Embodying Your Realization
Psychological Work in the Service of Spiritual Development
While many Eastern teachers are extremely warm, loving, and personal in their own way, they often do not have much to say about the specifically personal side of human life Coming out of traditional Asian societies, they may have a hard time recognizing or assessing the personal, developmental challenges facing their Western students. They often do not understand the pervasive self-hatred, shame, and guilt, as well as the alienation and lack of confidence in these students. Still less do they detect the tendency toward spiritual bypassing— using spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep personal, emotional "unfinished business," to shore up a shaky sense of self, or to belittle basic needs, feelings, and developmental tasks, all in the name of enlightenment. And so they often teach self-transcendence to students who first of all need to find some ground to stand on,
Spiritual practice involves freeing consciousness from its entanglement in form, matter, emotions, personality, and social conditioning. In a society like ours, where the whole earthly foundation is weak to begin with, it is tempting to use spirituality as a way of trying to rise above this shaky ground. In this way, spirituality becomes just another way of rejecting one's experience. When people use spiritual practice to try to compensate for low self-esteem, social alienation, or emotional problems, they corrupt the true nature of spiritual practice. Instead of loosening the manipulative ego that tries to control its experience, they are further strengthening it.
Spiritual bypassing is a strong temptation in times like ours when achieving what were once ordinary developmental landmarks—earning a livelihood through dignified, meaningful work, raising a family, sustaining a long-term intimate relationship, belonging to a larger social community — has become increasingly difficult and elusive. Yet when people use spirituality to cover up their difficulties with functioning in the modern world, their spiritual practice remains in a separate compartment, unintegrated with the rest of their life.
For example, one woman I know went to India at age seventeen to get away from a wealthy family that had provided her with little love or understanding, and no model of a meaningful life. She spent seven years studying and practicing with Tibetan teachers in
India and Nepal, did many retreats, and had many powerful realizations. She experienced states of bliss and inner freedom lasting for long periods of time. Upon returning to Europe. however, she could barely function in the modern world. Nothing made any sense to her, and she did not know what to do with herself. She became involved with a charismatic man, and wound up having two children by him before she knew what had happened to her. In looking back at that time she said, "This man was my shadow. He represented all the parts of myself I had run away from. I found him totally fascinating and became swept up in a course of events over which I had no control. Clearly, all my spiritual practice had not touched the rest of me— all the old fears, confusions, and unconscious patterns that hit me in the face when I returned to the West."
Using spirituality to make up for failures of individuation — psychologically separating from parents, cultivating self-respect, or trusting one's own intelligence as a source of guidance— also leads to many of the so-called "perils of the path": spiritual materialism (using spirituality to shore up one's shaky ego), grandiosity and self-inflation, "us vs. them" mentality, groupthink, blind faith in charismatic teachers, and loss of discrimination. Spiritual communities can become a kind of substitute family, where the teacher is regarded as the good parent, while the students are striving to be good boys or good girls, by toeing the party line, trying to please the teacher-as-parent, or driving themselves to climb the ladder of spiritual success. And spiritual practice becomes co-opted by unconscious identities and used to reinforce unconscious defenses.
For example, people who hide behind a schizoid defense (resorting to isolation and withdrawal because the interpersonal realm feels threatening ) often use teachings about detachment and renunciation to rationalize their aloofness, impersonality, and disengagement, when what they really need is to become more fully embodied, more engaged with themselves, with others, and with life. Unfortunately, the Asian emphasis on impersonal realization makes it easy for alienated Western students to imagine that the personal is of little significance compared with the vastness of the great beyond. Such students are often attracted to teachings about selflessness and ultimate states, which seem to provide a rationale for not dealing with their own psychological wounding. In this way, they use Eastern teachings to cover up their incapacity in the personal and interpersonal realm.
People with a dependent personality structure, who try to please others in order to gain approval and security, often perform unstinting service for the teacher or community in order to feel worthwhile and needed. They confuse a codependent version of self-negation with true selflessness. Spiritual involvement is particularly tricky for people who
hide behind a narcissistic defense, because they use spirituality to make themselves feel special and important, while supposedly working on liberation from self.
