Monday, April 11, 2011

Human Nature, Buddha Nature - An interview with John Welwood

From Tricycle Magazine, this is an older interview with John Welwood, one of my favorite teachers. As both a psychotherapist and a Buddhist, he offers unique and powerful insights on personal work and, more importantly to me, on relationship as the crucible of spiritual growth.

This conversation centers around the concept of spiritual bypassing that he introduced 30 years ago. This is a concept as important as spiritual materialism - recently, Robert Augustus Masters has written the essential handbook - Spiritual Bypassing: When Spirituality Disconnects Us from What Really Matters - on working with this pitfall on the spiritual path.

My favorite Welwood book is Perfect Love, Imperfect Relationships: Healing the Wound of the Heart - very insightful, very important to understanding how relationship works both psychologically and spiritually.

Human Nature, Buddha Nature

An interview with John Welwood

In the 1980s, John Welwood emerged as a pioneer in illuminating the relationship between Western psychotherapy and Buddhist practice. The former director of the East/West psychology program at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco, he is currently associate editor of the Journal of Transpersonal Psychology. Welwood has published numerous articles and books on the subjects of relationship, psychotherapy, consciousness, and personal change, including the bestselling Journey of the Heart. His idea of “spiritual bypassing” has become a key concept in how many understand the pitfalls of long-term spiritual practice. Psychotherapist Tina Fossella spoke with Welwood about how the concept has developed since he introduced it 30 years ago.

You introduced the term “spiritual bypassing” 30 years ago. For those who are unfamiliar with the concept, could you explain what it is?
“Spiritual bypassing” is a term I coined to describe a process I saw happening in the Buddhist community I was in, and also in myself. Although most of us were sincerely trying to work on ourselves, I noticed a widespread tendency to use spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks. When we are spiritually bypassing, we often use the goal of awakening or liberation to try to rise above the raw and messy side of our humanness before we have fully faced and made peace with it. We may also use our notion of absolute truth to disparage or dismiss relative human needs, feelings, psychological problems, relational difficulties, and developmental deficits. I see this as a basic hazard of the spiritual path, in that spirituality does involve a vision of going beyond our current karmic situation.

What sort of hazard does this present? Trying to move beyond our psychological and emotional issues by sidestepping them is dangerous. It sets up a debilitating split between the buddha and the human within us. And it leads to a conceptual, one-sided kind of spirituality where one pole of life is elevated at the expense of its opposite: absolute truth is favored over relative truth, the impersonal over the personal, emptiness over form, transcendence over embodiment, and detachment over feeling. One might, for example, try to practice nonattachment by dismissing one’s need for love, but this only drives the need underground, where it is likely to become acted out in covert, unconscious, and possibly harmful ways.

What interests you most about spiritual bypassing these days? I’m interested in how it plays out in relationships, where spiritual bypassing often wreaks its worst havoc. If you were a yogi in a cave doing years of solo retreat, your psychological wounding might not show up so much, because your focus would be entirely on your practice. It’s in relationships that our unresolved psychological issues show up most intensely. That’s because psychological wounds are always relational—they form in and through our relationships with our early caretakers.

The core psychological wound, so prevalent in the modern world, forms out of not feeling loved or intrinsically lovable as we are. Inadequate love or attunement is shocking and traumatic for a child’s developing and highly sensitive nervous system. It damages our capacity to value ourselves, which is also the basis for valuing others. I call this the “relational wound“ or “wound of the heart.”

There is a whole body of study and research in Western psychology showing how close bonding and loving attunement—what is known as “secure attachment”—have powerful impacts on every aspect of human development. Secure attachment has a tremendous effect on many dimensions of our health, wellbeing, and capacity to function effectively in the world: how our brains form, how well our endocrine and immune systems function, how we handle emotions, how subject we are to depression, how our nervous system functions and handles stress, and how we relate to others.

Modern culture and child raising leave most people suffering from symptoms of insecure attachment: self-hatred, disembodiment, lack of grounding, ongoing insecurity and anxiety, overactive minds, inability to deeply trust, and a deep sense of inner deficiency. So most of us suffer from an extreme degree of alienation and disconnection that was unknown in earlier times—from society, community, family, older generations, nature, religion, tradition, our body, our feelings, and our humanity itself.

