Recently I highlighted an interview / conversation with Psychotherapist John Welwood. He had some interesting comments to make with regard to the relationship between “psychology” and “spirituality”. I liked the notion of the two being “braided”, interrelated – mutually needful. I wanted to record it for further reflection:
Tami Simon: Well you know it’s interesting, John, because as we’re talking, you keep weaving together psychological approaches and, we could say, more quote-unquote “spiritual” approaches and of course, you know, your work. This is one of the things that you’re most well known for and so respected that you bring these two together, and I’m curious—is there a metaphor for you about how the psychological and the spiritual work together? Is it a braid, that they fit inextricably into one, or how do you see it?
John Welwood: I see it as like absolute and relative in some way. I’m sure I have some metaphors I can’t think of [laughs] but . . .
TS: Well tell us what you mean by that—absolute and relative?
JW: Well, sort of like spirituality is working with who we ultimately are and letting that be discovered and letting that permeate our lives. So it’s the absolute—our absolute true nature, our essential nature, which is ultimately the same in all of us. It could be called “third nature” or whatever we want to call it. But psychological work is more working with our relative nature—it’s more working with the conditioned self. So the spiritual work is working with the unconditioned self and unconditioned nature.
I think the problem with spirituality, spiritual work, is not including psychological work. It often can be in the sense of a spiritual bypass where people are unfolding their ultimate nature but they’re not actually dealing with their relative unresolved psychological issues, and that’s really problematic in our culture. On the other hand, you could get totally fixated on your conditioned nature and working with that forever, because that’s like, there’s always more to unpack and digest and it’s much more beneficial to actually do the psychological work. What I do is from a spiritual perspective; the psychological work in the service of spiritual development—that’s kind of the way I work. So I see them as working hand-in-hand. One is working with our relative issues, especially— “relative” here is an interesting word because it’s related to “relationship.” …
… TS: Now, John, I’m completely with you in terms of the value of psychological work and the value of spiritual work—we need them both. But I’m curious: you made a comment that I would like to ask you about, which is you said that your focus is psychological work seen in the service of spiritual work. What do you mean by that? Is spiritual work at some kind of preeminence here?
JW: Yes, I would give it [preeminence] but it’s not just about working out your issues and digesting your material from the past. That would be the traditional use of psychotherapy and so forth—is just to sort of heal yourself and heal your past in a certain way— the past that still lives in you, in your body, which is good and important to do. But I think it adds another dimension to see, to actually hold that work in the service of—we’re doing this work of unpacking the self, this relative self, and healing these wounds in the service of being able to completely open up to life and … the whole of reality—and to actually cultivate our ultimate openness, because we lose our openness in childhood in relationship.
That’s the key, that’s the really important point here, in a way, is that through relationship we lose our openness, lose contact with our openness and have to shut down, and so psychological work is a relational activity, it’s a dialogical activity. It happens through relationship to another person. So actually, we can learn to become open to another person, to the psychotherapist, to the person that’s working with you.
Then you have to learn to be open to yourself through that process. But that’s good, that’s one level, but the next level, in the service of spiritual development, would be that this is in the service of opening up completely to all situations and all aspects of life—which is, I think, the ultimate nature of the spiritual journey, is to completely open more and more and more and more, and finally open to death and who knows what happens after death? We have to keep opening in some sense beyond that—I don’t know. But that’s the propulsion of the spiritual path…”