Spiritual bypassing often adopts a rationale based on using absolute truth to deny or disparage relative truth. Absolute truth is what is eternally true, now and forever, beyond any particular viewpoint. When we tap into absolute truth, we can recognize the divine beauty or larger perfection operating in the whole of reality. From this larger perspective, the murders going on in Brooklyn at this moment, for instance, do not diminish this divine perfection, for the absolute encompasses the whole panorama of life and death, in which suns, galaxies, and planets are continually being born and dying. However, from a relative point of view— if you are the wife of the man murdered in Brooklyn tonight— you will probably not be moved by the truth of ultimate perfection. Instead you will be feeling human grief.
There are two ways of confusing absolute and relative truth. If you use the murder or your grief to deny or insult the higher law of the universe, you would be committing the relativist error. You would be trying to apply what is true on the horizontal plane of becoming to the vertical dimension of pure being. The spiritual bypasser makes the reverse category error, the absolutist error: He draws on absolute truth to disparage relative truth. His logic might lead to a concluson like this: Since everything is ultimately perfect in the larger cosmic play, grieving the loss of someone you love is the sign of spiritual weakness .
Psychological realities represent relative truth. They are relative to particular individuals in particular circumstances. Even though one may know that no individual death is ultimately important on the absolute, trans-human level, one may still feel profound grief and regret about a friend's death— on the relative, human level. Because we live on both these levels, the opposite of whatever we assert is also true in some way. Jesus' advice, "Love thine enemies" and "Turn the other cheek," did not prevent him from expressing his anger toward the money changers in the Temple or the hypocritical Pharisees. Thus our everyday experiences may often appear to be at odds with the highest truth. This creates uncertainty and ambiguity. For many people, the disparity between these two levels of truth is confusing or disturbing. They think reality has to be all one way or the other. In trying to make everything conform to a single order, they become new age pollyannas or else bitter cynics.
Since we live on two levels as human beings, we can never reduce reality to a single dimension. We are not just this relative body-mind organism; we are also absolute being/awareness/presence, which is much larger than our bodily form or personal history. But we are also not just this larger, formless absolute; we are also incarnate as this particular
individual. If we identify totally with form— our body-mind/ personality— our life will remain confined to known, familiar structures. But if we try to live only as pure emptiness, or absolute being, we may have a hard time fully engaging with our humanity. At the level of absolute truth, the personal self is not ultimately real; at the relative level, it must be respected. If we use the truth of no-self to avoid ever having to make personal statements such as, "I want to know you better" to someone we love, this would be a perversion.
A client of mine who was desperate about her marriage had gone to a spiritual teacher for advice. He advised her not to be so angry with her husband, but to be a compassionate friend instead. This was certainly sound spiritual advice. Compassion is a higher truth than anger; when we rest in the absolute nature of mind—pure open awareness—we discover compassion as the very core of our nature. From that perspective, feeling angry about being hurt only separates us from our true nature.
Yet the teacher who gave this woman this advice did not consider her relative situation— that she was someone who had swallowed her anger all her life. Her father had been abusive and would slap her and send her to her room whenever she showed any anger about the way he treated her. So she learned to suppress her anger, and always tried to please others and "be a good girl" instead.
When the teacher advised her to feel compassion rather than anger, she felt relieved because this fit right in with her defenses. Since anger was terrifying and threatening to her, she used the teaching on compassion for spiritual bypassing—for refusing to deal with her anger or the message it contained. Yet this only increased her sense of frustration and powerlessness in her marriage.
As her therapist, taking account of her relative psychology, my aim was to help her acknowledge her anger and relate to it more fully. As a spiritual practitioner, I was also mindful that anger is ultimately empty — a wave arising in the ocean of consciousness, without any solidity or inherent meaning. Yet while that understanding may be true in the absolute sense, and be valuable for helping dissolve attachment to anger, it was not useful for this woman at this time. Instead, she needed to learn to pay more attention to her anger in order to move beyond a habitual pattern of self-suppression, to discover her inner strength and power, and to relate to her husband in a more active, assertive way.
