Awakening Attitude

Awakening Attitude

Jack-Jack by James Seattle

Recently, I saw an excellent article by John Welwood in Tricycle magazine called The Psychology of Awakening. Too often, awakening and psychological health are seen as different worlds even though they’re closely entwined.

“…even among advanced spiritual practitioners, certain islands — unexamined complexes of personal and cultural conditioning, blind spots, or areas of self-deception — may often remain intact within the pure stream of their realization.” This is very true. They can remain unseen until events trigger them. Yet even then, if we see ourselves as separate from our humanity, we may excuse our bad behaviour or blame others. I’ve seen this many times.

“…spiritual realization is relatively easy compared with the much greater difficulty of actualizing it, integrating it fully into the fabric of one’s daily life.”

As John observes, this is less of an issue if you chose a renunciate path away from the world. But most of us are householders and live in the world. We want to not just wake up but grow up and clean up.

He goes on to ask how psychology may serve spirituality, opening the “hard, rocky soil of our personality patterns so that this soil becomes permeable, allowing the seeds of spiritual realization to take root and blossom there more fully.”

The key point is that psychology deals with our daily life and relative truths whereas spiritual work is more about universal, absolute truths. This is why they’re seen as different worlds. Yet if we’re going to live the absolute in the world, we need to encompass all layers of truth and recognize their territory. [Note that Buddhism generally recognizes stages to a single awakening and absolute truth but not stages of realization and truth.]

John observes that spiritual adherents can be wary of “endlessly processing emotional issues.” From my perspective, psychological therapy can indeed be endless if it doesn’t reach the root of deeper issues. Spiritual practices can help us become more conscious of our inner territory. Energy healing can get to the root of pre-mental boundaries.

Yet many spiritual approaches lean on the renunciate side and ignore the personal. This is because of spirituality drifting to a renunciate emphasis during the darker age.

But there is another angle to this. Most Easterners are raised in a traditional family setting where the child experiences decent emotional security. They’re not put in a “nursery” by themselves at night at an early age nor given a bottle to feed.

Further, Westerners are raised, in varying degrees, to be independent rather than part of a family or community. We often lack the deep belonging that contributes to basic well-being, even from a somewhat dysfunctional family.

This leads some to seek love and security from their spiritual teachers, leaving them open to abuse. Similarly, people may seek spiritual groups to “belong” in sometimes unhealthy ways. Most Eastern lineages are unfamiliar with these developmental challenges.

Spiritual community (sangha) has great value but if we don’t recognize our unmet needs and inclinations, it’s easy for us to corrupt it. Then you see drama, co-dependence, control, abuse, and other issues.

The Western approach also teaches us to suppress emotions rather than express and release them. From energetic modeling, we learn how to bypass and avoid experiencing how we feel. This can even mean not living in the body. Ungroundedness can be a serious impediment to spiritual unfolding and reduces our awareness of the messy dynamics we’re supporting.

The desire for independence also thwarts community and introduces the tendency to make spiritual practices about me. They may even be corrupted to strengthen the ego rather than soften it. See how enlightened I am!

Materialist spirituality also adds an element of “instant enlightenment”, of a desire for fast results with little commitment. Enlightenment isn’t something to consume, it’s something that consumes you. Some hop from teaching to teaching or chase experiences, missing the point of spiritual practice.

A materialist emphasis also leads to confusing the two types of truth mentioned earlier.

“There are two ways of confusing absolute and relative truth. If you use… your grief to deny or insult the higher law of the universe, you would be committing the relativist error… [For example, blaming the Divine for a relative event.] 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 conclusion like this: Since everything is ultimately perfect in the larger cosmic play, grieving the loss of someone you love is a sign of spiritual weakness.

“Since it is the nature of human beings to live on both the absolute and relative levels, 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 particular individuals. If we identify only with form, our life will remain confined to known, familiar structures. But if we try to live only as pure emptiness, or absolute being, we may not engage with our humanity. In absolute terms, the personal self is not ultimately real; at the relative level, it must be respected.”

I would take this further. At higher stages of enlightenment, relative and absolute become one wholeness. Yet even in that, we still have a person having a life in the world. Only now it’s not separate. If we try to hold to a single truth, it will impede further unfolding. Our expectations of what enlightenment is supposed to look like can be one of the biggest barriers to living it. We cannot know what we have not experienced, however much the mind may think it knows.

The article goes on to explore examples.

I cannot overemphasize the importance of some of these points. Awakening is a shift in being, a shift in who we experience ourselves as being. But to live that in the world, it has to descend into the mind, emotions, and our body. This can’t happen if we don’t live there.

Most of us have areas we’ve pulled back from and don’t engage. Part of the unfolding is thus becoming conscious of what we’ve been avoiding. Of feeling the feelings we’ve been suppressing so they can complete. Of noticing how the body is and what it needs. This can take time and patience. We’ve often been avoiding for a very long time and have established habits.

Yet the richness and fullness that can unfold when we swab the deck are immense.

PS: If spirituality and psychological health is a topic of interest, you may enjoy this APST talk given by Mariana Caplan.

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  1. Herwig

    You touch an interesting and important topic.

    The article you refer to is an insightful anlalysis of the situation of a western spiritual seeker. Is this John Welwood a customary representative of is profession on your side of the Atlantic?
    He says he got interested in Buddhism and psychotherapy in th 1960s. That was the time of D.T. Suzuki/Erich Fromm, “Psychoanalysis and Zen Buddhism”. But it was also the time when on my side of the Atlanic – I think under the growing influence of North America – psychology and educational theory more and more distanced themselves from the realm of academic philolosophy and began to define themselves as social sciences, solely based on materialism and empirical methods. This hasn‘t much changed until today.
    At the same time the indiginous religious traditions degenerated or became mummified.

