Last Friday saw my first visit to The Globe in London: the replica of the iconic building originally erected by Shakespeare and his playing company in 1599. I finally found a good excuse to visit - walking passed the venue back in the autumn, I saw a poster advertising an anthology of plays under the title “Dark night of the soul”. The phrase caught my eye because of research I had done as part of my psychotherapy training: an exploration as to how the mindfulness movement might in fact have a shadow side; and how reports of psychotic breaks might be a spiritual breakthrough rather than breakdown, depending on how they are viewed and worked with.
The “Dark night” was originally a phenomenon explicated by St John of the Cross: the need for a pilgrim to enter the dark before any kind of spiritual epiphany. In the case of the anthology at The Globe, the phrase was being used to explore the Faustian myth…
“Doctor Faustus sits in the Wittenberg study, restless for knowledge and frustrated with the limitations of conventional scholarship. Coveting fame and power, the Doctor conjures the menacing demon, Mephistopheles, who offers Faustus a deal: in exchange for twenty-four years of supreme power and service from the demon, Faustus must sacrifice the immortal soul to a fiery Hell. The Devil’s deal is signed in blood and Faustus’ is elevate to unrivalled notoriety and travels the world performing wonders. Yet as time ticks on and Faustus’ final hour of reckoning approaches, the true cost of the bargain becomes an all too certain reality.”
A little over a week ago, a friend of mine dropped me a message to ask if I had “seen this? https://www.lionsroar.com/pioneering-east-west-psychologist-john-welwood-dies-age-75/ ". I hadn’t. As I read the headline I immediately connected to a deep sense of loss, sadness. One of my, if not THE, biggest influences in my current path had died. I wasn’t surprised: when I went on retreat with John back in the autumn of 2016 (a retreat for therapists at Omega Institute, New York state) he was not in good health. It was the first time I had met John in person, but having watched, listened, read the man the stories and then hearing the recollections of others on the retreat who knew John was “not the man he used to be” made sense. He was frail, slow and deliberate in his movements - yet even with those very obvious limitations, the power of the man, his presence was awe inspiring. A week with John...I came back very changed.
I realise the task ahead of me today - an attempt to convey to you the impression this man made on my life: my work, my relationships, my deepest sense of self. He brought together so many threads in my thinking: a buddhist psychologist, his student-teacher relationships with Chogyam Trungpa and Eugene Gendlin (the founder of Focusing, a practice that runs deeply through the humanistic psychotherapy tradition). I could write a book about what he has taught me - indeed, the plans I have to write a book will undoubtably carry a deep imprint of his work.
As I sat in meditation after hearing the news, I recalled a very intimate moment shared with John on retreat. We had just been mediating to one of his favourite pieces, Max Richter’s “sleep”. I connected to a deep sense of being that I could only relay to John and the other retreatants as one of being deeply immersed in my being…
I was ill all of last week, struck down by a chesty cough and flu combo. What was to be the second week back to work in the New Year became somewhat of a hiatus. Resting again, this time not through choice but necessity. No clients, no University work; 5 days of nothingness.
For the first two days it was easy to be ill: I felt so dreadful that there was nothing I could do but give in to it. But by day 3 and 4, I was starting to feel reasonably compos mentis and I had to trust the wisdom of the body rather than listening to the little voice tempting me to start getting active again. “You could work from bed, you have your laptop…just check a few emails, you don’t have to move…doing some marking won’t hurt you”. I’m sure many of you have had similar experiences - how to stop, how to not feel the demands of life continuing.
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