Given that compassion is a finer and nobler feeling than anger, how do we arrive at genuine compassion? Spiritual bypassing involves imposing on oneself higher truths that lie far beyond one's immediate existential condition. My client's attempts at compassion were not entirely genuine because they were based on rejecting her own anger. Spiritual teachers often exhort us to be loving and compassionate, or to give up selfishness and aggression, but how can we do this if our habitual tendencies arise out of a whole system of psychological dynamics that we have never clearly seen or faced, much less worked with? People often have to feel, acknowledge, and come to terms with their anger before they can arrive at genuine forgiveness or compassion. That is relative truth.
Psychological inquiry starts there, with relative truth— with whatever we are experiencing right now. It involves opening to that experience and exploring the meaning of that experience, letting it unfold, step by step, without judging it according to preconceived ideas. As a therapist, I find that allowing whatever arises to be there as it is and gently inquiring into it leads naturally in the direction of deeper truth. This is what I call psychological work in the service of spiritual development.
Many people who seek out my services have done spiritual practice for many years. They do not suffer from traditional clinical syndromes, but from some impasse in their lives that their spiritual practice has failed to penetrate: They cannot maintain a long-term relationship, feel real joy, work productively or creatively, treat themselves with compassion, or understand why they continue to indulge in certain destructive behaviors.
I have often been struck by the huge gap between the sophistication of their spiritual practice and the level of their personal development. Some of them have spent years doing what were once considered the most advanced, esoteric practices, reserved only for the select few in traditional Asia, without developing the most rudimentary forms of self-love or interpersonal sensitivity. One woman who had undergone the rigors of a Tibetan-style three-year retreat had little ability to love herself. The rigorous training she had been through only seemed to reinforce an inner discontent that drove her to pursue high spiritual ideals, without showing any kindness toward herself or her own limitations.
Another woman had let an older teacher cruelly manipulate her. She had a habitual tendency from childhood to disregard her own needs and feelings, which, using "dharma logic," she lumped in the category of samsaric hindrances. In another community the head teacher had to step down because he had begun to feel like a fraud. In our work together he came to see that all his spiritual ambitions were infested with narcissistic motivation. They had been a way of avoiding his psychological wounding and achieving a position where others would see him as special and important, rather than the helpless person he felt like on the inside.
In addition to spiritual bypassing, another major problem for Western seekers is their susceptibility to the "spiritual superego," a harsh inner voice that acts as relentless critic and judge telling them that nothing they do is ever quite good enough: "You should meditate more and practice harder. You're too self-centered. You don't have enough
devotion." This critical voice keeps track of every failure to practice or live up to the teachings, so that practice becomes more oriented toward propitiating this judgmental part of themselves than opening unconditionally to life. They may subtly regard the saints and enlightened ones as father figures who are keeping a watchful eye on all the ways they are failing to live up to their commitments. So they strive to be "dharmically correct," attempting to be more detached, compassionate, or devoted than they really are. In trying to live up to high spiritual ideals, they deny their real feelings, becoming cut off from their bodily vitality, the truth of their own experience, and their ability to find their own authentic direction.
Spiritual seekers who try to be more impartial, unemotional, unselfish, and compassionate than they really are often secretly hate themselves for the ways they fail to live up to their high ideals. This makes their spirituality cold and solemn. Their self-hatred was not created by the spiritual teaching; it already existed. But by pursuing spirituality in a way that widens the gap between how they are and how they think they should be, they wind up turning exquisite spiritual teachings on compassion and awakening into further fuel for self-hatred and inner bondage.
This raises the question of how much we can benefit from a spiritual teaching as a set of ideals, no matter how noble those ideals are. Often the striving after a spiritual ideal only serves to reinforce the critical superego— that inner voice that tells us we are never good enough, never honest enough, never loving enough. In a culture permeated by guilt and ambition, where people are desperately trying to rise above their shaky earthly foundation, the spiritual superego exerts a pervasive unconscious influence that calls for special attention and work. This requires an understanding of psychological dynamics that traditional spiritual teachings and teachers often lack.