    My advice to people has always been, to either avoid psychologists or at least not to mention their spiritual backgrounds when consulting them. Otherwise, the best they would get would be sympathy for being a victim of a dubious sect, at worst a treatment with psychopharmaca.

    How do you find a psychotherapist who understands the necessity of spirituality in a world which is dominated mainly by the need to function and survive physically and mentally in a materialistic system based economy and competition?

    I basically agree to all you say – theoretically. It is time to remove the hard border between recluse and householder ways of life.
    I myself had a busy and demanding professional and family life. The few things that I could realize were doing my Sadhana regularly and being respected by my collegues and superiors in spite of being a little “unusual“. Not more. I could not even make my children understand. And I would not expect them to live in two incompatible worlds at the same time.

    It was certainly not easy, and now, after retirement, it it is a tremendous relief to have the freedom to enjoy a degree of recluse life.

    I suppose, even in a more advanced state of society more open to the need for spirituality, well will need exclaves or reservations for people who wish to concentrate more on the inner world – at least for a while.

    It seems, meanwhile, this problem is a topic in „emerging“ (i.e. economically emerging) societies like India as well – from the opposite point of view, though.

    1. Hi Herwig
      I’m not familiar with Welwood’s work. The article was adapted from his book on the topic. My comment about Buddhism was because this is his and the magazines context. I’ve studied Buddha’s teaching but little of modern Buddhism.

      There is a bit of movement towards spirituality in psychology (such as Transpersonal) but it’s not widespread.

      Actually, on my Recommended tab, i mention a couple of spiritually-oriented therapists. Both are involved with the APST now. But yes, I agree there is a tendency to pathologize anything not considered “normal”, particularly in the most recent Psychiatric guidelines.

      And yes, retreat centers are proliferating. Particularly old church centers. They used to mainly be for specific groups but many are non-denominational now. There are occasional examples where you’re paid to do a long spiritual practice. That said, it is good to have appropriate support if you plan an extended retreat.

      India has had the influence of the west for some time. This has distorted their culture – even the term “Hindu” isn’t theirs. There is a conservative movement to restore their culture while also being pushed by global commerce to behave in certain very western ways.

      A note on Isha. A very pleasant fellow but i wouldn’t give much weight to what he’s saying.

  2. Lewis Oakwood

    Hello, David,

    “At higher stages of enlightenment, relative and absolute become one wholeness. Yet even in that, we still have a person having a life in the world. Only now it’s not separate.”

    ~ ~ ~

    Something about these words — “Only now it’s not separate.”

    Somewhere, deep down, don’t we all feel this. As though we know we are not this body but also are not separate from its senses and ever-changing experiences/perceptions.

      1. Lewis Oakwood

        David, thank you for the links.

        It’s the first time that I have listened to a talk by Adyashanti. I have seen his name here and there but wasn’t drawn to him. After listening to what he had to say I do not feel that I will listen in future. (Maybe I’m incorrect but it seems that here at your blog most of the readers have gone well beyond what Adyashanti had said in that video.


        There is a power here in action far more mysterious and magnificent than anything Adyashanti seemed to be struggling to point to.


        What is it that sees at one time the prominence of the mind in action and then the heart and then the gut (and the entire body) and sees then how these are always on and always responding to this or that life event. Sees the body in action as a whole.

        1. Hi Lewis
          My readership is very wide-ranging. Adya has written a couple of very good books for the awakening through Unity stages.

          I’ve got an article on Action coming up tomorrow and another soon after.

          What sees is often called the observer or witness, the awake presence. This is one aspect of the 3-fold dynamic of self-aware consciousness. That directly relates to the head, heart, gut process. See:

          1. Lewis Oakwood

            I have tried to read books about this but can’t get past the first chapter or so – it all comes across as far too long-winded. I prefer reading your blog.

            To be fair to Adyashanti I watched a couple more of his videos but again I find what he had to say as rather pedestrian. I was surprised to learn that he is so popular.

            I like the simplicity of your ABC illustration. From the human perspective as though to say: an ever-deepening process of — ‘a subject or observer, b object of observation, and c process of observation.’

            Looking forward to your articles on Action.

            David, Thank you.

    1. Thanks, Rick. Sorry the audio version didn’t work properly yet.

      Yes, Conway’s article gives a good overview. But from the perspective here, the view is incomplete – there is more levels of simultaneous truth. That said, it is a good idea to plant the idea that there isn’t a single truth. Mind likes its certainties. 🙂

  3. Sabrina

    This is a great post Davidya, I love your going into the difference between Western and Eastern family life. I am not sure whether this is similar, but Almaas uses the term “holding environment” – and so many of us Westerners grew up without a sense of closeness or grounded safety which eventually has to be relearned and embodied.

    1. Hi Sabrina
      Some spiritual teachers speak of how children on their own experience “night terrors.” Because it’s quite early, the fears are difficult to make conscious and clear. The experiences were had in a different physiological state (prior to age 4).

      I’ve heard it said this is one of the reasons you see less refinement in westerners. Evidently, it began in recent centuries in wealthy families with nurse maids. The less wealthy gradually adopted the practice of moving the kids out early. Various developments deepened the practice like encouraging bottle feeding, working mothers, and so forth.

      And yes, it’s easier to learn within if we’ve experienced it around us.

  4. Just found out the author of the quoted article died last month. Apparently it was he who originally recognized and named spiritual bypassing. This was then popularized by others like Robert Masters.

    He was very involved in the new field of Transpersonal psychology, pioneering the integration of eastern ideas into western psychology.

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