimball Jones is a Pastoral Psychotherapist who lives and practices on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in New York City.  He is a Diplomate in the American Association of Pastoral Counselors and a former Vice President of the Board of the C. G. Jung Foundation in New York.   He has a full-time counseling practice and serves as West-Side Area Director for the Psychotherapy and Spirituality Institute (www.mindspirit.org).  Dr. Jones is an ordained minister in the New York Conference of the United Methodist Church and Chairman of the Sangha Council at the Won Buddhist Temple in Manhattan where he has worshipped for the past 8 years.   He has always been interested in the relationship between psychology and spirituality and particularly in the relevance of Buddhist thought and meditative practice to Western Psychotherapy.