Because Western seekers generally suffer from a painful split between being and functioning, they need careful, specific guidance in bridging the gap between the radical openness of pure being and being in the world. Unfortunately, even in spiritual traditions that emphasize the importance of integrating realization into daily life, special instructions about how to accomplish this integration are often not very fully elaborated. Or else it is not clear how the instructions, formulated for simpler times and a simpler world, apply to handling the complexities of our fast-paced world, navigating the perils of Western-style intimate relationships, or overcoming the apparent gap many people feel between realizing impersonal being and embodying it in personal functioning. By helping people work through specific emotional conflicts that obscure their deeper capacities, psychological work can also help them bring these capacities more fully into their lives. This kind of work is like cultivating the soil in which the seeds of spiritual realization can take root and blossom1.
Through cultivating the full range of human qualities latent in our absolute true nature we develop a fuller, richer quality of personal presence— we begin to embody our true nature in an individuated way. This type of individuation goes far beyond the secular, humanistic ideal of developing one's uniqueness, being a creative innovator, or living out one's dreams. Instead, it involves forging a vessel — our capacity for personal presence, nourished by its rootedness in a full spectrum of human qualities—through which we can bring absolute true nature into form—the "form" of our person.
By person I do not mean some fixed structure or entity, but the way in which true nature can manifest and express itself in a uniquely personal way, as the ineffable suchness or "youness" of you. How fully the suchness of you shines through — in your face, your speech, your actions, your particular quality of presence— is partly grace, but also partly a result of how much you have worked on polishing your vessel, so that it becomes transparent. Thus individuation, which involves clarifying the psychological dynamics that obscure our capacity to fully shine through, is not opposed to spiritual realization. It is, instead, a way of becoming a more transparent vessel— an authentic person who can bring through what is beyond the person in a uniquely personal way.
In the secular humanistic perspective, individual development is an end in itself. In the view I am proposing here, individuation is not an end, but a path or means that can help us give birth to our true form, by clearing up the distortions of our old false self. As we learn to be true to our deepest individual imperatives, rather than enslaved to past
conditioning, our character structure no longer poses such an obstacle to recognizing absolute true nature or embodying it. Our individuated nature becomes a window opening onto all that is beyond and greater than ourselves.
CONSCIOUS AND SUBCONSCIOUS IDENTITY
Spiritual traditions generally explain the cause of suffering in global, epistemological terms— as the result of ignorance, misperception, or sin — or in ontological terms— as a disconnection from our essential being. Buddhism, for instance, traces suffering to the mind's tendency to grasp and fixate — on thoughts, self-images, egocentric feelings, and distorted perceptions —as well as to ignore the deeper source of our experience— the luminous, expansive, and creative power of awareness itself. Western psychology, by contrast, offers a more specific developmental understanding. It shows how suffering stems from childhood conditioning; in particular, from frozen, distorted images of self and other (object relations) that we carry with us from the past. Since it understands these distorting identities as relational— formed in and through our relationships with others—psychotherapy explores these self-other structures in a relational context— in the healing environment of the client-therapist relationship.
Since spiritual traditions do not generally recognize how the ego-identity forms out of interpersonal relationships, they are unable to address these interpersonal structures directly. Instead, they offer practices— prayer, meditation, mantra, service, devotion to God or guru— that shift the attention to the universal ground of being in which the individual psyche moves, like a wave on the ocean. Thus it becomes possible to enter luminous states of trans-personal awakening, beyond personal conflicts and limitations, without having to address or work through specific psychological issues and conflicts. Yet while this kind of realization can certainly provide access to greater wisdom and compassion, it often does not touch or alter impaired relational patterns which, because they pervade everyday functioning, interfere with integrating this realization into the fabric of daily life.