How is this relevant for how we practice the dharma? Many of us originally turn to the dharma at least in part as a way of trying to overcome the pain of our psychological and relational wounding. Yet we are often in denial about or unconscious of the nature or extent of this wounding. As a result, being a “good” spiritual practitioner can become a compensatory identity that covers up and defends against an underlying deficient identity, where we feel bad about ourselves, not good enough, or basically lacking. Then, although we may be practicing diligently, our spiritual practice can be used in the service of denial and defense. And when spiritual practice is used to bypass our real-life human issues, it becomes compartmentalized in a separate zone of our life that remains unintegrated with our overall functioning.

Can you give some more examples of how spiritual bypassing takes shape in Western practitioners? In my psychotherapy practice, I often work with dharma students who have practiced for decades. Often they have developed some kindness and compassion for others but are hard on themselves for falling short of their spiritual ideals, and their spiritual practice has become dry and solemn. Or being of benefit to others has become a duty, or a way of trying to feel good about themselves. Others may unconsciously use their spiritual brilliance to feed their narcissistic inflation and treat others in manipulative ways.

People with depressive tendencies who grew up with a lack of loving attunement in childhood have a hard time valuing themselves, and they may use teachings on no-self to reinforce their deflation. Not only do they feel bad about themselves but they regard their insecurity about whether they’re okay as a further fault—a form of me-fixation, the very antithesis of the dharma—which further fuels their shame or guilt.

Meditation is also commonly used to avoid uncomfortable feelings and unresolved life situations. For those who are in denial about their personal feelings or wounds and who have a hard time expressing themselves in a personally transparent way, meditation practice can reinforce a tendency toward disconnection and disengagement. It can be quite threatening when those of us on a spiritual path have to face our woundedness, or emotional dependency, or primal need for love.

I’ve often seen how attempts to be nonattached are used in the service of sealing people off from their human and emotional vulnerabilities. It’s painful to see someone maintaining a stance of detachment when underneath they are starving for positive experiences of bonding and connection.

So how do we reconcile the ideal of nonattachment with the need for human attachment? Good question. We need a larger perspective that can recognize and include two different tracks of human development—which we might call growing up and waking up, healing and awakening, or becoming a genuine human person and going beyond the person altogether. We are not just humans learning to become buddhas, but also buddhas waking up in human form, learning to become fully human. And these two tracks of development can mutually enrich each other.

If we hold a perspective that includes the two developmental tracks, then we will not use our notions of absolute truth to belittle relative, personal feelings and needs for connection. Even though personal feelings and needs may have no solid or ultimate reality, shunting them aside is likely to cause major psychological problems.

The great paradox of being both human and buddha is that we are both dependent and not dependent. Part of us is completely dependent on people for everything—from food and clothing to love, connectedness, inspiration, and help with our development. Though our buddhanature is not dependent—that’s absolute truth—our human embodiment is; that’s relative truth.

So we can be both attached and nonattached? Yes. Nonattachment is a teaching about our ultimate nature. Yet to grow into a healthy human being, we need a base of secure attachment in the positive, psychological sense, meaning close emotional ties to other people that promote connectedness, grounded embodiment, and well-being. As the naturalist John Muir wrote: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find that it is bound fast by a thousand invisible cords that cannot be broken, to everything in the universe.” Similarly, the hand cannot function unless it is attached to the arm—that’s attachment in the positive sense. We’re interconnected, interwoven, and interdependent with everything in the universe. On the human level we can’t help feeling somewhat attached to people we are close to.

So it’s natural to grieve deeply when we lose someone we’re close to. I’ve heard that when Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche attended the memorial service for his dear friend and colleague Shunryu Suzuki, he let out a piercing cry and wept openly. He was acknowledging his close ties to Suzuki Roshi, and it was beautiful that he could let his feeling show like that.

Since we cannot avoid some kind of attachment to others, the question is, “Are we engaging in healthy or unhealthy attachment?” What is unhealthy in psychological terms is insecure attachment, for it leads either to fear of close personal contact or else to obsession with it. Interestingly, people growing up with secure attachment are more trusting, which makes them much less likely to cling to others. Maybe we could call that “nonattached attachment.”

Unfortunately, we can easily confuse nonattachment with avoidance of attachment. Avoidance of attachment, however, is not freedom from attachment. It’s another form of clinging—clinging to the denial of your human attachment needs, out of distrust that love is reliable.
Go read the whole interview (link continues where this leaves off).

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