The legacy of a teacher: my tribute to John Welwood

John WelwoodA little over a week ago, a friend of mine dropped me a message to ask if I had “seen this? “. 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 am lying in a bath full of water. 

There is no bath, there is no water,

There is no “I”.

He looked right at me for what felt like an age. He held my gaze and simply said “that sounds like a poem…that sounds like one-ness”. I welled up. A deep sense of well-being – of being heard, of being appreciated. There is no way to escape the word, it felt like “love”.

I have limited myself to present four ideas that John has helped me know – know not as in understand, but know as in experience.

Being and becoming, a twofold journey
I have written extensively elsewhere on these ideas – ones I took home from that retreat experience with John in 2016. He describes our unfolding toward wholeness as being on two levels (or more correctly, planes). We do our psychological / emotional work through the path of counselling and psychotherapy; we do our spiritual work on a different path (for me, that is as a Buddhist). One is personal, one is transpersonal; one is becoming, one is being; one is a horizontal unfolding, one is a vertical dropping in to what is already deeply known. Separating out, yet at the same time realising the support each process brings to the other, has helped me both in my personal and in my professional lives. I know, and hear in my clients, the stories of striving to ‘become’; and I also hear the yearning to trust, relax, let go, and ‘be’. At different times in our lives we might emphasise one over the other. In the second half of life we might realise the importance of the being – the bigger picture, the sacred nature of our everyday lives. When I sit down to meditate each morning and tune in to my restlessness, I often rewind to a memory of John, encouraging us to feel our being at the belly, to drop down in to our hara.

Spiritual bypassing
If you Google “John Welwood”, you will find one of the top search results will point to this phrase he coined. Spiritual bypassing is a “tendency to use spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks”. We can put this in context to the first idea – those people who adopt a spiritual path in an attempt (not necessarily a conscious attempt) to “fix” themselves. I did this (or tried to). I came to meditation to solve the problem of my stress and anxiety. You can imagine the shock when I discovered the true message of Buddhism is that we can’t escape our suffering – the only way out is THROUGH. I want my money back!! Many on spiritual paths don’t realise the practices and rituals are being used surreptitiously to plaster over deep, deep wounds. I’ve been on retreat where we have been doing group practices to cultivate loving-kindness and compassion….only to witness the polar opposite of these attitudes in the queues for coffee and biscuits at tea break. Who is going to get the last chocolate cookie? And it isn’t always a shadow type behaviour we are looking for in bypassing. Another buddhist psychologist Jack Engler once commented “You have to be somebody before you can be nobody”. We have to have a clear sense of our ‘self’ before we try and pursue a path that goes beyond self to an appreciation of interconnectedness. The act of taking up an appropriate psychological space on this planet is where we don’t shrink and become small; and likelwise we don’t over-inflate to take up the space of others. Many of my clients who experience low self-esteem don’t take up enough space – they feel they get in the way, they feel a nuisance: and they might help others because it is a sense of duty, to feel worthy of existing. We have to work on our becoming in order to inhabit our being.*

The wounding and healing of relationships
Where do we learn we are a “nuisance” (or any other script and belief)? From our childhoods, from those grown up children adults (with their own wounds). In John’s words “It’s important to recognize that all the emotional and psychological
wounding we carry with us from the past is relational in nature: It has to do with not feeling fully loved.” How often I find myself channeling this view to the students on the counselling and psychotherapy courses on which I teach. If we understand the wounds as relational, we then get a sense that it is through relationships (i.e. between therapist and client) we can find wholeness again, we can heal. Research backs this up – Bruce Wampold and his team at University of Wisconsin-Madison have spoken about the ‘common factors’ that make therapy effective. Across all the various therapies, the exact method and approach is less important than the relationship between therapist and client. The interpersonal neurobiology researchers speak of therapy as ‘re-parenting’, or a ‘corrective and reparative experience’. In plain words – we experience the therapist as an accepting and non-judgemental other, someone who relates to us as the “I-Thou”. Hopefully, we experience receiving love of another without conditions….

Unconditional presence
…I have witnessed John offering his unconditional love. On retreat, I could see how often transference was lived out, how often John was on the receiving end of many assumptions and projections that didn’t belong with him but from people’s childhood experiences – the past was becoming present (with John as the object on which it was landing). One man, “Ted” was incredibly angry with John who, in his experience, was withholding. “Ted” repeatedly tried to get John’s reassurance, he wanted to be singled out as ‘special’. John didn’t so much refuse, but rather worked at a level that would see “Ted” gaining long term change rather than short term reassurance. “Ted” needed to appreciate his own worth rather than relying on a (father) figure to tell him he was okay. John gently and repeatedly refused the invitation to provide an external fix and asked the man to find that place within, the seat of his own wholeness – “Ted’s” being, his hara. At no point did John give up on “Ted”, despite the fury, rage and acting out. I think of “Ted” now as I write, I wonder how this news has hit him. As therapists, we are often called upon to withstand the (sometimes) fierce projections and transferences. We stand firm, we offer our presence.

Reading back over this post, I’m not sure I have done justice to John, his legacy. But simply engaging with this task makes me reflect upon what we all can leave behind. Who do we impact? What can we leave behind with the intention of ‘being helpful’ to others? As Helen, how have I helped, what more can I do? My experience of John Welwood inspires me to continue my path as a Bodhisattva, someone intent on ‘waking-up’ in order to help as many others ‘wake-up’ as is possible.

The last words belong to John…

“Forget about enlightenment.
Sit down wherever you are 
And listen to the wind singing in your veins.
Feel the love, the longing, and the fear in your bones.
Open your heart to who you are, right now,
Not who you would like to be.
Not the saint you’re striving to become.
But the being right here before you, inside you, around you.
All of you is holy.
You’re already more and less 
Than whatever you can know.
Breathe out, touch in, let go.”

― John Welwood, 1943 – 2019


*Note, this might imply they are sequential tasks – I don’t mean that to be the case. Most of this journey, or more accurately these two processes is about the weaving, and to know when one is out of kilter with the other.

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