Spiritual practice exerts a powerful global effect on the psyche by undermining the central linchpin of the ego— the identification with a fixed self-concept, which I call the conscious identity. The conscious identity is a self-image whose function is to allow us to imagine that are something solid and substantial. From a Buddhist or ontological perspective, this egoic identity functions as a defense against the threat of emptiness— the open dimension of being, with all its uncertainty, impermanence, and insubstantiality— which the ego interprets as a threat to its existence. Yet if we look at it psychologically, we can see that the conscious identity also a compensatory identity. It is a way of trying to
compensate for an underlying sense of threat or deficiency, which we originally felt in childhood in response to lack of love, connection, or acceptance. Even though our conscious identity is designed to compensate for this sense of deficiency, inadequacy, or unworthiness, we nonetheless tend to identify subconsciously with the very lack we are trying to overcome. This deeply-embedded sense of deficiency— originating in our childhood helplessness in the face of primal fear, anxiety, or pain— is what I call the subconscious (or deficient) identity.
Because subconscious,deficient identities are more hidden and threatening than conscious, compensatory ones, they are also much harder to acknowledge, dislodge, and transform. If we are to liberate ourselves from the whole compensatory/deficient ego structure, it seems necessary to address the interpersonal dynamics that are embedded in its fabric. The relational context of psychotherapy can often provide a direct, focused, and precise method of working through the subconscious dynamics that keep this whole identity structure intact.
TOWARD A FURTHER DIALOGUE BETWEEN EAST AND WEST
The essential difference between Western and Eastern psychology is their differing emphasis on the personal and the impersonal. Unfortunately, contemporary interpretations of the Eastern spiritual teachings often make personal a synonym for egoic, with the result that the capacity for richly expressive personal presence becomes lost. Although personal presence may not be as vast and boundless as impersonal presence, it has a mystery and beauty all its own. Martin Buber saw this "personal making-present (personale vergegenwaertigung)" as an integral part of what he considered the primary unit of human experience: the I-Thou relationship. Indeed, to appreciate the power and meaning of personal presence, we only need to look into the face of someone we love. As the Irish priest John O'Donohue once remarked, "In the human face infinity becomes personal." While impersonal presence is the source of an equal concern and compassion for all beings (agape, in Western terms), personal presence is the source of eros— the intimate resonance between oneself, as this particular person, and another, whose particular suchness we respond to in a very particular way.
We in the West have been exposed to the most profound nondual teachings and practices of the East for only a few short decades. Now that we have begun to digest and assilimate them, it is time for a deeper level of dialogue between East and West, in order to develop greater understanding about the relationship between the impersonal absolute and the human, personal dimension. Indeed, expressing absolute true nature in a throughly personal, human form may be one of the most important evolutionary potentials of the cross-fertilization of East and West, of contemplative and psychological understanding. Bringing these two approaches into closer dialogue may help us discover how to transform our personality in a more complete way— developing it into an instrument of higher purposes— thus redeeming the whole personal realm, instead of just seeking liberation from it.
Buddhism for one has always grown by absorbing methods and understandings indigenous to the cultures to which it spread. If psychotherapy is our modern way of dealing with the psyche and its demons, analogous to the early Tibetan shamanic practices that Vajrayana Buddhism integrated into its larger framework, then the meditative traditions may only find a firmer footing in our culture if they recognize and relate to Western psychology more fully. A more open and penetrating dialogue between practitioners of meditative and psychological disciplines could help the ancient spiritual traditions find new and more powerful ways of addressing the Western situation and thus have a greater impact on the direction our world is taking.
In sum, we need a new framework of understanding that can help us appreciate how psychological and spiritual work might be mutually supportive allies in the liberation and complete embodiment of the human spirit. We need to revision both spiritual and psychological work for our time, so that psychological work can function in the service of spiritual development, while spiritual work can also take account of psychological development. These two convergent streams would then recognize each other as two vitally important limbs of an evolving humanity that is still moving toward realizing its potential as:
—the being that can open, and know itself as belonging to the universal mystery and presence that surrounds and inhabits all things, and
—the being that can embody that larger openness as human presence in the world, through its capacity to manifest all the deeper resources implicit in its nature, thus serving as a crucial link between heaven and earth.
Copyright by John Welwood. All rights reserved
Practice is, at its center, engagement. When you practice you engage the various faculties that the chosen activity requires. The more you engage, the more prepared you become. When you took your first steps in life and began walking you most likely balanced tentatively, teetered and fell. Often. But with practice, as you engaged the activity of walking over and over, you became increasingly more competent, more proficient and ultimately more elegant to move about in the world and meet the demands of your life.
So what happens if you do not practice? Without practice you often find yourself lacking the competence needed to meet the multifaceted challenges of life. Fail to engage your sexuality and most likely your partner will soon ask for more than you are prepared to offer. Fail to engage in disciplining your mental focus and you are likely to find yourself putting out distracting fires at work instead of focusing on real strategic priorities. Fail to practice attuning to your child and you are likely to find yourself unprepared in being able to connect with them as they grow.
Without the repeated engagement of practice you are largely unprepared to meet the demands of your life. It is simple, practice is a necessity. But what happens when you engage life and acquire a certain level of competency that is satisfactory for you? To answer this question we must look more closely into what it means to engage.
Engagement is the conscious inhabitation of your body and mind. Practice is happening when your open awareness is moving with, in and through your embodied activity. Intrinsic to practice is your conscious participation with your life. Engagement is the conduction of your free and open awareness through your activities, whatever they may be.
When you acquire a certain level of competence that is presumed to be satisfactory, practice typically stops. As soon as ‘good enough’ is achieved something subtle yet extremely powerful happens: habituation steps in. One of your habituation’s central attachments is comfort. Wherever you are comfortable, wherever ‘good enough’ is subjectively perceived, your habituation will invest vast amounts of resources to maintain this comfortable status quo. One way your ego achieves this is to stop practicing.
Suddenly, the practice that birthed the greater competence in your life stops and your conditioning steps in. As engagement ceases the conscious participation and inhabitation of your body, mind and life is replaced by your ego’s habituation. And as soon as you cease consciously metabolizing your experience within the direct immediacy of the present moment you are no longer preparing yourself, your ego is just repeating itself.
Life’s vivid textures, the alive energy and unbounded beauty, fade. The result is that hours pass, then weeks and entire months float by, years and sometime entire decades pass, with the same patterns repeating. One song is on repeat seemingly playing without end. You are not becoming more prepared through greater refinement but rather more prepared to execute the same habituated pattern regardless of what demands are present.
So while practice is a necessity for survival, it is often only a matter of time before your ego steps in and habituation hijacks your engagement with life. Fortunately, given the trap of your ego’s investment in comfort, there is a second dimension to answering this question.
The second reason why we practice is because of a desire, a seeking to improve, a yearning to refine and develop yourself and the world we live in. Survival is not enough for human beings. There is some facet of humanity that is intrinsically invested in creativity. The human drive for progress is interested in fashioning some dimension of oneself and life anew, taking what is not here and merely a possibility and make it an actuality.
If you look closely, cutting through your ego’s habituated attempts to struggle with this dimension of yourself and that dimension of life, I think you will find a simple impulse, drive or inner imposition that lives within your heart. This force is an energy that continually draws you forward, inspires you out of the limitations and constraints present and into a greater more liberated fullness of life. This impulse is congruent with the present moment, it is not in conflict as the ego’s position maintains. Instead of struggle, this force moves through uninhibited participation with the truth of your direct experience. This inspired force moves with that which is good, true and beautiful. This dimension of you is perhaps the central reason why you practice even when you have developed adequate skills to function with grace and efficiency in society.
This inspired desire to refine yourself, the inner imposition to develop and evolve your gifts, skills and unique capacities is nothing other than your Excellence calling you forth into your greatest articulations. Your desire to go beyond habituation, to reach into novelty and to liberate the constraints of your life is the beating heart of your true strength. When you free yourself from the ego’s grip upon comfort, I think you will find yourself realizing a necessity once again. If you are to actually face and embody the purpose of your life you need your strength. Without practice strength and Excellence rarely manifest. Ultimately, practice is part necessity and part inspiration. To understand and embody practice requires both.